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Letters From Donbas, Part 7: 'How Long Can You Postpone Your Life?'


Ruins of the Luhansk airport

Ruins of the Luhansk airport

More than 1 million people have fled eastern Ukraine since war erupted in April 2014. Some have since returned. Others never left. From teachers to pensioners to families with children, residents of separatist-held towns are struggling to get on with their lives amid the chaos and uncertainty.

RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service continues to publish their testimonies. The names of the authors of the letters have been changed to protect them.

Postponing Life Till Later In Luhansk

Yana Viktorova, teacher, Luhansk

"What would we have talked about three years ago? We would have said that summer vacations start in three months and that this means there are three months to go until we head to Crimea for holiday," one of my colleagues remarked pertinently today. "In April, we would have said that there are only two months left. This was our main concern -- waiting for the holidays to begin."

In May, we have almost two weeks off. Now the traditional May holidays end untraditionally with "Republic Day." We will have a two-week holiday with just a brief stint at work. We can plant potatoes and even manage to harvest them.

Today, I asked my pupils about their plans for the May holidays. It turns out that no one is going anywhere. Leaving is expensive and unrealistic, going to the river is dangerous, the forests are full of mines, and there's no running water at dachas within the boundaries of the "republic"... So people are staying in the city, between the same four walls, and for many it's an apartment, not even a house.

Youngsters speak about this sadly. In recent years, there have been no prospects of holidays at the sea, trips abroad, or closer visits to granny. Of course, if you consider problems such as unemployment or soaring prices, holidays are not really a big issue. On the other hand, how long can you postpone your life? One year? Two years?

Postponing means not leaving, not traveling, not writing letters, not sending or receiving parcels, not welcoming guests. "No, really, it's better if you visit us," our friends now joke.

This is true, of course. It's better not to come here unless you really have to. And this is definitely not a good place to spend holidays. But what about family feelings? What about all these friends and memories from Luhansk? What about our lively and cozy train station whose innovative glass-and-concrete design won several nationwide competitions?

Our entire life seems frozen...like meat in the freezer. It looks preserved, but it's not what it used to be. You can pretend that things are great, that nothing is happening. You can dress up and smile. You only live once, after all! You can dwell on what has been lost and fall into depression.

There are people who make the most of everything, who are able to seize the day like those butterflies that only live for one day. These people are doing fine. They go to cafes, they accept invitations. Life with them is easy! They don't make a fuss because that's just how they are.

I asked the kids today if they ever went to the movies. They don't. Movies theaters here don't show any new films, only films downloaded from the Internet. And youngsters don't see any point in paying to watch films that they can watch at home.

As for traveling, this is a ghastly business. We have travel agencies that can purchase tickets in both Russia and Ukraine. Anything you want! But just imagine the journey even to the point of departure, whether it’s the airport in Rostov or Kyiv. How early must you leave to make it to the resort? No driver can tell you exactly when you will reach your destination in Russia or Ukraine due to waiting time. How do you make sure you catch your flight? And how badly must you want to go on holiday to gracefully wait for hours at the borders?

This only covers to question of "how." There is another question: With what money? In the "republic," the "official currency" is the Russian ruble. If you want to vacation in an area controlled by Ukraine, you need to buy hryvnyas. Our local salaries and pensions, which are officially paid at the exchange rate of 1 hryvnya = 2 Russian rubles, rule out holidays in Russia. We can only afford to spend our holidays in the "republic." Those who have a car and are brave enough can do so at local rates.

So we can write letters to ourselves, and spend our holidays here.

My friend moved to Russia. She hopes to build a life there. I asked her what persuaded her to leave her flat in Luhansk and undertake such drastic changes. "Life will probably be good here one day, but no sooner than in 15 to 20 years," she answered. "And this is my life, a big chunk of my life. I'm not ready to wait that long and put up with that much."

Those who stay here feel like never before that life has been postponed till some other time. Someday we will see our relatives, someday we will go on holiday, someday we will gather everyone around a big table, someday we will build what we were planning to build before the war. Someday.

But will we live long enough too see this "someday?"

Will A Mobile Operator Called Phoenix Take Flight?

