Keith Gessen in Donetsk
LRB | 11 September 2014
Mikhail Mishin is a small, fit man with a couple of gold teeth in his mouth. He grew up in Makeevka, a large town next to Donetsk, and for several years played professional football, rising to the Ukrainian Second League before eventually quitting at the age of 28. After a few tough years, his father helped him find work in the sports section of city government. He lobbied for money for sports facilities and attended their opening ceremonies, where he always gave a short speech about the moral and physical benefits of sport. No scholar of languages, he was never able to master Ukrainian fully, which perhaps would have kept him from climbing higher in politics if things hadn’t taken a strange turn for him, and the Donbass region, earlier this year. In any case, around Donetsk, Russian was the only language necessary for overseeing children’s football tournaments. Mishin’s salary was $300 a month and he didn’t own a car, but he didn’t mind too much. His costs were low – he was unmarried and lived in his parents’ flat – and if he needed a ride somewhere, his best friend Aleksandr was always happy to drive.
When the Maidan protests started in Kiev late last year, Mishin followed them with increasing anxiety. He watched as young men in masks and the insignia of old Ukrainian fascist movements attacked riot police – some of them from the Donetsk area – with Molotov cocktails. He saw governors in the western provinces pulled out of their offices and roughed up by furious crowds. It seemed that the country was descending into chaos. When he heard a rumour that some of the young men from Maidan were headed for Donetsk, he believed it. After work he started taking the bus to the centre of Donetsk to stand with the protesters who called themselves ‘anti-Maidan’. Some of them waved Russian flags; others held up posters of Stalin. But they all wanted to express their disagreement with what was happening in Kiev. Mishin supported this. He was worried that he might get into trouble – he was a city official, after all – but he figured that he was doing it in his own time, and it was something he believed in. But he concealed his new political activity from his parents, who would have worried.
‘The protests in March and April were the most massive grassroots protests I have ever seen in Donetsk,’ Yuri Dergunov, who is also from Makeevka and teaches political science, told me. ‘In my memory people here had never been so active and so involved in their own fate.’ He pointed out the very specific social composition of the protests in Donetsk. The pro-Maidan protests, when they took place, were middle class and nationalistic; anti-Maidan was lower class and anti-oligarchic (and Russian nationalist). ‘I would see the people at Maidan and think: “What nice people, so well dressed, so educated.” Then they would open their mouths.’ The things that came out of their mouths included slogans taken from interwar Ukrainian fascism. They also expressed what Dergunov calls barely concealed ‘social racism’ towards the members of anti-Maidan. Perhaps nowhere else in Ukraine was the split between pro-Maidan and anti-Maidan so visible as it was in Donetsk.
While Mishin was quietly attending the rapidly growing anti-Maidan meetings, Enrique Menendez, a businessman, was himself getting worried. Menendez, who is named after his grandfather, a Spanish Republican soldier who retreated to France and after the war ended up in the USSR, is thirty years old. He grew up in a town fifty miles north of Donetsk and moved to the city after high school to seek his fortune. Too poor to afford university, he found he could navigate the media business, and got work at a growing internet company in Donetsk. Three years ago he started his own company, the Ad Factory, which did online marketing for businesses in Donetsk. He was doing well and had seven employees. But he began to feel his city slipping away from him.
In early March, Menendez and some other local professionals decided to organise a big pro-Ukraine meeting. Menendez was tasked with ensuring security for the protesters: everyone knew they might be attacked. He approached the staff of the newly appointed governor, but they couldn’t guarantee the protest’s safety; eventually he got in touch with the organised fans of Shakhtar Donetsk (shakhtar means ‘miner’ – Donetsk is coal country). These ultras, who had been supporters of Maidan, agreed to provide security. The meeting went off, thousands came, and at the end a group of men approached with sticks. The ultras were as good as their word and confronted the attackers, with the result that several of the ultras (as well as several of the attackers) ended up in hospital. This was as expected, but Menendez was discouraged.
The first thing he noticed was that the separatist forces were simply stronger: there were more of them in general, and there were more of them who were willing to employ physical violence. The second thing he noticed was that they were local. The third thing he noticed was that the police were at best passive and at worst openly hostile to the pro-unity protesters, and it didn’t get much better the higher up you went. In mid-March representatives of the post-Maidan Ministry of the Interior visited Donetsk. They met with civic leaders but most of all they met with the football ultras, and demanded that they arm themselves and prepare for battle against the pro-Russian forces in the city.
