The drive to Luhansk takes you past fields of corn and sunflowers that are just beginning to sprout. You pass the town of Yennakieva, where the ousted Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, was born. Eventually the fields give way to factories, and about 15 miles from the border with Russia, you hit the industrial city of Luhansk.
Police have blocked off the center of town. The last few blocks to the heart of the protest, at the occupied security services building, is a journey by foot, past graffiti that say, “Luhansk is a Russian City.”
The building is surrounded by barricades, with Russian flags flying overhead and men holding automatic weapons patrolling the roof.
A group of women in headscarves stands with a prayer book in front of a makeshift altar.
A small table holds images of the Crucifixion and of Mary holding the baby Jesus. Raisa, who won’t give her last name, says the women are here all day, every day, praying.
“We’re praying that we will join Russia,” she says. “Not the European Union or the United States. We want to be with Russia. We’ll stay here until the end. We have nothing to lose.”
She says these little old ladies have been asking the people occupying the building to share their weapons.
Even though she’s 67, she says she won shooting competitions in school and isn’t afraid to fight.
A man in fatigues tells us one of his jobs is to make sure the weapons stay inside the building and don’t fall into the hands of criminals — or “babushkas,” the word for grandmothers.
“There’s a lot of weapons in there,” says Boris Daronin, who used to be a sergeant in the Soviet military. He shows his ID card to prove it. His belt buckle has a hammer and sickle.
“You could arm an entire division of an army. There are grenades, automatic weapons, gas masks, machine guns,” he adds.
The central Ukrainian government confirms that the building is full of weapons.
Daronin, meanwhile, tells us he has a message for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin “said if there is bloodshed and Russian people die, then he will help,” Daronin says. “But do all of us really have to die here so he’ll help us?”
We ask Daronin whether it’s possible to interview some of his movement’s leaders, inside the building.
He says it’s a bad time, because the chiefs are right now negotiating with local government officials.
He says the government on Sunday gave protesters a deadline of 48 hours.
“After that, they said they’d storm the building,” Daronin says. “But those 48 hours are gone now and government officials in Kiev haven’t stormed the building. They’re waiting for something.”
For people in Luhansk who are not part of the protest, this is a scary time. Yaroslav Ronin, an English teacher, says he’s not even sure whether he agrees with the demonstrators.
“It’s difficult for us right now because we need some help either from Russia or from the European Union,” he says. “But there are things I don’t like both from Russia or from the European Union, you see.”
He doesn’t like the totalitarian style of Russian society. On the other hand, he doesn’t want Ukraine to be just another third-tier European country. He wishes Ukraine could just be totally independent, on its own.
But in this world, he says, you need to have strong friends on one side or the other.