August 28, 2014

A Donetsk woman shares her fears in eastern Ukraine

Mar 25

Main Photo
Activists stand guard during a pro Russian rally at a central square in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Sunday, March 23, 2014. About 5,000 people demonstrated in Donetsk in favor of holding a referendum on secession and absorption into Russia similar to Crimea's. A statue Lenin Soviet Union,s first president is seen in the background. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

About the author

Iryna is a freelance interpreter who is living in Donetsk, Ukraine. She is originally from western Ukraine and has a more open view of the events there.

My name is Iryna. For many, years I lived in Kyiv, Ukraine, but after my husband got a new job, our family moved to Donetsk, a city whose economy is centered on coal mining and steel production and the informal capital of eastern Ukraine.

We have lived here for more than a year already and it has truly been an eye-opening experience for me. The city itself has beautiful parks, and clean, well-organized streets that contrast the exposed mountains of slag heaped up by the many coal mines within the city limits. To me personally, the city is just an outer shell and attractive and complete only together with its inner heart – its people and its culture.

The mentality of most people in Donetsk is different and unique – it is defined by historical factors, geography and the conditions of life here.

I must say that even though I am a very easy-going person, I found it hard to make friends since people in Donetsk stay within their comfort zones and you have to be “one of them” in order to fit in. People prefer to be cautious and rarely express their thoughts on topics like politics, everyday issues, dreams for the future, etc. with strangers and prefer to stick to small talk.

After a while I did make friends with other parents from my daughter's kindergarten and dance studio. When the Euromaidan protests started in Kyiv, I started hearing very negative thoughts on the events. The majority of comments came down to “we do not need Europe and we do not want any changes in our lives.”

To fully understand this, it is important to note that the Donetsk region is dominated by heavy industries, such as machine building, steel production, coal mining and more. For centuries people have been working hard in factories, plants and coal mines. Their biggest fear is losing their jobs, which could happen if these companies lose their ability to export their products. Of course, the main market for exports is Russia and other countries that were part of the Soviet Union.

Main Photo
Ukrainian riot police block the entrance of the regional administrative building during a pro Russian rally in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Sunday, March 23, 2014. About 5,000 people demonstrated in Donetsk in favor of holding a referendum on secession and absorption into Russia similar to Crimea's. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

For the first three months of the Euromaidan protests, it seemed like nothing had changed in Donetsk. People took a cautious “wait-and-see” approach, and some didn't even follow the news at all since they thought that what was going on in Kyiv didn't concern them. Many even commented – derisively – about how the people in Kyiv and western Ukraine had stopped working and took to the streets to protest, while the people in Donetsk, home to the true backbone of the Ukrainian economy, had to work even harder now to keep the country going. This is also a key component of the local mentality - Donetsk is very high on “Donbass pride” for the hard-working miners and people of the entire area.

The relative peace in Donetsk changed when Yanukovych left and the new pro-European government was formed in Kyiv. Some of their first moves, including the cancellation of a Yanukovych-era law that allowed Russian to become an official regional language (the cancellation of which has since been suspended), started the first major protests in Donetsk. Most people in Donetsk, maybe 90%, speak Russian on the street and at home, though Ukrainian is the official state language. The new central government also appointed a new governor for Donetsk region, which further upset people.

People in Donetsk consider themselves to be good entrepreneurs, and the city to be the industrial/business epicenter in this part of Ukraine. They are wary of any outside “intervention” in their businesses. I have often heard phrases like “how dare Kyiv send us their own governor?” and “We do not need anyone to govern us!”

The succession of protests on the streets and unrest has been played up in pro-Russian propaganda in the local media. Many people have started talking more about federalism (which would give more autonomy and independence to regions like Donetsk from the new central government in Kyiv that they dislike so much), declaring Russian the second official language of the country, and even a local referendum on succeeding from Ukraine and becoming part of Russia.

As the weeks have gone on, these pro-Russian thoughts have been supported by irregular protests, both large and small, that, according to credible news reports and investigations, have been supported by Russian citizens that were brought in by pro-Yanukovych and pro-Putin sponsors. The waves of protests have been getting bigger and bigger and I would say that the majority of people here that I know are united around these ideas – dislike of the new government in Kyiv, support for federalism and the desire for the Russian language to be official.

The annexation of Crimea scared and quieted some people. Many fear military intervention by Russia in Ukraine and do realize that many of the freedoms that they currently have in Ukraine would be taken away.

Nevertheless, there are strong political groups that are seizing on these central ideas that most residents here agree on and are determined to use them to make the Donetsk region part of the Russian Federation. It seems like most regular citizens believe their propaganda.

With each day, I am getting more and more pessimistic about there being enough sober minds in Donetsk to confront and defeat these federalist and separatist ideas.

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About 

Journalist Olga Shestopalova writes about cultural affairs for TV Plus, the Observer-Reporter's partner newspaper in Slaviansk, in eastern Ukraine. She visited the Washington area several years ago as part of our newspapers' exchange program. She also works as a fashion model, and splits her time between Slovyansk and Kiev, the Ukrainian capitol. Ismayil Khayredinov was born in Uzbekistan in 1985, and raised in Crimea after his family returned to their ancestral land at the verge of USSR collapse. At the age of 14, he attended a boarding school for gifted children near Bahçesaray, operated by a Turkish company in partnership with Crimea's education ministry. In Ismayil 2001-2002 academic year, he took part in a one year high school exchange sponsored by the US Freedom Support Act, operated by American Councils. In 2004, he took part in the Canada-Ukraine Parliamentary Program, and interned in the office of Hon. Borys Wrzesnewskyj. Ismayil graduated from Taurida National Vernadsky University in Simferopol with a degree in economics. During his student years and early careeer, Ismayil was involved with many international projects with a diverse range of interests, including agriculture, shipbuilding, exports, education and marketing. Notably, Ismayil took part in a Ukraine Media Partnership Program, where he has become friends with the Observer-Reporter staff. For the last 5+ years, Ismayil has been living in Prague, where he first directed an International Youth Leadership Conference, and is currently building his business in web development.