“The Donbas we knew is disappearing. That Donbas, which managed to combine the Donbass Arena in Donetsk, an ultra-modern European football stadium, with dilapidated barracks twenty kilometers away. The ethnic mix – lots of Armenians, Georgians, Uzbeks and people who had quite inconsistent views… It was lively. And now it’s gone and it will never come back,” regrets journalist Ondřej Soukup, who has been working on the post-Soviet space for a long time.
Listen to the 3rd episode of the Na Východ podcast!
“But I wouldn’t like it if there was nostalgia in it. That region needed a radical transformation,” argues the editor-in-chief of the Plus station, Josef Pazderka, a former reporter for Czech Television in Russia.
Donbas used to be a steppe until coal was discovered there in the 19th century. The population begins to increase exponentially, money from foreign investors flows into the area, Donetsk itself was originally named after a Welsh businessman.
Neither the civil war nor the domination of the Soviet Union stopped the development of the region.
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“People from all over the Soviet Union came there to work. Some had it as a placement from college and some were criminals who served time there and then stayed there once they learned the job. Of course, that didn’t help the region, then it had a terrible criminal reputation,” recalls Soukup.
In 1991, both Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts voted for independence from Ukraine, yet in surveys there around 40 percent said they felt like Soviets.
“They had self-confidence: we feed the whole of Ukraine here. This was supported by the experience of the criminal. Donbas was extremely populated. And from a certain point on, he held the government in Kyiv by the neck and constantly tinkled the language note,” recalls Pazderka and continues:
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“The embodiment of all this was Viktor Yanukovych, who became the governor, and together with the later most powerful and richest man in Ukraine, Rinat Akhmetov, created an oligarchic duo, which then began to squeeze a huge amount of money from the region and from the whole of Ukraine, it was tens of billions of dollars.”
Now there is fighting in Donbass and entire cities are destroyed. “I would almost guess that when it comes to breaking bread, the Donetsk and Luhansk regions or some of their parts and Crimea may at some point fall victim to the fact that the Ukrainians will find some compromise with Russia in exchange for security guarantees. I think that there is this calculation somewhere in the background, even if nobody officially says it out loud,” says Pazderka.
The area he once described in his notes as “Donetsk as a super-modern football stadium in the middle of screaming coal poverty” is disappearing.
Listen to the full podcast, the audio is at the top of the article.
Josef Pazderka, Ondřej Soukup
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