The Road to Donetsk
a tribute to the inspirational women of Ukraine
By Diane Chandler
TACIS Programme in Ukraine
Watching the news about Ukraine over the past year has been a poignant affair for me. Both the streets of Donetsk and its surrounding landscape seem so familiar, because I was once a frequent visitor. Way back in the 1990s, I used to manage EU overseas aid projects for Ukraine, and Donetsk was then a benign and busy city, full of hope and potential renewal after the fall of communism.
Our aid programme was called TACIS (1) (Technical Assistance to the Commonwealth of Independent States) and our goal was to transfer European expertise and know-how to Ukraine, in support of its transition to the free market. And, eventually, to democracy. It was some challenge, but back then we were all of us – Ukrainians and Europeans alike – up for it. It was early on that I first flew down to Donetsk (2), a city at the heart of the vast Donbas industrial region, with its mass of coalmines, steel and chemicals plants. Half the mines were earmarked for closure, and we set about designing an aid project, which might help those mining communities begin to cope with the thousands of expected job losses.
Marina, a beautiful young woman with long blonde hair and those Slav eyes that beguile, was one of our interpreters and she made a lasting impression on me as we began our fact-finding. Her cheeks would flush with the passion she felt for her people, for getting the development of her country right. With her we drove about on dusty roads, cutting through sunflower fields, the wheels of coalmines rising starkly against a luminous spring sky. On into villages, where picket fences marked out cottage gardens, abandoned stork nests sat on disused chimney tops, and the dazzling greens of trees and hedges vied for attention.
To shape our aid project we ran workshops with all the local stakeholders, including several miners, hefty men with pinpricks of blue coal-dust emblazoned in their foreheads, who seemed bewildered by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Once it was finalised, we put in a team of empathetic Brits, who knew something about pit closures, to help boost economic regeneration and bring new jobs into the region – a tall order indeed. They helped to set up job centres, which had not existed under communism, they supported the handful of entrepreneurs who were ready to give it a go, despite the ludicrous red tape and absurd interest rates, and they made efforts to attract foreign investment.
The Women of Donetsk
In my view, the women were orchestral in bringing renewal. And we were keen to encourage initiatives where they played significant roles, particularly at grass roots level, for example, in self-help community groups, or the emerging NGOs. For sure it was with the women of Donetsk, that I felt the most affinity, and I met many of them – regional officials, interpreters, villagers, secretaries, journalists. These were exuberant women – alert, intelligent, emotional, and extremely feminine – and often it would seem to me as if the whole of womankind was embraced within just the one woman. For them, hardship was part and parcel, they lived with so little, and to stand beside them was to feel their resilience, the need to keep their families going.
And yet, while all these people had ever known was collapsing around them, their hospitality towards us as visitors was humbling. My memories of receptions in local cafes are vivid, the tables laden with platters of chicken legs, pork cutlets, stuffed pancakes, and tomato salads with no trace of a pesticide. The toasts with cognac would come at us fast and furious, the traditional third toast being to the ladies, after which I’d be up on my feet, several shots in, to add my own tribute to their kindness, to their resourcefulness.
I do remember that in Donetsk there was a hankering for the past, for the good life of the Soviet days of yore, but I sensed no overt disruption to the intrepid Western reform path this new country was embarking upon. It was as if they’d give it a chance, with the presence of umpteen national aid programmes, plus major World Bank and IMF (International Monetary Fund) (3) loans. So much aid, so many EU experts on the ground, and I can only presume that some of our Ukrainian government partners ‘played’ us; at times their mind-set was impenetrable. I believe it was Vaclav Havel (4) who said that these people had ‘lived in the lie’ under communism – so many of them presenting a public face for fear of being denounced by the neighbours. For sure, they were wilier than we were. But then it was their lives at stake not ours.
“The Road to Donetsk”
Well, that was all a long time ago. I moved on before our project in Donetsk came to an end and I wonder what became of all we hoped to achieve. Often the institutions we helped to set up might crumble, or at least stumble, but we did bring new skills, fresh ways of working, and also cash into the local economy – and what’s more we walked alongside them in those early, muddled days, which in itself had a value. Donetsk was to become a thriving hub, with a spanking new airport. But of course still there are those who hanker after the past and who have notched their disgruntlement up to crisis level; that shiny airport has been obliterated by the rebels, and as I write well over 5000 people have lost their lives in the conflict. Marina, our fresh-faced interpreter who must now be in her forties, is currently coordinating the work of a humanitarian charity, I’ve heard.
As for me, well a little piece of Ukraine climbed into my heart and has stayed there. So much so, that I have written a novel about it, an affectionate portrait of a country and people in transition. Loosely based on my time there, The Road to Donetsk is set just after the fall of communism and features a group of magnificent women in a mining community, which is faced with pit closures.
It is also a story of love between an idealistic young English woman, who wants to change the world, and an older American, who is jaded by his years in overseas aid. I wanted to bring Ukraine and its people to life, for it is indeed a special place, and I cannot begin to fathom how somewhere I once knew as so benign can be now suffering such conflict.
- TACIS: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technical_Aid_to_the_Commonwealth_of_Independent_States
- Donetsk: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donetsk
- IMF loans: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Monetary_Fund
- Václav Havel: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V%C3%A1clav_Havel
Diane Chandler (born Marshall) worked at the European Commission in Brussels for several years, where she managed overseas aid programmes in Ukraine just after the fall of communism. Ukraine soon worked its way into her heart and she travelled there extensively. Back in London, when Diane married and her daughter was born, she was able to pursue her passion for writing in those few hours she could snatch, and she chose Ukraine as a setting.
The Road To Donetsk is her first novel, published by Blackbird Digital Books in January 2015. It has just been long-listed for the People’s Book Prize in the UK, also the Beryl Bainbridge Award for Best First Time Author 2015/16.
She is currently working on a second about a career woman going through the trials of IVF.
Diane Chandler firstname.lastname@example.org
Any views and opinions presented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Blackbird, nor do they constitute a legally binding agreement.