On January 14, I took the early morning train from Kharkiv to Donetsk. Ievhen got me a cab to the train station. At last, it was open. Inside, a Santa Claus sang American Christmas songs in English beneath a towering Christmas tree. The express train featured Russian TV shows and films on a television screen at the front of the car. Among the films was the Soviet classic, “Ivan Vasilievych changes professions.” It was another reminder that the Eurorevolution, or whatever you call it, still deals with a great deal of Soviet nostalgia (though admittedly the movie is hilarious regardless of the historical context). Snow was falling outside the train. It was the Old New Year, the end of the long Christmas-New Year’s vacation in Ukraine.
I came back to Dmytro’s home, where Natalia greeted me. As I rested that afternoon, there was disappointing news: the female anti-Maidan activist couldn’t meet me that day because she had to go to Kyiv to the anti-Maidan being set up there a second time. As it turned out, the anti-Maidan rally lasted for the duration of the Supreme Rada’s “debate” over the budget and other bills being considered.
It did not turn out to be much of a productive day. I mostly rested. That evening, Dmytro’s friend and fellow historian came over for dinner. As we drank balsam and horilka, we talked about what was going on with the Maidan. This historian friend of Dmytro’s shared the disillusionment I’d noticed among intelligentsia members in Donetsk. The Maidan had produced dancing, singing, playing at revolution, but two months of no action by the political opposition and no concessions by the regime. All three of us – Dmytro, myself, and Dmytro’s friend – feared that events would soon become radicalized.
On January 15, I had a day full of interviews. Dmytro took me to the center of Donetsk, where I met his friend, a sociologist named Oksana. Over coffee, I interviewed Oksana about popular attitudes toward the Euromaidan movement in Donetsk. She presented a very complex situation here. Intelligentsia and businessmen have supported the movement in one way or another, yet there is a great deal of indifference among students and ordinary people. In general, Donetskites – at least among the educated professionals – have favorable opinions of Europe, since many of them have traveled there.
Among wider circles of the population, there is a great deal of ambiguity. Sociological research here suggests that residents of Donetsk are okay with both the EU and with Russia. They are ambivalent about Ukraine, about the Soviet past. In other words, they don’t really get worked up about these issues. They don’t get worked up about differences between western Ukraine and eastern Ukraine; this is an issue politicians exploit. The problem is when discussions “based on emotions” surface. That is when people get upset about things like the Euromaidan, or about “Galicians,” or about “fascists” and “nationalists.” What is more worrisome is that the Donetsk region faces severe economic difficulties. The metallurgy industry is practically closed down. The coal mines just barely manage to get by. The Donbass faces considerable problems of unemployment and poverty that could cause an explosion. Meanwhile, the regime has been creating a parallel state of sorts that also threatens to destabilize Ukraine.
Oksana tried to get another academic to speak with us, but he didn’t come. It’s possible that he was afraid to speak with me about such matters.
Oksana then took me on a tour of downtown Donetsk. For a city that is supposedly so “pro-Russian,” there is a lot of the imaginary West here. One recent hotel, restaurant, and bar complex, called “Liverpool,” advertised its services along the city’s main boulevard. It was located near some dormitory (where foreign students from Africa used to exchange currency illegally at the entrance, earning the latter the rather racist nickname, “Negrobank”) as well as run-down buildings connected with the polytechnic institute. “Liverpool” featured statues of the Beatles performing their music, which was broadcast from speakers all day long. Up in red neon lights was something like, “Long live rock and roll,” or something like that. There were pictures of Liverpool and the Beatles, and lines from Beatles songs, along the wall of the hotel and the bar/restaurant below it.
Donetsk has been creating new historical myths to enhance its image: a statue of John Hughes, who set up the city, Yuzovka, as a company town in the late nineteenth century; fragments of Scythian artifacts found in the region; a memorial plaque to dissident Vasyl’ Stus (posthumously made Hero of Ukraine) at the entrance of the national university’s philological faculty. Oksana showed me a church rebuilt in the style of a cathedral, destroyed in the 1930s, that stood in what used to be the city’s main center (which has shifted in the direction of the Regional Administration in post-Soviet times). I took photos of graffiti making fun of Soviet symbols, with one revolutionary hero asking, “What have you given to Donetsk?” We passed by the Lenin monument and a column dedicated to Komsomols of the future, whose time capsules are to be opened in 2018 and 2020.
