Neighbors against Neighbors: Historical roots of the Donbas War, 1985-2014

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by Daniel Thomas, 20C History and International Studies
2019-2020 Halle/Fox Center Global Research Fellow

I am currently researching a very contentious issue in not only Ukrainian politics, but world politics: the roots of the Donbas War, Europe’s bloodiest quagmire since the Yugoslav Wars. While I was in Kyiv, many Ukrainians were eager to tell me that native Donbasians were not responsible for the war; rather, culpability lies directly in the hands of Putin and his “bloodthirsty oligarchs.” Their concerns are justified; the Russian Federation did supply Donbasian separatists with crucial hardware and manpower during the conflict’s later stages. However, it is reductive to state that the Donbas War’s sole origins are in Russia. Pro-separatist political organizations, such as the Kornilov Brothers’ Interfront Donbassa or the popular Party of Regions, were instrumental in sowing the seeds of separatism in the post-Soviet Donbas. Moreover, the economic privations that ravaged the Donbas’ coal-mining and manufacturing industries gave credence to these organizations’ viewpoints. Needless to say, the feedback that I received from Ukrainians made me reconsider my research approach. Perhaps I would find more information talking to people directly affected by this conflict, rather than perusing the paragraphs of some bureaucrat’s memos or party-affiliated newspapers.

The greatest challenge that I encountered whilst in Kyiv had to do with the availability of archival materials. Early on in my five-week trip, I went into the Central State Archive of Public Organizations, expecting to find documents pertaining to the Party of Region’s 1998 pro-autonomy campaign in the Donbas. Unfortunately, the titushky (i.e., hired thugs employed by the Yanukovych administration to stomp out dissidents) got to these documents before I did. The thugs burned nearly all of the party’s documents, save for a few inconsequential minutes and memos. As a result, I had to reshape a significant portion of my research methodology. This upcoming winter, I will travel to Kyiv in order to conduct interviews with individuals who lived in the Donbas during the late 90s and early 2000s.

My thesis advisor, Prof. Matthew Payne, mentioned this opportunity early last Spring. Seeing that I needed funding for my research abroad, I applied for the fellowship as soon as I could. This project has already evolved significantly since the start of this semester. At first, I thought that my argument would rely primarily on archival materials. However, given the aforementioned “issues” that I ran into whilst conducting my research, I have come to realize that this thesis will have to rely on not only archival materials, but the oral historical accounts of native Donbasians.

Daniel Thomas is a senior on a pre-law track, double majoring in History and International Studies.  He is currently writing an honors thesis on the history of Russian separatism in the Donbas, a region in Eastern Ukraine. Daniel conducted his research in Kyiv, Ukraine during the summer of 2019, using archival documents, periodicals, and oral history techniques in order to chart out the various social problems and economic privations that gripped post-Soviet Ukraine. Through the usage previously unused archival documents and personal first-hand accounts of daily life in Eastern Ukraine, Daniel hopes to both contribute to the limited historiography on post-Soviet conflict zones and shed light on the tumultuous history one of the world’s least-discussed conflicts. 

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