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21 December, 2015  ▪  

Myths about the "Donetsk People's Republic"

Ukrainians tend to get their stereotypes about the "DPR" primarily from distorted media reports and have not been to Donetsk or other currently "republican" cities since they were seized. Some had a little experience of life in "Novorossia" and left, still believing that nothing has changed there since summer 2014.

One such myth is about a certain collective "they" (as in "What do they want over there in their DPR?" or "When are they finally going to settle down?"). Those who stick to this stereotype generally believe that there is a certain mass of people united by the desire to destroy Ukraine, and that these people are concentrated in the "DPR". However, "they" do not exist. Instead, the following groups do:

1. People who guard separatist checkpoints because they get a wage for it. They do not risk their lives and get bonus money in bribes from the huge flow of cars.

2. Those who fled from or quit the "people's militia" and returned to their familiar social fringe consisting of alcohol and drugs, and odd jobs

3. An extremely small number of idea-driven fighters who started out with Igor Strelkov in Sloviansk and still believe in a "country from Odesa to Kharkiv". One of their key characteristics is the inability to do anything except wage war. This keeps them in their militia barracks despite the complete dissatisfaction with everything in the "new republics".

4. Finally, the absolutely cynical and pragmatic leadership, who do not care about all of the above and have misappropriated everything they possibly could, taken control of all cash flows and follow any instructions from Moscow to the letter. This is more like a kind of the "republican middle class" that is no more interested in war than an ordinary resident of any town in Ukraine, because it has already given them its main rewards in the form of stolen villas and fancy cars. The continuation of active war would only subject these people to unnecessary risks once again.

RELATED ARTICLE: How Much Longer This War?

I have said nothing about the bulk of the "people's militia" – mostly traditional salaried labourers who show no more initiative than builders constructing a house do. Living hand-to-mouth, these people resorted to voluntary military service. Most of them openly say that they could not care less about Odesa and Kharkiv, while the perspective of many does not even reach the coast and Mariupol.

The second stereotype is that “everyone has left the republics", meaning that people with patriotic pro-Ukrainian views have supposedly completely abandoned their cities. This is especially annoying to hear and hurts for two reasons: firstly, because it is not true, and secondly because this view is often voiced by journalists who actually left Donetsk themselves. In percentage terms, I think at least a quarter of the "stragglers" are loyal to the Ukrainian authorities. Following recent "failures of the republic" on elections and gas, the number of people dissatisfied with the "DPR" has grown noticeably, even compared to this summer.

This stereotype often leads straight into the next one: if there is "no one left" there anymore, we should cut absolutely all ties with the "republic", then the food, energy and transport standstill will supposedly ensure victory in the war and "they will beg to come back". They will not. The "DPR" has switched to the Russian market for 99% of its supplies – Donetsk imports not only must-have goods, but also salmon, squid, shrimp, caviar, expensive champagne and wine. The same goes for the non-food sphere, although the prices really hit hard. Roughly the same processes are occurring now in the car gas sector to re-orientate towards Russian suppliers. And anyone can easily get into Ukraine through Russia to avoid checkpoints.

RELATED ARTICLE: Push and Shove

Another issue is safety. Many in Ukraine believe that the 1930s have come to Donetsk and that people are all but grabbed on the streets to be thrown in the cells. There is some truth to this, but only in the sense that there is de facto no legal system in the "DPR" and that the level of one's innocence is measured by the presence or absence of a machine gun on one's chest. One can be arrested for a suspicious glance towards "commanders" or locked in a basement on suspicions of espionage, while overt displays of anything Ukrainian (flag, colors, national symbols, etc.) are indeed subject to strict prosecution. But all Donetsk residents know this very well, so you will not find any blue and yellow flags there and will only see rare passers-by next to the "DPR's" Ministry of State Security and Commandant's Office. In conversation (even with friends), you will feel an unusual restraint and coolness due to mutual distrust and the fear that someone could turn you in. So there is no total repression there – no one walks around blocks of flats at night shouting "Open up, NKVD!" and so on. The only existing legal reality here is military dictatorship.

Finally, a few words about Donetsk – only because I recently happened to see a rather unpleasant documentary about the city on Ukrainian TV channels, where several black-and-white shots of the empty city, filmed last year, were shown on a loop. Propaganda, of course, is an important thing, and it is hard to argue with the fact that showing the "republics" in a good light would only hurt us. But the geographical truth is as follows (Donetsk residents will understand the reference points): if you connect the railway station, Motel Bus Station and Southern Bus Station with a straight line, you get a tidy and sparking clean triangle of open cafes, theatres, retail chains, several restaurants and nightclubs. Further is the normal city that Donetsk was before this war. The closer you get to the outskirts, the more often you find ruined roads and buildings destroyed by shelling. There are only scattered patches, such as the district Oktiabrskiy, with almost no signs of life.

RELATED ARTICLE: Henrik Meinander: “Any kind of Ukraine’s neutrality would be a Russian-dependent one”

The population of "republican" Donetsk is many times smaller than before. You are constantly on edge there because of machine-gun fire and explosions that can sometimes be heard. There is absolutely no legal system or security guarantees. But those who claim that the city has turned into Stalingrad or Prypiat simply do not know Donetsk.

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