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Who decided on the boundaries of the ‘Russian World’? A brief history of Donbas separatism
Story by Konstantin Skorkin. English-language version by Emily Laskin.
Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, but the armed conflict started eight years earlier when pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas tried, with Moscow’s support, to secede from the rest of the country. But the groundwork for the 2014 separatist movement and Donbas “self-determination” had, in fact, been laid decades before that, in the years surrounding the collapse of the Soviet Union. By the time the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) and Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) appeared in news headlines, Russian political forces had already spent years promoting the idea of the “Russian world” in the Donbas and sowing local distrust of Ukraine’s other regions. Putin used Donbas separatists as a pretext for the full-scale invasion, claiming they needed protection from Ukrainian nationalists, an idea that had been carefully prepared and disseminated by the Donbas separatists and the Russian authorities. Konstantin Skorkin, a researcher in Ukrainian politics, describes how these ideas were born in the Donbas, who set them in motion, why Russia co-opted them and what made the events of 2014 — and everything that followed — possible. This article is adapted from an issue of Kit, a newsletter from the creators of Meduza. You can subscribe to Kit (it’s in Russian) here.
A unique position in an independent Ukraine
“The problem child of Moscow and Kyiv.” That’s what Japanese-American historian Hiroaki Kuromiya called the Donbas in his 1998 book, Freedom and Terror in the Donbas, to this day one of the best academic studies of this complex region. Kuromiya analyzes the Donbas, a post-industrial region on the Russia-Ukraine border, in terms of frontier theory — it’s a borderland, he argues, which is at the center of civilizational conflicts.
Several large historical processes formed this “problem child” as a socio-cultural entity. Historically known as “the wild field,” this sparsely populated steppe territory was colonized by Cossacks in the 16th–17th centuries. About a century later, in 1721–1722, rich oil deposits were discovered in the region, kicking off the first Donbas industrial boom. Foreign capital played a significant role: in 1869, the city now called Donetsk was founded by Welsh industrialist John Hughes, whose surname was transliterated as Yuz, the origin of the settlement’s original name of Yuzovka.
After the 1917 revolution, the Donbas became a center of Soviet industrialization. An industrial powerhouse arose in the middle of the steppe, with the large cities of Donetsk and Luhansk surrounded by workers’ settlements and smaller towns.
The breakup of the USSR and the establishment of an independent Ukraine posed a serious challenge for the Donbas. Local industry was already in decline when the Soviet Union dissolved, and the 1990s sent the region into deep crisis. Many mines and factories closed down, leaving a population suddenly without work. The Donbas landscape of the 1990s was characterized by entire blocks of ghostly apartment buildings, abandoned by residents. When production stopped in the Donbas, life stopped.
The economic crisis became a crisis of values. People who were accustomed to ordering their entire lives to the rhythms of heavy industry experienced deep frustration, which in turn fueled nostalgia for the Soviet past. Similar processes have become characteristic of post-industrial regions all over the world, but they were felt particularly acutely in the Donbas, in large part because of the unique positions of language and culture in the region. For decades, industry in the Donbas brought in workers from many countries and all parts of the Soviet Union. The result was a very culturally and ethnically diverse population, but one which spoke mainly Russian, the Soviet Union’s lingua franca. According to the last Soviet census, conducted in 1989, 64 percent of Luhansk residents and 67.7 percent of Donetsk residents considered Russian their native language. However, in ethnic terms, Ukrainians still made up a slim majority of the population: in Luhansk Ukrainians comprised 51.9 percent of the population, while in Donetsk they made up 50.7 percent (Russians were 44.4 percent and 43.6 percent, respectively).
This was fertile soil for ideas and slogans about the Donbas’s “special path,” and many such ideas took root in a local population disoriented by the upheavals of the late-Soviet and early post-Soviet periods. The ideology around the “special path” arose during Perestroika, when movements declaring that the Donbas stood apart from Ukraine arose alongside Ukrainian national and democratic organizations. The first of the Donbas-focused organizations, the International Movement of the Donbas, was formed in 1990. It advocated for the region seceding from Ukraine if Kyiv decided to secede from the Soviet Union.
