My second day in Donetsk was strange. While news reports from the United States talked about Atlanta, GA, suffering from minus 15 degrees Celsius weather, it felt like spring this morning, with the local temperatures at least 10 degrees above freezing. It was my second day speaking with my friend Dmytro about Donetsk and the political situation here.
As we drank Kuban Beer that afternoon, Dmytro talked about residents of Donetsk and their nostalgia for the Soviet past. He sees the nostalgia rooted at the end of the 1960s, when the neighborhood we were in first sprang up out of what had been just bare fields. Our apartment building and others around it became new homes for people who had lived for decades in primitive barracks, where as many as 10 people slept in one room (what sounded like dormitory spaces in the cheapest of youth hostels). Suddenly, in the 1970s, people could live in normal apartments. People had a sense of stability, though Dmytro admitted that these were “illusions of stability.” Dmytro also noted the degree to which one’s age could affect how “Sovietized” you could become. For instance, Dmytro’s mother, born in 1929, was about age 3 when their farm was collectivized. When Dmytro as a kid was becoming fascinated with the Budionovtsy in the Red Army and other such things, one time his mother took him into her room and gave him a lecture: “Don’t you know these people had the blood of millions on their hands!?” On the other hand, her younger sister, born 1941, is very much a “kolkhoz person.”
I was drawn to this issue of Donetsk and the Sovietization of it because Donetsk has been seen as the polar opposite of the city I studied for over a decade, Lviv. Dmytro admittedly had talked about differences he had seen when traveling to Lviv, and then Daupavpils in Latvia in 1987 (experiences which he compared to being a barbarian who’d just entered Rome). Still, throughout my second day in Donetsk, I was presented with a very different story (one that deserves critical examination later, but one I’ll spell out now).
Around 5 p.m., Dmytro and I went to downtown Donetsk to see the Euromaidan assembled around the Shevchenko monument. After getting off the bus, Dmytro gave me a tour of downtown. We passed the offices of the governor, which once had been the headquarters of the Regional Party Committee. The regional party secretary back in the 1970s-1980s decided to decorate his grounds with “one million roses.” In subsequent years, kids used to pick roses from those grounds whenever they needed flowers for dates. As we neared the Shevchenko monument, Dmytro said that rumors circulated that this monument, erected sometime around the 1960s-70s (I will need to check this date), was designed by Canadians from the Ukrainian diaspora there. Thus the square on which it stands acquired the nickname “Canada” or “Canada Square.” As we passed by the neighboring library (built in Stalinist fashion, with the busts of Belinsky, Tolstoy, and some other Soviet classics), Dmytro noted that the Ukrainian diaspora in the West did a lot in the 1990s to add to the library’s collection. The Ukrainian diaspora in general was very active in Donetsk in the 1990s. For me, this was unexpected, as I have always heard about Donetsk’s close ties with Russia (while the diaspora was more connected to places like Lviv and Kyiv).
As we walked further down one boulevard, we passed by the drama and opera theaters, which Dmytro said have Ukrainian repertoires. I took a photo of a golden-plated statue to the Ukrainian opera singer Solomianenko (sp?) (who started out as a plumber, but was discovered for his musical talents). We also passed by a hotel now owned by Akhmetov, where young people at the end of the 1980s used to gather in the café “Lira.”
During this tour of downtown, Dmytro talked a great deal about sites from his days as a student here (at what is now called Donetsk National University). Earlier in the day, he had talked about being a member of the discussion group “Argument,” which at the end of the 1980s brought up Ukrainian national issues and got involved in the politics of Perestroika and Glasnost. Eventually the club broke into Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking factions, and this all happened without a fuss. Within the Russian-speaking group a number of differences had emerged about politics. From 1987 on, the “Ukrainian national iA dea” became an important topic, and Dmytro got involved in lectures about it. All of this made me wonder what had happened to this national movement among Donetsk’s students. So I asked Dmytro what had happened to these people. “Young people went from nationalism into banditry (bandytizm),” he said matter-of-factly. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, students and other young people lost opportunities for social mobility. While Dmytro in Soviet times was able to leave the coal-mining town of Makiivka for the university in Donetsk (an experience which he compared to “being like a barbarian who’s come to Rome”) and later move on to a professional career, so many others lost that chance in the 1990s. The university system has become corrupt. No one can enter prestigious departments and fields unless they pay a lot of money. Without those opportunities for social mobility, young people moved from politics to making money through the local mafia.
