Donetsk region: natural wonders, industrial power, and unbreakable Ukrainian people

The once progressive and densely populated region in the east of Ukraine has been partially under the temporary occupation of Russia for almost nine years. Its regional center, Donetsk, went from development to decline, and another famous city of Donetsk, Mariupol, which combined the spirit of an industrial center with the freshness of the sea, became the epicenter of war crimes by the Russian army in 2022.

Just now, there are fierce battles in the region. However, they will definitely end with the victory of Ukraine, and the blue-yellow flag will fly over Donetsk again. After all, polls show that 89% of Ukrainians do not imagine any other scenario than fighting for the Donetsk region to the end.

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Donetsk before the war and after

Until 2014, Donetsk was a Ukrainian metropolis with a rich cultural life, dynamic business (over 200 large enterprises and 20,000 medium and small ones), and developed infrastructure.

Once upon a time, the most prestigious Ukrainian popular music festival, “Chervona Ruta”, was held here, where Ukrainian was sung and spoken.

“Donbas Palace” proudly were among the world’s best hotels, and Donetsk National University stood out among the two dozen universities of the city, which was included in the ranking of the most prestigious educational institutions on the planet. In 2013, a modern ice arena called “Altair” was opened in the region, where the multi-time hockey champions of Ukraine, “Donbas”, played. And in 2012, Forbes Ukraine recognized Donetsk as the best city for doing business in the country.

In the same year, matches of the EURO-2012 were held here. The tournament was hosted by one of the best stadiums in Europe, “Donbas Arena”, which had already passed the test with large-scale concerts by Beyoncé and Rihanna. 300,000 fans from all over the world gathered at the Euro in Donetsk, and during the championship, the local airport received 1,372 planes.

However, then Russia came here. In the spring of 2014, Russian special operations units and other formations ceazed the city. Time and time again, local residents went out to thousands of peaceful protests under Ukrainian flags, and they were attacked by unknown people with sticks and armatures. Large-scale pro-Ukrainian rallies stopped only after people began to die at the protests, and pro-Russian forces, relying on the Russian army, finally established the reign of terror.

1.5 million Ukrainian men and women were forced to leave their homes in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Donetsk National University moved to Vinnytsia, a city in the center of Ukraine. “Donbas Arena” has not seen a single match in all these years, and the “Altair” ice complex was bombed. The international airport became a battlefield and was completely destroyed. Its defenders are now called “cyborgs”— they held the defense for 242 days until the scale of destruction became such that there was nothing to defend.

Since then, Donetsk and other eastern cities have continued to decline. Expressing a pro-Ukrainian position can lead to a death sentence, large-scale russification has been taking place for nine years, and educational institutions and mass media have turned into mouthpieces of Russian propaganda. However, Ukraine’s efforts to return its land and homeland to many Ukrainians will continue until victory. Donetsk will definitely return home.

Natural wonders: rocks, forests, stone trees

The Donetsk region is a region with incredible natural diversity. Forests, for example. In general, these lands are steppe—and there seems to be no place for forests. They are, however, unique! 

Velykoanadolskyi Forest first appeared almost 200 years ago and is the largest man-made forest massif in Europe. With its help, the researcher Viktor von Graff proved his rather bold hypothesis—that a real forest can be grown in the steppe. And now, two centuries later, his arguments rustle through the leaves in the Donetsk region.

There is also a completely different forest in the Donetsk region. There are also trees here, but their experience is much greater than 200 years. The thing is that this is the Druzhkivskyi petrified forest. 300 million years ago, some catastrophe uprooted the trees, and a powerful water flow washed away all the organic matter from the trunks so that they became fossilized. And now there is a unique place in Ukraine where you can take a walk among the Araucaria trees, which have turned into the oldest stone forest in Eurasia.

Another amazing sight in the Donetsk region with a solid pedigree is the Bilokuzmynivka rocks, which are 90 million years old. This chalk ridge was formed by small marine organisms when a warm sea splashed over this place. And now the mighty white rocks rise in the middle of the steppe, attracting the attention of tourists, climbers, and anyone who sees them.

Poet of Donetsk region and all of Ukraine

The fate of one of the brightest poets in Ukraine is connected with the Donetsk region. Vasyl Stus grew up in Donetsk, taught Ukrainian language and literature in the region, and worked as a letter editor in a local Ukrainian-language newspaper. Then he moved to Kyiv, where he translated Goethe, Lorca, and Rilke and began to publish his own poetry. At the same time, he became a member of the dissident movement.

