Eastern Ukraine: observations and memories

Eastern Ukraine: observations and memories

Roman Minin's column about his living experience in the Donetsk region caused a flurry of criticism. The online media Svidomi has already explained our mistakes. But there is more to the discussion about regional identities in Ukraine. Criticism prompts the question: how do we gain knowledge about social processes? 

Social sciences provide the answer to this question. However, here is the problem: within these disciplines, there is yet to be a consensus on whether objective knowledge exists. At least two approaches can be distinguished: positivism and post-positivism.

Positivism assumes that knowledge exists independently of the researcher. The scientist only needs to discover it. Instead, post-positivists believe that observations always depend on the person of the observer. At the same time, post-positivism is not intellectual anarchism. Its followers do not want to deny any stable meanings. For example, no one will deny the foundations that serve as the basis for society. It is a matter to consider for revolutionaries rather than scholars. Instead, post-positivists will want to know how social interactions formed these foundations. Post-positivists often use memories to track the changing interpretations of social facts.

We will use both approaches to discuss the identity of eastern Ukraine and the conditions that influenced it in a more balanced way. We will start with a "detached" observation and then use the memories of people who lived in the region. 

Doctor of Historical Sciences Larysa Yakubova is perhaps the most interested in the issue of identity among all researchers. In 2017, together with Stanislav Kulchytskyi, Doctor of Historical Sciences, she published the book "Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the XVII-XVI centuries: historical factors and political technologies of forming the specific and common in the regional space". We will use the book and the interview with the historian. 

Where did the fiction "residents of Donbas" come from? How is it related to the concept of "Soviet people"? In the late Soviet era, perhaps, no one could answer the second question because the concept's meaning was blurred. At the same time, we can identify the essential characteristics. "First, it is the social structure of the population, which is approaching almost one hundred per cent proletarianisation," says Yakubova. Secondly, it is an environment that has undergone ethnic destruction. What does this mean? It combines the presence of many ethnicities in the community and the refusal to analyse the situation. "As a result of proletarianisation, people do not comprehend this with their minds, but simply live in a non-national filtrate," the scientist explains. 

It was the ideal of the "Soviet people". Donetsk and Luhansk regions were, as Yakubova says, a "test site" where they piloted this idea. Eventually, this led to the fact that at the end of the Soviet Union, the regional identity of a "Donbas resident" replaced the national one.

Eventually, the planned economy collapsed. This fiction should have disappeared along with it. But it happened differently. "Oligarchic, that is, first-generation capitalist Ukraine carefully maintained the Soviet homogeneity of the region," Yakubova and Kulchytskyi write. The scientists believe that because of this, people continued to be "in the atmosphere of Soviet 'stagnation', nostalgically recalling their leading position in the society of that time." 

However, the world has changed. In the nineties, all regions of Ukraine felt it. However, Yakubova and Kulchytskyi believe that Donetsk and Luhansk regions suffered more than others. They are sure that the east is not a unique example. Many regions failed to develop organically when the state imposed forced industrialisation. 

"In such regions, the population, which for decades was determined by the needs of industry for workers, is decreasing primarily not due to depopulation as such, but due to the narrowing of the employment market. As a result, young people seek happiness elsewhere, and the older generation replicates the " survival " strategy," - the scientists write. 

Silesia in Poland, Ruhr in Germany, and Pittsburgh in the United States - these regions faced similar problems. However, their residents "had a much stronger state structure with incomparably more effective levers of its regulation". Instead, when the residents of Donetsk and Luhansk regions were experiencing the cataclysms of deindustrialisation, Ukraine could not support them much. 

Yakubova and Kulchytsky call it a disaster, but they do not believe Kyiv should be blamed. Instead, in their opinion, "the inhabitants of the region perceived this trend, which had no alternative from a historical point of view, as an apocalypse, for which Kyiv was "appointed" guilty."

It is the view of scientists who seek to separate themselves from the object of observation. How do those who lived there remember the region? Svidomi talked to those who responded negatively to Minin's column and talked about a different Donetsk region. Below is the direct speech. 

Zoryana Shpitsyna 

In Donetsk and the region, people focus more on work and the result in Donetsk and the region. The environment was so competitive that you had to do something to achieve something. Everyone understood that "nothing falls from the sky". I never wanted to move — I knew for sure that I could accomplish everything in Donetsk. 