Miroslav Tolkoviy, pensioner, Torez

In early March, directors of companies and institutions in the so-called "Donetsk People's Republic" (DNR) received orders to make sure their employees and subordinates purchase starter kits worth 120 Russian rubles ($1.70) and monthly 50-ruble ($0.72) payments for unlimited packages from Feniks (Phoenix), the new mobile operator.

The news instantly spread across the city and sparked outrage among residents. Most people in Torez use the mobile operator MTS because they have relatives outside the occupied territories. Not all are thrilled by the prospect of having to spend their already small salaries and pensions to bolster the image of yet another PR project of the "terrorists in power" and create a pretense of commercial success.

Torez residents had previously used the three main mobile operators: MTS, Kyivstar, and Life. After Donbas was occupied, the separatists, with the help of weapons, "nationalized" Kyivstar's equipment and its network of stations and towers, obviously because the operator's name contained a word they hate: Kyiv. Those who had used this operator switched to MTS, which helped many people find each other amid the hell of hostilities in summer 2014.

Feniks, established on the basis of stolen equipment, limits communication to residents of territories controlled by the "DNR." It only allows users to connect to the Lugakom network, in occupied territories of the Luhansk region. In the future, users may be able to call Russia for 5 rubles ($0.07) per minute. The rate for calls to landlines in the "DNR,” 2.5 rubles ($0.03) per minute, is surprising. Feniks’s tariff plan was named "National," and its ads on the Internet promote it as "Communication for the Victory." But what victory, where, and whose?

The arguments invoked to force Feniks onto people are odd. People are told that Ukrainian authorities are planning to shut off MTS and Life and impose an information blockade in occupied territories. People are made to believe that the Ukrainian Security Service will no longer be able to eavesdrop on their conversations and that they will be free to share their innermost thoughts among themselves with the knowledge they are not being recorded. The third and most convincing argument is the threat of being fired from work because employees who don't subscribe to the "republican operator Feniks" violate the safety and the secrecy of their company.

People were given one month to think about it. Feniks currently has 45,000 subscribers. The network was tested and ready to operate in late February. This is why people were pressured to buy these starter kits and pay their fees for March.

Another scam has been running for the second year now: Residents of occupied territories are forced to watch Russian propaganda. Ukrainian television and radio channels were blocked. Digital television was deactivated, although many of the previously available channels have nothing to do with politics.

The so-called "republican channels" show Russian content: films, serials, various shows. Is someone paying for this? Is this also part of the humanitarian aid delivered by the aggressor to its victims, just like the humanitarian convoys whose arrival are followed by renewed shelling in occupied territories?

The aggressor's broadcasting also feeds propaganda. Boastful marches, distorted coverage of world events, chauvinistic world views: All this arouses feelings of opposition among many people.

How do people escape the pressure of propaganda? Some buy new Viasat receivers in areas controlled by Kyiv and pick up Ukrainian channels. Sometimes, they have to manually enter the channels' frequency data. How fortunate that the "DNR" doesn't have its own missiles and that they can't launch satellites, that Torez residents still have a chance to watch Ukrainian television! Satellite dishes look strange on houses demolished by the war, but they give hope for a return to normal, peaceful life.

Some people watch Ukrainian channels online. This way, here in the occupied territories, we watch programs like Fakty, TSN, and Okna.

Schoolchildren were recently handed the "DNR" anthem and instructed to learn it within a week. Totalitarian pressure in schools is gaining momentum with the arrival of spring.

Miners in Krasnodon

Miners in Krasnodon

Payday In The Krasnodon

Nadezhda Fyodorova, student, Krasnodon district

It's a small mining town with towering slagheaps and tired people. Almost nothing has changed here since the war began. Ordinary residents wanted a better life, but in the end, they got something very different from what they had hoped for. People's tastes, their thoughts and lifestyle, have remained the same. The only things that have changed are the prices, the salaries, and the quality of life.

The mines, which people could always turn to for work and at least some sort of income, are now closing one after the other. Most mines are out of operation and the ones that still function are massively laying off workers. People find themselves with no work, no money, and no confidence in the future. Now, the average salary in small towns is about 1,500 to 2,000 rubles per month. At the local exchange rate, this comes to 530 to 700 hryvnyas ($20-26).

