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The beating heart of Ukraine’s freedom movement fills the building on Genesee Street in Buffalo.

The Dnipro Ukrainian Cultural Center, a gray, three-story structure that most of us pass without much thought, is more than a slice of Eastern Europe on Buffalo’s East Side. The century-old structure is an outpost of solidarity with distant friends and relatives. Its walls barely contain the anger, anxiety and distress over turmoil in a homeland desperate to lurch into the 21st century, yet yoked economically to a historic oppressor bent on retightening its grip.

“All people want is to break free of that Russian control,” Emil Bandriwsky, Dnipro’s treasurer, recently told me, “and to live more like Europeans live.”

The fears inside the Dnipro building are as raw and real as in Kiev. In the lobby is a mini-tribute to Maidan, the capital city’s “independence” square where the ongoing anti-government protests began. The display is a hodgepodge of news photos, testimonials and yellow construction helmets. The modesty of its scope is enhanced by the intensity of its sentiment.

“We don’t hate Russians,” Bandriwsky said of the bordering superpower. “We just want them to go away.”

Many of those with Ukrainian blood here have friends or relatives there. Technology erases the miles. Facebook, Twitter, cellphone and email make it seem like Kiev is across the river, not an ocean away.

“Everyone here feels directly connected to what’s going on there,” said Dnipro regular Dianna Derhak.

The news lately has not been good. Russian President Vladimir Putin has not sat idly by as Moscow’s former colony drifts culturally and economically closer to Europe. Tens of thousands of Russian troops are massed at Ukraine’s eastern border. Russia last month annexed the eastern Ukrainian province of Crimea. Pro-Russian militants have seized government buildings in other eastern provinces and assaulted pro-reform protesters.

“I just spoke by phone with my cousin, Zenon,” in Kiev, said Bandriwsky. “He’s terrified. They think an invasion is imminent. They’re praying.”

Praying for what?

“Praying for God to give our enemies some brains,” replied Bandriwsky, only half-joking, “People are careful what they write in letters, send in emails. When you go outside, you don’t talk about politics, you’re careful what you say. It’s like under Stalinism again.”

The fears are felt half a world away.

“Most of us here are on pins and needles,” said John Riszko, 69, a Dnipro regular with cousins in Ukraine. “It’s a morally depressing situation. I get emails, I spend a lot of my time reading every different angle on things.”

What’s at stake

The unrest started last November, when since-deposed president Viktor Yanukovych rejected closer economic ties with the European Union in favor of tighter embrace with his pal Putin. What was widely seen by Ukrainians as a betrayal of a brighter future sparked protests in Kiev’s central Maidan (pronounce my-DON) square. Violence and skirmishes in the ensuing months spread to the eastern provinces, where Russian influence is greater – even while Ukrainians prepare to elect a new president on May 25.

The growing violence between Ukrainian reformers and pro-Russian militias reflect a larger struggle – between the promise of a more enlightened Western-style future versus the grip of a politically polluted, Russian-influenced past. Although independent since the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, Ukraine remains a politically corrupt state in the economic and militaristic shadow of its long-time oppressor.

“Many Ukrainians have been to Europe, they’ve been to the United States,” said Dianna Derhak, a Buffalo-born Ukrainian-American who specializes in international project management. “They know it’s not a panacea there, but it’s a whole lot better than what they’re experiencing”

Like everyone I spoke to on a recent evening, Derhak – 54, model-thin, with the charm of a talk show host – feels in her soul the hope and pain of what’s happening in her ancestral homeland.

“People just want the police to protect them,” she told me, leaning in to stress every word. “For the hospitals to care for them. For a functioning judiciary. For not having to pay bribes at every turn. Everyone is just sick of it.”

What started largely as a November student protest at Maidan ignited into massive outrage after riot police beat the demonstrators.

“It became more about an institutional disregard for the law that people could no longer tolerate,” said Derhak, who lived in Ukraine for 14 years, and returned in January to join the Maidan protesters. “People had just had enough. It was like, ‘Don’t beat our children.’ ”

Solidarity at Dnipro

There are anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 ethnic Ukrainians in Greater Buffalo, the meaty, yoke-shouldered Bandriwsky estimated. A core of 200 are active at the volunteer-run Dnipro Center. Named after the country’s largest river, the three-story building is a jack-in-the-box of surprises, from a bowling alley to a basement bar-restaurant. The biggest eye-popper is a grand second-floor theater, its stage front and walls adorned with hand-painted scenes of Ukrainian life. The space has seen everything from political rallies to boxing matches to wedding receptions.

