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The Donetsk that we used to know no longer exists

December 21, 2016 - Yuriy Temirov - Interviews


An interview with Yuriy Temirov, associate professor at the department of international relations and foreign policy and dean of the history department at Donetsk National University, temporarily located in Vinnytsia. Interviewer: Andrzej Szeptycki

This piece originally appeared in Issue 6/2016 of New Eastern Europe. Subscribe now.

ANDRZEJ SZEPTYCKI: Yuriy Teshabayovich Temirov; that is an unusual name for a Ukrainian. How did your ancestors come to settle in Ukraine and, more specifically, in Donbas?

YURIY TEMIROV: My father’s surname, Temirov, originates from the Turkic group of languages. He was of Kyrgyz nationality yet lived in Andijan, a city in Uzbekistan. However, there are no relatives of mine left there since my father grew up in an orphanage. It is difficult to say how he lost his parents. Experts on the history of this region suspect that his name was somehow connected to the fight with the Basmachi (an uprising against Russian Imperial and Soviet rule in Central Asia – editor’s note) as his first name, Teshabay, had the ending “bay” or “bey”, which points to a specific descent. In Soviet times my father served in the army in Belarus. There he met some people who were recruiting workers to the Donbas region. He was offered a factory job with decent pay, good working conditions, and soon enough he was able to get a flat in the company town. As there was no relatives back in Uzbekistan that my father could go back to, he accepted the job offer and that is how he ended up in Donbas – in Khartsyzk, a highly industrialised city located some 30 kilometres away from the city of Donetsk. My mother, on the other hand, came from the Khmelnytskyi province. After she had finished horticulture school she was posted to Donbas. That is how she met my father. They settled in Donbas, where I was born in 1964.

And how did you come to be a Ukrainian patriot when living in Donbas?

That is not an easy question. It might seem surprising, but one of the reasons is on an emotional level. I am a big fan of the Dynamo Kyiv football team. It is quite uncommon in Donbas, as we have our own football club there – Shakhtar Donetsk. I was greatly affected by the victory of Dynamo Kyiv in the 1975 UEFA cup, coached by Valeriy Lobanovskyi. I was ten or 11 back when Dynamo Kyiv began achieving international success. We watched the matches on TV (plus there was not really much else to do in those days). Dynamo Kyiv’s victories somehow turned me into a big fan.

Yet another reason is the fact that I majored in history (though many ideologists of the Donetsk People’s Republic also hold a degree in history from our university). Thanks to the fact that I studied history, even though still in Soviet times, I learned how to think critically. I focused my studies on radical left-wing student movements in Great Britain. One could not find any books on the topic, specifically those by Western authors, in Donetsk or Kyiv. That is why, already in my third year, I began visiting libraries in Moscow. The titles that I was interested in could usually be found only in the banned books section, and in order to gain access to them, one needed a special permit issued by the KGB. Many unanswered questions arose while I was reading those banned texts. Once I reserved a book on the history of the British Communist Party, I actually didn’t need it for my studies, but I wanted to understand why a title like that was put on the list of banned books. The book clearly showed that it was not the usual representatives of the working class that founded the British Communist Party, but rather some marginal groups within that class – immigrants from Pakistan, India, etc. – whereas average workers would vote for Labour Party. I realised that British communists were notpart of the political mainstream. This is probably the main reason why the book was placed in the banned section. What I am getting at is that, initially, I was not strongly pro-Ukrainian, but I began to think critically of what was published in Ukraine and what we were being told. Back then, I was professionally involved with general history rather than Ukrainian history.

The third reason behind my Ukrainian patriotism is the fact that most of the family on my mother’s side come from the Khmelnytskyi oblast, which borders the Rovnenskyi oblast. That is already western Ukraine, where the partisan movement was pretty strong. I used to spend my summer holidays there every year when I was at school. Life was different there, than in Donetsk. We would speak Ukrainian and people would quietly discuss topics that were left unsaid in textbooks. Many of the people there were simple farmers, but they had quite a different vision of Ukraine and its history – not in any intellectual sense, but rather a strictly practical one. My grandmother told me that during the occupation a German soldier was stationed in their house. She hid the food as she was afraid he would take it away — she had four kids to feed. To her surprise, the soldier – a hairdresser from Hamburg, started to share his food rations with the hosts. Once, after he had drunk some alcohol, he started grumbling about the war, complaining that he wanted to go home. Back then, people would not share stories like that loudly, as they could bring grave consequences.

Together with Ihor Todorov (a professor of international relations) and other colleagues from the Donetsk National University, you became an active supporter of Ukraine’s rapprochement with NATO. What motivated you to come up with such an initiative? What did it involve and how was it received in Donetsk?

In 2005 we founded the Centre for International Security and Euro-Atlantic Co-operation, as we were unanimously convinced that the future of Ukraine lies in both European and Euro-Atlantic integration. What I mean by European integration is that Ukraine should become a part of the united Europe — not only formally on the institutional level. We should also share the same way of life as the rest of Europe, their political system, economic model, culture, etc. Regarding Euro-Atlantic integration, we assumed that a common security policy was a better alternative than any unilateral efforts and that the Russian Federation poses a key threat to independent Ukraine. Membership of NATO also seemed like the best form of protection against this threat. We were able to establish the centre thanks to the support of the Department of Public Diplomacy, at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, and the NATO Information and Documentation Centre in Kyiv.

