05/14/2022, 08.27
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The Donbas past and future

by Stefano Caprio

Beyond the actual military conquests, and the destruction of population centres, to what extent do the people of the so-called 'independent republics' wish to reunite with Russia?

The Russian Ministry of Defence recently announced that Russian armies, together with separatists from the self-proclaimed republic of Lugansk, have reached the borders of the region. So far, there has been no independent confirmation of this announcement, and the Russian advance in the Donbass (where the separatists controlled about 30% of the territory before the invasion) has be thus far very slow; the Ukrainians themselves promise that they will be the ones to reach the Russian borders in the counter-offensive in these areas.

During the 9 May parade, Putin had addressed the Russian soldiers and the 'Donbass militias', comparing them to the guards of the ancient prince Vladimir Monomakh, the last one able to unite the souls of Kievan Rus' in 1125 before the Asian invasions, and to the troops of the legendary General Suvorov, the eighteenth-century 'generalissimo' who reached as far as Piedmont, glorifying them for 'heroic resistance to the punitive operation of the Nazis that was being prepared', again without any specification. Although without mentioning the accursed name 'Ukraine', the leader whom many Russians now call 'Putler' mentioned the 'Donets basin' region (meaning 'Donbass') six times in his speech.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had repeatedly specified that the purpose of the special military operation is to reintegrate the two republics into the 2014 borders, "set in the constitutions of the Lugansk and Donetsk people's republics", approved in the independence referendums in May of that year, thus regaining 70% of the territories. In this corner of land also known as the 'coal basin' (like the Siberian 'Kuzbass', another coal-producing area), the dispute over borders has actually been going on since time immemorial: ancient Greece, Muscovy, the kingdom of Poland-Lithuania, the Khanate of the Crimean Tatars and others have made claims over them. The original masters were the Sarmatians, and then the so-called Circassians, originally from Central Asia, also known as Kazakhs, 'free men' from whom the Don Cossacks were later born, who from year to year moved their main camp, the Seč, to the various islets of the great river and its tributaries, such as the Donets, to escape the assaults of their many enemies.

It was only at the end of the 18th century that Tsarina Catherine II the Great (one of Putin's role models) had succeeded in integrating the Donbass into the Russian Empire, and her favourite-commander Grigory Potëmkin had initiated a mass transfer of peasants from central Russia, calling this very area Malorossija, the 'Little Russia', the title later given to the entire Ukrainian region, but also Novorossija, the 'New Russia'. The Donbass itself varies in size, from that limited to the provinces of Lugansk and Donetsk to the 'Greater Donbass' stretching from Khar'kov to Mariupol, precisely the areas of the current conflict.

Migration into the region occurred at various times, until systematic coal mining began in the mid-19th century to support heavy industry and especially the construction of new railway lines. The main metallurgical centre, where the railway tracks were built, was opened by the British trader John Hughes and concentrated in a village that later grew out of all proportion, which from its original name of Juzovka (from the Russian transcription of Hughes - Juz) was later renamed Stalino in the 1920s, and Donetsk in 1961 after destalinisation. Many workers moved here for the high earnings they were guaranteed, and many went to spend them in Khar'kov, the nearest big city.

Before the revolution, the Donbass was one of the main industrial centres of Russia. In February 1918, the socialist republic of Donetsk-Krivoi Rog had been formed here, but it had only lasted a month, only to be invaded by the Germans. After the civil war between the Reds and Whites (1918-1920), the Soviets suppressed all independent realities of revolutionary Ukraine, and incorporated the Donbass into the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine, in order to ensure its Russification, as Khruščev later did with Crimea, and of this Putin has publicly complained many times, blaming Lenin for having 'invented Ukraine', which today must be erased from history.

In fact, in Russian geography and literature textbooks from before the revolution, these areas were assigned to the Malorossija, and included cities now in Russia such as Taganrog, Bogučar and Rostov-on-Don, the traditional locations of the Cossacks. Even in all the censuses of the Soviet period and of the last thirty years (the last in 2001), the vast majority of the population of the Donbass declared themselves to be of 'Ukrainian nationality', although they spoke predominantly Russian, with local dialectal inflections.

Beyond the actual military reconquests, and the destruction of population centres, the question today is precisely this: to what extent does the population of these so-called 'independent republics' wish to reunite with Russia? Many experienced the end of the USSR, which guaranteed stability and protection even in terms of ethnic proportions, as a trauma, but nostalgia for the Soviet past was now waning, as shown by a 2013 poll, in which barely half still expressed regret for the loss of past greatness. It is true that many wished for a 'strong government', and even before Euromaidan there were concerns about pressure from the 'banderovtsy', the western Ukrainians linked to the memory of the Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera.

Thus the question of the 'Ukrainianisation' of the Donbass, what Putin calls 'nazification', and Patriarch Kirill even 'genocide' of the local Russian population, arose. In Donetsk and Lugansk, in fact, Russian-speaking citizens had repeatedly asked for the Russian language to be granted the status of 'national language' alongside Ukrainian, but it was only in 2012 that it was decided to consider it a 'regional language' in the same way as Romanian and Hungarian in the Černigov and Zakarpat'e regions. Local citizens therefore had the right to speak Russian in every environment, including school and work; alongside the public school, where both Russian and Ukrainian were used, there was no lack of fully Russian-speaking public schools.

After the Maidan revolution and the flight of the pro-Russian president Viktor Janukovič, the Verkhovnaja Rada (the Kiev parliament) suppressed the 'regional status' of all languages other than Ukrainian, but the interim president Aleksandr Turčinov vetoed the suppression. This did not prevent the feeling of internal ethnic conflict spreading throughout the country, and especially among the nearly seven million inhabitants of the Donbass, although not many openly expressed concern about the 'imposition of the national language'. Later, the infiltration of Russian volunteers and mercenaries initiated the 'hybrid war', in which the language issue was used as a flag to wave for the 'liberation' of the territories.

The Donbass has never been such a highly symbolic land as Crimea, where Prince Vladimir and his grandmother Olga were baptised in the early days of Rus', in that Chersonese where the Russians later built the stronghold of Sevastopol. Putin extolled the 'Russian civilisation' of these lands, where the 'Asian nomads' he compared to recent pandemics used to roam. It was here that the epic battle recorded in the masterpiece of medieval Kievan Rus' literature, the 'Song of Igor's Host', took place, in which the prince is extolled for his glorious defeat in defence of the people and the Orthodox faith, overpowered by the barbarian Pechenegs and Polovtsy in 1185. A few years later, in 1223, there was the first descent of the Tatar-Mongols in the ruinous battle of the Kalka River near Mariupol, from which they then invaded and razed the whole of Rus' to the ground. Eight centuries later, the question of the future of the Donbass, and all of Russia, has been re-ignited.

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