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 A BLEAK FUTURE IN EASTERN UKRAINE’S FROZEN ZONE

Things went from bad to worse for Donetsk city residents, as the rebel zone rapidly sank into a chaotic and lawless state.

DONETSK, Ukraine - The 28-year-old accountant with a bob of chestnut hair would dash from work to meet her wide circle of friends at bars, restaurants and dinner parties. "It's not how you spend your time, but who you spend it with," Irina Filatova, the accountant, said of her humming social life.

That now seems a long time ago, before Ms. Filatova and about three million other people in eastern Ukraine were plunged into the strange vortex of former Soviet politics known as a frozen zone.

Governed by Russian-backed separatists, the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk have no patron, neither the Western-leaning government in Kyiv nor Moscow. Instead, they exist in a state of limbo that for Ms. Filatova, her friends and many others, has proved both spiritually and economically debilitating.

And as hard as life has become for Ms. Filatova, others are afflicted far more by Ukraine's civil war and its aftermath, the subject of a New York Times virtual reality film about children, resilience and survival. Many live in the charred ruins of houses hit by rockets and artillery. Others are homeless, with the sharp winter winds of the steppes beginning to bite.

Children and older people suffer disproportionately. There is little money for schools and to pay teachers' salaries. Many teachers have simply left. Food is also running short, and hunger is a daily fear for many youngsters.

Many older people have nowhere else to go, and their pensions have been cut off by a hostile government in Kyiv. Russia, burdened by its annexation of Crimea and the collapse of oil prices, has no interest in filling the void.

But the experiences of Ms. Filatova and the few professionals like her who have remained reflect most clearly the sharp decline of living standards in eastern Ukraine, where a building sense of hopelessness pervades.

The changes came fast for Ms. Filatova. Startled by the rebels' takeover of the regional government, her flock of friends and fellow young professionals scattered like birds. Very few, if any, have returned. Some determined souls, like her, stayed.

Things went from bad to worse. The rebel zone rapidly sank into a chaotic and lawless state that had no place for the tax auditing company where she had worked.

When the firm folded, Ms. Filatova's once-respectable salary for Ukraine of about $750 a month turned to dust. She now earns a paltry $85 a month keeping the books for a public school.

But the new job came with a catch. Ms. Filatova was required to join a separatist youth group, the Young Republic, where she has been expected to volunteer her free time for Communist-themed activities, like marching with flags on holidays.

"It's all very morose," she said of her experiences over the past two years. "All the young people left. It's mostly older and middle-aged people. Life left this piece of land."

If history is any guide, this frozen state of affairs in eastern Ukraine could linger for a long time.

The war between the Russian-backed so-called People's Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk and the Ukrainian government broke out in April 2014 and quickly escalated in cruelty and intensity, killing nearly 8,000 people, according to the United Nations. About 1.3 million have been displaced.

The guns went quiet in eastern Ukraine in September, wrapping up with a cease-fire but with no final settlement. This is a common arc of post-Soviet conflict, visible in the Georgian enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan and in Transnistria, a strip of land on Moldova's border with Ukraine.

In each case, the Kremlin intervened or provided arms on the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians or local allies, then it installed pro-Russian governments that it has used to manipulate events in the host countries. The contested borders of frozen zones also effectively guard against any further expansion of NATO, since no country with an unresolved border conflict can join the alliance.

"It is an amazing injustice, to be honest," Ms. Filatova said of the Kremlin's policy of creating frozen zones.

"You sit here and think, 'Why me?' " she said. " 'Why my family? Why did my life at one moment turn out completely differently?' And it's not just me. Hundreds of thousands of people just fell through the looking glass."

In government offices here, portraits of Stalin, looking avuncular and kind, gaze down at visitors. The secret police in Donetsk are called the M.G.B., separated by one letter from the K.G.B. The government in Kyiv is depicted as neo-fascist in the local news media.

"There is a lot of pompous celebration of the victory over fascism, a love for Soviet abbreviations, symbols and monuments," Vladimir Solovyov, a journalist with the Russian newspaper Kommersant who was raised in Transnistria and left when he was 16, said of life in the frozen conflict areas, noting that the same trends were emerging in Donetsk.

With the war frozen, the future of the young people left in these regions is also put on ice.

Vitaly V. Antyukov, 28, interviewed in a hospital over the summer, lost a foot to an artillery explosion. And now neither Ukraine nor Russia is willing to pay the $500 or so that he needs for a rudimentary prosthesis.

soldiers legless

Oleg Teryokhin, an 11-year-old resident of the village of Nikishyne, returned after fleeing with his family to find his village devastated.

donbas ruined

To be sure, the cease-fire has greatly improved safety for the family, although mines and booby traps remain a risk.

But the political status of eastern Ukraine makes reconstruction a distant prospect and means that the way Oleg lives today may not change for years to come.

"The first time I saw it, I was in shock," Oleg said of seeing his destroyed village. "The second time I was still under an impression, but when I came back for the third time I was already used to it."

Aleksandr A. Prokhanov, the editor of Zavtra, a Russian nationalist newspaper, and a strong supporter of the breakaway republics, said "there is disappointment" in Donetsk, which separated from Ukraine, compared with the city of Dnipropetrovsk, which did not.

"In Donetsk, people live worse than in Dnipropetrovsk," he said. "But in Dnipropetrovsk, people live worse than in San Francisco. And in San Francisco, they live worse than in paradise. The level of life is not decisive."

Ms. Filatova scoffs at such rationalizations.

"Of course we live worse," she said, adding that the conflict caught her at a time when she had been stepping out on her own.

Her apartment, her first, was in a neighborhood that was pounded continually by artillery. She said she once lay in her empty bathtub, holding her head, while the windows shattered. She was forced to move back in with her parents. "It's now home, work, home, work and nothing else," she said.

"If you consider it is somebody's plan to freeze this war, the lives of ordinary people are not really valued," she said. "It's unlikely anybody is paying attention to us."

By Andrew E. Kramer, The New York Times
 
 
 
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