What is interesting, at that time our activity was supported by the university authorities, headed by the chancellor Volodymir Shevchenko. The local authorities remained neutral towards our activity, though I suspect they did not entirely approve, especially after 2010. Most of the representatives did not share our goals, yet they did not create any difficulties for us. Hence, our organisation was able to engage with a broad scope of activities. The two NATO symposiums that we organised in Donetsk were attended by eminent figures in both academia and policy, as well as our students. We believed that was the right direction for the development of both Ukraine and its society.

And how strong was the pro-Russian sentiment there in Donetsk?

At the beginning of the 21st century, we conducted a survey of public opinion which included the question: “What do you associate with the term ‘home country’?” Around 30 per cent of the respondents noted Ukraine, fewer stated Donbas. The Soviet Union ranked third and Russia fourth (with less than five per cent of the responses). Asking questions about pro-Russian sentiment would not have seemed right then. We can rather speak of some sort of nostalgia for the Soviet Union. There were very few respondents who deliberately opted for Russia. In that poll, we also asked respondends who should Ukraine seek integration with – the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) or the European Union. Most people said the CIS, but I do not think it was an expression of any particular love for Russia. Rather it can be explained by respondents’ conviction of the brotherhood of both nations and the fact that many have relatives living in Russia.

And what about the idea of an independent People’s Republic of Donetsk; did it not originate before 2014? After all, it was advocated by some graduates of your university, even if nobody treated it seriously then…

If I am not mistaken, the concept of a People’s Republic of Donetsk (DNR) was first formulated in 2006, but it was of marginal importance then. The idea did not enjoy any wider support. Andriy Purhin had been involved in it from the very beginning, but now he has been removed from the executive committee of the DNR. Denis Pushilin and Aleksandr Zakharchenko are both figureheads, but they do not follow any particular ideology. They are just carrying out the tasks assigned to them. The real activists, who had an ideological agenda, explicitly opted for reunification with Russia. The plan was that the newly formed People’s Republic of Donetsk would decide which country it wanted to be a part of: Ukraine or (as the activists had wished) the Russian Federation.

Let’s talk about the events of the past two years now. Russia’s scenario assumed that Novorossiya, or south-eastern Ukraine, would spread from Odesa to Kharkiv. Yet the plan was only successful in Donbas, or to be more specific in a part of Donbas. What are the reasons for this?

The key internal reason is social in origin. Donbas is the most highly urbanised and industrialised region in Ukraine. This fact made it quite easy to manipulate the society, to propagate certain stereotypes or invoke specific social processes. The civic society is very weak there and the political culture is quite low. This creates favourable conditions for manipulation. In rural communities, where individualistic values have been better preserved, it is not so easy, despite efforts by the former Soviet government to eradicate those values. In Donbas, however, collectivistic values are very strong. People were governed first by the communist party and then by “the top communist nomenclature” as I call them. The Soviet nomenclature was perety quick in enteing a coalition with criminal groups. At the same time, they were very efficient at using the same tactics of manipulating public opinion as were used during the Soviet times.

It is also worth noting that the DNR is well established in the “industrial belt”, which spreads across Donbas, from the eastern part of Dnipropetrovsk oblast (Pavlohrad) to the Rostov province in Russia. This is the area where the DNR enjoys the largest support. In the southern parts of Donbas, on the Sea of Azov, the situation looked quite different since it is largely agricultural (except for the city of Mariupol). It similar in the north of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, where the region is also less industrialised where both, historically and culturally, belong to the former Slobodska Ukraine, though nowadays it is leaning towards the Kharkiv oblast. The DNR got no support there. Parts of southern Donbas found itself within the borders of the DNR only as a result of the military intervention by Russia in August 2014. 

The last factor we have to take into account is the deliberate policy that was aimed at ridding the region of Ukrainians and their language in Soviet times. This process was natural, but only to a limited extent. During the interwar period, ethnic Ukrainians who spoke Ukrainian made up half the local population. The industrialisation, which took place during the 1930s and again after the Second World War, was a tremendous blow. The mines in Donbas attracted people — like my father — from other Soviet republics;that certainly had an effect on Ukrainian elements. However, people in the countryside still spoke the Ukrainian village-dialect, Surzhyk. In the 1960s it was decided that the only language to be usedin the public schools in the countryside was Russian (in urban areas it had already been the case for some time).

When the war started you decided to leave Donetsk, along with your wife and son. Was the decision caused by the outbreak of the war or were you personally in danger due to your support for integration of Ukraine and NATO?

