‘I will mix your blood with coal’ is a journey to a world we know very little about in Poland, even though thousands of people came from there to live together with us. Olexandr Mykhed, a PEN club member, takes readers to the Donetsk and Lugansk lands, to Severodonetsk, to Bakhmut (a city which no longer exists), Lisichansk, Dobropol. He searches for regional identities and specifics beyond the popular image of a region that lives solely from and around industry.

He demonstrates that the value of the coal and other raw materials extracted from the ground was always there, in every regime, greater than the value of human life, and this left an indelible mark on mentality, experiences and aspirations.

Mykhed’s book, available, apart from the native Ukrainian, in Polish and German translations, is not a classic reportage. It is a travelogue interspersed with longer comments of Ukrainian intellectuals, such as the writers Serhiy Zhadan and Oxana Styazhkina, who introduce the author to the identity of the Ukrainian East. It is a polyphonic juxtaposition of individual comments and statements heard during the journey, interwoven with historical storytelling. The genesis and context of the publication is explained by the author in the opening pages: at the end of 2016, the social organisation Garage Gang began the project ‘Metamisto: Skhid’ (Metacity: East) in eastern Ukraine. As part of the project, activists explored the urban fabric, learnt about local culture, fostered connections between local social activists and artists, and proposed changes that would at least partially improve the quality of life of residents. Mykhed searched for urban mythologems – ‘images that will be understood by every inhabitant of a particular city, regardless of belonging to a particular generation’. Then, on the basis of the mythologems, works by young Ukrainian artists were created, entering the city space, interacting with it and making it reflective – at least in the assumptions. Unfortunately, this artistic dream did not always end well – as we also learn in the pages of the book.

Myched returns several times to each of the describen Eastern towns, talks to people, throws the words heard onto paper, adds his impressions and observations and leaves the reader with conflicting versions of events, diverging interpretations and contradictions.

He consciously withdraws from trying to establish what really happened: did, for instance, an Ukrainian missile hit the Proletar plant in Lisichansk because the workshops were repairing equipment for the Donbass separatists, or was it a mistake that cost the lives of random people? Writing down the inscriptions from the walls shows the quiet rivalry between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian slogans. He looks at the celebrations to mark the anniversary of the liberation of the city during the Great Patriotic War, and tells the story of people trying to create art, theatre and child-friendly spaces in industrial surroundings. He paints a portrait of a region whose inhabitants went to work every day without knowing whether they would return home safely, how and the eternal danger hanging over the miners was tamed by mythologising their work. He quotes the locals’ sincere and brutal accounts of life in industrial towns in the 1990s, showing how their inhabitants were losing their former relative stability and how fighting for survival became their only ambition and experience. These passages make it possible to understand why there has been such a strong pro-Soviet nostalgia in the described area, why the times of the USSR are treated as a ‘golden age’ and why decades of belonging to Ukraine are hardly associated with anything positive. At the same time, the author paints a picture of eastern Ukraine, which is undoubtedly Ukrainian, recalls historical links with the Cossacks or the Kharkiv region, remembers the generations speaking Ukrainian at home, although they were switching (had to switch) to Russian at work. Finally, Mykhed moves from accounts of the war in eastern Ukraine after 2014 to images of 2022, of full-scale Russian aggression. And despite everything, he expresses his belief that Ukraine will not be defeated, because ‘in Ukraine, regardless of the region (…) those are rising up who are finding themselves, restoring themselves to themselves and are ready with daily work in their field to break the circle of history’.

There are passages in the book that will strike with brutal exoticism those who have not travelled to the post-Soviet East. The scenery of the book is not pleasant and promising: together with the author, we move around crumbling factories, hear verbal melees in a marshrutka and realise that roses planted in the city were actually a part of an oligarchic scheme. An ironic passus about ‘a message for posterity, the eternal message of the state to its citizens’ (it’s all about a wall inscription saying ‘You prick’) will surely remain in readers’ memory.

But the passages about mining identity, Saint Barbara and the underground spirit of Shubin (could it be that the mythical Silesian Treasurer has a distant relative in Donetsk?), the murderous toil on the one hand and the solidarity of the miners on the other, will be clear to anyone even loosely familiar with the realities of industrial regions – all over Europe. This similarity of fates, which the author further emphasises by evoking Germinal, the most famous novel on miners and mining, and the mining disaster in Courrieres, adds a universal humanist dimension to the book.

It is not only in the mines of Donetsk and Lugansk that ‘blood was mixed with coal’ (I leave it to the readers to discover who uttered the title words and to whom).

This makes the final passages of the book, in which Mykhed utters his credo, all the more convincing: not only does he oppose the Russian invasion of his country, but he appeals that never again, in any country and under any system, should human beings be humiliated and deprived of their dignity. What leaves one unsatisfied, however, is the skimming over the history of workers’ protests in the region, which was, after all, the arena of an actual uprising during the 1905 revolution. Workers’ revolts loom somewhere in the background in the passages about Belgian investments in the Donetsk region, and yet these were moments when the miners were trying to assert themselves, not just be cogs in an industrial machine.

‘I will mix your blood with coal’ is not an easy read. Nor is it a history textbook or an exhaustive sociological work – those who, as the subtitle of the Polish edition says, wish to ‘understand the Ukrainian East’, will be provided with clues for further exploration, rather than given exhaustive answers.

After all, is it possible to give such answers when the region described is being in the throes of full-scaled war and of yet another irreversible change, and people are once again struggling to survive?

The author is also aware of this when he writes that he wanted his book to overcome the limitations of the form and the shortened lifespan of every reportage. I believe he has succeeded in doing so: by drawing a strong picture of a life that depends on coal and has historically proved to be worth less than coal, he reveals the true foundations of the identity of the inhabitants of the Ukrainian East, which cannot be reduced to a stereotypical ‘pro-Russian attitude’. And by writing about the difficulties of building new identities for regions that have hitherto relied solely on industry, the book also becomes a voice in the pan-European discussion about just transitions and building a new future with respect for the work of previous generations. Unfortunately, the message here is not easily optimist: the actions of activists and artists alone, creating islands of sorts in an unfriendly space dominated by capital, a corrupt state and brutal violence, are not enough to bring about decisive change. It is a message that describes not only the realities of Eastern Ukraine.

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