2015 08 24 donbas kuromiya

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The current war in the Donbas is at first sight difficult to comprehend. Nearly every Western report describes it as being fought between the Ukrainian military (and volunteers from among supporters of Ukrainian independence) and pro-Russian separatists (abetted directly, if surreptitiously, by the Russian government). There is an element of truth in this picture. Moscow’s denial notwithstanding, this is also Russia’s war against Ukraine: the Russian military are intervening directly in the conflict in support of the separatists. Yet it is not at all clear whether the pro-Russian militancy of the Donbas is as entrenched as is being reported. Without Russia’s direct support, the Donbas separatists are likely to lose quickly to the Ukrainian forces. Certainly the Donbas as a region has never been truly loyal to any government or ideology. This will pose a difficult problem for both Kiev and Moscow to deal with, however the conflict may end.

The Donbas as a supremely Ukrainian land

The political militancy of this Ukrainian-Russian borderland has long frightened many a politician. Lev Trotsky once said of the Donbas, “One can’t go to the Donbas without a [political] gas mask.” The coaldust-blackened faces of the Donbas workers have long symbolized the intractableness of politics in the region. In 1917–1921, the years of revolutionary upheaval and ensuing civil war, the Donbas changed hands many times. None of the political parties and regimes involved (the Communists, the anti-Communist Whites, the Ukrainian nationalists of various kinds) ever gained traction there. In 1918, in disapproval of the newly independent Ukrainian government, Communists in eastern Ukraine separated their land and the surrounding industrial regions into the “Donets-Krivoi Rog Soviet Republic,” a move similar to today’s separatism in eastern Ukraine. There is little evidence that then as now the new republic enjoyed the widespread support of the Donbas people: the Republic, like today’s Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, was created from above and proclaimed as “Soviet” (“People’s”). At the time, in 1918, the Communist leader Vladimir Lenin took issue with the separatism of the east Ukrainian Bolsheviks: he saw the Republic as weakening Ukraine by depriving the latter of a “proletarian base.” Lenin thereby acknowledged the Donbas to be part of Ukraine. Lenin’s judgment is understandable: however Russified culturally and linguistically the Donbas may have become, ethnic Russians have never accounted for a majority in the Donbas either before or since. The Donbas was and is predominantly Ukrainian.

Lenin’s intervention did not lead to peace, however. Throughout the Communist era, the Donbas, a huge industrial center of mining and metallurgy, remained Moscow’s problem child. As before the revolution, it continued to be a magnet for refugees and fugitives because of its constant need for people willing to engage in hard and dangerous labor. Whoever had reason to flee (from political persecution or economic hardships, for instance) fled there and found refuge under ground, literally and figuratively. The Donbas was a land of refuge and freedom. After the Second World War, Ukrainian partisans who were unable to escape to the West, were advised to go to the Donbas and hide there. At the time of the anti-cosmopolitan campaign in Stalin’s last years, it attracted Jews who saw the Donbas as freer than elsewhere. (One of those who went to the Donbas at the time was the father of the Israeli politician Natan Shransky: unable to work in Odesa because of anti-Semitism, he was told to “Try your luck in Stalino [today’s Donetsk].” Like Siberia, however, the Donbas was also a penal colony. The grueling heavy labor characteristic of industrial regions made it a convenient dumping ground for undesirable political individuals and groups. Thus, the Donbas, like the Gulag, became a place where illicit political ideas spread widely.