My position on this matter was well-known in the history department at the university. Some of those who were in favour of “the Russian world” openly called us “Ukrainian nationalists”, which sounds quite bizarre if you look at my life. Even before the separatists managed to gain full control of the city, they had already begun creating lists of “enemies of the DNR”. As I found out, my name, and the names of other colleagues from the centre, were on the lists. Afterwards some of our students and activists started getting arrested, we then sensed that the situation was getting dangerous. I was not a political activist. I was not a member of any party or group, as I am quite sceptical about Ukrainian politics. Yet, I expressed my opinions openly, specifically with regards to the fact that I considered Russia to be the biggest threat to Ukraine. I participated in the pro-Ukrainian rallies when it started, but I was not among those who organised them.

There was yet another danger. Our house is located about three kilometres away from the airport, where a fierce battle took place. Russians had placed multiple rocket launchers (Grads), howitzers and self-propelled grenades in the vicinity of our house – in the Hladovka district. There was artillery fire directly overhead. Artillery shells struck close to where we lived, and could have easily hit our house…

And this is when you decided the university should be moved to Vinnytsia. What is the situation like for the National University of Donetsk in exile? Did the local community welcome it?

The inhabitants of Vinnytsia are generally friendly towards us. There were some isolated cases where they denied my colleagues a place to rent or wanted to charge higher-than-usual rent because they came from Donetsk. But generally speaking, we met friendly attitudes. This school year we have 47 freshmen studying international relations. Ten of them are funded by the state and the rest pay their own college fees. If there was some negative attitude towards us, I do not think parents would be willing to send their sons and daughters to study here. Around 95 per cent of these young people come from places other than Donetsk; they are from Vinnytsia, Khmelnytskyi, Zhytomyr, Cherkasy and other cities. Most of them, however, come from Vinnytsia. Our students from Vinnytsia and Donetsk get on well with one another.

When it comes to the central government, and I say this as an academic not as the dean, it has been quite surprising. I refer not only our university, but all schools of higher education that have left the occupied territories. Local authorities have given us some limited support , but the central government has failed to support us in any way, apart from moral support perhaps. The faculty have to rent flats, which is a real challenge, given how little they earn. Students are faced with similar difficulties, as we do not have any student housing in Vinnytsia.

And what happened to parts of the National University of Donetsk that did not leave the DNR? Who decided to stay there?

As far as the history department at our university is concerned, around 80 per cent of the academics and 70-75 per cent of the students left Donetsk. Not all of them settled in Vinnytsia – some accepted teaching positions or resumed their studies at other Ukrainian universities. Regarding those who decided to stay, it is a sort of natural cleansing to me. As far as I know, there are two groups of students that decided to stay in Donetsk: first, not the brightest ones. One can say that their awareness of the situation is quite different than ours. They do not want to leave the DNR, they do not want to live in Ukraine or simply do not care. The second group, which is much smaller, are those who cannot leave because of a complicated family situation.

In terms of the faculty, those who stayed in Donetsk had either shared their anti-Ukrainian views already, or had secretly opted for the DNR. They are what can be called “enemies of Ukrainian statehood”. There are also those who cannot adapt to anything new, they simply drift along. It is probably best that they stay in Donetsk! They might not be in favour of the DNR but they are unwilling to embrace change; they just want to do their job.

And how do you judge the current situation in Donetsk?

It might come as a surprise to you, but I think the situation in Donetsk has not changed much since before 2014. What has changed, however, are the psycho-social conditions, since many people have been killed on both sides. This is going to make the process of reconciliation very difficult. I am against any kind of reconciliation that would be based on simply stating “let’s be friends again”. I do not want to be friends any more with those who stayed in Donetsk. I believe that if our university was to move back, those who stayed should not be able to retain their post in the history department, or work in education at all. A lot of them should be prosecuted.

Nevertheless, as many of my colleagues would say, the Donetsk that we used to know no longer exists. It once was a relatively tolerant place, but that city is gone. Yet, there is hope that Donbas could return to Ukraine one day. I do not mean a mere formal reintegration, such as what Vladimir Putin opts for where Donbas would play the role of “a Trojan horse” and destabilises Ukraine, but rather the return of the Ukrainian Donbas or the Donbas that we will make Ukrainian. I do not expect that everyone will speak Ukrainian but all should respect the Ukrainian state. People can support various political parties and different ideologies but there is one general rule written in our constitution – respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty, its statehood and territorial integrity.  

The Ukrainian authorities have no strategy to regain Donbas. The most important thing now is how the situation develops in Russia. Nobody knows which direction it could go, but, in my opinion, there are hard times ahead for Russia. It’s difficult to predict what kind of conflict – even if it were social in nature – could lead to unrest in Russia. It is an undemocratic country and a non-civic society. Ukraine should be alert and ready to act at the right moment, and use the processes unfolding in Russia to its advantage. Deprived of Russian support, Donbas could formally return to Ukraine within a matter of weeks.

Translated by Agnieszka Rubka

Yuriy Temirov is an associate professor at the department of international relations and foreign policy and dean of the history department at Donetsk National University, temporarily located in Vinnytsia.

Andrzej Szeptycki is an associate professor at the institute of international relations of the University of Warsaw.


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