Donbass: Stories from Eastern Ukraine


 Ukraine in the Headlines

For the past year and a half brief, occasional headlines have reached the US from Ukraine, splashing on our Twitter feeds, or running on banners at the bottom of our TV screens, and – at times – in full news stories and op-eds if we care to take the time to read them:

  • Revolution
  •  Russian Invasion of Crimea
  •  Terror and War in the East
  •  Malaysian Airlines flight MH17
  •  Ceasefire
  •  Failed Ceasefire
  •  Over 6,000 have died
  •  Ceasefire
  •  ???
 Telling the Stories

In January and February of this year we traveled to Ukraine and met families and individuals, refugees, volunteers, pastors, relief workers and every-day citizens to hear their stories. In an effort to move us past the headlines, to see the humanity behind the statistics, to connect us with real people and their experiences, we will share some of those stories over the next few weeks.

We similarly shared stories of families who fled the war in Syria. As we said then, storytelling is complicated. So we repeat this statement regarding the stories we are about to share: Our hope is that in the telling (and reading) of these stories, barriers will be broken, not erected, people’s dignity will be honored, not stripped, and that the voices of our friends will be heard through our words. If reading these stories begins to feel like an act of consumption, rather than an act of identifying – an act of solidarity – with our brothers and sisters suffering violence you may want to stop reading. Still, our friends in Ukraine want you to know what has happened and what is happening to them still. As our friend Nina said, simple people are being killed and we should pay attention to that. It is with trust in their desire to be heard that we share these stories.

Map Wars and Identity Divisions

The events in Ukraine in the past year and half are complicated, to put it lightly. News reports, perspectives and analyses coming out of Russia, Ukraine, Western Europe or the US offer opposing ‘facts’ and mutually exclusive narratives, placing blame on varied parties. The terms we use to describe the realities, the way we shape the history of the conflict, even the maps we utilize carry with it assumptions that will be contested and de-legitimized by those telling history in a different way. Still, it’s important to understand the map, the linguistic differences and language used to fully appreciate the individual stories we will share.


This map is a helpful one – to an extent – in showing the population of ethnic Russians (according to a 2001 census) in the various provinces of Ukraine. Crimea – with shaded lines – is the highest, with 58.3% of the population identifying as Russian. The next two highest are the provinces of Luhansk 39.0% (sometimes spelled Lugansk) and Donetsk 38.2% – the two provinces that make up the Donbass region (colored red in the map) in Eastern Ukraine, where violence between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian military has killed over 6,000 people.

Russia is accused of exploiting the reality of these ethnic differences, citing a need to protect ethnic Russians from the ‘fascists’ in the West (including Ukraine, the EU, US, and NATO) as reason to annex Crimea and support rebels in the Donbass. Many Ukrainians challenge the ethnic and linguistic differences, as Russian is spoken by a majority of people in the East (and many in the West), including those who identify as ethnically Ukrainian. Additionally, people’s self-identification does not clearly divide between Russian and Ukrainian. Andrew Wilson reflects on these identities in his book Ukraine Crisis:

Locals [in Eastern Ukraine] may not have liked the purist version of Ukrainian nationalism that they claimed to see coming out of west Ukraine, but they weren’t ‘new’ or ‘pure’ Russians either. Most were happy with their fuzzy identities: many locals spoke both languages; they had mixed marriages – many would therefore even reject the concept of ‘mixed’. The Ukrainian critic Mykola Ryabchuk identified a local phenomenon he called ‘it’s-all-the-same-ism’ – Russian and Ukrainian culture overlapped, or were compatible, or were just ‘the same’.

This attitude was affirmed in some of our interviews. In asking, “What is important to you about being Ukrainian? Or, what do you appreciate about Ukrainian culture?” some refugees from the East showed surprise at the question, having never considered such a thing, never having embraced a full Ukrainian identity. They did not, though, affirm a Russian identity, but seemed to simply consider themselves people who live in Eastern Ukraine. The above map is problematic to many Ukrainians because it perpetuates an idea of a division that they say did not exist and would not have developed without Russian media propaganda and the Yanukovych government’s complicity in fostering these divisions.

A Brief History of the Crisis in Ukraine

To give a brief synopsis of the last year and a half in Ukraine is to do an injustice to the decades (centuries) of history that have shaped the land, identities, and geo-political realities of modern Ukraine. While we are not historians, in our intention to share stories with you about the lives of real people living amidst the conflict in Ukraine, a little context is needed to understand the forces at work in the socio-political realm that result in people killing other people. Here is a brief history of the crisis in Ukraine:

November 2013 – Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych declines to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union, a process that had been in place for years as Ukraine sought closer relations with Europe.

