Black, white, and colourless

Artemsil needed to halt its manufacturing due to this. Two thirds of the town’s inhabitants left.

Some had been leaving for the second time, after that they had fled right here from the battle and from Russian mercenaries, to begin new lives eight years earlier. And now the bottom was slipping once more from below their toes. 

The bottom is caving. This isn’t a war-time metaphor however an actual prospect until salt- and coal-mining enterprises can return to work.

“There aren’t any lacunae in nature,” the useful resource geologist Mykhailo Kulishov tells me. Kulishov was born in Horlivka, moved to Bakhmut in 2015 due to the battle, and now lives within the Kyiv area.

“When a mine-shaft stops being labored, water will fill the empty house. This water erodes the bigger buildings of the mine and rises to the floor the place it would type a salt lake.”

I’ve swum in a single. There are salt lakes outdoors of Sloviansk within the Donetsk area, with a resort constructed round them. The final time I went was August of 2014.

The insupportable Donetsk solar was blazing scorching, and it felt like time itself slowed down within the warmth. Exhausted Ukrainian troopers wandered across the resort.

My photographer Mykola Tymchenko and I finished to take an image by a tank named Swallow. These had been the members of the 95th Particular Paratrooper Brigade, the long run ‘Cyborgs’ of the Donetsk airport.

One in all them bought married that very same yr or quickly after, and has two sons now, however he’s nonetheless on the entrance — simply went dwelling on go away in June, for the primary time because the full-scale invasion. 

Yevgraf Kovalevsky, a 19th Century Kharkiv scholar, believed Slovyansk’s Salt Lakes to have fashioned on account of the near-surface salt-bearing strata being eroded by floor water.

Salt mining was by no means as developed right here because it has been in Bakhmut or Soledar. In its early days, salt was mined chemically, which eroded the soil, created cavities, and provoked many mine collapses.

In 1935, the authorities made the choice to work all salt deposits solely by synthetic subterranean leaching. This apply lasted till the start of World Warfare II.

The years of combating and occupation exhausted the business. Floor caved, houses collapsed. In 1961, the authorities closed down the central salt mining operation in Slovyansk for good. Time stopped. 

My creativeness usually turns to the Ukrainian Futurists who had as soon as envisioned my area as a utopia and got here right here in quest of “rhymes and life”. They thought the long run could be dynamic and fast-paced, so time ran quicker on their watches.

The author and journalist Oleksiy Poltoratskyi walked these steppes and imagined himself roaming the underside of an ocean that used to exist “an astronomical variety of years in the past.”

He was not unsuitable: there had been, in truth, a big physique of water within the present-day Donetsk area, however a sea, not an ocean. It was this sea that left behind salt deposits.  

Sadly, I do know little or no about Poltoratskyi, except for a handful of his writings I learn. However I inhabit the long run he had imagined, and discover myself on the similar cross-roads, reflecting alone life and the life that may come after mine. Maybe, that is essentially the most highly effective factor that connects us. 

It feels to me now that the winter days after I walked salted roads had been additionally an astronomical variety of years in the past.

Paradoxically, temporality can crumble or focus precisely like a lump of uncooked salt. The sort the Bakhmut carpenter and self-taught artist Yegor Popov used again in 1889 to carve, 122 meters below floor, a statue of ‘the Salt Normal’ Nikolai Letunovsky, the then proprietor of the Bryants mine (now Artemsil). 

Barely yellowed with time, the statue continues to be held within the Donetsk regional historical past museum. The Russian Tsar had stripped Letunovsky of all his titles and duties.

Later, nevertheless, he was celebrated as the person who opened the commercial chapter within the lifetime of the town—by no means thoughts that salt-mining had been practiced right here lengthy earlier than the commercial revolution. Be that as it might, the two-metre basic, now almost faceless, has survived two empires. He’ll survive the third but.  

