How the authorities left the Ukrainians of Donbas to survive on themselves

How the authorities left the Ukrainians of Donbas to survive themselves

[dropcap]E[/dropcap]lena Styazhkina is a writer, Doctor of Historical Sciences and Professor at the Donetsk National University, who became a sensation of the Ukrainian TEDx (global discussion platform) Event, which was held in Kyiv on November 1st. Styazhkina spoke about the life in occupied Donbas and about those 20% of Ukrainians who fight against their country and got standing ovations for her speech.

Even before, in April this year, Styazhkina received one of the most prestigious literary awards in Russia – the Russian Award. In her acceptance speech, she said that “the Russian language in Ukraine doesn’t need any military protection”. ‘I was very scared’, she remembers. ‘At that time I already understood what was going to happen in Donetsk and Luhansk, but I still got standing ovations after those words.‘

Now she calls herself a Russian-speaking Ukrainian nationalist and confesses that she started feeling about Ukraine as a true homeland only in March. ‘You don’t know whether you love the air, until you realize you can’t breathe without it,’ she explains.

[dropcap]D[/dropcap]onbas didn’t want to be a part of Russia. It’s just that even the pro-Ukrainian citizens of the region got offended, when they were not recognized as a part of the conflict during the negotiations in Minsk. My associates and I conducted a survey of political preferences in Donbas in March-April this year. We were frightened by the picture drawn by the local media and wanted to know the truth. So 67% of the 4,000 respondents supported Ukraine and only 33% spoke for the annexation to Russia or another country.

This ratio of 67 to 33% is still there. The problem is that those 33% are louder and they are the ones making the image. There are, of course, supporters of federalization among the majority as well. But it is rather unwitting – if you ask them what they mean by federalization, they just repeat such Kremlin ideas like “we should have more rights” and “we should be able to speak Russian”.

[quote align=’left’]Donbas is offended with Ukraine not because of the shootings – everybody understands that they’re part of war – but because the special status is quite hypocritical.[/quote]People have been hypnotized by the shaman’s drum of the Russian media playing all those ritual dances – “Great Russia”, “Russians do not give up”, “Putin is a hero” – for over 20 years. It was like the retransmitting towers from the novel “Prisoners of Power” [or “Inhabited Island”] by Russian Sci-Fi writers Strugatsky brothers. Donetsk people have been living among the constantly repeated labels.

Donbas is offended with Ukraine not because of the shootings – everybody understands that they’re part of war – but because the special status is quite hypocritical. If Donbas is an occupied territory, it should be officially recognized as such. People should be evacuated and employed, special aid programs should be created, and it should be explained to people what is going on and what to expect. But we are just abandoning all those teachers, doctors and kindergartens, leaving them to survive on their own.

If the government was fair, it would admit its inability to help the people in Donetsk. Then they would have a choice of either staying and suffering from the occupation or seeking help from outside the region. But we call them traitors instead. When Yuriy Lutsenko (the leader of the party “Petro Poroshenko’s Bloc”) suggests surrounding this territory with a wall, simply because the government is lacking the military power to save Donetsk people, this is just madness. But to make them responsible for that is even worse.

Donetsk is a bourgeois city; it is content, self-satisfied and sleeping. Social protests have no place in it. Nevertheless 3 thousand students went on the streets to demonstrate. And on the next day there were already 10 thousand people. This was not just huge for Donetsk; this was the first time so many people protested out of their own free will and not because they were made to.[quote align=’right’]One of the activists was killed during the demonstration on March 13th and it became clear that the police were on the terrorists’ side.[/quote]

They were threatened, called right wing extremists, but they demonstrated anyway. It was getting scarier each time. One of the activists was killed during the demonstration on March 13th and it became clear that the police were on the terrorists’ side. Then, on April 17th, people were afraid to bring their kids along and some put on bulletproof vests. Finally people were openly killed with knives, bats, and firecrackers on April 28th. The Russian media explained that they were Donbas people demonstrating for independence and being attacked by the right wing extremists. Somehow this lie got through to the Ukrainian media as well.

