A bowl full of dumplings from “Svoboda”
Trains don’t go to Toretsk. You can get to Kostyantynivka, and then – about twenty minutes by bus or car. I was picked up by the head of the treatment facilities of the city’s water utilities and the head of the local branch of “Svoboda” (right-wing Ukrainian party) Oleksandr Zakharchenko. We traveled along the road, all tattered by heavy trucks, armored vehicles, and tanks. Now another rotation is in the process, and Toretsk is almost on the demarcation line. Mines are constantly dropped on the villages between it and Horlivka.
The heat is intense. The thermometer shows thirty-five degrees Celsius, but it feels as it’s fifty. The sun burns everything around. We’re stopped at the checkpoint of the military. A soldier is checking my bag. Oleksandr Zakharchenko tells me that now we are going to his workplace, where volunteers make dumplings, repair equipment and produce staples and potbelly stoves for dugouts. A bowl full of dumplings and a jar of pickled tomatoes are brought to us. We eat from the bowl one by one, and I ask Oleksandr why he had chosen “Svoboda”.
He answers: “I chose “Svoboda” because among all nationalist parties this one is the most effective”. Until 2017 there was a city council, only “regionals” and commies were there. Then the city council was cancelled and replaced with a civil-military administration. But if we were to hold the elections now, then “Svoboda” wouldn’t be in power here, because the local population is brainwashed by Russia and Commies. Most likely that only those from the PR (Party of Regions) and CPU (Communist Party of Ukraine) would be in power here. We have here one local deputy Ihor Shkirya, a former “regional”. He should be removed from his position.”
Zakharchenko says that he doesn’t really want to go into politics, but he is forced. Now “Svoboda” is campaigning in Toretsk, they’ve bought a tent, spreading everywhere their newspapers. “People have to distinguish Fascism and Nazism from Ukrainian integral nationalism,” he says it, and I immediately ask him about assaults on Roma people that are performed by modern nationalists. Zakharchenko explains: “They came to those Roma not because of their nationality, but because of their behavior. If they are normal people, they don’t steal and cheat – they work. In this case, nobody would touch them”.
Toretsk Roma work at the mine
On the outskirts of Toretsk, there is a Roma settlement. Its inhabitants are mostly engaged in trade (they sell nuts), but there are those who work at the mine. One of them is Maryna Tyutlikova. She even graduated from the technical school with honors and has been working at the mine “Centralna” as a painter since 1988. She says: “I don’t regret anything. I really like it here. The team is very good, I’m respected, no persecution on national grounds has ever occurred. All my relatives also work in Toretsk: sister – at school, my second sister – in the boiler house of mine “Toretska”, and both brothers also work in Lisnyi. Life here is pretty nice, but I would like to have more stability and a higher salary. Now I’m getting 3200 hryvnias. My salary hasn’t changed since 2007”.
How Daryna Kazemirova was killed
Zakharchenko offers me to go to a suburb, which is often under the mortars fire, but I refuse. The last time the center of Toretsk was shelled a year ago. Now they are firing from mortars and “Grad” at the nearby villages – Pivdenne (Chygari) and Zalizne. Zakharchenko recalls: “There were times when they’ve reached the town. One “Grad” got to the Roma settlement from the direction of Kostyantynivka. A month ago, Darynka (diminutive from Daryna) was killed”. On May 28, 2018, a 15-year-old resident of the village Zalizne Daryna Kazemirova had died. In Toretsk’s library, I was given a small book with Taras Peterson‘s fairy tale “Goodbye, Darynka!” It all happened because local residents get used to shelling and no longer pay attention to it.
Salary of Oleksandr Zakharchenko is 7200 hryvnias. The ordinary worker gets 4-5 thousand. I ask them if they want to leave the city. They respond: “Where will we go? Where will we live? Moreover, we don’t want to talk to you, because you will say something wrong, and we will be fired”. To get work here, it turns out that you have to pass vetting. Oleksandr Zakharchenko explains: “I ask new people about their attitude towards Ukraine. If the attitude is bad – I don’t hire them. We don’t need separatists here”.
According to Zakharchenko, there are so many unreliable people in the city, because the vast majority of them are miners. He explains:“Most of the miners are low-skilled workers. They don’t have any knowledge. They haven’t read even a book in their lifetime. And it’s very easy to put any propaganda in empty heads, especially the one that promises you a fortune right now. Miners say: “We were feeding the whole Ukraine”. Thus, why can’t they feed themselves? Miners were intimidated by Bandera and the Right Sector, and this fear still remains. That’s why the inhabitants of the occupied territories shoot at Ukrainians on our side. There are not so many Russians there, but all the equipment, weapons, and fuel – all of this comes from Russia”.
