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The History of Donbas’ Donetsk and Luhansk Regions Annexed by Russia

The Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, monitors the movement of heavy artillery through the Donbas region in 2015. Credit: OSCE/ CC BY 2.0

Russian President Vladimir Putin officially annexed the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, known together as the Donbas in eastern Ukraine, along with two other regions.

In a ceremony at the Kremlin on Friday, September 30th, he pronounced that the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in the east as well as in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson in the south are now part of the Russian Federation.

It was yet another pivotal, wrenching moment in the long and turbulent history of the area.

Ukraine is the second-largest country in all of Europe, after Russia itself. But like Russia, its past is one marked by great political upheaval and a string of tragedies that have changed the makeup of its society over time.

Donbas, the scene of great influx of peoples

Now home to a majority of Russian-speaking people, they moved there only in recent decades. Now, Russia has given more than 720,000 Russian passports to roughly one-fifth of the region’s population, according to The Associated Press.

This effectively makes them Russian citizens and creates a pretext for war, as the country can state that its troops are being sent there to protect Russian citizens.

Known for many centuries as the “Wild Fields” in the Ukrainian language, although it was basically unpopulated up until the second half of the 17th century, the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that comprise the Donbas include both areas that are controlled by Kyiv  as well as those that are under Russian separatist rule.

The word Donbass (or Donbas,) a portmanteau from Donets Basin, is an abbreviation of the phrase “Donets Coal Basin.” Clearly, its ore reserves have been the greatest draw for those who covet its riches. Its vast coal reserves have allowed for the growth of major steel production in the area.

The historical coal mining region included areas in the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast and Southern Russia, as well, while a Euroregion of the same name is composed of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in Ukraine and Rostov Oblast in Russia.

Although it has been an important coal mining area since the late 19th century, when it became heavily industrialized, the region was almost completely depopulated after being inhabited for centuries by various nomadic tribes such as the Scythians, Alans, Huns, Bulgars, Pechenegs, Kipchaks, Turco-Mongols, Tatars, and Nogais.

The Donbas lay largely unpopulated for some time until the second half of the 1600s, when Don Cossacks established the first permanent settlements in the region. The first town in the region was founded in 1676, called Solanoye (now Soledar), which became home to a profitable business based on the newly discovered rock-salt reserves nearby.

Donbas painting
“The Poor Colelcting Coal,” by Nikolas Kasatkin, Donbas, 1894. Credit: Public Domain

Cossacks, Turkic Crimeans, Russians, Serbians, and Greeks all moved to Donbas

The Donbas remained for the most part under the control of the Ukrainian Cossack Hetmanate and the Turkic Crimean Khanate until the mid-late 18th century, when the Russian Empire conquered the Hetmanate and annexed the Khanate.

At the end of the 18th century, many Russians, Serbs, and Greeks migrated to the region. At that time, Russia named the conquered territories “New Russia.” As the Industrial Revolution expanded all across Europe, the enormous coal resources of the region, which were first discovered in 1721, began to be exploited in the mid-late 19th century.

The river valley of the Donetsk is the center of the coal deposits. The meteoric rise of the coal industry led to a population boom in the region, which was largely driven by Russian settlers. The region was then comprised of the counties of Bakhmut, Slovianserbsk, and Mariupol, the latter being a Greek city in which many Greeks still live.

Further coal exploitation led to even more Russian influence in the region after the founding of Donetsk, its largest city, in 1869 by Welsh businessman John Hughes. Located in the old Zaporozhian Cossack town of Oleksandrivka, the entire city was renamed “Yuzovka” after Hughes, who built a steel mill there.

With the growth of Yuzovka and similar cities which were based on the rich natural resources of the area came landless peasants from peripheral governorates of the Russian Empire who moved there looking for work. Yuzovka was later renamed “Donetsk” by the Soviet Union in 1924.

According to the Russian Imperial Census of 1897, Ukrainians comprised 52.4 percent of the population of the region while ethnic Russians comprised 28.7%. Greeks, Germans, Jews, and Tatars also had a significant presence in the Donbas, particularly in the district of Mariupol, where they comprised 36.7 percent of the population.

The Donbas, a scene of upheaval, revolution, and genocide

However, it was Russians who made up the majority of the industrial workforce and the population of cities while Ukrainians dominated rural areas. Meanwhile, the Ukrainians who moved to the cities for work were quickly assimilated into the Russian-speaking worker class, a trend which was accelerated after the rise of the Bolsheviks and the formation of the Soviet Union.

In April 1918, troops loyal to the Ukrainian People’s Republic took control of large parts of the region. For a while, its government bodies operated in the Donbas alongside their Russian Provisional Government equivalents. The Ukrainian State, the successor of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, was able in May 1918 to bring the region under control for a short time with the help of its German and Austro-Hungarian allies.

Along with other territories inhabited by Ukrainians, the Donbas was incorporated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic after the Russian Civil War. Cossacks in the region were subjected to  a campaign called “decossackisation” from 1919 to 1921.

“To kill by starvation”

Ukrainians living in the Donbas were further decimated by the state-sponsored 1932–33 Holodomor (meaning ‘to kill by starvation’) famine and the Russification policy of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Since most ethnic Ukrainians were rural peasant farmers, they bore the brunt of the famine, with the government confiscating their land and removing any means they had to feed themselves.

