On that gloomy spring day, a group of unknown militants who later introduced themselves as the People’s Militia of the Donbas seized the city police department and city council buildings, declaring Sloviansk part of the pseudo-state known as the “Donetsk People’s Republic.” The Ukrainian flags that flew atop the buildings were lowered and the Russian ones raised in their place. The “green men” were armed with light firearms and replenished their arsenal at the expense of the city police’s stocks. They distributed pistols to the local separatists, often lumpen proletarians who were waiting for Russia and Putin to come and rule them. The occupation of Sloviansk lasted from April 12 to July 5, 2014, and the city’s patriots call the latter date their second birthday.
Now, three years later, the city is full of Ukrainian flags and social projects and is slowly changing. Unfortunately, freedom has remained a pro forma concept for many, as their horizon of perception has remained the same, just like the question “So what?” Activists with a desire to control power are there, but they are few, while the majority stick to their pathological loyalty to “scammer” politicians, who promise all the benefits at once from tasteless bigboards, and the traditions born out of colossal experience of local feudalism. One should recognize the fact that forces of the anti-terrorist operation (ATO) cannot free up the minds which have been occupied by Russian propaganda for many years. The path to freedom lies through a long-term and systematic effort.
The Day came to Sloviansk for the first time this spring with the 18th International Photo Exhibition, a launch of books from Den’s Library series and free sets of books for all schools and libraries of the city. The arrival of our “intellectual landing force” was warmly welcomed in Sloviansk, as the Central Library of the city where the best photoworks of Ukraine were exhibited was teeming with people on the opening day, and teachers of local schools took entire classes to the Photo Exhibition, using the photos to teach the contemporary history of Ukraine... (for more details, see the article “Sloviansk. Exploring the Ukrainian World,” published in The Day’s No. 19 on March 21, 2017).
Photo by Mykola TYMCHENKO, The Day
Do you remember the childish joke about a kilogram of cotton and a kilogram of iron? Their weight is the same until you drop it on the leg... Despite being outnumbered, the patriotic citizens of Sloviansk surprise the observer with their activity and dedication. Looking at them, one becomes optimistic about the future of Donetsk Region.
On the third anniversary of the tragic start of the so-called Russian Spring in the Donbas, The Day talked to Oleh Zontov – a journalist, volunteer soldier of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, for a long time the only opposition candidate and finally the mayor of Sloviansk in 2014-15 – about the capture of the city, the reasons for the return to power of the old political elites, the information situation in the Donbas, and the significance of the arrival of Den’s Photo Exhibition.
“IT WAS A CRIMINAL CONSPIRACY AIMED AT SURRENDERING THE CITY”
Three years ago, on April 12, 2014, the Sloviansk City Police Department building was seized. Against the backdrop of events in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv, where the so-called ‘separatists’ were then seizing the buildings of oblast state administrations and other government bodies, no one could predict that that event would serve as the beginning of active fighting in the Donbas. What did you observe in those days?
“We immediately took it seriously, first of all, due to the fact that no professional military personnel had taken part openly in all previous seizures that had been carried out in Donetsk or Luhansk regions. However, specially trained Russians appeared for the first time in Sloviansk during the assault on the buildings. One could clearly hear and see it from their accent, intonation, behavior, conversations, and most importantly, from their military bearing and equipment. I and other journalists were planting an avenue of trees in honor of our murdered colleague Ihor Aleksandrov in the city park, and immediately after that, we ran to cover the events, and saw that something serious was happening.
INSCRIPTION READS: “SLOVIANSK. UKRAINE – ABOVE ALL!” / Photo by Artem SLIPACHUK, The Day
“The ATO was declared literally the next day after the capture of Sloviansk, or to be more exact, of two administrative buildings in the city which housed the police and the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU). On April 14, the separatists in the city received military reinforcements and occupied the executive committee building as well.”
Why did not the SSU and other law-enforcement agencies do their job in Sloviansk?
“Most likely, it was a criminal conspiracy aimed at surrendering the city. At 5 a.m. on April 12, the most battle-worthy police officers, numbering 40 fully-armed men equipped with small arms and even the only APC available in Sloviansk, were sent to defend public buildings in Donetsk. As soon as 8 a.m., the assault began. As witnesses confirmed later, the Strelkov-Girkin unit had entered the city two days earlier, and they spent these nights under the cover of the Church in the Villa Maria building. [The priests of the Moscow Patriarchate played a fateful role in the capture of the city and openly supported the separatists. – Author.] The night before the capture, they gathered a few dozen local low-lifes in the same location, both drug addicts and individuals with a criminal past, who later became the core of the so-called militia. Also, the city police department was headless at the time. Just a week before the events, the old chief was transferred to Melitopol, and an acting chief was appointed in Sloviansk. When I arrived on the scene and asked him what was going on, and why did they hand over their weapons, he ordered my arrest. It was confirmed later that he was in cahoots with the separatists. A really paradoxical situation developed when the city police handed over their weapons to the thugs, and they received them back daily for patrol duty from these same thugs.”
