Translator’s introduction, May 14, 2014: A friend of the Facebook group, Euromaidan News in English, in Donetsk oblast solicited this narrative from a resident of Slavyansk. It provides a valuable insider’s point of view on the current situation, from a long-time local resident. Translation is from the Russian, please forgive errors in English.
The Root of the problem
If anyone had told me back in September this would be happening here, I would have laughed at them. I don’t want to elevate Ukrainians, or Russians, above other peoples…but you can understand how such conflicts could happen in Egypt, or in Syria, where religious differences can fuel such disagreements. I never expected to see such conflicts here. The anti-east and anti-west feelings here—they are being stirred up by politicians. Friends from western Ukraine, and Kyiv, are constantly saying me—“come stay with us,” “let us help you,” and so on. There’s no tension between us.
I don’t think language is at root of the problem. Sure, maybe it’s hard for some to speak Ukrainian, maybe they wish films were subtitled in Russian too, not just Ukrainian. So make Russian a second state language. What’s hard about that? In Switzerland, Holland, Denmark, there are multiple state languages. Why not here? Dub films in both Ukrainian and Russian. What’s the big deal? Let people choose for themselves what language they want speak. Let them choose—that’s democracy. But things are always decided for us. They always know better, what is best for us.
That’s why people have gotten frustrated. It’s not because they are for the DNR (Donetsk People’s Republic). People aren’t stupid. They are constantly saying that we need to be “enlightened,” we need to be “taught.” That’s shit. We can speak for ourselves. We’ve been around the world, too; we’re no worse than other people, we can think for ourselves. People are sick of this two [double] standard, and are tired of decisions being made for them. They didn’t vote for the Donetsk People’s Republic. They don’t want to live in the DNR. And now the next referendum [about annexation by Russia] is coming up, and it’ll make them think about things further…
And as for the idea of becoming part of Russia. Who wants to live in Russia? Those who are fed up. Those who have lost their jobs—they are hoping it will be better in Russia. But it won’t be. I can’t stand this mentality, as when a husband and wife have a quarrel and the wife says, “I’m going to my mother’s place.” It’s the same idea: “I don’t like Ukraine, I’m going to Russia.” What do you mean, you are going to Russia? You saw who you were electing, right? People elected Yanukovych because he was easy [convenient] for them. He was convenient for the east, he was convenient for the oligarchs, the clans. So those clans and oligarchs sponsored the election campaign. Everyone was thinking about their own welfare; so now, live with it.
Checkpoints, drumsticks, and the “nationalization of property”
As for the day-to-day situation here in Slavyansk, it’s very tense. Nobody has any money. Banks in Slavyansk are closed; the only one that is open is the SberBankRossia (SBR). The SBR opened this morning at 7am and by noon they had run out of money. The UkrSotsBank ATMs don’t work, and UkrSotsBank only does non-cash operations.
My friend drove to Kramatorsk [a town 7-8 kilometers from Slavyansk] to the bank, to get his pay. It took him 2 hours to drive there and 2 hours to drive back. He said he had to go through 9 checkpoints. They’ve got barricades just like we do in Slavyansk—burned out busses and trolleys, people with sub-machine guns hanging around the gas stations, with no license plates on their cars. In general it’s very difficult to travel to nearby towns and cities, like Krasny Liman, Donetsk…Gas prices have gone way up; gas is $1.50/liter. And there’s no gas anyway, it’s impossible to get it. They announced on the television, “Don’t expect some gas.”
A shipment of chicken drumsticks came in, and the fighters [separatists] seized it. Who’s going to want to make food shipments to us, in this situation? An armed car was bringing cash to the bank, and the fighters seized the money “in the name of the revolution.” A Roshen [candy] truck, that company owned by Poroshenko, who is running in the [upcoming presidential] election [on May 25]—they burned it up. A tire shipment that was coming in was seized for building the barricades.
The fighters [separatists], when they stop you at a checkpoint, they can tear up your passport, if they think something is amiss. Today when I was driving I saw a guy coming out of a store with a sub-machine gun in one hand and a bottle of cognac in the other. Everybody say they are strict about that—that they will get in trouble for drinking—but I saw this with my own eyes, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. I know that earlier—and still, officially—they were very strict about drinking and using drugs. I heard it myself, I heard a well-trained young commander lecturing fighters about staying sober. But I know for a fact that now, at night, crates of vodka and cognac are delivered to the fighters. We’ve got martial law now, everyone has to be inside by 8pm, and sometimes earlier if the sirens go off (they can sound at 5pm, or 6 pm, when the storming starts, you never know), so nobody knows what the fighters are doing in the evening. It is strictly forbidden to sell alcohol after 8pm, but they stock up during the day, so they have enough to last the night.
