In March, 2014, there was fight “for the street” in Donetsk. The so called “friendship trains” full of pro-Maidan activists arrived from Ukraine to subdue the region to Kiev’s government. However, people in Donbass found strength to rebuff the intruders. Unlike southeastern regions of Ukraine, Donbass was not brought to knees. Why?
The most popular answer is that there were few supporters of Maidan in Donbass. However, the will and temper of the local population played the crucial role in it. To realize this, one needed to stay in Donetsk, Lugansk, Gorlovka in 2014.
One could hear many times that in 2013-2014, residents of Donetsk and Lugansk regions did not support the then president Viktor Yanukovych. Why? Those regions voted for him earlier. The point is that in 2013, everyone in Lugansk and Donetsk was disappointed at Yanukovych. He did nothing for the Russian language, he launched the association process with EU, which eventually proved disastrous for him. Yanukovych had enough resources to retain power, but he had neither will nor determination to do it. After the coup in Kiev, when ardent nationalists came to power, people in Donetsk and Lugansk defended their native language, history, and their dignity. It was not the coup that sparked protests in Donbass. It was all about the new government’s decision to cancel the law authorizing the regions of Ukraine to introduce their native languages in their territory. Later, pro-Maidan government and the then acting president Oleksandr Turchynov cancelled the decision, but it was late, since the people had already lost their trust in the government.
To understand the real sentiments in Donetsk before the town was targeted by Ukraine’s artillery, let’s recall May 11, 2014, the day of referendum for independence of Donetsk People’s Republic. War in Donbass has not reached Donetsk by that time, it was in Slavyansk. People were sure that local oligarch Rinat Akhmetov would not let war reach Donetsk. Perhaps, they were too naïve. People voting during the referendum congratulated each other having no idea what they would face later. At that moment, they had a feeling that they decided their fate through the referendum.
Later in the same month, war reached Donetsk. Shells exploding in the streets made the locals understand that no one was going to defend them except them. So, people began joining militia. Ukrainian artillery reached every spot in Donetsk. Locals gradually got used to shelling. News saying that shells hit someone’s house became a usual thing. The only thing people did not get used to was deaths.
Many left the town for Russia or Ukraine. In July-August 2014, one could walk along the central streets in Donetsk within half an hour and meet no one on his way, perhaps a few cars. Stores, cafes and restaurants were closed. The city looked abandoned.
In late summer and early autumn, Ukraine stopped paying salaries and pensions to Donbass residents. Ukraine banks stopped operating in the territory of the city. People had to survive by all means possible. They lived on pre-war reserves and humanitarian aid. There was no famine, but there were big problems with food supply. Donetsk was left without water several times during the military actions. People had to carry muddy water in buckets from nearby River Kalmus. They did their best to survive.
They began to share everything, supplies and responsibilities. No one knew if he would wake up the next day and all the materials values faded away. People helped each other as much as they could – something that was quite rare thing before war.
In 2014, not only militiamen were heroes fighting in heavy conditions to stop Ukraine’s offensive. Employees of utility services acted heroically, risking their lives to repair and restore water and gas supply in the areas targeted by Ukraine’s artillery. Even street cleaners began to work more intensively, despite shelling. One of them said if people see clean streets, they will not lose their hope for the future. They will see that the city is still alive. Physicians, teachers, everyone worked without compensation then. That was heroism.
Residents of Donetsk every day feared a storm by Ukraine. The situation began to change after militia won the battle in Illovaysk and the first Minsk Agreement was signed. In October-December, residents of Donetsk who earlier fled war started returning home, after they found out that no one welcomed them either in Russia or in Ukraine.
Today, people remember 2014 as time of incredible hardships and artillery shelling and time of strong will and compassion at the same time.
The city began awakening in the spring of 2015. There was hope for peace after Minsk-2. Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) started paying pensions and salaries to the people on the formula: 2 rubles per 1 hryvnia. Actually, if a person used to receive 3,000 UAH pension, DPR paid him 6,000 RUR. The same formula was applied to salaries. This helped to stop migration and even have some of the people who left the city come back. Cafes and stores opened gradually. Posters “opening soon” were seen on many stores and shops. One could see more people in the streets and traffic intensified as well. By late 2015, the Russian ruble has become the main currency there.
In summer, nothing in the center of Donetsk resembled war. People in Donetsk behaved so that there is no war. Cafes and restaurants were open, one could hear music and see people enjoying their time in public areas. Meantime, war continues on the frontline and people are still killed in that war.
The relations of people began to change. Although they still helped each other, but the level of compassion and mutual assistance was not as high as in 2014.
By the end of the year, it became obvious that there will be no peace, as Kiev government does not need it and is not going to make any concessions to the population of DPR and LPR. As Donbass found itself in the “neither war nor peace” situation, hopes for normal life began to diminish.
2016 – early 2018: Despair
Facing “neither war nor peace” situation in the spring of 2015, Donbass fell hostage to the Minsk Agreements and Kiev’s political steps. Unfortunately, it is evident that Poroshenko’s government is not going to implement the political part of Minsk-2.
People in Donbass are concerned about the idea of becoming part of Ukraine again under Minsk Agreement. How can they reunite a country were total Ukrainization is a dominating political idea, where supporters of Nazist Shukhevych and Bandera are called heroes, where utility services cost much higher than in Donbass and schools and universities had to announce holidays failing to pay for heating? How to live in the same country with the people who shelled at your city, killed your family and friends yet not so long ago?
People say there was no longer Ukraine they knew before 2014. There is Banderstan instead. Uncertainty is oppressing the people of Donetsk. Besides, there are economic problems, low salaries and big problems with doing business, as the republics have no legal status, they are unrecognized states. Many pensioners who registered themselves as displaced persons but lived in Donetsk used to receive pensions from both DPR and Ukraine until Vodafone mobile operator stopped providing services to Donetsk in February 2018.Now, they face problems with receiving their pensions from Ukraine. Besides, people lost contact with their relatives and friends living on the other side of the frontline. Almost 2/3 of Donbass is still controlled by Ukraine.
All this discourage the people of Donetsk. They feel even more despair than they did in 2014.
Sergey Mirkin, Donetsk