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Letters From Donbas, Part 6: 'Life Resembles Survival On A Desert Island'

Local residents in Donetsk return to homes damaged by shelling in August.
Local residents in Donetsk return to homes damaged by shelling in August.

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 rebel-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.

LNR: Only The Most Enterprising Survive

Yana Viktorova, teacher, Luhansk

They say people get used to everything. This one-year experiment has proven that the saying is true. You can get used to living without plans, medicine, and money. You can learn not to get sick, to eat extremely frugally, to enjoy every minute.

Today I saw a small fly in a ray of sunshine and I was happy. I love autumn. I love its smells. I love cold nights and warmth in the daytime. In the morning, my young son and I run out into the street, to catch the good weather.

The city lives its own life -- stockpiles of vegetables (potatoes and onions cost 10 hryvnia [46 cents] per kilogram), the last preparations and canning. We have all learned from experience that summer feeds winter and we became even more thrifty, even more frugal.

READ MORE: The Original Letter In Russian

Considering the current price of sugar, having jam on the table is a luxury. People are storing flour, candles, matches, and grains. We need more of everything, but the prices don't allow it. Survivors of the Leningrad siege made stockpiles all their lives and transmitted their neurosis to their children. I keep candles, matches, and medicine under my bed. I can't help it. Since last summer, I collect and store everything. I order medicine from anyone traveling from Ukraine. Life resembles survival on a desert island. Only the most astute and resilient will live. And the most sensible. Superfluous emotions are of no use now.

How do people earn money now? Trade! Although, excuse me, the show is run by the "army," which sustains eateries, markets, supermarkets; in short, tradespeople. If you badly need a job, the choice is not great: the "army," which enlists students in universities, and the market. But attempts by private enterprises to work here are uplifting. After undergoing re-registration and finding suppliers of raw material, several companies have started producing paving tiles and European-standard fences. Some people (see the above list) have a need for such attributes of peaceful life.

The city is also teeming with ads -- offers to drill holes, install hand pumps, or solve problems with water supplies -- and joyful notes saying "We've opened!" After last summer, the phone numbers of these specialists are passed from hand to hand.

Afterwards, I often heard: "We didn't think it would come to THIS." The key words here are: "We didn't think."

Only the most enterprising survive. Life teaches you and makes you tough. Those who pine for their former lives have been sidelined. You have to leave ruminations behind and march on. Not everyone is capable of riding the wave, but all these difficulties will create new paths and new personalities.

The bad thing is that rents have hugely depreciated. For the price of utilities you can now rent a house or a nice flat. Builders are in demand. The city lives and makes plans. Yes, this city does not need international charities. Obviously, no one is starving here. Not a single foreign aid organization was able to get "accreditation" in the "Luhansk People's Republic." There are different motives for rejection, from "unsanitary conditions in warehouses" to "discovery of banned psychotropic drugs"…

But we have gotten used to seizing the day and counting only on ourselves. This is why we will survive this year, too. It's just a shame that these extreme trainings don't hand out awards to survivors.

Notes of a Resident of the Anti-Terrorist Operation Zone

Larisa Gorina, teacher, Dimitrov


None of my friends and relatives went to the referendum. Acquaintances went. Far from all of them went, but some did. Some voted for "Russia," others for "independence," "federalization," "autonomy," "decentralization." Most didn't know what it all meant, but they went. Some of them went between other things; others purposefully. There were people who asked their friends to "cast" [ballots] for them and their acquaintances.

Children and deceased people "voted," locals and visitors, people on lists and not on any kind of list, in person and in absentia, even via the Internet. In a city of 100,000 inhabitants, they opened one polling station and rejoiced at the "huge" queues, which, incidentally, disappeared as soon as television crews left. During the vote count, the absence of "against" ballots caused particular glee, although it was as clear as day that all those who were against stayed home because they knew that this farce would make no difference. The consequences were quickly felt.

Afterwards, I often heard: "We didn't think it would come to THIS." The key words here are: "We didn't think."

A pack of stray dogs follow women walking past a a burned-out shop in Donetsk. (file photo)
A pack of stray dogs follow women walking past a a burned-out shop in Donetsk. (file photo)


War manifests itself in different ways. The most unexpected of them is dogs. For some reason, there are a great many of them now. Abandoned, devoted to their absent owners, hungry, they roam around in packs. They frighten people and are scared themselves. The worst off are those who were beloved pets in their former lives. They are the ones in whose eyes you can read the question "why?" most clearly. Somehow, dog shelters and vaccines are not on people's minds. Animal rights activists have suddenly vanished.

READ MORE: The Original Letter In Russian

As it turns out, dogs don't like war. Even if you can't hear the sound of cannonade, the barking of dogs unerringly signals shelling. Dogs have a shorter lifespan than humans and are unlikely to live to the day when people will care for them again. Although our own chances are not great, either.