Menendez was furious. The government was coming to his city and trying to get football hooligans to beat up protesters. ‘Resolving conflicts – that’s what government is for. If you’re incapable of that, you’re not a government, you’re a profanation. Either from ignorance of the situation, or from understanding it full well, they were igniting a civil war.’
Menendez wanted to set up a dialogue with the pro-Russian activists, but his fellow pro-unity organisers wanted another rally. Menendez refused to participate. He thought it was unsafe, and on Facebook he discouraged people from attending. The march went ahead anyway. At the end of it a group of unity supporters was surrounded by a much larger group of separatists. The separatists threw bottles, cans and punches; at the end of it, one of the pro-unity marchers, the 19-year-old secretary of the local branch of the ultra-nationalist Svoboda party, was dead.
Menendez knew several of the leaders of the pro-Russian movement in Donetsk. ‘This didn’t start yesterday,’ he told me. ‘If you look at photos of protests in Donetsk from 2003, you see the same Russian flags. The call for Donetsk to join Russia goes back a long way.’ Menendez was particularly friendly with Pavel Gubarev, initially the most visible of the separatist protesters. He liked Gubarev, whom he called Pasha, a lot. ‘He came from a poor family from outside Donetsk, as I did, and he rented his apartment in Donetsk, just like me, and was hoping to buy one.’ Gubarev sold advertising space on billboards in Donetsk and its environs; he had pioneered a system that allowed national chains to run advertising campaigns in the region without having to reach out to every individual billboard owner. ‘He was a great guy,’ Menendez said. ‘He worked hard and put a lot of money into his own education. He just happened to have always been a Russian fascist.’
Menendez hadn’t been in touch with Gubarev in some time when he called him in late February, to see how business was going (Menendez’s business was doing badly because of all the turmoil). ‘I could tell he was distracted when I called, like he was talking to someone else. It took him a moment to remember who I was. Then he said: “What business, bro? Donbass is joining Russia!” That’s when I knew we had lost Pasha.’
A week later, Gubarev was proclaimed the ‘people’s governor of Donetsk’, and a few days after that was arrested for separatist activity and taken to Kiev: at that point, the government was still able to carry out arrests in Donetsk. But things were spiralling out of control. In early March, there was a rumour that the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, the ‘boss’ of Donetsk, owner of its football team, and the richest man in Ukraine, would deploy his private security force to restore order. It was an unappealing prospect, but better than a full-scale rebellion leading to war.
Akhmetov, it now appears, was playing a double game. Publicly he was silent; privately, it seems, he was financing the separatists (he denies it). But the rebellion soon developed a logic of its own. In early April, protesters stormed the regional government building for the third time in a month. One of them was the longtime local Communist parliamentarian Boris Litvinov; as one of the most senior members of the group, he was tasked with putting together a document establishing the region’s statehood. He went home and made himself a pot of coffee and looked up all the other declarations of independence on the internet. ‘From the United States to Kosovo,’ he told me. ‘Anything that appeared when you put “declaration of independence” into the search bar, I read.’ He drafted a short and punchy version for the Donetsk People’s Republic. Read aloud in the chamber of the regional parliament on the morning of 7 April, the hotchpotch declaration was met with raucous applause.
Throughout this time, Mikhail Mishin kept attending meetings. He signed up for volunteer defence work and was asked on several nights to guard the barricades in front of the regional government building; one night he was asked to help man a checkpoint on the road into town, overseeing the traffic police. He ran into a guy he used to play football with, Denis Pushilin, who had become one of the main organisers of the rebellion. Pushilin was glad to see him there.
No one was thinking that all this would lead to war. People were scared and unhappy and doing something about it. That the protest took on such a strong separatist colour was due less to the protesters’ basic demands (regional autonomy might have been enough for many) than to the recent Russian annexation of Crimea. ‘The contradictions didn’t necessarily lead to war,’ Dergunov said. ‘But when Crimea went with the option of total separation, it pushed the extremes, both pro-Ukraine and pro-Russian, to the fore. That was Putin’s real crime – this is what created the war.’
Then, on 12 April, the police station in the city of Slovyansk, fifty miles north of Donetsk, was taken over by a group of unidentified commandos. The police were overwhelmed. ‘These were not locals with hunting rifles,’ the new chief of the Slovyansk police told me. ‘These were highly trained, well-armed men.’ It soon became evident that the commandos had come from abroad: the Russian aid that the protesters in Donetsk had been calling for had finally materialised. At that moment, what had been a people’s uprising turned into an armed revolt, and some would say a covert invasion.
