KIEV (Reuters) - When President Vladimir Putin visited Ukraine a decade ago, he recited four lines of verse by national poet Taras Shevchenko to show his love of Russia’s fellow Slavs and neighbors.
Two years ago, Putin announced with great fanfare after talks with Ukraine’s president that their two countries would celebrate the 200th anniversary of Shevchenko’s birth together.
As recently as December, Putin said preparations for the anniversary were in full swing and declared: “Taras Shevchenko was such a seer, who foresaw and bequeathed us so much.”
On Sunday, the anniversary passed, without any sign that Putin noticed. There was no mention of it on the Kremlin website over a weekend in which Putin spent time at the Winter Paralympics in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Celebrations of the poet, artist and writer - as revered in Ukraine as William Shakespeare is in Britain - were cast into the shadows by events further down the Black Sea Coast - in Crimea, where Russian forces have seized control from Ukraine.
A day that was meant to demonstrate unity served to highlight how low relations with Russia have sunk and revealed the great divide in Ukraine over the country’s future - with Moscow or the European Union, united or divided.
“We are one country, we are one family, and we are here with our poet Taras,” Acting President Oleksander Turchinov said at an event in Kiev commemorating the anniversary.
That image was soon destroyed when protesters were beaten up at an anniversary rally in Crimea and rival groups confronted each other in the eastern city of Donetsk. An assault on a regional government building in Luhansk, also in the east, reinforced the picture of chaos rather than unity.
There is probably no figure more likely to unite Ukrainians than Shevchenko, the father of Ukrainian literature and, to an extent, the Ukrainian language. His statue can be seen in many towns and cities across the country.
As he spent much of his life in the Russian empire, Russians
also have cause to celebrate him. In both countries, he is revered for prevailing against the odds, and for the verses he wrote about resistance and defiance.
After years as a servant, he won his freedom from the proceeds of a portrait he painted, but was later exiled by Tsar Nicholas I and forced to serve as a private in the army for writing poetry considered inflammatory. He was ordered not to paint or write, but managed to continue doing both.
The new Ukrainian leadership, installed less than two weeks ago after the fall of Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovich as president, did its best to use Shevchenko for its own ends.
Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk held Shevchenko up as an inspiration for the protest movement in Kiev that forced Yanukovich out of power.
“Shevchenko is our national symbol and what happened on the Maidan was also the birth of our national identity,” said a woman who gave her name only as Nina, walking with her daughter near Independence Square, or Maidan, the heart of the protests.
But events across Ukraine remembering Shevchenko did not go according to plan. In the Crimean city of Sevastopol, pro-Russian activists attacked a small group of Ukrainians near a monument to Shevchenko. One was whipped by a Cossack, whose predecessors patrolled national borders.
“What’s the problem?” one of the assailants asked. “The flowers are still on the monument to Shevchenko.”
At a gathering in Donetsk, a mainly Russian-speaking city, pro-Russian activists confronted supporters of the Kiev government before a planned rally had to be abandoned.
“What’s happening now is a betrayal of the motherland. I have to hide my national flag,” said Marina Khinzhyak, 55, worried that pro-Russian activists might attack her if they knew her affiliation. “If you want to live in another country, just emigrate. And don’t bring your troops here, either.”
Donetsk hairdresser Tatyana Davydenko, 50, also wanted protection from troops, but she was worried NATO soldiers might be posted to Ukraine if the country now looked westwards.
“We don’t want fascism in our country, and why would we want foreign soldiers on our soil?” she said.
At some rallies, pro-European Ukrainians chanted anti-Russian slogans, and at times, they shouted, “Down with Putin.”
The result was the opposite of what Putin had set out to achieve. In Kiev, one of his biggest foes, former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, gave a speech accusing Moscow of spreading lies about events in Ukraine.
The crowd chanted back: “Russia, rise up!”
Additional reporting by Sabina Zawadzki in Kiev, Andrew Osborn in Sevastopol, Alissa de Carbonnel in Simferopol and Lina Kushch in Donetsk; Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Jan Paschal