The Donbas was also a democratizing place. During World War Two, under German occupation, Ukrainian nationalists sympathetic to the fascist ideas of Benito Mussolini or Francisco Franco trekked from the western regions to the east, to the Donbas, to buy the hearts and minds of its population. They were rejected by the local people, and some even ended up supporting a democratic Ukraine. This is what, for example, Ievhen Stakhiv, said of his experience in the Donbas. Stakhiv, who was active until quite recently in the Ukrainian diaspora community in the New York area, remembered his experience quite fondly. Later, during the Brezhnev era, before the Solidarity movement in Poland, the Donbas became a very important center for the independent (non-Soviet) trade union movement (notably Volodymyr Klevanov). The Donbas also produced a number of important Soviet freedom fighters. The Ukrainian poet Vasyl’ Stus was one of them. Stus died in a Russian labor camp in 1985. (His commemorative plaque installed in 2001 at the Donetsk State University was recently removed by anti-Ukrainian forces.) In 1991, the overwhelming majority (more than 83 percent) of the Donbas population supported the independence of Ukraine, believing that they would be better off without Moscow. An independent Ukraine has proved more disappointing than satisfying. Hence widespread anger in the Donbas.

This does not necessarily mean that the Donbas population is pro-Russian. Although today many may consider Russia to be more promising than Ukraine, tomorrow they may think otherwise. In spite of strident political rhetoric, Russian-Ukrainian ethnic and linguistic issues never played and do not play any major role in Donbas politics. In many respects the people of the Donbas are behaving like the old Ukrainian Cossacks, who originally formed in the “wild field” of the Muscovite-Polish-Ottoman borderlands in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, where they sought to find freedom and fortune. Depending on changing political situations, they allied with any one of these powers to safeguard their existence and well-being. Indeed, their pragmatic, temporary alliance with the Czar of Muscovy against Poland in the mid-seventeenth century ended with the Donbas and its surrounding regions falling into the hands of Moscow. Political pragmatism, or “unprincipledness” from different perspectives, died hard in this border region. The testimony of Ivan Maistrenko is instructive. Maistrenko worked in the Donbas in the 1920s despaired of the Donbas workers who, according to him, had “no sense of the Ukrainian nation”: they would say, “Well, if nothing comes of the All Russian party, let’s try the Ukrainian one”. Ten years later, ordered to go back to work in the Donbas, Maistrenko categorically refused, dismissing the Donbas as a “culturally joyless province”. 70 or 80 years later, after the independence of Ukraine, many political workers felt the same way about the Donbas workers.

At any rate, in the rough world of the Cossacks, democratic and egalitarian principles were not necessarily unfamiliar. Certainly they provided for the founding ideals of the modern, independent Ukrainian state to be distinguished from “autocratic Russia” and “aristocratic Poland.” In this particular sense of anti-metropolitan and rough egalitarian ethos and direct participation in the political process, the Donbas, in spite of its allegedly “pro-Russian” orientation, appears supremely Ukrainian.

This is a sort of paradox in Ukrainian history. Yet one needs to take this paradox seriously. Some prominent Ukrainian intellectuals now note that Ukraine will be better off without the Donbas (and Crimea). I am afraid that they are short-sighted and miss the historical links between the Donbas region and modern Ukraine. Such a view is also irresponsible, because we don’t know that the Donbas people as a whole are separatist. I don’t think they are. Dismissing the Donbas such a way (as a trouble maker) is avoiding the political problem of Ukrainian nation-building.

Why?  This point of the Donbas as a land of freedom inimical to central power poses the critical question of the “state” and “nation-building” in Ukrainian history. The modern Ukrainian national ideology was overwhelmingly “populist,” as much as it was based on this idealization of the Cossack movement’s rebellious, populist, and democratic nature. (This point also applies to Galicia where the Cossack movement really did not affect.) The most famous Ukrainian historian and statesman Mykhaylo Hrushevsky was a very good example. He and others emphasized the free and autonomous existence of the common people over the construction of a powerful, centralized state: “the people” mattered to them more than did “the state.” It is not that Ukraine did not produce political thinkers who emphasized the “state-building” of Ukraine (the conservative В’ячеслав Липинський, for example, who joined the Skoropadsky government that in April 1918 overthrew the government of independent Ukraine headed by Hrushevsky.). Yet, characteristically, in today’s Ukraine Hrushevsky is far more strongly admired than Lypynsky. At any rate, the historical weakness (or de-epmhasis) of nation-building and state-building contrasts sharply with the almighty state of Russia which appears to pre-exist “society.” Even Russian liberalism failed when it came to Ukraine. Liberal politician Piotr Struve simply could not imagine a Ukraine separate from Russia. Another liberal politician and historian Pavel Miliukov was similar. In his case, in the 1930s, in exile, he came to accept Stalin as the defender of Russia’s state interests, the unity of “Russia” (which in his view included Ukraine).