Disorganised and confused, the post-revolutionary government in Kiev was also intimidated: the Russians had massed troops at the border and repeatedly said that they were prepared to meet any violence against pro-Russia protesters with force. After the armed takeover of Slovyansk and then a dozen other cities in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, the government sent in some tanks, unaccompanied by infantry, only to have local residents block their movements. It took several weeks before the government mounted a serious counterattack, which it called an ‘anti-terrorist operation’, or ATO.
Meanwhile the Donetsk People’s Republic, or DNR, was taking on some of the elements of statehood. First it organised a referendum (copied in neighbouring Lugansk) on autonomy; hundreds of thousands came out to vote ‘yes’. In mid-May, the DNR announced its first government. Boris Litvinov, the author of the declaration of independence, was named the executive officer of the council of ministers; Gubarev’s wife was made foreign minister (Gubarev himself had only recently been released in a prisoner exchange with Kiev); a newcomer from Moscow, a political ‘technologist’ called Aleksandr Borodai, was made prime minister; and Mikhail Mishin, the football player from Makeevka, was made minister of sport.
For the first few weeks after he took the job, Mishin went to bed each night wondering if he’d be arrested before morning. The Kiev government could still probably do that. But with each passing day he felt better, and started thinking about what the DNR could accomplish in the realm of sport. He certainly hoped league-leading Shakhtar Donetsk would return to the city, though that would have to wait until after the war.
War was getting closer. After a month of heavy shelling from the Ukrainian army, the rebel group in Slovyansk, led by a mysterious former FSB officer called Igor Strelkov, retreated to Donetsk. Once there, Strelkov established himself as the military commander of all forces in the region. It was estimated that the rebels had as many as ten thousand men under arms. To win the war now, the army would have to take Donetsk.
In early August I took the train from Kiev to Donetsk. Kiev was full of refugees from the east. Donetsk’s football team was staying at the Opera Hotel; others were staying with friends or relatives or in hostels and rented flats around town. The people of Kiev were not inhospitable, but they were wary, and they were angry. The ATO had been going on in earnest for two months, and each day brought news of more deaths from the front. The government had announced a ‘partial mobilisation’, calling up people who had once served in the armed forces, and there were also several volunteer battalions: some, like the Azov and Aidar battalions, were based on existing structures (in Azov’s case the Social-National Assembly of Ukraine, i.e. the far right, and in Aidar’s case the self-defence units of Maidan); others had been raised by locals who were willing to fight. In early August, the Maidan encampment was still partly intact, but the energy had vanished. One evening, at the edge of what remained of it, I happened across a group of forty men standing outside a bus and saying goodbye to friends and girlfriends. They looked tired, unshaven and for the most part out of shape. Eventually they lined up, did a roll call, and boarded the bus. They were volunteers for the Aidar battalion, and they were headed for Lugansk.
The post-Maidan government was now a war government. It banned the Communist Party from parliament for its alleged support of the rebels. It set up a gmail account for people in liberated towns in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions to write anonymous reports on fellow citizens who might have aided the rebels. And it was doing its best to scare people. A professor at Kharkiv University showed me an order from the Ministry of Education demanding that all senior university officials take part in mobilising staff for the ATO. Those who ‘sabotaged’ the process would be found guilty of ‘separatist tendencies’. ‘This language,’ he said. ‘It’s straight out of the 1930s.’
The day before I was to take the train to Donetsk I met a man from Lugansk called Kirill. He had been an outspoken supporter of Maidan and a unified Ukraine, and after the rebels took over the city they came to his house, arrested him and brought him in for questioning. They demanded that he admit he was a spy, and when he refused they shot him in the leg. They kept him another week, then dropped him off in the woods and suggested he disappear. He hid out with a friend until his leg got a little better, then made his way to Kiev. Now he spent his time playing video games and, out of some kind of repetition compulsion, watching YouTube clips of captured Ukrainian soldiers getting interrogated by the rebels. The films were horrible, and there were lots of them.
