Saturday, March 21, 2009

Donetsk: Roses, Soccer and Coal

This week I spent several days in Donetsk, in the far eastern part of Ukraine--about a 12 hour train ride from Kiev. Not many westerners or Americans end up in Donetsk, despite it being founded by an Welshman. The city was originally known as Yuzovka, after John Hughes, who constructed a steel plant and coal mines in the region. It was later named Stalino, and then during "de-Stalinization," under Nikita Krushchev (who was from a coal mining family here) it was renamed Donetsk.

Coal mining is central to the city's identity. A giant statue of a miner holding a lump of coal greets you as you enter the city, the city's emblem is a mining hammer, and their beloved soccer team are the Shaktars (the Miners). Coal mines and the enormous steel factory are still in operation, and coal mining remains a dirty, very dangerous occupation, now considerably less well-paying than in Soviet times. To see a photo essay on the region's miners, check out this site by photographer Youry Bilak.

The city, along with much of the east, still leans towards Russia--a statue of Lenin still stands in the main square, and this is the region that most opposes entry into the European Union and the country's current president. I can't pretend to understand the complex nature of Ukrainian politics, oligarchism, and corruption, but needless to say, Donetsk, like most cities in Ukraine, has plenty of all three.

Perhaps that's why, before I went, many people (both westerners and Ukrainians) said, "why are you going to Donetsk? It's horrible there!" Very far from horrible. I'm fascinated by industrial history, so the chance to catch a glimpse of a city with its industrial history still relevant and visible, was great.

Slag heaps, now covered in shrub growth, abound in and around the city--but on the flat steppes of eastern Ukraine, they count as hills. Rail lines are still incredibly important, and the factory built by John Hughes, now greatly expanded, still operates in the city itself. It's an example of an industrial past now almost wholly gone from American cities. And in the future, could present opportunities for rebirth, the same way cities like Pittsburgh or Manchester, England, have found new life by using their industrial past. I suspect here in Donetsk, like anywhere with an industrial past, the environmental legacies are harsh and difficult.

But the city isn't just about industry. It used to be called the City of Roses, and a new program is underway attempting to replant a million rose bushes in the city's parks. Almost totally destroyed by the Nazis during World War II, the re-built city has a pleasant central park-like boulevard (although marred by the private restaurants now built on park land), and interesting museums. Donetsk will get much more attention in 2012, when some of the Euro Cup soccer games (football to everyone but us Americans) are played in the new stadium currently being built by oligarch Rinet Akmetov, one of Ukraine's richest men, who is from Donetsk.

Donetsk is one of the most diverse places in Ukraine, with one statistic I read showing that only half of the population in the region are ethnic Ukrainians. In addition to Ukrainians, Russians, Greeks, Tatars, Jews and others have long and continuing histories in the region. I presented a 2 day workshop at the Regional Fine Art Museum, whose director, Chumak Galina Vladimirovna, is a lively, hardworking woman from the Greek community. Her warmth and organizational skills were a tremendous help in making the workshop a success--she even brought special Greek food for lunch for us!

I visited the local history museum, the Donetsk Region History Museum. Glubokaya Elena Borisovna, the Head of the Education and Research Department and other staff members took great pride in showing me their exhibits and the ways in which they involve young people at the museum. Museum theater, treasure hunts, and other activities are unusual for museums here, but this staff, who really seem to embrace the idea of teamwork (which seems almost unknown here in Ukraine), work together to create learning opportunities for their community. The exhibitions run the gamut, from the pre-historic history of the region, natural history, rich archaelogical collections (and ongoing fieldwork), to the founding of the city by John Hughes, the development of the factories, coal mining, World War II, and the Soviet Era--and an exhibit about current industrial and agricultural production in the region.

The museum visit reminded me why much of my work is in local and regional history. To me, these are places that can really connect with communities--they can tell the stories of individual people and places, to both visitors, but particularly to their own communities. I was fascinated by the exhibitions on coal mining and the Soviet times--tremendous artifacts and photos and I wanted to know much more.

This museum was a place where the diversity of the region's residents was integrated into the exhibitions. So a room about religious traditions included not only Orthodox icons, but also Greek icons and a Torah; the section about World War II included information about the Jewish community and concentration camps. One of Ukraine's sort of intellectual and cultural struggles is about what story is the Ukrainian story--and in many museums I've been in, the story has been about ethnic Ukrainians (however that might be defined). My American roots make me appreciate a region and a museum that begin to include, in some way, the stories of the many different groups that make up Ukraine. And I particularly appreciated that these were integrated into overall presentations.

I stayed in a unique location--on the top floor of the theater in an apartment reserved for visiting directors and producers. And I also got to see a preview production in the theater itself that provided me with a different glimpse of the city. It was a musical that looked back at Donetsk in the 1960s and '70s--sort of "Grease" for Donetsk.
Popular songs, projected images of the city and more brought back many memories for the audience. For the opening next week, the theater has arranged to have cars from the period parked out front and to sell special "Eskimos" ice cream and sausages from the period. That period, much like the '50s in the United States, is a time of nostalgia for many--the "good old days." And just like the US, the good old days is only part of a complex story, but it was fun for an evening, to watch an audience enjoy their past together.

For the entire trip, my special thanks go to my friend and colleague, Irina Leonenko. She was raised in Donetsk, made all the arrangements, accompanied me on the trip, shared her family with me, and served as my translator (and I am challenging to translate!) Her passion and affection for her city, even though she lives there no longer, and her country, have made both this trip and my entire time here not only understandable but imbued with meaning that I would have otherwise never gained. Plus, we really have fun!

Top to Bottom:
Historic photo, train station, Donetsk, Wikipedia Commons
Coal miner's statue, slag heap and park, all via Flickr
Galina, director of the Art Museum, always moves too fast to photograph, even while sharing Greek food.
Life-size coal mining diorama and installation at the Donetsk Region History Museum
Donetsk Theater, my overnight location
Slide show of musical
(Slide show and last three photos by Irina Leonenko


Anderl said...

Thanks for this overview. I like your posts. Will be a shame when you leave Ukraine again in a few weeks time.

Роман said... - Donetsk city guide. All the information about visiting Donetsk.

stewgreen said...

strange I was just sleeping in the same place the theatre ..not upstairs at the apartment but on the steps outside said...

If you came to Donetsk, You definitely should visit its theatres. Ukraine Travel Guide created a list of Donetsk theatres to help you to choose the most appropriate for you. Moreover, you can find there a lot of useful information for Ukraine tourism like accommodation, cafes, pubs, entertainments, hospitals, taxis and other services you may need during your travel to Ukraine.