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5 April, 2011  ▪  Vakhtang Kipiani

Donbas Uprising

On March 1, 1991, Donetsk miners started a general strike, a deliberate step to break up the soviet empire. Unfortunately, the national democratic movement failed to follow suit

Today, the events that revolved around the struggle of Donbas for social rights at the same time as their growing awareness that they belonged to the Ukrainian polity have been forgotten. They have been almost entirely shunted aside in public memory by images of Rukh rallies, human chains, and protests driven by Kyiv and Halychyna. And this is extremely unfair, because it was precisely the combination of the ideas of the intelligentsia and the anger of the workers that accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union.

At the edge of a breakthrough

During the years of perestroika, Donetsk miners, together with their brothers in Vorkuta, Kuzbas and Karganda, became one of the precursors of the democratic movement, naturally bringing together the goals of the struggle for freedom in general and the struggle for freedom of labor. Just before the strike, on February 26, 1991, the workers’ committees of Donbas had held their meeting with the participation of representatives of the L’viv-Volyn basin. A Moscow-based anarchist newsletter of the time, KAS-KOR, reported on the event:

“Yuriy Boldyriev reported on the results of negotiations with the government, noting that the main obstacle to resolving the basic demands of the miners regarding higher wages was a lack of money in the republic’s budget.

“Boldyriev said that when he was warned that a strike was in the offing, Premier Vitaliy Fokin breathed a sigh of relief: ‘Better a terrible end than terror without end,’ he said, letting it be known that he preferred a certain present to an uncertain future.”

After a five-hour heated debate, 25 of the 32 strike committee members made up their minds: Time to act!

This was hardly the first strike in the USSR. Over the previous three years, the region, which had been known as “The Union’s Stokehold” and was seen as the poster child of soviet workers, had more than once awakened to the sirens of the big enterprises calling everyone, not to catastrophe, but to protest. The frightened government tried to gag them with handouts and resolutions about wage increases and higher rates, but the dying soviet economy no longer had the resources to make good on any of these promises.

The average lifespan of slave-like mining professions such as coal cutter and sinker was only 38 years at that time because of the frequency of fatal accidents, on-the-job injuries, abominable sanitary conditions, and some of the lowest standards of workplace equipment in the civilized world. Moreover, pensions for these underground specialists ranged from 160 to 210 rubles and miners became eligible only at 50—an age to which they had to survive in the first place. By 1991, the average wage in the country was higher than a miner’s wages: 405 rubles. Miners were becoming aware that, unless the soviet umbrella was destroyed and Ukraine gained sovereignty, there would be no way to improve their lives.

Thinking Ukrainian

Donbasminers may have talked in Russian, but they thought, as one now-forgotten politician famously said, Ukrainian. Few remember today that, on September 9, 1989, two miners from Donbas, Petro Poberezhniy and Pastushenko, addressed the founding assembly of Narodniy Rukh Ukrainy, later known simply as Rukh. Poberezhniy was the Zasiadka mine’s foreman, while Pastushenko was the Komsomol organizer from the Hayev mine in Horlivka. Poberezhniy explained the reasons for the strike:

“Comrades, we demanded the right to control our own output. We are trying to find a market for our hard-won coal that is in excess of the state order. For instance, we know that Western Ukraine and Zaporizhzhia need coal and we’re short of potatoes and other foods. We could easily exchange what we fairly produce.”

Poberezhniy also mentioned the “disgusting lies” of the Party press, how ignorant people in Donetsk were of the history of “our people,” how they did not understand “our national symbols,” and so on. Back home, Vecherniy Donetsk, a local paper, hissed behind the back of the miner who had spoken at the Rukh convention, “this kind of honor is reserved for very angry individuals.”

On August 27, 1989, Miners’ Day, Donetsk miners passed a resolution demanding the resignation of Volodymyr Shcherbytskiy, First Secretary of CP Central Committee and Valentyna Shevchenko, Chair of the Presidium of the Verkhovna Rada of the Ukrainian SSR. One member of the Donetsk Strike Committee, Oleksandr Kalinin, admitted in an interview for the Mariupol-based Dnevnik Priazovia, in Spring 1991 that the radical political demands resulted from a deadlock: the government’s hollow promises had driven people to the “point of no return.”

The Communists, needless to say, were in hysterics. As the “rightful political representatives of the working people,” they could see the writing on the wall, once Eastern and Western Ukraine joined forces. So the Party press launched a major smear campaign against the miners, accusing them of wanting the whole hog at the expense of steelworkers, railway workers, farmers and teachers…

Digging a grave for communism

Over March-May 1991, 49 mines, 40% of the total, went on strike, including 15 mines and 3 mine-building units in Donetsk, 8 mines in Selydov, 7 in Chervonoarmiysk, 4 in Pavlohrad, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, and one each in Khartsyzk and Lysychansk. Moreover, 22 coal enterprises in L’viv Oblast supported the strike. The strike leaders used a few tricks to expand the movement. Researcher Burnosov gives one example: “This Boldyriev calls from Donetsk and yells: ‘What the hell are you doing there? Why aren’t any of your mines striking? I've got seven already…’”

To turn Donetsk against the protesters, the administration of Donbasvuhillia2 shut down all its kindergartens and sent the staff on unpaid leave, on the excuse that strikes were too costly. Just imagine the quarrels that ensured among family members and neighbors. But the provocation didn’t work.

