To say that the town of Perewalsk in eastern Ukraine has fallen on hard times would be an enormous understatement. The small industrial town near the Russian border is a collection of concrete buildings with no windows, falling-down houses and empty, abandoned factories; there’s a chemical smell in the air.
In the middle of this dystopian landscape, there’s an even more unexpected sight: an 80-year-old woman in a bright purple coat and headscarf, happily digging with a shovel in the dirt.
She introduces herself as Lida Vasilivna.
“This is basically my garden. I’m in a great mood today, because I planted onions and tomatoes,” she says. “Are you going to put this granny on TV or print me in the newspaper?”
I ask her what happened in this town: Where did everybody go?
“What happened here in our Ukraine is what happened in the whole world,” she says. “Industry, coal mines, everywhere you look, it’s all in decline. Business just went belly up.”
People in Perewalsk point to a specific year when everything started to fall apart: 1991, when the USSR broke in pieces.
And it’s those memories, in part, that have led demonstrators in eastern Ukraine to occupy government buildings all week. They want to join Russia for a host of reasons: The region has deep ties to Russia through history, language and culture. And there are economic incentives, as are apparent in Perewalsk.
As I wander through town, I come across a building that would be a good place to make a zombie apocalypse movie: a dormitory from an old school where they used to teach people how to work in mines and metal factories. It’s been abandoned since that fateful year, 1991.
Many people left for Russia when the USSR collapsed and the schools closed, recalls Alexander Tyshenko, an electrician who lives nearby.
He says there’s only one working factory left in town, and it gives everyone lung disease.
If this area were part of Russia, Tyshenko says, maybe people’s lives would improve.
“Our current government is just zero. They do nothing to make things better here,” he says. “That’s why locals go to Russia for work.”
The border with Russia is just 20 miles away. That means Atlas — a combination restaurant, hotel and car mechanic — is in a perfect location, even though it’s in the middle of this economic desolation.
Christina Bidylu manages the restaurant.
“When Russians cross the border, our hotel is the first one they see,” she says.
Bidylu knows the area is bleak and polluted. Even today, she says, she was standing on the street and noticed her boots were covered in white factory dust.
But she doesn’t think joining Russia will fix the problem.
“There are some plants that have been closed. But I can’t say that they’ll reopen right away,” Bidylu says. “It takes some time, for factories to start up their production again.”
Of course, there are plenty of noneconomic reasons that people in the area want to rejoin Russia.
In the nearby city of Luhansk, restaurant owner Alex Spivak sits outside of a building that’s occupied by armed pro-Russian demonstrators.
Spivak says this is not about money, it’s about returning home to Russia.
“I just want to live and work in peace on my own land. I don’t want Europe or America telling me what to do. We are Russian people; we know by ourselves what to do.”
There’s one last thing I want to ask Spivak about: He’s against capitalism, and against America. But he is wearing a Nike hat — and Nike is capitalistic, and Nike is American.
“And I will answer you,” Spivak replies. “It is made … in Russia!”
The crowd that has gathered behind him applauds.