The organization’s ideological leaders modeled their vision of Donbas independence on the Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Soviet Republic — an autonomous political formation that existed for a fleeting period in early 1918. The leader of the International Movement of the Donbas, historian and journalist Dmitry Kornilov, even invented a flag for the “Donetsk Republic.” It was red, blue, and black, and it was modeled on the Soviet Ukrainian flag, but with the addition of a black stripe to symbolize Donbas coal. Those colors now fly on the “state flag” of the self-proclaimed DNR.
During the same period of the late 1980s and early 1990s, a similar organization formed in Luhansk. It was called the People’s Movement of Luhansk, and its chief ideologue was a teacher named Valery Cheker. He said, “Our movement stands for autonomy within Ukraine, if the republic signs the union treaty. If not, then we may be talking about transferring to the jurisdiction of the RSFSR [the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic].”
Luhansk writer and political scientist Sergey Cherbanenko thought that a conservative faction of the local nomenklatura, the USSR’s bureaucratic managers, which opposed democratic reforms, was behind the People’s Movement of Luhansk. He essentially predicted, in late 1990, the events of 2014, warning that separatists would come to power after sowing disorder and create an “independent” Luhansk. After that, he predicted, Kyiv would attempt to regain control over the territory by force, but if it failed, an impoverished and aggressive dictatorship would emerge in the region.
Those catastrophic scenarios didn’t come to pass back then. And in 1991, the majority of the population of the Donbas supported Ukrainian independence — 83.9 percent of Donetsk residents, and 83.6 percent of Luhansk residents voted for it. Hiroaki Kuromiya writes, in Freedom and Terror in the Donbas, that “Their profound sense of alienation from Moscow, as well as the feeling that Moscow simply exploited the Donbas, inclined the Donbas workers to think that they would be better off in an independent Ukraine — that an independent Ukraine would not exploit the Donbas as much as Moscow had done.”
The situation in the Donbas differs from that of Crimea, where local separatists owe their political power to the ethnic predominance of Russians in the population. And in the 1990s, Donbas separatist movements were a marginal phenomenon.
The Donbas was in generally poor condition in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and during the era of privatization. Local elites managed to grab the best bits of regional industry for themselves, while workers suffered increasingly dangerous and unstable working conditions.
Official mining operations were dangerous enough, often employing 19th-century extraction methods. The real disaster of the Donbas, though, were the so-called kopankas — illegal shallow mines. They had no safety equipment, but each one did have a criminal “cover” to protect it from competitors, and that protection ate up most of the mines’ earnings.
The Donetsk journalist Denis Kazansky describes how the kopankas worked: state mines, controlled by local elites, would buy coal from the illegal mines and sell it as their own product. “Since illegal coal usually cost several times less than legal coal, the leadership [of state coal companies] not only managed to profit on the difference, but also cooked up extra funds from state-allocated subsidies,” Kazansky says.
The Donbas in those years “started to resemble a colonial country that gives away its natural riches for a pittance and lives in disenfranchisement and poverty,” writes Ukrainian historian Stanislav Kulchytsky. “The paradox was that the metropole in this case was not an actual state, but a group (or, more accurately, a class) of people, who patronized a large-scale shadow economy and used it for its own interests,” he specifies, describing local elites.
Who were these people? The Donbas elite — the Donetskiye — was (and is to this day) made up of high-ranking people from the Soviet bureaucracy, former Soviet industrial managers known as “red directors,” and the most successful crime bosses. The first two groups established an authoritarian leadership style in the region. The third group imparted penchants for unscrupulous methods for achieving their goals and the use of physical force. At the hands of all three groups, the Donbas in the 1990s became one of the most dangerous parts of Ukraine — local businessmen and politicians were frequently assassinated or killed in showdowns.
This turbulent decade saw Rinat Akhmetov, who privatized Azovstal, one of the region’s most powerful industrial concerns, rise to the top of the Donetsk clan’s business structures. Viktor Yanukovych, who at the time was governor of Donetsk, and who would go on to become president of Ukraine, headed the region’s political structure. As for Luhansk, a group of “Komsomol members” — so called because former youth members of the Communist Party made up its core — came to power. The “Komsomol” leader was the local governor, Oleksandr Yefremov, who had headed the Komsomol city committee of Luhansk in the mid-1980s (when the city was still called Voroshilovgrad).
The Donetskiye captured the region’s industrial power and became a serious political force. After considerable efforts to plunder the region’s resources and set up a shadow economy around those resources, the Donetskiye laid all the blame for the ensuing economic crisis at the feet of the authorities in Kyiv, suggesting that Ukraine’s new independence was at the heart of the region’s problems. “The Donbas feeds all of Ukraine, but meanwhile goes hungry,” they said, during the period when the Donbas fed, chiefly, the Donetskiye themselves.