They [the separatists] seize people’s cars. If you are caught drinking and driving, they’ll take your car, no questions about it. We don’t have any traffic police or regular police in the city anymore. A lot of police have taken off their uniforms, been issued weapons, and gone to the barricades. The separatists have seized various institutions and turned them into bases for fighting and weaponry [ognevie tochki—places where fighters are hiding and shooting].
Compared to what is going on here, Donetsk is peaceful. They aren’t shooting there. Donetsk is a bigger city, and so far it’s quiet there. And anyway, all the self-professed leaders of this movement—they are here in Slavyansk. They made a fortress out of the security service building (SBU). It’s completely fortified now, not just with sandbags, but now with all kinds of concrete and metal. The barricades are growing every day. Earlier they just used tires, and [fallen] trees, but now they are building barricades using huge concrete blocks. They’ve seized the equipment from construction sites—cranes and such—“in the name of the revolution,” and seized the concrete blocks, and took it all to build barricades. Every day, new barricades. That’s how our city lives. People drive however they like—on one-way streets they drive in both directions, every way. There’s no police force here now. If someone breaks the law, or even seizes your car—who will you complain to?
The fighters have taken over a building belonging to the Aviation-Technology College. They seized all the cars that were in the parking lot, and removed license plates. Today I saw the rector’s car being driven around by guys with sub-machine guns. The university is closed; I heard they are conducting classes online, no one is going to class. Yesterday they re-opened the kindergartens and schools, even though there’s shooting going on. But parents are scared and only 2 or 3 kids in each class are showing up.
The court isn’t working. Yesterday Ponomarev, the self-proclaimed mayor, addressed the judges and the prosecutor on television. He said, “I don’t know in which language I should address you. Maybe you don’t understand Russian. If you only understand Ukrainian, you should get out of our native land. If you don’t show up in my office by tomorrow, you might as well just go.” Ponomarev announced the “nationalization of all property.” What by this he means isn’t clear. Are they going to take all the factories, the banks, or personal property? We don’t know. This was announced on his website.
The relation between the fighters [separatists] and the National Guard is strange, too. It’s like they are playing their own political game. If they [the National Guard] had wanted to storm [the separatists], they would have done it a long time ago. This isn’t how ‘anti-terrorist’ (as the separatists are being called) operations are carried out. You don’t drive tanks into crowds and shoot at people randomly. Terrorists are targeted at night, by Special Forces, picking them out of the civilian sector, right? You target those who are armed, ‘strategic objects,’ you use snipers, right? I think both sides are acting with the goal to destabilize the situation. Both sides.
For example, when you drive out of Slavyansk, towards Kramatorsk, there are several check points. There’s an effigy of [acting Prime Minister] Yatseniuk that’s been hanged, a blow-up sex toy that’s supposed to be Yulia Tymoshenko…so you drive out of Slavyansk and there’s a checkpoint of the “self-defense” forces (samooboroni), flying the flag of the Donetsk People’s Republic. And in just 200 meters (the total distance between Slavyansk and Kramatorsk is 7 or 8 kilometers), there’s a barricade of the National Guard, with tanks and infantry. But there are only 10 young guardsmen there. And in another 5 kilometers, as you enter Kramatorsk, there’s another post of the Donetsk People’s Republic. So the Guard just has 10 guys and 3 tanks. And all three [checkpoints] check you thoroughly, but politely…and the two sides (self-defense and National Guard) aren’t attacking one another along that highway.
Battles every day, battles every night
There are battles [between the separatists and the National Guard] every day; we’ve gotten used to it. The guys are shooting each other up every day; it’s a guerilla war, after all. They ride around on tanks, every morning now the tanks wake us up—it’s driving us crazy. During the past three days they’ve been fighting using tanks, and grenade launchers. We’ve gotten used to the sound of sub-machine gun fire—crazy, right? But we still get frightened when we hear them shooting from tanks, and grenade launchers, and mortars.