I arrived in Donetsk on a Tuesday; I knew we were getting close when I spotted the first slag heaps. I had been worried about document checks but no one asked for papers on the train or at the station. In fact there were no armed men at all until you got near the city centre. Then they began to appear, and unarmed passers-by correspondingly became fewer. Many stores were closed and car dealerships were entirely emptied out: it had only taken a few ‘mobilisations’ of new vehicles by the rebels for the dealers to take their entire stock out of town. The city looked half empty. Occasionally a group of people could be seen huddled around a cashpoint. Most of the banks felt unsafe filling up their machines. There were no police on the streets and the number of car accidents had increased. On the other hand there were advantages. One day I got into a taxi whose young driver had a crew cut and was blasting Russian girl pop from his radio. He didn’t look like the world’s most responsible driver. I reached for my seatbelt. ‘What are you doing?’ he said. ‘There’s no cops here.’ The rebels, apparently, were lax about seatbelts, though very strict when it came to drinking. People caught drunk in public were routinely picked up and forced to dig defensive trenches outside town. Habitual drunks had taken to wearing all black so as to be less visible to DNR militants at night.
The popular longtime mayor of Donetsk, Aleksandr Lukyanchenko, had fled to Kiev in July after being asked to pledge allegiance to the DNR and also, it was said, to prepare for the siege of the city by blowing up large buildings on the outskirts. But public buses, rubbish trucks and emergency repair crews were still working. In the centre of town, the rebel fighters were concentrated around the SBU (formerly the KGB) building – where Strelkov was said to have his headquarters and where a rebel codenamed Nose oversaw a growing population of hostages – and the 11-storey regional government building, now the seat of the government of the DNR. The rebel fighters came in different shapes and sizes. Some were kids, barely 18, of the sort who fill any army and always look too young to carry guns. They were in the minority. Most of the fighters were grown men: some were unemployed miners who had joined the rebels out of conviction or anger, and others were well-trained and well-disciplined troops. These last were partly local ex-military or ex-police, while others came from abroad, though they didn’t advertise this. (The most visible foreign fighters were those from the Caucasus, since they had more trouble blending in.)
At its maximum extent in late May, the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics formed a bloc (they called it Novorossiya, New Russia, after the old tsarist term for the area) extending about ten thousand square miles west from the Russian border: about the size of Belgium, and one twentieth the area of Ukraine. In two months, starting immediately after the election of President Petro Poroshenko, rebel-held territory had shrunk by more than half. Donetsk had been the south-west corner of the territory; after the rebel retreat from Slovyansk, Donetsk had become more of a south-west redoubt. As a result, the city was being shelled from the west and the north.
And yet the rebels didn’t seem that worried. In the regional government building they held meetings and press conferences and updated their website. I spoke for a long time with Litvinov, who’d recently been elected chairman of the Supreme Soviet and added to the EU and UK financial sanctions lists. For him, it was as if 1917 had come to life from the yellowed pages of Lenin’s collected works. Was he worried about international recognition for his republic? ‘No. Think how long it took the Soviet Union to be recognised.’ (The US only recognised the Soviet Union in 1933.) ‘The only country that’s recognised us so far is South Ossetia.’ What about passports? ‘Here I think the Transnistrian experience is useful. People still have Moldovan passports. They know if they put a stamp in those passports that says “Transnistria” no one will acknowledge it. So what they do is, they have an insert that says “Transnistria” that they put into the passport when necessary, but also take out when necessary.’ Was he worried about the DNR becoming as isolated as Transnistria? ‘We won’t become Transnistria, for simple reasons of geography. On the one side of Transnistria is Moldova, on the other side Ukraine. They had to beg for the use of a little bit of the mouth of the Dniester from the Ukrainians. Whereas we have a nice long border with Russia. And we also have access to the sea.’ He pointed to the map on his wall that showed Donetsk and Lugansk with their pre-independence borders. When we talked, the coast of the Sea of Azov that he referred to, which included the big port city of Mariupol, had been under Ukrainian control for some time. But Litvinov was calm. ‘It’s not going to be a quick process. It’s going to be a long and difficult process. But we’ll get through it.’
In Donetsk I had expected to find a totalitarian proto-state, and I did. The Kremlin liked calling the government in Kiev a ‘junta’, but here you had a real one. Professional mercenaries in fatigues called the shots and even ministers of state felt compelled to cross the street at the sight of armed men, lest a misunderstanding occur. What I didn’t expect to find were so many people who believed in all of it with such certainty, and with such hope.