Many of the Dnipro Center regulars speak Ukrainian. They show up in force on Friday nights for pierogi and stuffed cabbage, washed down with dark Obolon beer. Painted high on the building’s flank is the blue and yellow swatch of the Ukrainian flag – symbolizing grain sprung from the country’s rich soil, under a vivid blue sky.

All of more than a dozen Dnipro Center regulars I spoke with recently shared concerns for Ukrainian friends and relatives – and voiced antipathy for a Russian leader they regard as little more than an ex-KGB thug. In an upstairs room hangs a poster of “Adolf Putin,” complete with toothbrush mustache and a swastika backdrop.

Mike Liwicki is a retired FBI special agent who specialized in foreign counterintelligence and espionage.

“Putin was a lieutenant-colonel in the KGB, and in my opinion, you don’t change your stripes,” Liwicki said. “What he’s doing now in Ukraine is terrifying, because I know that Putin is not going to stop. During Sochi, the Olympics, he’s thinking about Crimea. Now that he’s got Crimea, he’s thinking the eastern part of Ukraine.”

In the downstairs restaurant, a continuous feed from a Ukrainian news station played on the corner TV. The crowd scarfing down pierogi at tables or gathered in knots at the bar absorbed televised images of eastern Ukrainian protesters being carried off on stretchers after “encounters” with pro-Russian militia.

“All bad news, all the time,” Bandriwsky cracked.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea last month prompted U.S. and European economic sanctions. Many fear that Putin wants to pick off more former Russian territories. Their concerns were stoked Thursday, when Putin demanded that Ukraine withdraw its troops from the eastern provinces, where pro-Russian separatists – some of them waving Russian flags – occupy government buildings and battle with – or simply assault – protesters.

Bandriwsky and about a half-dozen others from the Dnipro Center soon will travel to Ukraine, as official monitors for the May 25 election. They hope the election of a reform-minded president will end the violence and move the country closer to a European-style modernization – and away from Moscow’s heavy hand. The fear is that Putin – intent on enhancing Russia’s status and influence – will not happily wave good-bye.

“He’s a narcissistic megalomaniac,” said Liwicki, the ex-FBI counterintelligence expert, “who wants to re-create the old Soviet Union.”

Hoping for a better life

Putin’s foil in Ukraine was Yanukovych, the president ousted by Parliament in February who has since fled to Russia. He for many personified the corruption that makes American scandal-mongers look like comparative pickpockets.

The institutional abuse of public trust, not coincidentally, reflects Ukraine’s embrace of the Russian political model: Power concentrated in the president, tight party control and top-to-bottom corruption. No Ukrainian was surprised by the notorious pocket-lining that marked the run-up to Putin’s Sochi Olympics. They live it.

“It’s all right from the Russian playbook,” Derhak said of the institutional dishonesty.

Ernst & Young in 2012 rated Ukraine among the three most corrupt nations in the world. Payoffs to cops, inspectors and judges are accepted as a routine part of doing business.

“If someone has a successful business,” Derhak said, “they’re going to get a visit from the government, saying they need to share – or, when Yanukovych was in power, just a ‘we’re taking over.’ ”

Bandriwsky nodded in agreement.

“It was a straight-up organized crime operation,” he said. “They cleaned out the treasury. Millions in cash, gold.”

Protesters who entered the presidential mansion and estate after Yanukovych fled in February were amazed to find rooms lit with $100,000 chandeliers, a private zoo, a fleet of cars, a boat and an 18-hole golf course – all somehow acquired on a $2,000-a-month salary.

“They had a fetish for Swiss watches,” Derhak noted. “It’s easy for the corrupt to operate and get rich when there is no rule of law.”

Liwicki, the ex-FBI agent, felt corruption’s grip from Buffalo. He sent a $75 stethoscope to a niece in medical school.

“To this day, I have no idea whether she got it,” he said. “You have to bring your own medicine to the hospital, even your own toilet paper.

“I wasn’t going to send money, because we all know what happens,” he added. “We want to help as much as we can, but there’s no guarantee of anything getting to where you want it to go.”

