Cartoon in Kyiv-based magazine Hlobus, a reaction on an illustration in the Kharkiv-based magazine Vsesvit

Okategoriserade Games from the Past: The continuity and change of the identity dynamic in Donbas from a historical perspective

The ambiguity of the 1920s Ukrainianization is well known among its scholars. A curious fact is that was becoming less intense and effective where the initial positions of the Ukrainian were weaker. Donbas was specifically one such region. If Ukraine is a borderland, Donbas is a borderland multiplied by itself, notes the author and further claims that "Donbas will retain its hybridity no matter the outcome of the current unrest. Still, the volatile situation brings not only risks but also yet another chance for belated modernisation."

Published on on maj 19, 2014

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In January 1929 Kharkiv-based illustrated magazine Vsesvit reported on a delegation from Donbas visiting the capital of the Soviet Ukraine. Over 300 workers from Artemivsk, the journalists wrote, wanted to “familiarise themselves with Ukrainian culture, see the proletarian capital and its achievements”[1]. The workers toured museums, exhibitions, “zoological garden”, newspapers and radio newsrooms, met a bunch of writers and attended an avant-garde operetta. Some of them were given an honour of hearing a speech by Mykola Skrypnyk, narkom of education and the promoter of Ukrainianization. “Ukrainian proletariat, largely Russified in the times of tsarism, will gradually re-appropriate its national culture”[2], he was quoted by Vsevsit as saying.

As we know from another magazine called Hlobus – it was published in Kyiv, away from the centres of power of the time, and covered the visit in a somewhat less formal manner – the Artemivsk workers were welcomed at the train station in Kharkiv by local establishment. The greetings were in Russian. The piquancy of the situation was that the workers from Donbas responded in Ukrainian.

Hlobus reacted to this with three cartoons on its back cover. The first one represents how the guests were imagined by the Kharkiv elite: a bunch of bearded men in Russian folk costumes, one of them holding balalaika. The second pictures the idea of Kharkiv’s officials as imagined by the workers from Artemivsk: men dressed in shirts with Ukrainian embroidery, some displaying nationalist moustache and intellectualist pince-nez, one of them holding bandura. The third cartoon claims to represent “the reality”: on the platform, two groups of men clothed in similar Soviet urban style, slightly humbler on the workers. The Kharkiv crowd hold Russian books and magazines; the people from Donbas have Ukrainian ones in their hands.

The cartoon caption runs: “Svoyi svoyikh ne piznaly[3], which can be only very loosely translated as “Unrecognised friends” or “Friends haven’t recognised each other”. “Svoyi” is a substantivized plural of the possessive pronoun “sviy”, literally meaning “one’s own”. The caption is an example of its very common use as a noun in the sense of “of one’s own kind/kin”, “close relative”, “of the friendly side”, also – in the military context – “friendly troops”.

So who were these friends, or even brothers bound by blood, who have mistakenly assumed they were of different kinds? The direct meaning of the caricature is obvious: Ukrainians from different regions were confused by misperceptions about each other. In this literal reading, the cartoon strives to convey (and create) the idea of sameness between the two groups, of their belonging to (almost) one class and (almost?) one nation.

There is however a second layer of irony, perhaps invisible for the cartoonist himself. Could it be that the “sameness” of the two groups was the sameness of pretending? Behind the Kharkiv group, we see a banner where the initially Ukrainian text of the greeting is “corrected” so it could be read as Russian. If we assume that the Kharkiv crowd is made fun of as pretenders who redress their own identity to impress the guests with their openness and internationalism, the ironic reading suggests that the workers also assume a demonstratively Ukrainian identity to impress their hosts with their national consciousness and willingness to “re-appropriate their own culture”. The “friends”, “the same ones” of the caption connote conformist performers.

One of the cornerstones of the Soviet system was everyone’s intimate knowledge of what was required of them in every particular situation, and the ability to demonstrate the desired behaviour and discourse, nearly as universal as the “dem Führer entgegen zu arbeiten” principle was foundational for the Third Reich. The situation of the 1920s was that of “top-down” Ukrainianization, with its demonstrative retributions against the Russian-speaking officials who didn’t show enough enthusiasm and, simultaneously, undercover Russification and antinationalist witch-hunts. The price of a mistake was too high. Both Donetsk and Kharkiv likely performed for each other the image they thought the other (or some completely external surveillance, the third onlooker whom the spectator’s gaze represents) wanted to see: nationally conscious proletarians and internationalists who freed themselves from chauvinism. The Russian and Ukrainian books in the hands of the cartoon’s characters may have been mimicry, mask, and performance props for the identities the authority sought to destabilise, re-organise and re-inscribe into the newly constructed social hierarchies.

Yet today, when we wonder about the relative weakness of the pro-Russian secessionism in Kharkiv or Dnipropetrovsk and its relative strength in Mariupol or Artemivsk, we should remember this cartoon: parts of what is awkwardly dumped together as “Eastern Ukraine” saw each other differently already 80 years ago.


The ambiguity of the 1920s Ukrainianization is well known among its scholars. A curious fact is that was becoming less intense and effective where the initial positions of the Ukrainian were weaker. Donbas was specifically one such region.

