Ukraine's Divide, Too Broad For Easter To Bridge?

Most Ukrainians are primarily Orthodox Christians, and Easter is the most important religious holiday of the year. Many in the country are hoping the holiday will calm current tensions.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Ukraine celebrates Easter today as a divided country. Last week, world leaders met in Geneva to try to tamp down the crisis and end the occupation of government buildings by pro-Russian militants. So far, nothing has happened. Hoping the holiday will calm tensions, Ukraine's interim defense minister called an Easter truce. But despite their common faith, many feel the divide between Ukrainians in the east and west may be too large to heal. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley sent this story from eastern Ukraine.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: We're heading across Donetsk at 5 in the morning, to attend an Easter service. And the tradition here is that you come really, really early. My Ukrainian translator, Zhenia Afanasiev, has invited me to go to Easter services with him.

ZHENIA AFANASIEV: People come early because they want to be blessed, you know, as soon as possible; to be first. And usually, they bring Easter cake; boiled, paint eggs; and sweet, red wine, which is called Kagor, which is actually symbolizes the blood of Jesus.

BEARDSLEY: Zhenia carries his goods in a bag because he doesn't have an Easter basket. As we walk through the empty streets, the first light peeks over the city. Zhenia tells me a little about Donetsk history. We pass a massive statue of Lenin. A few years ago, fans of the local soccer team tried to blow it up, he says. But since then, a hard-core group of Lenin supporters has permanently camped out in tents at the site, to protect it. And there's the World War II tank on a pedestal.

What happened here in World War II? Was there a lot of fighting? Germans were here?

AFANASIEV: Yes, yes. Germans were here. They occupied this region because this was one of the most important strategical regions in the Ukraine because it's rich for coal, you know, and metals. So it was really hard for Soviet Army to get it back. We had a lot of violent fightings here.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH BELLS)

BEARDSLEY: That could help explain why people here are so afraid of what they believe is a new fascism on the rise in the west of the country. As we approach the church, the bells grow louder. Hundreds of people are arriving. The women all wear headscarves. There is no Easter bunny or Easter egg hunts in Ukraine, but everyone carries an Easter basket. People file inside the church to kiss an icon of Christ before heading outside again. This same ritual is being practiced all over Ukraine, making it the first time the country has been united in a long time.

Outside, hundreds of people gather in a giant circle around the church, baskets at their feet, candles in their hands, waiting to be blessed by the priest. Swinging a holy water flail known in English as an aspergilium, a chanting priest and his acolyte make their way around the circle. I get a big splash right across the face. Afterwards, Tanya Matvienko and Irina Romanets show their recently blessed baskets revealing eggs, cake and wine; but also ham, cheese, bread and salt. Everything comes from the soul, they say.

IRINA ROMANETS: (Through translator) If you salt with this kind of salt, it will make you better.

BEARDSLEY: Seventy-six-year-old Svetlana Volvenko says she'll go home to enjoy breakfast and the holiday with her family. But with separatists occupying a building just blocks from here, the tensions and divisions of this country are on everyone's mind. We are praying for peace, she says.

SVETLANA VOLVENKO: (Speaking foreign language)

AFANASIEV: (Translating) It hurts so much, and it's very difficult. We are worrying about it.

BEARDSLEY: Translator Zhenia is also pessimistic about the situation.

AFANASIEV: Yeah, I really think that the crisis is so deep, this holiday cannot, you know, unite the country.

BEARDSLEY: But let's go home and eat some cake and drink some wine, he says. Eleanor Beardsley. NPR News, Donetsk.

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