If you told Ukrainian photographer Valeriya Myronenko six months ago that Donbass, the region in eastern Ukraine where she grew up, would erupt in a war, she wouldn’t believe you. Now, with conflict raging between Ukraine and multiple separatist movements, it has become apparent that the unthinkable has come true for Myronenko.
Myronenko, who now lives in Toronto, stayed with her family in Donbass for four months this past spring and summer and witnessed the region deteriorating firsthand, she tells Business Insider.
“All the conflict unravelled before my eyes,” Myronenko says. “It was incredible to watch how fast things can go from civilisation to something crazy and burned down.”
At various points over the last year, Myronenko was in Donbass, photographing the local culture and people in an effort to “document a reality that I felt would soon disappear.” Looking back, she now sees foreshadowing of the conflict in the photos of her neighbours and countrymen.
Myronenko shared photos from her project, called “Donbass I and II,” with us here. You can see more at her website.
Myronenko grew up in Alchevsk, a small city in Donbass. It is near Luhansk, the capital of the province and one of the centres of fighting in eastern Ukraine. The area is heavily industrial.
While there are plenty of young people in Donbass, most try to leave as soon as they are able because the only career prospects are in a mine or a factory. The result has been a rapidly greying population.
'The people that are better at school leave for Kiev or bigger cities. There is a huge outflow of young people from Donbass,' says Myronenko. This is the interior of the OJSC Steel & Iron Works. It is the economic core of the area, if you can believe it.
The older population in Donbass is still heavily attached to the idea of the Soviet Union, according to Myronenko. It's been that way her whole life.
Due to its close proximity to the Russian border, like most areas in Donbass, Alchevsk is full of people of Russian descent. Most people's first language in the area is Russian.
Because Russian is most eastern Ukrainians' first language, they listen to Russian news, which reinforces the view that Ukraine is run by fascists and Russia is trying to protect them. Furthering the issue, Ukrainian TV channels are blocked in the area on the grounds that the channels are pro-Fascist.
'The older generation longs to be part of Russia and they long for stability. They miss the Soviet Union profoundly,' says Myronenko.
Putin is a similar symbol of security and stability for the older generation. 'They cannot assess what Putin is doing and realise that he is the one that is hurting them,' says Myronenko.
'Were someone to tell me that there would be a war in Donbass six months ago, I wouldn't believe them,' says Myronenko. 'It is a grey little region that no one ever cared about. Why would they need it?'
When Myronenko visited this old Soviet theatre, the guard told her that decorations dedicated to Stalin used to hang over the staircase. When she brought up Stalin's multitude of crimes, the man replied, 'Some people have to be murdered. We (Donbass) need a strong hand.' Myronenko was stunned by the man's attitude.
According to Myronenko, when Ukraine started moving towards the European Union, people in Donbass got scared. Many believed that it would affect their pensions and take away their stability. The resulting military conflict confirmed those fears.
This past spring, Myronenko was in Donbass when people voted on the referendum for self-rule. She says that the majority of those voting in favour of self-rule were the old women (or babushkas) who wanted to bring back the Soviet Union. 'Unfortunately, in Donbass, those are the people deciding our fate.'
Not all of the older generation is in favour of the separatists. This lady is listening to news about Sloviansk. She told Myroneko that she thinks the country needs to stay together.
Myronenko visited World War II veterans this past summer. Unlike most people their age, the veterans were heavily against the separatist movement. 'We don't want another war. We already went through this,' they told Myronenko.
The OJSC Iron and Steel Works in Alchevsk is one of the largest plants in Ukraine. It has been in operation for 114 years.
The other major venture in Alchevsk are the coal mines, another example of the lack of progression. Many are illegal.
Working conditions in the mines are pretty terrible. Many mine workers spend their days in aluminium tubs working in complete darkness.
Working at an illegal mine is even more dangerous. Most of the time they are using makeshift equipment. The engines used here are from mopeds.
'Nothing has changed since the '80s. The clothes are the same. The cars are the same. The people are the same,' says Myronenko of Donbass. Here, a man uses an old car to pull miners out of the mine shaft.
The equipment in the mines hasn't changed either. Equipment and uniforms are directly from the Soviet era and still have communist symbols on them.
Mine workers told Myronenko that they were extremely happy to have a job at the mine because there are no other opportunities in the area. Despite the danger of working in the plant, the job is considered highly desirable by those in Donbass, because it is relatively well-paid, stable, and has benefits.
The situation in eastern Ukraine doesn't look to be getting better anytime soon. Life in Alchevsk is virtually unchanged since the Soviet Union collapse, says Myronenko, except for new economic woes. The devastation from the war will only make matters worse.
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