Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Donets Basin is not waiting for salvation from Russian tanks

I've been happy to find some more good reporting on the human angle in Ukraine.  It comes from Dmitry Galko, a journalist working for the independent Belarusian-language weekly Новы час.  (It can't be easy being an independent journalist in Belarus!)  I came across this article about Donetsk in Russian translation here.  It's a few days old, pre-referendum, but the sentiments in it are still totally relevant.

For those who haven't been following the events closely, Donetsk is the most Russian-speaking and the most industrial of the major Ukrainian cities, located in the middle of the coal-mining Donets Basin.  Yanukovych got over 80% of the vote there in 2010.

A note on names: names are freely translated between Ukrainian, Russian, and Belarusian.  For consistency, and because they tend to be more familiar, I'm using Russian transliterations for names unless they're already familiar to an English-speaking audience in a Ukrainian variant.

Here's the article in English.  There are photos in the original which you should absolutely go look at.
Absolutely every Ukrainian I got to speak to, independent of their political views, said: we can forget about Crimea, it's all been decided already, no one is actually interested in the Crimeans' opinion.

In Donetsk they want to be people too

But even the most pro-Russian citizens wouldn't like the question to be decided in this way, "by itself", in continental Ukraine.  The participants of the March 9th protest in Donetsk, Russian tricolors streaming overhead, told me that they don't consider themselves residents of occupied territory whose liberation Russian forces have started in Crimea.  The cry "Putin! Putin!", when it began, would ring much weaker than the others and fade very quickly.  The longest and loudest cheer was "Donbass! Donbass!"

Many of the protesters didn't like it when someone started tearing down the Ukrainian flag to replace it with the Russian one.  People would say, "don't do that, instead let's raise the Ukrainian flag, the Russian flag, and the flag of the Donetsk region all next to each other."  A disapproving murmur ran through the crowd when a thug lunged at a car with a Ukrainian flag, spit on it, then punched the windshield.

It would be a mistake to think that the main participants of these protests are "Putin tourists."  In conversation, Sergey Anastasiev, opera singer and chairman of the Civil Position party, joked: "The poor fellows, no one will let them behave like this at home.  Well, let them come, we can organize special tours, all-inclusive, come for a breath of freedom.  We'll get some extra money for the city coffers."

A clever joke, but as political analysis it's shallow and myopic.  Some people also thought I was a "Putin tourist."  One woman from among the defenders of the Shevchenko monument said, "I don't believe that you're a Belarusian journalist.  You're a Russian and you came to beat us up."

I can't say for certain that there are no "Putin tourists" there at all.  I saw groups of people you might think were there on special assignment.  They wouldn't answer questions and aggressively ask you to leave.  Or, in the words of the head of the strange newly formed organization Eastern Front, "What kind of questions can there be during a war?"

But everyone who didn't refuse to talk, and that was a majority, were from the Donetsk region.

One should understand that their moving out onto the streets is a continuation of the Maidan.  No joke, they also came out for freedom, dignity and democracy.

Some of them have utterly fantastical ideas about Russia as a land of milk and honey.  "A cleaning lady gets 500 dollars there, it's the minimum wage!" enthusiastically asserted a couple of pensioners.  Others say, to hell with wages, let them even be lower, but we can't "torment our single physical and spiritual body" with our "brothers", so as not to "plunge entirely into the darkness of Western civilization."  A man with an intellectual's goatee recounts, smiling, how supposedly a "Bandera supporter" nurse threw him, the son of a Soviet officer, on purpose down on the floor of the maternity ward.  "That's why I've not been quite right in the head since childhood, and Banderovtsy are my enemies to the death."

Some want to enter Russia as a federal subject, others to revive the Donetsk–Krivoy Rog Republic, many would be content with autonomy inside Ukraine, but among the plurality of voices what comes through loudest is: "Let them see that here too there are people living with their own opinions which have to be taken into account."

"Stuff like this is impossible in Russia," one young guy with a Russian tricolor patch says proudly, referring to the protest.  "They've been trained there like circus animals, one whistle and they go in the paddy wagon all by themselves."  Don't laugh at the contradiction, he just hasn't found a more appropriate uniform yet to declare his unique opinion.  There's still time.

