Pensioner Valentyna Mykolayivna in Myrne: "I just want them to stop shooting. I want us to have gas again and I want the trolley bus to run. For all I care, even the devil can conquer us here."

Pensioner Valentyna Mykolayivna in Myrne: "I just want them to stop shooting. I want us to have gas again and I want the trolley bus to run. For all I care, even the devil can conquer us here."

Foto: Julia Kochetova / DER SPIEGEL

A Journey through Contested Eastern Ukraine Many in the Donbas Feel Betrayed – By Kyiv

Windows here are barricaded with sandbags and the sounds from the front are constantly rolling in. Still, many elderly residents of the Donetsk region have stayed here because they tend to trust Russia more than their own government, despite Vladimir Putin's war of aggression. Why?

By Thore Schröder in Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, Ukraine

The missile struck behind Kramatorsk's main post office. Debris from the Russian R-37, lies next to a playground among the poplar leaves. Other parts of it damaged 10 buildings, injuring six people – and killed Maksym. Valentyna Sdobina, 70, wipes tears from her eyes with her index finger. She cries for her son-in-law.

DER SPIEGEL 31/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 31/2022 (July 30th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

When it hit, she rushed down the stairs from her apartment and saw a group of men administering first aid to Maksym next to his small Kia. "There was so much blood," she says. "Half his head was missing." She makes the sign of the cross with her right hand and holds the leash of her bulldog Leo with the right one. "They only fired on us because of the Ukrainian soldiers living here in the neighborhood," she says. Then her mood shifts from sadness to anger: She has to live on 2,850 hryvnia, the equivalent of 73 euros, and waits in line once a month at the food bank for handouts. "I only eat half a sausage a day." She doesn't have the money to flee, either.

The Donbas is at the center of Russia's attack on Ukraine. When Moscow-led separatists captured parts of the region in the spring of 2014, Ukrainian soldiers drove them back, and Moscow sent weapons and its own troops. War has been waged here for eight years now.

Putin's troops have steadily conquered new territory. They use heavy artillery, thousands of tons of shells, wreaking havoc on village after village like a steamroller, leaving rubble and death in their wake. The Luhansk oblast is almost completely occupied and largely destroyed. In the part of Donetsk still controlled by Ukraine, the defenders are now getting ready for the next onslaught.

Senior citizen Valentyna Sdobina in Kramatorsk

Senior citizen Valentyna Sdobina in Kramatorsk

Foto: Julia Kochetova / DER SPIEGEL

But it is unclear who, among the remaining civilians, they can rely on. This becomes apparent when DER SPIEGEL reporters travel through the area. Despite all the crimes committed by the Russians, a lot of people here feel, above all, betrayed by the Ukrainian government. Many in the Donbas have historically sympathized with Russia, but what is the mood among its inhabitants after eight years of fighting and five months of full-scale war?

The interview with Kramatorsk Mayor Oleksandr Honcharenko, 47, takes place in a conference room inside City Hall, a yellow brick building dating back to Soviet times with windows that have been barricaded with sandbags. The city leader wears a slim-fitting polo shirt, his silver-gray hair is neatly parted. He speaks fluent German with a melodic Swiss accent and begins most of his sentences with, "Look." Almost 30 years ago, Honcharenko studied business administration in Bern. He then spent two decades as the sales manager at one of the large mechanical engineering companies in his area. "Seventy percent of the goods produced here were exported," he says.

When the independent politician took office two years ago, he had a vision of a modern industrial city that would stand out from other ailing communities in the area. Kramatorsk is still dominated by Soviet industrial ruins. "But we have made renovations to daycares and schools and created 30 new sports fields and three new parks," he says.

Mayor Oleksandr Honcharenko in Kramatorsk

Mayor Oleksandr Honcharenko in Kramatorsk

Foto: Julia Kochetova / DER SPIEGEL

Support for the political leadership has also mostly grown as a result of the experience in 2014, he adds. At the time, he says, people saw what the occupiers were capable of. "These so-called separatists seized cars and shot people on the streets in broad daylight." Asked about the complaints of Valentyna Sdobina, he says you have to look at who it is that is always complaining. "It's always the same people," he says. "They're pro-Russian." Eight years ago, he says they comprised around 40 percent of the total population, but he now estimates that is down to maybe 3 to 5 percent.

Even though Russian shells keep hitting the city, one-third of its 152,000 residents have remained, Honcharenko says. Among those who stayed, support for Russia is greater than among those who fled, he says. "It's not helpful for our defense."

The Ukrainian authorities have now told people to leave the Donetsk region. Between 200,000 and 220,000 civilians still live in the unoccupied area, according to estimates. An evacuation notice from the government warned that the coming winter would make things worse, especially for children.

Honcharenko then walks to Freedom square in front of his office. There's a hole in the pavement where a Russian Tornado missile struck five days earlier. It missed City Hall by only 150 meters (492 feet). There had likely been informants among the Ukrainian population, he says.

The people in the Donbas who are hostile, or at least not loyal, to the Ukrainian authorities, are distrusted in the rest of the country. People call them informers, spies, sympathizers or shduny, with the latter meaning "the people who are waiting." It's a pejorative term used by other Ukrainians to refer to locals who welcome Russia's advance.

In Myrne, a suburb of Sloviansk, a city neighboring Kramatorsk, residents of a prefabricated residential block from Soviet times lug full canisters from the trunk of a Russian Lada vehicle to their apartments. No water has been pumped here for weeks because of the war. They also had to live without electricity for a month, says Valentyna Mykolayivna, 68. She's sitting on a bench in front of the house, a round-faced woman whose eyes disappear behind tinted glasses. Her T-shirt reads "Summer Time," but she doesn't know what the words mean.