Today’s Ukraine is a young nation and its nation- and state-building process is not an easy or short process. Yet one has to see that there is no fundamental contradiction among democracy, conflict, freedom, and nation- and state-building. If anything, Ukraine’s tradition of freedom and democracy, however messy it may be, should be an advantage rather than a disadvantage in comparison with Russia’s tradition of autocracy. Ukraine seems far ahead of Russia in this critical respect.

The Yanukovych Phenomenon

As independent Ukraine became free or at least freer than during the Soviet period, the Donbas no longer needed to be the place of freedom. It is just one, however fractious, region of a new country. Yet, unlike Ukraine’s western and central regions, the Donbas is a highly developed industrial center which generates substantial national wealth. For good reason do many of the rich Ukrainian men (including the richest man in Ukraine, Renat Akhmetov) hail from the Donbas.

The Donbas, commoners and oligarchs alike, adjusted to the new political reality of the post-Soviet era. In spite of occasional cries for separatism, the Donbas as a whole began to think of its future in terms of an independent Ukraine. It did not reject ties with Russia for good reason (everyone wants good neighborly relations!). Still the Donbas as a whole shifted its political strategy. After Ukraine’s independence, the Donbas began to act quite uncharacteristically: it sought to take over the central power of Kiev. This can be called the Yanukovych phenomenon.

Viktor Yanukovych nearly succeeded in stealing power in 2004. And in 2010, though thwarted by the Orange Revolution of 2004-5, Yanukovych succeeded in elections to the office of president. Moscow was behind all these maneuvers. As long as the Donbas people believed that their interests and voices were reflected in national politics, they appeared to be satisfied with the Yanukovych phenomenon and demonstrated little interest in separatism. Even when Yanukovych was ousted by the Euromaidan movement in February 2014, the Donbas population did not entertain separatism seriously. It remained merely an unrealistic possibility. In an odd sense, the Yanukovych phenomenon signified the beginning of the integration of the Donbas into the Ukrainian body politic, however tainted it may have been by Russia’s influence. It was Russia’s military intervention, not Euromaidan, that changed the political scene completely.

Russia’s War Responsibility

It would be patently wrong to claim that there are no pro-Russian or anti-Ukrainian sentiments in the Donbas. There are, just as there are strong pro-Ukrainian and anti-Russian sentiments. What sentiments dominate the Donbas today?  How about tomorrow?  No one knows for sure. Like other regions in Ukraine and elsewhere, the Donbas has its own identities (and not just one identity). Many scholars have expressed many views about them. However independent and anti-metroplitan Donbas identities may be, there is no evidence that they were and are incompatible with the independent state of Ukraine. Certainly, that was the case in 1991 and even in 2013. There is no reason why the Donbas could not have managed its anger and frustration within the framework of an independent Ukraine. The war situation in the Donbas was created by Moscow’s military intervention. To be sure, there would have been turmoil and bitter clashes, but the population would have sought compromise rather than war. Russia’s military intervention created a political option that until that point did not realistically exist even in this border region of Ukraine.

On false charges that ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking people were being persecuted, in March-April 2014 Moscow invoked military force to control the Donbas, although Moscow denies to this day the presence of military forces of the Russian Federation. Moscow had already grabbed Crimea a month earlier using military forces under the cover of local volunteer forces.

