Donbass: a forgotten European heritage

For the inhabitants of the mining settlements who stood on barricades in 2014, Donbas is a Soviet region, a Russian territory that needs to be saved from the hated ‘Gayropa’. Meanwhile, just over a century ago, the Donbas was in fact a European colony within the Russian Empire.

History often seems to make a mockery of people. It is impossible to predict where Providence could bring one country or another. The world situation can change so much in a short period of time that later, looking back, it is very difficult to believe that we once lived in a completely different reality, with different traditions and habits. So unbelievable, too, it seems, that within decades the precepts accepted in society have changed to the opposite. Some peoples live in peace and quiet for many centuries. Others seem to be participating in some crazy experiment, constantly infecting themselves with the most unbelievable ideas.

The east of Ukraine is just such a territory of paradoxes.

The most industrialised, innovative region of the last century turned from “Russian America”, as Mendeleev called it, into the most reactionary, anti-Western region, living in the past.

How did this happen? Who made such a joke of us?

The war that has been going on in the Donbass for the past eight years is in fact a war against, (to use Gorbachev’s term), the return to the European home that Kiev took the direction of after Yanukovych fled the country.

The Europeans, according to Russian propaganda, are the worst enemies of the people of the Donbass, and Europe itself is an evil twain to be kept away from. This is easy to see if you simply talk to supporters of the DRL and LRL and look at their 2014 banners.

The ideology of separatism in Donbass expresses radical anti-Western rhetoric. Looking at the history of the Donbass, what is happening seems absurd, because the modern east of Ukraine has never been a backward periphery in its history. On the contrary, the Donbas, like other regions of Ukraine, is historically closely linked to Europe. It would seem that here, pro-European, pro-Western sentiments should definitely prevail. Yet, the reality is radically different from our perceptions.

It would be more understandable if such fanatical anti-European demonstrations took place somewhere in the ‘core’ regions of Russia, in the Valdai or in some Old Believer villages in Siberia. But when such sentiments extend to people in a region that was actually founded and built by immigrants from Western Europe, it is a real mockery of history. Unfortunately, the inhabitants of the mining settlements who stood on barricades made of tyres with rebar in 2014 are unable to understand the scale of this giggle of history due to their limited historical knowledge. For them, the Donbas is a Soviet region, a Russian territory that needs to be saved from the hated ‘Gayropa’.

Meanwhile, just over a century ago, the Donbas was in fact a European colony within the Russian Empire.

Almost all the local industry was in the hands of European capitalists, and modern cities were built around European businesses. It was people from Britain, Germany, Belgium, France who created modern Donbass industry and laid the foundations for the Donbass we know now.

But our memory is too short. Years of Sovietisation literally uprooted all ‘foreigners’ from here. Europeanness from the Donbas was long and conscientiously removed, obscuring the old topography, exterminating people of European origin who settled here during the region’s development.

Meanwhile, the Donbas is historically much more closely linked to Western Europe than, for example, Poltava or Kharkiv. Almost all major cities were founded here with the direct participation of immigrants from European countries, which was often reflected in their historical names.

Juzovka – Stalino – Donetsk

Prior to the establishment of Donetsk, the hamlets of Oleksandrivka, Hryhorivka, Semenivka and khutir Ovechii [1] already existed within the city. They were founded in the 17th century by Zaporozhian Cossacks. The inhabitants of the slobida [2], on a par with agriculture, were engaged in digging coal or, as it was called at the time, “burning stone” for local needs.

Peter I, returning in 1696 from the Azov campaign, heard about the burning stone. He then uttered the prophetic words: “This mineral, if not to us, will be of great use to our descendants”.

In the upper reaches of the Kalmius River, where the town is now located, there were large deposits of coal. In the early 19th century, small mines appeared here. And in 1841 the first large mine “Oleksandrivska” was put into operation.

The city of Donetsk appeared in the summer of 1869, when the construction of a metallurgical plant began here. The New Russian Society was established to carry out this work. The founders appointed John Hughes, a British mining engineer (1814 – 1889), as manager.

In the summer of 1869, Hughes settled on the banks of the Kalmius and built a forge. It turned out to be the smelter’s first auxiliary shop. And in the summer of 1870, equipment and tools were shipped from Britain to Ukraine on 8 cargo ships. More than 100 specialists – metallurgists and miners, mainly from Wales – also arrived. Their route was through the Mediterranean, Black and Azov Seas to the port of Taganrog. The equipment was then pulled by oxen hundreds of kilometres through the steppe.

A workers’ settlement – dugouts, barracks, sandstone huts – was built next to the site for the plant. It merged with the mining settlement of the Oleksandrivska mine and was named Yuzovka after the construction manager.

The first mine in Yuzovka.

A so-called ‘English colony’ was built separately, where engineers and craftsmen settled. Hughes began to melt metal in 1870 and did not achieve good results until 1872 [4]. The plant did not become profitable until 10 years into operation.

In 1899, during the industrial boom, there were 17 metallurgical enterprises in the south of the Russian Empire. Of these, the largest was the Hughes plant, called the ‘New Russia Coal Mining and Iron and Railway Production Company’.