We also passed by a fountain that was under construction, where an acquaintance of Oksana’s was working as a construction employee. She called him in advance and asked if I could speak to him about current affairs. We entered the construction site, which was under a well-heated tent. I spoke with Yuri about what “the workers” were thinking about the Euromaidan in Kyiv. He said that workers like him thought very negatively about these protests. They were a farce, he suggested. He was greatly worried that Ukraine would suffer from a “breakup” (a “razkol”), which outside powers were encouraging and manipulating. After leaving the tent, Oksana noted that what Yuri had said was very revealing due to the context in which he had put the “breakup.” While in 2004, Donetskites would have blamed the “breakup” on forces within Ukraine (like nationalists from western Ukraine), this time, it was outsiders (the EU, the US, Russia, etc.). What I understood from our brief interview was that the Maidan was far from the realities of Donetsk, Kharkiv, and other eastern cities, where economic problems were far more urgent, and not being addressed.
At one point, while walking past the polytechnic institute’s campus, I told Oksana that we needed to know more about these “titushki.” Oksana earlier had said that, in comparison to 2004, the Euromaidan protests here have not met aggressive responses from other city residents. The only people causing trouble have been the “titushki” residing in the city’s working-class outskirts. Thus, I thought it was important to find out what motivated these aggressive responses. Oksana said that it was obvious why – it was about survival. Young men who become “titushki” have no future here; working as hired thugs provides them with money they otherwise would never get. She gave an example of what she had heard from her 18 year-old son. Her son’s university classmate, a resident of one of the small towns (mistechky or gorodishki) outside Donetsk, had to leave school because his father hung himself over a debt of a mere 350 hryvnias.
While maybe it was an extreme case, Oksana saw it as an example of how desperate life was in not just Donetsk, but in the region. All over the Donetsk Region, these small towns have seen mines shut down, industries shut down. With no jobs, people have been leaving these small towns en masse. Sometimes they sell their apartments for dirt cheap prices. Often, they just abandon their homes. There are entire apartment buildings in these small towns that stand empty. They come to Donetsk, or they come to nearby Makeevka (where housing is less expensive), to live. So even 350 hryvnias can be a lot of money for these people. Another example Oksana gave of the poverty here: Enakievo, Yanukovych’s home town. It is so expensive to take a taxi that the taxi business there has very few customers. Taxi drivers thus multitask whenever they take passengers – delivering groceries as well as passengers, for instance.
Oksana took me to Donetsk National University, where I was to interview two people recommended by a friend: Yuri (age 21) and Sergei (age 33). Here, I got a completely different perspective on the Euromaidan movement. These were people who studied overseas, who were involved in civic organizations in Donetsk, and who had friends in the protest movement. Both saw the Euromaidan movement as a very positive movement. It was not about rescuing Ukraine from economic ruin through EU aid, but it was about being connected with a community that honors the law, that respects human rights. While they did have reservations about the far right’s presence in Kyiv events, they saw slogans like “Slava Ukraini!” as positive in that they could be generically applied to a number of heroes. They shared the protestors’ contempt for the current regime. They had their own disagreements with friends about the movement.
After the interview, Yuri recalled one guy coming up with the silly argument as to why the EU wasn’t needed: if you get caught with drugs or some other violation, you can always bribe a cop. There were others saying that these protests were a waste of time. What impressed me most was that these were Russian speakers (Yuri himself was born in Kazakhstan, and he was half-Russian), and these people saw the “European dream,” for whatever its faults, uniting Ukrainians.
Another striking detail: Sergei pointing out eastern Ukraine’s industry being dependent on Kyiv on western and central Ukraine for financial support (the exact opposite of what Kate told me last week; when I pointed this out to Sergei, he said, “She’s lying, she’s from Party of Regions!” with a slight laugh).
My friend, along with Yuri and Sergei, walked with me to the bus stop. On the way there, we stopped by the Euromaidan on Shevchenko Square. There we saw about 30-40 people assembled, listening to speeches. We just happened to run into Ievhen (Zhenya), and Katya (Kate), who had been involved in the Euromaidan protests early on. Both agreed to an interview. So I said my goodbyes and went with Zhenya and Kate to a café across the street from the Shevchenko monument.
