A tale of two collapses
Today’s Sievierodonetsk reflects wider processes that are taking place in the Donbas region. In the summer of 2014 de-oligarchisation and decommunisation began to progress in parallel. They resulted in two collapses.
Many of us probably do not realise the role that heavy-duty hand cleaning paste has played in the history of the Eastern bloc. In Poland, for instance, this product was called pasta BHP, and it was commonly used to remove stains from paint and grease. Its trade allowed one Polish family, the Kulczyks, to become billionaires. In the Soviet republics, that paste was called Landish and was popularly used in households as a washing detergent.
Those whose clothes were washed with Landish and whose teenage years overlapped with the transformation of the 1990s most likely also played Nu pogadi (Ну, погоди!). It was the first Soviet portable electronic game where players were catching chicken eggs dropped from a perch. The title of the game was a reference to the popular Soviet cartoon with the same name. If you now wonder what these two things – the heavy-duty hand cleaning paste and the early video game – have in common, you should take a look at the map of Ukraine to find a city called Sievierodonetsk. After Luhansk, this is the second largest city in the Luhansk Oblast and the capital of the chemical industry.
Even though both Landish’s characteristic packaging and the simple screen of Nu pogadi are the images that are deeply rooted in people’s biographic memory, their production site, in Sievierodonetsk, has been wiped out of memory (even in Ukraine). It has returned only after the war broke out in 2014 and the monolithic Donbas region was shattered in places like Pisky, Debaltseve, Ilovaisk, Stanytsia Luhanska, Schastia, Horlivka and many others. With the occupation of the separatist forces, and later liberation from them, the name Sievierodonetsk once again entered Ukrainian discourse, finally emerging from its non-existence. No longer perceived as a proud city of the chemical industry, the town is now known as the capital of the war-affected and deeply tarnished Ukrainian Luhansk oblast.
The spirit of the city probably best explains why, from the outset, Sievierodonetsk reflects some wider processes taking place in Donbas. Historically speaking, Sievier, the name that the locals use for Sievierodonetsk, grew out of Liskhimstroi, which was the first settlement for workers of the Lysychansk Nitrogen Fertilizer Plant. It was established on the left bank of the Siverskyi Donets River in 1934. Since then Sievierodonetsk became a typical Soviet industrial city whose life was centred on one large production complex.
Sievier was called a model Soviet industrial town not only because of the size of its chemical production centre, but because of how its constructors worked and lived. Photographs from the 1940s show wooden barracks that were built on a sandy terrain ploughed by bulldozers. In this desert-like scenario dispersed pine trees look like African baobabs. When looking at old photos, I could not help but think of the famous poem by the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, titled A Khrenov’s story about Kuznetskstroy and the people of Kuznetsk (Рассказ Хренова о Кузнецкстрое и о людях Кузнецка). In it Mayakovsky portrayed the Siberian city of Novokuznetsk (Kuznetsk) at the centre of the newly developing Kuznetsk Basin which was one of the centres of the Soviet Union in terms of regional coal production, second only to Ukraine’s Donets Basin. Mayakovsky, who had never visited the city, was imagining soaked and shivering workers from the Siberian taiga and the heat coming from the open hearth furnaces. With this in mind, he wrote what became a famous line: “In four years’ time there will be a Garden City here”.
Mayakovsky did not live to see his vision come true, however. He died a year after he wrote that poem. However, the Soviets continued to develop their version of garden cities. After the Second World War one of them was established in Sievierodonetsk, which was to become an ideal socialist town. Similarly, Novokuznetsk was also developed after the Second World War with the aim to embody a vision of an ideal socialist city. It was supposed to illustrate human hegemony over taiga, while Sievierodonetsk was evidence of human hegemony over the steppe.
From even a glimpse at Sievierodonetsk’s map you can understand its planners’ desire to make it a Soviet version of Ebenezer Howard’s garden city. It resembles a linear city as promoted by the Soviet planner Nikolay Milyutin in the late 1920s. The streets stretch along rivers and a railroad line. The first ring, closest to water, is an industrial area which looks like a labyrinth of chimneys and pipes. This is also where the chemical production centre, Azot, is located. Right next to the factory there is a network of streets which cross the two main avenues, which in turn cut through the wide Central Avenue. This is the area of government offices as well as the cultural institutions and recreational facilities. A large park with a stadium and a lake completes Sievierodonetsk in the north, while the famous Ice Palace, with another lake right behind it, is located in the south.
Today’s Sievierodonetsk also reflects the wider processes that are taking place in the Donbas region. Since the line of contact was established and Lysychansk became the last point one could travel by rail, Sievierodonetsk can now only be reached by a marshrutka mini-bus or taxi. They both stop near the recently rebuilt Siverskyi Donets bridge. When crossing it by bus last summer, together with other participants of the Donbas Studies Summer School, I saw a post-apocalyptic reality ahead. The first thing emerging on the horizon was an electrical power plant with two gigantic chimneys. While passing the industrial complex, the bus driver had to dodge a series of potholes on the road. The murky industrial zone lingers with a plethora of rusty pipes, steel and concrete. One gets a sense of some kind of emptiness here. It was like a scene from the Soviet science fiction film Stalker directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. There are barely any people out in the streets. Looking around, two thoughts came to my mind straight away. First, that the scale of the chemical production centre was almost as surreal as the scale of its collapse and decomposition. The latter surely has had an immense impact on the lives and well-being of the locals.