November 21, 2013 – Protests begin on Kiev’s Independence Square (or, Maidan), demonstrating against this decision, viewed as a move away from Europe and toward Russia. A few hundred people attended the first day.

November 24, 2013 – 100,000 people descend upon the Maidan, quickly turning a demonstration into a movement against a government perceived as corrupt and working against the interests of the Ukrainian people.

Maidan Protests. Photo credit: Alexandr Kalinchenko

Maidan Protests. Photo credit: Alexandr Kalinchenko

November 30, 2013  – Riot police are ordered to clear the Maidan, with the president citing the need to erect the large Christmas tree as the reason to disperse the protests. Protesters resist and riot police use force, brutally beating people – mostly students – to carry out the dispersal. Protestors take refuge in an Orthodox Church.

December 1 2013 – masses flock to the church-turned-hospital with food, medicine, supplies and support for the beaten protesters. Tents are erected on the square to establish a permanent presence of resistance.

December 2013 – January 2014 – Protests continue, barricades are erected around the maidan; violence is used against protesters – mostly away from cameras, protesters disappear from hospital beds, activists are beaten and left in forests.

January 16, 2014 – Ukrainian government passes ‘Draconian’ anti-protest laws, criminalizing the wearing of gas masks or helmets, the erection of tents on the street, cars driving together in ‘columns,’ and more. Protesters mock new laws, and riot police respond with greater violence. Euro-Maidan turns from a movement pursuing greater alignment with Europe to a resistance against state violence, and a revolution pursuing the ousting of President Yanukovych and his administration.

January 19, 2014 – A protester is shot and killed by riot-police (using real, rather than rubber bullets).

February 18, 2014 – Protesters march on parliament to confront the government and the failing negotiations. Violence flares between protesters and the state-sponsored militias and riot-police. By the end of the day an estimated 26 people are killed.

Maidan Barricade

Maidan Barricade. Photo credit: Alexandr Kalinchenko

February 20, 2014 – Protesters are shot by snipers, and violence rages on. 76 people are killed.

February 21, 2014 – Seeking to stop the bloodshed, an agreement is signed reinstating the 2004 constitution, forming a national unity government, keeping Yanukovych in power, but planned elections for December. Maidan activists criticize the agreement, demanding the President’s resignation. The country remains tense.

February 22, 2014 – President Yanukovych flees Kiev, and ultimately Ukraine. Parliament removes Yanukovych from office. An interim government is instated.

March 2014 – Russia invades and Crimea

March 16, 2014 – a referendum is held in Crimea, with the official results reporting 96.77% voting to join the Russian Federation, with voter turnout reported at 83.1%. Allegations of fraud and declarations of the unconstitutionality of the referendum abound. Days later the Russian government votes to annex Crimea. The United States and European Union respond with economic sanctions on Russia.

April 2014 – Violence and acts of terror begin in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine (including the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces), carried out by allegedly pro-Russian separatists. Violent resistance by separatists against what they allege to be a fascist government – one that was formed after a coup d’etat in Kiev – turns into a full scale war. Ukraine, the United States, the European Union, NATO and independent observers all accuse Russia of sending arms and troops to support the separatists. This is continually denied by Russia, despite the overwhelming evidence.

May 2014 – Petro Peroshenko, owner of a popular chocolate company, Roshen, is voted President of Ukraine.

July 2014 – Malaysian Airlines flight is shot down over separatist-held territory in Eastern Ukraine. 298 people are killed.

September 2014 – A ceasefire is signed by the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian leaders of the separatist movement. The ceasefire is ignored as both sides continue fighting, and both sides accuse the other side of breaking the agreement.

February 15, 2015 – A new ceasefire agreement is signed. While reports allege continued violence, heavy arms are reportedly pulled from the front lines to pursue a lasting peace agreement.

March 2, 2015 – The United Nations reports over 6,000 people have been killed by the violence in the Donbass.*

A Disclaimer

To be frank, the breadth of the people we interviewed was too small. The stories we will share don’t include everyone’s perspective, and they have not been ‘vetted’ with fact checks or evidence. We went to listen, to hear peoples’ stories and their perspectives, and to share some of those with you.

Further, we conducted all of our interviews within Ukraine (outside of the conflict-zones), and while many people who might be pro-separatist/pro-Russia have fled the violence and moved west, more have likely gone east into Russia. If we did meet supporters of the separatists in Ukraine, they didn’t speak about it.

Still, the point of this story-sharing is not meant to have political implications necessarily, but to connect us with the lives and stories of real people.

*This outline was compiled from personal conversations with Maidan participants, and the following sources:



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