Fighters came into a private yard belonging to an elderly woman and told her: “we are setting up a rocket-launching base to defend against the National Guard.” There are snipers sitting on people’s [apartment] balconies—snipers from both sides. Supposedly there are hired female snipers; people call them “white stockings.” A 12-year-old boy was shot in a courtyard, 3 or 4 days ago, he was shot while playing in the courtyard. And it’s not clear who did it—whose snipers, from which side? They are changing clothes to look like fighters from the other side [so the other side will be blamed], so you never know who is who.
We’ve got no TV or radio because the tower was blown up three days ago—tanks were firing at one another for 3 hours. Yesterday and the day before yesterday there was no cell phone service at all. It was just restored this morning. It seems like they are interfering with it, or something…they interfered with the cell service during the referendum, for example. We saw footage of those houses near the television tower—the windows have been shot out and so on. People have gotten used to sleeping on the floor for safety. My family is doing the same—we all sleep in one room on the floor, hoping gunfire won’t come through the windows. We are afraid to turn on the lights when the fighting starts. It’s terrifying, but little by little you start to get used to it.
People are disappearing. One guy has been missing for 10 days now, with no word. A woman disappeared—she owned a café on the highway where the National Guard got their meals. She’s been missing for 3 days.
There are A LOT of weapons in the city. New weapons. These aren’t weapons that were seized from the local police. They didn’t have modern weaponry like this—grenade launchers and new sub-machine guns, or those mortars they’ve been shooting up tanks with. The self-defense forces [separatists], they have good equipment, good commanders…something is going on.
They usually start battles in the morning, although there’s a lot of shooting during the day, too, and yesterday they were shooting all day long. They don’t hide themselves any longer, the “self-defense” forces—earlier they wore masks and balaclavas, but now they show their faces. They ride around openly in mini-buses with sub-machine guns sticking out the windows—they don’t hide any more. It’s truly scary. We’ve started to get used to it, and they’ve gotten a taste of blood. Those who haven’t fared well in life, give them a gun and they feel like they are finally proving themselves.
I wouldn’t call them all “terrorists” or “separatists.” There are a lot of ne’er do wells (‘otmorozki’)—people who haven’t done well in life—and suddenly they can show their passport and get a sub-machine gun. Some of them are against the seizure of state power by those supporting the “heroes of the Maidan.” They are against the new administration [in Kyiv]. They’ve been joined by guys who fought in Afghanistan, and by our local Cossacks, and the ne’er do wells I was talking about.
There hasn’t been any storming during these last 3 days. The guys with sub-machine guns at the checkpoint told me (when they search me I ask them questions about what is going on): “We keep things going a little bit so they [the National Guard] don’t start to relax.” Right now they are fighting over the TV-radio tower, and they hit the National Guard’s munitions storage facility with a grenade launcher. You should have heard the explosions and seen all that stuff go up—like fireworks; they left lines of white smoke in the air like an airplane does. During the day they play around with sub-machine guns, and at night come the louder explosions, just as you’re getting to sleep.
[Acting Prime Minister] Yatseniuk came here a few days ago, and he brought 4 new armored personnel carriers (BTRs). By this morning one of the BTRs was already in the hands of our separatists—a young National Guardsman handed it over to them. These [National Guard] guys who are carrying out the “anti-terrorist operation” here in Slavyansk are expected to act like soldiers in wartime. But do they really expect these young guys—this Guardsman was from Dnipropetrovsk—to shoot at their own people? He’s likely to get 8 years in prison for deserting. He said, “We are cold and hungry, they aren’t feeding us.” The National Guardsmen are walking through the surrounding villages trading diesel fuel for food. He also said, “We are forced to sign for cartridges that we never receive. We are issued a lot fewer cartridges than officially we are supposedly receiving.”
Right now, I don’t know if the National Guard is going to storm or not, but for now the self-defense forces [separatists] are attacking more. They tried to seize the television tower from the National Guard, and 3 days ago at midnight they started shooting with grenade launchers and mortars, and tanks, until 2:30 in the morning. They had seized 4 or 5 armored personnel carriers from the National Guard…but before they didn’t have that much equipment, and lights and stuff, as they do now. Clearly this was all prepared beforehand, and this equipment is being brought in. Chechens have showed up in town. How could they have gotten here? It all must have been planned beforehand; maybe weapons were brought in beforehand, too.
