The industrial town of Torez, Donetsk Oblast, has been under pro-Russian control since June. While during the summer Ukrainian offensive the town was a site of pitched battles, after the large-scale Russian invasion in late August it has remained firmly in the hands of militants and/or Russian troops.
But even under occupation, life still goes on, even if in many aspects it’s changed for the worse. A community “Overheard in Torez” on the Russian social network Vkontakte, numbering over 11 000 members (out of the 57 000 pre-war population), consists of member-submitted news and questions which offer an invaluable insight into everyday life in occupied territory.
At first glance, the group may seem completely normal. The day starts with a pic of a cup of steaming hot coffee, followed by an ad to hire a PHP coder and a mom and daughter looking for an apartment. You begin to suspect something when an offer to the mom lists a water boiler as a clear advantage. Later, you can come across someone asking for a “water supply schedule,” which definitely wasn’t an issue in pre-war Torez.
Things start looking bizzare when the administration posts a news piece from one of a multitude of pro-Russian militants’ websites about a terrorist act (labeled as ‘partisan’) against a military unit in neighboring Kharkiv region. The article is illustrated by a flag of the unrealized Kharkiv People’s Republic and earns a total of 6 likes. An old joke about wife-mistress relationships an hour later harvests 34. The next two posts, the first asking for a way to deposit to money to an e-wallet (you can’t, if you don’t know a guy who knows a guy) and the second full of water supply-related complaints, get 2 each.
A question about a weird crowd of men in the town square is left unanswered, except with “They are drug addicts getting high, why do you ask?” A bunch of posts discuss a recurrent topic – how does one get out of Torez? Turns out that vans run to militant-held Donetsk on a regular basis, coaches to Taganrog, Russia should go more often since they end up full, and it’s really hard to get to Ukrainian-held territory without a Good Samaritan to take you in the car. You do need to go there, if you want to keep getting your Ukrainian pension (which you can’t in occupied territory).
After some paperwork (and help from Ukrainian volunteers), you start getting your pension to a Privatbank card. The bank, belonging to strikingly pro-Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskyi, has suffered many assaults on its offices and ATMs in militant-occupied territory. The pension, nevertheless, keeps coming on time.
A thread discusses widespread rumors of a renewed Ukrainian offensive after the October 26 parliamentary elections. Someone jokingly claims overhearing rumors of an alien invasion on Thursday, others urge to stop reading the Internet and watching TV, since there are so many false alarms. “Let’s be optimistic…” – finally, comes a piece of advice; “God saves our town”.
Two consecutive posts pretty much sum up the bizarreness of life in today Torez. “Please point me to a good eyebrow correction specialist”, a girl asks and gets a long list of phones in response. The next one? “Where’s the shelling coming from? Is it from us or at us?”
Many are trying to find a job, but the most lucrative prospect is probably the “North” – Russian North, obviously, the land of oil, gas and opportunity. There, you can get 700 to 2000 dollars monthly – if you have experience and are willing to pay through the roof for food, that is.
The group is a last resort for people trying to find the most basic things like a birthday cake, baby food, or natural gas fuel. Even ordinary gasoline is hard to come by (at least something that won’t ruin your engine). “Try Putin, he has lots of it,” someone jokes grimly.
The humor and sarcasm definitely seem to be something that helps people to get by. “Are you allowed to go from Russia to DNR? – Yes, and you even can get an AK-47 for free, or, better yet, bring your own!”; “Did everyone get the heating switched off? – Was it ever on?”; “Be careful – con artists call people around Torez and beg for money on behalf of friends and relatives! – If only anyone had money, that would be a good con”. Apolitical jokes and cartoons blasting Ukraine and the US alike are perhaps the most popular posts in the group.
It’s hard to say whether everyone in Torez is so vehemently anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western. After all, the harsh reality of the pro-Russian rule is that expressing opposing views is a quick way “to the basement” – detention you won’t necessary come back from.
Another hard-to-answer-question: who’s in charge of Torez, anyway? It’s probably some guy who used to be a host at “Miners’ day” festivals, widely celebrated around Donbas. Clips from a Soviet comedy illustrating the anarchy in Ukraine during the 1918-1921 Civil War, when towns changed hands daily. The locals seem skeptical towards the political changes, as a thread advising against getting Donetsk Republic passports proves – “it’s a sheet of paper that won’t get you anywhere.”
A trace of dissent can be found in the group – for example, the discussion on the fate of militant commander Igor “Strelkov” Girkin who’s vanished from public view comes to a conclusion that he was made to leave Donbas so that the war wouldn’t spread beyond it. The people feel caught in a crossfire of Russian and Ukrainian oligarchic interests and betrayed by Vladimir Putin, who did not recognize the pro-Russian quasi-states and pushed for a ceasefire. Ruined towns, constant shelling, shooting in the streets and loss of jobs and basic amenities definitely wasn’t something they voted for at the May “referendum” to secede from Ukraine.
Nevertheless, many are still optimistic about their future. The most popular post for the day is a poem praising the town of Torez and ending with a message of hope that things will go back to normal. People urge each other to stay optimistic and pray for the best, perhaps for the moment forgetting that their idea of “the best” looks suspiciously like life in pre-war Torez, before the dream of seceding to Russia turned out to be a nightmare.