Bros are waiting in 2004
We are packing up and setting off to Olena Shevchuk, who started coworking space “MEM Idea Hub” in Toretsk. It is situated in the old nine-story building. I notice at the entrance to it two doghouses and a huge inscription “Denys, we’re waiting for you in 2004. Bros!!!!” And you immediately believe in this: it seems that 2004 will soon begin, and the bros will finally come.
Olena and her friends received a sub-grant from the NGO “Novodruzhkivka”, which is supported by USAID. For this money, they’ve rented a three-room apartment and bought a few bean bags. There will be screenings and meetings with artists. Space will be opened on August 29th. In the park, they have already begun construction of a stage made of wooden palettes, there local DJs will perform. In addition, space supports creation of the mural. In October, the festival “From the Country to Ukraine” will take place here.
The life in Toretsk looks like a struggle for her. “When you get out of the city even to Kostyantynivka, you can already notice that there is an active life there,” says Olena. Our city has a tiny budget and constant problems with shelling. However, here’s a lot of opportunities for business – this is the way out of poverty. You just have to show it to people. And we’re doing it”.
Toretsk vs. Dzerzhynsk
Andriy Grudkin coordinates the website toretsk.city, which is made in a fashionable flat-design; it shows Toretsk as a modern and interesting Ukrainian city. The website was opened literally a week ago, but even now, there are a lot of interesting stories. Andriy says: “We’ve decided to launch this site because since 2014 our city is represented in the network by separatist platform dzerghinsk.org (its design is in the style of the late 1990’s – author’s note). They encouraged people to gather at the central square with the flags of DPR. All this continues even now. The web-site’s editor is in Russia, and a criminal case against him is open”. However, now there’s no separatism at dzerghinsk.org. Now it looks apolitical and presents the news without any comments.
Andriy is preoccupied with the fact that towns near Toretsk are far ahead from them in terms of development. According to him, this happens due to the economy and ineffective management. Some of the mines that were forming the local economy were closed one by one since the 1990s. Now there are only two operating mines are left, but they are also slowly reducing the number of workers. It means that the number of households decreases, there is an outflow of people from the city. Investors don’t want to enter this place because of the proximity to the demarcation line. “Some of our villages are in the occupied territory, and because of this we are not able to hold elections,” says Andriy Grudkin.
Trembitas on the front line
The lawyer at the Helsinki Human Rights Union in Toretsk, Volodymyr Yelets, created the NGO “Your City” three years ago because he was feeling a certain dead end: on the one hand, shelling and separatists, and on the other hand, local authorities, which recently supported the latter. Volodymyr recalls: “They even didn’t want to celebrate the anniversary of liberation from the terrorists on June 21. In the executive committee, they told us: “These are you, whom they’ve liberated, not us”. They only pretend that they love Ukraine, but in fact, just re-painted themselves. They don’t like volunteers and activists here: one was beaten, and Volodymyr’s car was burnt the last year.
On the street next to the entrance to Volodymyr’s office, there is an interesting graffiti: the two-headed imperial eagle stabbed with a trident. Yeletell tells us that it was constantly covered with green antiseptic until the artist hadn’t added the phrase “Give some cotton” in the bubble”. After that, the attacks had stopped.
Some actions by NGO “Your city” are very exotic. For example, one of them is called “Trembitas of Toretsk” (trembita – traditional Ukrainian musical instrument, resembles a huge pipe): the activists were blowing into trembita in various regions of Ukraine, on Hoverla mountain, and even “blew to the front line” towards the terrorists. “Trembita can be heard for a long distance, and when power supply tower on the mountain Karachun was restored, it became 80 meters lower than before. As a result, Ukrainian TV almost doesn’t get to us: everyone is watching Russian and separatist TV,” Volodymyr says.
We approached the building of the former city council. It was severely damaged during the battles. When the Ukrainian military occupied the house, the terrorist’s warlord Besler ordered to storm it with two tanks. One of them drove up the stairs (traces are noticeable even now) and began to shoot the defenders at point-blank range. Now the city council is ruined, it resembles a gloomy reminder of the war. Local residents use it as a toilet and decorate the walls of the former offices with huge erected penises. You can see them even in the video of the local singer Yulia Yakusheva. She made a cover of a well-known hit by “Ocean Elzy” in the interior of the destroyed city council.
Frankly speaking, after filming this video, it would be better if the city council’s building was blown up, there is no use of it: it looks like a huge dump in the city center. Surprisingly, there is an inflatable slide beside it and a huge variety of amusements for children. “Local authorities say that there is no money to clean up the ruins, and I think that there is no will,” says Volodymyr.