One day I visited Mishin in Makeevka. He and his friend Aleksandr Bik took me on a tour, past the giant Makeevka Iron and Steel Works, which in the 1930s was the largest steel plant in the USSR (producing more steel than the whole of Italy, it was said), and which continued to be a major player in Soviet steel until perestroika. In 1997 it filed for bankruptcy. It’s now owned by Akhmetov’s Metinvest and employs a fraction of the people it did during Soviet times. Nearby was a huge slag heap. I asked if we could climb it, but this was deemed inadvisable: the hill was full of dangerous chemicals, and people sometimes fell into holes in it.
We drove to the fields west of Makeevka to visit an old cow shed where Bik now raises worms to produce fertiliser; according to the US government, it was from one of the nearby fields that Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 had been fired on. As we drove, Mishin and Bik described a world in which, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rackets took over. People started disappearing. With inflation skyrocketing, it was impossible to survive on a salary. You had to have your own business, and not everyone was cut out for that. Even once things stabilised there was banditism. As we got outside town, Bik pointed to what looked like abandoned digging projects. They were illegal coal mines run by Aleksandr Yanukovych, son of the former president, he said. They had scarred the fields and left craters and dead bodies in their wake. ‘You think we liked living under these people?’ Bik said. ‘No, we didn’t. But there wasn’t anything we could do.’ The anti-Maidan uprising changed all that.
For Mishin and Bik, the signal events of the past year looked very different from the way they looked to my friends in Kiev or Moscow. When liberals in those places had seen young men on Maidan attacking the riot police, they thought, ‘people power’; and when they saw men in Donetsk beating pro-Ukraine protesters, they thought, ‘fascists’. But that wasn’t how it looked from Donetsk. From Donetsk they saw fascists on Maidan and, on the streets of Donetsk, people power. Whether the actual fascists on Maidan made them more or less certain of this, I don’t know, but hearing it gave body to something the sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko had said to me in Kiev: ‘It was the liberals’ tolerance of the nationalists on Maidan that led to this. If they had rejected them right away, things might have turned out differently. It might have led to the collapse of Maidan. It might even have meant that Yanukovych remained president. But at least there would have been peace.’
Mishin and Bik were what the sociologists call the ‘losers’ of the post-Soviet transition. In Soviet times Bik had been a coal miner with aspirations to join the KGB. ‘They didn’t take Party bosses’ sons, you know,’ he said (wrongly). ‘They took working people like me.’ And Mishin was a mighty athlete. He recalled playing in a tournament in Leningrad and being promised a trip to the United States. ‘The USA!’ he recalled thinking. And then the whole world collapsed. Industrial regions like Donbass were hardest hit by the changes: it was the region’s industrial output that plummeted furthest in the 1990s; it was industrial plants over which the bloodiest turf wars revolved. And it was in these places that the loss of status was most extreme. Industrial work was championed by the Soviets, both in word and in deed: coal miners in Donbass earned on average two or three times what a software engineer like my father earned in Moscow. (In the early 1980s, Bik had been working as a miner for just a few months when he bought a motorbike. The girls went crazy for it.) When the Soviet Union ended, the entire country experienced what Nietzsche might have recognised as a transvaluation of all values: what had been good was now bad, and what had been bad was now good. Some people liked it and grew rich; other people were left behind. With the victory of protests that were still referred to by some of their supporters as Euromaidan, the people of this industrial region were being asked to endure yet another round of deindustrialisation – of austerity, unemployment and social death. They had balked at this and, what was more, they had an out. Deindustrialisation had gone hand in hand, the first time, with the collapse of the empire. But what if the empire could be restored? Maybe the jobs would come back? If the Russians felt they had ‘lost’ something in Ukraine, many people in Eastern Ukraine felt as if they’d been stranded from their motherland. ‘They call us traitors and separatists,’ Bik said. ‘But I don’t feel like a traitor. I felt like a traitor before, when I had to call myself Ukrainian. I don’t feel like a traitor now.’
Makeevka at this time was relatively quiet – it was in the rear of the fighting, behind Donetsk – but occasionally artillery could still be heard going off in one direction or another. It sounded like thunder, but louder and closer to the ground. In Kiev people believed armed men had taken over part of Ukraine and needed to be dealt with. From here it sometimes seemed as if the local population had finally taken their lives into their own hands, and then the army had come for them. ‘I feel bad for these people,’ a woman from Slovyansk told me. ‘They tried to change things, but in doing so they brought the enemy into their house.’ By the enemy she meant Russia. But it would be just as true a statement if the enemy was Ukraine.