As we continued our walk through the city center (passing by the Pushkin monument, where hippies and other informal groups gather in warmer weather in today’s Donetsk), I asked Dmytro what happened in the 1990s, what he remembered of the gang violence here. He said that it was utterly terrible, that there were all kinds of murders taking place. It calmed down by the time the decade was over, but even now, going out in the suburbs is a risky affair.
We had planned to go Christmas caroling with Dmytro’s friends at the Euromaidan. When we first passed by it, I have to admit that I was disappointed by what I saw. A huge Christmas tree in lights towered over Shevchenko and about a dozen men, a great many of them middle-aged or above. A generator pumped electricity to two stereo speakers broadcasting an Okean El’zy song. There were no tents. There were no signs. There were two Ukrainian flags. It looked like no more than a dozen or so men talking politics.
We had passed by the Euromaidan early, before the caroling was to start. When we arrived for a second time, around 6 p.m., there were more people. I would say the crowd numbered around 40-50. A Russian speaker in his 50s or 60s was at a microphone outlining what strategy the Euromaidaners had to take regarding events in Ukraine. His main point, I think, was the need for them to be as independent as possible from the opposition political parties (Svoboda, Udar, Bat’kivshchyna). I stayed for most of the speech, then we went to see Dmytro’s friends. (Another speaker then began a speech in Ukrainian, but at that point we were talking about the caroling scheduled for the Euromaidan that had wound up being cancelled.)
Alas, there would be no caroling for us. Dmytro and his friends told me it had been cancelled. We walked down the main boulevard a second time, and I told Dmytro’s friends about who I was, what was my field of study in Ukrainian history, and why I knew Ukrainian so well. Dmytro’s two friends (one of whom had brought his family with him) were university professors, so we had a lot in common.
Dmytro and I then took a bus back home. As before, passengers were subdued. The only exception was a pair of female high school students who kept gossiping about their friends, swearing and giggling at various intervals.
We arrived for dinner with Dmytro’s family and their friends, Roman and Larysa. I had a lot of questions for them about the Euromaidan movement and what people in Donetsk thought about it. Roman is involved with an Internet news website that has dealt with this issue extensively. He described several polls they had taken from readers. While they cannot confirm where all their responses come from, they have found that, before the protests began, a majority of people supported closer ties with the EU. Of course, at that time, closer ties with the EU had been official government policy, so people may have just been following what the Yanukovych administration was saying. They did ask questions about what people thought of the Euromaidan protest movement. There was a total of about 15 percent who were for breaking up the movement. Some of us considered that to be a hopeful sign for Donetsk (that people were not that fiercely opposed to it). Roman also noted that younger generations were more in favor of ties with the EU (something Dmytro had stressed the day before).
Admittedly, our company was made up of people oriented toward national issues in Ukraine. Roman and Dmytro both studied Ukrainian history at the university. Roman’s father had been a classmate, and even a roommate, of poet Vasyl’ Stus, a Ukrainian dissident who died in prison in 1985. Still, Larysa and Natalia (Dmytro’s wife) were Russians, and our conversations quite often were in Russian rather than Ukrainian (and Roman at one point make a special toast acknowledging that I’d done a lot more to learn Ukrainian than many Ukrainians). Dmytro and Natalia also told me that probably most of their friends are in fact against the Euromaidan movement
Thus, I was very happy to hear from Natalia that the day before, while at a birthday party, she made sure to ask people what I had wanted to ask them, that is, what were their attitudes toward 1.) the European Union and 2.) the Euromaidan protest movement. Natalia summed up their criticisms of the European Union.
1.) An Association Agreement with the European Union would not raise people’s standards of living. How would Ukrainians make the wages of their more western neighbors? What would happen to Ukrainian manufactured goods? (As Roman indicated, up to 80% of Ukraine’s manufactured goods go to Russian markets.) What would happen to Ukrainians’ jobs? The EU promises aid, but these are just vague promises. (Roman, too, agreed that the EU was not offering much help to Ukraine.)