“WE NEED TO CREATE CONDITIONS FOR SOCIAL MOVEMENTS AND PATRIOTIC ACTIVISM”
What has changed in Sloviansk over the three years since its liberation?
“Sloviansk was the first city to tragically become occupied, but also the first to be liberated. When I came to lead the city two or three months after that, I could not help but create something like ‘incubator,’ greenhouse conditions for the development of social movements and patriotic activism in the city. This war has stirred thought processes, strengthened a sense of self-identification, contributed to group cohesion, the quantitative and qualitative growth of social organizations and activists. Other cities are still ruled by the same people who were in power both before and during the occupation. Of course, what they have is far from ‘greenhouse conditions.’”
However, why has not a qualitative replacement of the elite happened in Sloviansk?
“It has not happened anywhere, because there are no conditions for this. The elite needs to be raised, no matter how old its members are, who could be 20 or 50. Some come to the realization that they can give something to their nation only on turning 40 or 50. Owners of small and medium-sized businesses, who were previously indifferent to politics, have now entered it due to the war, and they must be supported. The Donbas is Ukrainian, but, unfortunately, there were some good reasons for its choice as the ground for inciting hatred. A part of the population still lives by the principles and post-traumatic syndromes of the Soviet Union. Thus, Russia is quite popular with them. Also, the discontent with the relations between the region and the central government had been ripening all the time. We see the same thing now, when there are difficulties with the reconstruction of Donetsk oblast, and they blame the central government for failing to deal properly with our issues. They do so even though everything can be done locally now, and there is enough money, but we need political will. It is important to support our activist public. Besides international donors who give money for the development of communities, create hubs and creative spaces, our government should create conditions for activism on its own. It is important to bring any effort to conclusion. At first, there was much talk about the introduction of civil-military administrations at all levels in Donetsk oblast. However, we have got three tiers of government now: firstly, civil-military administrations, secondly, those city councils and mayors who have not been re-elected since 2010, and thirdly, those who have been re-elected, but are now creating a fertile ground for ‘pro-regional’ or Russian-oriented forces’ return to power. The introduction of civil-military administrations instead of these local authorities would give time for patriotic organizations and movements to ‘build some muscle.’ After all, they had no time for it before the war. Under Viktor Yanukovych, any opposition faced pressure and persecution, sometimes involving criminal cases. It is time to destroy the regime of the old party elite which is in cahoots with criminal bosses.”
“NO ONE IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE INFORMATION POLICY IN THE REGION”
How much has the information space of the Donbas changed by now?
“It is noticeable that the popularity of Russian TV channels has decreased in the government-controlled territory. Thanks to the adopted strategy and the disappearance of Russian channels from the cable networks in major cities, the propaganda effect has also disappeared. Still, many rural residents still watch them on satellite out of habit. Since the Internet is almost totally unavailable there, print media have a role to play in such localities, but there are almost no publications with a pro-Ukrainian stance in Donetsk oblast. There are no government grants for pro-Ukrainian-themed contributions either, although this is being discussed all the time. The oblast state administration has launched the communal newspaper Visti Donechchyny, which is brought to checkpoints and local administrations, but it does not reach ordinary people. There has been some progress in radio broadcasting, because after the reconstruction of the TV tower on Karachun Hill, new radio stations using new frequencies have appeared, including Radio Donbasa and Armia.FM.”
“By and large, no one is responsible for the information policy in the region. There are many actors who want to influence it, such as the Ministry of Information Policy, the National Television Committee, the information department of the oblast state administration, but there is no coordination of their actions. In addition, there is no coordination with international organizations that are engaged in it. An interdepartmental commission has been set up at the cabinet level, with one of its tasks being to coordinate the information support work, but there have been no results so far. Similarly, cultural events are not regulated, they are not scheduled apart from each other to avoid competition, and neither are they adequately covered. I think that this largely depends on the position of the regional leadership. The military-regional administration has enough powers to take it under control.”
“MANY GRATEFUL CITIZENS OF SLOVIANSK AWAIT DEN’S NEXT VISIT”
Den’s Photo Exhibition is essentially an unprecedented volunteer project. This spring, we brought it to as many as two cities in Donetsk oblast. What response did it get in Sloviansk?
“There are two aspects to it, that is, personal and public. Let us start with the personal one: I liked the photo exhibition, no question about it. It is full of content, visually attractive, vivid and philosophical. As a psychologist, I believe that such events are most effective for changing people’s worldviews. After all, at least 70 percent of humans are visuals. That is, they make decisions or think about actions while looking at it or having a visual image of it. Large photos are precisely the signals that can trigger the ‘Brownian’ thought processes in people’s minds. There were a lot of works that used an unconventional approach to make people think about the events linked to the fate of the country, the war, and the Euromaidan, as well as the Ukrainian self-identification in general. Speaking of it from a public perspective, the photo exhibition did have a large public impact, because Den is a major, well-respected publication with a long-standing and well-deserved reputation, so it was the No. 1 event in the city. Many visited it, there were many responses, first of all in conversations. So, I implore you to continue this tradition and come here next year, as many grateful citizens of Sloviansk await you.”