There’s a sanitorium here, on the outskirts of town, that’s where the line of fire is. That’s where the forest starts and that’s where the battles are. I heard about how on May 1 [a holiday] there were some guys—7 or 8 of them, really big guys—who went on a picnic over there. Two women in camouflage came out of the woods, with black balaclavas on, speaking Ukrainian. They dealt with those men as if they were children. They took their passports and ripped them up and kicked them out of there. I don’t know who they were. Maybe Pravyi Sektor (Right Sector)? Maybe “soldiers of fortune,” soldiers for hire.
Like with those Chechens—I don’t think those are Putin’s troops. I think they are paid fighters, “wild geese,” as they are called here. The Chechen I saw, he was over 6 feet tall, with a machine gun slung across his shoulder with a huge, heavy cartridge hanging down, it must have weighed a ton, and he was just as comfortable as could be with it, as he didn’t even notice it. I saw a Chechen just once, but I haven’t seen any Chechens again. People say they’ve been living in the House of Culture, maybe they are still here. All I know is they are really well organized.
The “little green men” [Russian soldiers in green uniforms without any identifying insignia] have been seen in Slavyansk. The Russians are elusive—they pop up, and disappear, pop up, and disappear. Now they’re here, now they’re gone. They don’t’ advertise themselves openly. They’ll show up and coordinate something, and then disappear.
As for the referendum [of May 11], I didn’t go but I know people who went to vote at the main polling station, at the House of Culture. The voter turn-out was high, especially in the morning. They said it was clear that people didn’t even know what they were voting for. Many people thought they were voting for autonomy in a context of federalization in Ukraine, but they were really being asked to vote for independence. People voted more “against” something than “for” something. If you look deep into people’s souls, no one wants to separate from Ukraine. Most people understand that it isn’t clear what would happen with Russia, and it’s not at all clear that Russia needs us, not to mention the international community. And to become a “grey zone” or a buffer, or even worse—if Russia were to deploy troops to Ukraine, which would then be answered by NATO troops…we’d have a war over our heads that would make the earth shake.
There were some foreign journalists at the polling station, and they were really scared. Russian journalists are treated just fine, but foreign journalists—not so much. They say that the highway between Donetsk and Slavyansk was empty—no one was coming here from Donetsk that [referendum] day.
You see, our “local activists,” as they are called, now they are saying they don’t want to be part of Russia, but independent. They have tasted blood, tasted power. They have seized factories, but they aren’t putting new leadership in place, they don’t want to start businesses for themselves. They just get guys in there really fast to take everything apart, strip everything for scrap metal, and sell it for some quick money. They aren’t interested in anything long term.
If the front line moves into the city, the city will be ground to rubble. Because the separatists—I’ll be honest—are ne’er-do-wells (otmorozki). There are some with a code of honor—the Afghanistan veterans for example—but the majority are ne’er do wells. They are riff-raff (shantrapi) who are out of work, who’ve gotten carried away by the romance of war—fighting, shooting. There was an incident where they got drunk at night, and didn’t recognize each other, and two separatists shot each other. They can be really rude to people. I saw how one fighter at a checkpoint was searching a guy’s car; the guy was driving his elderly mother somewhere; she was probably 85 years old. The fighter was yelling at him: “What are you driving here for? Why didn’t you stop like you should? I’ll tear up your driver’s license. Do you want me to seize your car? Open up your trunk, quick-like!” That’s a “self-defense” guy; in theory he is supposed to be defending people, right? What, did he think that driver was a terrorist, riding around with his mother?
We wish it would calm down, it wasn’t so bad these last few days when citizens were celebrating the May holidays [May 1 and May 9, Victory Day], but now everyone is running out of money. No money, no gas…a lot of people have to get their salaries, pensions, and their social payments through PrivatBank. But PrivatBank is closed, so they can’t get their money.
Still, people are trying to get to work, they really value their employment, because unemployment is going up. Factories have closed, like the brick-making factory in Slavyansk. When Russia tripled the price of gas, the brick factory shut down because it wasn’t profitable any more, and now a lot of more people are out of work. Unemployment was already very high here, and now it even worse. People have to support their families, so those who have jobs want to hang on to them.