Speeches against totalitarian Soviet power became decisive for the fate of Stus. With his creativity and peaceful protests, he interfered with the authorities so much that he was imprisoned several times. Even so, he continued to write, secretly releasing his poems—a unique blend of Ukrainian literary tradition and European heritage. The combination was so talented that the diaspora even tried to nominate Stus for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

However, most of the poet’s works have been lost. Poetry seemed so dangerous to the Soviet dictatorship that intercepted poems were simply destroyed. The last publication of his works (while he was still alive) in the USSR was in the magazine “Donbas” at the beginning of 1966. The next one is only three decades later. A complete collection of the writer’s works was published only during the time of independent Ukraine.

In 1985, Vasyl Stus died in the cell under mysterious circumstances—either due to hypothermia and weakness from the announced hunger strike, or due to a cardiac arrest, or due to a blow deliberately arranged by the guards.

This happened despite the fact that famous intellectuals from all over the world repeatedly appealed to Moscow to release the poet. Among them was Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll. Judging by his answer during an interview on German radio in 1985, he understood perfectly well the real reasons for Stus’ persecution: “His so-called crime is that he writes his poetry in Ukrainian, and this is interpreted as anti-Soviet activity… Stus consciously writes in Ukrainian. This is the only criticism that I know of. Not even a criticism of nationalism, which is also easily applied, but exclusively on the basis of Ukrainian creativity, which is interpreted as anti-Soviet activity.”

Ukrainian culture has always been perceived by Russia as a dangerous manifestation of national consciousness and identity, therefore it has always been an object of repression. As early as the 18th century, they adopted the tactic of assimilation—Ukrainian cultural figures were persecuted, and language was restricted. The physical increase in the number of Russians on Ukrainian land was one of Moscow’s popular methods. For example, during the Soviet era, the number of Russians in Ukraine increased from almost 3 million in 1926 to over 11 million in 1989. People were brought to present-day Donetsk especially actively—yes, in just one day in 1933, an echelon with 3,538 Russian families arrived at the city’s railway station. The Holodomor was also organized to subjugate the Ukrainian nation and its statehood—an artificial famine that many countries of the civilized world have already recognized as the genocide of the Ukrainian people.

Despite this, in all eras, Ukraine gave birth to bright artists who continued to develop Ukrainian culture and remind people about who Ukrainians are and where they come from. The way Vasyl Stus used to do it.

Mountains made by humans

In the Donetsk steppes, there are not only forests, but also mountains. Which also appeared not without human participation.

The industrial capacity of Donbas is based on coal. Here, it was mined so long ago and on such a large scale that it even changed the landscape of the region. Now, up to 700 spoil tips rise near the local mines—multi-meter artificial embankments of unnecessary rocks that were brought to the surface in the process of coal mining.

However, in addition to impressive landscapes, they also carry danger. Spontaneous ignition or large-scale landslides can occur in spoil tips. In peacetime, landscaping was carried out on these artificial mountains, but such work almost stopped during the occupation. So now, these artificial mountains of Donetsk remain both a monument of industrial power and an environmental issue.

Ode to the innovator of world cinema

Ever heard of Charlie Chaplin? And here’s what he heard in the movie “Enthusiasm: Donbass Symphony”:

“I could never have imagined that these industrial sounds could be arranged in such a way that they seemed beautiful. I consider “Enthusiasm” one of the most moving symphonies I’ve ever heard. Mr. Dzyga Vertov is a musician. Professors should learn from him, not argue with him.”

Mr. Dzyga Vertov is a director who created unprecedented film experiments in the first half of the 20th century. His film “Enthusiasm: Donbas Symphony”, which so impressed Chaplin, was released in 1930 and is dedicated to the industrialization of the Donetsk region.

And a year before that, Vertov released “A Man with a Film Camera”—an innovative film about one day in the life of a big city. In 2014, the influential British Film Institute (BFI) surveyed several hundred film critics and directors from around the world. They recognized “Man with a Film Camera” as the most outstanding documentary in the history of cinema.

