John Summers


The Red and the Black

An extract about Donetsk

I had booked into one of Donetsk’s biggest hotels, called “The Miner” (imagine a three-star hotel in Britain actually being dubbed “The Miner”!) but here, of course, it is a measure of the high regard and social status of the Soviet coal miner); and last night it had been a miners’ Friday night; and in the big hotel restaurant a pop-group had been blasting on flying guitars and the dancefloor was jammed with people dancing to hotted up Ukrainian favourites. The hotel’s rooms, each with its bathroom, shower, television, lemon flavoured Russian tea, in the mornings, were well within the paypacket of any miner.

Between doing their numbers, wielding their guitars as they swayed in their fashionably-cut denim jeans and big-buckle belts, the pop-group ba-ba-ba-loom-ah-ed before the floor was taken again by more coal miners and their girls and others on their night out. On the tables were enormous steaks, Russian champagne, vodka, red and black caviare, sturgeon, ice cream, and fruit like apples, oranges and bananas. And yet I’d just been reading in a current British newspaper report by the Moscow correspondent of The Guardian that in the USSR shops were so short of fruit that all they had to display, proudly, were a few cabbages. And in an editorial page article on the subject of the 60th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, another London national newspaper was telling its awe-struck readers that the USSR is so short of food that people there take the precaution of keeping padlocks on their saucepans when they are cooking anything. Really, the amount of over-kill some Western journalists use to try and demolish the image of the Soviets only flattens their own arguments.

We were driving out through Donetsk’s boulevards. This ‘City of a Million People and a Million Roses’. Because its wide boulevards are banked with roses in summer.

Its founder, interestingly enough, was a man called John Hughes; born near my home town, in Merthyr Tydfil, in South Wales. This whole area was sold by a Russian Czar to John Hughes, just 100 years ago, for £24,000. And the first inhabitants of what is now Donetsk city were just 164 poor peasants, artisans, and Don Cossacks, tempted in from the wide steppe to work for a few kopeks in the hand before being driven off again, broken by savage and sweated labour, nystagmus from chopping coal by candlelight in crude mine tunnels, malnutrition and tuberculosis.

“We only know that John Hughes, he was a Welshman,” the Russians told me. John Hughes was employed at the Cyfarthfa ironworks in Merthyr as something called a ‘practical mechanic’, at a very early age. But, after that, he had a factory of his own: and he invented the Millwall Shield, the armour plate used for battleships, and that made his name. Enough to get him noticed by the Russian government. The Czar encouraged the foreigner to set sail, with his machinery and his new ideas, through the Mediterranean and up into the Sea of Azov, and to drag his machinery ashore here and set up the first iron foundries and coal pits in this place that was, then, called Hughesovka or, to suit the Russian ear, Yuzovka. In those days, 1865, there were less than 2,500 miles of railway in the whole of Imperial Russia. So it was that this Novorusskoe Obshchestvo, it meant the New Russian Company, was the name of the company that old John Hughes set up here.

Donetsk’s museum of regional studies has the grainy blown up prints of the old Hughesovka. Bad old days they, must have been, too: hovels to live in for the workers, some of them just dugouts on. the steppe itself/iron beds to lie on, and food that was often just raw potatoes. And, there are the photographs of the Czarist days’ coal-mine owners of Donetsk; smiling, satisfied, into the camera lens, as they posed alongside the White counter-revolutionary army generals that they employed in the enjoyable business of hanging any coal miners who dared to approve the notion that coal mines should be taken into public ownership. That happened in 1919, when the mine owners caught hold of any workers they could lay their hands on who had committed the crime of supporting the revolution, who were refusing to let the old mine owners, the steel company dividend-enjoyers, keep their grim powers of awarding employment, and life, and death. The mine owners, with the counter-revolutionary generals, caught and hung workers in batches from the fence posts of railway station yards and coal mines. And then the generals and the mine owners posed, smiling, for their photographs. Together with their dead victims. And with the hangmen they employed to do the job.

It was something the same that happened again during World War II-the Soviet people call it the Great Patriotic War-when it was Nazi panzer divisions and their tanks that invaded the Ukraine; and, this time, the people of Donetsk had deliberately flooded their mines in order to deny the use of the coal to the invading fascist forces. The Nazis determined that the people of Donetsk should pay in blood for daring to resist the invaders. The Germans threw civilians by the hundreds alive down into the flooded mine-shafts, then they constructed a concentration camp in the centre of Donetsk to systematically destroy its population. By the time the returning victorious Soviet Army had broken through to the rescue of Donetsk again, more than a quarter of a million of its citizens had been done to death in gas chambers and ovens; some were burned alive. On a mound where that concentration camp stood, where the trams and trolleybuses go clanging past there is a stone monument to the victims of fascism. And to their memory burns on it an eternal flame.

‘Nobody is forgotten, nothing is forgotten...’

Nothing can be. “Not even can we forget that some of the people who helped run the horror camp were some of our own people. The German execution squads were special people, of course. They were specially picked for that sort of work. Crazy people. And sometimes they even managed to make some of our own people help them.”

Today, at such war memorials as these, you can see the Young Pioneers, schoolchildren who come marching to take up guard positions alongside them. “They regard it as an honour to do it,” explain the Russians. “They regard it as an honour. They take it in turns from the schools to do it.”

“We teach them so that they don’t forget. They mustn’t forget.”

Nothing is forgotten. The Nazis when they came here created a horror and a hatred that cannot be so easily forgotten. Systematic shootings by firing squad as soon as the Wehrmacht entered Ukrainian villages was the order of the day to go with the Wehrmacht notices being pasted up on village walls: women and children being lined up against the walls and gunned down. As a method of demanding instant obedience from the civilian population. “There were some people who didn’t agree altogether with the Communist system. But when they saw all the atrocities that the Nazis committed, they became dedicated Communists and fighters against Hitler, too. They never looked back,” a Soviet miner said as we drove through the morning streets of Donetsk on our way to see my first Soviet coal mine.”

Because what the Russians, the Soviets, saw here, in that fascist invasion (they prefer not to use the term “German invasion’ since they do not put blame on the German people for any part of it), what they believe they saw in that invasion was the front-line of the bully-boys of actual and real capitalism. With its mask off. It was the ultimate and logical clash of two different ideologies. Socialism and capitalism.

These people will never forget the blood, the horror that capitalism made manifest, brought here.

At the Molodogvardeiskaya mine; John second from right

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