The Donetskiye used the local population’s dissatisfaction to amass power at higher levels. A large strike among miners that broke out in 1993 brought one of them, mine director Yukhym Zvyahilsky, to power as acting Prime Minister of Ukraine. Within a year, Zvyahilsky had fled the country under threats to his life and corruption charges.
The mining strikes also prompted renewed discussion of Donbas independence. Vadym Chuprun, chairman of the Donetsk Regional Council, and the “red directors” who supported him, took advantage of the general chaos to demand that Kyiv grant special economic status to four regions: Donetsk, Luhansk, Dnipropetrovsk, and Zaporizhzhia. To give the demand some teeth, they threatened to block the country’s main trucking routes and stop coal shipments.
In 1994, the Donetsk and Luhansk Regional Councils created a referendum, which asked residents four questions: whether Ukraine should adopt a federal structure; whether the Russian language should be given official status; whether Russian and Ukrainian should be used equally in professional, educational, and scientific settings in the Donbas and Luhansk regions; and whether Ukraine should be more closely integrated with the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). 80 to 90 percent of voters answered “yes” to each question. Andrey Purgin, a veteran of the Donbas separatist movement and chairman of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in the mid-aughts, called 1994 “the year Donetsk separatism was born.”
The uses and abuses of the separatist idea
In the 1990s, Kyiv managed to smooth things over. The 1994 Donetsk and Luhansk referenda were challenged in court, and Leonid Kuchma, who ran on a unitary model of state development, won the presidential election. He crushed resistance from regional elites in the Donbas and Crimea.
But a decade later came the Orange Revolution — massive protests on Independence Square in Kyiv in response to a contentious and, according to many, fraudulent presidential election between Viktor Yanukovych and Viktor Yushchenko. In the years leading up to the Orange Revolution, Yanukovych had managed to rise from Donetsk governor into prime minister of the whole country. In 2004, he ran for president against his main rival, Viktor Yushchenko, and eventually won, amidst numerous charges of electoral fraud and voter intimidation — Donetskiye methods for making a president of their own.
Yushchenko’s supporters cast doubt on the legitimacy of Yanukovych’s win. Ukrainians unhappy with election results took to the streets en masse, and Ukraine was plunged into political crisis. Donetsk oligarchs answered with political violence, a sort of prelude to the events of 2014. They organized attacks on Yushchenko supporters and his campaign headquarters in Luhansk and Donetsk. And the Luhansk Regional Council, where the majority of deputies supported Yanukovych, turned to Russian President Vladimir Putin for support, and passed an appeal to create a South-Eastern Autonomous Republic (it was supposed to include the regions that voted for Yanukovych: from Crimea to Luhansk).
In November 2004, at a congress of local deputies who supported Yanukovych that convened in Severodonetsk, participants made open calls for the region to secede from Ukraine as well as issuing threats against Kyiv. Yury Luzhkov, then the mayor of Moscow, turned up and gave a speech. He expressed support for Yanukovych, and encouraged him to deal with the protestors on Independence Square as Yeltsin had dealt with a rebellious parliament in 1993 — that is, suppress the discontent with force.
Ultimately, however, the country avoided a schism once again. Leonid Kuchma managed, with European and NATO politicians mediating, to negotiate with the Donetskiye. Yanukovych’s victory was annulled, the country held a new round of elections, and this time Yushchenko won.
The Donbas elites had suffered a real political defeat, but they didn’t give up. Their Party of Regions, which Yanukovych led starting in 2001, found a close ally in United Russia, Putin’s party, with the two parties even signing a cooperation agreement. The so-called “regionals” began traveling regularly to Moscow to “trade experiences.” Using the methods of Russian authoritarianism, they created a particular political regime within the Donbas — a state within a state that they completely controlled. In Donetsk and Luhansk, membership in the Party of Regions became the only real mechanism for social advancement, as well as the main form of protection for businesses. The mayors of regional capitals and other large cities were all party members.