Grandiose man-made caves that became the site of the battle

Even 150 years ago, a huge underground deposit of salt was found in Donbas. Since then, more than 250 million tons (more than 275 million US tons) of salt have been mined at this place, and the tunnel system has been extended for 300 km (186 miles). However, this does not mean that the reserves have been exhausted.

Even the city that grew up next to the salt mines is now called Soledar—from Ukrainian, it can be translated as “gift of salt”. More than 11,000 people lived there, of whom almost 4,000 worked in salt extraction, and the local enterprise was considered one of the largest salt producers in the world.

In the grandiose man-made caves, you could see entire labyrinths, a salt football field, a cafe, a church, a concert hall, and salt sculptures. And a whole underground sanatorium functioned there—after all, air saturated with salt has a positive effect on the respiratory tract.

Did you notice the past tense in the previous paragraph? In the winter of 2023, after six months of fierce fighting, the Armed Forces of Ukraine withdrew from Soledar, inflicting numerous losses on the Russian army. Now the city and its people are waiting for the return to their motherland, which will definitely happen.

And on the eve of the anniversary of the full-scale invasion, the state-owned enterprise Artemsil from Soledar released a limited batch of salt, which survived despite the destruction of industrial facilities due to Russian shelling. The saved 20 tons (22 US tons) were divided into 100,000 symbolic bundles and named “Mits. Ukrainska kamiana” (Eng. “Hardiness. Ukrainian stone”). All profits from sales will go to the formation of a flotilla of FPV kamikaze drones for the Ukrainian intelligence.

An example of hope and courage for Soledar can be found in the neighboring city of Bakhmut. The enemy has been throwing its best forces at him for six months, but Ukrainian defenders are showing iron resistance. By the way, it was in Bakhmut in 1917 that the first blue-and-yellow flag was raised in the Donetsk region. In 1924, the Bolsheviks, who eventually captured the city, renamed it Artemivsk. Until 1932, the city was the main one in the region, until the Soviet authorities moved the center to Donetsk because Bakhmut had “too serious Ukrainian traditions.”

By the way, Bakhmut also has its own caves. In the old gypsum tunnels, at a depth of more than 72 meters (236 feet), there is “Artwinery”—a famous brand of sparkling wines. In peacetime, this brand was sold in more than twenty countries in Europe and the world: Germany, Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Canada, Australia, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Israel, Moldova, Croatia, Thailand, Great Britain, etc. And the plant has 13 Grand Prix from international competitions, 76 gold, 44 silver, and 7 bronze medals, as well as more than 75 diplomas. After the victory in Ukraine, this list will surely increase.

Masterpieces of blacksmithing art

The Donetsk region has long been considered an industrial region. Confirmation can be found even on the coat of arms of this region—even if it depicts a palm tree, it is not an ordinary one but a metal one.

Almost 130 years ago, local blacksmith Oleksii Mertsalov forged this palm tree from a steel rail using only a hammer and chisel. The combination of the fragility of flora and the strength of metal impressed everyone so much that the work even won the grand prize at the International Industrial Exhibition in Paris. Well, the 3.5-meter (11.4-foot) palm tree eventually became a symbol of Donetsk.

Already in the 2000s, a real park of forged figures appeared in the city, with more than 200 different sculptures, including the signs of the zodiac, Pinocchio, the Genie, and Thumbelina. Later, the park became a kind of meeting place for the blacksmiths of Donetsk and the western Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk, who held joint festivals here. By the way, one of the figures was given by the craftsmen from Ivano-Frankivsk as a sign of friendship and partnership. This is how the Mertsalov palm gave birth to a seed that grew into a friendship of blacksmiths from different parts of the country and a whole metal park.

And although it is now increasingly difficult to provide assistance to those who remain in the Donetsk region, people from different parts of Ukraine continue to support those Ukrainians who remain under shelling in the cities and villages near the front-line.

Black gold of the Donetsk region

The largest part of the region covers the Donetsk coal basin, a huge territory of coal-bearing lands. The main share of Ukrainian coal deposits (about 92.4% of them) is located here. These fossils became a true symbol of the region: the miner was one of the main professions among local residents, and football clubs (the famous Shakhtar Donetsk) and entire cities (Vuhledar, Shakhtarsk, Antratsyt) were named after the coal industry.

