The industrial lungs of the Russian Empire and then of the Soviet Union, the Donbass was above all the transmission belt of imperial and post-imperial power in a periphery treated with suspicion.
Hanna Perekhoda is a doctoral student and assistant at the Institute of Political Studies at the University of Lausanne. Her research focuses on the history of Ukraine.
Gwendal Piégais of the Central European Mail: Since 2014, war has raged in a territory whose name has become familiar to people in Western Europe and around the world: Donbass. However, its history remains poorly known and subject to many clichés. Could you give us a historical overview of the Donbass territory and tell us what is so special about it?
Hanna Perekhoda: The use of the term “Donbass” is in itself quite problematic, because it refers to a geological and economic region: the Donets River coal basin. When we say Donbass, in fact we are talking about a region that does not correspond to any administrative reality, but often this term is used to refer to the territory of the Donetsk and Lugansk oblast in Ukraine.
In 1917, the word Donbass referred to a territory that only partly coincided with two oblasts [Russian territories]. The Donbass is located in what was called the wilderness, i.e. the steppe region that was very sparsely populated until the 19th century: a border area between the Russian and Ottoman empires, where the few inhabitants were mainly Cossacks, ; a military group in charge of protecting these thick borders,these marches between the Russian Empire, Poland and the Ottoman Empire. This vast wilderness had been conquered by Russia mainly in the 18th century. Later on, coal, iron and other raw material deposits were also discovered here, discoveries that determined the future of this region.
From the second half of the 19th century onwards, the Donbass underwent very intensive industrial development. The industrialisation of the Russian Empire greatly increased the demand for coal for both the railways and manufacturing, making the Donbass the main industrial base of the entire Empire. Before the 1917 revolution, about 80% of Russian coal was mined in this region, which also attracted a large amount of foreign investment, especially from France and Belgium. These investments enabled local industry to equip itself with the latest technologies, leading to the establishment of some of the most modern factories in the world for the time. But these islands of modernity stood in the middle of a sea of great peasant poverty, with lifestyles comparable to those of the 17th century. The Donbass became a textbook case of what Trotsky called “uneven and combined development”, i.e., the coexistence of modern and premodern realities, which made the region a reservoir of social conflicts that weighed in the fall of the Tsarist empire in 1917.
This territory has been bitterly disputed by Russia and Ukraine since the revolution and civil war. Is it only for economic reasons?
The question I asked myself at the beginning of my research on the history of the region from 1917 onwards was why the current border between Russia and Ukraine runs where it does and not 300 km further east or west. Why and when did the idea that the Donbass and. more generally the eastern and southern territories of present-day Ukraine are territories that should be part of Ukraine take hold? When did the representation of Ukraine, the political space as we know it today, really become self-evident for political actors?
After 1917 it was not only the Donbass, but the whole of the eastern and southern part of what is now Ukraine that became a territory with an ambiguous definition. There is nothing obvious in drawing the borders of a new political space where there was once only a continental empire. And in this continental empire, Ukraine as a political space was not delimited in any way. The Ukrainian national movement in 1917, which was represented by the so-called Central Rada, a quasi-parliamentary body in Kyiv, faced another actor, the provisional government of Russia in Petrograd after the fall of tsarism. There were also economic actors who had interests in Ukraine, particularly in the east. The Ukrainian national movement demanded political autonomy not only for Ukraine, but for all the Ukrainian ethnic territories, which included the southern and eastern territories. But the provisional government considered that Ukraine as an autonomous political entity should be limited to the territories of the Kyiv region, leaving the south and east under the direct control of Russia, as these territories were rich in raw materials and therefore important for the empire’s economy.
But the provisional government and the Rada were swept away by the Bolshevik revolution and the civil war. So it was the Bolsheviks had to solve this problem of the border between Ukraine and Russia a few years later. From 1917 onwards, there was a split in the Bolshevik party between two groups. First there were those who saw Soviet Ukraine in the same way as the Ukrainian national movement, as a political space that must include the lands where Ukrainians were in majority, with a delimitation of the territory that was close to the borders we know today. And there were those for whom the Ukrainian political space should be divided into at least three entities directly subordinate to Russia: a territory around Kyiv, a territory in the south, the Odessa region, and in the east around Kharkiv and the Donbass. This territorial division into three parts known as general governorates was in force in the tsarist empire. And in 1917 the Bolsheviks reproduced these same structures. In their mental geography, their representation of political spaces, we notice the persistence of pre-existing administrative institutional structures and prexisting ideals.