Party functionaries then turned to propagandizing the nationalist threat. On July 25, 1991, Rabochaya Pravda, the newspaper of the Independent Trade Union of Zoria miners, printed a telegram from Stepan Khmara, where the former human rights advocate supposedly promised to hang two ITU leaders, Polevoy and Cherniavskiy “on a single branch to the anthem of a Ukraine free of Jews and Russians.”

The workers’ strike committees now expressed lack of confidence in the official union committees and successfully demanded that they be withdrawn from the enterprises or disbanded altogether. Workers at the legendary Zasiadko mine held a democratic election for Party Committee Secretary among six candidates, contrary to the instructions of the CP Central Committee. They also held a strike vote and a vote on their political demands. 59.6% of the workers supported the strike and 71.5% the political demands. Incidentally, one of the Party committee chairs at the time was the future owner of Zasiadko, Yukhym Zviahilskiy.

In the first days after the strike, Sloviansk-born Mykola Yevgrafov convicted previously for criminal and political reasons, wrote in Respublika, a photocopied paper: “Right now we are going through a bad hangover after 73 years of unrestrained, drunken rape of economic laws… The entire country is paying for what the communists have done! And the country has the right to hold them accountable... The soviet empire is doomed. No one can save it. They have to let the republics go if they want to hang on to them.”

The stronghold of democracy

This anti-totalitarian mood in Donbas these 20 years ago was the natural, inevitable consequence of the economic and political models of the centralized state. It was the proletarian miners who started digging the grave of soviet communism first. Just few years later, though, party hacks backed by criminals regained control and did away with these ordinary men of principle and the region that had once been a stronghold of the new democracy turned into its grave.

Over 1989-1991, the difference between Donbas and the rest of Ukraine in terms of language and mentality was less visible than today, nor was it seen as an insurmountable challenge. The people of Donetsk Oblast were engaged in democratic processes no less than people elsewhere in Ukraine. Indeed, anti-communist and reformist radicalism was much more intense here than in most other regions and Donbas was then looking to Yeltsin’s Moscow in terms of politics and at his opposition to the centralized political and economic bureaucracy.

But now the process of replacing the communist elite came to a standstill. Elsewhere, people came to power from the streets: engineers, university professors, doctors and writers. In other words, the social escalator that had been dead for decades started to move again. But Donbas only saw a reshuffle—and a horizontal one at that. Instead of party hacks, red directors and technocrats from party circles grabbed power. In effect, second secretaries or heads of oblast industrial departments replaced the heads of executive committees or became the first “democratically elected” mayors.

The new Donetsk

Another feature of Donbas was that criminals became more involved in the handing out of public, community and cooperatively owned assets. The Donetsk mafia was neither a legend nor invented by journalists: by the mid-1990s it was a major factor affecting local policy at a time when Kyiv was too busy to worry about Donetsk. In the process of nation-building at the regional level, these renegade officials and bandits were all too able to put trade union leaders, those heroes of the first strikes and men who once spoke on equal terms with First Secretary Gorbachev and Premier Ryzhkov, in their places.

The new Donbas identity emerged from an alloy of backbreaking work, the open plundering of the “homeland storehouses” by officials, and the running amok of young men in leather jackets and sweatsuits, the “Adidas nation.” The miners’ struggle for social and political rights was reduced to the right to the minimum consumer basket, Russian TV, concerts by Nikolai Baskov and Iosif Kobzon3—and the sight of the new “lords of life” gradually trading in their fake Adidas suits for burgundy jackets and luxury Italian suits later.

The first attempts to shape and to explain the phenomenon of Donetsk intellectually appeared at this time. They ranged from the semi-separatist Interdvyzhenniye Donbassa founded by the Kornilov brothers to cultural projects to shape a Donbas identity, including the cult of FC Shakhtar. If bread is hard to come by, you can at least feed the plebes on circuses. But over the 90s, miners finally lost their influence. The last time they made themselves felt was in Fall 1993, when a snap presidential election was called after they marched on Kyiv demanding work and wages.

In 1998 and 1999, suddenly there were rallies of mine workers, their wives and even crippled miners. But every time, they gave the impression that it was local governments and the owners of mines, steel plants and mine associations that had driven them to Kyiv, not poverty or rights. On TV, everything looked perfect. Bared to their waists, the workers marched to Kyiv in strong columns. Wretched veterans demanded benefits, too, but they were barely heard. That could be because the heroes of Donbas were no longer the heirs of Stakhanov’s glory. They were now people who, directed by the hand of PR’s Myk­hailo Chechetov, unanimously voted for “a better life today.”

What miners wanted in March 1991:

– impeach the USSR President for having no mandate of public trust and being elected by boards of electors – the Plenum of the Central Committee and Congress of National Deputies;

– dismiss the Congress of National Deputies;

– declare the Declaration of Sovereignty of Ukraine a constitutional document;

– establish a Board of Confederations of Sovereign States as a coordinating body;

– fulfill Item 33 of 1989 Protocol on Approved Measures on regular adjustment of wages to the price index and cover all citizens;

– fulfill Item 10 of the Protocol granting pensions to all underground workers including foremen with at least 25 years of underground, regardless of age;

– fulfill Item 20 of the Protocol, changing the former State Technical University into an arts center for children;

guarantee immunity to all participants of the renewed strike.


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