I hate bags. Big, huge, heavy, with worn handles and sides. I hate these awful checkered monsters, the permanent "passengers" of the Konstantinovka trains and the "clients" of the Southern train station. Their owners don't need any passports or certificates. These cursed bags say everything about them, witnesses and accomplices in their shameful flight from their native city into nowhere. These "passports" make them easily recognizable in other cities. Thanks to these bags, they recognize each other in crowds and silently stare into each other's eyes in foreign train stations. If I ever live to see brighter days, I will solemnly burn all these checkered bags. If I live to see that day.


The basis of life. Now I know what it is. It's water. As it turns out, outhouses are wonderful; they solve about 40 percent of the water problem. As it turns out, you can cry because everyone was at work when it rained and no one collected water. As it turns out, you can scold your daughter because she washed the floors or watered the plants with clean water. You buy water and carry it home, then pour it into a big barrel or pit, then pump it out into a tank, heat it up, wash yourself, then use the same water to do the laundry, wash the floors, and water the ficus. It's not funny.


We talk a lot [on the phone], often, and with everyone. Sometimes we hear static on the line. According to rumor, it's the special services eavesdropping. But we continue talking anyway, talking about what we know, what we don't know, and what we want. We all want the same thing. We want not to have anything to talk about every day, every hour, with people close to us and with strangers, with friends and enemies who were once friends. We want there to be no news. The absence of news is the best news there can be.


The easiest and most profitable business this year is to purchase a photocopy machine. I would like to know how many photocopies the average resident of my city made this year. The figure is probably shocking.

Our poor passports are under the most duress. Their covers can no longer withstand the constant taking on and off. As usual, it's unclear why a passport needs a number if it can't provide any information. Why are there computers and Internet access in passport, tax, social, pension, migration, coordination and other offices? Maybe the employees of these offices were the first to buy photocopy machines and we now have the role of the means of production in this business?

Internally displaced people

Perhaps this term is legally correct, but per se, it's pure idiocy. Displaced people displace themselves, and most of them fled with a couple of bags, horror in their eyes, and emptiness in their souls. They fled recklessly, sometimes foolishly, and almost always late. They fled to nowhere. To be more accurate, they fled to places that were still accessible by train or by bus. In their bags, a handful of summer clothes, passports, toys, a laptop, and their last money. Only much later did they realize that this money would truly be the last.

There were also practical people who "jumped in the last wagon" back in May, quietly removing their furniture, appliances, and winter clothes, tucking their SUVs away in their relatives' garages, and renting still relatively inexpensive flats in Dnepr [Dnipropetrovsk] and Kharkiv.

Volunteers pack food parcels inside the Donbas Stadium in Donetsk. (file photo)
Volunteers pack food parcels inside the Donbas Stadium in Donetsk. (file photo)

The majority of people, however, bought tickets at any price on the last "Donbas" train and called their distant relatives and almost-friends from carriages, without realizing that nothing is more permanent than the temporary.

Don't judge and you won't be judged. But it is disappointing that Kyiv residents readily jumped at the opportunity to live on a bed of roses at the expense of "Donetsk people."

At first, there was just waiting and round-the-clock monitoring of the news. And pain, so sharp, so piercing. Valerian drops and tranquilizing drugs, vodka and rum snatched from home, tears, arguments and more tears.

By the time they were given a name, "internally displaced people," they had already spent all their savings, frozen in their summer clothes, nipped back home several times on "guerrilla" trails, and enrolled their children in school, but "not for long, until it ends." It didn't end. It got worse. Worse there, back home. It's bad here, too. Finding work is impossible. The city is foreign and makes no effort to make you feel at home; the children have neuroses and problems at school.

The pain went deep. It became a growing torment at night, in silence. Most terrifying of all, such a tiny splinter of hope remains that sometimes it seems as though it's not even there. Hope dies last. I wonder how much longer we have in this grim line before it dies.

The Occupied Part of Donbas. The Wall Between Us.

Petro Ivanov, psychologist, Luhansk

The transport blockade has been in place since January 2015.

In theory, people can leave. A thousand certificates, a million authorization documents, and you are in Kyiv, Kharkiv, or Lviv. Apparently, it's also possible to travel to the "Donetsk People's Republic" (DNR) and the "Luhansk People's Republic" (LNR) from territories controlled by Kyiv. Under the same conditions. It's even possible to go there and back.

A few days ago, I heard about a Luhansk resident who managed to visit his aunt in Stanitsa Luhanska. He was able to get there without too much trouble. He returned a week later, his wallet lighter by 500 hryvnia ($23). Yes, of course, the intricate checkpoint system is a breeding ground for corruption. People need to go places and they are ready to pay any price.

The most important thing is that food is available. How they reach the consumer is secondary (for the consumer). If it's the market, then so be it. If it's at an exorbitant price, then so be it."

We are told that people can leave if they need to (provided they are ready to pay any price, of course). But only people, not whole buses and not trucks carrying food.

I remember taking a test in school aimed at developing thinking skills. You are walking through the desert and you run into a wall that you cannot walk around or climb over. What do you do? I don't remember what I answered at the time. Now, I would answer that, after careful consideration, I would likely come to the conclusion that I don't really need to go to the place beyond this wall.

