Has Siberia ever been a penal colony

Comment: The Donbass Nightmare

Hiroaki Kuromiya

To person

Hiroaki Kuromiya, PhD (Princeton University 1985), is currently Professor of History at Indiana University, USA. He has written a lot about Russia and Ukraine, including Freedom and Terror in the Donbas: A Ukrainian-Russian Borderland, 1870s – 1990s (1998) and most recently Conscience on Trial: The Fate of Fourteen Pacifists in Stalin’s Ukraine, 1952–1953 (2012

The past has shown that Donbass as a region has not behaved really loyal to any government. That could still be fatal for Moscow.

Members of a separatist fighting unit in Donetsk.

The current war in Donbass is difficult to understand at first glance. Almost all Western reports describe it as a struggle between the Ukrainian military (and volunteers who support Ukrainian independence) and pro-Russian separatists (who are directly, albeit secretly, supported by the Russian government). Much is true about this representation. Despite Moscow's denials, this is also Russia's war against Ukraine: The Russian military intervenes directly in the conflict on behalf of the separatists. However, it is completely unclear whether the pro-Russian fighting spirit is as deeply rooted in Donbass as is reported. Without Russia's direct support, the separatists in Donbas would likely quickly suffer defeat by the Ukrainian armed forces. What is certain is that Donbass as a region has never behaved truly loyal to any government or ideology. That will prove to be a real problem for Kiev as well as Moscow, no matter how the conflict ends.

The Donbass, a region that is Ukrainian through and through

For a long time, many politicians feared the fighting spirit of this Ukrainian-Russian border region. The soot-blackened faces of the Donbass workers have long symbolized the unruliness of politics in this region. Between 1917 and 1921, during the revolutionary uprising and the civil war that followed, the Donbass passed through many hands. However, none of the parties and governments involved (communists, anti-communist whites, various Ukrainian nationalists) ever got a foothold there. When the communists in eastern Ukraine split off their country and the surrounding industrial regions from Ukraine in 1918 and declared Donetsk-Krivoy Roh to be the Soviet republic because they opposed the new, independent Ukrainian government, communist leader Vladimir Lenin opposed it. He saw the republic as a weakening of Ukraine by depriving it of its "proletarian base". With this, Lenin recognized the Donbass as part of the Ukraine. Lenin's judgment is understandable: however Russified Donbass may be culturally and linguistically, the ethnic Russians were never in the majority here, either before or after. The Donbass was and is predominantly Ukrainian.

Throughout the communist era, Donbass, a vast industrial center of mining and metallurgy, remained Moscow's problem child. Because workers were constantly needed here who were willing to take on hard and dangerous jobs, it remained the magnet for refugees and refugees that it had been before the revolution. Anyone who had reason to flee (for example from political persecution or economic hardship) fled here and found refuge underground, literally as well as figuratively. The Donbass was a land of refuge and freedom. After World War II, Ukrainian partisans who failed to escape to the West were advised to go to Donbass and hide there. At the time of the anti-cosmopolitan campaigns in Stalin's last years, the Donbass attracted Jews who recognized that conditions here were more liberal than elsewhere. One of them was the father of the Israeli politician Natan Sharansky: When he was no longer able to work there because of anti-Semitism in Odessa, he was told to "try his luck in Stalino [today's Donetsk]". Like Siberia, the Donbass was also a penal colony. The extremely harsh and grueling working conditions in industrial regions made them practical dumping grounds for politically undesirable people and groups. Like the gulags, Donbass became a place where forbidden political ideas spread widely.

The Donbass was also a place of democratization. During the German occupation in World War II, Ukrainian nationalists, who sympathized with the fascist ideas of Benito Mussolini and Francisco Franco, moved from the western regions to the east, the Donbass, in order to win the hearts and minds of its people. However, the local population rejected them, and some of the fascist nationalists even ended up supporting a democratic Ukraine. Later, in the Brezhnev era and before the Solidarnosc movement in Poland, the Donbass became a major center of the independent (non-Soviet) trade union movement. Some important Soviet freedom fighters also come from Donbass. One of them is the Ukrainian poet Wassyl Stus. He died in a Russian labor camp in 1985. (The plaque placed for him at Donetsk National University in 2001 was recently removed by anti-Ukrainian forces.) Believing that they would be better off without Moscow, an overwhelming majority of the Donbass population (over 83 percent) supported Ukraine's independence in 1991 . This independent Ukraine was more disappointing than satisfactory. Hence the widespread anger in Donbass.

