I returned to Ukraine on January 6, arriving in the evening after a series of delayed flights. I had planned to go to Donetsk that very evening, but by the time I was able to get to the railroad station, the last train to Donetsk was about to leave. Through the help of a friend on Facebook, I got a hotel room in the railroad station’s Service Center. Before getting some sleep, I decided to see the Maidan. The Kyiv City Council was still in Svoboda’s hands. It looked like maybe a tent or two had been set up on the front steps. There was barbed wire in front that I had not noticed before. It looked like there was the same number of tents along Khreshchatyk and at the Maidan itself.
The night seemed subdued. Maybe a few hundred people were out to listen to a group onstage, flanked by the traditional “Didukh” made of straw, performing Ukrainian Christmas carols. It seemed like the lights were out on the Maidan; indeed, the news on Ukrains’ka Pravda’s website confirmed this later. A man in his early twenties was in front of the column with a globe carrying a sign that said, “Armiia Maidanu – bezpeka ta poriadok.” When I asked if this was a new army, the man said he was recruiting new members of the Maidan’s “Night Watch.” I did see a large portrait of Bandera near the front stage, added probably on New Year’s Day, the 105th anniversary of Bandera’s birth.
I left my hotel room around 5 to get the morning express between Kyiv and Donetsk. It was a 7-hour train ride, my first to the home base of President Viktor Yanukovych. The express train was a new Hyundai model introduced for the 2012 European Football League championship hosted in Ukraine and Poland. While much faster than the usual Ukrainian train, it rapidly rocked back and forth because of the outdated rails. Since I was traveling by daylight, it was my first time seeing eastern Ukraine’s countryside. I had assumed there would be empty steppe, but in fact there were many forests and valleys. The villages and farms differed little from what I had seen in western Ukraine. I could also see abandoned factories. As we neared Donetsk, I could see coalmines among the valleys.
It was Christmas Day, and so our car was mostly empty. As far as I could tell, everyone was speaking Russian. The exception was a woman in her fifties or sixties who spoke loudly on her cell phone in surzhyk (a combination of Ukrainian and Russian), where she told someone that the train was “like an elektrichka, but expensive,” as well as shared memories about traveling to Tiumen’ in Russia’s western Siberia. A young couple with two small children seemed to provide the most entertainment; the daughter, probably 4 or 5 years old, liked to play games with her older brother. At one point, one of the parents talked about “caroling” for Christmas (koliadyvat’, I think it was in Russian), and the daughter asked what that meant. So it is possible they were not ones into the traditional Ukrainian custom of singing Christmas carols.
Seated across me was a young man, probably age 20-22, wearing Adidas sweat pants and a T-shirt for some martial arts competition that was in English and Japanese. The first question that came to my mind was, “Is this guy a titushek?” Indeed, I was giving into the moral panic of the Euromaidan Revolution: anyone connected with the martial arts and Aididas sports clothes is a hired thug. He mostly slept, but at one point in the trip, he checked his cell phone and made some calls. After we had passed Kramators’k, I remember that he answered one call with the words, in Russian, “geroiam slava.” He said this matter-of-factly, indifferently, but I wondered if this meant that the Euromaidan greeting, “Slava Ukraini!,” had gained an audience eastward. When I mentioned this on Facebook the next day, one friend suggested that this man’s friend could have been saying it ironically. I didn’t want to look like I was listening in on his phone conversations, so I said nothing.
I arrived in Donetsk at 12:57, where a friend, Dmytro, picked me up and took me to his place. It was my first time in Donetsk. I had wanted to visit it for years. Back in 1998, when I began my research on Lviv, Lvivians told me how Russified and Sovietized Donetsk was. I remember talking with a friend’s aunt in June 1998, and when I mentioned Donetsk, she said, “Donetsk isn’t Ukraine.” Since then I’ve wanted to see what this other Ukraine is. When I visited Kyiv December 14-22, I couldn’t help but ask what were people in Donetsk thinking of the Euromaidan protest movement. Ultimately, my questions compelled me to come back and see what is going on in Ukraine’s East and South.