In front of the ruins of the city council, there’s a department store “Moscow”. On its side wall, a huge mosaic mural was depicting the capital of Russia. In 2015, all the red stars were taken out of the mural. Then the flags of Ukraine were painted there. In 2017, an artist suggested putting this city on fire. However, the heads of the civil-military administration and the SBU have banned it. In order not to arise this desire, the mural was covered with white paint. “We still play in tolerance in order not to offend anyone, but the fact that mines are falling on us from there shouldn’t harm us”.
Volodymyr says: “I perceive Toretsk as an isolated city. Here, we are in a deadlock: There is no railway station, no highway passing by. Toretsk is isolated from the rest of Ukraine, like an appendix. You can notice this even from media reports: journalists never write that the battles are near the Toretsk, they write “near Gorlivka.” In all other cases, the liberated territories of Ukraine are mentioned, and only in the case of Toretsk, for some reason, they use the term occupied.
On the way out of the city council’s ruins, we found a bullet. It’s been lying here for four years.
God’s children under the fire
Svitlana is the director of the Christian Children’s Center, which is located in the Zabalka area. It was founded by Teresa Filman from Califonia (USA), where she works at the God’s Children Association. Svitlana recalls: “I graduated from the missionary school, worked in the front-line town of Mironovsky, then my pastor invited me to come here. I don’t like shellings, but I do love to work with children. On Sundays, we are gathering here and listening to the God’s word. From seven to fifteen children come here. I haven’t noticed any biased attitude towards myself as a non-Orthodox Christian. In Toretsk people smile less, because they feel stress.
At the depth of 1124 meters
At the mine “Centralna” I was welcomed by the head of its trade union Mykola Prudnikov. We went to look at the warehouses and climbed into the old ventilation corridor, the entire floor of which was in holes. Everything around looked as if it was going to collapse. I’ve asked Prudnikov, isn’t it scary for him to go there. He replied that over time the fear fades away and the habit appears. Now there are only a few victims in the mines: one person per year. The last time it happened due to electric shock and a violation of safety precautions. “You know, there’s such a proverb, “ Donbass will take you down”, it happens when a person waves his hand on a very short wooden support of a tunnel, and the vein has the property to narrow because of the mining pressure,” explained Prudnikov.
Mykola PrudnikovAll Toretsk mines are unprofitable: the cost of extraction reaches 3800 hryvnias per ton, and the market price is 1800. The difference of 2000 hryvnias has been covered by the Ukrainian government for many years. All this reminds you not of a job, but some kind of funny hobby, when several hundred men go underground every day to extract coal at the depth of 1124 meters. However, when the cost of extraction exceeds a certain limit, the mine is immediately closed. It happened this way with the mine “Pivnichna”, where the price reached 7000 hryvnias. Also, it happened to the “Artem” mine. It was closed in 2003, although there were about 15 million tons of coal left. It could be extracted by 700 miners for another 15 thousand years. Now there are ruins there. It seems that even the house of the mine management was shelled.
The mines’ leadership sees only one exit from this vicious circle: Miners should have a preferential tariff for electricity and at the same time, the purchase price for coal should be substantially raised. It means they propose to abandon the laws of a market economy for one particular industry only in order to preserve it. So far, the Ukrainian government believes it is more profitable to pay subsidies. But for how long will it last?
Mykola Prudnikov says that the main problem is not the price, but the absence of cars for the export of coal to the mining and manufacturing enterprise in Pokrovsk. Daily production is currently about 500 tons, and in the warehouses, there are 26 thousand – the result of two months work has been accumulated there. Warehouses are under the open air, coal is heavily heated under the burning sun and it can lit up. During the rain it gets wet and because of it, the quality gets poorer. Mykola Prudnikov says: “For everything is responsible Ukrzaliznytsia (Ukrainian railways). However, about the coal that was already shipped; they owe us 85 million hryvnias. The minister apologized to us for the fact that he had used our money for Selidovo and promised to pay them back.
I really wanted to chat with the miners, but at that moment there was nobody at “Centralna”, so we went to the mine “Toretska”. At the exit, a very fat man was sitting. He turned to Prudnikov:
– Come on, give up this job.
– And what? I’ll give up and turn into you? – He smiled. – No, it’s better to be who I am.
We went a little further and the chairman of the trade union explained: “That’s how it happens when a miner stops working – he’s gaining weight rapidly because he used to eat a lot when he worked hard”.
We get into the car, and Prudnikov recalls the first day of the town’s liberation from terrorists. He says: “As it is now; I was driving my car from the mine then, of a sudden, I see the armored vehicle of the Ukrainian Army. Then I immediately turned to the corner and shut down the engine. I was afraid that they could shoot at me”.
