A year ago, the people of the town of Slavyansk, Ukraine, suddenly found themselves in the middle of a political farce – one that has now killed several thousand people.
Until April 12, 2014, Slavyansk was not a place many Ukrainians, let alone Europeans, had heard of. After all, there was little to distinguish it from many of the country’s other regional centres. Slavyansk featured a Soviet modernist cinema and several rundown factories, a number of gold-domed Orthodox churches and an austere statue of Lenin.
But then the mayor disappeared, and a few guys with guns stormed the town hall, and snipers clambered atop some of the apartment blocks. Europe’s eyes turned towards it. Television war correspondents and propagandists alike camped out on the central square.
What happened next in the eastern Ukrainian spa resort – population 120,000 – is still a matter of conjecture and rumour. But it is certain that the events in Slavyansk pushed Ukraine from political unrest into outright war.
Later, on May 2, soldiers say, Ukrainian troops and an armed crowd shot at each other on a bridge near town. The army then besieged Slavyansk, firing shells from a nearby hill before eventually entering the city on July 1 as its defenders fled.
These were the first battles of a larger war. There would soon be much worse violence, in the regional capital of Donetsk and nearby, where flight MH17 was shot down.
A year after those events began, The Saturday Paper visited Slavyansk to reconstruct how eastern Ukraine’s war began. We interviewed people from every strata of the town’s population, from its lumpenproletariat underclass to its political leaders.
Our research suggests that eastern Ukraine’s conflict started when the region’s erstwhile political leaders lost control over its criminal underworld, the enforcers who had once helped keep them in power. Those fighters then received significant popular backing.
Soviet propaganda once cast the Donbass region, a coal district in Ukraine’s south-east, as the “heart” of the USSR. Here was the home of Alexey Stakhanov, Stalin’s manic mining hero, who once apparently dug up more than a hundred tonnes of coal in a single shift.
Then, after the end of the Soviet Union, former party managers assumed control over the now privatised mines, and used them to accumulate a fortune. Many of these men had links to the criminals who had emerged from the region’s many gulags in the final decades of the USSR. The Donbass went into economic decline. Unemployment, alcoholism and drug abuse became ever more common.
Until Ukraine’s “Maidan revolution”, in early 2014, the area was dominated by a local hero, former president Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions.
“They voted for him based on the principle of ‘he’s our guy’, and out of habit,” says an opposition deputy from one of the cities in the Donetsk region who has now become a guerilla fighter, and who declined to give his name for fear of reprisals against his family. “People [here] are passive and await the decisions of their rulers.”
In the lead-up to April 12 last year, there had been several pro-Russian demonstrations in Slavyansk, directed against the new pro-Western powers that had replaced Yanukovych in Kiev after the Maidan revolution. Many locals were worried by the idea that fascists from the country’s west would soon enter the town, a notion that received a lot of airtime in Russian media.
The role of the then mayor, Nelya Shtepa, in these events is disputed. Locals accuse her of bringing in a group of thugs from nearby Kramatorsk, “the Old City”, prior to the main occupation in April. Shtepa is now in jail and facing sedition charges, but her lawyer says she had merely increased the number of traffic officers on duty in Slavyansk, a group “which may have included some volunteers”.
Witnesses say another group of fighters gathered in the town before the occupation began. The men had arrived several weeks earlier, training at Villa Maria, a disused Art Deco property that councillors allege was leased to a Russian Orthodox church by the city. Locals say the church’s priest personally organised the delivery of weapons to the villa.
“I saw Father Vitaly reverse out of the [villa’s] driveway and pull up in front of my window. He had a truck full of empty coffins,” says local history museum director Lilya Zaider, whose building adjoins Villa Maria. “I couldn’t say exactly what was happening there.”
According to councillor Denis Bigunov, museum staff told him they saw Vitaly unloading weapons from the coffins earlier. The priest has since left town and attempts to contact his church over Orthodox Easter were unsuccessful.