The Ukrainian army was coming, and if the individual soldiers were for the most part coming reluctantly, the people who stood behind them, the media and political cheerleaders of the ATO, were coming with full intent. When they called the people of Donetsk ‘barbarians’ and ‘non-people’, they weren’t simply reacting to the things the rebels had done. They were reacting to what they’d done in Ukrainian politics for twenty years.
The people from the west wanted to be rid of the people from the east. Not so much in the name of Ukrainian nationalism as in the name of progress. For two decades the centre and especially the west of the country had been pursuing Europeanisation. There was certainly a socioeconomic difference in Donbass between the supporters of a unified Ukraine and the supporters of the DNR. The night after I visited Mishin in Makeevka, Enrique Menendez invited me to meet a small group of young, pro-Ukraine professionals who had remained in the city, doing humanitarian work. After delivering food to a dormitory housing more than a thousand refugees from the region, we drove to Havana Banana, a favourite haunt of mid-level rebel commanders, who ate, drank mineral water, and met up with prostitutes there. We drove in a new Fiat which Marina, at the wheel, had trouble handling. ‘This is my friend’s car,’ she said. ‘I’m borrowing it because she’s in Kiev. My real car is a BMW.’ We ate sushi and drank beer. At one point a yellow Porsche pulled up and some rebels hopped out. ‘Ah,’ Marina said. ‘They got it.’ She’d noticed the car around town, with its original owner, and wondered how long before ownership changed. The bill came and, given the low prices in Ukraine, was larger than I’d anticipated. ‘Who ordered $20 worth of sushi?’ I asked. ‘I did!’ Enrique said. Then we all went home, to avoid being out after curfew.
I mention all this to stress the difference between those who supported the DNR in Donetsk and those who didn’t. But among the young professionals I also met a journalist from Lviv. She wasn’t just dressed better than anyone in Donetsk, she was dressed differently, as if on a civilisational level. She looked like she was from France.
And so imagine if for two decades you have been trying to pull your country, bit by bit, into Europe. Imagine that it’s been a bumpy road – everything you accomplish seems to get sabotaged by the political forces from the east. Imagine that finally the contradictions within your country have come to a breaking point. Imagine that all the people who opposed your politics for twenty years – all the most backward, poorest, least successful people in the country – got together in one place, declared an independent republic, and took up arms? What would you do? You could let them go. But then you’d lose all that land and its industrial capacity and also what kind of country just lets chunks of itself fall off? Perhaps you could think of it as an opportunity. Something similar happened when the old Stalinists and nationalists took over the Supreme Soviet in Moscow in 1993. All the enemies of progress in one place, all the losers and has-beens: wouldn’t it be better just to solve the problem once and for all? Wouldn’t it be a better long-term solution just to kill as many as you could and scare the shit out of the rest of them, for ever? This is what I heard from respectable people in Kiev. Not from the nationalists, but from liberals, from professionals and journalists. All the bad people were in one place – why not kill them all?
asked Mishin and Bik if they’d known, when they declared independence, that it would lead to war. ‘If you pick up a gun, they’ll come for you with guns,’ in the words of one anti-DNR resident of Donetsk. But Mishin and Bik, like every other DNR supporter to whom I put this question, said no. They were just trying to be heard. And they pointed out that even in early April, before Strelkov and his crew had taken Slovyansk and escalated the conflict, Ukrainian fighter jets would fly very low over the pro-Donbass protests held in Donetsk. From the very start, Kiev had been prepared to use force.
As August went by, the Ukrainian army drew nearer. In my first few days in Donetsk, the fighting, if highly approximate shelling of each other’s positions can be called that, was on the outskirts of the city. A group of us travelled to the western edge of Donetsk to find houses, a market and a school that had been hit by Grad rockets and shells from what appeared to be Ukrainian positions. One man had been killed when the market was hit (the shell landed near him and ripped off half his head); a woman had been killed in another part of the city. By the end of the week the shelling had reached the centre of Donetsk. It usually started at 4.30 a.m., lasted half an hour, and then resumed around seven, again for a short period of time. To have shells falling within a half-kilometre of you is very loud and, really, very scary. Sometimes you hear a whistle followed by a crashing explosion. At other times you just hear the explosion. My first reaction when the shelling woke me up was to go to a high floor – we were in a nine-storey high-rise – and stick my head out the window. After I’d seen a flash not far from us and felt the entire building shake, I went quickly back down the stairs and into the building’s boiler room. A family of three and I sat silently there for half an hour until the shelling stopped. There were people in other towns in the east who’d sat in basements like this for weeks.
