Welcome to the People’s Republic of Donetsk

Inside the occupied government building in eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian protesters are trying to create a new country.

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

DONETSK, Ukraine — To get to the occupied Ukrainian government administration building in Donetsk, you must first pass through barriers made of tires and barbed wire — the aesthetic of choice in Ukraine ever since the Euromaidan protests that toppled the country’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych. After walking through the newly installed steel-reinforced doors, it’s up the many flights of stairs, past several checkpoints and the broken glass and cigarette butts strewn across the floor. On the 11th floor, the newly established Council of the People’s Republic of Donetsk is in working session. 

The room is in a state of excitement and chaos. Yulia Vikorovna is angry. "I’m resigning if I can’t get an answer on this soon," she yells. "Resigning, you hear!" As the person in charge of sanitation for the new republic, Yulia Vikorovna has identified a particular problem with the toilets. "They’ve all been blocked with all kinds of crap, and nobody is listening to me or helping me clean up." She adds that there are also distressing problems concerning the electricity supply in the building. 

At this point, one of the council’s leading figures, Vladimir Ivanovich, is summoned. He enters the room sporting a white beard and black Puma sports jacket, signature pieces with which he unexpectedly graced world news bulletins 12 days ago to declare the creation of the People’s Republic. He exudes an air of authority. As he takes his place at the head of the table, the room goes quiet and a group of four convenes around him, to discuss the matter in private council. After a short conference, Vladimir Ivanovich turns to the other members.

"Colleagues, it is clear is that all work needs to be properly supervised. Work that is not controlled will never be done!" With this, Yulia Vikorovna leaves the room, apparently satisfied with the response. 

Next, a plump woman with wire-wool hair and few teeth motors up. "Our real problem is all these journalists! Because of them, people think there is drunken mayhem downstairs. They’ve been saying the place is dirty when it just isn’t! No more telephones! No more cameras! No more provocateurs! We have to get rid of the provocateurs!"  

There are nods and mutterings of agreement around the room.

* * *

Largely unchallenged by local authorities, the wave of radical anti-Kiev protests has lost its fear factor. Six weeks of political games between Kiev, Moscow, and the local feudal baron Rinat Akhmetov — Ukraine’s richest man who has been in Donestsk brokering peace deals — have left a power vacuum in which increasingly brazen separatist operations have flourished. In the last two weeks, a number of critical government buildings have fallen, and the occupation of the regional administration building is now entering its 12th day. More than 200 people are now manning the occupied compound in Donetsk, with a further 300-400 outside.

Developed largely on the back of the 1930s industrialization drive, the city of Donetsk owes almost its entire history to the Soviet Union. Even today, the prevailing mentality is, in essence, Soviet. A few moments standing in front of the occupied administration building immediately reveals the way that this identity is being invoked in the midst of this upheaval. For every Russian or Donetsk republic flag, there is at least one Soviet banner. Almost every hour, "The Sacred War" bellows out from the speakers. Written shortly after the start of Operation Barbarossa in 1941, the song evokes strong emotions from Russians over a certain age. 

"Our huge country is rising/
is rising for the deathly battle/
Against the dark fascist force/
Against their cursed hordes."

"This is why I am here," says Eduard Alekseyevich, a 70-year-old army veteran.* He is with his wife Vera Ivanovna, surveying the barricades from a distance. "We’re fighting fascists, but this time they are from Kiev. We’re fighting because we, Russians, never give in." 

There’s a difference between the protest here and the one in Kiev, he says: "Here we’re with the people, there it was the street! The street removed a legitimate president!" He admits that yes, Yanukovych may have fled, but, he says, the former president was scared. "Understand me right," he says. "I don’t like Yanukovych. He forgot about us. He stole from us. And he would have lost in 2015. But he was a legitimate president. Now we want Putin. He’s frightened of no one." 

As the song ends, a man takes to the microphone. "Ladies and gentlemen, be careful! There are PRO-VOC-A-TEU-RS here! All provocateurs, leave now! Or leave dead!"

Back on the 11th floor of the administration building, the peoples’ deputies return to discussing the matter of the upcoming referendum, which, if they get their way, will be held before Ukraine’s national presidential elections, due on May 25. 

"How many questions are we asking?" asks Larisa Sergeyevna, an energetic woman in her mid-40s. She directs her query to Anatoly Ivanovich, a short man dressed in the ubiquitous working man’s attire — a black leather jacket and a sweater.

"We said yesterday that it would be just one, not seven," Anatoly Ivanovich answers. 

"If there is just one question, it should be for or against the Donetsk republic. In or out! People will be happy with that," Larisa Sergeyevna says, nodding. "If you ask them if they want to join Russia as well, you aren’t going to get as many people voting."

"Are you saying you are against Russia?" 

"That’s an inappropriate question, Anatoly Ivanovich. Inappropriate."

"Crimea had the Russia question." 

"Crimea was already a republic," says Larisa Sergeyevna. "Before a woman re-marries, she needs to get her divorce first. We need our divorce. Fewer people will come for a referendum if we talk about Russia."