Dmytro and I took a minibus to his home. Passengers were silent, saying barely a word. No laughing, no joking. I kept looking at the passengers’ faces – those of a young couple, some men in their 50s and 60s, a woman in her 50s reading a book on an ipad, a woman in her 20s carrying a bottle of beer, trying to hide it with a doll set she probably bought for her daughter. Who are these people? What do they want to do with their lives? What do they want for Ukraine’s future? What do they think of Europe and the European Union?
Dmytro introduced me to his family before they went away to celebrate a birthday. Then we drank some horilka in honor of my arrival and talked about Donetsk and what people here thought of the Maidan. Dmytro, a native of the Donetsk Region, provided me with much badly needed background information. Dmytro knew I was a historian of Lviv and Galicia, so he made quite a few comparisons between Lviv and Donetsk. Donetsk, unlike Western Ukraine, suffered much more from Soviet repression. In the 1920s and 1930s, anti-Soviet elements were executed, while in Western Ukraine in the 1940s, rebels were offered amnesties. Those who wound up in prison eventually were freed under Khrushchev.
Donetsk was settled by outsiders, uprooted from their homes, victims of repression. For instance, considerable numbers of Ukrainians resettled from Poland after Operation Vistula in 1947 wound up in the Donetsk Region (Dmytro estimated 1 out of 5 people in the region, but his friend Ihor later said it was probably much less). Others had lost farms during collectivization. People lost family members to repressions in the 1920s and 1930s. As a result, Donetskites are much more pragmatic, much more skeptical, than the Galicians and others who are taking part in the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv. One principle they follow: “Ne vir, ne biysia, ne prosy” (in Ukrainian, “Don’t believe, don’t be afraid, don’t beg”). For Dmytro, what is going on at the Maidan – crowds singing with and dancing in front of Ruslana and Okean El’zy – resembles a “carnival” that Donetskites cannot relate to, because this carnival doesn’t give them any tangible changes. People here want jobs, better wages. None of that is being discussed at the Maidan.
Dmytro recalled the end of the 1980s in his neighborhood: thousands of coal miners out on the street at night, their miners’ hats lit up with flashlights, protesting. It was a frightening scene, recalled Dmytro. Thus, Donetskites can protest, and they will protest, but they need to see changes that will benefit them. They are too pragmatic to accept anything else. Dmytro said that people here now hate Yanukovych.
Later, Dmytro’s friend Ihor, who came by to visit, said that he’d heard a guy in his tram try to collect money from passengers for the “anti-Maidan.” The guy ranted and raved about the evils of the Euromaidan protest movement, and he defended Yanukovych, but no one even bothered to listen to him, let alone give him money. However, the problem is that the Maidan seems to offer Donetskites nothing.
It was interesting talking with Dmytro about recent events. He said that some time ago, when Yanukovych was elected president , he told friends that there would be great disappointment, followed by a civil war. So far, there has been no civil war, but there were chances for a major revolution that were missed. On December 1, when crowds took over the Maidan and attacked government buildings, the regime was extremely weak. The opposition could have taken power, but they didn’t. The same thing happened on December 12. The government’s “storming” of the Maidan (not really a storming, said Dmytro, since police were told just to push people aside, not assault them) failed, showing the weaknesses of the regime, but Yatseniuk, one of the opposition leaders, just told people that they had to work with Party of Regions to change the government.
Dmytro also said that security forces were willing to take the side of the people. One of his friends who is involved with the riot police said so, that they were willing to change sides. As Dmytro saw it, the opposition failed to take power when it was offered. Indeed, perhaps what has been happening lately is like the July Days in 1917 in Petrograd, where crowds demanded that the Petrograd Soviet seize power and dissolve the Provisional Government. Then again, the July Days passed, followed by the October Revolution.
Dmytro also talked about his own family history, which gave me a good idea about the Donetsk Region. His mother’s family had been dekulakized in 1932, toward the end of collectivization. The grandfather didn’t want to give up the farm, but he had no choice; his wife was being held in a cold basement as a hostage. Dmytro’s family comes from the Kuban region. In his youth, Dmytro had visited the Kuban, and was surprised by the locals speaking Ukrainian (He heard more Ukrainian here than in Donetsk.). Dmytro also talked about his grandfather’s brother, who had been in the White Army. He and other soldiers were to be evacuated from Crimea to Turkey, but the soldiers had to give up their horses, and there was no way Cossacks like them would give them up. They wound up staying behind, while the horses all were killed. The uncle wound up working as a police officer, then in the 1930s someone denounced him for serving in the White Army. The uncle fled, and no one heard what happened to him. No one knows even to the present day.
