This train is cold; the carriage attendant hasn’t turned on the heating and I’m therefore wearing four layers of clothes as the cold air blasts in from the heating vents. I don’t really understand what the problem is, but the lady working this carriage looks from the real Soviet Donbas mould: stroppy-stern face with an occasional cheer, a loud booming voice, short and stocky and thoroughly aggressive. She probably thinks it’s character building for us all to be freezing our butts off in this de luxe class carriage, but I for one I’m not seeing the funny side. So I am taking to a self-heating arrangement, involving a typically Ukrainian method: a bottle of vodka. We’ve run out of all internet coverage here in the middle of nowhere, and it is icy inky black as boots outside; but I’m still hobbling along in my mobile office, with my silent sullen secretary just a metre away from me opposite, plaintively playing with her mobile phone because she’s lost all reception for whatever trashy music she is listening to. I’ve also lost the sound drumming out through my earplugs of my favourite opera, Puccini’s Tosca; but I can immerse myself in an activity that does not require incessant connection to the wretched internet: the art of writing.
My experience this week of Donbas, just like the carriage attendant, in every respect reminds me of my favourite Donbas native, Nikita Khrushchev, whose aggressive anarchism led the Soviet Union through a period of turmoil after the death of Stalin in 1953. Like the land he was from, Khrushchev was a character who represented both reconciliation (between Russians and Ukrainians) and perennial chaos, because Donbas is without doubt an extremely chaotic place. Just as Khrushchev banged his shoe on the table in the United Nations General Assembly in 1960 in response to the speech of the Filipino delegate who he considered to be an American stooge, so Donbas now bangs its foot on the table and demands to be noticed amidst this chaotic war as an unusual and distinctive place, neither entirely Ukrainian nor entirely Russian, somewhere where the two nationalities are sometimes working in harmony and sometimes at odds, but in all cases eccentric, stroppy and rather primitive. Both the icy weather and the flat relentless tundra, and the miserable industrial landscape, combine to generate a distinctive regional personality somewhere between that of Russian and Ukrainian and incorporating aspects of both. This may explain why the conflict in Ukraine has focused so relentlessly on the Donbas and proves so intractable to resolve there: people remain genuinely divided in their loyalties, far more so than in other parts of Ukraine in which adherence to a philosophy of national unity has emerged from Russian aggression.
Donbas is an extremely slippery eel to capture for the outside world who knows nothing of Ukraine, and even for many Ukrainians themselves unfamiliar with the rough and ready cultural nuances of the region. With a reputation as heavy drinking, criminal louts, the people of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts do not have the best of images in Ukraine and yet they are also imagined as idealised industrial workers in the region’s coal and steel plants. With the region’s capital, Donetsk, now separated from the greater majority of Donbas through war, it is hard to conceive of a region’s identity in which Ukrainian and Russian are spoken interchangeably and one set of flags or nationalist symbols might quickly be replaced in favour of another depending on the identity of the visiting occupier. But in this flat area of land that has long been fought over, loyalties to overarching concepts of nationhood have always been flexible and tenuous. The recent influx of huge numbers of Ukrainians soldiers from all over Ukraine, since 2014, has changed the demographics of the region substantially, as has the departure of so many ethnically Russian civilians from front line regions now too inhospitable for people to live in on the whole. But it is hard to say that the ethnic frontiers of the region have been changed permanently, and it is hard to pin down any distinctive concept of national identity. We simply do not know what the people living under Russian occupation over the last decade within the Donbas region think of the conflict in Ukraine right now, and their opinions are probably prejudiced by relentless Russian television propaganda in any event. They may have little idea of what life is like on the Ukrainian side of the divide, and I think few Ukrainians know either.
When I told friends in Lviv I was heading to the Donbas, their near-universal reaction was that it is extremely dangerous; yet I found that not to be so. Not once did I take my body armour out of my jacket; not once did I feel in any way in physical danger, although I was careful and I have travelled to the region before. It is obvious now that Donbas, while immensely deprived because its industry has been denuded of productivity by civil conflict, retains a certain sort of mutually comprehended armistice in which the sides will not encroach upon one-another’s territories and ownership of the various principal Donbas metropolitan areas has been established. The battle for Bakhmut was decisively won by Russia in late 2022 or early 2023, and Ukraine has not seriously been able to reopen that Russian victory. Nor is it obvious to me that Ukrainian troops want to. They would rather persist in an environment in which high salaries are paid for their military and fur coats are available in downtown Kramatorsk for their girlfriends, while pretending to the outside world that there is a contested front line still being fought over in the region while nothing could in fact be further from the truth.
In short, what I am trying to say is that in terms of facts on the ground the future fate of the Donbas is already decided, and no level of alleged military confrontation is going to change that. The war being fought in Donbas is to a large extent a fake one, which is why we find fur coats and lingerie and luxury military stores and all the rest. This is not the real front line in the war in Ukraine, which rather lies along the banks of the River Dnipro. The war in Donbas is settled, and indeed was settled some ten years ago. What we read about it in the newspapers is rather just for show.