It’s unfair, too, that salaries here are much lower than in Kyiv, for example. As if people there are of some higher sort, and we here in Slavyansk are “third-rate” people. Those in L’vov and Kharkov get paid higher salaries, too. This is despite fact that water, services, food—it’s all a lot more expensive here. This is what is killing people, this unfairness. So they are restless. These young people, who are out of work, going around with sub-machine guns. They’ve tasted blood, and now we’re returning to the 1990s—the barter system, the racket [mafia].
People are frustrated because of the politicians, who are fighting not for an idea, not for Ukraine, but for themselves. There’s a saying: A boy sits eating chicken. He’s asked, “Do you like chickens?” He says, “Yes.” Answer: “You don’t like chickens, you like to eat chicken.” It’s the same with the politicians—they don’t love Ukraine, they love to eat Ukraine. All our politicians are temporary—they rise up in order to steal as much as they can, and then leave—for America, the EU, wherever. Like now, politicians’ assets are frozen. Their monthly salary is just 5,000 Ukrainian hryvnias ($420). Where did they get those “assets?” That’s what drives people crazy.
There’s a double standard. People in the east and the west want the same thing—to live peacefully and honestly, and not to have two separate economies. What we have now is like a snake eating its own tail. There’s one official (“white”) economy and one shadow economy. And there’s a lot more money circulating in the shadow economy than in the white one. A black-and-white economy. Look how people are living here. The cars people have here, they aren’t worse than in America, or in Europe. Maybe they are even better. Same with our houses. But our salaries are 50 times lower. How can this be? Because we’re used to giving and taking bribes. Every firm engages in double bookkeeping—there are the official books, for the tax inspection, and the real books. Otherwise no one could stay in business. People in this town who make $150 a month are driving around in Mercedes. How is that possible?
That’s why this revolution has come about. It’s not because Russians hate Ukrainians, or vice versa. Of course this is what journalists latch on to, and they fuel the conflict with this notion. “Provocation,” “Pravyi sektor,” etc. The politicians, and paid journalists, fuel all this. And the mass media is for hire and manipulated on both sides—in Russia and Ukraine. There’s an information war. That’s how they’re able to call all this an “anti-terrorist operation.” [Acting President and Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada] Turchynov announced that there is no peaceful population of Slavyansk left. He said that only “enablers of the terrorists and separatists” remain in the city. He said that the peaceful population has already been evacuated. Recently a “peaceful corridor” was announced for 3-6pm, and “refugees” (as they were called) tried to leave in a bus, and the bus was shot up. Nobody is talking about this. They don’t talk about how many peaceful civilians have been killed. A girl walked out on her balcony and was shot, for example. They don’t talk about how Slavyansk’s morgue is filled to overflowing. Nobody knows about this. And how people are disappearing. We don’t hear about all this. They talk only about how there are “terrorists” here, about the “anti-terrorist operations” that the [National Guard] “heroes” are carrying out.
I personally do not support either the separatists who are running around with sub-machine guns, or the temporary administration, which also came to power thanks to a military coup d’état. This could have been resolved peacefully. Three countries agreed that the elections could be postponed. This could have been resolved legally, without seizure of the security service (SBU), without storming and fighting, without the demoralization of police. They [the current administration] came to power and immediately changed the labor and retirement regulations for police. We were about to switch over to a contract army, getting rid of compulsory military service. I think that was right. But now, the compulsory system continues, with the draft. There’s nothing to feed the National Guard, not to mention the army! Talk about a corrupt institution—the entire army has been operating for the benefit of the generals and colonels—building them houses and dachas and so.
We hope everything will calm down. Because after all, how long would the Donetsk People’s Republic survive? Six months? For now people are getting help from relatives who live abroad. But everything is standing still. We have to produce something, we have to eat; we can’t be barricaded forever. God forbid it should become like the siege of Leningrad. But the fighting doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere; they are just shooting at each other on and on, with private homes in the line of fire even.
I’ll be honest, I don’t know what to do. People who have some money, they left. They’ve gone wherever they have relatives to take them in—Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, to other parts of Ukraine. The majority of our city’s residents are retirees, who get a monthly pension of 900 Ukrainian hryvnias ($70). They can’t go anywhere on that money. My relatives keep calling and telling me we should leave. How can I just leave everything I’ve worked for? How would I support my family? What about my colleagues who depend on me? No. I’d rather stay here and sleep on the floor.