‘Donbas is Returning to its Russian Roots’

The following is the transcript of a talk by Sergei Baryshnikov, professor of political science and former rector of the National University of Donetsk in the Donetsk People’s Republic. The talk was delivered on April 16, 2015 to a group of foreign writers and journalists visiting Donetsk at the invitation of the Russian/German media NGO ‘Europa Objektiv’. The transcript includes answers to questions from the audience. Translation and editing by NewColdWar.org.


During the events of spring 2014 [in eastern and southern Ukraine] known as the ‘Russian Spring’ (a metaphorical name first used by a Russian journalist), intellectuals in Donetsk, especially those in humanities studies, did not participate actively. Active participants could be counted on the fingers on one hand.

From the vantage point of classical theory, it is still difficult to explain the class or social character of these events. None of the classical theories proved with a suitable explanation.

As we look back today, one year later, there were two social forces driving events forward. One was young people with different professional backgrounds, including high school students, university students and unemployed youth. These were the most active participants due to their unstable social situations. The second was people of the so called third age–the elderly. These two polar groups were the most active, driving forces of the Russian Spring in Donbas.

Initial responses to the rise of the Euromaidan movement in Kyiv

The first timid and not well organized attempts to offer an alternative to the Maidan movement that was already a fact in Kyiv took place in November/December of 2013. At the time, we did not yet fully understand the degree of the threat emanating from Kyiv. We hoped that President Yanukovich would be a more firm and adequate leader. But after the beginning of the new year, during the first weeks of January, the picture became clearer. Authorities in Kyiv were reacting less and less adequately to events.

The starting point of our consolidation here was the 25th of January, 2014. On that day, activists of several dozens of organizations, not large, rather marginal by their size and influence, created the movement called anti-Maidan. Regardless of some contradictions and disagreements within the ‘pro-Russian’ movement here in the east of ex-Ukraine, including that each leader wanted to be the chief, common ground which united all was found. This was based on the ideological and political rejection of those values that were being promoted under the slogans of Maidan.

The first occasion of direct action was on March 1 when opponents of the self-proclaimed government in Kyiv gathered at the central Square in Donetsk city named after Lenin. They gathered at the fountain (then not working due to the winter season) wearing St. George ribbons as a distinctive feature of the pro-Russian movement. Some stayed at the square and continued with the rally while the most active ones headed in a column towards the regional administration building. There, authorities were trying to organize their own rally, neither in support of Kyiv nor in support of the outraged masses. They tried to maneuver and survive in the difficult situation that came to be. The rally was organized by former leaders from the Party of Regions and the former governor. All official representatives were there – representatives of the church, social organizations, and so on.

It was during the rally at Lenin Square that Pavel Gubarev was proclaimed people’s governor. The most active participants there were small networks such as the Donetsk Republic, Russian Bloc, the South-East Movement and, a little later, the Eastern Front, Donbas Rus’, the Patriotic Forces of Donbas and so on. We marched in columns with Andrey Purgin, one of the leaders of Donetsk Republic. Many people carried Russian flags or self-made banners. The main slogans were: ‘Russia’, ‘Putin’, ‘Referendum’.

There was also a slogan about federalization. With time, that slogan vanished because even then it was clear that any ‘federalization’ would be with the puppets in Kyiv who had seized power.

Why ‘Russia’, ‘Putin’, ‘referendum’? Because here we were all really inspired by the example of Crimea. We hoped that we would also organize such a quick referendum.

We basically drowned out the organizers of that official rally on March 1 because we were more numerous and because the ordinary people that were brought to the official rally joined us and began rallying under our slogans.

Demands for election, referendum

The referendum question for us was one of the most important ones then. We wanted to obtain approval from the Donetsk Regional Council/ deputies to hold a referendum, like the one held in Crimea. We counted on the deputies’ support because we thought that if they represented the interests of people or territorial community of the Donetsk Region, then they must listen to and support people’s demands.

Unfortunately, none of them turned out to be ready to take the people’s side. That’s why we began putting forward our own leaders, in place of relying on deputies who proved incapable of rising to the occasion.

The whole power structure was paralyzed and that’s why it was not capable of using force against the protestors during those first days. Essentially, Donetsk became one permanent rally. Every day, during weekdays and weekends, people would come to Lenin Square for rallies. There were tens of thousands of people. It was a scale of activism I have never seen ever before.

Not a single participant of the rallies and meetings was armed. It was a peaceful, mass, civic protest. But Kyiv authorities had more or less settled in and become stronger over time and they did not wish to hear or notice us. They used the most primitive and ineffective methods of repression – terror. Those who rose as leaders during March were arrested, including the previously mentioned Pavel Gubarev (a former student of mine and a graduate of the Faculty of History, he has three young children) and Mikhail Chumachenko (my good friend).

Later, these two were freed through a prisoner exchange and returned after the Donetsk People’s Republic was formed. However, during those days, their destiny was an example of what could have happened to any of us, that any of us could have been administratively punished or repressed by the authorities.