Tables and chairs are grouped around a fireplace next to Mykolayivna. "We have to cook here because we haven't had gas for three months," she says. Of the 2,000 residents of her small town, as many as 700 remained. Every few seconds, the wind carries the rumbling of the artillery from the front, located some 15 kilometers (around 9 miles) away, over to them. At one point, the fighting came within 5 kilometers of her, but she refuses to leave. "After all, this is my home" she says.

Myrne, which translates roughly as "peaceful settlement," was founded in 1958 for the workers of Don Fish Kombinat, a government-owned fish processing plant. Mykolayivna moved to the small town from the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don 50 years ago with her childhood sweetheart Vladimir. He was a senior engineer, and she was employed as the head of human resources at the plant. They ate fish each day, swam in the lakes in summer and skated on them in winter. In autumn, they went mushrooming in the forests around them. They raised their two sons in their three-room apartment in Myrne. "We were happy here," she says. The corners of her otherwise completely expressionless mouth lift briefly.

Sasha and Serhiy, 39 and 47 years old, fled with their families to Kyiv after the war began. They now drive aid transports for their fellow Ukrainians through the country. Valentyna Mykolayivna is a stranger to their sense of home: "Your place of origin didn't matter in the Soviet Union," she says.

Her husband died four years ago and she only receives the equivalent of around 60 euros as a pension from the government. Mykolayivna lists the items from her last purchase. She notes the drugs she should take for her high blood pressure and arthritis. But she can't afford the medications.

She doesn't think much of Kyiv. Mykolayivna describes the Euro Maidan protests in Kyiv as a "U.S.-backed coup." Under Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych, she says, "we at least had stability, and my pension was higher."

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has promised many things that haven't been fulfilled, she adds. "Particularly not that he will bring peace." She says she also had Russian television reception prior to the war, but the channels from across the border are blocked now. She finds out in telephone calls with her relatives in Russia these days what people are thinking there and what is allegedly happening in Ukraine. "I don't believe the Bucha massacre really happened," Mykolayivna says.

She’s unable to talk about these things with her sons. "Otherwise, we'll fight." But at the end of the conversation, she says that none of that really matters anyway. "I just want them to stop shooting, I want us to have gas again and I want the trolley bus to run. For all I care, even the devil can conquer us here."

You have to be careful with the term "pro-Russian," says Nikolaus von Twickel of the Center for Liberal Modernity, who was on assignment as part of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observer mission in Donetsk after 2014. "If anything, many people in the Donbas are pro-Soviet," he says. Among younger people, the longing for the Soviet Union is combined with the desire to belong to a Russian-speaking superpower.

The Donets Basin had been a magnet for immigrants – including Russians and Ukrainians, but also, for example, Greeks – since the development of the coal and steel industry in the 19th century. "Russian was their common language," says Andrii Portnov, a Ukrainian historian and professor of history at Viadrina University in Frankfurt an der Oder, Germany.

"After the collapse of the state, people there had particularly high expectations of a new life in Ukraine. When those weren't fulfilled, they began glorifying the Soviet past," Portnov says. In recent years, Russian state propaganda has focused on precisely this point. "For some people, Putin's Russia seems like a kind of lost Soviet paradise," the historian says.

Today, the part of Donbas still under Ukrainian control is a collection of desolate localities. Crumbling streets, decaying apartment blocks surrounding closed industrial sites.

Local historian Yevheniya Kaluhina in Sloviansk: "We had already learned Ukrainian at school in the Donetsk region before, but now some people have begun using it at home."

Local historian Yevheniya Kaluhina in Sloviansk: "We had already learned Ukrainian at school in the Donetsk region before, but now some people have begun using it at home."

Foto: Julia Kochetova / DER SPIEGEL
Recent high school graduate Kateryna Vorobey in Kramatorsk: "I don't have anyone here to talk to. All my friends have already left."

Recent high school graduate Kateryna Vorobey in Kramatorsk: "I don't have anyone here to talk to. All my friends have already left."

Foto: Julia Kochetova / DER SPIEGEL

Yet many things changed for the better after 2014, says Yevheniya Kaluhina, 40, of the Museum of Local Lore in Sloviansk. When the pro-Russian militias were driven out after an 84-day reign of terror, it created a new atmosphere. International volunteer organizations and foundations got involved. Money flowed into the city, allowing residential buildings and municipal facilities to be rebuilt.

"People felt called upon to act as Ukrainian patriots for the first time," says Kaluhina. Language played an important role in that, too. "We had already learned Ukrainian at school in the Donetsk region before, but now some people have begun using it at home," she says.

The fault lines in the region also run between generations. Kateryna Vorobey, 16, graduated from school in Kramatorsk in May as one of 30 students in her class. Most of the other high school graduates at her school had already fled by that point. But she and her mother remained in Kramatorsk to care for elderly relatives. Since Feb. 24, Vorobey, too, has also been speaking only Ukrainian – at least to the extent possible. "I had wanted to do that for a long time, but my family was against it."

Her grandmother admires Putin and Russia's greatness. "I've had to listen to her go on for years about how strong this country is," she says. But when her grandmother continued repeating the propaganda after the war began, Kateryna had had enough. "I told her that I'm not a dog and that I'm not barking to her tune anymore," she says. "She totally lost it, hit me and even bit my upper arm. Now, we're not talking any longer."

Kateryna is sad to be nearly alone in her city now. "I don't have anyone here to talk to," she says. "All my friends have already left."

Sometimes, the high school graduate watches videos on TikTok in an attempt to better understand why people like her grandmother fall for Russian propaganda. "I guess they never learned to think for themselves," she says.

With additional reporting by Illia Tolstov

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