That doesn't necessarily mean that the Donbass population is pro-Russian. Many consider Russia to be more promising than Ukraine today, but they may think differently tomorrow. Despite shrill political rhetoric to the contrary, ethnic and linguistic Russian-Ukrainian issues have neither played a major role in Donbass politics, neither earlier nor today. In many ways the population in Donbass behaves like the old Ukrainian Cossacks who founded the "wild field" in the border area of ​​Moscow, Poland and the Ottoman Empire in the 15th and 16th centuries, where they wanted to find freedom and happiness. Depending on the changing political situation, they joined forces with each of these powers to secure their existence and well-being. Their at times pragmatic alliance with the Moscow Tsar against Poland ended in the middle of the 17th century with the fact that Donbass and the regions surrounding it fell to Moscow. In the harsh world of the Cossacks, democratic and egalitarian principles were by no means unknown, rather they were the founding ideals of the modern, independent Ukrainian state, through which it distinguished itself from "autocratic Russia" and "aristocratic Poland". In this sense, despite its supposedly "pro-Russian" orientation, Donbass appears to be deeply Ukrainian.

The Yanukovych phenomenon

When independent Ukraine became free, or at least freer than in the Soviet period, Donbass no longer had to be the place of freedom and was now just one, albeit unruly, region of a new country. Unlike the western and central regions of Ukraine, however, Donbass is a highly developed industrial center that generates considerable national wealth. It is no coincidence that many of the rich Ukrainian men (among them the richest man in Ukraine, Rinat Akhmetov) come from Donbass.

The Donbass, the citizens as well as the oligarchs, adjusted to the new political reality of the post-Soviet era. Despite occasional separatist demands, Donbass saw its future overall within an independent Ukraine, although it did not reject ties to Russia for good reasons (everyone wants good neighborly relations!). Then, however, the Donbass as a whole changed its political strategy. After Ukrainian independence, he began to behave atypically: he tried to take over the central power of Kiev. This can be called the Yanukovych phenomenon.

Viktor Yanukovych almost managed to steal power in 2004. In 2010 he succeeded in winning the presidency through elections, which had prevented the Orange Revolution in 2004/05. As long as the Donbass people believed that their interests and voices were reflected in national politics, they appeared satisfied with the Yanukovych phenomenon and showed little interest in separatism. Even when Yanukovych was expelled by the Euromaidan movement in February 2014, the Donbass people did not seriously consider separatism. It was nothing more than an unrealistic possibility. In a strange way, the Yanukovych phenomenon even referred to the incipient integration of the Donbass into the Ukrainian political body, albeit heavily influenced by Russia. It was Russia's military intervention that completely changed the political scene.

Russian War Responsibility

It would be clearly wrong to say that there are no pro-Russian or anti-Ukrainian sentiments in Donbass. There are, just as there are strong pro-Ukrainian or anti-Russian feelings. What are the dominant feelings in Donbass today? Or tomorrow? Nobody can say for sure. The current situation goes back to Moscow's military intervention. There is no reason why Donbass could not have managed its anger and frustration under an independent Ukraine. There would certainly have been riots and hard clashes, but the population would have sought a compromise rather than war. Russia's military intervention created a political option that until then realistically had not even existed in this border region of Ukraine.

Under the false accusation that ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking population were being persecuted, Moscow forced military force on Donbass in March / April 2014 in order to control it, even though Moscow still denies the presence of military forces of the Russian Federation to this day. A month earlier, Moscow had taken Crimea by military force and under the guise of local volunteers.

President Vladimir Putin's interventions may seem like spontaneous decisions. In the light of Russian and past Soviet military interventions, however, these recent cases were certainly planned, at least as a possible scenario for creating a greater Russian sphere of influence or for expanding Russia's imperial reach. Putin's use of the old historical concept of "New Russia" to justify his military intervention is no accident. There is reason to believe that at least two forms of inner subversion have been around for some time. One of them is the practice of offering Russian passports to residents of border regions, including Donbass. This form of subversion has long been used by Russian and Soviet governments for covert territorial expansion. If necessary, Russia continues to invoke the protection of its citizens to justify military intervention. The second form of covert subversion is the deployment of covert "influencing agents" abroad, who can be described as political "sleeper cells". Russia and the Soviet Union have traditionally been extremely well versed in this area. Ukraine is a young and still unstable country with a difficult future to predict. With Ukrainian borders practically open, it would be relatively easy for Russia to recruit people to work for the interests of Moscow, the former capital of the Soviet Union. Nostalgia and the desire for stability are another important factor, after all, the majority of the Ukrainian population was born under Soviet rule. Also important are threats, blackmail and other unspeakable methods that this business has in store around the world.

President Putin justifies his disguised and veiled war on Russia's national security concerns. But just like Russia, Ukraine also has a right to national security. Russia has violated Ukraine's law by unilaterally invoking its own. That is not new either. Russia still accuses Poland of causing World War II by failing to give in to Moscow's demands. In doing so, Moscow forgets that it was Moscow and Berlin that started World War II through their conspiracy to destroy Poland. Russia is certainly behind the current war in Donbas.

