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Multicultural metropolis: Sevastopol in the 1890s

A reporter shouts into a microphone, finger pressed to his ear. "Here in Sevastopol, Banderovtsy [far-right Ukrainian nationalists] have set fire to a library! They're burning books — Bulgakov, Dostoyevsky, Lermontov! And now they're firing on a Russian school!" Smoke drifts across shot; bangs and sirens sound in the background. Take over, the camera pans back. Beside him an assistant is letting off firecrackers, while another stamps on a disposable barbecue.

A reporter shouts into a microphone, finger pressed to his ear. "Here in Sevastopol, Banderovtsy [far-right Ukrainian nationalists] have set fire to a library! They're burning books — Bulgakov, Dostoyevsky, Lermontov! And now they're firing on a Russian school!" Smoke drifts across shot; bangs and sirens sound in the background. Take over, the camera pans back. Beside him an assistant is letting off firecrackers, while another stamps on a disposable barbecue.

As the spoof suggests, Ukraine is locked in two parallel conflicts. One, between Russia and Ukraine's allies in the West, is over the status of Crimea. The other, waged on the airwaves and the internet, is between Russia's version of the Ukrainian revolution according to which foreign-backed fascists staged a coup, leaving lynch-mobs to rule the streets and reality, which is that mass protests toppled a grotesquely corrupt president, and that a broad-based interim government is peacefully preparing for new elections. In Kiev, police cars are back on patrol, the piles of cobblestones used to repel riot police have been replaced by flowers and candles for the dead, and shops and public services are operating normally as they have done almost throughout. For many Kievans, the biggest upset of the crisis was a two-day metro stoppage, forcing them to walk to work.

Ukraine's revolution has caught the West on the hop. The tendency, ever since Ukraine won independence 23 years ago, has been to see the country through Russian eyes. On the rare occasions when the country hits the news it is former Moscow ambassadors who opine on television, and Moscow bureau chiefs who write the op-eds. Even William Hague talks about "the Ukraine", as though it were still a region of Russia, rather than a fully-fledged state.

Another mistake is to see Ukraine too much in terms of its past. In the Slav languages krai means "edge", so Ukraina is literally translated as "on the edge" or "borderland". Over the past thousand years its rolling plains have indeed come under the sway of a bewildering series of foreign rulers. Centre of a magnificent Byzantine civilisation in the early Middle Ages (the mosaics in Kiev's 11th-century cathedral Santa Sofia rival Hagia Sofia's in what was then Constantinople), Ukraine fell briefly to Genghis Khan's Golden Horde, then to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, then, by dynastic marriage, to Poland.

Weakened by Ukrainian peasant rebellions, Poland ceded Kiev and lands east of the Dnieper to Russia in the 1680s, before being itself partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria. At the same time, Russia drove the Ottoman Turks out of the southern steppe and Crimea. Reconstituted at the Treaty of Versailles, Poland regained western Ukraine, with small slices going to Romania and the brand-new state of Czechoslovakia. Finally, in 1944, the whole territory was overrun by the Red Army. It was thus possible, until quite recently, to find elderly residents of the western city of Lviv who had lived in four different countries Austria-Hungary, Poland, the Soviet Union and independent Ukraine without ever moving house.

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