The island of Donetsk

Donetsk is suffering: without war but without peace, not part of Russia but not part of Ukraine

There are things that, once they have happened, never end. You cannot hide from them, just as you cannot hide from yourself. Donetsk is my little motherland; she will resonate in me forever just like a long, penetrating note of music. Wherever I may live, whatever I may be thinking about, whoever may be around, the smell of the Donetsk steppe bursts into my dreams and brings tears to my eyes.

Donetsk is not going through the best of times. It seems that these grey times – without war but without peace, not part of Russia but not part of Ukraine – will drag on for some time. Donetsk cannot be part of the Russian Federation, but Russia was able to rip it away from Ukraine, and it did so by spilling so much blood that it will take a long time for it to dry on the streets and squares of this place.

People’s lives were torn apart. For those who fled the city, leaving behind their homes, nearest and dearest, everything that made up their lives, and for those who, for various reasons, stayed here. The old way of life was destroyed. It is clear that nothing will grow on these ruins for years to come. Even those who believe in the future of unrecognised republics have less and less energy. It turns out that it is a lot easier to destroy than to create.

My city was cut off from Ukraine and then cut off from the civilised world. Donetsk has been turned into a parallel universe where by definition the laws of physics do not apply. The island of Donetsk is now floating on the waves of time and nobody knows where to swim or where they will end up.

I have spoken a lot with those who stayed and I may be wrong about some things, but I feel ever more clearly that it is the women who hold the fate of my city in their hands. It is precisely thanks to their ability to stare into the abyss that the Donetsk I know and love is still alive. Here are several real stories that may help you to catch a glimpse of life inside the shrivelled space of war.

Feast in the time of cholera

Olga tells me that in today’s Donetsk it is one long holiday, but an unhealthy one. Every day there is some kind of official celebration – at schools, kindergartens, NGOs. The authorities are doing everything they can to distract people from the real state of affairs. Feast in the time of cholera. What’s more, the feast is in the centre, while the cholera, as per usual, is in the suburbs. The centre does not know, and does not want to know, what is going on out there. Many of the more remote suburbs have practically been wiped off the face of the earth.

Recently, fewer people in uniform have been seen around here, perhaps a sign of the times. Olga, an educated and intelligent person, goes to the theatre regularly. At the end of September, she went to the premiere of a play. She noticed that there was hardly anyone in the audience in uniform. Before, the entire theatre would have been dressed up in camouflage.

There are fewer Russians in town these days. However, there are unfortunately more and more locals wandering around with weapons. Among them are many who were bombed out of their homes and those who have no other way to feed their families and are forced to serve at Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) checkpoints.

Next, it is impossible to make any money these days. Everyone is disappointed with everything. This is not just depression; people are in a state of stupor. Whereas before they were busy making plans, now they can only dream of a time when there will be no shooting and there will be food on the table. Olga does not believe in the DNR. She thinks that it has been dreamt up for the benefit of certain people. She really wants to live in a country, any country, that is governed by the rule of law.

She thinks that locals have become the hostages of all sides of the war. Not knowing where else to turn, some are daring to hope for oligarch Rinat Akhmetov to return to Donetsk. They say that if he returns, then the city will survive, but Olga does not believe this either. Happy and lively by nature, she has changed significantly over the past 18 months. Earlier it was difficult to find someone more optimistic than her. But now things are different. When talking about Ukraine, she repeats: “Nobody wants us around”.

She told me that in June the Ukrainian army bombed her flat. Knowing her pro-Ukrainian views, I believe her. All the more so as she does not make a huge drama out of this; it is just a fact. She and her husband lived for many years in the suburb of Oktyabrskaya, very little of which is now left. They were both at work when someone phoned her husband and told him that there were flames coming out of the windows of their flat.

The heat was such that even the plaster melted. When Olga peeked around the front door, she could barely hold back a scream. Everything was black and there was a terrible smell. Through the bathroom door she noticed something strange – the toilet had gone completely black. She walked over and looked around. She could not believe that Finnish plumbing could be made to look like that. She poked at it with her shoe and it fell apart. With an aching heart, she looked around at what had previously been her home, and tried to reassure herself that all this could be repaired. That is, until she saw the concrete slab in the front room ceiling cracking and falling apart, sprinkling dust everywhere.The DNR authorities offered them places in a hostel which was not fit for human habitation. Friends gathered round and helped. Lately, Olga has been living in someone else’s flat and she does not believe that she and her husband will ever have their own place again.

“My husband worked down the mine for 40 years”, she says, tiredly. “We built this flat with our own hands, you could say. The mine gave us the money, and our husbands would work on building this flat in their spare time. Now we have been left with nothing overnight. It is hard to be left with nothing at the age of 50. And the worst of it is that we simply do not have enough of a lifetime left to start again”.

When I ask her how she has coped with all this, she smiles: “It’s been alright for me. I have a woman’s fortitude, but my husband, of course, has taken it very hard”.

Through the looking glass

Pensioner Svetlana Stepanovna, who has lived in the city all her life, has stayed on because she cannot imagine life without her beloved job. Over the past 18 months she has gone several times to other parts of Ukraine, but always returned. Every time she comes back she goes through a difficult period of adaptation which never used to happen before. “I cannot accept what is going on around me”, she says.

