I was born in Khartsyzk, a small town in the east of Ukraine. I’m saying good-bye to it now that most people I know who took part in the May 11 referendum voted for secession and formation of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), which actually means becoming part of Russia, claiming theirs is an “age-old Russian land.” How can a town with such a name (khartsyz means brigand in Turkic) be a Russian one? There is a legend about a Cossack by the name of Khartsyz who defended the Ukrainian land against invaders. Together with his sworn brother Savur he engaged an invading Tatar unit, and to alert the Cossack outposts, Khartsyz set fire to himself. The Tatars chopped Savur into pieces. A burial mound emerged on the site of the hero’s death that became known as Savur-mohyla (the Grave of Savur). In those remote times the grave marked the frontier of a Ukrainian, never an “age-old Russian,” territory.
Those who had decided to take part in the referendum could be easily identified because they wore the kind of clothes one wears only on red-letter days or when going to the bazaar in these parts, simply because there are no other occasions or places that call for this dress code. The polling station at the local school wasn’t crowded. The ballots did not boast a refined design and were obviously made using a laser printer, without numbers. The only means of protecting their authenticity were the signature and stamp of the person who had issued them. This polling station united several ordinary ones, but by noon the boxes were half empty, and by 3 p.m. there were no voters left. Therefore, claiming even 75 percent turnout would be ungrounded. Anyone could have his/her name entered into the voters’ list, without any formalities. All it took was having one’s national passport with a registration stamp. There were no security guards with assault rifles, only an old man and a young fellow sporting combat fatigues. The loudspeakers were throbbing with the cabaret-style “anthem” of the “Donetsk People’s Republic.” I noticed an old lady sitting on a chair, squinting at a ballot in hand. She looked up helplessly and asked if anyone could please explain what it was all about. Almost immediately a younger woman materialized and told her to just tick off the square with the inscription “For the DPR’s state sovereignty.” I couldn’t help admonishing her that it was against the law. The woman resented my remark and the old lady said: “I haven’t long left, but I’m concerned about my children who are for Ukraine.” Well, this could mean at least two votes against the self-styled DPR, although I wasn’t sure they would be counted.
During Soviet times, Khartsyzk became known as the Donbas in Miniature. There were several coal mines, a pipe-rolling mill, steel wire rope and mechanical engineering works, reinforcing molding plant, several enterprises of the food industry, state district power plant, and a railroad. Noted Russian author Anton Chekhov (Yanukovych would scandalously refer to him as a “great Ukrainian poet” in a speech) once passed the Khartsyzk Station, and the local recreation park was named after him. There were modern-equipped (by Soviet standard) rides, slot machines, a natural history museum, planetarium, and Khartsyzk Askania Zoo with bears, wolves, deer, ostriches, even monkeys. There was also a public swimming pool, stadium, movie theaters, and “palaces of culture” [Soviet city district clubs for Party meetings, lectures, dancing, amateur concerts, etc.]. It was then Khartsyzk won the USSR VDNKh (Russian acronym for Exhibition of Achievements of the People’s Economy) Silver Medal for outstanding merits in urban planning and accomplishment. A lion’s share of this wealth passed into the hands of post-Soviet “effective owners.” Metal structures and equipment were cut up for scrap or abandoned. To many locals the Soviet past looks like paradise on earth against the backdrop of today’s misery and mismanagement. Not surprisingly what the man in the street wants is well-being. What is surprising is that people associate it with unity with Russia, with getting back to the Soviet system. There are other ideological proponents of the DPR who inherited the idea from the Donetsk-Kryvy Rih Soviet Republic architected in 1918 by Comrade Artyom [Fyodor Andreyevich Sergeyev (1883-1921), Russian revolutionary, Soviet politician, agitator, and journalist] when the territories of what is now Donetsk, Kharkiv, Luhansk, and Zaporizhia oblasts were taken away from Ukraine and attached to the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. For both groups of separatists, the formation of the DPR is just a rung on a ladder leading down to the past. The most horrifying thing, which I just can’t understand, is that people are prepared to die and kill fellow humans for this illusory goal.
The biggest problem with the Donbas is that it is left without political representation. The Party of Regions has bossed around Donetsk and several other oblasts in the east and south of Ukraine for over a decade. During this period it has ignored all local humanitarian needs and lobbied only for certain economic ones, with the money invariably ending in the pockets of ranking bureaucrats and various barons who were free to decide how to share it with the populace. Mariupol is lucky, considering that its baron in charge has promised free milk at the daycare centers and road repair. Others, like Khartsyzk, are not. In the case of Khartsyzk, the most the residents can expect is a fireworks display on the Metallurgists’ Day, with the homes supplied only cold running water for four hours in the morning and evening on weekdays (there has been no hot water for some 20 years). For several years snow has not been cleared away from the roads and asphalt hasn’t been even patched up. Last year the upper layer of the main thoroughfare was removed and never replaced. Instead, asphalt fragments were sold to suburban residents so they could fill in potholes on dirt roads. No one knows how this referendum will help solve these problems, but the Donbas wants to be heard. Regrettably, the voices of the DPR supporters are the loudest (“Putin, Help Us!”), drowning the voices of other residents, even though these people also have something to say.
To begin with, people are scared. On the one hand there is local organized crime posing as DPR proponents, with men brandishing Kalashnikovs walking into Donetsk car showrooms and appropriating expensive SUVs “for the needs of the revolution.” The good old racket and kidnapping practices are back, with all gang shootouts being instantly attributed to the Right Sector. On the other hand, the Ukrainian military. But how can a tank or howitzer help solve the problem of a team of terrorists and saboteurs operating in a city? Fire at a building with a sniper on its roof and bury dozens of innocent residents under the debris? There are more questions than answers. Of course, under the circumstances there are topics that can’t be publicly discussed. Still, no one “upstairs” seemed to have arranged for an evacuation of the Sloviansk residents, just as there were no instructions telling local workers and office employees to stay home rather than hurry to work and risk being caught in crossfire. While Ukraine’s anti-terrorist operation (ATO) was in full swing in Sloviansk, the bureaucrat in charge of public education in Donetsk informed that all the daycare centers were functioning, and that if parents wanted to, they could take their children there. And no daily ATO progress reports, not even breaking news releases. Information vacuum is filled with hearsay. Some rumors had it that the militiamen neutralized two-meter-tall black mercenaries near Donetsk, others claimed that helicopters poured insecticidal dust (DDT) over Sloviansk. Worst of all, the pro-Ukrainian community started panicking (“They’ve surrendered the Donbas!”).
Add here official Kyiv that has never tried to act a step ahead of the enemy, not once! It was obvious that a Crimean scenario was being played out in the Donbas. There were only two solutions to the problem: military (something Ukraine hasn’t been very good at so far and which is likely to keep the situation the way it is until the next aggravation stage, considering that Russia has only irritated our internal wounds so far) and political (this would serve to heal our internal wounds instead of just killing the pain). At one point it seemed as though the Kyiv administration had seized the initiative. On April 14, Oleksandr Turchynov declared that an all-Ukrainian referendum could take place simultaneously with the presidential elections. The DPR side did not respond, as was well to be expected. Later, Donetsk Governor Serhii Taruta requested this referendum, but official Kyiv failed to respond in no uncertain words. Anyway, it is better to set a new starting point in the relationships between Kyiv and Donetsk by holding a referendum than by keeping shedding blood. And blood keeps being shed while time is running short.