Sievierodonetsk’s recent history reveals Ukraine’s problems with oligarchisation. Azot had been in private ownership since 2011. Now it belongs to the Ostchem holding, controlled by Dmytro Firtash who is one of Ukraine’s richest businessmen and whose life story is a perfect example of the shady career path that is shared by so many of Ukraine’s oligarchs. Firtash started out as a fire truck driver who was making a living trading milk and canned food in Chernivtsi during the 1990s. He was arrested for smuggling and took part in some shooting activities. Soon afterwards he became an intermediary in the gas trade with Turkmenistan, and later he established new businesses and intermediary projects in the gas trade between Asia and Ukraine as well as Europe. Among them is the powerful RosUkrEnergo whose shares are split between Firtash and Gazprom. In the early 2000s, Firtash started to heavily invest in the chemical industry and a few years later he became the real monopolist of Ukraine’s fertiliser market. Not surprisingly Sievierodonetsk and its chemical complex, Azot, became a gem in the oligarch’s empire. Yet it is when you take a deeper look where you can see the results of the turbulences that the oligarchic structure of business in Ukraine generates.
In Sievierodonetsk the process of de-oligarchisation and decommunisation started in parallel in the summer of 2014. They resulted in two collapses. The first one took place on July 22nd 2014 when the Russian-backed separatist forces blew up a bridge on the Siverskyi Donets while trying to stop the forces of the Ukrainian National Guard and the Donbas Battalion that were moving from Sievierodonetsk to Lysychansk. The second collapse took place exactly one month later – on August 23rd 2014 – when Lenin’s monument was taken down in the city’s Peace Square. Russia’s aggression into Donbas in 2014 also marked the beginning of Firtash’s collapse even though he supported the pro-Russian Opposition Bloc (political party) and had ties with the Kremlin. A Reuters investigation actually revealed that Firtash had built his empire thanks to the preferential loans he obtained from Gazprombank and the generous discounted rates he got for purchasing gas. Yet the military action in Sievierodonetsk halted production at Azot, which has not resumed since. In addition, in March 2014 Firtash was arrested in Austria where a case was initiated against him and legal proceedings were launched to extradite him to the United States.
The overall scheme of Fritash’s political and business network includes the Russian mafia, Kremlin insiders, Ukraine’s former President Petro Poroshenko, the American lobbyist Paul Manaford, as well as prominent lawyers of the US President Donald Trump, including Rudy Giuliani. On the horizon there is also China and its demand for Ukrainian corn, which is cultivated with the use of nitrogen fertilisers.
From the point of view of Sievierodonetsk’s inhabitants, none of the above has much meaning. If you ask them what matters the most, you are likely to hear the following: When there is ammonia, everything is okay. The thing is, however, that there is no ammonia and nobody knows when it will come back.
The collapse of the bridge over the Siverskyi Donets River can be viewed as a symbolic cutting Sievierodonetsk off from the previous oligarchic structure. Namely, as a result of the war, the local patron lost his political powerbase and freedom. In his place, a new feudal structure emerged as the state institutions are almost dormant here. You may almost want to say that the city and its residents have become hostage to geopolitics. Indeed, as a result of Firtash’s shady practices and the incoherent policies of the Ukrainian government, Azot fell into a debt spiral. In 2017 the company’s debt constituted 45 per cent of the overall debt of the entire Luhansk region. The following year Azot was behind on salary payments – company staff were owed around 58 million hryvnas (over two million euro). In 2019 it owed 143 million hryvnas (over five million euro) for electricity expenses. Admittedly, all this was taking place when Ukraine was seeing an increased demand for fertilisers. After his arrest in 2014, Firtash was released on bail, which amounted to 155 million US dollars. This amount illustrates the quasi-feudal social relations in Donbas where, on the one hand, you have a hegemon capable of paying such high amount for his release and, on the other hand, there are 130,000 people who are dependent on ammonia.
While walking on Sievierodonetsk’s streets in the hot summer, I could not stop thinking that, in this part of Donbas, the irony of fate works differently. When taking the perpendicularly arranged streets, with their characteristic rundown silicate brick buildings, I know that I am in a place that was supposed to be the implementation of the socialist dream of the garden city. However when I get further away from the centre, I am struck by something else. The strong odour of urine comes from the sewers and can be smelled everywhere. This experience teaches me how the rational concept of a garden city can transform into its own caricature as a result of the communist-era attitudes to work, the post-communist corruption and a lack of investment. It becomes an ass city (город-зад). Thus, today’s reality is better expressed by the contemporary Russian poet, Dmitry Bykov, who, taking an ironic view of Mayakovsky wrote: “There will never be any city or any garden. In four years’ time the only thing will be you.”