When we arrived at the mine “Toretska”, there were no miners there: Ones have just gone underground, while the others had already gone home. I asked Mykola Prudnikov why, in his opinion, the terrorists are still shelling the city, isn’t it possible for example to call and ask them not to do so? Prudnikov objected: “And what shall I say to them?! They won’t listen to me. They will immediately say: “Get rid of a Ukranian army in Toretsk” Imagine that someone’s relatives were killed because of the shelling there: now they blame us because we, as they say, let in the Ukrainian army that kills them now. For them, all who came here are invaders. They are angry with us, and God forbid, if there is a truce and we shed the first blood then we’ll suffer”.
Mykola Prudnikov, emotionsThere is one more problem in the mine: State Enterprise “Toretskvugillya” has to pay a single social contribution, but it doesn’t have any money for that. Therefore, it is paid for by the state. However, the state delays these payments, and because of this, the tax men give us a penalty. It has already reached more than 120 million hryvnias, while the wage fund at the mine is 20-30 million. An average salary of a miner is 15 thousand, but their net income is 12. And this is the hardest work that is well paid. 70% of miners are still extracting the coal with jackhammers. Prudnikov said: “We will never be able to pay this penalty, even when all the mines are closed. And they constantly threaten to close us for losses. They even named the date – July 2018”.
All these events remind me some kind of encircled absurd, a fantastic Mobius loop, in which the local life is spinning. I’ve asked:“Why miners are not opening their own business? Growing peaches, for example?”
“This is a city of miners. There is no other production here. Whom will we sell those peaches? Where will people get money for those peaches? The only money that locals have come from the miners’ taxes”.
I said: “Entrepreneurs also pay taxes. And, by the way, their business is not subsidized by Ukrainian budget”.
Prudnikov replied to this: “You live by the standards of Kyiv. There are production and salary there. Here, there is nothing except the mine. We have 60 thousand people here. 8 thousand are miners. Everyone has a wife and a kid, therefore there are 24 thousand miners. One-third of the city. Will 8 thousand people be able to organize their own business, when there are already a lot of businessmen here?”
I try to persuade him: “Donbas is not a cursed land, it’s not doomed for the mines. There are no mines in Odesa, and people are living there somehow!”
The chairman of the trade union of mine “Toretskaya” Vitaliy Chernyshov said: “We know about the situation in the other regions. For example, in the Lviv region and Volhynia people go to work in Poland and Italy”.
Eighteen years ago Vitaliy Chernyshov, began to work deep underground as a mountain master, he cannot imagine his life without a mine and doesn’t want to know anything else. He says: “What am I going to study? And it’s too late for me to study.
I’m surprised: “You look like a thirty years old man your life has just begun! ”
Prudnikov said: “You have your truth, and I have mine. I can be a thousand times right, but you have a rifle on your shoulder. Miner knows what are the jackhammer, metal, and wood. He knows nothing except it. And you are far away from the living conditions in Toretsk. Everywhere you have a railroad, and here we have an appendix town. There’s no business here. To whom will you sell here?!”
We need three billion of subsidies
Vasyl Shcherban, chairman of the Toretsk territorial organization of the trade union of coal industry workers, told that a month before for the Miner’s Day in the mines a work competition was announced: miners competed, who will get more coal and delivery men – who will pass the longest distance. “When there will be additional meters, and good indicators then we sum up the results of our competition at a solemn meeting,” he says, as if was at a festive rally. Vasyl Shcherban complains that the winners get only a monetary reward and a valuable gift, but the state awards from the government have not been given for three years.
I wonder why to beat the record in mining if for two months the coal that’s in stock wasn’t sold. In addition, to sell it will be loss-making. Vasyl Shcherban says that in fact the coal was stockpiled for the period of four months, and the guilty one for this is enterprise “Derzhvuglepostavka”: “All contracts have been made a long time ago, but for some reason they are not implemented, we see a lot of empty cars, but they don’t give them to us. We need 20 cars per day, and they give us 10, moreover, in a poor condition”. Vasyl Shcherban promises that the mines will stop asking for subsidies when the electricity price for them will be reduced by almost twice, money to modernize the equipment will be given and the price of the coal will be raised.
How many subsidies are given to mines every year? Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman named the sum of 3 billion UAH, which is 0.3% of the total Ukrainian budget per year, or, for example, 2.6% of the budget for health care. Vasyl Shcherban says that in order to have profit. The mines need over two years and subsidies of 6.8 billion hryvnias.
Desire is a secret dream of the town’s inhabitants. Next, to the abandoned cinema named after Bohdan Khmelnytsky, I noticed a children’s drawing on asphalt made with a chalk: “Dwarf of desires, come and fulfill my desires”. This can be the motto of Toretsk. However, where is this dwarf and when will he finally come?
Text and photo by Oleg Shynkarenko