Historic roots of the Donbass problem

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Historic roots of the Donbass problem

The region has a distinct identity and doesn’t fit neatly into either Russia or Ukraine

Current events have brought a renewed focus on the Donbass, a historical region on the border of Ukraine and Russia. By the standards of history, this area has emerged quite recently, and has always stood a little apart. It’s important to understand its evolution when viewing this crisis, which began in 2014. 

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Today, Donbass is an industrial and mining region, but for a long time it was largely uninhabited. The steppe zone that ran along the southern borders of medieval ‘Rus’ (not yet divided into Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus) was called the ‘Wild Fields.’ It was home to nomadic peoples and farmers only moved south with great difficulty. After the Mongol invasion in the 13th century, the Wild Fields  was a dangerous place to find yourself. 

Around four hundred years, a few peasants from Russia and Ukraine began to gradually settle in the future Donbass.

A great leap forward came in the 19th century when the coal deposits discovered there became necessary for industry. It was then that many of the cities without which it is impossible to imagine today’s Donbass were founded. In 1869, the British industrialist John Hughes built a factory around which the village of Yuzovka grew – it had a few more names, including Stalino,  before a local man renamed it Donetsk, in 1961.

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His name was Nikita Khruschev, and he had risen from humble origins as a metal fitter to lead the Soviet Union.   

In 1868, Kramatorsk appeared and, in 1878, Debaltseve. The cities grew rapidly. Coal deposits and increasing factories formed the unique ‘face’ of the region. This even applies to the landscape: wherever you go in modern Donbass, giant landfills catch your eye. Donbass was formed as an industrial region and its cities and factories often flow into one another, even today. The region was inhabited by several streams of colonists from Russia and Ukraine and its population was very diverse, but its peoples mixed easily due to the proximity of their languages and cultures. 

It was meteoric development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when it became a huge mine and forge for the Russian Empire, that made it the Donbass we know today.

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A great deal changed in 1917. Two revolutions and a civil war divided the history of the whole of Russia into ‘before’ and ‘after.’

After the February Revolution, when the monarchy fell, a Provisional Committee ruled the region. Meanwhile, the Central Rada in Kiev declared Ukraine autonomous, before making a declaration of independence after the October Revolution. The Rada made broad territorial claims, which included the territory of Donbass. However, not entirely so. Yuzovka was a border city, according to the Rada’s stipulations. The nuance was that the Rada did not exercise any authority over most of these territories, and it soon was quarreling with the Provisional Government in Petrograd.

The whole argument could have been quashed in parliamentary debates but, on November 7, 1917, the socialist revolution took place. After that, events took off at a gallop. In Kiev, the Communist uprising was suppressed, and Russian officers, who considered the Rada a lesser evil than the Reds, actively participated. 

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Meanwhile, in the east of the self-proclaimed Ukraine, a very unusual coalition was being formed. Its center was Kharkov, a large industrial city that was not part of the Donetsk Basin region but closely tied to it. The Donbass’ distinct identity had already emerged by that time. Although the area was administratively divided into three entities, they had a common economy and interests. While the Rada was in session, local councils in the east of Ukraine announced the unification of the Donbass and Krivbass coal basins. It also included cities belonging to the region of the Don Cossack Army, such as Mariupol and Krivoy Rog, which was administratively part of the Kherson province, as well as Kharkov. This structure, which was informally called ‘Donkrivbass’ or simply ‘Donbass,’ did not claim independence and deemed the idea of separating from Russia absurd, considering itself, instead autonomous within it. Moreover, Ukraine’s independence projects were of no interest to it creators.

Nikolai von Ditmar, chairman of the Council of Congresses of Miners of the South of Russia, noted:

“Industrially, geographically, and practically speaking, this whole area is completely different from that of Kiev. This whole district has its own completely independent fundamental importance for Russia and lives a separate life. The administrative subordination of the Kharkov district to Kiev is not called for by anything at all, but on the contrary, does not correspond with reality. Such artificial subordination will only complicate and impede the life of the district, especially since this subordination is dictated by questions of expediency and state requirements, and exclusively by the national claims of the leaders of the Ukrainian movement.”

In February of 1918, Fyodor Sergeyev, a Bolshevik known by the party pseudonym Artyom, proclaimed the Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Soviet Republic (DKR) to be an autonomous region within the RSFSR, or Soviet Russia.  

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Was the DKR legitimate? No more and no less than any other self-proclaimed entity formed on the ruins of the Russian Empire, where states proclaimed their independence and then collapsed in a week. Another example was “Green Ukraine,” an attempt to found an independent Ukrainian state, near the Pacific Ocean. That project centered on the city of Khabarovsk, which today is a 8,924km drive from Kiev. 

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Dean Nestor

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