It was the mention of Donetsk’s Kuibyshev neighborhood that finally got to me. An historian of the former Soviet Union with particular interest in labor and migration, I have been riveted by news from Ukraine these past six months. But not until I read in The New York Times that Kuibyshev was one of three districts in Donetsk that “has come under heavy rocket fire,” did my sorrow and outrage rise to the surface. You see, exactly twenty-five years ago this August, I got to know that “leafy” neighborhood with its coal mines and slag heaps, its pungent air and gritty apartment buildings, populated by families whose lives were anything but easy but who greeted strangers with incredible warmth and hospitality. To say I left a piece of my heart in Donetsk would be an exaggeration, but not a big one.
I had come to Donetsk in the summer of 1989 as part of a group of labor historians and videographers to interview miners and members of their families about their lives in what was then the largest coal town in the USSR. A local travel agent had connected us with the Kuibyshev mine administration because he used to work in the district as a Communist Youth League (Komsomol) organizer before taking advantage of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and going into business for himself. We had intended to find out as much as we could about growing up and working in a Soviet mining community to explore similarities and differences with the communities around Pittsburgh, Donetsk’s Sister City and partial sponsor of our project. We did that, but we also found ourselves drawn to the recently concluded miners’ strike that had begun in Siberia but quickly spread to Donetsk and other mining towns in Soviet Ukraine.
We learned that these people had endured a great deal of humiliation over the years, for which they blamed both their local bosses and those in far-off Moscow. They had put up with shortages of all kinds—even soap, a rather essential item for miners who emerged every day from shaft elevators caked in coal dust—promises long delayed or forgotten, and new uncertainties associated with perestroika. “Our leaders,” one miner said with disgust, “gorge themselves on the sweat and blood of the working class.” But, after having walked off their jobs, forming their own strike committees that issued a bevy of demands, and sitting down in the city’s main square to press those demands, they had wrung real concessions from the USSR’s Ministry of Coal—or so they thought at the time. They consequently felt empowered, as if now they could begin to shape their own lives and those of their children.
Ten months later when I returned to Donetsk and its Kuibyshev district, I discovered their optimism had vanished. It had proven more complicated to wrest control of their product and receive its “true” value than they had imagined. As the Soviet economy disintegrated, they threw their support behind an independent Ukraine, not because they shared the intense nationalism evident in the western part of the country, but because they thought they might get a better deal from Kiev.
By the summer of 1992 when I visited again, even that hope seemed forlorn. “When we were in Kiev,” Valery Samofalov, the former chairman of the Kuibyshev Mine’s strike committee told me, “the guys from the western regions tried to tear us to pieces [on greater autonomy for the Donbass]. They shouted that we were separatists, communists, that we came to divide Ukraine.” Articulating a position that many now see as Vladimir Putin’s ploy to weaken Ukraine, Valery and his comrades tried to explain that over ninety countries in the world lived in federative arrangements—such countries as Switzerland, the USA, Germany and Austria. “And they don’t live any worse than we do.”