“How a lot time wouldn’t it take for the water to fill these mines?” I ask Kulishov. “Twenty-to-thirty years maybe”, he says. 


It has been two years because the floor water started to flood the unlawful open-air coal-pit close to the Lysychansk gelatin manufacturing unit. Nobody is aware of the precise chemical content material of that water, and but a number of locals have already taken a swim in it. They are saying it is as deep as a five-story constructing, and also you may very nicely drown.

The residents of Lysychansk baptised this place The Lysychansk Grand Canyon. It does look superior: the pit is full of blue-green water and surrounded by ruby-coloured sandy bluffs, dotted with inexperienced shrubbery. Birds circle overhead. Bugs buzz. The one draw back is the scent of animal bones from the manufacturing unit close by.

Native rights defenders and environmental activists have been reporting the unlawful pit to the authorities since 2017. They’ve filed no less than eight complaints, and the illegally mined coal in addition to the mining gear have been arrested no less than as many occasions. The legal investigation, nevertheless, didn’t start till 2020. 

Even earlier than the battle, Luhansk and Donetsk areas seemed pock-marked from house: the gaping holes of unlawful pits are simple to identify on Google Maps.

The variety of these wounds is rising: now, there are additionally holes left by exploding mortars, craters from air-dropped bombs, and the graves of troopers and civilians. 

Folks used to mine illegally on the websites wealthy in high-grade anthracite coal. My home-town was well-known for it. However because the battle started within the spring of 2014, these pits have sprung up all over the place.

Conservationists raised alarm: pit mining harms the surroundings, and is not any means a rational use of pure sources. Economists warned of the corruption and shadow markets.

Rights advocates spoke out in regards to the absence of security measures or social advantages. Miners confronted the danger of damage or loss of life on the state-owned mines as nicely, however no less than these supplied a security internet. Unlawful pits provided no assurances of any form and would rent even high-schoolers. 

Boys just like the fourteen-year-old Yura Sikanov from the city of Snizhne within the Donetsk area. Mine Quantity Eight, the documentary movie about him, traveled throughout half of Europe in 2010, however was not allowed onto the competition circuit in Ukraine.

The movie tells the story of a really younger man taking accountability for his household when his father dies and his mom abandons her three kids. His determination to work illegally is a pressured one.

Yura grew to become a hero for his two youthful sisters, however most of Snizhne’s residents didn’t share their view. Two years later, the boy was severely overwhelmed, his jaw damaged.

The movie was accused of slandering the ‘actual’ Donbas, a heroic and striving area, with no room for poverty or black markets, the place business performed an essential position. However the business was, in truth, enjoying its personal sport. 

“My grandmother got here from Western Ukraine. She broke the legislation when she was fifteen, to have a number of years added to her document, so she might go to work.

“So she went: they despatched her to push the coal-carts. They needed to hearth her ultimately, as a result of she began coughing blood.”

I’m chatting with Alexander Chekmenev in a restaurant close to the Livoberezhna metro station in Kyiv. It’s late September, 2014, and the battle has been happening for six months.

Chekmeniov has simply returned from Slovyansk the place he photographed residential buildings shelled into rubble by the Russians and their proxies.

In his footage, exhausted, hopeless folks stand in opposition to the background of the wreck. If you happen to might mine salt from their grief and tears, Slovyansk could be a frontrunner of salt-making. Until, after all, their tears grew to become a lake. 


I’m speaking to Chekmeniov about his pictures and his connections to the area. He shot the collection I take into account most poignant – Passport – within the Luhansk area in the course of the interval when Ukraine was issuing its first passports to its residents.

Chekmeniov helped social staff who visited the aged, and took portraits in folks’s houses. Among the many residents of the brand new state had been women and men of their 90s who had their very own loss of life—not a political renaissance—on their minds.

One in all Chekmeniov’s topics had a coffin positioned preemptively subsequent to his mattress. The poor houses’ interiors remained outdoors the frames of the passport images, however had been nonetheless there, just like the worn-out stage-sets, in Chekmeniov’s footage. 

