The city of Sloviansk in Donetsk Oblast was among the first spots where Donbas was occupied by Russian-backed forces. Fighting in the city began in the middle of April 2014. On 5 July of the same year, however, the city was liberated, and Russian forces led by the retired Russian officer Igor Girkin troops retreated to Donetsk. Since that time Sloviansk has seen no serious provocations, and has seen the development of many civil society initiatives. Nevertheless, the city retains certain stereotypes regarding its security and pro-Russian sentiment. What is true and what is not about one of the first cities to be occupied and what can its modern development tell us about the processes happening in the whole Donbas region?
On 27 and 28 September 2019, members of the local community gathered in the premises of a printery in one of the central streets in Sloviansk. The meeting was led by representatives of the DRA, a German NGO which initiated a new civil society center, Drukarnia (a printery in Ukrainian) here. The project is funded by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
It is not the first civil society center in Sloviansk, and the city, with a population of about 110,000, could use more than one.
During the two days of the opening, guests and locals participated in discussions aimed at fostering understanding of the reasons why the city fell for the ideas of the so-called Russian Spring in 2014 and analyzing the modern challenges it now faces to address them properly.
Who made the show before the war
Vadym Liah, the mayor of Sloviansk, attended the opening ceremony and left soon after his speech. He is far from being a catalyst of civil society development in the city.
“He does not help, but he also does not interfere, which is already something good,” local activists admit.
In fact, Liah used to be a representative of a force which was destructive for the region. Not a Russian, but a Ukrainian one. In 2015, he became a mayor under the slogan “To love Sloviansk like Nelia did”.
The slogan referred to Nelly Shtepa, the former mayor of Sloviansk when the city’s occupation began. At first, Shtepa supported the seizure of the city by pro-Russian forces. She explained that it was local Donbas men who were defending Sloviansk from the Kyiv government, which had come to power after the Euromaidan Revolution, mythologized in the Donbas region in line with Russian propaganda. A few days after the beginning of the occupation and after Sloviansk had a new self-proclaimed mayor Viacheslav Ponomariov, Shtepa stood against him and stated that it was Russians and people from Crimea who had seized the city.
Nevertheless, after the release of Sloviansk, Ukrainian Security Services initiated criminal proceedings against her for damaging the country’s territorial integrity which led to the death of people and creating a terrorist organisation.
In 2019, Shtepa campaigned to become an MP within the list of the pro-Russian Opposition Platform for Life party, but failed.
Both Shtepa and the current mayor Liah used to be members of the Party of Regions, the party of the corrupt president Viktor Yanukovych. As Yanukovych and his party were rooted in Donbas, the region has suffered most from the consequences of the corrupt regime. In the pre-war period, Liah was a local MP from the Party of Regions. Since 2001 he headed the local organization of the Union of the Young Regions of Ukraine, the Party of Region’s youth wing.
Anna Avdiyants, the founder of Teplytsia (greenhouse in Ukrainian), another civil society center in Sloviansk focused on local youth, describes the influence the youth wing of the Party of Regions had. Avdiyants studied at the local pedagogical university. Participating in Ukrainian university competitions, Sloviansk University was losing. As described by Avdiyants, the real goal of these competitions was to show up. But her university had no money for it, in effect it was looking for sponsors.
“Who would be a sponsor? Of course the Young Regions. They provided money, but instead were asking to stand for them during the elections. Unfortunately, before 2014 the youth was used as an administrative resource [for abuse of power during elections], they were like decorations,” Avdiyants said at the Drukarnia opening.
The activist still remembers the words of the dean of her faculty who asked the youth not to say anything during the organizational meetings or to say what he was telling them to say.
“The situation was repeated in 2014. Again we were asked not to say anything. This time with guns. After we were released, it became clear that if we don’t get off our asses, they would again shut our mouths. This time the activists from different areas had an opportunity to unite for a common goal, to not let the youth be muzzled again and provide a choice for young people. That is why we organized the Teplytsia platform in 2015.”
Kostyantyn Reutskyi, the executive director of Vostok-SOS, a human rights NGO aiming to help people from Donbas region rejects the view of Donbas civil society being poorly developed before 2014. According to the activist, before the de-facto war all work was covered by the appropriate NGOs. However, it was not enough either to oppose the so-called Russian Spring or other negative trends including corruption and political elites collaborating with Russia.
“If taken in general, Donbas society is inert and passive. Probably the reason is the economic structure of the region. It is an industrial region where people have always been strongly dependent on the major employer,” Reutskyi assumes.
An industrial nature is a heritage Donbas received from the Soviet Union, along with the myths about itself.
Donbas history was a special topic often addressed by activists during the Drukarnia opening.
