Historical Donetsk is Ukraine’s fifth largest city with a metro population of 1.5 million residents in a predominately industrial area that encompasses the Kalmius and Donets rivers. The city hosts the administrative center of the Donetsk Oblast, population 2 million, that governs the Ukrainian side of the greater Donbas Basin stretching from Eastern Ukraine into Western Russia. The ethnic makeup of the area is near equal between Ukrainians and Russians with minorities from nearby places like Belarus, Georgia and Moldova.
It is the history of Donetsk that complicates political relations on both sides of the border. Donetsk was a part of the Russian Empire at its founding but was made a part of the Ukrainian SSR in the Soviet period. In the 1950s and 1960s Donetsk developed into a regional transportation hub with the addition of the M-04 and E50 international highways, an international airport and a railroad station that today serves over 7 million passengers annually.
The history of Ukraine’s city of Donetsk can be found in how residents live and the places they call home. As with most former Soviet towns, housing is a collection of medium to high-rise apartments for most residents. Many received ownership of their flats after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Often these apartment homes appear rundown from the exterior but many have been remodeled but even so the average living space is very small per family when compared to Western housing standards.
Employment in Donetsk is primarily blue-collar with coal mining as the main industry. The city boasts a transportation system with a mix of modern and old buses, electric trolleys and electric trams. Cultural and educational opportunities include Medical and Technical Universities, a professional ballet troupe and the Prokofiev State Music Conservatory. The city is home to three professional football (soccer) teams and a professional ice hockey team. In 2010 Donetsk was selected as a host city for the Euro 2012 Football Championship.
In the 2000s the city began to shed its industrial image with the addition of shiny new office towers and in 2010 was named as one of the best Ukrainian cities to start a business. That all changed however in early 2014 as pro-Russian rebels took control of government buildings and erected barricades around key city utility and transportation facilities. The rebels then declared independence from the central Ukrainian government and formed a non-elected government known as the Donetsk Republic while aligning themselves with Lugansk region rebels to reestablish the historical Novo-Rossiya (New Russia) Republic. The rebels have declared their intention to someday join the Russian Federation.
This week Taras Shumeiko, reporter for Polish State Radio, spoke to The Voice of Russia Radio and described the situation in Donetsk as calm although many residents are fearful of new violence as the Kyiv government moves to reclaim the city from the rebels. Shumeiko said that local residents do not trust the rebels and many believe that the violence has been organized from Russia.
This is not the first time that invaders have taken the city hostage. Donetsk’s history was included in the Ukraine occupation by the German Nazi army from October 1941 to September 1943. Liberation from the Nazi occupiers brought near total destruction to the city and today residents hope that they can avoid that chapter of their history.
By Jim Hanemaayer
Donetsk City Guide