Why Donbas Is An Integral Part Of Ukraine And Europe

November 20, 2020

In the winter and spring of 2014, Russia occupied Ukrainian Crimea, ignited a war in Donbas and illegally occupied parts of this Ukrainian region. The war has taken at least 14,000 lives and forced about 1,5 mln people to flee their homes. Russia's aim is to destabilize Ukraine, and to halt its march towards Europe.

But contrary to Kremlin claims, the history of the Donbas is deeply linked with Ukraine and Europe. Historically, it was home to nomadic tribes, including the Scythes, who left a great deal of cultural heritagelinked to modern Ukraine. Many of Donbas towns were started as Ukrainian Cossack settlements. Northern Donbas is part of Slobidska Ukraina, where people sought freedom - sloboda - from serfdom on Russian lands.

The 19th century industrialization of Donbas was undertaken thanks to Welsh, French and Belgian investors, being part of the broader history of the coal and steel industries in Europe. In the 1930s Ukrainian peasants who survived the Stalinist Famine, often went to work in Donbas mines and stayed in the region.

Let's listen to Hennadiy Yefimenko a Ukrainian historian, and his contribution to our book Re-vision of History.

"The "Russian World" is the construction of the new era, which to a large extent repeats the ideas of the elites of the Russian Empire before the 1917 revolution. At that time, Russian elites defined Ukrainians as "Little Russians", a part of the Russian nation, which also included "Great Russians" and "Belarussians". In those conditions, no debate could even take place as to whether the territory of the Donetsk Coal Basin was Russian or Ukrainian.

When the Bolsheviks took power, they aimed strategically at "amalgamation of the nations", which actually meant Russification of the lands that they controlled. Yet at the same time, the Bolshevik leaders understood the objective trend of ever stronger national movements. They did not object to those movements formally, and even used them for their own purposes. That is why the Ukrainian statehood created during the era of the Ukrainian People's Republic (UNR) was preserved in the Soviet form. This applied to the territory of Ukraine as well. The main principle for setting up the Ukrainian SSR was based on the national composition of the population, as well as on the language used in its respective lands. In the larger part of Donbas, Ukrainians prevailed,which is why these territories were included in the Ukrainian Soviet state.

In 1920, due to economic factors, the Kremlin agreed to unite the entire Donbas under  Soviet Ukraine. However, already in October 1925, those areas of Donbas populated in the main by Russians (Shakhtynsky District), together with Taganrog District, where the majority was made up of Ukrainians, were transferred to Russia. The border between Ukraine and Russia formed in 1925 remained unchanged until today. Therefore, even if a "historical mistake" was made, it was about including Taganrog District into Russia in 1925, contrary to the principles of the time and to the fact that the majority of the population in this district was Ukrainian.

The Soviet leadership was striving to turn Donbas into a "melting pot" for creating the "Soviet people" and took tough repressive measures against the Ukrainian movement in it. This, indeed, weakened the Ukrainian element of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, now most frequently associated with the designation "Donbas". However, even after all the assimilation measures taken by the Soviet government, the absolute majority of the population of these oblasts, according to the 1989 census, identified themselves as Ukrainians."

Let's also listen to Yaroslav Hrytsak, famous Ukrainian historian, who writes in our book our book Re-vision of History 

"This is a region that never had a strongly developed national identity. Every government that tried to control that region had huge problems because this was a mining region. Mining is always linked to extreme exploitation and to high levels of crime. In places where oil, gas, diamonds are mined, there are always criminal structures involved in this activity.

Compare it to the Gold Rush in California or with diamond mining in Africa or to similar cases, and you will see the same thing. Some call it "carbon democracy": the more carbon-based resources [coal, oil, gas, diamonds, etc. -- Ed.] that are produced, the more lawless a region is, as mining is a source of big revenues.

On the other hand, huge numbers of people live here in conditions of permanent risk because working in mines is dangerous. You can never come into conflict with these people because they spend every day of their life on the edge of life and death, and when they are on the surface they fear nothing.

No one was ever able to "swallow" these lands. It was not done by the Russian Empire and, moreover, not by the Soviet Union. Ukraine inherited this challenge.

The Southern and Eastern parts of Ukraine, which Russian propaganda calls "Novorossiya", were colonization lands. The Russian Empire, in particular Catherine ІI, actively invited the best colonizers: Germans, Greeks, and Jews. Yet, the main colonizers were Ukrainian peasants. These peasants had a very strong need for land, facing a serious land shortage. These lands were massively colonized by the end of the 18th century. Since the end of the century, almost every region in this territory, except in cities, was mostly Ukrainian-speaking.

What happened with the demographic situation here? After Crimean Khanate was destroyed and annexed by the Russian Empire, this territory became ethnically Ukrainian. It was colonized by peasants, and peasants made up the majority.

