The journalist and writer Maxim Butchenko: “There is a need to sound off about Donbass”

Why Maidan is still continuing now? Who, firstly, is guilty in armed conflict on Donbass? What place in the world viewing of average resident of this region takes the hate to Ukraine or offense on it? The author of the book about situation on Donbass “Artist of War”, journalist and not so long ago the miner from a little town Rovenki in Luhansk region Maxim Butchenko has shared his opinion about these and other questions with

  • Let’s begin from your telling about yourself a little bit, how you become Kyiv journalist from Rovenki miner?
  • I was born in Rovenki of Luhansk region. One of the biggest coal enterprises of Donbass – “Rovenkianthracite” is located here. Now it was bought by Rinat Akhmetov. I worked there 12 years. I had began as mining worker and finished as the Chief Assistant of the section. Such a unpretentious career of a labour. I had noticed the aspiration to write from the teenage period and little town is the aquarium. It’s locked not only from outside, but inside too. Such insularity doesn’t give any opportunity to self-realize.


Enter to Rovenki

I had a wish to change something in my life, that’s why I entered the university on the distance learning and got the education of the journalist. After some time I got into ‘“Correspondent” magazine, in 2012. I was taken on the testing period. My journalist activity has begun from this moment. I look on the situation on Donbass not only like journalist, but also as a complice of all events that happened, happen and will happen.

  • How do you think, why exactly Luhansk and Donetsk region became covered with pro-Russian terror? Ukraine has not a bit regions, where pro-Russian sentiments are strong: Kharkiv, Odessa, Dnepropetrovsk.
  • I think that there are a few reasons. Kharkiv and Dnepropetrovsk are the centers in a manner. Kharkiv was the “first capital”, now it is a huge center of the education. Dnepropetrovsk is the industrial center and also the “source of manpower” for the political elite during a long time. That’s why there was some social elevator from the regions. The situation is other in Luhansk and Donetsk region. These cities always should be separated. No wonder, that history has joked and made them like two different “republics”.  The case is fact that anyway concentration of all financial flows of Donbass was in Donetsk. Luhansk in its turn is the periphery and province of Donbass. That’s why Luhansk had formed inferiority complex according to Donetsk. Donetsk and Luhansk people always quarreled. This was in times of Party of Regions, in spite of illusion that it was monolith. I think that two “republics” first of all appeared at the last moment, because there were two political groups at least.


The principle difference is that Luhansk always considered itself undervalued. Donetsk is mostly the concentration of metallurgical enterprises and some number of coal. Luhansk region has more coal enterprises.

“Rovenkianthracite” and “Sverdlovanthracite” gave 50% of all energetical coal in Ukraine. That’s why Luhansk region is the area with more pronounced miner’s feature. Here are a few moments; the psychological complex of the teenager or complex of the younger brother. The second moment is the fact, that development influents on the world view. The inferiority complex is the very important feature of Luhansk region and the complex of the lost influence characterizes Donetsk region. They’re absolutely different factors, which led to the sad result – “LPR” and “DPR”.

  • It’s considered that life on Donbass and in particular in little miner’s towns is very hard, there is not enough work, the problems with ecology etc. On what percent level is it true?
  • Human is surprisingly ordinary being, who is gets used practically to any conditions. It is through this people could survive after the hard periods. But here is very important moment – the social and working conditions on Donbass are very different from the center of Ukraine, for example. Biggest part of people, who worked there, especially on the coal enterprises, had been working hard in slave conditions. In my memory there were cases a few times, when temperature in slaughtering was high than 40 degrees Celsius, because of violation of safety regime. Even if you do nothing the sweat is pouring stream and at that moment you need to work, to carry glands and stuff like this. People are blood nose, they lose consciousness, and all of this, of course, greatly affects on the body – the nervous system, the vestibular apparatus, and so on. The problems with health begin. Technologies, which are used in our mines are all of 1950s-1960s years. Also, along with the hard physical labor, there is not so high earning for it. When I was the Chief Assistant of the section, I earned nearly the same money as it was middle salary in Ukraine at that moment. Not so big category of miners, who get big money, exists, but it’s not so big. That’s why such dissonance appears, a big abyss between hard conditions of labour and little salary.


Maxim Butchenko (the second from the right) 2004

It’s a tragedy in the USA when one or two men die during a year. 200-250 people died during a year in the coal industry, when it worked in normal regime. Why? There are neglect of safety rules, the old technology, savings in all in a row. People saw death and mired in severe conditions of existence. A lot of miners are old men in their 40-50 years.

Such a feature “Hear Donbass!” has worked. A lot of inhabitants of the region cried about it very frankly. They saw the conditions of their work, how much they earned and blamed the central power in it. Though, actually, the local power was guilty first of all. Also, oligarchs, who infiltrated in the coal industry. So, people were just driven into slavery, they had been living for years in it and blaming Kyiv in this situation. In one moment the skill of logic constructing and justification of meaning in their lives has disappeared from people’s minds.