In the early 1900s it was among the most diverse regions in otherwise ethnically homogenous Ukraine; besides, the Russian capitalism in most Ukrainian urban and industrial centres spoke Russian indeed, even though it was a broken Russian with a notable Ukrainian accent.

The revolution has barely changed the identity landscape. George Shevelov noted in his seminal “State and status of the Ukrainian, 1900 – 1941” that the share of the secondary schools teaching in Ukrainian in the early 1920s was lower than the share of ethnic Ukrainian population only in Donbas and in Kharkiv oblast[4].

Shevelov also cited a non-representative 1929 poll of 84 workers from that same city of Artemivsk. It is thrilling to think of them as the very workers who visited Kharkiv a few months before. Of them, as many as about one forth claimed to not understand Ukrainian at all. Roughly one fifth were clearly Ukrainian speakers and active consumers of the Ukrainian culture[5]. What about the rest. Did they belong to no culture at all? To some local culture of sorts?

A year later, 44.2 per cent of over 8,000 Artemivsk officials entirely ignored the use of Ukrainian; 796 people were officially freed from studying Ukrainian[6]. Moreover, the urban centres that were going through industrialisation and large influx of naturally Ukrainian-speaking peasant labour force became the centres of this latter’s Russification.

In 1927, two Ukrainian futurist poets travelled to the site where Dnieper Hydroelectric Station, then known under a highly romanticised name of Dniprel’stan, was being constructed, and published a lengthy travelogue under a characteristic title “Last time on the old Dnieper”.

The essay’s very few pessimistic passages relate to ethno linguistic policies they saw: “Without even speaking about any Ukrainianization which is perhaps even unnecessary as 60 per cent workers here are Ukrainian according to the Dniprel’stan senior engineer Kovhun, it’s impossible to find a Ukrainian newspaper here, let alone a Ukrainian book. […] In spite of the Ukrainian majority, all inscriptions are written here in Russian”[7].

Less than a decade on, even the demonstrative Ukrainianization was brought to a halt and its achievements rescinded back. Simultaneously, the great famine, or Holodomor, coupled with collectivisation crushed the Ukrainian-speaking countryside.


The 1920s and 1930s are but a pixel in a larger picture that may have to do with a repeating pattern. Many link it to a specific East European experience of modernisation and urbanisation. Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak in his essay “The City” wrote:

East European cities were underdeveloped by the standards of Western urbanisation. They lacked many preconditions that transform a numerical concentration of buildings into a real city. The 1800s Kharkiv or Katerynoslav beyond their downtown resembled large villages rather than real cities. Some street signs ran: “Grazing cows and goats is prohibited”. […] Their general state could be characterised by the short formula: “mud, stink and violence”, as the Ukrainian Bolshevik Petrovsky once described Yuzivka. […] National consciousness or class solidarity were hardly to be found among the Donbas proletariat, mainly composed of peasants from the neighbouring Russian governorates. The principal division lines in Yuzivka were regional ones: the workers belonged to “fraternities” according to their territorial origin. The local miners’ favourite sports were massive and brutal drunken fraternities’ fist fights every Sunday. The only thing that could unite all local workers for a while was Jewish pogroms. Of all “isms”, anti-Semitism was Donbas’ most popular[8].

1917 and the subsequent events introduced greater industrialisation, yet due to the lack of functioning basic civic institutions modernisation was not quite brought about. The Stalinist repressions, the extermination of the most urbanised groups of Jews and Poles, wartime Nazi famine extermination, the physical destruction of the cities as such all led to a practical loss of much of their pre-war population, Hrytsak argues. But the continuity persisted as the next migration wave -

the largest exodus of peasants to the cities took place in the post-war decades in Ukraine, as in the rest of Eastern Europe. What lasted several centuries in the “historical” cities of Western Europe, in the East European case took only two-three decades. Under these conditions, the speedy post-war East European urbanisation led to contradictory, oftentimes hideous results. The lack of the developed urban structures determined the peasants’ weak assimilation into the urban environment. Often they were not so much urbanised by the city as the city was ruralised by them. […T]he economic modernisation didn’t run together with the political one. In other words, the recent peasants became townsfolk before they were citizens[9].

The outcome of the nation-building was rather bleak, in the Russian case as much as in the Ukrainian one, “thanks to the structural weaknesses of East European modernisation”. “So it is hardly surprising that the new trend in today’s Donetsk public opinion is that of decreasing prevalence of the ‘Russian’, ‘Soviet’ or ‘working class’ identities; however, as in the old-time Yuzivka, the regional, ‘fraternal’ identity of the ‘Donetsk people’ remains just as strong”[10], wrote Yaroslav Hrytsak – some five years before Donbas sunk in the on-going unrest.


Donbas in the last century seems to be a black hole of East European modernisation. As peasants from all surrounding regions were flooding its then busy mines and plants on the border of ethnically Ukrainian and Russian territories, they entered a process of partial urbanisation by which they were losing a good deal of their identities and disassociated themselves from their rural roots. At once, the incomplete and archaic institutions in place prevented them from acquiring a notably strong modern urban – and also national – new identity. The story of one fictional wedding from the not so sweet Soviet 1960s speaks volumes.