In May 1917, the settlement had a population of about 70,000 and gained a city status. Juzovka was divided into 2 parts: Southern (Factory) and Northern. The southern part contained factory buildings, a depot, a telegraph, a small hospital and a school. A little further on was the so-called ‘English colony’. Here lived administrators and engineers, craftsmen and employees of the Novorossiysk Society, in well-equipped cottages drowning in greenery and flowers.

The streets here had pavements and cobblestones, electricity and water supply. The northern part of Yuzovka (the site of the modern Central Department Store) was named New World – after the bazaar and the first tavern located there. The New World was home to merchants, craftsmen and officials. The main and adjacent streets were developed with one- and two-storey buildings, restaurants, hotels, various offices and bars.

In 1924 the town was renamed from Yuzovka to Stalino[5]. In 1932 it became the centre of the newly created Donetsk region. In 1938, the oblast was divided into the Voroshilovgrad and Stalin oblasts. The city remained the centre of the Stalin region. The city received its modern name of Donetsk in 1961. In April 1978, the city’s population exceeded one million.

Until 2014, Donetsk was referred to as the ‘City of a Million Roses’. And it is true, as Donetsk was the greenest highly industrial city in the world.

Donetsk back in 2010.

Lugansk – Voroshilovgrad – Lugansk

Lugansk holds a special place in the history of the Donbass. On 14 November 1795. Catherine II issued an order: “On the establishment of a foundry in the Donetsk district on the Lugansk River and the establishment of the mining of coal found there”.

In the second half of the 18th century, as a result of victories over the Ottoman Empire, Russia gained access to the Azov and Black Seas. Fleeing the Ottoman yoke from 1752 onwards, Serbs and Vlachs settled in these lands. Under Empress Elisabeth, officers – former subjects of the Austrian empire – settled on the lands between Donets, Bakhmut and Luhania. Thus, the idea of military colonisation of these lands was realised.

Elisabeth then appealed to the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, asking her not to prevent Serbian officers and officers of other nationalities from joining the Russian army. Thus began an influx of Orthodox immigrants to the Donetsk steppes, who accepted Russian citizenship and took the oath of loyalty to the tsar.

Under the command of Rayko von Preradovich (Rodion Depreradovich) and Jovan Šević, 2 regiments of horse hussars were formed. Land was awarded according to rank. The higher the rank and position – the more land – such were the conditions of its settlement within a set period.

The land was named Slavonia-Serbia (the district centre of Slavonia-Serbsk is still in the Luhansk region).

Access to the seas and the development of Ukraine’s southern steppes required the construction of a fleet and fortresses. These needed weapons. Weapons were mainly produced in the Urals, but supply from there was very expensive. In 1795, near the village of Kamiany Brid, below where the rivers Bila and Vilchivka flow into the Luhani, the construction of a factory began, which was named Yekaterinoslavskaya and, from 1797, Luhanskaya.

The idea for its construction belonged to Vice-Admiral Nikolai Mordvinov. The site selection and construction was entrusted to the British Charles Gascoign, a well-known entrepreneur and industrialist. He had considerable experience and in-depth knowledge of the cannon and factory industries.

His conclusions that the coal deposits found contained an extraordinary amount of minerals of the highest quality formed the basis of Tsar Paul I’s order: “In the development and mining of coal, call in craftsmen from Britain until our own craftsmen have been trained, and also transfer 300 craftsmen with their families from the Lipetsk factories [in Russia – editor’s note] who have been rendered useless and are familiar with the method of casting iron and other iron things.” Peasants from the nearest villages of the state – Fashchivky, Orichov-Donetsky, Petropavlivky and Horodyshch – were assigned to the foundry.

A regiment of soldiers from Belarus arrived to build canals, reservoirs and dams. The factory served as a place of exile, and serf peasants who committed crimes and were exiled by the landowners also worked here.

The entire main administrative and technical staff of the factory consisted of 11 British ‘painters’. This is what they called the highly skilled specialists. Initially, the development of the village around the foundry took place without an officially approved plan.

A pharmacy building in pre-revolutionary Donetsk.

All vertical streets were called lines, like those in St Petersburg, and horizontal streets had names. The first street of the town was English Street. Vladimir Dal, compiler of the famous explanatory dictionary of the Russian language, was born there in the family of a factory doctor. Now the street is named after him.

On 16 October 1800, the first products were presented to the factory’s board of directors: a cannonball, a bomb and a grenade, “which are the first cast using coke in this empire.”

All this is reflected in the historic Lugansk coat of arms. The factory worked intensively during all the wars of the 19th century fought by the Russian Empire. During the war with Napoleon, the factory became one of the main suppliers of arms and ammunition to the Russian army. Its contribution to the defence of Sevastopol (1854 – 55) is also invaluable. Despite the fact that the plant worked for the artillery, the skill level of the artistic casting specialists was also very high.

The plant produced two famous monuments. The first is installed on the site of the battle of Poltava, and the second in Polotsk, where one of the most important battles against the French took place in 1812.

