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How Donetsk and Luhansk regions fought for Ukrainian independence

How Donetsk and Luhansk regions fought for Ukrainian independence

Donetsk and Luhansk regions have long been the subjects of Russian propaganda. Using different methods of disinformation and repressive policies Russia has repeatedly tried to lay claim to the regions on pseudohistoric and factually unfounded grounds. 

Despite centuries of fierce pressure, Russia has not succeeded in destroying the Ukrainian identity in these regions. Donetsk and Luhansk regions are the birthplace of many famous Ukrainian poets and writers, human rights defenders and fighters for the independence of Ukraine. For a lot of  years this part of Ukraine forming and brought up real patriots of the country whose also become a part of the resistance movement in the past in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. We collected facts that illustrate and explain who and how formed the Ukrainian identity in this region. 

First Ukrainian flag in the Donetsk region

Owing to their close proximity to the Russian-Ukrainian border, the Donetsk and Luhansk regions have spent a long time across different historical periods within the Russian sphere of influence. Despite Russia’s purposeful attempts to erode any sense of a Ukrainian identity there, Ukrainian resistance in Donbas continued.

In 1917-1921, a revolution took place in Ukraine. As the national movement gained momentum across the country, Ukrainian political parties and public institutions rose to the surface and culture was revived. Donetsk and Luhansk regions were no exception.

In 1917, the first Ukrainian flag was raised in the Donetsk region. Symbolically, this happened in the city of Bakhmut. Later in November 1917, a Ukrainian holiday was held in Bakhmut on the occasion of the formation of the Ukrainian military regiment. The number of this military unit was 800 Cossacks and officers.

“At that time, a powerful national-cultural movement developed in the district. The Ukrainian Club, an organisation of Ukrainian secondary school students, was established in the city [of Bakhmut],” says Ihor Kornatskii, department head of the Bakhmut Museum of Local History.

Ukrainian nationalists in the East of Ukraine

The activity of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (social and political movement) — OUN — is one of the most widespread topics for Russian propaganda and misinformation. For years, Russia spread false information about the organization both inside Ukraine and abroad. For example, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists was popular and was supported only by Ukrainians from The West of Ukraine.

But, in reality, the organization also operated in Donetsk and Luhansk region during the Second World War and enjoyed great support there. According to the senior researcher of the National Museum of the History of Ukraine, Alina Ponypaliak, in the Donetsk region, 18 districts out of 28 districts were absolutely loyal to the members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists.

The head of the OUN in Donbas was Yevhen Stakhiv. “I am very grateful to the residents of Donbas. For two years they hid and fed us, risking our lives,” he recalled the events later.

Protests against the Soviet Union

The widespread occurrence of anti-Soviet protests in Donbas is frequently conveniently avoided by Russian propaganda. 

A notable protest of such nature was the protest of workers in Khrestivka, Donetsk region, in 1957. According to historian Ihor Karetnykov, 300 people were arrested at the rally which was subsequently quashed by a Soviet military unit. 

The Communist Party dismissed the protest as hooliganism, forgetting to mention that the rally was of anti-Soviet nature. 

Homeland of the Ukrainian dissident movement

The activity of the Ukrainian dissident movement has a special place in the history of Ukraine. One of its most prominent figures is Mykola Rudenko, a Soviet dissident, human rights activist and one of the founders of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group.

Rudenko was born in the village of Yuryivka, Luhansk region. He was arrested for the first time in April 1975, but was later amnestied as a participant of  World War II. In 1976, he was forcibly subjected to a psychiatric examination.

Rudenko was arrested again in February 1977.  He was sentenced to 7 years of forced labour camps and 5 years of exile after 39 American dollars [that had been planted] were found in a house search. 

Among the many fighters for the national and cultural revival of Ukraine in the 20th century ranks the figure of Oleksa Tykhyi – human rights activist, dissident and co-founder of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group.