He took his pictures in 1994; all of them breathe with chilly. Some topics wrap themselves in blankets; others are sporting thick sweaters.

Many of the houses Chekmeniov visited had been heated with coal. Miners might purchase coal at a reduction, nevertheless it was nonetheless not low cost. Folks saved by holding their houses frigid. Gasoline was thought-about a extra progressive and environmentally-friendly possibility.

None of Chekmeniov’s topics gave it any thought, nevertheless: they had been making ready to commerce the comfy feeling of their houses for the heat of the bottom that will quickly take them. 

Within the early 2006, there was first speak of the pure fuel deposits within the sandy soils of the Yusif basin which encompasses elements of the Donetsk and Kharkiv areas, proper subsequent to the nation of salt lakes, pine forests, and the extremely clear air the place we took the image of the iron Swallow.

One struggled to think about a brand new mining operation in that panorama. Gasoline lies within the deep strata of sandy soils, and the wells might be as deep as 4,500 meters.

This might, in flip, have an effect on the bottom water and the whole ecosystem. The environmental threat and feasibility analyses had been by no means accomplished—primarily due to the battle. 

In 2014, the corporate that ran explorations for Shell stopped working with the discover that it was taking “a hiatus in our floor operations.”

In mid-February of 2021, the nationwide concern Naftogaz additionally threw within the towel: “Let the fuel keep below the bottom at this value.” Right now, the Yusif basin is among the first front-lines. 

The Donetsk and Luhansk areas have usually been known as the land of black and white gold: coal and salt. However the actual treasure is fuel: an invisible compound that’s now tightening the vitality dependence noose round European nations. 

For the eight years because the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of elements of Luhansk and Donetsk areas, the battle, for many European politicians, remained as amorphous and invisible as pure fuel. Solely now has the wind from Ukraine introduced over the acrid scent of fuel and burning. 

For the massive half, this invisibility was a results of the Russian media marketing campaign that manipulated historic information and the info of the Ukrainian frontier. In actual fact, the one factor that Moscow is after is sources—together with the human one. 

The Soviet propaganda forged the employees of Donbas as brothers of the Titan Prometheus who first sculpted human beings out of mud after which gave them hearth and its warmth.

In contrast to their half-divine imaginary kin, nevertheless, the folks of Donbas weren’t invincible. Day by day, these miners did back-breaking work, climbed down into the heart of the earth like moles, denying themselves daylight and dropping their well being and generally lives.

The propaganda machine stored silent about their ‘occupational’ sicknesses and the excessive price of mortality within the mines. Solely their very specific cough and the black circles round their eyes reminded of the price they paid—the coal mud that no cleaning soap might wash off. The one factor that remained invincible was their robust, actually pathological, kinship with the land. 

In contrast to the Ukrainian Futurists, the Jap Ukrainian farmers noticed the change of their land’s panorama as an act of violence completed to their very own our bodies and identities.

They noticed industrialisation as a type of violence, whereas they cared about their land as if it had been a member of the household. They made positive the soil didn’t erode or get washed out by planting winter wheat or rye to offer the land an opportunity to relaxation and renew itself.

Right now, the fields of wheat and rye are additionally burning. The fireplace that Prometheus had given folks is put on the service of loss of life and destruction. 

Industrialisation, in the meantime, similar to images, is a part of our fashionable historical past. Industrialisation appealed to the long run; images has all the time been in regards to the previous.

Warfare retains taking the long run away, as do the pressured migration and deportation, poverty, starvation, adjustments of local weather, and new illnesses.

The previous requires fixed vigilance: archives and cultural heritage are being destroyed. My very own analog picture archive didn’t survive the blaze of artillery in March of 2022, and changed into mud below a Russian barrage.

