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29 April, 2011

Donbas: The Old New Year

It is hard to imagine what would force the local population to abandon its traditional views on life, country and the nature of power

If you go to the Donbas expecting to see exotic sites and political events out of the ordinary, you will most likely be disappointed. The only things that can really count as exotic are the cones of coal mine refuse that dot the city; but you quickly get used to them. Then there is the brand new stadium, which is as alarming as it is astonishing. You might find yourself asking how it fits in with the regional social standards? And if it doesn't, why? Otherwise you will hardly see the stereotypes widely propagated by the Ukrainian mass media: they won't kill you for speaking Ukrainian in the street; blue-and-yellow state flags are not torn down from administrative buildings; and you won't encounter oligarchs in the city's streets as often as the media would suggest.

The Donbas is not all that different from the rest of Ukraine. That includes its outward appearance: there are no more boutiques in the streets of Donetsk than in Kharkiv or Odesa; Luhansk’s private residential sector looks like those in Poltava or Sumy; most county centers in Donetsk and Luhansk counties are no more depressed than their counterparts in Central or Southern Ukraine. There is no denying, however, that the way of life in small mining towns and settlements are a phenomenon peculiar to this region.

More acute and pronounced are internal and social, rather than visual, contrasts: not those between the central streets – Donetsk’s façade – and workers’ residential districts, but the general opposition between the glitter of the political elite and the ordinariness of the working class. In this respect the Donbas is indeed different from other Ukrainian regions, if only in the sharpness of these contrasts and the emphatically tall new skyscrapers and business centers overlooking old industrial cityscapes.

Locals do not seem to be too concerned about “class inequality” however, and are not likely to change their political sympathies and antipathies. While this may surprise some, it also causes one think about how civic discontent emerges or fails to emerge. It is hard to imagine what would force the local population to abandon its traditional views on life, country and the nature of power and what it would take to accomplish such a “transition into democracy”. The local activists, who have essentially assumed the function of voicing social concerns, are skeptical about possible mass protests or real shifts in politics here. True, they say, the population is becoming increasingly disappointed with the government; the Party of Regions' ratings and popularity are dropping and distrust is mounting. However, people in Donetsk are likelyto vote for the same politicians in the next election.

Even the current economic situation will hardly get people onto the streets in mass protest. Discontent is generated perhaps only by specific local actions, for example, when the authorities closed down schools in the region. I'm told that in some cases people's resistance was indeed fairly effective. Protesting against new national reforms is somewhat different. For example, the protests that erupted in the fall of 2010 were supported by a surprisingly large number of businessmen in my native town of Starobilsk. A possible reason may be its relatively high percentage of entrepreneurs, because there are not many other options for earning a living wage here. Yet, there is no sign that the rallies will continue.

I happened to hear a more folk version of what is happening from a Luhansk taxi driver who, to my utter bewilderment about why people are silent about falsifications in the last election, said: “Who is there to protest? Anyone who could raise his voice was executed back in 1937.” A valid argument, I thought.

I also thought that the local taxi drivers are little different from those in, say, Kharkiv. All those differences and contradictions that politicians are trying to impose on us are effective only when we ourselves are ready to accept them as true and valuable. Apart from that, there are not many divisions among us.

And here is one more thing. As you exit Luhansk, you see a billboard which has been there since winter showing the president of Ukraine stubbornly wishing local residents a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. It is April outside, and the fields all around are already free of snow. If they wait a few more months, they won't need to remove the billboard, because it will be Christmas time again.

Sometimes I get the feeling that someone is trying to stop the clock in this region and sometimes I get the impression that they are succeeding.


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