The term Holodomor emphasizes the famine’s man-made and intentional aspects of the atrocity, including rejection of outside aid, confiscation of all household foodstuffs and restriction of population movement so that no one was allowed to leave the region to find sustenance elsewhere.

As part of the wider Soviet famine of 1932–1933 which affected the major grain-producing areas of the country, millions of inhabitants of Ukraine, the majority of whom by now were ethnic Ukrainians, died of starvation in a peacetime catastrophe that was unprecedented in the history of the country.

Since 2006, the Holodomor has been recognized by Ukraine and fifteen other countries as a genocide of the Ukrainian people carried out by the Soviet government.

Early estimates of the death toll by scholars and government officials varied greatly. A United Nations joint statement signed by 25 countries in 2003 declared that 7–10 million perished. Current scholarship estimates a range of four to seven million victims with more precise estimates ranging from 3.3 to 5 million.

According to the findings of the Court of Appeal of Kyiv in 2010, the total demographic losses due to the famine amounted to ten million, however, with 3.9 million direct famine deaths and a further 6.1 million birth deficits.

Russification stepped up after depopulation from WWII

Donbas was greatly affected by the Second World War. War preparations resulted in an extension of the working day for factory laborers, while those who could not produce according to the new standards were arrested.

Adolf Hitler viewed the resources of the Donbas as critical to Operation Barbarossa, his plan for the invasion of Russia. The region accordingly suffered greatly under Nazi occupation during 1941 and 1942.

Thousands of industrial laborers were deported to Germany and forced to work in factories. In the Donetsk Oblast alone, 279,000 civilians were killed over the course of the occupation. In what is now now the Luhansk Oblast, 45,649 were killed. The 1943 Donbas strategic offensive by the Red Army resulted in the return of Donbas to Soviet control, but the famine and the war had taken an enormous toll, leaving the region both destroyed and once again depopulated.

It was during the subsequent period of reconstruction that the Donbass received its most recent wave of Russian citizens after masses of Russian workers descended on the area after the War.

By 1959, the number of ethnic Russians living there was 2.55 million; just 33 years prior, it had been just 639,000. The Russification of the area accelerated after the 1958–59 Soviet educational reforms, which led to the near elimination of all Ukrainian-language schooling in the Donbas.

According to the Soviet Census of 1989, 45 percent of the population of the region reported their ethnicity as Russian.

So it is no surprise that in the 1991 referendum on Ukrainian independence, 83.9 percent of voters in Donetsk and 83.6 percent in Luhansk supported independence from the Soviet Union. In October of 1991 a congress of southeastern deputies from all levels of government took place in Donetsk, where delegates demanded federalization.

Constant unrest after 2014

The region’s economy deteriorated severely in the ensuing years, and by 1993, industrial production had collapsed, with average wages falling by 80 percent since 1990. Donbas was then in total crisis, with many accusing the new central government in Kyiv of mismanagement and neglect.

Donbas’ invaluable coal miners went on strike in 1993, causing a conflict that was described by historian Lewis Siegelbaum as “a struggle between the Donbas region and the rest of the country.” One strike leader said that Donbas people had voted for independence because they wanted “power to be given to the localities, enterprises, cities” and not because they wanted heavily centralized power moved from “Moscow to Kyiv.”

This strike was followed by a 1994 consultative referendum on various constitutional questions in Donetsk and Luhansk, held concurrently with the first parliamentary elections in independent Ukraine.

These questions included whether Russian should be declared an official language of Ukraine, whether Russian should be the language of administration in Donetsk and Luhansk, whether Ukraine should federalise, and whether Ukraine should have closer ties with the Commonwealth of Independent States, the remnants of the Soviet Union.

Almost 90% of voters voted in favor of these propositions; however, none of them were adopted: Ukraine remained a unitary state, Ukrainian was retained as the sole official language, and the Donbas gained no autonomy.

In March of 2014, following the Euromaidan and the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, large swaths of the Donbas experienced major unrest. This later grew into a war, with pro-Russian separatists affiliated with the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics,” both of which are now recognized by Russia but not by any other member of the United Nations as legitimate.

Pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions took over government buildings in 2014, proclaiming the regions as independent “people’s republics” after Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

Since 2014, more than 14,000 people have been killed in fighting in the Donbas region between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces. Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of backing the separatists both militarily and financially.

Amid the fighting, a Malaysian airliner was shot down over eastern Ukraine in 2014, killing all 298 people on board in a shocking event which catapulted the unrest onto the world stage once again. International investigators concluded the missile was supplied by Russia and fired from an area controlled by pro-Russian separatists; Russia has denied involvement in the shooting down of the airplane.

On Monday, Putin announced the independence of the regions after meeting with the Russian Security Council following a video appeal by the regions’ separatist leaders for the recognition of independence.

Each of the regions has its own self-proclaimed president, with Denis Pushilin elected in 2018 to lead the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, while Leonid Pasechnik is the leader of the Luhansk separatist region.

Russia’s recognition of the independence of the regions on Monday in effect ends the Minsk peace agreements, which were never fully implemented in any case. The agreements, which were signed in 2014 and 2015, had called for a large amount of autonomy for the two regions within Ukraine.

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