Seeds of Independence Sprout Again in Ukraine
LVOV, U.S.S.R. (AP) _ The fertile Ukraine has fed the Russian Bear for centuries, but not by choice, and now the seeds of independence are sprouting again on its bountiful steppes.
Not only did Ukrainians remove the statue of Lenin in front of the Lvov opera house last month, but they used jackhammers, sledgehammers, chisels and bare hands to erase every sign of its pedestal.
Tens of thousands demonstrated against the Communist Party and the Kremlin two weeks ago in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.
Political leaders in Lvov, a western city where secessionist ferment is strong, predict the breakup of the Soviet Union as early as spring. Then, they say, the Ukraine will claim a place among the sovereign nations of Europe.
″Processes are speeding up,″ said physicist Orest Vloch, leader in Lvov of the independence group Rukh, which means The Movement in Ukrainian. ″Two months ago, we could not even imagine Lenin’s statue falling.″
The Ukraine is the second largest of the Soviet Union’s 15 republics.
It produces one-quarter of the country’s food, one-third of the nuclear- generated electricity and much of the gas, oil and coal. The Chernobyl nuclear accident of April 1986 occurred in the Ukraine.
Lvov, 625 miles southeast of Moscow and just 45 miles from newly democratized Poland, already is firmly in the hands of nationalists. The Ukraine’s blue-and-yellow banner has replaced red Soviet flags on public buildings, except for the KGB headquarters.
Although the Ukrainian legislature declared sovereignty in principle July 16, it still must pass specific laws. The Democratic Bloc, outnumbered 3-2 by Communists, wants the Ukraine to have its own currency, military, foreign and economic policy, and counts on public pressure to make it possible.
″Our task in Rukh is to give the declaration real meaning,″ Vloch said. ″We can arouse people to fight for their rights.″
Ivan Gel, deputy speaker of the Rukh-dominated regional legislature in Lvov, said: ″We want Western countries to understand that in Europe has arisen a country of 610,000 square kilometers and 53 million people, or about the same size as France. It has a right to be independent.″
″We are in the center of Europe and we were always European,″ he said of the Ukraine, which stretches from Poland and Czechoslovakia in the west to the Black Sea.
During an interview in his apartment, decorated with portraits of dead and living Ukrainian heroes, Gel chided the West for continuing to support Mikhail S. Gorbachev. He described the Soviet president as ″a representative of the old totalitarian system″ who was merely trying to save it.
In March elections, all of Lvov province’s 24 seats in the Ukrainian legislature were won by Rukh candidates. It also won control of the regional legislature and the city council, which authorized Lenin’s removal on Sept. 14.
Many in Lvov are not eager for independence, expecially those of Polish or Russian ancestry. Employees at the Sputnik Hotel said the Lenin monument should have been left standing, if only as a historical artifact.
Valerij Kubik, leader of the pro-independence Ukrainian Republican Party in the central city of Khmelnitskiy, said during a visit to Lvov that he favors independence, but it ″is not possible yet.″
He said attitudes change dramatically as one moves east in the Ukraine.
″In Khmelnitskiy, the political spirit is much weaker than in Lvov,″ he said. ″In our area, the Soviet government existed for 72 years, and here only since 1939,″ a reference to the Soviet occupation of the western Ukraine, then Polish, at the start of World War II.
″Our most difficult problem is Russification,″ he said. ″People of Ukrainian nationality used to have no right to speak in their mother tongue and have not learned it.″
Even today in Khmelnitsky, he said, ″there are only four schools in Ukrainian. Here in Lvov it is another matter, with only a few in Russian.″
Aside from loosely organized Cossack rule three centuries ago, the Ukraine has had little history of independence. Beginning in the 19th century, however, nationalism flourished in the relatively tolerant political atmosphere of Lvov, then known as Lemberg, capital of Austrian Galicia.
″Traditionally, Lvov . . . is the scientific, cultural and historical center of the western Ukraine and it influences the eastern part of the Ukraine,″ said Maria Bocharskaya, who is active in human rights groups.
She said eastern Ukrainians had an increasing feeling of historical identity, and beamed at the memory of a gathering in August for the 500th anniversary of the first encampment of Cossacks, the legendary warriors of the steppes.
″What spirit 3/8″ she said. ″There were 50,000 people, and it all started with prayers.″
Mrs. Bocharskaya predicts the Soviet Union will disintegrate ″very soon, maybe even by this spring.″
″There is absolutely the same feeling″ in the eastern and western Ukraine, she said. In the east, ″the people don’t know the language yet, but the spirit is the same as ours. . . . They want what we want: freedom to be ourselves.″
Vloch agreed that, ″from the economic, political and social situation, the eastern Ukraine is ready for independence.″
He said Rukh was strongly nationalist, but not blind to the interests of Russians, Jews, Poles and other minorities.
″Defending the national interests . . . does not interfere with other nationalities,″ he said. ″When we speak of nationalism now, we mean we must try to obtain an independent state.″
He said the Ukraine was eager to cooperate with other Soviet republics, but ″without any imperial structures.″
Gel said: ″The Western countries should begin to think about their relations with us. According to Christian values, the strong and the rich must help the poor and the helpless.″