The Steppe, Fuming Tubes and Smoking Barrels Aside
Donwplayed and obscured for half a century, the Donbas appears as Ukraine’s historical and natural terra incognita
One may get the impression that the Donbas has been somehow excluded from the general Ukrainian historic and cultural discourse. But without this region the latter would be incomplete. Outstanding poet Volodymyr Sosiura, renowned tenor Anatoliy Solovyanenko, writer and educator Oleksa Riznykiv, writer and founder of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group Mykola Rudenko, linguist and dissident Ivan Svitlychnyi, linguist, activist and dissident Oleksiy Tykhyi, writer Vasyl Holoborodko, publisher and dissident Ivan Dziuba and great many other contributors to Ukrainian culture are the Donbas natives.
“Ukrainian history is unimaginable without the Donbas. This part of Ukraine found its way into the general European historic context back in the ancient times. In the late 6th century B.C. the Persian Achaemenid Empire of king Darius I was at war with the Scythians. Where, you may ask? It was right here on the plains we now call the Donbas. Likewise, the famous Sarmatian legion of Rome that invaded the Great Britain arrived from here too. These are events of great importance for Ukrainians in particular and for Europeans in general” noted the member of Donetsk department of Shevchenko Scientific Society Ihor Todorov. ‘Donbas is by no means a grey zone. We know less about it because this is where the boundary between the territories of Zaporizhzhia and Don Cossack forces used to lie. The lands on the right bank of the river Kalmius definitely belonged to Zaporizhzhians, the Kalmius redoubt of the Sich. A scholar of the economic development of Easter Ukrainian lands, historian professor Vasylk Pirko has been able to substantiate that from 16th century onwards they were Ukrainian. Local toponyms and hydronyms attest to this. Slovyansk for example, used to be a Cossack fortress called Tor, which was closely tied with the local salt trade’ says historian and Donetsk native Olha Kovalevska. 'All the nomadic tribes to have been known on the territory of Ukraine have been here and left their mark, from the Iranian-speaking tribes of paleometal era, Cimmerians, Scythians, Sarmatians of the early Iron Age, to the Turkic Khazars, Oguz, Kumans, Pechenegs, the Golden Horde and Tatars' – archeologist professor Roman Lytvynenko.
Donbas is part of the legendary Wild Fields. It is home to the unique landmark of Ukrainian and world archeology, the Amvrosiivka late Paleolithic archaeological site with a bison bonebed, the only one in the world that survived in a decent state. There are one-of-a-kind Cimmerian, Scythian, Sarmatian mound burial sites, there are the famous Perederiyeva Mohyla, Chorna Krepinka and the Merheleva Ridge also known as "the Ukrainian Stonehenge". The list can go on and on and each of these sites is unique. The medieval era battle between the Russo-Polovtsian army and the Mongols near the river Kalka in 1223 took place right here in what is now the territory of Donetsk region. In 2012 in the Popasne county of Luhansk region archeologists uncovered the remains of a 14th century summer headquarters of the Golden Horde leader. It presumably belonged to Khan Gabdullah that has been brought to power by Amir Mamay.
Donbas used to be defined not by slagheaps but by barrows and unique Scythian and Polovets stelae. There were around 180 thousand valuable items that included utterly unique specimens in the Donetsk Geographical Museum, which would turn 90 years old next December if it hadn't been destroyed by the militants. According to Roman Lytvynenko, it presented the golden fund and above all an endless field for research of the history of nomadic tribes in Ukraine. The museum has a unique collection of Scythian and Polovets stelae, some unlike any other in the world, namely the detailed statue of a Scythian warrior from the Olkhovchyk village dated 4th century B.C.
