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29 January, 2020  ▪  Denys Kazanskyi

Dead Souls: The people’s census

What those “dead souls” are hiding in occupied Donbas

In the last five years, ORDiLO, the occupied counties of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, have turned into a virtual terra incognita. The lack of reliable official data coupled with strict censorship of the press has created an informational vacuum that is largely filled with conjectures and rumors these days. The size of the population, the popular mood among those living in ORDiLO, the state of the local economy, the statistical decline in industrial output compared to pre-war 2013 – all this information is now a secret.

Yes, there is an approximate notion about the state of the economy and the mood in occupied Donbas, but this is no longer the 19thcentury outside, but the 21st, and the internet is so far not prohibited in the territory, so occasionally some numbers do slip through. Still, curious researchers, politicians and experts always want to see specific numbers, because they can’t refer to their own perceptions as a source in reports and bills of law. But hard numbers are possibly known only to the occupation administrators and their Moscow handlers. For understandable reasons, they are in no hurry to publish these numbers, either: it would paint a picture that was far too joyless and unflattering to the “Russian defenders of the Donbas.” And so, what is published is generally fantastical statistics that show a growing population, burgeoning prosperity and impressive spiritual unity among those living in the occupied territory.

The latest census in ORDiLO is one example of this kind of window-dressing. The “republican” leadership has announced that the final results of the census will be published only in QII of 2020. However, on November 6, information about the size of the population in the “republic” as of October 2019 appeared on the site of the “main statistical administration of DNR.” These numbers make it clear exactly what kind of picture is being prepared for the final report next year.

RELATED ARTICLE: The concealed markers of sovereignty

The size of cities occupied by Russian proxies is, in some cases, according to the DNR statistics office, higher than it was before the war started. This is without question an outright lie, since the population of the entire Donbas has been steadily shrinking since even before independence. When you add more than five years of continuous conflict, population numbers today cannot possibly match numbers from 2013. For instance, in 2014, the city of Donetsk officially had a population of 949,825. Today, DNR claims that its population is 943,770 (see A funhouse mirror). This is clearly absurd because Donetsk lost hundreds of thousands of its residents over five years of war and occupation. With entire neighborhoods emptied out in this oblast capital, the most optimistic estimates of its current population are about 700,000.

Where life still smolders in Donetsk itself, in other towns in the oblast, things are much less cheerful, especially in those population centers that are close to the conflict zone. However, there, too, the DNR statistics office sees no problems and reports that the population is growing.

A most fantastic picture is being presented of Debaltseve, a one time major railway hub that was taken over in early 2015. According to Ukrainian figures, the population was 25,525 in 2014, but in 2019, DNR says that the permanent population is 25,696. Yet the town was half-destroyed by the battles that took place there and residents en massefled the constant shooting that took place over the course of several months. Neither DNR nor Russian Federation sources have ever mentioned that the town was half empty after the battles and that at most 12-14,000 live there now. But the statisticians of the “young republics” have their own view of the world: they claim that the population of Debaltseve has grown for the first time since the 1980s. Is it possible that constant shelling from GRADs has given locals the urge to procreate in a depressed town where not a single factory is operating normally to this day?

A similar image is being presented of Ilovaisk, Horlivka and other towns in occupied Donetsk Oblast. The numbers are really not worth analyzing, they are so patently false. They are, however, laying the foundation for presenting the final results of the “census” to demonstrate the unbelievable, flourishing prosperity of occupied Donbas since it threw off the yoke of “Ukrainian oppression.” Yet the main purpose of such manipulation is obviously not just to establish some ideologically suitable image. The real goal is much more pragmatic: to establish a phalanx of around a million “dead souls” in preparation for eventual reintegration into Ukraine. This will make it possible to present results in local elections that suit the proxy leadership and to claim substantial amounts of government funding. Clearly, Kyiv needs to prepare itself for such a developoment and not take any of these statistics seriously, no matter what.

Unsurprisingly, Ukraine’s politicians, press and civic organizations continue to make efforts to study life in ORDiLO in a variety of ways and to establish a real picture. But any data collected under the current circumstances is subject to a huge margin of error. How can anyone talk about objective surveys of the occupied territories given censorship and dictatorship? Even if some pollsters manage to undertake a completely unbiased and honest survey on the streets without being stopped by the MGB (“State Security Ministry”) FSB and other “antifascist” agents, there’s no guarantee that respondents will answer any questions frankly. People who live in a ghetto where anyone can be accused of being a Ukrainian spy and be sent “to the basement” for “questioning” without an investigation or a trial aren’t likely to express a preference for Ukraine to strangers in the street, even if they feel it. And so the results of any opinion polls in ORDiLO, such as those published from time to time in the Ukrainan press, need to be taken with a few grains of salt.

Not long ago Dzerkalo Tyzhnia published such a survey on its site. In the most recent figures arrived at by the Kharkiv-based New Image Marketing Group jointly with the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, most of the residents of ORDiLO who were surveyed were anti-Ukrainian and said that they wanted to integrate into Russia. Should such a result be considered sensational? It’s obvious that this attitude really is widespread in the occupied territories because those who supported Ukraine have mostly left the region in the last five years, while those who stayed behind have been bombarded with anti-Ukrainian propaganda day and night. But the results of this experiment still cannot be taken at face value because people living under a totalitarian threat cannot be truly open in their responses.

RELATED ARTICLE: The culture of poverty

One way or another, it’s important to understand that getting precise information about the state of things in ORDiLO will be impossible until Ukrainian politicians, experts and press have access to the occupied territory. This is exactly what Russia’s leadership wants to take advantage of to the fullest in order to establish the thickest possible smokescreen around the occupied area. Moscow’s plans have not changed: to integrate a Trojan horse into Ukraine in the shape of these two “national republics.” For this horse to be the most effective, its contents have to be carefully prepared well in advance. It’s understood that the ideal option for Russia would be for ORDiLO to remain an inaccessible and unknown territory for Ukraine where its puppets can generate whatever election results they want and whatever economic indicators suit Moscow.


Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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