The culminating point of this first stage of the development of the events was the night of April 6-7, when people lost hope in the capabilities and willingness of the authorities to negotiate and hold peaceful dialogue. For the third time since March 1, they entered the building of the former state regional administration. This time for good.

Donetsk Peoples Republic

Myself, I did not take part in these events in the late evening of April 6 because by request of Purgin, I was preparing for a meeting that would take place on April 7 with a representative of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to whom I was to explain our position, our issues and our version of events. This was a political-diplomatic mission.

After that meeting with them, around 12 pm, I entered the building and saw a picture of mass, revolutionary activity. There were young soldiers of the internal security forces with frightened faces who were huddling on the staircases. No one hurt them and they realized that it was useless for them to do anything.

At 12 pm, elections took place, based on the decisions made during rallies by the participants of the first revolutionary authority, which was first called People’s Council and later renamed Supreme Council. And this People’s Council of approximately 150 people proclaimed the Donetsk People’s Republic.

During the overnight and early morning of April 7, in accordance with international legal acts and other documents, the declaration of independence of the DPR was drawn up and proclaimed. This is how the first political, institutional representative organ of the self-proclaimed republic began its work.

Development of the DPR

In April, our events began attracting attention. Political activists and leaders began appearing here who, in Ukraine, expressed support for developing relations with Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union. One of the most prominent figures who got ambiguous reactions from the activists of the first wave was the then-deputy (not any longer) of the Supreme Council of Ukraine (Verkhovna Rada), Oleg Tsarev. He became a prominent figure in April. Tsarev’s situation was a little ambiguous, because he is not from Donetsk region but from the neighbouring Dnepropetrovsk region.

It was unavoidable that people began appearing from other regions or other places because the Party of Regions and its leaders had fully discredited themselves as politicians and people’s servants. The visitors tried to become prominent figures and even lead the protest movement here.

Konstantin Dolgov showed a lot of interest. He is from Kharkov. Representatives of Kharkov came here regularly, as did representatives of large southern centres, including Nikolaev, Kherson, Crimea and, until their tragic events in May, Odessa.

Gradually, a common political course of the young DPR developed. It is still in the stage of development.

The process of forming political and government structure here turned out to be very long and uneasy. There was lack of experience and a lack of true leaders with sufficient charisma and capability for serious, positive action. It is a problem when people are active and there is an absence or lack of true leaders. It is still a serious problem. That is why support from Moscow and Russia was very important to us. But only political and ideological support, not military.

In May, also due to lack of experience, we didn’t stop Kyiv’s landing operation in the airport area. (Maybe we couldn’t have stopped them, regardless of the lack of experience.) Military action started in Donetsk itself. Even earlier, as of April 12, in the north of Donetsk region, military actions started around Slavyansk, Kramatorsk, and then Druzhkovka. Gradually, the DPR was being drawn into military confrontation.

The events at Slavyansk are associated directly with the name Igor Strelkov, who was at that moment the most known and most popular military leader. However, he didn’t have the necessary experience, he is mostly a theorist-idealist, not a politician or military. I, for example, would never take on leadership in a military campaign because I am also a theorist-idealist. I can only lecture or give talks and make speeches.

Reactions at the university

All this time, the DPR didn’t have enough time to reach out to higher educational institutions. Even though at the end of May, beginning of June, I tried explaining to Purgin that we needed to enter the university and take control because students could potentially rally to either side–Kyiv or the Donetsk people. It would all depend upon what DPR could offer them and how it could show itself. But no one would listen to me. Everyone was occupied with other issues, they didn’t have time for this.[1]

During June-July the situation would exacerbate with each day. Unexpectedly for us, Igor Strelkov and his military forces withdrew from Slavyansk and came here to Donetsk. Along with the insurgency troops and their families and wives came refugees. In the beginning of July, they inhabited the whole of the university residencies.

The previous university authorities could do nothing better than to call upon all professors and university staff to leave for ‘vacation’, in other words leave the city.

The shelling of the city began from the other side of the airport, an area that we missed and were not capable of forcing out the paratroopers of the Ukrainian Army. They began getting on our nerves and getting in the way of everything by shelling even some areas in the centre of the city.

But the technical staff of the university–workers, mechanics, plumbers and janitors–continued to work here all this time. The infrastructure of the university, which is a complex unit, had to be maintained.

(Professor Baryshnikov explained more of how the university functioned during the summer of 2014, including how he came to be appointed rector.)

The staff that worked throughout the whole summer didn’t get a penny of their wages for July, August and September. For three months, people didn’t get any pay. Only in October did we manage to get funds, but we could not pay salaries, only social allowances of some two, three or four thousand hryvnia [in the few hundreds of dollars]…

Today, we are transitioning to a dual currency system of rubles and hryvnia. Our students have begun getting their first bursaries. We are gradually entering, de facto, the Russian financial and economical space. This is more important, even, than our international recognition. Even though we are waiting and hoping that soon we will be both officially and legally recognized. But in order for this to happen, we need to strengthen our potential and expand our borders to those administrative borders that Donetsk Region previously had.

The Minsk ceasefire agreement of February 12, 2015

The agreement is not being respected either way. There wasn’t a day when its conditions were fulfilled. Primarily, it is the Ukrainian side which is failing to do so.