President Vladimir Putin’s interventions may appear to be spur-of-the-moment decisions. In light of Russia’s and the Soviet Union’s past military interventions, these recent cases were almost certainly planned, at least as a possible scenario for creating a greater Russian sphere of influence or expanding its imperial reach. Putin’s use of the old historical concept of “New Russia” to justify his military intervention is no coincidence. There is reason to suspect that at least two forms of internal subversion had been active for some time. One is the practice of offering Russian passports to residents of the border regions, including the Donbas. This form of subversion has long been used widely by the Russian and Soviet governments as a covert expansion of territory. In the event of necessity, Russia claimed and still claims protection of its citizens to justify military intervention. A second form of covert subversion is the use of covert “agents of influence” in foreign countries. One may call them political “sleeper cells.” Russia and the Soviet Union have traditionally been extremely adept at this game. Ukraine is a young yet unstable country with an unpredictable future. With Ukrainian borders virtually open, it would be relatively easy for Russia to recruit individuals to work in the interests of Moscow, the former capital of the Soviet Union. Nostalgia and the desire for stability are another important factor. After all, the majority of the Ukrainian population (including all current and past presidents of Ukraine) were born under Soviet rule. Also important are threat, blackmail, and other unspeakable matters that are stock in trade in this business worldwide.

President Putin justifies his war of camouflage and obfuscation by Russia’s needs for national security. Yet Ukraine, just like Russia, has the right to national security. Russia violated Ukraine’s right by asserting its own right unilaterally. This, too, is not new. Russia still openly blames Poland for allegedly causing World War Two by not conceding to Moscow’s demands. Moscow conveniently forgets that it was Moscow and Berlin conspiring to destroy Poland that started World War Two. Certainly Russia is behind the current war in the Donbas.

Crimea, the Donbas and the “Russian Problem”

Moscow’s use of security issues is more rhetoric than substance. To be sure, national security is a serious matter. Russia’s concern about the expansion of the Western world to its borders is also understandable. If there is mistrust between the West and Russia, both sides are responsible. The selfish behavior of the West in the international arena helped to alienate Russia, but Russia’s selfish behavior was at least equally responsible for alienating not only the West but also those former satellite countries Moscow once controlled.

By all standards Moscow has its own problems that the West has largely solved. For one, President Putin still believes that Moscow has the right to intervene to “protect” the Russian-speaking people on the Eurasian continent, in other words occupy and annex lands such as Crimea and the Donbas. Such an imperialistic claim is utterly anachronistic. Does England have the right to intervene in New England in the USA?  Does Mexico have the right to intervene in the states of New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, or California in the United States?  The British scholar Timothy Garton Ash reports that in 1994 while attending a round table in St. Petersburg, Russia, he started to doze off when a “short, thickset man with a rather ratlike face” suddenly woke him up. “Russia,” he said, “had voluntarily given up ‘huge territories’ to the former republics of the Soviet Union, including areas ‘which historically have always belonged to Russia,’ ” presumably Crimea, eastern Ukraine, northern Kazakhstan, and the like. According to this man, “Russia could not simply abandon to their fate those ‘25 million Russians’ who now lived abroad. The world had to respect the interests of the Russian state ‘and of the Russian people as a great nation.’ ” The name of this man was Vladimir Putin.

Do the Russian people think likewise?  If the polls are credible (one is not entirely sure in light of the state control of the mass media), the majority of them do. This also seems anachronistic. If Germany recovered the Sudeten land or Kaliningrad (formerly Königsberg) by covert military operations, would the German people rejoice?  One can be reasonably sure that the German population as a whole wouldn’t. Would the Polish people rejoice if Warsaw grabbed eastern Galicia by covert military actions?  Very unlikely. In the course of the twentieth century with two World Wars Western countries had outgrown imperialist follies. Apparently Russia has not. Here is a problem over which both the Russian government and the Russian people have to ponder seriously.

The Future of the Donbas and Ukraine

No one knows where the Donbas is heading. As with many similar geopolitical questions, the Donbas question may be “solved” by great-power politics with no or little regard for Ukraine or the Donbas. Whatever the case, it is Moscow’s military intervention that created the Donbas nightmare. Many people in the Donbas testify that the whole military conflict is simply incomprehensible and even absurd. There is a reason for this: it was secretly engineered and cleverly camouflaged by outsiders.