  • How coal enterprises on your native lands work today?
    • Now the biggest part of mines work only to support producing of coal. Not a big number of people goes down into the mine, deflate the water, which permanently accumulates there. The indicators of production are not so high. I know that if earlier miners got the salary of 6-7 thousands of UAH (~800-900 $ by the the old exchange rate), now they get 1 thousand UAH (~50 $ by the the new exchange rate). Not so long ago they worked 21 time per month, now it is 2-3 times, seldom more. But illegal craters work very actively. They can be of a few forms. First one is the strategic stores of the Soviet Union. They have a huge capacity, this means that big layers or located on the surface or below the surface. If depth of big mines takes sometimes more than 1 kilometer, so here is depth nearly 20 meters. Nobody really knows, how much they extract. It’s not taken into account anywhere, so it’s the banal looting of mineral resources.
    • The second type of craters is based on the other principle. You can imagine, the mine had been working and then it was closed. The enter from the surface is filled and preserved. But technology of extraction of coal has such a detail: 30-40 meters are left from the both sides of the coal roadway. This is needed to proportion a mountain pressure. After the mine closed and it like doesn’t exist, people under the guise of some of the planned work open the mine and remove these unrecorded reserves. It wasn’t clear before a war how much craters extract, now, I think, there is a madness production.
  • How they manage to trade off the coal in Russia? The coal is extracted there by the pit method.
    • I think that the case is in price. It doesn’t take into account neither normal salary, nor taxes for the state. So, they seriously dump and compete. The coal is always demanded. You can move it out in any amounts, because you can always sell it in every village, for example. But I think that schemes has been developed in the industrial scales.
  • Can you draw up a rough psychological profile of typical inhabitant of Rovenki?
  • It is not so simple, because people are very different. Maybe, it is more correctly to draw up a rough picture of their world seeing. They seem that life, because of the unknown reason, put them into the place, from where is very hard to get out. So, they live with the guilty complex, that they were convicted incorrectly. Add to it the feeling that nobody hear them permanently. All of this has produced the paternalism the youth treatment to life. They think on the maximum teenagers’ levels. Why term “junta” has input so easy? Nobody even studied, that junta is the militaries, who captured the power and it is absolutely enable. So, this people alike teenaagers, who play in “war”. Everything around is not real for them. They don’t understand the consequences. When collector cars began to be robbed I said to my relatives: “Go and get cash. Bank system wouldn’t work soon in the town. Nobody will deliver money”. They didn’t believe. It is the brightest example how people can’t take life as it is. They have distorted, twisted attitude. It’s all because they can’t understand the original reason why everything is so in their life.


Paternalist is a person stuck in adolescence. He always thinks by maximal categories; only “fascists” and “Red Army” and there can’t be any third side.

The next moment is that such people are very gullible. They still believe in promises that maybe something will be alright. Moreover, the ability to change own life is so low, that a biggest part from them are agree with situation around. Why they don’t move out? A lot of people, of course, have done it, but much more remained. Maybe a million has moved out from 4 millions. It’s a fatalists who trust to destiny. If destiny brought them there, they will be there for a long time. It seems to me, if Russia supports this region economically for 10 years, they will live there all this time. It’s abnormal agreed with their plight under any conditions. The biggest part of this people are deeply non-ideological. They believe nor in “Russian World”, nor in Ukrainian nationalism, nor in something else. These people are hardened materialists. Even if it is not always noticed they as usual think by material categories: pensions, salaries, tarifs. Their world is built only from material.

  • Even for idea of “Russian Spring”?
  • What was the blunder of Putin and others? Kremlin thought that they will go for “Russian World” on Kyiv. But our “compatriots” wanted to go on Kyiv not for “Russian world”, they wanted a better life, like in Crimea. It didn’t happen.


Now it will be hard for them to integrate. The offense, that desired didn’t happen, will stay with them. On this stage, I think, they will easily integrate externally, if Ukraine provides literally billions to recover Donbass. Then they will go on the streets in vyshivankas, with Ukrainian flags, but they will be against inside.

  • I noticed a little contradiction here: you say that they are materialists. but they are ready to live and tolerate inhuman conditions of “republics” for the “Russian World”.
    • The fact is that other fundamental feature of Donbass residents is the mental spiritual abandonment. A lot of people tried to move out into Russia among my acquaintances and they were coming back as beaten dogs. They wanted to go out from destiny and don’t want to go in Ukrainian side. They went to Russia and saw that nobody needs them, people are angry about Donbass residents, they ought to live in hovels. And life turned worstly than on Donbass. So, they decided to come back. That’s why they like restless souls between two worlds – Ukraine and Russia.
    • Sometimes family rejects somebody subconsciously psychologically. As usual it is older child. And here younger was rejected – Luhansk and Donetsk. I’ve written about it in my book and tried to characterize a lot of things on more understandable level. This book is real situations from life of my relatives, who are living in Luhansk region. The content of novell answers on your questions: who are they? Why there such working conditions? What is the difference between them and other Ukraine? I cite many examples there, trying to demonstrate the mentality of this people, the way they’re thinking.
  • So, when you wrote book you were using the real prototypes?
  • It’s more than just prototypes. Lyudmila Alexievich, who got Nobel Prize not so long ago, writes in the genre of “documentary fiction”. It happened that I also began to write in such a genre, not even imagining, that it will be so popular and demand. This is a story of concrete people, which was removed on a paper.

to be continued…