Leaning on the territories they controlled, Donetsk elites took their revenge in the 2006 parliamentary elections, when they won 32 percent of votes in the country. In 2010, Viktor Yanukovych finally became president of Ukraine. The Party of Regions’ power in the Donbas reached its apogee in 2014, when 106 of 124 deputies on the Luhansk Regional Council, and 168 of 180 deputies on the Donetsk Regional Council, were “regionals.”
During that period, new organizations pursuing Donbas separatism started to appear in the region. The most famous of them was the “Donetsk Republic.” The leaders of the new generation of separatists included people who would go on to play highly visible roles in the events of 2014: Andrey Purgin, the future head of the “parliament” of the self-proclaimed DNR, Roman Lyagin, who organized the “referendum” on creating the self-proclaimed republic, and others. At a minimum, these groups wanted Ukraine to become a federated state; at their most extreme, they sought the Donbas’s separation from Ukraine and unification, in one form or another, with Russia.
All the groups that pursued Donbas separatism operated under the auspices of the Donetskiye. Local security forces tried to sabotage criminal cases against separatists, even in cases where there was obvious evidence against them. In April 2013, for example, separatists organized an attack on the Izolyatsiya Art Center in Donetsk, during a seminar in which U.S. Ambassador John Tefft was participating. Around 100 people held a rally near the entrance before breaking down the gate and forcing their way inside, threatening seminar participants, and beating up event security. Regional law enforcement recorded no violations. After the creation of the self-proclaimed DNR, separatists broke into and raided the museum, and then turned it into a prison.
The “regionals” needed the separatists so that they could maintain the illusion of a deep split within the country. Donbas separatism plays on real fears, which grow out of the region’s poverty and the country’s heterogeneous foundations. And the Donbas and western Ukraine do have fundamentally different historical experiences. But the region’s nationalist fears could have resolved into cultural identity and stopped manifesting as social antagonism — had they not been constantly stoked by the Donetskiye, who incited civil strife and presented difference as insurmountable contradiction.
After Yanukovych came to power, activists from separatist movements had an important function in the realm of political image. Compared to noisy riffraff from the “Donetsk republic,” who openly attacked the West and preached a “special path for the Donbas,” the Party of Regions appeared in a positive light, as a moderate, even respectable, political force.
The Kremlin harnesses the Donbas to its own ends
In the 1990s, Russia didn’t show much interest in its Donbas “compatriots.” At that point, if Moscow supported separatist movements in the Donbas at all, the support was sporadic. Rather than rely on the authorities in Moscow for support, separatists allied themselves with parties seeking to preserve the USSR, on one hand, and Russian far-right nationalists, on the other.
The situation changed with the Orange Revolution, which was a real shock to the Kremlin. Political scientist Ivan Krastev compared it to the shock dealt to the U.S. system by the 9/11 attacks. And the Russian authorities certainly reacted harshly to the Orange Revolution, apparently surprised that Ukraine, which many considered a “brotherly nation,” truly wanted to be an independent state from Russia.
Krastev wrote at the time that once Moscow lost control over Kyiv, Russian political strategists who had lost power in Ukrainian elections would devise new ways for the Kremlin to interfere in Ukraine’s domestic politics, with separatist enclaves as one of their tools. Krastev predicted — correctly, as we now know — that Moscow would deprioritize the “stability and territorial integrity of CIS countries,” and would focus instead on creating pro-Russian strongholds in various post-Soviet states.
The American political scientist Paul D’Anieri wrote,“If many Russians had assumed that sooner or later Ukraine would return to the fold, the Orange Revolution raised the prospect that it might be lost permanently.” The Kremlin, panicked about Russia’s internal political vulnerabilities, tried to give the phrase “Orange Revolution” the most negative meaning possible. Russian state news networks and other propaganda mouthpieces spoke about the Orange Revolution as populist unrest that would, with the West’s help, lead to the collapse of Ukraine.
Moscow’s connection to separatists in Crimea and the Donbas allowed Russia to not only keep Kyiv in its orbit of influence, but also to work out its own political fears. When radical separatist organizations began to appear in the Donbas after the Orange Revolution, their sources of support could more and more often be found in Moscow. Researcher Vladimir Peshkov wrote, “Several newspapers and magazines appeared out of nowhere, but everyone knew they were funded by Moscow. At around the same time, new NGOs of unclear origin set up operations. These were run from Russia by the ‘International Eurasian Movement,’ headed by chief ideologist Alexander Dugin.” Around this time, training camps appeared for teaching separatist activists to handle weapons.