The centre of the city was being shelled by howitzers and tanks. On the outskirts of the city I had seen the traces of Grad rockets: a terrifying instrument that burns up much of its length before launching, like a space rocket, and then flies highly inaccurately into enemy territory, generally setting fire to whatever it hits. One night the Ukrainians bombed Donetsk: we heard the planes overhead (otherwise, especially at night, the city was extraordinarily quiet) and then the muffled sound of bombs dropping miles away. The next day we went to see the large craters they’d left in the road. I never once saw an actual military target – the SBU, for example – get hit, only civilian locations. Possibly the army had poor aim; possibly the army was hoping to encourage the remaining civilian population to leave. Or possibly the army didn’t care. Most of the people with means or connections were long gone. As one of Menendez’s friends from Kiev had said – to Menendez’s great annoyance – ‘all the normal people have left already.’ So the shelling increased.
I decided to leave Donetsk after seeing a man getting shoved into the trunk of a car by a group of armed men in fatigues. ‘Get the fuck in there, blyad’!’ one of them shouted at him. The man was blindfolded and had his hands bound behind his back. He was unsteady on his feet, either because he was drunk or they’d beaten him, or both. This was going on a few paces from the headquarters of the DNR, where Mishin was working on an organisation chart for his proposed ministry of sports.
I got on the train and travelled to Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, where the war had begun. Slovyansk, in particular, was a revelation. I had seen photos and videos of it under occupation, when people were being shot in the street. A month after the rebels had left, people were walking around eating ice cream. There were still plenty of ruined buildings, but the atmosphere was almost festive. I saw a group of children who were so cute and happy I wanted to take a photo. I asked their mothers if this was all right, and they said yes, except, they added, they weren’t from Slovyansk. They had come from Yenakievo, Yanukovych’s hometown, where the fighting between government forces and the rebels was fierce. Slovyansk, once a byword for the war, had become a place where people took refuge from it.
Not everyone felt better in Slovyansk after the departure of the DNR. I met a woman who’d been roughed up by ‘investigators’ interested in her vocal support for the separatists. Others, less involved, had simply enjoyed the rebels’ style of governance. ‘When they were here, there was order,’ one man told me. ‘After some of the shelling, there were copper and aluminium wires lying in the streets! No one dared steal them. They chased the Gypsies off from the train station where they sold drugs. There was order!’ As soon as the rebels left, the Gypsies returned, paying the police to look the other way, just as before. In general, things had gone back to the way they were.
But not in Donetsk – not yet, and possibly not for a long time. Even as reports came in that Russian armoured vehicles were crossing the border, the Ukrainian army continued to press into Lugansk and Donetsk. In mid-August the trains stopped running into or out of Donetsk. On Independence Day, the DNR paraded its Ukrainian prisoners of war through the streets. A crowd gathered to watch (the press department of the DNR had sent out invites by email), and people threw eggs and hurled curses at the prisoners. Meanwhile in Kiev the capital was treated to a large military parade. Some of the hardware that had been causing so much damage in the east was rolled down the streets of the city, in the very spot where Maidan had once been. Two days later, a Russian force crossed the border in southern Donetsk province and started heading for Mariupol. They were trying to establish the access to the sea that Litvinov had talked about two weeks earlier. At the time it sounded delusional. Now it was here.
I called Mishin. He was excited about the counteroffensive in the south, though also sick and tired of the war. A friend with whom he’d played football had been out grocery shopping when Makeevka was shelled. He was hit in the head by shrapnel and killed.
Enrique Menendez’s office building had been shelled too. Menendez was upstairs but ran down and outside unharmed. He had shown me the headquarters of the Ad Factory while I was in Donetsk. Inside the empty office eight computers stood silent. Google, one of Menendez’s business partners, had sent him two beanbag chairs, which still sat in their plastic wrapping against a wall. ‘We’re the only company in Donetsk that’s an official Google ad affiliate,’ Menendez said. ‘They were supposed to send those during the holidays, but they only arrived recently. I was so mad at them.’ The Ad Factory’s offices were on the seventh floor. Looking out, we saw on the northern horizon the distinctive grey smoke that rises from a house or other object on fire after a rocket attack. ‘I need to say goodbye to all this, mentally,’ Menendez said. ‘It’s all from a different world.’