Ukraine shares borders with seven countries: Russia, Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova. In each of its borderlands lives territorially concentrated minorities with ethnic kin communities across the border. However, the identity structure of the heavily industrial Donbas is unique. Its history has yielded a mixed identity defined more by its economic role in the country than by national loyalty or ethnic kinship. Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish, Belgian, Croat, Serbian, British and German investors, workers, managers and adventurers, as well as historical communities of Greeks living along the Sea of Azov, have shaped its outlook. People of diverse skills and backgrounds migrated here, blending once distinct social identities to produce a hyper-localised identity centred on the the industrial occupations of its population. Russian has dominated as a lingua franca rather than a marker of ethnicity. While most of the populace speak Russian as their mother tongue, this has not necessarily deepened their connection to Russian communities across the border. Yet the Ukrainian national identity has not been traditionally strong here either. Local identity has been strongest, over-shadowing other ethnic or national attachments.
The identity structure of the heavily industrial Donbas is unique. Its history has yielded a mixed identity defined more by its economic role in the country than by national loyalty or ethnic kinship.
This reality is more complex than the imaginary line that is often drawn between western and central Ukraine, and the Donbas. Some Ukrainians regard the eastern region as one of political apathy and clientelism, lacking in civic activism, independent agency or entrepreneurial spirit; this is contrasted with western Ukraine, where the people are seen to be more entrepreneurial and mobile. The long-standing animosity between eastern and western Ukraine can be partly attributed to historical memory and in particular the framing of the Second World War: the Western Ukrainian nationalists’ resistance to the Soviet army allegedly included siding with the Nazis and complicity in mass atrocities against Jews, Roma and others. Stereotypes had sometimes turned nasty and, for example, inter-mingling between the Russian-speaking Luhansk and the Ukrainian-speaking Lviv was always discouraged. However, such animosities rarely led to violence and the perceived divide had been decreasing, with new generations growing up in Donbas after Ukraine’s independence in 1991 embracing Ukraine as their home and speaking Ukrainian as fluently as Russian. As a result, no one had to choose between different identities.
Cross-border ties remained very important, however, with Russia providing a market for nearly 20 per cent of the coal, steel and machinery produced in the Donbas. In the two decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the nearly 2,300-kilometre-long border between Ukraine and Russia was one of the ‘softest’ in the post-Soviet space. People crossed into Russia for seasonal jobs, yet locals were not as dependent on their proximity to over-the-border labour markets compared to other borderland communities (for example, those in the Sumy region, or those closer to Polish and Hungarian labour markets to the west).
Economically and politically, the Donbas was far from peripheral. According to official Ukrainian statistics, the region accounted for 14 per cent of Ukraine’s gross domestic product in 2013, a quarter of the country’s exports, and a significant share of its tax revenue. The population had higher levels of income and to some extent higher living standards (industrial health hazards aside), when compared to other border regions. In addition to heavy industries, it was home to urban academic and engineering hubs. The region was far from thriving – the global financial crisis, the outdated equipment of the stateowned enterprises, and dependence on volatile commodity markets prevented the region from achieving better results. But political representation of the easternmost border regions at the national level was also always ensured, with the Donbas the stronghold of one of the most significant political groups in Ukraine, the Party of Regions. In this regard, the Donbas clearly does not fit the stereotype of a borderland as being a remote, economically and politically peripheral place.
Since independence, Ukraine’s leaders have consistently tried to break free from Russian dominance without necessarily cutting all ties.