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.”