Salaries in the Krasnodar region are paltry. Local residents always wait excitedly for their salaries, but this excitement rapidly vanishes. What local employers pay their staff is barely enough to last them until the middle of the month. By that time, all people can do is save on food and pray that their next salary is paid on time.

Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone With The Wind, in which small-scale merchants, opportunists, and speculators stream into town following defeat in the Civil War, springs to mind. Even local residents could become speculators. Here, too, representatives of the trade sector became heroes overnight. But in our case, this didn't bring them any popularity among the local population.

Vendors change prices every day as they please. People's fates now depend on them. Speculators, in their endless pursuit of profit, continuously push up prices. They hoard goods in the hope of selling them later for even higher sums.

The prices make saving money difficult. This partly answers the question of what salaries are spent on. First: food. Second: utilities. Third: debts. Roughly every third citizen has debts.

So, we go to the market to buy food for the month. What do we see? The variety of products leaves much to be desired. Instead of Ukrainian lard, Russian "delicacies" are on display, from sausages to pork meat. In terms of quality they lag behind Ukrainian -- now foreign -- products, but they are not as low as "Luhansk People's Republic" level.

"Republican" food products deserve special attention. You can find locally made sunflower seeds and alcohol in many shops. But vendors are in no hurry to remove the Ukrainian stickers, first because it's expensive and second because they believe that local residents, unaware of the ploy, will go precisely for these products.

Prices in shops are much higher than in areas controlled by Ukraine. After a substantial shopping trip at the market, you will find that the bulk of your salary is gone. Let's say you spent 500 to 1,000 rubles, or 177 to 354 hryvnyas ($7 to $13). The rest of your salary will not even cover utilities, let alone other expenses. Consider yourself lucky if you still have money from your previous salary or if your relatives also work and are able to help. Utilities will set you back another 1,400 rubles or 495 hryvnyas ($19), and that's without the Internet, which will cost you an extra 1,700 rubles or 601 hryvnyas ($22). With your average salary, now you can't pay Internet access. The only way out of this situation is to have helpful relatives or a partner who also works and contributes to the family budget.

You can also save a little money by stocking up on products in Russia. Prices there are not lower, but if you know where to go you can stay afloat, or at least not go into the red. For example, there is a chain of stores in Russia called Fix Price where you can buy nonperishable and basic goods at the fixed price of 50 rubles or 18 hryvnyas ($0.72): tea, coffee, peas, corn, cosmetics, etc. There are even special deals when you get one item free for the purchase of two or three items. An average shopping trip there costs about 500 to 600 rubles or 189 to 226 hryvnias ($19 to $23).

What if you have already run out of money? Well, you will have to do without tea and cosmetic sessions, even ones at home.

But the saving strategy detailed above presents inconveniences: endless queues at the border and transportation problems. Traveling from the border is fine in summer, when you can stand outside and wait for the minibus. In winter, however, you will be seriously cold. And people are ready to freeze, because this is their only solution.

How do you survive from one month to another? you will ask. One way is to borrow money from your neighbors, from your relatives, or from other trusting persons. The question of when you will give the money back is a purely rhetorical one.

Why don't people leave in search of a better life? People's attitudes and plans for the future don't differ much from each other. Here are the standpoints of several residents of the Krasnodon district:

"I have a house here, a car, and a motorbike, I can't leave all this behind," says Oleh, who is unemployed. "If I could take all of it with me, then perhaps I would leave. But I've never been far from home and I'm afraid of leaving. Over there, I have no relatives and no loved ones; no one will help me. Concerning my plans for the future, I will wait. Of course, I would like to find work and settle down comfortably. I would also like the war to end so that people can travel freely. I want to get through these difficult times."

"I don't have the possibility of going anywhere, even to Ukraine," says Svitlana, who works as a cleaner and a guard. "There is no work there and no money. Abandon everything that I've worked for over the past 25 years, hand it all over, and leave? If only I had any savings. I won't be able to sell; either people would be afraid of buying a flat in a war zone or I would have to sell my flat for a song. I have no idea what I will do. We hope that our rulers will take a wise decision and that peace will come. I would like war to end and a better life to start."

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