The issue of whether the typical Donetsk citizen is "for Russia" or "for Ukraine" is a hotly debated topic here, but Larisa Sergeyevna’s doubts speak to something larger and seem to fit in with the most recent polling. Independent research, conducted by Vladimir Kipen’s Social Research Institute at the end of March and which surveyed about 500 Donetsk citizens just after the first demonstrations in March, reveals a whole series of established phobias — of the Kiev government, of the criminal underworld, and of political radicals. But it also reveals a rather nuanced vision of national identity: While people do identify themselves through Russian language, less than a third express a pro-Russia position. A majority has no problem with the idea of Ukraine. What does vex citizens here, however, is the dire economic situation, which is deteriorating daily. Ukraine’s currency, the hryvnia, has lost roughly two-fifths of its value since the start of the year.

Ihor Todorov, an international relations professor at Donetsk National University believes that ethnic-linguistic tensions have been manufactured artificially. "Until this year, separatist demonstrations in Donetsk would attract perhaps 30-40 people," he says. "This was true in spite of a concerted effort to engineer pro-Russian sentiment by the previous [Yanukovych] government." But he says, the March 1 demonstrations were different — there were many more of them and the crowds gathering in central Donestk were huge by comparison, bringing in as many as 3,000 people. "I’ve never seen so many flags," Ihor Todorov says. "These demonstrations were aligned exactly with a Russian Federation Council vote that allowed Putin to introduce troops into Ukraine. Do you think that’s pure coincidence? I don’t."

Indeed, even today, it is important to remember that the numbers involved in these pro-Russia demonstrations, which have been asymmetrically represented in foreign media, represent a clear minority. No more than a tiny fraction of the city’s population of 1 million is involved in the occupation of the regional administration building, for example. And during this meeting of the People’s Republic, the deputies seem genuinely concerned they might not get the votes they need in the referendum.

"This quorum thing, can you run it by me? If there is 60 percent, there’s quorum, right? Am I right?" 

"Yes, Larisa Sergeyevna, that’s right," confirms Sergei Petrovich, patting down an elegant cravat tie. A retired economist with nostalgia for the Soviet past, he is without doubt the best-dressed person in the room. 

"But if only 40 vote for… and 20 vote against, is that quorum?’

Sergei Petrovich replies that they need more than half, but he no longer appears quite so sure of his position.

The conversation goes back and forth, weighing the possible outcomes, but without reaching any serviceable conclusions. Several side conferences begin to compete for attention. What’s happening in Kramatorsk? Where are all the other deputies? What is being done on the agitation front?

* * *

So far, the People’s Republic has muddled through with a certain level of disorder and chaos. It’s unclear, for example, whether the council has formal control of the irregulars downstairs, or whether it is the other way round. On April 15, however, this confusion was brought into particular focus, when a story broke in the Donbass News suggesting that the People’s Republic had been distributing menacing leaflets outside the city synagogue. The text of the leaflet, reproduced on the Donbass website, was direct enough:

"Ukraine’s Jewish leaders supported the Banderite junta in Kiev. All Jews living Donetsk are therefore required to register with the Donetsk Republic. The process will cost $50; failure to register will result in confiscation of property and forced resettlement." 

Located on a suburbanesque street at the other end of the city from where the People’s Republic is now headquartered, the synagogue is about a mile-long walk along Donestsk’s main street, just before a small square that sits under the imposing shadows of Rinat Akhmetov’s metal rolling plant. On the evening of April 16, there were a few young couples around the square, locked in sweet embrace, all apparently holding their breath to avoid retching from the tannic smog. Locals say, it’s the worst it has been for some time.

At the synagogue, a security guard confirms that "guys" in masks and sticks had indeed paid a visit on April 15, and that they had returned again the following day to further press their point. What is less clear, however, is whether the Peoples’ Republic was indeed behind the move. Oleksiy Matsuka, editor of Donbass News, agreed that the pamphlets might be a fake, a front being used by criminals or provacateurs. But even still, he cautioned, "We should assume the synagogue can rely on nobody but themselves for protection." 

Oleksiy Matsuka knows the limits of law enforcement all too well. Today, he is in Kiev, having fled the region on Saturday evening following an arson attack on his car (the second such attack in recent memory). Oleksiy Matsuka’s investigative work has made him lot of enemies over the years, but in this case, it seems, it’s his pro-Ukrainian position and investigative reporting on separatist networks that was to blame. His story is one of personal and professional tragedy — he’s had to leave behind friends, colleagues, and family. "I wanted to stay," he says. "I wanted to build freedom of expression in Donetsk, however improbable or crazy you think that is. But they’ll kill me and they’ll kill my colleagues if I go back."

Though oceans separate Oleksiy Matsuka from the members of the People’s Republic politically, there is something charmingly free that both share. How long the council will be allowed to demonstrate such qualities is, of course, another question. Rumors abounded about the imminent appearance of Russia’s "little green men" in the administration building on April 16; and, even worse, that Viktor Yanukovych and his largely despised family might be returning to the city as early as this Easter Sunday.

*Correction (April 18, 2014): This article originally misstated the patronymic of Eduard Alekseyevich. It is Alekseyevich, not Alekseeva. Additionally, this correction originally misstated that Alekseyevich was the person’s surname. It is the person’s patronymic. (Return to reading.)

Oliver Carroll is the managing editor of the Moscow Times. Follow him on Twitter at: @olliecarroll.

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