Donetsk and Luhansk regions are Cossack lands with their forts, towns and villages. And the Ukrainian ethnic origins never disappeared from the region. According to Olha Kovalevska, until recently folklore expeditions in Slovyansk county, Donetsk region, used to encounter Ukrainian traditional songs not heard anywhere else in Ukraine. Unique examples of traditional dwellings of Donetsk Ukrainians can be found in the open air museum of Prelesne. The exhibits have been brought there from the surrounding villages of Bryhadyrivka, Sydorove and Mayakiv owing to the efforts of the local ethnographer Oleksandr Shevchenko. Another great landmark of the Ukrainian Cossack barocco was the Svyatohirsk Lavra (the story has it that in the 18th and 19th centuries it became the refuge for monks fleeing Byzantine in the times of iconoclast persecution). The historian notes that its decoration was on par with the best that the churches Kyiv have to offer. Interestingly, after the Greeks and other orthodox population of Crimea resettled to the Mariupol area, their spiritual leader Metropolitan bishop Ignatiy was allowed to occupy the former Cossack wooden church of St. Michael. It became one of the first operating cathedrals in the newly reclaimed lands. To this day there are Cossack dwellings in Luhansk region, each house like a small standalone fort. Unlike the more common traditional architecture of Donetsk region, these 200-year-old buildings are made of stone. Such peculiar architecture featuring fences of stone can still be seen in places like Naholno-Tarasivka village between Sverdlovsk and Rovenky, or the now ruined Stanytsia Luhanska. The aforementioned village is also unique by its ancient wooden church that still stands despite its estimated 250-year-old age.
Donetsk and Luhansk regions are more known for their natural resources rather than nature. 'However paradoxical this may seem, the wildlife areas are vast, they are larger and much more diverse than the ones in Kyiv and Lviv regions. Most of those who had never been to the Donbas imagine it as a never-ending industrial landscape, grey skies and slagheaps. It is absolutely not the case. For me personally, the Donbas is the most favorite place on Earth, the place I kept coming back to and taking with me people from Ukraine as well as foreigners, the place I dream to return to when the war ends" says Oleksiy Vasyliuk, the deputy head of the National Ecological Centre of Ukraine that over the last decade has done a great deal to protect the natural landmarks in the East. He told us how the foreigners that come to see the post-soviet and markedly industrial Donbas are often stunned as they travel to their destination through large areas of wildlife. There were, however, days when the East of Ukraine used to be associated with the endless steppe, the Wild Fields, their history and nature.
The uniqueness and tenderness of the steppe, its flora and fauna lies in that in can only exist in its primordial natural form or not at all. ‘A third of all plants and animals in the Red Book of endangered species are steppe species. If they disappear in Ukraine, they automatically disappear in Europe too’ – stresses Vasyliuk. You won’t find such steppe anywhere else, apart from Donetsk and Luhansk regions and also Crimea. And they have already been put on the list of UNESCO protected natural sites. Three out of four departments of the Ukrainian Steppe Reserve “Khomutovskyi Steppe”, “Kamyani Mohyly” and “Kreydova Flora” are located in Donetsk region. Only here one can find 12 kinds of stipa: Stipa lessingiana, Stipa capillata, Stipa grafiana, Stipa maeotica, Stipa brauneri, Stipa disjuncta, Stipa tirsa Steven, Stipa adoxa, Stipa dasyphylla, Stipa fallacina, Stipa ucrainica and Stipa asperella. There are dozens of hectares of bright red fernleaf peony and three kinds of endangered tulips: Tulipa schrenkii, Tulipa ophiophylla and Tulipa quercetorum. There’s also an awe-inspiring canyon in the valley of the river Kalmius, a unique species of the endangered cretaceous pine growing out of chalk deposits around Slovyansk and cannot be found anywhere else in the world. There are cretaceous hills in the north of Luhansk region, they are high cliffs towering above rivers that flow into Siverskyi Donets, in particular Yevsuh and Aydar. The cretaceous soil is full of holes of incredible depth created by marmots, one of the symbols of the steppe wildlife. There is a large wild population of these rodents in the Donbas. All of the above can be found both in the Luhansk Wildlife Reserve and beyond.