Its author, Hryhir Tiutiunnyk, was a classical Ukrainian writer of short stories, credited as the one who documented the decline of the countryside and the identity crisis it entailed in the post-war Soviet Ukraine. While not openly hostile to the regime, his works are anything but Socialist realist, and they all bear a barely heard undertone of criticism and subversivity. This complicated his relations with the regime and eventually led to his suicide in 1980 at the age of 48.

“Katrya’s Wedding” (“Oddavaly Katriu”, 1971) is recognised as one of his most important texts. The youngest daughter who now lives in Donbas comes back to her parents’ village to have her wedding there, although the groom by whom she’s already pregnant is from Eastern Ukraine and has actually never seen Katrya’s relatives before. The entire village, already facing depopulation and decline, is captured by thorough and earnest preparations for the event. With the terribly belated arrival of the groom who is apparently a second generation urban dweller at best, it becomes clear how uncomfortable he is with the already not-so-traditional ceremony and all aspects of rural life; he makes slight efforts to draw the line between himself and others, which, no matter how slight, give enough clues he despises much of what is happening around.

In one of the episodes blending irony and despair, the groom’s friend uses a derogatory khokhly ‘Ukrainians’ (politically incorrect by all standards now and obviously offensive at the time when the story was written) to describe his surprise at the locals’ singing and takes pride in his “Donbas roots” although it is revealed his parents still live in the central Ukrainian countryside, pretty much like Katrya’s:

“Just look at these khokhly!” the young guy said to the groom. The guy who’d come together with the groom by Volga car said it loudly, perhaps hoping he wouldn’t be heard in the midst of a song. But Fedir Bezverkhy who was sitting close by the family table still heard it; he winked and asked:

“So, pardon me, kind sir, where are you from yourself?”

“Oh I’m from far away, mister father!” the young man said solemnly. “I’m from Vinnytsia. I mean, parents are. Myself, I’m a native-born Donbasian”[11].

Today, the population of Donbas are likely to be the hypothetical children of Katrya and her unnamed groom[12]. They are also possibly the grandchildren of the workers who learned the ropes of the Soviet politics of pretending and giving to the authorities what they expected them to give. And they even might be the great grandchildren of the miners who clashed in the nearly lethal drunken fratrial fist fights amid mud and stink. Considering the events unfolding around them by trying to guess just how much they are driven by their allegiance to either Ukrainian or Russian identity is superficial in the best case. What is seen in the reports is the clash of the extremely small minorities, while the majority remains infinitely far from any clearly outlined agenda of either nationalism. There is very limited support for the separatist cause, but there is also a visible reluctance to stand up against it. While the majority may not be especially supportive of European integration and misperceive the character and meaning of the revolution in Kyiv, they will in all likelihood be loyal to powers that be, favour stability under whatever rule and prefer a slight change to status quo rather than radical scenarios of secession and Russian intervention. This is at least what the April 2014 polls by Kyiv International Institute of Sociology suggest[13].

If Ukraine is a borderland, Donbas is a borderland multiplied by itself. Donbas will retain its hybridity no matter the outcome of the current unrest. Still, the volatile situation brings not only risks but also yet another chance for belated modernisation. While it is likely it will not be fully exploited, a step towards a more consolidated identity is imminent, and this is what we find at stake in the current conflict: this is the choice that is happening now.


[1] Vsesvit, 1929, No 4, p. 10. My own translation here and elsewhere.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Hlobus, 1929, No 3, back cover.

[4] Shevelov, Yuriy. Ukrayins’ka mova u XX stolitti (1900 – 1941). Stan i status [The Ukrainian language in the XXth century (1900 – 1941). State and status]. In: Shevelov, Yuriy. Vybrani tvory [Collected Works]. Kyiv: Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, 2009. Vol. 1., p. 136.

[5] Ibid. P. 157.

[6] Ibid. P. 166.

[7] Nova generatsiya, 1927, No 1, p. 34.

[8] Hrytsak, Yaroslav (2010). Zhyttia, smert’ ta inshi nepryiemnosti [Life, death and other troubles]. Kyiv: Hrani-T. Pp. 143, 147.

[9] Ibid. Pp. 149 – 150.

[10] Ibid. P. 150.

[11] Tiutiunnyk, Hryhir (1984). Tvory [Works]. Kyiv: Molod’. P. 143.

[12] I am consciously omitting the discussion of the name symbolism in the context of 19th century Ukrainian classics, as well as of the subtle gender/hybrid/postcolonial dynamic between Katrya and her groom, as suggested, for instance, by Oksana Zabuzhko.

[13] Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (2014). The views and opinions of South-Eastern regions residents of Ukraine: April 2014. Available at: [Retrieved: May 18, 2014].

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  • by Roman Horbyk

    Roman Horbyk is PhD student in Media and Communication Studies at Södertörn University. Roman Horbyk was born in Kyiv, Ukraine. He has worked as a journalist.

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