The point is that they're not waiting for salvation from Russian tanks.  They're just waking up from a long political hibernation, they're trying out their newly-hatched civic voices.  I doubt they'll want to say goodbye to this achievement.

Finishing the Maidan's job

After the militarily-minded part of the protest came and went, central Donetsk found itself filled with small groups of people with different views who calmly discussed them, listening to each other.  One which stood out was a gaggle of highly motivated young men who went from one group to another, trying to convince the pro-Russian activists that they're playing a role that has been foisted on them, a role in someone else's play:

In western Ukraine there are people who aren't used to carrying regimes on their back.  They love freedom, the struggle is in their blood.  And now, at the cost of a hundred lives, they've overthrown a government which pleased no one, neither me nor you, right?  As a result, the new government is made of people who even in Western Ukraine no one wants to see in power.  The Maidan stands, they're not disbanding.  So what this government is most afraid of is that they'll also get deposed to hell.  Look what happens next.  They have to distract the people.  They create an internal enemy.  In the west, they paint the image of an eastern enemy, where they're all moskali who hate the Ukrainian language, in the east, the image of evil Banderovtsy.

These young men were convinced that it was necessary to support and continue the Maidan's unfinished business—to radically change the government, to build new foundations for a system of social relationships, not to run around with tricolors.  That said, they complained that the process was going very slowly and with variable success.

"It'll look like we've convinced a dozen or so people," one of them explained gloomily.  "They're agreeing, nodding their heads.  But the next day we see them standing there again and shouting, 'Russia! Russia!'  What can you do?"

"We're just like you, except we root for Shakhtar"

Nevertheless, an hour-and-a-half trip away, in a suburb of Donetsk, Misha Ponomarenko, a self-styled "couch-side observer" and worker in a Donetsk metallurgical plant, talked in a similar vein.  "Well, if the Maidan happened, though I didn't support it, we have to finish the job—let entirely new people come into politics.  Because the bog we've got today swallows any single fresh current... Instead of dealing with our real problems, we're growling at the Galicians, they're growling at us... They're all Banderovtsy there, we're all moskali and gopniki.  Cap-wearing, seed-cracking, what, brother, jump up and down, got any change?  If these stereotypes are so insurmountable, let's make federal lands, like in Germany.  But why would we join Russia?

"And it's supposed to be our brother country?  Some brother!  Comes to your apartment, issues a ruling that, in accordance with a referendum among your roaches, the apartment is now his... No, there's really a lot of pro-Russian sentiment in Donetsk, in favor of economic and cultural ties, that sort of thing, but I don't know anyone who would want to join Russia.  Personally, I wouldn't want to join anyone, even Europe, it's better to be a strong and self-sufficient country.  But my brother calls me a titushka for that...

"As for the Galicians, I'd like to say: we're just as Ukrainian as you, we just speak Russian and root for Shakhtar!"

The older brother, Denis Ponomarenko, a miner for 17 years, does away with all the Donetsk stereotypes: "I love Ukraine and I want us to join the European Union.  In the mine we have people with different opinions, I express mine freely, and I'm not at all alone.  People are split about 50-50.  And now I even want us to join NATO too.  With a neighbor like this we don't have any choice.  I used to be neutral towards Russia, but after this trick they played in Crimea... They've been scaring us with Banderovtsy since 2004, that they'll come with red and black flags.  Not a single one has gotten all the way here though.  People have come with totally different flags.  They threatened us with NATO troops, instead we have "little green men."  I don't need anything like that here.  I don't think that Russia will try to swallow Ukraine whole or even half of it.  It's more likely they'll use any pretext to destabilize the situation.  That kind of "brother at the gates"—that's frightening."

The final chord was sounded by Valentina Ponomarenko, Misha and Denis's mother: 

"Lately I've completely stopped listening to the news.  I can't do it.  Putin I don't care about, never have.  What really hurts is that the Russian people are becoming our enemies."

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