The Myth of “Russian Donbas”

The Russian manner of state-building has always provided for active colonization and the creation of propagandistic clichés. The most successful of them managed to push back history to the margins and replace it with pro-government narratives. The results of such historical fiction are now being used by the Russian authoritarian regime to justify its military aggression and zombify its citizens, playing on both Soviet nostalgia and created by the means of imperial, Soviet, and Russian propaganda. Among these myths, the one about “primordially Russian Donbas” is one of the most successful and therefore, one of the most harmful. In fact, it was a complicated construct, including historical, economical, and social elements. 

Soviet banner from the 1920s. The inscription reads: “Donbas, the heart of Russia”.

The toponymical myth

The geographical name “Donbas” itself, commonly used to describe the modern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, is a part of Russian imperial myth. In fact, it is an abbreviation of the name of Donetsk Basin, introduced by engineer Evgraf Kovalevsky. This basin covered a part of the modern Donetsk region (without the Azov part), the southern part of Luhansk region, eastern Dnipropetrovsk region, and the western Rostov region in Russia. 

Soviet propaganda was actively using the toponym and trying to impose that before the arrival of Bolsheviks, the region was inhabited wild land. In such a way, the Soviet government was trying to erase the memory of the Ukrainian past of the region.

Soviet banner from 1930. The inscription reads: “Mechanizing Donbas”.

Some parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions have never been miners but agricultural ones. Before the October Revolution in 1917, Scythians and Kimmerians were living on those territories. Then cossacks mastered those lands. In middle XVIII modern “Donbas” was a part of Kalamiuska Palanka of Zaporizhzhya Army, which was one of the biggest administrative-territorial units of the Sitch. In 1775, after the liquidation of Sitch by Russian empress Catherine II, New-Russian and Azov governorate were formed there.

Luhansk region was part of Ostrohozky and Izium-sloboda cossack regiments of Zaporizhzhya Grassroots Artmy, later – to Kharkiv, Katerynoslav, and Voronezh governorates. In 1919, Don governorate with the center in Luhansk was created. In 1932, Donetsk region appeared, and in 1938, it was divided into the Stalin (now Donetsk) and Voroshylovhrad (now Luhansk) regions. Therefore, the name “Donbas” was never an official administrative unit but a mythological construct, beneficial for Soviet rhetorics, used to marginalize the cossack past and create the myth of “labor capital” and “industrial region”.

The linguistic myth

For dozens of years, both Soviet and Russian propaganda have pushed the message about “Russian-speaking Donbas”, as well as Russian-speaking “citizens of south-east of Ukraine”. However, the official numbers say the opposite. According to the Russian empire census, in 1897, in Bakhmut district, over 58% people mentioned Ukrainian as their native language, and only 31% – Russian. In Mariupol district, 46% of people mentioned Ukrainian, and 14% – Russian. In a century, the number of Russian-speakers significantly increased due to the oppressions and prohibitions against Ukrainian language and the terror of Ukrainian-speakers. Soviet propaganda promoted Russian as “the language of elites” and pushed people to abandon Ukrainian as “language of the village”. The myth about “Ukrainian being spoken only in villages of Donbas”. The cities were intensively rusificated by the Soviet authorities and all the Ukrainian traditions were being dismantled, such as the practice of wearing Ukrainian traditional clothes with unique vyshyvanka patterns. As well, the memory about the repressions against local intelligentsia was also being actively destroyed. Thus, Mykola Cherniavsky, the author of “Donets sonnets” (1898), the first Ukrainian-language poetry collection in the region, was shot in 1938 as “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalist”. 

The ethnic myth

The myth about the “majority of Donbas population being ethnic Russians” is a convenient excuse for Russian propaganda, which helps to justify Russian aggression in Ukraine for the last 8 years. “Protecting Russian-speaking population” and rescuing “primordially Russian lands”. In 1745, the number of Ukrainians amounted to 96%. In 1779 this number constituted 64%. Russians have never been the majority, yielding to Germans who founded colonies in Bakhmut district, and Greeks who were deported from Crimea. Colonial politics of the Russian empire and later Soviet Union was trying to change the ethnic make-up of Donbas, resettling workers from different regions of Russia there. 

According to the recent Ukrainian census of 2001, in the Donetsk region there are 38% Russians, in Luhansk – 39%. 

The civilizational myth

In XVII-XVIII centuries the territories of modern Donetsk and Luhansk regions were settled by cossacks who came there from the north of Ukraine. Some of them retreated to the Kalmius and Siverskyi Donets rivers, and this is how Donbbas became the hearth of cossack state with Kalmius and Yelenets palankas (cossack administrative-territorial units). Ukrainian cossacks owned the territories up to Don river, including parts of modern Rostov region in Russia. Cossacks mined salt and built settlements which later turned into villages and cities. Even modern Donetsk city was created in place of cossack settlements Oleksandrivka and Krutohorivka, and so was modern Luhansk. The fortress of Domakha (Kalmius Sloboda) turned into a city of Mariupol, so dozens of toponyms remember the continuity of cossack tradition.

After the liquidation of Zaporizhzhya Sitch, the Russian empire did everything to erase the memory of cossack history and impose an inferiority complex about “deserted unsettled lands”, which later culminated in the Soviet myth about “wild-wild east”. In 1795, British industrialist Charles Gascoigne founded a Foundry-Mechanical Plant near Luhan river (modern Luhansk).

In 1869, another British, John Hughes, who is considered the founder of Donetsk city, built a rail factory near Kalmius river, which became one of the biggest in Europe. This boosted the launch of railways on the territories of modern Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk regions and employed over 15,000 workers. Among the Donetsk shareholders, there were not only British but also Belgians, French, and Germans. The Russian empire gave European companies subsidies to open plants in the region. In 1892, Germans founded the colony New York on the bank of Kryvyi Torets river, with a machine-building plant and manufacture for agricultural machines. They developed agriculture in the region and started breeding new breeds of domestic animals. Also, Europeans founded hundreds of towns and villages in Donbas (for instance, there is a whole Belgian quarter in modern Lysychansk, Luhansk region). 

The appearance of the soda plant and cableway also owes to Belgians. In 1914, the Russian government started nationalizing Belgian enterprises, so by the end of the First World War, Belgian investors lost all their finances. This was done under the pretext of the German occupation of Belgium. Later, Soviet union manipulated the collective memory with terror and threats, constructing the new ideology of “industrial leap” in Donbas, which became possible only due to Soviet authorities. Meanwhile, the gains of Western industrialists were soon forgotten. 

Marginalizing modern “Donbas residents” after Ukrainian independence in 1991 and creating for Donetsk and Luhansk regions the fake halo of “low culture”, Russian propaganda became a successful descendant of the Soviet propaganda machine and did its best to split Ukraine on the pretext of “different mentalities” on the east and west. 

Moscow’s colonial strategies require total control over the “rescued Russia-speaking population” and the dictatorship of lies. The concept of “primordially Russian territories” as a typical imperialist narrative, has always been pushed together with terror, propaganda, and historic manipulations – as in the case with “Russian Crimea”. Such tactics all in all lead to territorial claims, military aggression, and occupation, and once again shows the long-term planning of Russia’s expansionist ambitions. However, despite all Russia’s efforts, Donetsk and Luhansk have always had Ukrainian past – and will have Ukrainian future – against all odds.