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Valeriy and Tanya outside their home. She is underemployed, working part time at the local railway station for about $130 a month.Alessio Romenzi for Al Jazeera America
SHAKHTARSK, Ukraine — Off a dirt road in the outskirts of this eastern Ukrainian town, Valeriy stands outside his house and cuddles his wife, Tanya. She wears a blue bathrobe and slippers, and Valeriy says the fading bruise high on her left cheek was caused by a fall at a party while they were both drunk.
Valeriy is a miner but has not been employed as one since completing his fifth prison sentence for theft. Previously, he risked his life working at an illegal coal mine in the Donetsk region, Ukraine’s industrial heartland now roiled by political unrest.
Despite the epic contest between forces, mostly Russian speakers aligned with Moscow against Ukrainian speakers loyal to Kyiv, he is more concerned with the daily struggle to get by and the desperate hope for some improvement in his life. Valeriy, who identifies as Russian, hopes for a better future if Donetsk becomes part of Russia — with a catch. “I don’t want it to be like Russia,” he says. “I want it to be like the past, the USSR.”
The future of the mines and the miners is at the center of the political battle being waged by pro-Russian separatists who have occupied public buildings and set up barricades in response to the overthrow of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in February. The resulting crisis has cast a rare global media spotlight on this corner of Ukraine, with Western powers fearing that Moscow plans to annex eastern Ukraine — as it did with the Russian-dominated Crimean Peninsula.
Valeriy’s sentiments are fairly commonplace in this hardscrabble region, which maintains close economic links to Russia. Donetsk and its residents paid a heavy price for the collapse of communism as free market reforms swept away jobs, cut the value of state benefits and sharply reduced living standards.
For Valeriy, who started training to be a miner in 1990, right before the fall of the Soviet Union, there was just the briefest glimpse of a more secure time. “I was getting payment even for my learning,” he says. “That’s why I appreciate that time.”
He has two young children and remembers a summer camp during the Soviet era that was free for workers. Despite his nostalgia for the USSR, he does not support the pro-Russian militia movement because, he says, it has brought instability to the region.
“I want to be Russian, but I do not want a war. I want to live in peace, so that’s why I don’t support their activities. I want to be part of Russia with peace. Nobody needs the war,” he says. “I am afraid that [ordinary] people will be threatened.”
Andrey’s hand bears a tattoo that, translated in English, reads, “Love me, know grief.” He says the phrase is meant to attract women.Alessio Romenzi for Al Jazeera America
Fellow illegal miner Andrey would also like Donetsk to join Russia, from which he emigrated in 1986 at age 9. Not that a return to rule under Moscow would necessarily improve his lot.
“I don’t think … it would be better,” he says. “But I hope it would not be worse than the situation that we live now.”
“Kyiv had the opportunity but has not done anything to improve my life,” he adds. “Maybe I give a chance to Moscow to [help] my life.”
Like Valeriy, Andrey did not support the occupation of government buildings and creation of barricades in the region. “I do not agree with their methods,” he says. Despite the area’s pro-Russian inclination, skepticism about the surge in separatist agitation is not uncommon.
Times are tough, well-paid jobs are hard to come by, and corruption is an ongoing problem. A poll conducted by the Donetsk-based Institute of Social Research and Political Analysis found that 65 percent of people in the city preferred it to remain part of Ukraine. Though groups of miners have sometimes joined the barricades around occupied buildings, the reality on the ground is more nuanced.
At the front of the Shakhtarsk City Hall hangs the flag of the People’s Republic of Donetsk, the internationally unrecognized state declared by pro-Russian supporters seeking autonomy. At the back entrance, a poster on a window notifies people where they can sign up to join the militia movement.
This region provided the political base for Yanukovych, who was seen as giving the mining sector favorable terms. Some miners fear that the new government in Kyiv could adopt policies that force some mines to close, leading to a boom in more dangerous illegal mining.
“It might lead to unemployment and closures of coal mines, which might lead to desperate miners risking their lives working in illegal mines,” according to University of Nottingham economic geographer Adam Swain, who spent years researching the regional economy.
Legal mines offer workers better pay and benefits as well as greater safety and support if they get hurt. But the positions are not easy to come by.
Andrey worked at a legal mine for five years, but it closed down. Now illegal mining is the only work he can find. He makes up to $350 per month, but he says he could earn about $870 if he worked at a legal mine.
It is risky work. Last year a mine ceiling collapsed on him like an avalanche, trapping him inside. His friends were able to dig him out; if they had not, he would have died, he said. He broke his arm and spent time in the hospital, for which he had to cover the cost.
Workers at illegal mines like this one often wait for months to get paid and sometimes do not get paid at all. Alessio Romenzi for Al Jazeera America
Illegal mines can be easy to spot. At one visited by Al Jazeera, the contrast with a legal operation were obvious. It was shallower, and there was no elevator into the pit. Instead, workers walk down to the coal face. A dirt-covered picture of Jesus hung off the wooden entryway, where an empty hopper stood, attached to a rope the workers use to pull the coal to the surface.
An outhouse and a place to shower were in nearby shacks.
Vadim has just finished his shift. He says he was 15 when he started working at the illegal mines. That was 17 years ago. Today he knows of boys that young in the mines.
Asked if his colleagues go to work drunk in the illegal mines, he pauses and grins, then answers, “Yes, it happens. It happens.” According to him, that happens about twice a month, normally when the men get paid. He says he does not mind that so much because he does it himself and feels it is normal.
Valeriy, Andrey and Vadim have become close friends while working at these illegal mines. For one, though, there is hope of a break.
The chairman of a local legal mine has promised Andrey the opportunity to take a test this week for a job. Getting that job is far more important to him than the outcome of the conflict between Kyiv and pro-Russian militias. A regular, legal and relatively well-paid job would change his life. He says, imagining it, “It’s another world.”
Andrey, Valeriy and Vadim became friends while working at illegal coal mines. They all want jobs at legal mines, which offer better pay and safer conditions, but those positions are hard to come by. Any job offer comes with expectations of paying a hefty bribe, and even that does not guarantee long-term employment.Alessio Romenzi for Al Jazeera America