He was born in the village Yizhivka in the Donetsk region. Tykhyi worked as a village teacher, having chosen the profession in order to teach the Ukrainian language to children. 

Born in the Donetsk region, Tykhyi was acutely aware of the region’s subjectification to Russification policies. In his articles, Tykhyi discussed the need for the restoration of Ukrainian culture and the return of the Ukrainian language to universities and schools in the Donbas.

“I want my Donbas compatriots to provide not only coal, steel, rolling stock, cars, wheat, milk and eggs. In order for my Donetsk region to produce not only football fans, fatherless scientists, Russian-speaking engineers, agronomists, doctors, teachers, but also Ukrainian specialists-patriots, Ukrainian writers, Ukrainian composers and actors,” wrote Tykhyi.

For his staunchly pro-Ukrainian position, Tykhyi was persecuted by the Soviet authorities and eventually convicted for so-called anti-Soviet activities. He died at the age of 57 in a prison hospital.

Ukrainian literary pride of Donetsk and Luhansk regions

Donetsk is the homeland of one of the most prominent and beloved Ukrainian writers – Vasyl Stus

Having been born in the Vinnytsia region in 1938, Stus spent most of his life living in Donetsk. 

Stus was a significant figure in the Ukrainian cultural movement of the 1960s and a member of a unique generation of Ukrainian writers dubbed as the Sixtiers. 

The poet was repressed by the Soviet authorities for his belief in the necessity of conserving and promoting Ukrainian culture. As a result, his work was outlawed, and he himself was sentenced to a long stay in jail, where he died.

Donbas is also the homeland of one of the leaders and ideologues of the national-democratic movement, literary critic and poet Ivan Svitlychnyi.

Svitlychnyi was born in the village of Polovynkyne, Luhansk region, in 1929. He was one of the most active figures in the Ukrainian resistance movement of the 1960s-1970s. 

Svitlychnyi was fired from his job for his human rights activities and for making speeches against the Russification policies. 

After being repressed and imprisoned by the Soviet regime, he participated in protest actions and held hunger strikes. Svitlychnyi wrote poetry during imprisonment, some of which appeared in the West.

Voice for Ukraine’s independence 

Just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Donbas experienced widespread miners’ strikes. They demanded better working conditions, higher wages, lower retirement age and reduction of the management apparatus of mine companies — a total of 48 points in the list of demands. Strike committees later grew into independent trade unions in Ukraine.

From 1989 to the end of the 1990s, Donbas miners went on strike almost every year. On Mar. 1, 1991, a massive miners’ strike began in Donbas. Unlike the first strikes, where social demands prevailed, this one featured political demands as well, namely: the resignation of the USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev, the dissolution of the Congress of the USSR People’s Deputies and the constitutional enshrinement of the Declaration on State Sovereignty of Ukraine.

Miners of Lviv and Volyn regions supported the protest action. Leaders of the People’s Movement of Ukraine also came to Donbas and organized joint rallies. Even though strikes related to work and the coal industry were almost a regular phenomenon in the following years, Donbas, in particular, pioneered the idea of separation from Soviet rule and joined the nationwide growing calls for independence.

Fight for Ukraine’s independence continues

Despite facing a threat to their lives, residents tried to resist the occupation of Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014 and continued their resistance after the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022. Peaceful protests and resistance activities continue in the temporarily Russian-occupied cities. One such example is the Ukrainian letter Ї, which has become a symbol of resistance after beginning to appear on buildings and street signs in occupied Mariupol in September 2022. 

While this piece is a broad overview of the history of Donbas, it demonstrates that the region has always been an inalienable part of the development of the Ukrainian nation-state. From being the homeland of some of Ukraine’s greatest intellectuals and dissidents to uniting with other Ukrainian regions in a collective call for Ukrainian independence, Donetsk and Luhansk regions always were and always will be Ukraine. 

Prepared by: Diana Matviiv, Inga Vyshnevska

Edited by: Kvitka Perehinets

Designed by: Vladyslav Rybalko

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