No one gives a shit about Donbas. If they have heard of this place at all — if they have conceptualized it not as a province, but rather a region with a particular mentality, which is to say a shared geography and history — they may say, “Oh, that backward industrial hellhole that deserves what it gets?” Many countries have regions like this. Jason Molina captured the spirit of the rust belt in the formerly industrial mid-west states, for example, while Manchester produced great rebellion in its grey and sooty landscape.
But each context is specific, shaped by both local and global forces. I didn’t know that I spent half my summers in Donbas as a child. Or rather, I didn’t know what it meant to spend my summers there. I knew, of course, that it was different from the town on the Dnipro, and that it was different from “the two capitals”, places with subway systems and large markets, with their anonymity and big ideas, big hustle and big crime. Coming to Donbas by train set a different tone: everything was tamer, dirtier, and slower. But the summers produced great crops, and now I see what the stories of “Donbas works” were all about.
At its industrial Soviet height, good quality food was indeed shipped to this region in order to keep the proletariat pacified while rural Russians would have to take trains to Moscow and its suburbs in search of calorie-rich meats and produce. I was naïve to all this historical dynamic, of course. I was there to learn to fall off bicycles and pluck apricots off trees. My cousin and I would climb the ladder going to the attic and make train noises, because that it what we knew well.
In the late 2010s, my cousin revisited the house that grandpa built and found it in the state of abandonment and disrepair. Perhaps the new owner had moved away during the violence that broke out with the declaration of the “Republic,” or likely, they died and had no one who might take care of the place. I wait for the day that the war comes for this house. Given that the Russian Federation has moved on from Luhansk, that day might be soon. I cannot locate the house on the map, because I grew up before Google changed our cognitive skills, and soon, I will not be able to locate it because the Battle of Donbas annihilates. The claims of liberating villages and cities ring of bitter irony. This is the unjust power of ideology that grips the invading force. “They declare liberty on the rubble,” one reporter said the other day, describing the Russian war playbook. How embarrassing to be so unironic. Liberation is a generative process for the living, but the Federation leaves nothing but death and destruction in its wake. It is this deadening compulsion that fascinates me, if one can even use such a term — what goals does this inhuman power construct that it requires countless inputs sent from the poorest regions of the great continent as well as endless metal to push and push inward?
Journalists and analysts report that the Ukrainian strategy at this juncture — past the initial shock but not yet at the long-term attrition rhythm — is to trade space for time. I find this an incredibly poetic and philosophical concept, even if if it sounds pretty obvious on the surface. But I do not believe that one can step into the same river twice. Sure, they can strive to mire the invading force in the muck of battle, but at what cost? The enemy axe is already cleaving mindsets of those not eliminated from the land into those who comply and those who resist. Schools are teaching new languages and histories, new symbols are being erected, and hundreds of local leaders are hidden away in torture rooms all over the occupied territory. Trading space for time operates at a cosmological level, but the arrow of time points unidirectionally for the fragile body of a living person.
And therein lies the paradox of the collective: this sense of meaning, understanding, purpose, and vision beyond any one member of the group. How does it persist, the Cossack spirit (if one believes in it) to this day? It’s hard to think in the long term when the conditions of the now are so material and so pressing: cholera killing those who survive the destruction and deportation, those who didn’t have a chance to escape, or who didn’t want to abandon Mariupol, those who hung on to life as water and electricity went out, as living was reduced to its barest priorities. The senselessness of it, the cruel fate to face yet another existential threat. How much time has to pass before enough space can be claimed, and by whom? And yet, as I am skeptical of the declared military strategy, I also realize that trading space for time requires a different imagination. It is a call for the collective Ukrainian futurity; for refusal through sheer survival, this dogged and almost pragmatic hope that has no alternative in the face of the advancing totalizing force.