When the democratic principle becomes dominant, when not the minority but the majority becomes a decision-maker, Ukrainians began to decide the destiny of these lands. There is a difference between top-down and bottom-up colonization; this bottom-up colonization is done by common people. The "Novorossiya" project, on the contrary, presumes top-down colonization [an imperial colonization by Tsarist Russia -- Ed.], which broke against the popular concept of bottom-up [Ukrainian] colonization.

"Novorossiya" was not sustainablein the same way as Russian or Soviet modernization were not sustainable. The failure of the "Russian Spring" and the entire "Novorossiya" project in 2014 showed this clearly.

One more thing: the idea that "some countries own territories which are actually ours" is a principle applicable in the 1920s-1930s or World War II. Today's world is, on the contrary, built on  respect for borders, which gives up the idea that some of 'our lands' exist, which mistakenly belong to other states.

A classic example is Alsace and Lorraine, the lands at the core of French-German conflicts for more than 50 years from 1870 and up to World War II. However, after World War II Europe saw French-German reconciliation when it was decided that the border should not be questioned. The idea of the Coal and Steel Community was developed, which allowed the joint use of these territories. This was confirmed by the French-German reconciliation when De Gaulle and Adenauer shook hands during the service in Reims Cathedral, the key place for French identity where, historically, kings were crowned."

Donbas is home to many Ukrainian writers and dissidents. Its traditions and customs are shared with those of the rest of Ukraine

*Let's listen to Volodymyr Rafeenko, a Ukrainian writer, from his essay published in Ukraine in Histories and Stories*:

The isolation of Donbas has always been artificial. It was invented and carried out by the Soviet regime, which carried out the policy of tough control over our industrial province.

"The isolation of Donbas has always been artificial. It was invented and carried out by the Soviet regime, which carried out the policy of tough control over our industrial province. Donbas was contrary to all other regions of the country as an entirely proletarian region. That is, the region where the proletariat, the main driving force of social progress in the universe according to Soviet ideology, ultimately held winning positions.

Over the years of independence, the separation of Donbas from the rest of the country that had been instilled over the course of seventy years played for the benefit of the interests of a certain section of local elites. The idea of cultural separation of Donbas was meticulously cultivated by some regional politicians as a convenient and efficient instrument for achieving necessary compromises with Kyiv.

Still, one has to mention that despite all its specific characteristics, Donbas never felt it was part of Russia in a cultural sense. Ukraine and everything Ukrainian were much closer for all of us than anything Russian. And this actually happened precisely because there has never been such phenomenon as "the people of Donbas". This nonsense, invented by the occupying authorities in Donbas since 2014, sounds wild and ridiculous for a person who was born and lived their entire life there. The residents of Donbas have never believed their land was part of Russia, but that separation from the national Ukrainian context which had been constructed over seventy years of Soviet rule gave birth to a very peculiar regional identity that was, nonetheless, still essentially based on the Ukrainian cultural matrix.

Ukrainian fairy tales were told to children, and Ukrainian songs were sung during celebrations. Christmas was celebrated in a way it would never be celebrated in Russia.

Ukrainian fairy tales were told to children, and Ukrainian songs were sung during celebrations. Christmas was celebrated in a way it would never be celebrated in Russia. Looking back at my past, I can see that we have always felt ritual energetic affinity with our country. On the contrary, Russian folklore, for instance, has always been something exotic and absolutely unnatural for us, not understandable at a personal level. All these kokoshniks [Russian head bands], round dances and matryoshka dolls [Russian stacking dolls] were always perceived as something strange and foreign.

In one way or another, we were connected with Russia precisely by memories about the USSR, which year after year was becoming inexorably dimmer and farther away from us. The years came and went and new generations of Ukrainians were born, and the myth about the nation of "Soviet people" was already seen as clearly archaic in the early 2000s. It was back then that even the regional identity began to give up its positions significantly to the general Ukrainian identity.

I am absolutely certain that if Russia had not attacked Ukraine, the emergence of the political nation, which has never been fast and simple in any country, would have definitely absorbed the lands of our Donbas.

I am absolutely certain that if Russia had not attacked Ukraine, the emergence of the political nation, which has never been fast and simple in any country, would have definitely absorbed the lands of our Donbas. Ukraine is a very young country -- we have existed for less than thirty years as an independent state. This is just a moment from the standpoint of historical processes. We have just begun to gain our strength and self-awareness. This war hit us at the start. We see an attempt to kill our skylark before it rises higher and higher. But somehow I believe it will fly upwards anyway."

So, Donbas is an integral part of a shared Ukrainian heritage. Its de-occupation and re-integration will bring it back to the history of Ukraine and that of all of Europe.