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Opinion: A divided Ukraine? Think again

By Maia Mikhaluk, Special to CNN
updated 5:04 AM EST, Tue March 4, 2014
Ukrainian children in Kiev show off a sign they made in response to the Crimea referendum. Ukrainian children in Kiev show off a sign they made in response to the Crimea referendum.
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Ukraine crisis: One woman's story
Ukraine crisis: One woman's story
Ukraine crisis: One woman's story
Ukraine crisis: One woman's story
Ukraine crisis: One woman's story
Ukraine crisis: One woman's story
Ukraine crisis: One woman's story
Ukraine crisis: One woman's story
Ukraine crisis: One woman's story
Ukraine crisis: One woman's story
Ukraine crisis: One woman's story
Ukraine crisis: One woman's story
Ukraine crisis: One woman's story
Ukraine crisis: One woman's story
Ukraine crisis: One woman's story
Ukraine crisis: One woman's story
Ukraine crisis: One woman's story
Ukraine crisis: One woman's story
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ukrainian Maia Mikhaluk has been documenting the unrest in her country
  • She says the situation in Kiev is tense as Russia moves its troops to the Crimean Peninsula
  • She wrote a passionate essay in response to Russia's military intervention in Ukraine

Editor's note: Maia Mikhaluk is a freelance photographer and Christian ministry worker in Ukraine. She has been participating in protests in the country ever since former President Viktor Yanukovych reversed a decision to sign a trade deal with the European Union and instead turned toward Russia, a move that sparked mass demonstrations in the country's capital, Kiev. Her essay first appeared on CNN iReport and has been edited for length and clarity.

(CNN) -- I am a Russian-speaking Ukrainian. I am ethnically half-Russian, as my father was born in Siberia. I spent much of my life in Donetsk, a Russian-speaking area of Ukraine. Now I live in Kiev.

My kids speak Ukrainian in school and with many of their friends, and we speak Russian at home. When my son's fourth-grade teacher talks to me, she speaks Ukrainian. I respond in Russian. We don't even notice that our conversation is in two languages.

I understand Ukrainian but don't speak it as easily as I speak English. I just never had any pressure to learn it. In Lviv, in the western part of Ukraine, most speak primarily Ukrainian, but even there, I never had anybody look down on me for my Russian. In the eastern and southern regions, many people speak Russian, and there is absolutely no forced "Ukraineization."

You might be asking what all this fuss is about in Crimea, the autonomous region of eastern Ukraine with strong ties to Russia. Why are thousands coming to the streets with Russian flags? It's easy to explain.

Tracking the crisis in Ukraine as it unfolds

Many people in Crimea and eastern Ukraine don't want the protection of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But there are some who are afraid of forced Ukraineization because they have been fed propaganda by Russian TV channels for years. The purpose is to convince Ukrainians that we are divided, not one country, and that the safest course of action for Russian-speaking areas is to break away and join Russia.

EXCLUSIVE: Tymoshenko speaks to Amanpour

These ideas have been cultivated since I was a child. I remember when I lived in Donetsk in the '90s, how scared we were that a candidate from western Ukraine would win an election and force us to speak Ukrainian. But when I moved out of the area of aggressive Russian information, I quickly realized I can speak Russian in Kiev or Lviv and no one will ever be upset with me!

Obama: Russia can't violate principles

Over our 22 years of Ukrainian independence, fears of language or ethnic persecution have never come true. But they were kept alive by Russian propaganda. We understand that Putin is trying to escalate tension and provoke civil war in Ukraine right now. He can't afford for a free Ukraine to succeed: His own people might get an idea that it's possible to overthrow a tyrant and build a prosperous country.

Russia: Our actions are 'appropriate'

U.N. Security Council meets to discuss Ukraine crisis

Putin won't succeed. Ukrainians are wiser than that and won't kill each other over the nonexistent problem of language. To demonstrate that, last week, people in Lviv (traditionally Ukrainian-speaking) spoke only Russian all day, and in response, those in Donetsk (traditionally Russian-speaking) spoke Ukrainian!

No civil war in Ukraine, Mr. Putin! It must be getting harder to justify the presence of military force to "protect" people when nobody is in danger.

I just talked to my friends in Crimea.

Yuri in Simferopol told me that it's a handful of pro-Russian extremists in the streets trying to make a scene for Russian video cameras -- they are showing that these are the Russians who request protection!

Meanwhile, the rest of the city is terrified by the presence of Russian military forces and are evacuating their families to central or western Ukraine.

I got a similar report from Luda in Kharkov. She said that a large group of Russians were brought across the border by buses, and they were the ones inspiring and instigating unrest that resulted in putting a Russian flag on a municipal building.

The amount of propaganda Russia has poured onto Ukraine is hard to comprehend. Putting troops on Ukrainian land is going to bring the very opposite result from what Putin expected: I believe it's uniting Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Russia and Putin are getting into deeper isolation from the world as more and more countries are recalling their ambassadors from Russia and condemning the government's actions.

Good job, Mr. Putin! Thank you from all of us Ukrainians (Russian and Ukrainian-speaking) for uniting Ukraine against your military aggression.

Are you in Ukraine? Have you witnessed the unrest there? Share your stories with CNN iReport, but please stay safe.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Maia Mikhaluk.

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