As the Bolsheviks in Petrograd and Moscow took power, the Bolsheviks in Kyiv failed to do the same in Ukraine. They are in a weak position in relation to the Ukrainian national forces, and they came to understand that in order to counteract the Ukrainian nationalist project they must also adopt a certain national discourse which they had previously opposed. This leads them to see these three poles as a common political space, as Ukraine, whereas until then the Bolsheviks did not even ask themselves what Ukraine was, what its borders are, etc. This new way of representing the Ukrainian political space was the result of a political defeat suffered on this territory. But when they started to imitate nationalist discourses, for purely strategic and political reasons, the Bolsheviks started to give legitimacy to the idea of the Ukrainian nation-state as defined by the national movement, including its territorial dimension, and insisting that Donbass, the south and the east of this territory were part of Ukraine.
These Ukrainian Bolsheviks insist that the cities of the Russian Empire had been colonists’ metropolises but that they are now capitals of the socialist revolution, which makes them even more legitimate in deciding the fate of peripheries such as the Ukraine, Central Asia and the Caucasus.
But the Bolsheviks in the more urbanised regions are less confronted with the Ukrainian peasants and have not undergone the same adaptation processes. Many of them remain imbued with the ideology of class struggle and universalism and do not want the socialist state to be organised according to a principle of national delimitation perceived as a relic of the past. Their idea is that the state should be organised according to criteria of economic relevance and therefore by discarding any question of national borders, of the claims of oppressed peoples like the Ukrainians. For them, the socialist revolution made all these problems obsolete. They showed their political loyalty to socialist and revolutionary Russia, to Moscow and Petrograd where the workers took power. The discourse of these Bolsheviks insists precisely on the fact that even if these cities of the Russian Empire had been colonialist metropolises, symbols of oppression, they are now capitals of the socialist revolution and that it is this that makes them even more legitimate to decide the fate of peripheries like Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus; in a flash, the socialist revolution would have made oppressive Russia the incarnation of emancipation.
This conviction was shared - in 1917 and 1918 - by the great majority of the Bolsheviks in Ukraine. They did not build their political project in opposition to the Empire as such. Their problem was not the Empire, their problem was tsarism, autocracy, monarchy, etc. In a certain sense, their aim was to propose a better version of the Empire, a universalist state that would be much more capable of dealing with social or ethnic tensions, and of better preserving the integrity of the political space of the former Russian Empire. This regenerated empire would thus be able to take on its new civilising mission, but a mission this time opposite to that of the Tsarist era. Despite the fact that they were revolutionaries who wanted to make a radical break with the past, they paradoxically remained conservative with regard to the question of the empire. This is reflected in the maintenance of a hierarchical conception of relations between the Empire and the peripheries, between the so-called enlightened elites - the party, the vanguard of the revolution, the Bolsheviks - and the people. It is the maintenance of these hierarchies that will make this break with the imperial past very temporary. This explains why the rhetorical reversal is quite easy to achieve during the period of Stalinism, when the anti-imperialist discourse is discarded in favour of a Great Russian discourse.
So one can imagine that there was a very violent clash during the civil war between the urban and rural populations in this part of Ukraine...
There was indeed this opposition at the territorial level, but also within the Bolshevik party. But the Bolsheviks won the civil war because they were one of the few political forces that knew how to adapt and learn from their defeats. They did not abandon the dogma that motivated them in 1917, but they made a certain number of concessions and changed their strategy and practices on the ground. This allowed them to gain more influence over the local population than other political forces.
It is in this confrontation with the local peasant population and their demands - both social and national - that the Bolsheviks become more and more convinced by this project of a unitary Ukraine in a national framework. They thus gave up the project of partition of the Ukrainian political space in several regions. This unitary project was thus imposed first of all for reasons of political and military necessity, to compete with the other political forces and gain influence over the local population. It became necessary in the longer term, especially after the repeated military defeats of the Reds, especially in 1919, when they were driven out of Ukraine because of the hostility of the local peasant population. The Bolsheviks began to understand that Ukrainian sovereignty was not just a means to beat the Ukrainian nationalists at their own game or to compete with them. But it was a necessary condition for the very survival of their power in the peripheries. From that moment on, no one in the party questioned whether the Donbass and other parts of southern and eastern Ukraine belonged to this unitary territory.