From 2008 to 2014, there was rapid development in Donetsk — new squares, parks, monuments, and parking lots were springing up everywhere. I remember a poetry evening in February 2014 with avant-garde poets. In addition, there was an art fund, Izolyatsia, on the territory of the former insulation materials plant. It was the most innovative place. Concerts, exhibitions, and poetry evenings were held in the institution "Izba-chytalnia". 

In some cities, there are no opportunities to fulfil one's ambitions — Donetsk had these opportunities. Donetsk region is perceived as a land with many miners and factory workers. My friend's grandfather worked at the factory, painting the walls, carving wooden figures and decorating the buildings with stained-glass windows — this is the best example that even older people are trying to make the space around them better, more beautiful and more fascinating. 

Kateryna Zhemchuzhnikova

Until 2014 I lived in Donetsk and worked in the media field. The most significant was that I worked for several years on the website ngo.donetsk.ua - it was the first and only Ukrainian-language news portal in the Donetsk region. 

When we talk about the region's population, we can highlight diligence, but not in the context that everyone "worked" at factories or mines. Historically, most of the population worked at production facilities, and the idea that you have to work to have something was passed from generation to generation. Another characteristic feature is responsibility and keeping one's word, which, in my opinion, were also brought up by a systematic approach to work. Still, these features were inherent not only to older people but also to the younger generation. 

We can talk about some non-publicity and secrecy about personal life. But despite this, an essential element of the population's identity was hospitality, good-naturedness and openness. You could come to the city, ask passers-by on the street for directions, and if a casual conversation started, you could be invited for coffee, beer or a visit.

Speaking about the socio-economic situation in the region, we should distinguish three spectrums:

1) Big cities were developing, and there was always a job with a good salary.

2) Small towns were often entirely abandoned. People who lost their jobs after the collapse of the Soviet Union and in whose settlements no new ones were opened to provide jobs could sleep at home and commute to big cities. To some cities near Donetsk, such as Yasynuvata or Makiivka, buses ran in the same way and for the same price as those in the regional centre. Compared to Kyiv, there are other and more expensive suburban buses to all the nearby towns where a large number of people live, such as Irpin or Bucha. In Donetsk, these satellite towns were not so separated and were like residential areas. 

3) The population of villages was quite different from the urban population. Some of them spoke Ukrainian surzhyk. There was less influence of the Soviet Union regarding "alignment" within large industrial complexes. Therefore, on the one hand, it was easier there; you could run your household. On the other hand, people went to big cities to find a job.

There is a stereotype about people from here. Obviously, there was a marginalised part of the population who failed to have a job, lived on social benefits from the state and were difficult to communicate with. But it is wrong to associate the whole region with this type of people. If you dig deeper, these are the messages that Russian political technologists spread before 2004, saying that certain political players divide Ukraine, where the east and south are allegedly "third class". These narratives were developed in the Kremlin to promote certain politicians, and such retransmission worked negatively both against the residents of the east and all other regions, whose residents have rooted these myths in their minds. 

There were several layers of cultural development in Donetsk:

1) Official - we had a wonderful Music and Drama Theater, and international stars came to the Opera House. Going to the theatre was a tradition for a large number of Donetsk residents; tickets were always sold out.

2) Youth informal - in 2010, an art space was opened in Izolyatsia. Many people wanted to visit this place, and bus tours were even organised there. Until 2014, young people in Donetsk were progressive and interested in literature and music. A significant layer of culture took place in bars, clubs or basements. Literary clubs, concerts of little-known musicians and other artistic events were held there.

3) Pop stars - pop stars were brought to mass events, such as Donetsk City Day, at the expense of the budget or patrons. 

Daria Nevmerzhytska

I was born in Kramatorsk, lived there until I was ten, and then we moved to Donetsk because of my father's work. In 2014 I was 20, and because of the outbreak of war, I moved to Kyiv. 

I remember my whole life until 2013 as happy and full: I danced in ballet and actively organised student life. 

I remember the example of a classmate who wanted to enter the magistracy and move to Kyiv. She tried to convince other students, but out of 28 people, no one agreed. Donetsk was a city where people would come from other towns. The standard of living allowed us to live in such a way that we did not want to run away anywhere. We had developed medicine: the Kalinin Clinical Hospital, the Oncology Center; and Donetsk Medical University was one of the best in Ukraine. Many people were coming to us to enter it. People came from all over Ukraine to study at the Prokofiev Donetsk Music Academy. 