Forgotten roots as a precondition for war
Working for major employers, big industrial enterprises, was mentioned by Reutskyi as contributing towards a specific way of thinking. When the employer seems influential and the most important, while ordinary workers do not decide anything, including things in their own life. Additionally, the functioning of these big enterprises was dramatically influenced by the Communist Party.
Along with industrialisation, the Soviets brought its own myths to the region.
“The Soviets did a lot to form this new identity, a Soviet person. Ukrainians experienced it the most,” Volodymyr Kachur, the head of the Druzhkivka branch of the Union of Local History Experts of Ukraine, says at the discussion on history in Drukarnia.
The man explored the life of his town Druzhkivka during that period.
“In the 1930s, in Druzhkivka people were detained just for being supportive towards Mykola Skrypnyk [a communist who was involved in the Ukrainization policy of 1920-1930s, and approved of Kharkiv spelling]. People were detained even for performing Ukrainian national songs. They were called nationalists. Everything was distorted. In the post-war period the memory of the influence and life of Ukrainians, French, and Germans who also lived here disappeared.”
Yevheniya Kalugina, an activist of the Black Tulip, a humanitarian mission which searches, exhumes and removes those killed on the Donbas frontline is involved in the project on creating a memorial park for the Sloviansk founders on the grounds of the old city cemetery, Starohorodske.
The woman debunks another Soviet myth which says that there was no economy in Donbas before the Soviet Union. Kalugina recounts recent findings discovered by the activists at Sloviansk cemetery which provides evidence of Donbas development before the Soviets.
“We handled the archives of people buried in our cemetery. Overall, there are more than four thousand names. The trend is that there were many aliens from Moscow, Kaluga and other provinces. It means that when in 1861 serfdom was abolished in the Russian Empire, we here [in Donbas] were already developing. People who did not know what to do with freedom were coming here to earn money.”
The participants in the discussion in Drukarnia agree that Donbas citizens were not familiar with their history. Russia used this weakness and as a result de-facto war in Donbas started in 2014. Moreover, the participants agree that during the last five years Ukrainie has not done enough to remedy the situation.
“The worldview struggle is ongoing until today. Unfortunately, we have not always had support from the government, because the government comes with ideas from the Russian world. We can see clear examples of this. Our [Druzhkivka] mayor unofficially supported the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ and became famous for being a separatist. Now he has won the elections and become an MP from the Opposition Platform for Life. He allegedly supported Petro Poroshenko [ex-president with a pro-Ukrainian stance]. However, when the election process started he again turned to the ideas of the Russian world,” Kachur said.
Another sensitive topic for the participants of the discussion is language. Some people in the group speak Ukrainian, some Russian. Both agree there are devoted Ukrainians among the Russian-speaking citizens, language in ordinary life is not a real problem. However, the group also agrees that it becomes a problem when Ukrainian state officials, as for example the Sloviansk mayor, deliberately prefer to speak Russian.
“Despite the multicultural nature, people always avoided speaking about their identity. The language means belonging to a certain political stance. At this point a part of the electorate disappears. The majority of the electorate is used to not defining its identity; they think only about surviving, not about values. When the values worsen life they don’t matter, we would not talk about them. Russia gives this status of life when we can forget about it and we agree to forget about it,” Dmytro Bilko, scientific secretary of the Donetsk Regional Museum of Local History says
The man concludes that people who will touch on the values topic will always be in the minority. Therefore they should be even more active, to make their projects successful to demonstrate an example of how being yourself can be successful.
Becoming more active
Apart from the discussion on history, Drukarnia has held other talks on the environment, decentralisation, art, international collaboration and youth development. All of these showed how important it was for the local activists just to voice their thoughts, worries and ideas to like-minded people, even if they are not a majority in the city.
Drukarnia is aiming to become a platform for Sloviansk’s developing civil society, so more projects and ideas of making the city a better place are expected to be born here.
Meanwhile, Reutskyi called on the local activists to be more attentive to the general atmosphere in the city and the wishes of the people who so far form the majority. During the last parliamentary elections he, together with two other colleagues, decided to campaign in Luhansk Oblast in single-mandate constituencies. The three spent lots of time just talking to people in the region. Ultimately, they lost the elections, but gained valuable experience.
“I saw how shallowly civil society in our oblast plows the field. Yes, the activists do a lot. During the last five years our organisation has helped more than 400,000 people who suffered because of the conflict. However, the effect which our activities have is not enough. We do not involve the broad masses. In effect, it influences all our life and the slow path of the democratic transformations.”
Talking to other activists Reutskyi emphasized the importance of being understandable to people, to accept, to listen, and to address their questions.
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