(p. A8) LSTANYTSIA LUHANSKA, Ukraine—The Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk regions were once the engines of the country’s economy and dominated its politics.
They produced its richest man, billionaire industrialist Rinat Akhmetov, as well as former President Viktor Yanukovych, ousted by the street protests that triggered the Russian invasion in 2014.
Since then, however, the two areas—now nominally independent “people’s republics” inside the larger regions of Luhansk and Donetsk—have turned into impoverished, depopulated enclaves that increasingly rely on Russian subsidies to survive. As much as half the prewar population of 3.8 million has left, for the rest of Ukraine, more prosperous Russia or Europe. Those who remain are disproportionately retirees, members of the security services and people simply too poor to move. Current economic output has shrunk to roughly 30% of the level before the Russian invasion, economists estimate.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin is massing more than 100,000 troops for a possible broader invasion of Ukraine, the developments in Donetsk and Luhansk show what many fear could happen to the rest of the country if he were to carry that out. The dismal record of Russian rule is one reason so many Ukrainian citizens, including Russian-speakers, are ready to take up arms so that their hometowns won’t meet the same fate.
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Isolyatsiya used to be a popular contemporary art space in Donetsk, hosting exhibitions and performances at a Soviet-era insulation materials factory. When Russian-backed militants took it over in 2014, saying the space was needed to store Russian humanitarian aid, they allowed staff to rescue a collection of Soviet-period social-realist paintings but smashed the contemporary art pieces, melting some of the statues and installations for scrap metal.
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Weeks later, Isolyatsiya’s compound turned into a detention facility operated by the Donetsk republic’s ministry of state security. One of the hundreds of prisoners there was Ukrainian novelist and journalist Stanislav Aseev, who was detained in 2017 after local security officials discovered he was contributing under a pen name to Ukrainian news outlets. Mr. Aseev, who says he was repeatedly tortured with electric shock, was freed in December 2019 as part of a prisoner exchange and now lives near Kyiv.
“They’ve managed to rebuild a Soviet system in the occupied territories—and not the Soviet system of the 1960s and 1970s, but a Soviet system of the 1930s and 1940s, with dungeons, with torture chambers, a system where lives are ruined if you dare to write or say something negative about these republics and their authorities,” Mr. Aseev said.
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Unlike in the wars of the former Yugoslavia, where religion and ethnicity created a permanent identity marker, here whether to consider oneself Ukrainian or Russian is a matter of choice and ideology rather than blood.
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At the Slovyansk local museum, a room is dedicated to the 84 days when the town remained under the control of Russian militias in 2014. Exhibits include rocket-propelled grenades, artillery fragments and ballots of the referendum on independence from Ukraine that pro-Russian forces carried out at the time. Some 100 local residents died in Slovyansk, and more than 2,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged in the fighting. A suburb along the main highway still stands in ruins.
“It’s a big stress. Everyone is afraid, God forbid, that it will happen again,” said one of the museum’s curators, Oleksandr Gayevoy, who lived through the fighting in 2014. “People now prefer not to talk too much, because who knows who will come here next.”
Mr. Gayevoy added that one of his brothers, who remained in the Russian-controlled town of Yenakiyevo, former President Yanukovych’s hometown, was an ardent supporter of the Russian-installed regime there but has since changed his views.
“There used to be a lot of enthusiasm for the Donetsk people’s republic in the beginning, everyone chanted DPR, DPR, DPR! Now, there’s just a lot of disappointment,” said Mr. Gayevoy, who last visited the Russian-held areas in 2019. “My brother now tells me that they are ruled by cretins. The economy there has crumbled, the jobs are gone. There’s nothing good over there.”
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(Note: the online version of the story has the date February 4, 2022, and has the title “Dismal Russian Record in Occupied Eastern Ukraine Serves as Warning.”)