The café was small, just maybe 4-5 stools in front of a counter where one woman made coffee. I had heard from Sergei that Zhenya had been arrested by police and held for hours for questioning, so I was a little nervous about our meeting. Besides that, a Donetsk friend told me that, judging from the faces of those present, about half of the people gathered at Donetsk’s Euromaidan meetings tended to be SBU agents. So there was an element of danger, of intrigue. I asked both Zhenya and Kate to describe their involvement in the Euromaidan protests, to see how it all began.
Zhenya took part in his own self-made Euromaidan protest the night of November 21. He’d heard about the EU deal in Vilnius falling apart, and he got on his bicycle and road out to the Shevchenko Square, where people happened to be gathered to observe the anniversary of the Ukrainian famine. He posted on Facebook that he was going. Eventually five people joined him. The Euromaidan in Donetsk grew over time. Sometimes they have had hundreds of people there. Kate and Zhenya talked about various events they conducted, including outdoor documentary films. They also made their own films, including one where the residents of Donetsk gave an address to the President of Ukraine for the New Year.
Zhenya stressed how important these gatherings were for him. He no longer felt alone. He no longer felt like he could do nothing. Rather than getting out of Donetsk (which had been one of his thoughts), he could stay here and make things better. People talked openly about abuses by the police. They talked about other acts of corruption taking place. Kate compared the Maidan here to being like “part of a family.” She noted one elderly woman recognizing her from Maidan gatherings, inviting her to her place, becoming friends with her. There have also been considerable problems with the police. Zhenya was taken in by the police from his house and interrogated for 2.5 hours about supposedly violating an underage girl. They eventually let him go, realizing that there had been a mistake made. (Sergei, who knew the story about Zhenya, said that the girl supposedly lived near them, but in fact a priest lived there, so even the victim had been made up.)
Then there were “titushki” who took Zhenya’s photo art from the Internet (which featured photos of himself) and put them on posters that suggested that Zhenya was homosexual. Kate also talked about problems with police harassment of journalists, as well as an incident where a woman threw eggs at a Euromaidan procession. Zhenya, when talking about why the Euromaidan movement was important to him, noted an incident when he was a teenager in Donetsk (about 15 years ago). He was involved in a foreign exchange program, AISEEC, and the AISEEC representative, a man from France, was in town visiting. At a restaurant, he made the mistake of smiling to these local guys, and they beat him up. For Zhenya, that kind of behavior – the rules of behavior of the gang – are unacceptable. This is about the “revolution of dignity,” I imagine.
Zhenya later took me to the bus station. On the way, we passed by a copy center and WiFi station where Euromaidan activists like him stopped by during their all-night demonstrations. As we neared the bus station, he told me that he’s heard from people remarks like, “It’s a great thing that you’re doing, but you’re wasting your time. It’s going to be like 2004.” (Zhenya, by the way, had been involved in the Orange Revolution in 2004 when he was in Kyiv.) I told him that there was a danger that others would manipulate events, namely the Svoboda party. Zhenya then described showing a short documentary film on the life of Martin Luther King. It was cold outside. There wasn’t much time to discuss it. But a couple of Svoboda members were there, and Zhenya asked them if maybe the African Americans fighting for their rights were like today’s Ukrainians. Was their campaign of non-violent resistance like ours? The two Svoboda members agreed. They, too, saw something similar with the Civil Rights Movement in the US.
I was nervous about conducting an interview like this, and so I was relieved when I got home. Still, I was greeted with what sounded like very bad news. On Channel Five, there was a story about a forthcoming storming of the Maidan by Berkut. I was in shock. On Facebook, people were talking about Alpha also being involved. To get over our anxieties, Dmytro and I decided to have a second bottle of horilka after dinner was over. We were up until about 3 a.m. While drinking, either Dmytro or I spilled horilka on my computer’s keyboard. The night passed. Nothing happened on the Maidan in Kyiv.
On January 16, I wound up being preoccupied with my own problems – finding a backup keyboard so I could do work on my computer, planning the last phase of the trip, and dealing with hostile trolls on my Facebook forum, “Euromaidan News in English.” Still, I managed to have a very long, interesting discussion with historian Volodymyr Nikol’s’kyi at the national university. We met at his office in the Department of the History of Ukraine. We didn’t talk about the Euromaidan movement. I was more interested in the history of the Donbass and the possibility of doing a new book on its post-World War II history, perhaps a book I could call “The Ukrainian East.”