Another reason - rarely made explicit - was that the Bolshevik party and government saw the Donbass as a tool, a means to secure or impose control over the rest of Ukraine. The other parts of the territory were predominantly peasant. The Donbass was the only urban territory inhabited by a proletariat that the Bolsheviks claimed as their own. The presence of the Donbass in this unitary territory made it possible to counterbalance the political weight of a potentially disloyal Ukrainian peasant population, as we saw during the civil war.
In the previous centuries, in order to consolidate imperial power, a loyal population of settlers was installed in the peripheries; in the 19th century, the conversion of other peoples to Orthodoxy was encouraged in order to induce the local populations to assume the role of settlers who secured the borders of the empire. From the second half of the 19th century, this strategy gave way to linguistic and cultural Russification. And from 1917 onwards, the Bolshevik power relied on the urban, working class and Russian-speaking population to integrate the local populations into this way of life and this new culture that was both urban and imperial. The cities of the Donbass became both incubators and bastions of this loyalty to the imperial project. To use Lenin’s expression, used in another situation, the Donbass would be a “transmission belt” between this periphery with questionable loyalty and the metropolis.
In your opinion, are there other cases of the persistence of these imperial structures over time?
Many comparisons can be made with other imperial situations. The first one I have in mind is the one between the Ukraine-Russia relationship and Ireland-Great Britain. Britain is a former imperial power, with a colonial past like France or Russia. Analogies are never completely accurate, and there are obviously significant differences between the Northern Irish unionists and the pro-Russian Donbass, but I think the general pattern of these relationships is quite comparable. Both Northern Ireland and the Donbass were regions of heavy industry within a largely agricultural territory and different culturally and linguistically. In both Northern Ireland and the Donbass, economic dynamism served the metropolis, not the rest of the territory, which remained imperial peripheries.
The big difference is the importance of institutions. On the one hand, we have a relatively democratic British system, with the checks and balances system, a separation of powers, which prevented Great Britain at the time from engaging in complete and extensive repression throughout Ireland or from launching an indiscriminate war against the civilian population. In Russia we have a mafia clan that has seized power and is holding half of the European continent hostage. The comparison shows that, where there is no minimum democratic control, the beliefs, identities, ideas and passions of political leaders play a disproportionate role. The passions of Britain’s leaders did not play such an important role in their politics.
In the case of Russia’s policy towards Ukraine, and to speak precisely of the persistence of these imperial structures, the national identity, worldview and self-perception of the present and past Russian political classes has been formed in the denial and rejection of the subjectivity of Ukrainians. To be Russian means to deny that Ukrainians exist. This self- understanding has spread from the political class to the population. Such a view of themselves and Ukraine and Ukrainians is a product of the 19th century, a time of social and national transformation in Europe. It is a period of revolutions that threaten to reach Russia where political elites try to preserve their autocratic power in a changing world. Russia thus became a bastion of autocracy and monarchy, which took on the task of protecting not only Russia but also the whole of Europe from democratic disorder.
It is in this context that Ukraine really became, in the 19th century, one of the main battlegrounds in which Russia defined itself in relation to the West. It was from this moment that two national narratives were formed: the Russian national narrative and the Ukrainian national narrative. In the Russian narrative, in the Russian imperial schema, there was only a place for Ukrainian identity subordinated to Russia. The Ukrainian narrative developed in this context of democratic and national revolution, with the growing idea that Ukraine could only survive outside Russia, because Russia denied its right to exist. These two narratives that were being formed were in total contradiction, mutually exclusive. And it is here that we can see, once again, the persistence of imperial ideological structures, which we can see translated again in the current war. This conflict thus has - and this must be taken seriously - a genocidal potential, because there is a denial of the existence of the other.
The idea of Russianness, with its messianism, anti-Westernism and negation of Ukrainian subjectivity, was thus formed in the 19th century in a very specific political context.
However, these ideas came to be perceived as absolute and unchangeable truths, specific to an eternal and ahistorical Russian identity. This is where the war also has a cultural dimension. These 19th century ideas find their expression in literary and artistic works, in historiography, and in this anachronistic form they are transmitted to the whole population today, through education and mass culture. We should not underestimate the role of this imperial and colonial imaginary. By analysing the current conflict from a strictly geopolitical perspective, steeped in abstraction and presentism, we condemn ourselves to failing to see that relations between Russia and Ukraine are marked by a very long history of imperial and colonial domination.