2.) An Association Agreement would lead to the European Union dumping cheap, low-quality goods into Ukrainian markets, undermining Ukrainian firms.
3.) Closer ties to the Association Agreement would lead to a loss of people’s sense of identity (identichnost’).
4.) People at the birthday party talked about a German kids’ story about a man and his wife getting a divorce, and that the daughter found out that her father was not with another woman, but with a man. This may sound funny to us, but same-sex marriages are very controversial in a traditional Orthodox society like this one.
5.) If more closely integrated with the European Union, the educational system’s standards would fall. Students would do as they wished, and the authority of educators would be undermined. (In the United States, they might call this “student-centered learning.”)
Natalia also mentioned other reservations: that closer ties with Russia were a lesser evil than closer ties with the EU, and also the notion that Putin was a “good tsar” (although only the elderly really talked this way at the party).
I asked Roman and Larysa and Natalia and Dmytro what united people from eastern Ukraine with other Ukrainians. Here, all four mentioned what a great impression the European Football League 2012 championship tournament left on them. Donetsk, which hosted some of the playoff games, erupted in great patriotism during the matches. Thousands of people displayed Ukrainian flags and sang the Ukrainian national anthem. Unlike the beginning of the 1990s, people here do feel loyal to Ukraine. Thus, all four took issue with the idea that there were two Ukraines. For these residents of Donetsk, there is one.
I really enjoyed the evening with Dmytro’s friends. Yet I was bothered by the thought that all of us, as educated professionals, did not understand the simple people.
So around midnight, Dmytro got an idea: we would go talk to the coal miners as they got off their evening shifts.
In principle, it wasn’t hard to go look for coal miners. We were within walking distance of the Zasiad’ka Coal Mine, and earlier that evening Dmytro and I walked past it on the way to the bus stop. It was a very clean, orderly neighborhood, with an impressive park nearby. It was the very first time in my life I was near a coal mine, so as I looked at the elevator towers poking into the sky, I thought was strange to think that, far below us on this city street, people were mining coal.
Dmytro said that the miners tend to hang out at a local kiosk after their shift is over, drinking beer and horilka. It was very warm out, above freezing, so we expected miners to be on the scene. Our strategy was this: Dmytro and I would buy some horilka, we’d drink it in the presence of some miners, and we’d offer some miners drinks and then talk politics. Dmytro would do all the talking. I’d just listen. I had plans to tape record Dmytro relating what he’d heard (in case I’d lose something in the slurred speeches, swearing, and slang).
We arrived at the kiosk around midnight. Dmytro bought a small bottle of horilka. But there was no one within sight (just a university or high school-aged guy who walked past us with fear in his eyes (probably hoping we wouldn’t cause him trouble!)).
Dmytro and I decided to go for a walk in the woods and then see who would show up later at the kiosk. On the way to the woods, we passed by dormitories built by German POWs in Donetsk after World War II. They looked different from other Soviet apartment buildings, more “German” (two stories tall, pointed roofs, different-looking windows and balconies). Our walk through the woods became a mini-adventure, with a pack of dogs barking at us from a dangerously close distance. The tangled shadows of bare trees brought to mind places far from what I’d call a coal-mining rustbelt city.
As we left the woods, we passed by the remains of the old barracks that Donetsk workers used to live in (crumbled brick walls, not much else left). Next to these remains were apartment buildings that were built at the end of the 1960s or 1970s. I agreed with Dmytro: these were far better places in which to live, generally well-kept apartment buildings with all the conveniences of “civilization.”
Still, there was one detail Dmytro pointed out that was new to me: bunkers along the back yard of one apartment building. These were bunkers for storing potatoes and other food. Dmytro stressed that this was one example of the pragmatic people who lived here in Donetsk, whose main concerns included the question “How will I feed myself?” These were questions about the future, but ones not based on the romanticism of the Euromaidan protestors.
Throughout the day, Dmytro and I talked about how Donetskites were more practical, more pragmatic, than the Euromaidan protestors. Dancing to Ruslana or Okean El’zy was one thing, but what about making a better life for oneself? The first criticism Natalia remembered from the birthday party was about economics.
