We were once pro-Russian ... but now we’ve switched sides to defend Ukraine against Vladimir Putin

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Nikita Rozhenko, a deputy on the Kharkiv city council who once represented a pro-Russian opposition party - David Rose for The Telegraph
Nikita Rozhenko, a deputy on the Kharkiv city council who once represented a pro-Russian opposition party - David Rose for The Telegraph

The tuba played the Last Post. And the rifles fired over him as they lowered him down. Far away, the artillery fired its own, unrelenting salute.

Sergeant Igor Levistsky was 33 when he was killed by a Russian rocket last week. His funeral in his home town of Slavyansk was attended by large numbers of locals and fellow soldiers.

“He was a loving father. A wonderful man,” his father, Alexander, said after the rifles had fallen silent and the mourners trailed away.

Slavyansk lies on an important rail and road junction in the northern Donetsk region, and is one of the key objectives of Russia’s Donbas offensive.

The frontline is currently little more than 20 miles away and the dull, distant thud of howitzer and rocket duels are clearly audible from the town centre.

But this town has symbolic, as well as strategic significance.

Eight years ago, on another spring day, The Telegraph watched another guard of honour fired over the graves of young men from this town.

Those men had died fighting for the other side - killed in a gunfight after signing up with a “separatist” Russian warlord who seized control of the town in April 2014.

Two funerals, eight years apart, illustrate the battle for identity at the heart of the current war, and still sees Russian-speaking men from this part of Ukraine fighting on different sides.

Sergeant Igor Levistsky - David Rose for The Telegraph
Sergeant Igor Levistsky - David Rose for The Telegraph

“It all began here,” said Alexander Levitsky, Sgt Levitsky’s father. “People understand that. People thought oh, the Russians will come, we’ll have this ‘Russian world’. But the proof was in Donetsk. Donetsk showed what it would be like.

“They’ve had a curfew there since 2014. Is that a normal way to live?” he asked, referring to just one of the draconian measures of the DPR’s police state.

“It was a big experiment with people as its subjects, and it worked,” he said of those locals who bought the separatist myth.

It is an argument you hear often in Donbas.

A photo of Igor Levitzky is held up at his funeral in Slavyansk by a mourner - David Rose for The Telegraph
A photo of Igor Levitzky is held up at his funeral in Slavyansk by a mourner - David Rose for The Telegraph

Donetsk, the regional capital still controlled by the “separatist” republic, has been largely closed to Western journalists since 2015, making it difficult to report on conditions there.

About two-thirds of the city’s pre-2014 population are thought to have left. Donbas residents who used to cross the line of control to visit relatives before the war have described it as a “ghost town”.

The “republic’s” ministry of state security, or MGB, runs a police state that includes secret prisons where suspects can be held indefinitely.

Leafy Slavyansk has done pretty well.

After 2014, the frontline retreated more than 40 miles over the horizon. Businesses returned, streets cleaned up and houses - well, most of them - were rebuilt.

A combination of foreign aid, a Ukrainian rebuilding initiative and a procession of well-heeled international organisations too shy to move closer to the front brought in healthy revenues.

Nonetheless, it was not difficult to find latent pro-Russian sympathies in eastern Ukraine, even just before the current war.

In one frontline Donetsk region village, a Ukrainian soldier told The Telegraph just before the invasion that he believed “half the locals are separatists”.

A pro-Russian mural can be seen on a wall in Slovyansk - David Rose for The Telegraph
A pro-Russian mural can be seen on a wall in Slovyansk - David Rose for The Telegraph

On the third day of the war, a woman in Kharkiv told The Telegraph there was “quite a lot of truth” to Vladimir Putin’s claims that Volodymyr Zelensky is a drug addict and Ukraine is run by Nazis.

The Kremlin’s war plan appears to have assumed - disastrously incorrectly - that those sentiments were held by a silent majority that would greet the invaders as liberators.

Putin’s mistake, says Nikita Rozhenko, a deputy on the Kharkiv city council who once represented a pro-Russian opposition party, was to confuse pragmatism for ideology.

“I thought we should have good relations with Russia. They’re our neighbours, we have close relations, we should trade and be friends,” he told The Telegraph. “It is not the same thing as thinking Ukraine is not a country.”

A wiser Russian ruler might have chosen to nurture that latent goodwill. The invasion, said Mr Rozhenko, has destroyed it for generations to come.

One day, it might be repaired only “if Russia can get rid of Putin. But there has to be public recognition about the crime of this war”, he said.

Alexander Levitsky put it another way: “Putin’s lying when he says he is coming to save people. He wants to separate us artificially. He doesn’t realise we are one united people, whichever language we speak.”

Vadim Lyakh, the mayor, bats away the suggestion that a battle for Slavyansk would hold special symbolism for either side in the war.

Vadim Lyakh - David Rose for The Telegraph
Vadim Lyakh - David Rose for The Telegraph

Multiple Russian-speaking cities have already defied Putin’s invasion, he pointed out. And a re-run of the 2014 battle now seems less likely than it did just a few weeks ago.

When Russia launched its Donbas offensive in April, local leaders were desperately begging locals to evacuate, warning that towns like Slavyansk were about to become battlefields.

“But the frontline has barely moved in two months. They didn’t expect our army’s capabilities,” said Mr Lyakh. “I wouldn’t call it safe here, but it is stable. We are out of range of their artillery, so the gas and electricity and water still work. The banks operate and pensions can be paid.”

Not everyone is so confident, however.

In Semyonovka, a hamlet a few miles outside Slavyansk that was largely destroyed in 2014, many of the rebuilt houses have already been abandoned by fleeing families.

'It will be much worse than last time'

Those who remain, said one resident, know from experience how bad things will get if the war comes closer.

“I’ve got potatoes, tomatoes, grapes. There will be no humanitarian aid and we’ll be relying on our own reserves,” said Alexander, a retired electrician whose vegetable garden lies behind a fence shredded by shrapnel eight years ago. “It will be much worse than last time.”

One man aged in his 60s said: “There was the USSR, and then those guys, Russians or separatists or whatever you want to call them showed up. Well, they left me alone.

“When the separatists left, the Ukrainians came in and their secret service came hunting people who had changed clothes, so to speak.

“So no, you can’t have my name and you can’t photograph me. Because there can be one power here today, and another tomorrow.”

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