On 3 September 1882, by a decision of the Cabinet of Ministers: “it was ordered to raise the Lugansk factory together with the village of Kamennaya Brod to the level of a city under the name of Lugansk.” And on 9 November of the same year, by order of the Yekaterinoslav Governorate, the city became a district.

In 1896, German industrialist Gustav Hartmann opened a locomotive factory in Lugansk. Until recently, his house – a true architectural monument – existed in the city. But in recent years it has been abandoned and completely collapsed – another ripped-out European page of Donbass history.

Hartman’s locomotive factory before 1917.

In 1903 Kliment Voroshilov, the future ‘first red officer’, got a job here. To honour him, the city changed its name several times, getting the name Voroshilovgrad in 1935-58 and 1970-90. In 1990, the historical name Luhansk was restored.

Other towns and villages

But there are also many other, lesser-known examples of European heritage in the region’s history in the Donetsk region. The town of Yunokomunarivsk, which is now part of Yenakiyeve, was named Bunhe a century ago, after the head of the board of the Russian-Belgian Metallurgical Society, which built the town’s first mine. With the advent of Soviet power, the ‘bourgeois’ name was changed to a Soviet one. By a decision of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, the historical name was restored to the city from 12 May 2016. But since September 2014, it has been controlled by Russian occupation troops, so the authorities of the so-called ‘DRL’ still use the Soviet name.

The town of Novohrodsk, which is located near Toreck, was called Nju – York until the 1950s. Despite its American name, it was a Mennonite German colony.

There were very many German settlers in the Donetsk region, although not a single one remains to date. In 1789, Empress Catherine II issued a decree on the involvement of Germans in the development of the lands along the Sea of Azov. By the decree, the immigrants were exempted from paying taxes for 30 years. They were given money to settle, guaranteed freedom of religion and exempted from military service. The benefits contributed to 68 German settlements being established in the Donbass over the next 75 years.

Nju – York was one of the largest. Some German buildings, old tiled houses and a few knocked down granite monuments in the local cemetery still remain today. The historic name was restored to the town on 1 July 2021.

Another former large German settlement is the current district centre of Telmanove. It was formerly called Ostheim. After the war, the Germans were “cleansed”; in their place, after the Soviet-Polish exchange of territories in 1951, the Boykos (514 people) from the village of Czarna in the Podkarpacie region were brought to the settlement. It was thanks to them that, by decision of the Verkhovna Rada from 2016, the town was renamed Bojkivske. But, as with Bunhe, it is still controlled by the Russians.

Other small settlements-colonies have long since ceased to exist or have been absorbed by growing cities. For example, on the border of the Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk regions, there was the colony of Mariental until 1919, which was completely burnt down by the Machnovists. The Germans of Donbass were completely displaced in the 1940s. After the outbreak of war, Stalin carried out a real ethnic cleansing, and all that was left of the Germans were toponyms and old graves. Now only very old people remember them. With the participation of European capitalists, the industries of Makeyevka, Konstantinovka, Mariupol, Yenakiyeve, Kramatorsk appeared on the virgin steppes.

Factories built by Europeans by 2014 were pouring steel and producing machinery, increasingly increasing the fortunes of the Donetsk oligarchs.

The Mariupol steelworks (the former Belgian plant “Providence Russe a Mariupol”), the Makeevka steelworks (the former French plant “Unia”), “Dongirmash” (the Bosse plant in the district of the same name in Donetsk), the aforementioned locomotive factory in Lugansk.

The oligarchs, ironically, invested their earnings in anti-European propaganda to the end.

During the years of Bolshevik rule, the Donbas, created by Europeans, mentally transformed itself and, even with the advent of capitalism, did not remember its roots.

Before 2014, it was fashionable here to be a Soviet conservative, and certainly not a supporter of European progress. Unfortunately, all these mental metamorphoses are closely linked to the economic component.

During the years of Soviet rule, the region’s industry gradually degraded, until eventually the Donbas turned into a warehouse of obsolete, unprofitable industries. The result is the most severe economic crisis and depression, from which the industry and the population of the mining region have not been able to recover for several years.

What lies ahead is the prospect of the region turning into an unrecognised ‘grey zone’ of indeterminate status, which may prove to be the natural end of this long-term decline. It is true that, in this case, the history of Donbass industry is likely to end, and our children will only know most of the factories currently in operation from old photographs. Just as today we can only see photos of old factories built by European colonists.

This article has been first published in Polish by – Portal Spraw Zagranicznych. It has been republished and translated with editor’s and author’s permission. The text is a part of’s Ukraina to ja (I am Ukraine) publication series.

[1] accessed: [24.08.2022]

[2] accessed: [04.09.2022]

[3] dostęp: [24.08.2022]

[4] Донецкий металлургический завод им. В. И. Ленина // Советский энциклопедический словарь. редколл., гл. ред. А. М. Прохоров. 4-е изд. М., “Советская энциклопедия”, 1986, p..408

[5] access: [24.08.2022]

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