Kramatorsk and Donetsk were cities with many opportunities to get a job. People from Donetsk were very diverse. Yes, we are very hardworking, but it is a myth that every second person is a miner or a factory worker. We could fulfil our potential in many spheres. 

Every Donetsk resident who moved to Kyiv in 2014 faced many difficulties. They did not want to let us housing and hung up on us when they heard about our Donetsk registration. At universities, we often heard that we "moved in" and took away budget places because of quotas. But there is no difference between Kyiv residents and Donetsk residents. 

I want everyone to know that we are just the same Ukrainians. We studied Ukrainian history and language and wore embroidered shirts.

 It is not our fault that this happened. Many people in Donetsk still support and wait for Ukraine but cannot leave. 

Olha Mandycheva

I was born in Donetsk, my father and his family are from Horlivka, and my mother and her relatives are from the Luhansk region. In 2008 I moved to Kyiv to study. Every weekend I went home because no one else moved with me.  

It was the wealthiest region in Ukraine. It was famous for industry, so many people worked in factories. Various cultural and innovative projects were created in the area, and world-famous stars were born there.

  • Donbas Arena, built for Euro 2012, is the first stadium in Eastern Europe built and designed following UEFA standards;
  • Prokofiev Airport - an innovative airport that met international requirements and landed the Mriya aircraft;
  • Donetsk City shopping and entertainment centre was the largest in Ukraine at the time of its opening in 2006;
  • Forged Figures Park is a unique project, as Donetsk has had a blacksmith tradition since the 1900s;
  • International Festival "World Ballet Stars", founded by the city residents Vadym Pysarev and Inna Dorofeeva - People's Artists of Ukraine;
  • Lilia Podkopaieva - absolute World Champion in artistic gymnastics (45 gold medals), was born and lived in Donetsk;
  • Sinoptik - Ukrainian rock band founded in 2012, which in 2016 received the award as the best new rock band in the world (Global Battle Of The Bands - ed.);
  • both founders of the startup Concepter from Donetsk - in 2014, their project was the first from Ukraine to enter the Kickstarter platform and was sold in official Apple stores in the United States;
  • DJ Omnia - the first DJ from Ukraine, entered the top 100 DJs in the world (in 2017, according to the magazine "DjMag" - ed.).

It is just what I remembered in a few hours.

Donetsk region was famous for its hardworking people. We were not afraid of work and lived by the idea that "nothing is impossible". We dreamed of creating a business and were entrepreneurial. For example, I wanted to earn money since childhood, so I started selling cosmetics at 12. Neither my environment nor I were afraid of difficulties.

As far as people from the region were concerned, everything had to be "by the book", but not in a wrong way - it meant that you had to be responsible for your actions and words, and if you made a mistake, you were explained why it was wrong. 

When the first riots started in Donetsk in February 2014, I was there and saw Russians brought in by buses with flags. At that time, my friend and her family organised a pro-Ukrainian rally in embroidered shirts with our flags.

Then many people came out, and the police beat some rally participants, but no Ukrainian media covered it. So we were left alone with the enemy, not knowing the outcomes.

My grandmother, who lives in Horlivka, lived through World War II, then the occupation of the east, and now the escalation of the war. People are suffering, and even considering eight years of information war and vacuum in the region, there are people who want Donetsk and Luhansk regions to become Ukrainian again.

Yulia Krasilnikova 

I come from a mining town in the Luhansk region - Sverdlovsk, now Dovzhansk. Then I moved to Luhansk, where I studied at the university and stayed to live. Before the war, she worked at the human rights centre Postup and organised cultural and educational events: film screenings, festivals, concerts, and book clubs. 

The East was a region with a lot of work, including strenuous physical labour. The population had a habit of working hard. As a result, it formed a certain rigidity, character endurance and a less sentimental attitude to life.

Sverdlovsk was not depressed from the economic point of view, in particular, because of the mines. After 2014, I visited other settlements of the region, where mines closed long ago or barely maintained their existence, which made a rather depressing impression. My town was entirely proletarian and unremarkable. The main holiday of the region was Miner's Day, and even City Day was not so brightly celebrated. 

