Saint Petersburg, Russia – Despite fears that President Vladimir Putin may order his troops to roll into Ukraine, Ukrainians remain the largest diaspora in Russia.
According to officials in Kyiv, there were approximately three million Ukrainian citizens living in Russia in 2018, including migrant workers sending remittances back home – and many are palpably pro-Russian.
Among them are former residents of two Russia-backed separatist statelets in eastern Ukraine – the self-proclaimed “republics” Luhansk and Donetsk, who were handed passports by Moscow following the 2014 war.
Ivan Alexeevich, 67, from Luhansk, has been living in Kirov, some 800 kilometres (500 miles) northeast of Moscow, for four years.
“Although I’m a Russian citizen now, I still consider Ukraine my homeland. I was born there, I went to school and received a good education,” Ivan told Al Jazeera.
“We lived in Luhansk peacefully with our children, but in 2014, we came under mortar fire. I stepped out of my apartment building and they flew right over my head. My wife and I hid in the basement. We were being shelled day and night. I was stationed in Angola in the 1970s as part of my military service, while there was a war there. I never imagined it could happen here.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has often expressed the view that Russians and Ukrainians, as well as Belarusians, are one people – a nation divided. Indeed, many famous Russians, such as MMA fighter Fedor Emelianenko, are actually of Ukrainian origin. The author Nikolai Gogol had a Ukrainian background, too.
The languages, history and culture of the neighbours, from their shared origins in the medieval Slavic kingdom of Kievan Rus’, are close – although the idea that they are still one nation can be, and is, debated.
In any case, under centuries of Russian – and then Soviet – rule, the relationship was far from equal.
The tsars forbade the Ukrainian language, while Josef Stalin’s agricultural policies led to millions in the “Breadbasket of the Soviet Union” starving to death in the 1930s.
In Ukraine, the Holodomor (“death by hunger”), as it is known, is believed to have been deliberately aimed at crushing the Ukrainian peasantry, although the famine also struck southern Russia and Kazakhstan.
Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, this painful history has been at the heart of bitter disputes between the two countries, as well as within Ukraine.
Alexeevich shares Putin’s view – and his disdain for Ukrainian nationalists.
“I grew up in the Soviet Union, where we were all brothers and sisters,” he said. “Except back in the 1970s, when I did my army service with men from western Ukraine. I saw this Banderite reality with my own eyes,” he said, using a disparaging term for Ukrainian nationalists, which is also occasionally used as an ethnic slur against Ukrainians living in Russia.
The term dates back to the second world war, when nationalist fighters in western Ukraine led by Stepan Bandera sided with the Nazis against the Red Army and committed war crimes against Poles and Jews.
After Russia took control of the Crimean Peninsula in the aftermath of the 2014 Maidan revolution, rebels in eastern Ukraine held their own unofficial referendums demanding greater autonomy from Kyiv. They were not recognised by Ukraine’s central government, whom Ivan blames for what happened next.
“These b******s came to Donbas and opened fire at unarmed old folks, women and children,” he said. “And now this bedlam has been going on for eight years. They [pro-Russian forces] should have taken Mariupol when they had the chance.”
Mariupol, a city in the Donetsk region on the coast of the Azov Sea, is a hub of pro-Russian sentiment which saw pro-government forces beat back several rebel advances in 2014-15.
Lena, 30, is a former resident of the city who now lives in St Petersburg. She asked Al Jazeera not to use her full name since she hopes to return home one day.
“My husband had already come here to work, and I arrived with our child as the shooting began,” she told Al Jazeera, adding that support from Russian authorities was not as forthcoming as she would have liked.
“It was very hard to find an apartment when you have a small child. Without documents you can’t get a job, you can’t get anything. It was very stressful looking after my child, who had to be clothed and fed.
“I even contemplated going back. I had to go to their office and complain, but when I finally got my paperwork everything became much easier.”
Lena left Mariupol with her brother in 2014 as battles raged.
“I have an elderly grandmother and I’d like to visit her, but I’m scared,” she said.
As for who is to blame for the current situation, in which more than 100,000 Russian soldiers are stationed at the border in a tense standoff with the Ukrainian and Western governments, Lena is unequivocal.
“America is 100 percent to blame, of course, no question about it,” she said.
Alexeevich, meanwhile, sees Ukraine as the aggressor.
“I wouldn’t rule it [war] out, although I doubt it,” he said. “I don’t think the Ukrainians have what it takes. They know NATO won’t send them troops … I don’t think they’ll go for a huge operation unless they’re pushed by NATO or the White House.”
Having witnessed war firsthand, Alexeevich and Lina’s feelings towards Ukraine’s authorities could be understandable, but many Russian speakers or ethnic Russians in Ukraine are still on Kyiv’s side.
And Russian authorities have taken a tough line against people they consider pro-Kyiv agitators.
In 2014, for instance, Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov was arrested in Crimea and handed a five-year prison sentence for “terrorism”.
It is hard to tell, then, how many Ukrainian nationals living in Russia quietly oppose Moscow’s policies towards their homeland.
“Although there are many active Ukrainian community groups, they don’t usually involve themselves in politics. If you marched outside with a Ukrainian flag, you’ll be taken away somewhere,” said Viktor Hirzhov, a former leader of the Ukrainians of Moscow community group.
“Any activism is also dangerous to your employment; you’ll be pressured and told if you don’t stop, you’ll end your career. People are afraid, so they keep their thoughts to themselves. Admittedly, there are some among us that support the policies of the Kremlin, the annexation of the Crimea, and so on.”
Hirzhov regularly appeared on talk shows, speaking out against what he called Russian aggression against Ukraine, until 2015 when he was barred from entering Russia for five years by order of the FSB, even though he had been living in the country for 20 years.
“I’m not planning on returning, for now, it’s too dangerous,” he told Al Jazeera from Ukraine.
Andrey Zaichikov, 34, from Koktebel in Crimea, expresses some sympathy for the Ukrainian position, although he does not take any side.
A native of Crimea, he became a Ukrainian citizen when the USSR split up in 1991, then found his hometown suddenly de facto become a part of the Russian Federation in 2014.
“As a Crimean, I couldn’t not be affected by the events of 2014,” he told Al Jazeera. “Everything around me changed: the laws, the currency, certain principles on which society is founded. But while all these things changed, the people around me mainly stayed the same, with the same mentality; and even some of the same officials stayed in power, they just switched their hats.
“I can’t say I like everything about contemporary Russian Crimea – especially in regards to politics and freedom of speech – but I can’t say it’s all bad and needs to go back to the way it was.”
Zaichikov travelled to Kyiv during the Maidan revolution, out of curiosity rather than to take part. Working as a tour guide and being rather well-travelled himself, he is also reluctant to dismiss western Ukrainians as “Banderites”.
“Having lived a few years in Lviv and speaking Ukrainian fluently, I understand the mentality of people living in the West,” he said. “I don’t consider them enemies at all, and I don’t understand those in Russia who express hostility towards them; I think they are very closed-minded people.”
But from a purely pragmatic standpoint, if he was standing in the place of the Ukrainian leadership, he would admit Crimea is lost and would try and normalise relations with Russia.