donetsk lenin square

Huddled with a group of journalists a few hours after returning from Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia, I’ll never forget one of them saying in a dead serious voice, “shit’s about to blow up here.” I couldn’t help but agree in what was my last night in Donetsk, where I spent several weeks, watching tensions rise as pro-Russian demonstrations became more frequent and fervent.

Shortly after I took off from Donetsk Sergey Prokofiev International Airport separatists took it over in violent clashes killing 30 people. Though it’s easy to see the blaze that is the current situation in eastern Ukraine now, protests looked like small sparks at the time in what was a charmingly inviting city of 950,000 people.

donetsk holy transfiguration church  Holy Transfiguration Cathedral Donetsk ukraine

Saturday evenings are the busiest inside the Eastern Orthodox Holy Transfiguration Cathedral but Sunday’s were the day for protest. Tending to have a ritualistic path, protests almost always began late mornings in front of the regional department building of Ukraine’s Security Service.

Though no matter how loud or large the demonstrations became (at their biggest I estimate around 2,000-4,000 people) you would never have noticed walking among the creations of the Park of Forged Figures less than a kilometer away.

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park of forged figures donetsk ukraine

Slowly increasing numbers in preparation for protestors to arrive sometime mid-afternoon, Donetsk’s police force waits patiently in front of the Provincial Administration Building. Despite angry crowds, police were careful not to resist, often making way to allow unhindered access for mobs who forced entry into government buildings.

police Provincial Administration Building donetsk ukraine

On several occasions (the same) small group of young protestors clumsily took down Ukrainian flags in front of government buildings, replacing them with Russia‘s white, blue, and red as journalists carefully recorded events unfolding.

donetsk ukraine flag taken down

Once the crowds had made their point facing the Provincial Administration Building, they would take a slow 10 minute march to the city’s main rallying point for pro-Russia activists, Lenin Square.

pro russian demonstrator eastern ukraine

Although their numbers dwindled quickly, microphones and speakers amplified the decidedly older remaining crowds.

As hunger began to set in, those carrying Soviet flags didn’t let irony keep them from enjoying a meal at the McDonald’s next to Lenin Square.

donetsk ukraine demonstrator

A memorial dedicated to a pro-Ukrainian protestor killed in clashes on March 13, 2014.

donetsk memorial protestor killed

Less for shopping and more for strolling, spring weather brought many locals to Donetsk’s popular Pushkin Boulevard, where there was never a sign of the surrounding unrest.

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donetsk pushkin Boulevard

Smiles on their faces, medical staff understandably seem content to have little to do in mostly peaceful Lenin Square gatherings.

donetsk ukraine medical staff

Teenage love accompanied by the sounds of amateur guitar, floating alongside the scent of kebabs being sold by Syrian immigrants feign harmony along the shores of Donetsk’s Kalmius River.

kalmius river donetsk ukraine

Taking one moment to admire a peaceful sunset.

donetsk ukraine sunset

In many ways, Donetsk appeared to be in a much better state than Kiev did as revolution simmered there but looks can be incredibly deceiving since it’s safe to travel to Kiev right now while Donetsk has become virtually inaccessible. Given the pervasive normalcy plus relatively small percentage of Donetsk’s population actually marching on the streets, I optimistically held on to hope that the city wouldn’t attempt an all out separation from the rest of Ukraine. In hindsight, as I witnessed when traveling before and behind the protests in Bahrain, Donetsk had enough uncertainty to ensure any imported instability would be a catalyst for chaos.