The Rising Sun of Eastern Ukraine: Unknown Histories of the Region

December 12, 2023
Complex history of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts has always been shrouded in myths. So how does this complexity shape our knowledge of Eastern Ukraine?

UkraineWorld spoke with Kateryna Zarembo, the author of The Rise of Ukraine's Sun. Donetsk and Luhansk Oblast's History at the Turn of the 21st Century. Key points in our brief, #UkraineWorldAnalysis

What is the book about?

The events and activities, described in the book, take place between two Ukrainian revolutions - the Orange Revolution and the Revolution of Dignity. The communities I describe have one thing in common: they are all part of a political nation, an independent, liberal, democratic Ukraine.

The book includes descriptions of student, religious, artistic, rural, and football communities. In the case of Euromaidan, we see social mobilisation in the chapter on Ukrainian-speaking villages, we talk about the settlements that preserved Ukrainian identity despite centuries-long russification.

In the case of cultural organisations, I told the story of the Stan association and the art foundation Izoliatsia. These are not always officially registered organisations. Rather, these are informal grassroot communities. I write about civil society in Eastern Ukraine, which many people outside the region were not aware of.

Where are these communities now?

After the outbreak of the full-scale war, the fate of these communities varied greatly. Many activists relocated.

We know stories from the occupation, for example, such as those of Stanislav Aseyev and Ihor Kozlovsky, who were detained by DPR/LPR terrorist organisations and tortured for several years in Donetsk. Some relocated to Kyiv, while others moved to Ukrainian government-controlled areas of Luhansk and Donetsk.

What are some of the stories about?

When I write about Protestant communities, I am referring to an umbrella association of denominations that not only converted people to God but also contained a human rights element in their work. For example, they helped orphans, people in difficult life-threatening circumstances, and people suffering from addictions.

One example is the story of Hennadiy Mokhnenko from Mariupol, who was not only involved in spreading Christianity but also ran an orphanage and is the father of more than 30 foster children. After Russia's full-scale invasion he joined the Mariupol's resistance movement.

Among the stories, it is important to tell the story of a star who has faded but continues to shine - Yuriy Matushchak. He founded the organisation Push (Poshtovkh) in Donetsk, which operated on the basis of Donetsk University and promoted the Ukrainian language, history, and traditions, organised carol festivals, commemorations of the Holodomor victims, and many more. Yuriy Matushchak joined the Dnipro-1 volunteer battalion after Russia started its unproclaimed war in 2014. Unfortunately, he was killed in action in August 2014 in Ilovaisk.

Said Ismailov, the Mullah of Muslims of Ukraine, who was the mullah of Donetsk before the Russian war started and later moved to Kyiv is another character with a specific history. Representing Ukrainian Muslims, he also espoused an overtly Ukrainian position in Donetsk.

In 2022, he joined the Hospitallers and recently announced that he has been serving in the Armed Forces. And all these stories add up to a mosaic of the importance of diversity in shaping our history and defending our country.

The final story is about the Izolyatsia Foundation, which illustrates what was happening in the east of Ukraine. Initially, Izolyatsia was an insulation materials factory. The idea of gentrifying (transforming) an old industrial space that no longer works into a creative cultural space was first implemented by Lyubov Mykhailova in Donetsk back in 2009.

They were the first to hold a festival of Ukrainian literature in Donetsk, which attracted artists from all over Ukraine. This was when the administrative buildings in Donetsk had already been seized, in April 2014. In June 2014, this space was occupied by the Russians.

Does 'Donbas' actually exist? 

Donbas is an abbreviation for the Donetsk coal basin, which was vital to the Soviet government. However, unlike other abbreviations, it has taken root and entered the Ukrainian language. For example, the Donbas Media Forum was recently held.

The Donetsk coal basin does not coincide with the administrative borders of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts. That is why this term is more misleading than it is helpful.

If we were to ask people from Starobilsk what it's like to live in Donbas, they would tell us that they are not in Donbas, and the same would be said in Mariupol.

In eastern Ukraine, people know the borders of Donbas very well. The Rise of Ukraine's Sun is an attempt to write a book full of light about a region full of light. The cover of the book features a mosaic by Alla Horska to show the colours of the region. In the meantime, another piece was published with a similar aim. And that is the photo book "Donetsk Region: Around Beauty" by Dmytro Balkhovitin, a soldier of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Excerpt from Dmytro Balkhovitin's book

Currently, we can assume that a new myth about the Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts is being forged - that of an outpost holding back the invasion.

Daria Synhaievska
Journalist and Analyst at UkraineWorld