We are inevitably committed to expansion to regain the historic territory of Donetsk and Lugansk presently occupied by Kyiv forces… I want you to understand and pass on to your readers and your audiences that the objective picture, the objective reality, forces us to begin the liberation of those territories. You can call that expansion, but we must do it.

We need to control our water resources, which are in our north. We have deposits of salt, a strategic product which will help us enter not only the Russian market but the world market. The Severskiy Donetsk Channel supplies our whole former territory with water, and near Artemovsk there are huge deposits of salt. We could have a monopoly in the whole of Eurasia. And, of course, in the south we have the metallurgical plants and an exit to the sea through Mariupol.

Ideally, we need to consolidate all of Donbas. During June and July of last year, the first attempts were made to consolidate the DPR and Lugansk People’s Republic. Oleg Tsarev proposed a scheme to create a coordinating representative body that would act on behalf of both republics. Later, if everything went well, it could act on behalf of other republics. It was named the Parliament of Novorossiya.[2]

Political parties in Donetsk

There isn’t a single political party in DPR today. Today we have only social movements and socio-political associations—’proto-parties’. Based on the social organization called ‘Donetsk Republic’, it has been decided to create a party which would probably dominate here. Some leaders of the DPR have such plans in mind. They are planning a project to create a party similar to the Communist Party of Soviet Union during Soviet times. It will be a leading party called ‘Donetsk Republic’.

I am personally against this project. Because we will repeat the same mistakes and repeat the sad experience and therefore the unfortunate destiny of the late Soviet epoch and the fairly recent experience that we had here of one party [Party of Regions] monopoly and domination.

The intellectual level is not sufficient. There are not enough experts and professionals. A lot of former activists of the Party of Regions are already in Donetsk Republic taking leading or secondary positions.

I would, instead, like to see a truly democratic system, so that initiatives would come from the bottom, from territorial communities and even from working collectives. There should be political representation of all basic social groups of the population–from businessmen to farmers and workers. Otherwise, we will once again have a monopolist party which will control the main trade unions and professional associations–where all people will be administratively ‘invited’ to be members–and it will be in charge of youth movements. There will be a vertical range of power but not a horizontal one.

To follow the Chinese path [of one party rule], we need to be Chinese. The whole world divides into the Chinese and the rest. No, we are not trying to adapt the Chinese system. We need a democracy which, according to the before-revolution experience, will have horizontal lines of power and representation of territorial communes as well as vertical power representing those of the political right, left and centre.

State intervention in the economy

At the beginning of the events I have mentioned, socialist and semi-socialist ideas were very strong. But as of now, I believe that a mixed economy will be developed because that’s the only option. Private property and private business within certain borders are essential in the modern world.

We managed to achieve military success. Not victory, but certain success. We have resisted. We all understand that it would not be possible without Russia’s help. But Putin’s politics, I mean politics by Putin personally, turned out to be so unique, exclusive and subtle that Russia is not a direct participant of the conflict. And at the same time, it provides us with protection. We are under Russia’s protection. This is a very interesting fact for future historians.

Donbas as part of Ukraine?

In conclusion, I would like to say and emphasize, and maybe you can pass this on to your readers, that almost 24 years ago, Moscow, as the capital of the Soviet Empire, let Ukraine go and obtain its sovereignty: That was done without a single drop of blood spilled.

Therefore, Ukraine, the Ukrainian people, should treat Donbas as they were treated 24 years ago. They should act peacefully. If Donbas wants to live without Ukraine, either as part of Russia or with its own sovereignty, let it be. There is no point in trying to forcefully keep us as part of Ukraine.

Since Kyiv has not done this, which should have been done in the spring or beginning of summer one year ago, now we are objectively interested in the disintegration of Ukraine and a construction of Novorossiya on part of its former territories…

I, personally, was dissatisfied with the whole 23 years of our existence within Ukraine. I didn’t conduct any kind of subversive activities, didn’t form any subversive organizations, but I always believed that we would not stay as part of Ukraine for long.

Overall, the territory of current Ukraine–more precisely, Ukraine before Euromaidan–is a result of totalitarianism, of Bolshevik, communist, totalitarian policy. They are destroying monuments of Lenin, but he created Ukraine in its modern borders. One hundred years ago, Lenin said that Donbas should forget about being Russian. There is documented evidence of this, But the events we discussed before simply confirm that even after 100 years, Donbas hasn’t forgotten that it’s Russian.

This is not about ethnic purity or belonging, it is about historical truth. Donbas appeared as an historical product of the politics of Russia, as its economic, geopolitical and geographic product. Now Donbas is going through a difficult process of returning back to Russia, of that I am sure.

Sergei Baryshnikov is a professor of political science and former rector of the National University of Donetsk in the Donetsk People’s Republic.

[1] The National University of Donetsk formerly had around 16 000 students. Today, there are some 8,000. The largest decline of enrolment was in the departments of the humanities.

[2] Read more about the Parliament of Novorossiya in an April 2015 interview with one of its deputies, Aleksander Kolesnik.