The referendum on the establishment of the Donetsk People’s Republic was held by the media not the citizens. The pictures of the waiting lines during the referendum were an artificial process of turning the silent majority of Donbas people into the supporters of DPR. There were indeed some queues at the poll site at 9 o’clock in the morning and that was what they showed on Ukrainian TV. But only a few remained there by noon. And as a result, only 20% of the Donbas population voted in the referendum. We asked the Ukrainian media to show the poll sites in the afternoon, but they said they were already done filming the referendum.

Not a single Ukrainian government ever tried to start a Ukrainian national-democratic project in Donbas. Working as a miner was very prestigious during the Soviet times, but this appreciation of work and the image of strong, hard-working men disappeared along with the Soviet Union. Local elites hadn’t been letting anyone onto their territory for the next 23 years. They didn’t allow anyone to speak about Ukraine maintaining this bright image of the soviet past and of Russia as a great power. It was their electoral strategy.

It seemed like Ukrainian spirit was awakening in Donbas after the Maidan. But before that could happen, a contradictory picture was immediately created – a picture of the Right Sector [right wing] extremists, fascists and zombies from the Western Ukraine, who came, all of a sudden, to kill the good guys from Berkut [former Ukrainian special Unit]. So you had to decide whether you were for the good guys or for the fascists? In no time Berkut turned into the holy archangel and Maidan into the infernal devilry, which could invade your home tomorrow.

It is this fear that throws you back to the ancient times, when you had to hunt every day. A sewage cover or a car becomes a part of nature; and there is no concept of property, hence no concept of stealing. Only the stronger one, a leader or a “god”, can stop the plunder, but you have to share with him or, in other words, to make a sacrifice. It’s an archaic order, a world without a future.

[quote align=’right’]The knowledge that Russia means nothing good is already there. These people want peace as much as all Ukrainians do.[/quote]As it turned out we are not immune from war. But we have a lot of clichés instead. “Our grandfathers fought” is a horrible notion, which makes people see the WWII as a football game between Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler. But war is nothing but death in reality.

Victory became a sacred concept for us. Kremlin and we played its game and it offered us a slogan: “Our grandfathers fought!”, which we gladly picked up: “Our grandfathers fought too!” And now we’ll fight each other till the complete division of the country, instead of agreeing with Europe and saying “Never again!” Had we been living with an understanding that war is hell for at least 5 years, it would have never come to this situation.

Even the most gullible people in Donbas are not stupid. They are no different than the rest of Ukrainian citizens. The knowledge that Russia means nothing good is already there. These people want peace as much as all Ukrainians do. If Russia doesn’t interfere, the majority of people in Donbas will support Ukraine. But it’s important to point out to these people that we understand that they’ve been lied to and confused. You are not traitors, and we are not threatening you; we are together and, even if we’re wrong at some point, it’s our country, and we’ll sort it out ourselves.

Today it is important to create Ukrainian information channels in Donbas. The experience during the German occupation shows that even spreading the propaganda flyers can influence the society’s willingness to change. We should be ashamed not to do it, especially now that we have all kinds of information technologies. Instead of charity sales, we’d better spread the information about the new law about the settlers or explain that the news about the crucified boy is made up by the Russian media.

5 Questions to Elena Styazhkina

Which event do you consider to be the most important in your life?

The birth of my children

What is your favorite city?

This question really hurts. I like Rome very much; I feel myself at home there from the first moment. But now to say that I love visiting Rome is like enjoying good restaurants while your friend is at war.

How do you get around the city?

Usually I take the subway, rarely a cab.

What is your subsistence level?

Under the good circumstances I can stay at home for a month. I don’t need money. I can eat apples and drink tea. I could get by with very little and just buy the cigarettes.

What do you wish for?

I want to return to Ukrainian Donetsk.


An interview with professor Elena Styazhkina published in “Novoe Vremya” [“New Times”].

Translated by Tetyana Birkadze. Photo by Tomas Rafa.

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