The first strange stones that burned well were found at the beginning of the 18th century by the Cossacks, who had settlements in the Donetsk region. Soon the first mines began to open here, and by the 19th century, coal mining had already turned into a large-scale industry in the region.

By the mid-2010s, about 150 mines were operating in Ukraine. However, in 2014, Russia started a hybrid war and captured about a third of the industrial Donetsk and Luhansk regions. 69 mines stopped working due to hostilities, and the volume of coal production fell by 22% that year compared to the previous year. In 2015, the decline became even more serious: only in the first half of 2015, coal-mining enterprises in Ukraine produced 19.4 million tons of coal, which is 21.3 million tons (23.4 US tons) (or 52.2%) less than in the same period of 2014.

In general, according to experts, because of Russia’s aggression, Ukraine lost around $280 billion. At the beginning of 2023, after 10 months of full-scale war, Ukraine’s losses amounted to at least $700 billion.

From “Isolation” to isolator

One day in the summer of 2010, the most famous artists, critics, and journalists of Ukraine gathered on the premises of a semi-abandoned factory of insulating materials in Donetsk. They were present at the launch of the Isolation Platform of cultural initiatives. Over the next four years, more than two dozen projects in the fields of art, education, and creativity were implemented here—exhibitions, public discussions, lectures, and art residencies—in particular with the participation of world art stars: Tsai Gotsyan, Daniel Buren, and Boris Mykhaylov. However, in the summer of 2014, completely different people gathered here.

After seizing the territory of Isolation, the occupation authorities of the Russian Federation turned the cultural center into a concentration camp. Employees of the foundation were forced to flee, and works of art were stolen or simply destroyed. Already at the end of the summer, it became known that the occupiers use the territory of the art center as a base, a prison, a place for torture, and a warehouse for stolen cars. Terrible testimonies about this illegal prison can be found in the books of Ukrainian journalist Stanislav Aseiev, who spent several years in the “Isolation” torture chambers.

Meanwhile, the employees of the foundation were forced to evacuate to Kyiv, where they opened a new Isolation center, also in the building of the former factory. During these nine years, the platform implemented dozens of large-scale projects in the capital and became an important point on the cultural map of Kyiv. However, the employees of the foundation still remember their occupied premises and are waiting to return to Donetsk, Ukraine.


By 2022, Mariupol, a city on the coast of the Sea of Azov, would have approximately the following characteristics: a large port, powerful metallurgy, rapid cultural development, and 430,000 inhabitants.

In 2020 and 2021, Mariupol topped the transparency and accountability rating compiled by the Ukrainian office of Transparency International and was generally a developed city and the business card of the Azov region.

People have lived here for a long time—and they were unusual people. For example, Kalmiuske Palanka, an administrative-territorial unit of the Cossack state, was located at this very place. And later, a huge diaspora of Greeks appeared here, most of whom moved to these lands from Crimea. They relocated, bringing with them an authentic culture that was carefully preserved. So, for example, it was in Mariupol that the only university outside Greece and Cyprus was located, where since 1991, the Greek language, culture, and history have been studied as the main discipline.

However, it was “was” in the past tense. After all, after the full-scale war unleashed by the Russians, the city was practically wiped off the face of the earth, and dozens of thousands of its inhabitants died.

The Azovstal plant became one of the symbols of the Mariupol tragedy.

He was once associated with industrial power, but in 2022 he became the personification of indomitability.

It was on Azovstal that the Ukrainian fighters held their defense for several months in the complete encirclement. Some of them were eventually released from Russian captivity, but many Ukrainians are still being held by the Russian Federation. Ukraine will continue the struggle for their release—and for the release of Mariupol and all temporarily occupied territories.

Donetsk region is Ukraine.

With its own history, the Donetsk region shows what happens when terror and aggression are not stopped in time and what fate befalls the territories illegally occupied by Russia. Developed cities turn into wastelands, and people are forced to flee their native land. However, this region has also become a clear example of Ukrainian unbreakability. They went out with Ukrainian flags in Donetsk, which had already been captured, defended Mariupol for several months in complete encirclement, and also heroically defended other cities and villages. One day, this land will become an example of revival, when the liberated Ukrainian Donetsk region will once again become a place where everyone can feel freedom.

Donetsk region is Ukraine.

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Last updated 24.02.2023

The article was prepared in partnership with Maksym Maiorov (Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security)

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