What makes it easier to bear is the thought that since the early 1990s – i.e. for all 25 years of independence – she knew for certain that Russia would try to take a piece of Ukrainian territory. And she was right. There is a simple explanation for this foresight. In the early 1990s, she read an article titled “Hegel’s Prognosis”, which set out a summary of the wars which Russia would start in the 1990s, after the collapse of the USSR. This work, written in the 1980s by Herman Dishkant, was never published in Russia for obvious reasons, but it did come out in Ukraine. “So that’s why I knew it would happen long before it started. I came to the conclusion that this is the cross I have to bear”.

Of course, just like anyone else in the Donetsk intelligentsia, she was not prepared for war. War is tough. You never know what tomorrow will bring. For example, once she came home from the market to find that after a shootout there were no windows left unbroken in her flat. A couple of days later, a shell fell on her dacha. For a while she had to stay with friends and relatives, but it is relatively easy to cope with material difficulties. She feels much worse that “we cannot defend our Ukraine”. She is sad that the war is dragging on and Donetsk is falling further and further into the abyss.

“It is clear for everyone that the people who have come to power would not have managed to achieve anything in life under normal circumstances. These rats have come out of their holes and now they rule us. This is not normal. We are living on the other side of the looking glass, in a sort of parallel world”.

But she understands that the Donbas has to go down this path because that is the history of the land. It was here that the Bolsheviks let Ukrainians starve. They put others in the Gulag. Thousands of settlers from Russia were brought there in their place, and for them this land was always foreign. In Soviet times, and after the collapse, the Donbas was deliberately Russified.

Stepanovna is dismayed by Ukrainian politics. “We have everything to be a great country. Everything! Except for our leaders who only think of themselves. We have never had a patriotic president. Our political life has always totally depended on Russia”.

She lives in a city of pensioners and invalids where nobody smiles. She recently went to the Philharmonic to hear Tchaikovsky’s First Quartet – there was a good crowd there, mostly pensioners, but no-one looked very happy. Everyone seemed depressed and tried not to look at one another. It was clear that anyone who stayed on here has nowhere else to go. It is difficult for a pensioner to rent an apartment in Ukraine and, at that age, to have your own place is much more important than when you’re younger”.

“I cannot face walking along the main streets any more”, she says. “There is destruction everywhere you look, traces left by tanks moving around, windows and shop-fronts boarded up crosswise. Empty streets. Although a lot of people have come back, city life is not the same any more. After nine in the evening, it’s deserted. Already an hour before curfew it is difficult to find a taxi anywhere outside the centre”.

“And just imagine”, she says, “right by the steps of the Solovyanenko National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre on Artem Street, they have put up a billboard with a portrait of Stalin! When I first saw it, I could not believe my eyes! And now what else can I do but get used to it. We have quite a few such portraits in the centre. One of them says: “Our cause is just, the enemy will be defeated, victory will be ours”. How is a normal person like me supposed to understand all this?”

A baby boom

I meet up with Alice at Kyiv station. She is a smart and good woman. Before the war she was one of the best therapists in the city. Throughout her life she has had an incredible passion to develop herself in her field. Patients would go to her in droves, both during working hours and after. She still works in Donetsk, treating people, even though she has not been paid for several months, and the prospects of getting paid in the future are pretty remote.

“Move to Kyiv!”, I tell her, thinking that this shouldn’t be too difficult. “I can’t”, she shrugs.

She talks of her old blind grandmother who point blank refuses to leave her house. Alice cannot leave her there alone, but there is no-one to leave her with. Moreover, Alice herself has recently become a grandmother and she cannot leave these “young parents” who are only just getting used to things. I know of dozens of such cases, but all I can do is shrug.

And then quite suddenly Alice says that she always dreamt of getting out of Donetsk. She moved here some time ago with her parents when she was already grown-up and she never particularly liked it here. When she got a job at the hospital after settling in, she refused to take bribes from patients. She just felt embarrassed at taking money for work that the state paid her to do anyway, even if not very much. So she continued to treat people, declining bribes. Then she was summoned by the boss (even in a private conversation, she would not tell me the person’s name) who instructed her to either act like everyone else or resign.

“So this is how I started to learn about Donetsk”, she smiles. “For a long time I looked into the rules and did not understand straightaway that people are different here, and the rules are different here too”.

Many things like this meant that she never really felt at home in Donetsk. But somehow she grew into it. Through her children, grandchildren, the elderly, all her life. She could have left, but it would have been incredibly difficult. And there is a solution to everything, except she just could not leave a stubborn blind grandmother who did not want to go.

“But you could persuade her?”, I say to Alice, especially as she is a specialist and, no doubt, could find a job here.

It turns out that Alice recently had an interview in another of the Ukrainian regional centres. She was told that a specialist like her would surely become a millionaire. She smiles and says that she would go but what’s the point of thinking about this now? It’s simply impossible.

“So, how is life there?”, I ask. “Difficult? Sad?” “You know, the funny thing is that there’s a baby boom in Donetsk now”, she laughs. “There are women getting pregnant who would never have thought it, at their age! Even those who were trying to get pregnant for decades. Young and old, healthy and sick. It’s unheard of”.

“Why now, all of a sudden?”, I wonder. “With the war and all that…” “Out of fear! Life is hard and stressful. People have nothing else to do. Sex is the only joy in life. The main one, you know? Love, only love and nothing else. And women are responsible for love, so they give birth…”

I realise that I could write more. The lives of my interviewees are never-ending, like any real life. They do not fit in the lines of one essay. The island of Donetsk floats somewhere over there, in the autumnal dusk, and my heart bleeds because all of us here have a long, cold winter coming. But thank God that there is love that never dies, and women who are stronger than men.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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