As a token of reminiscence, I’ve a portrait of myself taken in opposition to the backdrop of the empty, burned-out partitions. However it was not the primary time I had stood amid my ruins. 

I had solely been to my grandfather’s village as soon as. Nobody knew my grandparents’ historical past nicely; my grandmother by no means confirmed me her household footage: stacks of them gathered mud in her wardrobe for a few years till she died.

Grandfather had died earlier than her. Wars and revolutions had destroyed that village. Industrialisation and the empire not solely occupied the native landscapes, but in addition wore out, swallowed the goals of my grandfather’s household—as soon as potters who grew to become coal miners.

We took a household image in opposition to the background of the devastated panorama the place the Ukrainian church and my grandfather’s dad and mom’ home had as soon as stood. They lived right here within the Nineteen Twenties. They had been deported in 1938, rehabilitated in 1954. We got here again within the two-thousands. 

I ponder what the pottery my great-grandparents made seemed like and picture myself placing flowers right into a vase formed by their fingers. I ponder what the clay felt like—the clay that gave them power and impressed them to make new issues.

However I haven’t got that information—or these artifacts. I do not even have that image with the vanished village within the background. A century of my household’s biography—that is what I am attempting to place again collectively, like a damaged jug. 

I additionally take into consideration my very own connection to this land. The late-summer wind and the sharp scent of thymes that sends me, like a magic potion, immediately dwelling, the place the silver manes of needle grasses wrap the earth like waves of an ocean.

The place holes within the roads are full of coal slag, and in winter the snow is dusted with salt.  The place the roots of the crops are so robust, they develop within the deserted rusted frames of factories, reclaiming what’s theirs. The place the faceless salt basic is counting down the time left within the lifetime of a 3rd empire. 

The place all the pieces that appears at first black-and-white assumes vivid colours and involves life. Identical to the propaganda trains that Vasyl Yermilov painted with flowers earlier than they went cruising the native rails within the early 1900s. 

My recollections is perhaps nearer to a Futuristic epic relatively than the fact on the bottom. In actuality, the thymes and needle grasses may not survive the battle—they lack the resilience to the large numbers of machines and explosions.

And to assist the salt basic see political change, Ukrainian troopers dig trenches—and watch sunrises and sunsets from them. The most effective of them turn out to be the salt of that earth. And the price of it can’t be measured. 

Students argue in regards to the precise second when modernity ended and whether or not we’re nonetheless processing its demise. I’m taken with a distinct query: did its finish additionally sign the loss of life of all its visions of the previous and the long run?

In order that the one factor now we have at present is the current, the place time is measured not by the fingers of a clock however by the firing of air-defense system because it stops the crawl of a reborn imperialism?

If the final century’s Futurists out of the blue discovered themselves in our occasions, would they be upset? We have now tense rhymes, cryptic phrases, and an on a regular basis wrestle for survival.

As we survive air-raid alarms and our personal anxieties, endure loss, ache, and the destruction of our native metropolis, what we wish most, greater than ever earlier than, is to gulp up our freedom—to combat for every lungful of it just like the parched beached fish. 

The previous utopia was born underground—born of salt, coal, and fuel. However there isn’t any must drill into the sand to search out the brand new one—it’s proper right here, on the floor. We’re the shelf of the ocean that may reside right here an astronomical variety of years later. 

Let’s examine our watches. Mine tells me it is yr eight and day 162 of battle. The empire is being counted down. 

This Writer

Kateryna Iakovlenko is a Luhansk-born Ukrainian visible artwork researcher and author. Amongst her publications is the ebook Why There Are Nice Ladies Artists in Ukrainian Artwork (2019) and the particular difficulty Euphoria and Fatigue: Ukrainian Artwork and Society after 2014 (with Tatiana Kochubinska, 2019). Presently, she is a Senior Analysis Fellow on the UCL College of Slavonic and East European Research (SSEES). This text has been translated by Nina Murray.

This text is printed in partnership with Ukraine Lab.


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