Dr. Nikol’s’kyi gave me very interesting ideas about research I could do here. But most importantly, he stressed the misunderstood stereotypes about the region’s history. While Lviv was heavily influenced by Poland, and Donetsk was heavily influenced by Russia, it would be a mistake to claim that the Donbass is “Russian.” He noted the region’s Greek, German, Polish, Jewish, Tatar, Ukrainian, Serb, Jewish, and Roma populations. He talked about its religious diversity (noting in passing Akhmetov being a practicing Muslim). He talked about the university in Mariupol’ that has classes in Greek. Most importantly for me, he noted the significance of Ukrainians and Poles relocated here after World War II, who worked in the mines (Poles from Upper Silesia, Ukrainians forced out of Poland during Operation Vistula in 1947). There was a friend of his, a western Ukrainian, a “Banderite” who’d been imprisoned in the gulags, exiled, who wound up resettling in Donetsk. When he decided to return to western Ukraine after 1991, he became bitterly disappointed, a mood reflected in a letter he wrote to Dr. Nikol’s’kyi before he died. “I’m an Easterner (skhidniak),” he said, referring to the locals’ refusal to accept him.
Dr. Nikol’s’kyi noted western Ukrainians who, in Donetsk, became Russian patriots, and Russians who became Ukrainian patriots. Donetsk admittedly has the stereotype of being a city of “banditism,” and some of what Dr. Nikol’s’kyi (born 1946) remembered of Donetsk reflected this. There were school classmates who were sent to prison; one classmate had stabbed a prosecutor to death. Gangs from different settlements (poselky) making up cities like Donetsk and Makiivka fought each other in groups of up to 100 guys, using all kinds of weapons. But it was also a region that raised future Ukrainian dissidents Oleksa Tykyi and Vasyl’ Stus. The university’s department teaches exclusively in Ukrainian, while communicating informally in Russian. While Lvivians speak Ukrainian with lots of Polish borrowings, the Ukrainian used officially here is closer to the “real” Ukrainian, though they also have problems of mixing in Russian words (“surzhyk,” as they call this sort of dialect).
What I think was important about meeting Dr. Nikol’s’kyi and Oksana was seeing this other Donetsk not really discussed, the Donetsk of progressive-thinking intellectuals, critically-thinking professionals, who want a better future for this region, as well as the many desperate “ordinary” people just trying to make ends meet, not terribly preoccupied with politics or high culture or the “Ukrainian national idea.” Most importantly for me, this was not the “bandit” Donetsk stereotyped elsewhere (thus leading, for instance, to Oksana encountering people from other regions who, when hearing that she was from Donetsk, started to guard their purses more carefully).
As I wrap up my visit to Donetsk, I hope that I am not idealizing it, claiming it to be a potential recruiting ground for Euromaidan supporters. Still, the Euromaidan activists in Kyiv at least have the chance to engage with many from a region that looks on events in the capital with suspicion.
After I bought a new keyboard at an El Dorado store, I came home to rest and mull over travel plans. Should I go to Kharkiv and interview one Trotskyite who had emailed me? Should I try the coal miners again? Or maybe I had enough material to work with for now? But then I started reading the news on Facebook. The Supreme Rada had passed a number of laws in dubious fashion, not just the budget, but also a series of laws limiting freedom of speech and assembly, threatening a number of fines and even prison sentences for things even I, a foreigner, probably had done at one time or another on the Maidan, or on Facebook. People talked about a return to the USSR. There was even one Donetsk friend who said it was a return to the 1930s.
My reactions? At first, I was stunned. Then this sense of dread and depression set in. Then came fear. I felt like I should stay at home in Donetsk. I feared going to Kyiv, but I had to go there for January 18 and 19, my last two days in Ukraine. Friends on Facebook warned of arrests. One friend said he thinks there will be dead bodies.
That night, after we drank a few rounds of horilka, Dmytro served up a very gory film about the Russian civil war that featured one “bourgeois” woman literally being fed into the belly of a railroad locomotive engine, kicking and screaming as she went to her death. Then there was the blood and gore in an Andrzej Wajda film on the 1920 battle for Warsaw between Poles and Reds (Soviets, including Poles themselves). Dmytro and I stayed up that night until about 2, then we gave up and went to bed. On our minds was the Maidan – might it become something like Tiananman Square the next morning?