War in the Donbas

Ukraine in Focus

Tatiana Zhurzhenko’s 2014 essay “From Borderlands into Bloodlands” (in German in Transit, in English for Eurozine) sketches the sometimes-contradictory, always complex aspects of Ukrainian identity as it relates to Eeastern Ukraine. She highlights the decades-long dynamics of Ukrainian discourse about the Donbas that were heightened by the war: on the one hand, the localization of conflict in the Donbas contributed to “othering” the region. Yet on the other hand, “Donbas has become the land where Ukrainian independence, democracy and the future of the nation are being defended, and therefore, from now on, Donbas is Ukraine.”

Shifting the focus from Ukraine-wide perceptions of the Donbas to local self-perception, Oksana Mikheieva examines the post-2014 shifts in Donbas residents’ self-perception for Osteuropa in a 2016 article, arguing that the local population’s tendency to see itself as separate from the rest of Ukraine but also from Russia were mounting as they realized that the war would not soon be resolved. At the same time, the notion of a single “Donbas identity,” especially after 2014, is overly simplistic, Yulia Abibok argues. She disaggregates this concept in an exploration of local sentiments in Mariupol for Eurozine in 2020, focusing on environmental protests.  

Such a complexity of identities can be grasped at least in part through fiction. Volodymyr Rafeenko’s story "Seven Dillweeds," translated for Eurozine in 2017 by Marci Shore, captures the senselessness and confusion of the war on an individual level. Yevgeniia Belorusets’s short stories about women of the Donbas get at the psychological scars left by the war, including the economic devastation it brought. And Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees takes as its setting the strip of land between Ukrainian-controlled territory and the territory occupied by Russian forces. Both books, originally published in 2018 but now available in English translation, were reviewed by Jennifer Wilson in the New York Times.

Just as fiction can add richness to our understanding of the lives of people in the Donbas, so too can first-hand reporting. In excerpts from his book The War that Changed Us, published by Eurozine in 2017, Paweł Pieniążek described his months reporting from the front, covering the downing of the MH17 airliner and the battle for the towns around Donetsk. Speaking with both soldiers and civilians, he paints a complex portrait of the impact the war has on the people affected by it. (Returning to the Donbas in April 2022 as it braced for the latest Russian assault, Pieniążek reports from Severodonetsk for Tygodnik Powszechny (in Polish) on the complex decisions being made by local residents whether to to remain in their home city or try to evacuate the region, despite the danger even attempting to leave can pose (as demonstrated by the Russian missile attack on the Kramatorsk train station on 8 April).)

Why did the war develop as it did in 2014? Andrii Portnov makes the case in openDemocracy in a piece from 2016 that it is vital to look closely at the local dynamics in Eeastern Ukraine in 2014. The question can be boiled down to: why didn’t Kharkiv and Dnipro become Donetsk and Luhansk? Portnov argues that we have to be able to answer this in order to figure out how the war ends – and while the war then was on a completely different scale to now, how it ends remains the most important question today.

The experience of the past eight years, and thinking about what the end goal might be, weighs heavily on the minds of those Ukrainians now responsible for the region. In The Atlantic, Nataliya Gumenyuk profiles the governors of Donetsk and Luhansk regions as they are faced with impossible choices over the future of their regions. She describes the “intractable challenges they face”: “where to deploy limited resources, what areas to defend, whom to save.” Yet they are committed to navigating these challenges to the best of their abilities. Gumenyuk reflects on the injustice of the Donbas coming under heavy attack again, after so much work had been done to rebuild in the wake of the destruction wrought by the first phase of the war for the Donbas:

Why must we have to give up all that we have built over these past years—not just the physical places and infrastructure, but the sense of identity, of being Ukrainian—because a neighboring state has violently assaulted us? It feels as though the Kremlin is exacting punishment on an entire country simply because of who we are, and who we choose to be. To ask us to surrender and be subjugated because we have been threatened with death—that, too, presents an impossible choice.

Olena Stiazhkina kept a diary throughout the spring and summer of 2014, as localized violence escalated into war. Her words from August 2014, published by Eurozine, reflect an understanding of the Ukrainian state that differs from the dominant view today, yet her sentiments still resonate:

I don’t know what’s going to happen in ten minutes. Much less what will happen tomorrow. Will my city be intact? Will my house – the blue-grey one; turn left on Treneva, then straight, almost to the end of the courtyard – still be standing? Will I be alive? My family. My friends? Where will they be, and will they be alive? Who, where will be the beneficiary of the peacekeeping “hail” or the “humanitarian” land mine? Who else will they manage to capture, and who will be able to save themselves …

I don’t know.

But there are two things I understand perfectly.

The first is simple and old. Like the apple tree my great-grandfather planted in Konstantinovka before that war.

The Ukrainian state can be defeated. Generals steal, bureaucrats shave budgets and live off the deaths of soldiers, politicians lie and are afraid, tremble for their seats, their mandates … The state is coughing up its long non-existence, but these parasitic worms have massive experience of surviving. They eat and eat. They keep eating until the living thing dies.

The Ukrainian state can be defeated.

But the nation cannot.

It’s a very simple thought. There’s something irrational in it – truth, faith, strength, prayer … And something completely pragmatic – the people, acquaintances and strangers, who today and tomorrow and forever will stand together with me along this long road – all the way to the horizon line, and maybe even farther … They will feed, save, build, forgive, give, heal and defend. As much as necessary.

We are going to do this. And thus we cannot be defeated.

Read: Rafeenko’s novel Mondegreen, about a Donbas native displaced to Kyiv after 2014, is now available in English translation from the Harvard Library of Ukrainian Literature.

Listen: Kurkov’s “Letter from Ukraine” for BBC Radio 4 offers a personal account of daily life during the war.

Watch: Oleksiy Radynskyi’s 2016 short film People who Came to Power shows the transition from peace to war in the Donbas in March-April 2014.