True, the Donbas has long been a place of anti-metropolitan defiance. It has always fiercely resisted outside authority. The motto of the Donbas (taken from a poem by the local collier-poet Pavel Besposhchadnyi of the World War Two era) is “No one has forced the Donbas to its knees. No one can!” Yet, in 1991 and thereafter, the Donbas began to see its future within an independent, free Ukraine, because it saw no alternative. Moscow reversed this tumultuous progression by force. By doing away with the Ukrainian-Russian border in the Donbas region, Moscow ended up resurrecting the legendary and messy “wild field.” Small segments of the Donbas population, assisted and abetted by disguised Russian soldiers and secret agents, began to take up arms against Kiev.

Russian poet Nikolai Domovitov, who lived in the Donbas in the 1950s and 1960s, wrote of the Donbas:

Neither Ukraine nor Rus’
I fear you, the Donbas, I fear you.
Domovitov’s fear proved prescient.

Did Moscow really want to occupy this feared region when it invaded eastern Ukraine?  Does it still?  Moscow released the fearsome genie of the Donbas and may regret it, because whatever their rhetoric may be today, the Donbas separatists may not accept Moscow’s autocratic rule tomorrow. Akhmetov himself seems to be hedging his bets, supporting openly neither Kiev nor the separatists. The Donbas population as a whole will not accept Moscow’s rule. This will work in favor of Kiev. Yet can Kiev win the hearts and minds of the Donbas population?  Moscow could withdraw and end the war if it wants to, but much of the rest will fall on the shoulders of Kiev.

There are already signs that Moscow’s scheme on “New Russia” is unraveling. Shortly after US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Russia for talks with Putin on 12 May, reports on the demise of “New Russia” began to emerge. Could it be possible that Russia and US had agreed on some undisclosed deal (regarding Crimea, for example)?  Is this apparent concession a sinister political ploy?  Whatever the case, abandoning the Donbas from Ukraine poses no political or intellectual challenge. The real challenge is to defend it as an integral part of Ukraine.

Provided that the Donbas will remain in Ukraine when the war ends, one will face the task of dealing with crime and punishment as well as forgiveness and reconciliation. Ukraine, like many other countries, has already too many difficult tasks at hand. It is still struggling with the questions of the Holodomor, World War Two, and other decades-old events. Yet it is possible for Ukraine to find a common ground without reaching a final consensus. More than seventy years ago, for example, Ukrainians and Poles killed each other in Volhynia. Ukraine and Poland still disagree deeply on this and many other historical issues. Yet Ukraine and Poland have managed to find much common ground in their efforts to build a better future.

However terrible the Donbas may appear at first sight, it has much to offer for the future of Ukraine as much as it challenges not merely Kyiv’s power but also the outside powers such as Moscow’s. The political pragmatism, militancy, and independent-minded of the Donbas could provide a strong antidote to Moscow’s autocratic and centralized power.

The economic task the Donbas faces is also daunting. Although its heavy industry generates enormous wealth, its inefficient and outdated factories and mines also consume a huge chunk of Ukraine’s national budget in the form of subsidy. It has to face a long and painful transformation from industrial to post-industrial life.

The Donbas is likely to continue to disturb and baffle the rest of Ukraine and the world. Yet it also has much potential to help make Ukraine a vibrant and democratic state. It is therefore vitally important for the rest of Ukraine not to reject it but to embrace it.


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This article is a revised version of the lecture delivered by Professor Kuromiya at the cultural forum Donkult (Lviv, June 16, 2015). We are grateful to the Center for Urban History of East-Central Europe for the permission to publish this text.

Hiroaki Kuromiya is Professor of History at Indiana University (USA), he is a specialist in Soviet and Ukrainian history and the author of “Freedom and Terror in the Donbas: A Ukrainian-Russian Borderland, 1870s-1990s” (1998).