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The Place that Doesn’t Exist

As most of Ukraine goes to the polls, its breakaway region of Donbass remains a no man's land - caught between Russia and Ukraine, unable to determine its direction.

“We love our country and we’re ready to give our lives for it,” read a poster bearing the signature and the image of the recently assassinated leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko, past the checkpoint on the road to the city of Donetsk. “If only there was a country,” my driver said, deadpan. He said he found it harder to breathe after crossing to the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. I tried to understand what this self-proclaimed republic was, exactly, but it kept escaping me. 

Donetsk was built as Yuzovka (‘Hughesovka’), by the South Wales industrialist John Hughes, in the 19th century. It was renamed Stalino in 1924, and Donetsk in 1961. It looked pretty in the cold winter days of November. The first thing you notice when driving to the city across the checkpoints is that it’s still a mining town, as slag heaps kept appearing. Industrial development gave its identity to the Donets basin (Donbass in Russian, Donbas in Ukrainian) region and made it a land of migration. Explaining that the region used to be a “wild field,” a “no man’s land” attracting outsiders, the historian Hiroaki Kuromiya wrote in 1996: “What has defined Donbas politics was (and still is) a fierce spirit of freedom and independence. Independence did not preclude the possibility of a pragmatic alliance with foes and outsiders, a behaviour that often appears to be unprincipled, mercenary and lacking perspective. This spirit is a historical product.” These words resonate strangely today.

Metalworks and mines were the centre of the regional economy, and while the region suffered heavily from closures and mass unemployment in the 90’s, it became one of the battlegrounds of gangster capitalism during the transition era, with several of Ukraine’s most prominent oligarchs making their fortune in the region thanks to privatisation. In the aftermath of the Maidan protests, the region seceded and declared itself an independent state in May 2014. Since then, the self-proclaimed republic engaged in a bloody struggle with the Ukrainian government. Four years after its secession, the DNR held elections on 11 November 2018, which is what brought me to the city.

The first person I met in town, Elmira, a woman in her early twenties who was waiting for someone in Lenin square, by the DonMak (that’s how the MacDonalds was renamed after 2015), told me she didn’t have a local sim card yet: “I never got a Phoenix because you’re supposed to show your passport to get one, which was never the case with Ukrainian sims, and that felt weird.” Later I went to the Phoenix shop and showed my passport to get a sim. On the wall, an advert showed the territory covered by the Phoenix network, the Donetsk People’s Republic and the neighbouring, similarly-unrecognised Lugansk People’s Republic, also in the Donbass region. In the shop, they also sold phones allowing you to use two sim cards, a Ukrainian and a Phoenix one, according to which number you are dialling. It felt like an apt metaphor for a territory which seems to be stuck between different realities and different countries.

Some were keen to present the DNR to me as some sort of left-wing paradise. Journalist Rachit Romanov, a well-known face on the Republican TV channel Oplot, took me on a tour of the channel’s offices. He told me: “When Zakharchenko became head of the republic he took measures that the Communists would have taken, such as nationalisations, power to the people, and getting rid of oligarchs. Very rich people left and if they had stayed, they wouldn’t have been able to steal like they did before.” He continued: “The city and the republic remained without an elite. I like it. Because you can’t earn a billion cleanly anywhere, and certainly not in a former socialist republic. Here all the metallurgy and chemical plants depended on one person. Do you think that’s ok? We still have factories, some even work.”

But others felt that the left-wing ideals of the uprising, if there had ever been any, had been lost already. One morning I noticed a small gathering of old communists celebrating October Revolution Day in front of the huge statue of Lenin on Lenin Square. They told me the opposite of what Romanov had said. They felt used. After all, they had been very present in the early stages of local mobilisation for independence in Donetsk, and instrumental in gathering people for meetings in the effervescence that characterised the days after Maidan here, but later felt they had been pushed aside. Vladimir Taras, who was wearing a range of decoration on his military uniform, told me: “I asked MPs: why didn’t you pass a single law for the people? In the Soviet Union, at some stage, the government betrayed the people. They forgot about their mission to represent people. Here too a bourgeois oligarchy will take over.”

I drank ginger tea with François Mauld d’Aymée, a young Frenchman who moved to Donetsk a few years back, when many were leaving. He told me he loved the city, because it was a village, “like Montmartre at the turn of the 19th century, where composers would constantly bump into each other”. He was singing at the Philharmonic, getting an education in Russian music at a bargain. “Me, I quite like the curfew”, he said. “No one’s messing around at night. Here there’s no alcoholics, no drug addicts, no one engaging in mad rodeos, there’s none of these people who ruin other people’s lives. These measures might be a bit extreme but they’re quite successful. They prevent people from hurting themselves.” In fact, Donetsk might just have been his ideal place, one that could attract some European far-right supporters. It had few foreigners other than him. “Many troublesome things have disappeared, tourism, cosmopolitanism,” he said, smiling.

One evening I had a long ride across the city with Sergei, a taxi driver who showed me the neighbourhoods which were affected by the war, and the now empty oligarchs houses. He told me he and his wife had no choice but to stay because of elderly and sick relatives they could not take with them and wouldn’t leave behind. One has been sick and lying in bed since the start of the conflict, which means she hasn’t received her Ukrainian pension and hasn’t clocked anything of what has been happening. At the start of it all, Sergei used to worry when he was driving near soldiers, fearing they would take his car. “For a while I drank to relax. Now I go to the gym. Five years have passed in the fog. We don’t know where we’re going.”

I asked people whether they saw a future for DNR in Russia or in Ukraine. Aleksandr Afendikov, a former fighter who had been the mayor of Debaltsevo for a year, invited me to have tea in the discreet side room of a nice restaurant. “It’s difficult for the new republic. The worst is the sanctions and the blockade. We have many pensioners and children who can’t work,” he said. He didn’t want Donbass to be a part of Russia. “Russia gave a lot to the DNR, but have you ever been to places in Russia aside from Moscow or St Petersburg? Have you seen how people live? We used to live a lot better than this”. His friend, Romanov, told me he hoped Donbass would never be a part of Ukraine again: “I would never agree to live in a country that is killing us now. Maybe my children will. But I can’t forget.”

The DNR seemed stuck. I thought the image of the fog was a good one. And there was also fear, a general reluctance to talk, questions you couldn’t ask. Russian paramilitaries had never been here was the official line, repeated many times, only patriots who came of their own volition. Corruption had been eradicated. Sometimes a few people would chance to tell me something, but it would generally be quickly, discreetly, and completely off the record. Back in Kyiv people looked at me with suspicion for even having been there. I went to see the film Donbas, by Sergei Loznitsa and hated it because it depicted people from the Donbas as if they weren’t people. As the Ukrainian elections approached, all the candidates claimed they would stop the war while providing little detail on how they would do it.

On my last day in DNR, while travelling to visit a small village near the frontline in Gorlovka, I met a young woman who showed me the phone she uses, which has two sim cards, and her bank card, a republican one, which allows only basic operations. She marvelled when we found an ATM that works. We chatted for a while about how, in 2015, prices had been in both hryvnias and roubles, and about how, at the beginning, the administration had said that unless otherwise specified, Ukrainian laws still applied. Then, before she had to leave, she said, quickly: “I feel scared to live in a place where there’s no laws. Are they Ukrainian, are they Russian? It feels there’s just a void and that anything could happen.”