As crisis grips industrial Donetsk region, many workers dismiss politics but seek better living standards of yesteryear
SHAKHTARSK, Ukraine — Off a dirt road in the outskirts of this eastern Ukrainian town, Valeriy stands outside his house and cuddles his wife, Tanya. She wears a blue bathrobe and slippers, and Valeriy says the fading bruise high on her left cheek was caused by a fall at a party while they were both drunk.
Valeriy is a miner but has not been employed as one since completing his fifth prison sentence for theft. Previously, he risked his life working at an illegal coal mine in the Donetsk region, Ukraine’s industrial heartland now roiled by political unrest.
Despite the epic contest between forces, mostly Russian speakers aligned with Moscow against Ukrainian speakers loyal to Kyiv, he is more concerned with the daily struggle to get by and the desperate hope for some improvement in his life. Valeriy, who identifies as Russian, hopes for a better future if Donetsk becomes part of Russia — with a catch. “I don’t want it to be like Russia,” he says. “I want it to be like the past, the USSR.”
The future of the mines and the miners is at the center of the political battle being waged by pro-Russian separatists who have occupied public buildings and set up barricades in response to the overthrow of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in February. The resulting crisis has cast a rare global media spotlight on this corner of Ukraine, with Western powers fearing that Moscow plans to annex eastern Ukraine — as it did with the Russian-dominated Crimean Peninsula.
Valeriy’s sentiments are fairly commonplace in this hardscrabble region, which maintains close economic links to Russia. Donetsk and its residents paid a heavy price for the collapse of communism as free market reforms swept away jobs, cut the value of state benefits and sharply reduced living standards.
For Valeriy, who started training to be a miner in 1990, right before the fall of the Soviet Union, there was just the briefest glimpse of a more secure time. “I was getting payment even for my learning,” he says. “That’s why I appreciate that time.”
He has two young children and remembers a summer camp during the Soviet era that was free for workers. Despite his nostalgia for the USSR, he does not support the pro-Russian militia movement because, he says, it has brought instability to the region.
“I want to be Russian, but I do not want a war. I want to live in peace, so that’s why I don’t support their activities. I want to be part of Russia with peace. Nobody needs the war,” he says. “I am afraid that [ordinary] people will be threatened.”
Fellow illegal miner Andrey would also like Donetsk to join Russia, from which he emigrated in 1986 at age 9. Not that a return to rule under Moscow would necessarily improve his lot.
“I don’t think … it would be better,” he says. “But I hope it would not be worse than the situation that we live now.”
“Kyiv had the opportunity but has not done anything to improve my life,” he adds. “Maybe I give a chance to Moscow to [help] my life.”
Like Valeriy, Andrey did not support the occupation of government buildings and creation of barricades in the region. “I do not agree with their methods,” he says. Despite the area’s pro-Russian inclination, skepticism about the surge in separatist agitation is not uncommon.
Times are tough, well-paid jobs are hard to come by, and corruption is an ongoing problem. A poll conducted by the Donetsk-based Institute of Social Research and Political Analysis found that 65 percent of people in the city preferred it to remain part of Ukraine. Though groups of miners have sometimes joined the barricades around occupied buildings, the reality on the ground is more nuanced.
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