Donetsk - city of contrasts
Donetsk - city of contrasts. Conspicuous luxury mixed with images from reports by Jacek Hugo-Bader, a Polish writer and reporter famous for traveling rough through Russia. An impressive $400 million stadium, the “Donbass Diamond”, and right next to it - dilapidated mines that no one would ever guess were in operation, let alone teeming with 4-5 thousand workers 4 shifts a day,.
To me, this city - the cradle of the Party of Regions - will forever remain linked to the 49-year-old Yuri “Shakhtyor” (Yuri the Miner). This ethnic Russian was born into a family that had been exiled to Kyrgystan and this was where he grew up. He spent years in the army, his last base being in Donetsk. And so he stayed here.
In early 90s Yuri went to prison for 5 years. Two guys had been pestering a girl in the street, their teasing gradually becoming more and more violent. Our ex-military guy reacted and a scuffle ensued, followed by the arrival of a militia patrol. Yuri was unlucky - the two thugs turned out to be sons of a local judge and politician. Yuri ended up doing time. When he was handed down the sentence his hair turned white on the spot. For 5 years he occupied 20 square meters with forty other convicts. According to him, most of them were innocent men. One had stolen a hen - got 5 years. Another was run over by a prosecutor’s car - got 8 years for causing an accident.
One young guy there had been sentenced to death. He was having a good time with his girl and some friends in the woods, they went there to have a bonfire. Suddenly militia came and it turned out that there were two dead militiamen’s bodies nearby. They started accusing this guy and when he ran, a fight broke out that rendered him blind. He ended up in prison, awaiting the death penalty. Other inmates, some former journalists and lawyers among them, were so moved by his story that they wrote an appeal. The sentence was changed to 15 years’ imprisonment. The guy wept with joy. He would not be killed, he would stay locked away for 15 year despite being an innocent man, but in the end he would walk free. Yuri walked him to the toilet - a bucket in the corner of their cell - for 5 years. When he did his time, Yuri the Miner was on the streets. Soon after he was sentenced, his wife sold their apartment and left. A friend took Yuri in. Her husband had recently died, leaving her with three kids. Soon they fell in love and got married.
It has been 8 years now since Yuri worked in one of the Donetsk mines. He had only 8 years to retirement. As he says, because he is candid and straight about his views of the management, they are giving him the most backbreaking jobs. Despite his age, his ailing legs and back, he is working deep down, 1400 meters underground. He is there at the coalface, pounding away at the wall. They say I am a zek, a con, and that I should shut up. So I tell them that I may be a zek, but they are the worst vory v zakone (thieves in law, mobsters). The new director has been here for three months yet he has already managed to steal 40 cars of coal. 40 cars! He simply took the coal, sold it and pocketed the money. And he already bought himself four new limos with the mine’s money. Four! In three months. Isn’t he a straight vor v zakone? Yuri says. We are having a beer near his mine. I met him at the entrance. When we got to talking I could not hide my shock at how this decrepit building from the 70s can still be an active mine. Yuri quickly noticed my surprised looks and invited me inside.
Together we walked the distance that several thousand other miners walk every day; from changing into work clothes, on to the lamp-dispensing stand, to the shaft elevator, then the shower. All in one procession, a maze of open corridors and stairwells; crumbling plaster, writings from the Soviet era, and safety-awareness posters. “What have you done to keep this place safe?”, asks the miner on the Soviet-style poster, shaking his finger at us. But the poster was printed two years ago. This mine is full of all sorts of messages in the form of posters, as if time has stood still, even though we have digital printing now.
At one point, a manager blocked our path. He was clearly irritated by my presence, he started asking how I had got there and then asked me to leave. Yuri remained unfazed, although he reckoned there would be trouble the following day but he did not give a damn. Because there isn’t anything that can get to him after spending five years inside for defending an innocent girl?
After we leave the mine we go for a beer, Yuri invites me. He says that although the work is hard, he gets good money for it. He makes about 7000 Hryvniaa month (slightly over 500 Euro), some days he works 12-hour shifts. We sit down and talk about Ukraine. He says something I have already heard in Donetsk: I am from Donbass - not from Russia, nor Ukraine. I would prefer for things not to change, it is good the way it is. Why should we go to Russia? They will kill our industry. The same with the European Union. The best thing would be autonomy. This way we could send less money away to Kiev and keep more for ourselves. What? Should we just be satisfied with what Akhmetov (a Donetsk-based oligarch, the richest man in Ukraine) is giving us?
Before I reached Yuri and his mine I saw the biggest of “Akhmetov’s gifts” - the Donbass Arena, the stadium used by the local football team - Shakhtar Donetsk. This team is the city’s greatest love, everyone is a fan. For the frazzled miners and other inhabitants of this city, famous for its heavy industry, the football club is like a shining diamond, every home game like a celebration, a moment of respite.
The figures are overwhelming - the world’s third largest outdoor screen, $50 million spent on the park around the stadium, while the arena itself cost $400 million. All is top-notch, the grass so manicured, locker rooms so plush, whirlpool bathtubs, an amazing conference room, an interactive museum.
It is as spotless as the entire city centre, where sanitation workers have been busy since morning, literally sweeping the pavements to remove every last piece of grit.
On my way to the train station, when I walk through the squeaky-clean city centre, I am haunted by the image of the dog that I saw near the entrance to Yuri’s mine. Near the decrepit rusty gate and a crumbling Soviet-era facade, where some of the hammer-and-sickle ornaments have fallen off, where 4000 people walk in everyday, afraid they might not walk out again; at that gate a stray dog lay, happy to see every single one of the miners going past. It didn’t wag its tail, as its tail was one big cancer wound placed on the stairs. The dog positioned itself under a Women’s Day poster. A lively tune blared from the speakers for the benefit of the female workers. The mine’s patron, one of the Communist-era leaders, was standing with his back to all this. Someone turned his bust the other way. If he could turn his head a little to the right, he could see the shining “Donbass Diamond”.
Now a few words about the city’s inhabitants views of the developments in Kiev - there is a split here. I met Euromaidan enthusiasts and people who sympathise with the revolution, as well as out-and-out opponents of the idea, members of the pro-Russian marches. Youth see their future in Ukraine, they might agree with the notion of autonomy, too. The elderly, mainly Russians, would like to join Russia, because they see a great leader there and… a caring state.
They are all united in one thing though - their disappointment in politicians, authorities, how the modern-day Ukraine had been build, the rule of oligarchs. Donetsk is overflowing with resentment towards Ukraine as a state for the fate it created for all those toiling miners and workers. However, the majority stress that they are from Donbass and Donbass seems to be their reference point.
Even though I did meet pro-Russian supporters here, one can’t say that Donetsk is Ukraine’s most pro-Russian city. Young people still believe in Ukraine, or at least have respect for it. This short trip showed me how mistaken the notion of putting Lviv and Donetsk at two opposite sides of the barricade. They do constitute two different worlds, yet - unlike Lviv - Donetsk is far from clear-cut and confident. And we need to remember this.
PS. I asked Yuri repeatedly whether he really wanted run the story. He always said yes. We stay in touch on the phone.