Luhansk was more interesting and progressive. Although at the level of other regional centres, even in comparison with Donetsk, it was clear that many resources were either not invested and did not reach or were misspent — the level of development of cities was different. In Luhansk, relatively little work was done to make it more beautiful and comfortable for the population. The town seemed to have developed and changed relatively little. Compared to Donetsk, where, especially on the eve of Euro 2012, many things were transformed, Luhansk did not have this. 

Instead, the last years before the war were marked by social and cultural transformations. Young people became more conscious and interested not in mass culture but in more profound things. They were ready to make efforts to create something. 

Anton Stovskyi

I am from Donetsk, my father is from Kyiv, and my mother is from Yenakiieve, Donetsk region. It is a clear example that people not only left the region but also came, like my father, from Kyiv to Donetsk. 

From 2015 to 2019, I lived in Donetsk under occupation and often visited Pokrovsk in the Donetsk region and Krasnodon (now Sorokino - ed.) in the Luhansk region. Then I moved to Kharkiv.

The central thesis I want to convey is that people are not so different. I would not like the regions of Ukraine to be mentioned in the context of some regional mentality.

The environment and living conditions are more critical because it is possible to live in a cultural environment in Donetsk as well as in Kyiv. And vice versa — it was possible to live among marginalised people both here and there. There were factories both in Donetsk and in Kremenchuk (Poltava region). 

I can confirm diligence, but not to single out as a distinct feature of the population — I met people who can and want to work in other cities. I think that the reason is not in the mindset but in the fact that there were more jobs in the east.

You should not talk about the region as another planet. We had and still have much more in common with others. Even under occupation, Donetsk looks more like a Ukrainian than a Russian city. 

Once, students of Donetsk National University managed to rename Vatutin Street to UPA Heroes Street, which happened before the Revolution of Dignity (in 2011 - ed.). 

The population was interested in the same culture as the rest of the country. All the trends that came to Ukraine quickly got to Donetsk because there was an audience and platforms. Speaking about specific examples of social and cultural development, Donetsk hosted the second TEDx after Kyiv: not in Kharkiv, Odesa or Lviv. Bohdan Chaban, together with Diana Berh, organised cultural events in Izbi-Chitala, and then this place had an outstanding contribution to Euromaidan because the organisers were its activists. The hip-hop direction was developed. The guy who created it won a green card and went to dance in the USA. There were many skaters and cyclists.

As in all cities, there were concert venues. The bar "Gang`U`bazz" later became the only place where people could gather under the occupation. In 2018-2019, Ukrainian music and poetry evenings were held there. 

Philharmonic, drama and opera theatres were in demand among older people. Older adults gathered in Shcherbakov Park for dancing even after the war started.

I remember "industrial nights" - night excursions to industrial facilities. Young people were quite aware of the peculiarities of their region: they knew where salt or coal was mined and where Artemivsk champagne was produced. 

There was regional patriotism — a lot of attention was paid to the famous people of Donetsk and the region’s industry. However, this patriotism also had a negative role, because it became the basis for separatism — a certain number of people began to forget that they were Ukrainians and began to think that they were the "people of Donbas". Russian propaganda used this at some point.

Tetiana Kirishun 

I lived until 1996 in Myrnohrad. It is a mining town. It would be unfair to mention the problematic 90s because the 90s were everywhere. But it would be appropriate to recall my modern kindergarten: good repair, new furniture, swimming pool. Later, I went to a school with in-depth mathematics and foreign language learning. 

In 1996, my family moved to Kurakhovo, 40 km from Donetsk. The city, where international swimming competitions and trainings were held in one of the best swimming pools in Europe; 5 schools, a technical-vocational lyceum, and an Energy Construction College — this is a provincial town of the Donetsk region. In 2003 I entered the university and moved to Donetsk. 

Publications about Donetsk depict a miner in the background of waste heaps and "Donetsk residents" somewhere in the title. But Donetsk, having 15 mines and dozens of factories, was a city of a million roses. The largest Ukrainian Burn Centre, one of the first reproductive centres, and the first in Europe Centre for Artificial Skin Growth. It was my Donetsk. We dreamed of life, travel, favourite work, comfortable housing, and a happy family. No one from my environment dreamed of moving. We lived in a city full of opportunities and prospects. 

We stood at rallies of thousands in the spring of 2014 under a huge Ukrainian flag, not even imagining that this was the end. And there were buses with a crowd under the tricolour, gunshots, trucks of armed people, explosions and fleeing from home. 

The fire of the thought, "what would Donetsk be like now but for the occupation", still burns inside.