Over dinner, Ihor, Dmytro’s friend and former classmate, stopped by. Ihor was born in Lviv. His parents moved around, to Sumy, later to Donetsk. As Ihor joined our conversation about the Maidan, I asked both Ihor and Dmytro how long they thought the Maidan would last. They said that it could last as long as the spring, maybe even into the summer. Dmytro noted that after the Orange Revolution, after Viktor Yushchenko had been elected president, the tent city there lasted for as long as a month and a half. With the Maidan protestors not really gaining anything yet, how could they disband, if people who had “won” had taken their time to pack up and leave?
Regarding Donetskites and the Maidan, Ihor estimated that about 20-30 percent here either support it or are “loyal” (i.e., don’t oppose it, don’t mind it). It was Christmas Day in Ukraine, and so Ihor, Dmytro, and I started talking about caroling. One Lviv historian the previous week had written a blog claiming that Ukrainians of the Maidan were more religious than their counterparts in the East, as seen with their tradition of singing Christmas carols. People of the “East” (Donetsk namely) had forgotten how to sing Christmas carols, and in general they lacked the generosity and spirituality of their western counterparts.
Dmytro decided that we were going to prove this Lviv historian that he was wrong. He got out his accordion, and he led us in a collective singing of Christmas carols, Cossack marches, and some marches from Galicia. I knew the melodies, but I couldn’t remember all the words. Ihor knew them, but he couldn’t carry a tune. Luckily Dmytro knew both, and soon all three of us were singing Christmas carols and Ukrainian marches. As we sang, and as I listened to the chords ringing from the German-made accordion, I thought of all those protestors on the Maidan and about all the Doneskites here who also wanted a better Ukraine, but did not find it in the protest movement. They, too, sing carols, they also have memories about the troubled Soviet past, but others in Ukraine fail to understand them.
Inspired by our caroling, Dmytro called up some friends, and he and I went to their place to sing carols. As we rode a taxi to the friends’ house, Dmytro started talking to our driver about how things were going this year. The driver complained about how difficult it was getting with money. Inflation was going up, while wages were stagnant. He was finding it harder and harder to make ends meet these past two years or so. Later Dmytro suggested that this taxi driver probably had supported Yanukovych back in 2010. Many small businessmen, Dmytro and Ihor earlier had noted, also have been greatly frustrated with Yanukovych, because there are no real opportunities to develop business here (everything is monopolized).
We entered the home of Dmytro’s friends singing a carol as Dmytro played on his accordion. Then we drank, ate, and talked about the Maidan, sometimes watching scenes from it on TV. Dmytro’s friends are educated professionals involved in the Maidan movement. When I asked them about what it would take for Donetsk to join the Maidan movement, one of them said nothing would help, and that Donetsk would never really change. His friend, however, said that Donetsk, like Lviv, had potential to be politically active. While Lviv has fully developed as a flower, Donetsk has not done it yet.
Admittedly we got into some serious arguments about Donetsk. One friend claimed coal miners were too servile and passive to help in the Maidan’s cause, while Dmytro, the son of coal miners, objected to them being called servile. As we talked about coal miners, one friend said that they’ve been used as objects of political manipulation, since there are only about 50,000-60,000 about them. Still, there are dozens of coalmines that are being kept open to launder people’s money. If austerity measures were taken, two thirds of them, or maybe all of them, would be closed.
Dmytro and I walked home. There, we had some more drinks and watched Soviet-era movies on Cossacks. Dmytro was deeply affected by those movies, as he’d heard stories about what had happened to them during the Russian Civil War. Donetskites remember the civil war. I could see it when Dmytro started to tear up at the scenes of Cossacks going to their immanent deaths. And so went my assumptions about Donetsk – about it being a city of people without a history, people without politics, people without traditions or spirituality. Donetsk no longer looked like the polar opposite of Lviv, a city I’ve been observing for over 15 years, but a city in a different key, where Ukrainian history and traditions, and repression by the Soviet regime, very much mattered.
The author is an associate professor of history at Georgia College, USA. This article appeared originally on his facebook site Euromaidan News in English and is reproduced here with his permission.