On Saturday, April 12, a group of 30 to 40 gunmen drove into the town centre and broke into the police station and town hall. The men wore balaclavas and the numberplates on the trucks they drove were concealed. But locals identified a group of Cossacks from a local military order among them, as well as some of the Kramatorsk heavies.
“I was taken aback when I passed by the square on my way to work,” says supermarket owner Juriy, who was anxious about giving his last name. “There were so many Russian TV trucks there, and people were bringing those on the barricades food and tea.”
It was a chaotic scene: several hundred people, including many pensioners and people from the city’s underclass, had gathered with Soviet or Russian flags to celebrate what they believed to be an impending Russian takeover. Others were opposed to the occupations but were chastened into silence by the presence of the gunmen.
In the weeks that followed, locals awaited an assault by the Ukrainian army, sent to take back the town from the pro-Russian gunmen. But it didn’t come. And the various militia factions handed out more and more weapons. Many were sourced from the police department and the secret police building, which had also been seized in early April. Others apparently were sent from Donetsk, or further afield.
Meanwhile, the gunmen were losing popularity among the town’s down at heel, who had initially supported the takeover.
“At first, people were enthusiastic – something was happening!” says Vova, a methadone clinic patient. “But then they banned alcohol. That wasn’t popular. A lot of people drink here.”
The factions – which included the first self-proclaimed mayor of Slavyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, and the self-anointed defence minister of the “Donetsk People’s Republic”, Igor Strelkov Girkin, identified by the EU as a Russian agent – attempted to press Slavyansk’s alcoholics and drug addicts into service, Vova says. Friends of his were held in custody and then offered a weapon and a place in the militias. They declined out of fear. But others accepted.
At the same time, the militias had to pay the salaries of this growing roster of fighters, most of whom were stationed on checkpoints on the outskirts of town. They did so through extortion.
“The checkpoints were a racket,” says school teacher Maryna, another who withheld her last name due to previous threats. “They would demand money from businessmen and it would go into the pockets of the mafia leaders like Ponomarev and Girkin and pay their guerillas.” Both former militia leaders have now left Ukraine for Russia.
In May, the leaders and associates organised a referendum, to lend their demands for local autonomy some legitimacy. At the time, the election board claimed a turnout of 85 per cent in the town, according to Russian media reports. But locals doubt those claims, reporting little planning and widespread falsification.
“Three days before, a woman rang me and said she was from the election committee and that they would be using the school,” says Anatoly Pogorelov, the principal at Slavyansk’s School 13. “Then on the day, armed men occupied it. Voting was over and they left by 1pm.”
At that time, mayor Shtepa no longer had an ambiguous attitude to the militias. By then, she was being held hostage along with a journalist in the town hall, according to her former stepdaughter Alona Orgakova. Orgakova says she was permitted to visit Shtepa every day, until she fled town shortly before the Ukrainian army entered Slavyansk in early July.
“When I first saw her [Shtepa], she was lying on a massage table, covered with a blanket,” Orgakova says. “She didn’t move at all. I was so terrified. I shook her. She was so scared, she couldn’t say anything.”
Shtepa was far from alone. During the several months they ran the town, the militias also held captive international observers from the Organisation for Co-operation and Security in Europe, along with local businessmen, Kiev playwright Pavel Yurov and American journalist Simon Ostrovsky.
But then they suddenly fled south, to Donetsk, on July 1, and the Ukrainian army finally entered the town. Former soldier Miroslav Gai, who had once fired munitions at the separatists in the city from the hill above town, volunteered to bring food that day. He distributed it on Slavyansk’s main square, in front of the huge statue of Lenin.
In this way, Gai tried to combat citizens’ fears of what the restoration of the Ukrainian government to Slavyansk would represent.
“They really saw this as ‘our revolution’,” he says. “And many still do hope that the separatists will return, despite everything. But that’s why I brought food. I hope that sausages will one day beat propaganda.”
Slavyansk was not liberated that day; residents were more relieved than elated. But after the electricity was restored and the government started paying benefits again, that relief grew. Here, where the war began, social stability – or even security – has always counted for more than politics.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 16, 2015 as "A nation torn". Subscribe here.