What are the characteristics of a total transport blockade? I won't go into how it promotes corruption or the career of officials responsible for its implementation. Or how the supposed level of efficiency of "the Wall" has never been revealed and it's therefore impossible to find out whether this efficiency even exists. What cannot be cured must be endured.

READ MORE: The Original Letter In Russian

Let's look only at the immediate practical consequences.

Will they achieve a Holodomor (famine) in the LNR and the DNR? No. Food supplies will simply arrive through other channels. Like humanitarian convoys from Russia. Some will say that this "humanitarian aid" ends up at the market. I will answer based on the experience of last summer: The most important thing is that food is available. How they reach the consumer is secondary (for the consumer). If it's the market, then so be it. If it's at an exorbitant price, then so be it.

Ukrainian small and medium producers, however, could suffer big losses if they are unable to sell their goods in Luhansk. But, of course, when an official is building his career, he is hardly concerned about the ruin of 100 farmers who are citizens of the country over which he frets day and night. Here's one example. In Stanitsa Luhanska , someone recently offered cucumbers for 1 hryvnya per kilogram (at the time, cucumbers cost 20 hryvnyas in Luhansk). But no one was interested because everyone already has cucumbers in Stanitsa. The vegetables rotted and the expected profit never materialized.

About the human aspect of the blockade. Personally, I don't care that traveling to Kyiv is more difficult than traveling to the United States. I don't have anything in Ukraine. I apologize for being so direct. I just want to be clear. But there are people in Luhansk whose children, for example, go to university in Kharkiv or in Kyiv. Or work in Ukraine. Or have simply been there since fleeing last summer. Children who cannot or do not want to return for various reasons. There are families in which the husband is in the "republic" while the wife and children are in areas controlled by Ukraine. There are other tragic combinations of "here and there."

These people will overcome colossal obstacles to see their children, their wives, their parents, their loved ones. They may even risk their lives.

It is assumed that "the Wall" will force residents of the LNR and the DNR to "start thinking" and realize the value of freedom of movement. More likely, these measures will further harden people instead of getting them to "start thinking." The "Donbas temperament" is not afraid of obstacles. To Donbas people, they are an incentive, a challenge, not a reason to love those who create these obstacles. This is very easy to demonstrate since many, many things happened before "the Wall"...and the effect on the collective mentality was always the same.

A day will come when Luhansk school graduates will no longer aspire to enter Ukrainian universities. It's much easier to see your son when he's studying in Rostov and it's not fraught with complications.

The divide created between Ukraine and the "republics" by the war is growing, chiefly as a result of "wise measures" such as the transport blockade. A day will come when consumers in Luhansk will switch entirely to goods made locally and in Donetsk, to products from Russia, Turkey, and China. They will no longer want to imperil their strong family ties. They will stop sending their husbands, wives, and children to Ukrainian territory for treatment or for visits. They will sacrifice expendable relationships. It will actually be the second time these relationships are tested. The first time was a year ago.

There is a point of no return in all matters. Strangely enough, this point lies where the energy required for maintaining one's affairs exceeds a critical level. If traveling from Luhansk to Kharkiv means going to the bus station and paying 100 hryvnyas ($4.60), it's one thing. If it means going to the station and paying 300 hryvnyas ($14), it's another. If it means waiting one month for authorization, undergoing hundreds of checks, and risking one's freedom and/or health and paying 1,000 hryvnyas ($47), it falls into the category of pursuits requiring too much energy. And it becomes worth considering whether traveling to Rostov, Moscow, or Munich, for example, wouldn't be easier and cheaper than to Kharkiv.

I have a friend in Luhansk, a good-natured and hard-working man. He has children who study in Kyiv. The woman he loves lives in another Ukrainian city. Despite the war, he was full of hopes and projects. The success of his children in their studies filled him with joy. He looked forward to future reunions with his girlfriend.

At any rate, he didn't think that he would see his children in five years and that his girlfriend would have to travel via Belgorod to visit him. But the problem of his personal happiness was quickly resolved. The "romantic" difficulties stemming from these long and dangerous journeys back and forth were not to his girlfriend's liking. He hasn't seen his children for almost a year and it's unclear when he will see them next.

Is it appropriate to link base material considerations to lofty ideas about the destruction of human relations? It's a question of taste. As you can see, I took the risk.

I'm even ready to suggest that people can be found today in Luhansk who love Kyiv, for instance, because it's a beautiful and cultural city. But considering the current state of affairs, who would travel to Kyiv for the sake of visiting museums or the Lavra (Monastery of the Caves)? The same reasoning can be applied to Lviv, Odesa, Poltava.

I'm told that these are strange thoughts at a time when Donetsk is being shelled 30 times a day and that the transport blockade is an inevitable consequence of war.

Perhaps. It's time to forget about the museums and cathedrals of Kyiv and Lviv, the beaches of Odesa and Mariupol, the synagogues of Uman. For those who can't live without, there are always beaches in Crimea. And synagogues can be found in Haifa, just a stone's throw from Luhansk.