Resistance

Derhak was in Kiev last January and joined the Maidan protesters, clad in hard hats and face masks to neutralize police tear gas. Pro-Western demonstrators threw stones, fashioned Molotov cocktails and lit tire fires against riot police, whose beatings and bullets – notably during a February crackdown – have claimed hundreds of lives. The skirmishes in what reform-minded Ukrainians call “The Revolution of Dignity” more recently spread to the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk.

“People injured during the skirmishes were kidnapped out of hospitals by government forces, so we stopped using hospitals,” said Derhak, who has lived in a handful of Ukrainian cities. “Groups are afraid to meet in apartments, they know they’re being watched. So they go to restaurants, go to the library ... They feel like they are defending their future.”

Living in tents, they came and went, bringing in food, water and firewood – a city within a city.

“When they left the perimeter, they took off the blue-and-yellow” national colors,” Derhak said. “They were afraid of being beaten by [pro-Russian] thugs. But they still came.”

History

Ukrainian antipathy for Russia is hard-earned. The walls of the Dnipro Center’s library are adorned with posters delineating various Russian oppressions and atrocities. Chief among them is the “famine/genocide” of 1932-33, when millions of Ukrainians starved to death while Moscow exported grain.

There is a nearby map of Stalin-era Soviet “relocation camps.” Ukraine was essentially a Russian colony for 300 years, with various attempts to smother its language and culture. So the back-story isn’t pretty.

The country’s bizarrely titled anthem, “Ukraine Is Not Dead Yet,” reflects centuries of subjugation and perseverance.

“The title sounds odd, I know,” said Riszko, who – like many Dnipro Center regulars – speaks Ukrainian. “But when you consider the genocide perpetrated for hundreds of years, it’s like a battle cry.”

Despite heavier pro-Russian sentiments in the eastern provinces, current events are viewed by most Ukrainians through the prism of centuries of abuse by their powerful neighbor. Putin, in that sense, is just more of the same.

Putin’s claim that he is massing troops merely to protect “Russian speakers” in eastern Ukraine has prompted a national joke.

“In Ukraine, people can speak whatever they want in Russian,” Bandriwsky said. “In Russia, they can keep quiet in any language.”

Even the recent annexation vote in Crimea, an autonomous republic within Ukraine with a large Russian-speaking population, is viewed with suspicion.

“People voted like this,” said Dnipro regular Ray Kowalyk, aiming a finger to his temple like a gun barrel. “Or they were threatened with losing their pensions, losing their jobs.”

What Putin will do

Many pro-Western Ukrainians feel Putin’s attitude was captured in a reported 2008 comment to then-President George W. Bush: “You have to understand, George. Ukraine is not even a country.”

Many fear it may not be an independent country much longer, and feel Putin is eyeing former Russian territories on the eastern border.

“Putin claims it’s a military exercise,” Derhak said of the massed Russian troops. “But they’ve started to set up supply lines to support an invasion, that’s how their intentions became clear.”

Russia has an economic stake in stopping Ukraine from westernizing. Closer European ties open Ukraine to cheaper goods and services, which would then funnel into Russia, threatening a payoff-driven economy.

A Ukrainian lurch toward Europe would hurt Russia economically and stain the superpower status that Putin craves. Beyond that, the Russian strongman may fear unrest at home.

“Putin is deathly afraid the democracy movement will spread to Russia,” Derhak said, “inspired by what’s happening in Ukraine.”

Liwicki thinks Putin is counting on appeasement, as he picks off eastern provinces that were once under Russian control.

“He’s a chess player, he’s not going to invade,” Liwicki said. “He’ll take Ukraine piece by piece. The West thinks, ‘OK, we’ll give him this, and maybe he’ll stop.’ He won’t. Putin’s goal is to create a Eurasian Union.”

At Dnipro Center, it’s a shared concern. The pro-Russian militants confronting pro-reform protesters in the eastern provinces are seen as a mix of Russian special forces, local militia and pro-Russian Ukrainians – some of them mercenaries.

“The Maidan protesters were ‘armed’ mostly with sticks, pots and cobblestones dug out of the street,” Bandriwsky said. “They welcomed the media. Contrast that to the eastern Ukrainian ‘self-defense’ forces, some dressed in Russian military uniforms, with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. Which do you think is the real protest movement?”

At Dnipro Center, the answer is obvious. If only the future were as certain.

email: desmonde@buffnews.com