The current geopolitical trap, whose prey includes the city and its residents, translates into the social mood. Thus, as it turned out from the fifth All-Ukrainian Communal Research, which was carried out last year, Sievierodonetsk is on the extreme end when it comes to social satisfaction, compared to 23 other Ukrainian oblasts. Almost 60 per cent of those surveyed in the city negatively assessed the direction of change in Ukraine. This is almost twice as much as in Kyiv, Odesa or Mariupol. The same can be said about the assessment of the development of the city, where the pessimism of Sievierodonetsk’s residents was estimated to be much stronger than in the western and central parts of Ukraine.
The current situation, aside from the obvious economic issues, has cultural explanations. When the main mechanism of a city with one enterprise collapses, it also impacts the city’s economy and identity. While the latter can be harder to grasp, it is, in fact, responsible for the city’s cohesion. In Sievierodonetsk this is quite clear. When I asked people who they were, I would often hear “here we are all chemists”. This, in fact, is a different way of saying: “when there is ammonia, everything is okay”.
There is no doubt that the never-ending post-Soviet transformation, and the war with separatist forces which brought on the economic collapse, have shaken the identity of Donbas. It is thus very likely that the next politician who promises to make Donbas great again will get significant support here.
Sievierodonetsk was considered the informal capital of Donbas separatism, even before Igor Strelkov’s forces attacked Sloviansk. In 2004 and 2008 two separate conventions took place in the Ice Palace. They were called the All-Ukrainian Congress of People’s Deputies and Deputies of Local Councils, and gathered participants from all sectors who formulated the concept of Ukraine’s federalisation, announcing future separatism and the establishment of autonomous quasi-republics.
The speeches delivered at these two events by the Party of Regions representatives, as well as those published by the pro-Kremlin commentators, included ideas that years later became the official explanation for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of war in Donbas. Among other things, one could hear the following arguments: Donbas people need to defend the Russian language and protect the region from “crawling Ukrainianisation”, Donbas needs to oppose NATO’s entrance into Ukraine and not allow it to rewrite its centuries-long history. Interestingly, the postulates that were aimed at stimulating the separatist imagination among the people in Donbas were made of just a few political references. Instead, they relied heavily on cultural connections, collective identity and memory. Taken together, they clearly show a manipulation of the past, that is, the period where local residents could say “we are all chemists here, there is ammonia here”. This sentiment must have had a very broad influence here since the idea of the Russian world would become the main reason explaining the Russian aggression into Ukraine.
Let us now return to the second of the earlier mentioned collapses, namely, the fall of the Lenin monument. Overall the Leninopad which took place throughout Ukraine was probably one of the unexpected outcomes of the Russian aggression. In Sievierodonetsk, together with the Lenin monument, the monuments of Officer Kliment Voroshilov and Bolshevik Chairman Yakov Sverdlov, were also taken down. Only the statue of the writer Maxim Gorky remained, but the inscription has been removed. Those who now visit the park cannot tell whose statue that is.
The city’s main monument is yet to be found at Victory Square where, in 2004, the authorities erected a 14-metre tall granite stele to commemorate the victorious soldiers of the Second World War and the 70th anniversary of the establishment of Sievierodonetsk (even though the city was chartered in 1958). The initiative of the local authorities to erect the monument coincided with Ukraine’s breakthrough presidential elections which led to the Orange Revolution. In my view, the history of the Second World War monument reflects an important stage in the evolution of Sievierodonetsk’s identity. Namely, while the Leninopad can be interpreted as a rebuttal of the totalitarian past, many Soviet sentiments have not yet been eradicated. This is especially true for the myth of the Red Army victory in the Second World War, which, to this day, remains a sacred experience for many post-Soviet societies. As such, it has become a very important moment in their history. To put into one phrase what today’s Sievierodonetsk is like, you can say that it is caught in a symbolic suspension. On the one hand, liberation from separatist forces brought an end to the Bolshevik idols, but the pedestals on their monuments are still empty. Clearly six years is too short of a time to build a new narrative, both about the city and the Ukrainian Donbas.
The two collapses: the collapse of a bridge and Lenin monuments – or put differently, the collapse of the city’s industry and its identity – are forever tied together. Yet while it is much easier to rebuild the city’s infrastructure, building a new narrative takes time. For the moment the ideological emptiness is filled with one permanent element – the Red Army’s victory in the Second World War. Given that, it is justified to say that the attractiveness of Soviet sentiments, with a lack of any alternatives or a new plan for the Ukrainian Donbas, offers fertile soil for separatism to take root. This risk should not be ignored, especially as none of my interlocutors in Sievierodonetsk excluded the possibility of a repeat of 2014.
Translated by Iwona Reichardt
Wojciech Siegień works at the department of social sciences in the University of Gdańsk. He has researched the countries of the former Eastern Bloc. He is currently doing research in Donbas in Ukraine. His main interests are educational ideologies and the different processes of militarisation in post-Soviet countries.