Crimea, Donbass and "the Russian problem"

Moscow's appeal to security concerns is rhetorical rather than substantial. Of course, national security is a serious matter. Russia's concern about the expansion of the western world to its borders is understandable. Both sides are responsible for the distrust between the West and Russia. The self-centered behavior of the West on the international stage has contributed to the alienation of Russia from the West, but the self-centered behavior of Russia has caused at least as much alienation not only of the West, but also of the satellite states formerly controlled by Moscow from Russia.

Moscow has problems of its own in every respect, which the West, for its part, has largely resolved. For example, President Putin still thinks that Moscow has the right to intervene to "protect" the Russian-speaking population on the Eurasian continent, in other words to occupy and annex lands like Crimea and Donbass. This imperialist claim is highly anachronistic. Does England have the right to intervene in New England and the USA? Does Mexico have the right to intervene in the states of New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, or California in the United States? British scientist Timothy Garton Ash reports that while attending a round table in St. Petersburg, Russia, he fell asleep in 1994 when he was suddenly woken up by a "short stocky man with a rat-like face". "Russia," he said, "has voluntarily ceded 'huge territories' to former Soviet republics, including areas 'which historically have always belonged to Russia'", presumably the Crimea, eastern Ukraine, northern Kazakhstan and the like. According to this man, "Russia could not simply leave the '25 million Russians' now living abroad to their fate. The world must respect the interests of the Russian state 'and the Russian people as one great nation'." This man's name was Vladimir Putin.

Do the Russian people think the same way? If you believe the polls (which you can't necessarily do given the state control over the mass media), the majority do so. That too seems anachronistic. Would the German people be happy if Germany won back the Sudetenland or Kaliningrad (formerly Koenigsberg)? It is almost certain that the German population as a whole would not be pleased. Would the Polish people be pleased if Warsaw were to invade eastern Galicia through covert military action? Most likely not. During the twentieth century with its two world wars, the western countries grew out of their imperial stupidity. Russia is obviously not. The Russian government, like the Russian people, needs to give serious thought to this problem.

Final remarks

Nobody knows in which direction the Donbass will develop. Like many similar geopolitical questions, the Donbass question may also be "resolved" through the politics of the great powers and without much respect for Ukraine or Donbass. In any case, it was Moscow's military intervention that created the Donbass nightmare. Many people in Donbass say that the whole military conflict is incomprehensible and downright absurd. There is a reason for this: it was designed clandestinely and cleverly camouflaged from outsiders.

It is true that for a long time Donbass has been a place of resistance against metropolitan centers of power that has always resisted outside authorities. The motto of the Donbass (from a poem by the miner Pavel Besposhchadnyi, who lived there, from the time of the Second World War) is:

Nobody brought the Donbass to its knees! Nobody can do it! [Donbass nikto ne stawil na koleni / I nikomu postawit ne dano!]

In 1991 and thereafter, the Donbass began to locate its future in an independent and free Ukraine because it saw no alternative to it. Moscow violently turned this turbulent development around. With the abolition of the Ukrainian-Russian border in the Donbass region, Moscow ultimately brought the legendary stubborn "Wild Field" back to life. Small parts of the Donbass population began to take up arms against Kiev, supported by cloaked Russian soldiers and secret agents.

The Russian poet Nikolai Domovitov, who lived in Donbass in the 1950s and 1960s, wrote about Donbass:

Neither Ukraine nor Rus, [Ne Ukraina i ne Rus] I fear you, Donbass, I fear you. [bojus, Donbass, tebja bojus.]

Domowitov's fear has turned out to be foresight.Did Moscow really want to occupy this dreaded region when it invaded eastern Ukraine? Do you still want that? Moscow has unleashed the fearsome spirit of Donbass and may regret it because the Donbass separatists will no longer accept Moscow's autocratic rule tomorrow, whatever their rhetoric today. Even Akhmetov seems to be protecting himself by publicly supporting neither Kiev nor the separatists. The Donbass people as a whole will not accept Moscow's rule. That will benefit Kiev. But can Kiev win the hearts and minds of the Donbass people? Moscow can withdraw and end the war if it wants to. Most of the rest then rests on Kiev's shoulders.

Translation from English: Sophie Hellgardt

Reading tips:

  • Hiroaki Kuromiya, Freedom and Terror in the Donbas: A Ukrainian-Russian Borderland, 1870s – 1990s. New York, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Marta Studenna-Skrukwa, Ukraiński Donbas. Oblicza tożsamości regionalnej, Wydawnictwo Nauka i Innowacje, Poznań, 2014.
  • Zimmer, Kerstin: "The Voice of Donbass", in Ukraine-Analyzes No. 133 (May 27, 2014)