It was about 1 a.m. when Dmytro and I came back to the kiosk. There was no one in sight. We walked around the neighborhood, past a couple of stores that were closed. No one.
Dmytro said that around this time of year, around midnight, there are people out on the street drinking, having a good time. There was no one outside. This reminded him of what the taxi driver had told him the previous night: over the past two years, there have been less and less customers taking rides. This was a sign of how badly things were in Donetsk, said Dmytro.
The neighborhood was utterly lifeless at 1 a.m. A stray dog, peeping and whining, came up to us and followed us all the way to the kiosk. There, we finally found someone: a guy at the bus stop lying on the ground, sleeping off a night of drinking, snoring so loudly that it seemed like he was a dog growling.
Dmytro went to buy a bottle of beer. The stray dog examined the sleeping drunk several times.
We decided to sit on a bench in the bus stop, drink beer, and reflect on events as this unknown man laid in front of us, passed out on the concrete.
I said that there was no way I could sleep in such cold weather (though above freezing, it was getting colder and colder). Dmytro said that people here learn to live through just about anything. This drunk on the concrete was just one such example. “So Bill, did you think you’d be out on a bus stop in the middle of Donetsk?” asked Dmytro. It was then that I told him that my mother had just found out today that I was here…
We wondered what name we should give the dog. “I say Cheyenne,” said Dmytro. I told him that I was tempted to call him Tiger, the name of our family dog, since our poor friend, like Tiger, had a habit of peeping and begging.
A few minutes later, a woman appeared on the street. She embraced some old guy who met her from the opposite direction on a nearby street corner. Both stopped by the bus stop when they saw the drunken man lying there. “Stavai!” (Get up!) the woman yelled to the man. Then Dmytro, the woman, and the older man started shoving the guy around, then lifted him up. They put him on the bus stop bench. He lay there for a few minutes, then he rolled right off the bench, ripping part of his jacket in the process. The woman yelled at the drunk, and Dmytro and I got him back up on the bench. The man managed to sit up somewhat, breathing heavily, while the woman yelled, “Nu stavai! Bud’ muzhchina!” (Get up! Be a man!) The older man who had been with her crossed the street and disappeared, our dog companion, ears perked up, following him.
The woman was probably in her 40s. She told Dmytro that her husband had gone off somewhere and had gotten drunk “like a horse” (Vypil kak loshchad’.). She had no idea where he was. She was alone, with her bottle of beer. She told us that it wasn’t right to leave a drunken man here out in the cold. “Oni zhe liudi!” (These are people!) she said, adding that it was Christmas. We agreed. Dmytro and I wished her well, and we then went home. I noted to Dmytro that this was just one more example of how eastern Ukrainians unfairly are described as mere opportunities who lack spiritual values. This woman, for instance, cared about what had happened to a man left on the street. She did not get paid for it, she received no reward. Dmytro agreed.
Sometime before this encounter with this woman and her friend, a bus of miners in helmets passed by the bus stop. Dmytro said that these were people who normally would have stopped by for drinks at the kiosk. It was another sign that things were not normal in Donetsk.
Thus, our midnight experiment was not entirely wasted.
Maidan Chronicle – January 8, 2014 – Further Reflections
While discussing politics today, Dmytro noted that the Svoboda Party does not function in Donetsk. Tiahnybok, the party’s leader, told party members to fold up operations here. Thus, it looks like Svoboda indeed could be serving the Yanukovych regime, since they are not even trying to become an all-Ukrainian party.
While we walked past the governor’s offices, Dmytro also recalled that it was here, at the end of the 1980s, that miners assembled en masse, pounding their helmets on the pavement, defending the interests of the working class.
I imagine that one of the reasons Donetsk has lost its potential for grassroots political activity was the stripping away of the miners’ independent unions in the 1990s.
After the last couple of days, I have become very interested in the history of late socialist Donetsk, as you may be able to tell from notes I made for January 8.
There were some comments from readers on Facebook worth noting here:
- Andreas Papandreas the singer was Anatolii Solov’ianenko
- David R. Marples Spent quite a bit of time in Donetsk and Horlivka 8-9 years ago. It seems to be changing. No doubt Euro-2012 changed a lot of things. Great report, Bill!