A more “respectable” indoctrination of the local population took place alongside the stoking of radical factions. In Luhansk and Donetsk, there were constant roundtables and conferences on the threat of “Ukrainian fascism,” the prospects for federalizing the country, and protection for Russian speakers. Local media actively covered all of it. The Russian state-sponsored Institute of CIS played a large role in organizing these events. The Institute, which positioned itself as a think tank, worked to popularize the idea that Russia should dominate post-Soviet space. State Duma deputy Konstantin Zatulin headed the group, and its Ukrainian branch was run by the political scientist Vladimir Kornilov, the brother of the founder of the International Movement of the Donbas.
The Ukrainian authorities considered the Institute’s activities to be subversive, and Zatulin was barred from entering the country several times (beginning in 1996), but with pressure from the Party of Regions, the bans were always lifted. In any case, the Kremlin’s ideological expansion into the Donbas was not to be stopped. The Russkiy Mir Foundation, started by Putin, opened a “Russian Center” in Luhansk with much pomp, and the Night Wolves, a motorcycle club that enjoys Kremlin protection, started a local branch.
In 2009, the “Donetsk Republic,” along with other pro-Russian organizations and representatives from southern and eastern Ukraine, declared the “Federal Republic of Donetsk.” In 2012, they began issuing passports for the non-yet-existent republic, and set up an “embassy” in the Eurasian Movement headquarters, in Moscow.
Even as Donbas separatist movements received the support of Russian far-right nationalist groups, they sowed fear in the local population about Ukrainian nationalism in Kyiv and the country’s western regions. This ideological indoctrination in the Donbas went on for several years with almost no interference from the Ukrainian authorities. For the sake of preserving the country’s territorial integrity, Kyiv always sought political compromise with Donbas elites, but authorities in Kyiv lost sight of the fact that the Party of Regions, with Moscow’s participation, was pitting residents of different regions against each other. And while Kyiv was seeking out points of cooperation with the Donbas, the “regionals’” media outlets frightened the local population with news about “Ukrainian fascism rearing its head” and exaggerated accounts of the role of radical Ukrainian nationalists in Ukraine’s internal politics.
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It’s telling that the Ukrainian ultranationalist party, Svoboda, did in fact come to power in the national parliament under Viktor Yanukovych. British political scientist Taras Kuzio has suggested that the Party of Regions intentionally avoided interfering in the hype around Ukrainian ultranationalists, and even contributed to it, so that in the 2015 presidential elections, Yanukovych would seem like a moderate alternative to the “fascists.” Because of the Euromaidan uprising in 2013–14, however, those elections never took place — the Yanukovych regime collapsed, and Petro Poroshenko became president of Ukraine.
The “regionals” in Luhansk organized symbolic events, like memorials to the victims of the Orange Revolution and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (a nationalist paramilitary formation, which fought against the Soviet Union in Ukraine during World War II), that were designed to intimidate residents with the threat of rising Ukrainian nationalism. These events and campaigns strengthened the local perception that “enemies of the Donbas” — western Ukrainian nationalists, pro-Western liberals and “Orangists” in Kyiv, LGBTQ rights activists — lurked in other parts of Ukraine, threatening the traditional Donbas way of life and its Soviet nostalgia. By the beginning of 2014, the soil out of which massive separatist demonstrations would grow was well tilled and fertilized.
The idea that the Donbas belongs with Russia, and the corresponding idea that its differences with Ukraine are numerous and insurmountable, led “the problem child of Moscow and Kyiv” into a truly explosive situation. All Moscow had to do was hold a match to the fuse.
The history of Donbas separatism is a vivid example of what Putin’s “soft power” can become in post-Soviet regions — a policy of supporting destructive movements that feed on internal political antagonisms, making sharp divisions sharper and more dangerous.
In Ukraine, the Kremlin achieved this policy with maximum power, using the local Russian-speaking population as an instrument for meddling in the internal affairs of a neighboring country.
It’s said often enough that the Russian-Ukrainian war began long before February 24, 2022, with the annexation of Crimea and Russian troops’ incursion into the Donbas in 2014. In fact, it began even before that. Since the Orange Revolution, in 2004, the Russian authorities have been deliberately pitting the residents of various Ukrainian regions against each other — and the clash has now grown to massive proportions, with enormously bloody consequences.
English-language version by Emily Laskin
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