For what is technically peacetime, there’s a lot of shelling going on round here. Donetsk airport is still held by the Ukrainian army and the rebels of the Donetsk People’s Republic bombard it furiously every day. The Ukrainians reply by lobbing back artillery shells and Grad missiles. Both sides bristle with anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, so the war is a static one, fought by a series of artillery duels, first world war-style. Underneath the smart new airport built by Turks for the Euro 2012 championships is a warren of deep Soviet-era bunkers and tunnels, where the Ukrainian defenders retreat with their howitzers when the barrages get too heavy. Construct your own metaphor: deep, indestructible veins of the past lying underneath the fragile modernity of the present.
The Donetsk regional museum was hit by rocket fire in August, demolishing a wing and killing three people who were getting into a minibus nearby. In the museum courtyard are a row of ancient Scythian fertility idols, at least 3,000 years old — big-hipped women with pendulous breasts and pointy hats or maybe hairdos. Shelling has decapitated one of them and the others are spattered with shrapnel which has exposed the light sandstone under their weathered black exterior. Somehow this looks very shocking, as though the statues are bleeding.
To Havana Banana, Donetsk’s premier nightspot. It’s a Cuban-themed basement bar, and therefore decorated with photographs of lamas and Machu Picchu. A young couple in matching camouflage fatigues are on a date, sipping cocktails with little umbrellas in them. She wears her blonde hair piled up under her military cap, like Lee Miller when she was a war correspondent. I take tea with Fyodor Berezin, Donetsk’s most famous author. He has penned a dozen volumes of futuristic military science fiction. Since the summer, though, Berezin has laid his typewriter aside to serve as deputy defence minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic. He wears natty fatigues and shows off his inscribed Makarov pistol. He’s disarmingly frank about the fact that the DNR is not viable in its current borders — less than a quarter of Lugansk region and a third of Donetsk. They need Donetsk airport, and they need the port of Mariupol in order to become a ‘great metallurgical power’. The war will continue.
Berezin is not the only artistically inclined leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Boris Litvinov, 60, used to be a double bass player in a jazz band. These days he’s the chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the DPR. A graduate of the Institute of Marxism and Leninism, Litvinov has some old-school ideas on how to run his fledgling state, starting with a good dose of ‘war communism’ — in other words nationalisation of the region’s industries — and setting up some new collective farms. He seems an honest and decent man, if a little overkeen on acts of summary field justice such as the execution of looters.
The corridors of the main administration building in Donetsk are covered in classic second world war posters, such as ‘Mother Russia Calls!’ Volunteers — or perhaps mercenaries — from the Caucasus have spray-painted graffiti on the walls. ‘Chechnya is with Donetsk,’ says one inscription. ‘What could possibly go wrong?’ jokes a colleague from the New York Times.
The wreckage of the Malaysian Boeing still lies scattered across ten miles of fields south of Lugansk. Guidebooks, toiletries, half-burnt luggage, jeans, flip-flops, glossy magazines, Uno cards, bits of headphones, a children’s book that some kid had just begun colouring in when the plane was torn apart by a Buk missile. Natalia Voloshina, the lady mayor of the village of Petropavlovka, is a saintly woman. She spends her days begging for roofing materials for the damaged local school and collecting medicine for the elderly. Locals still bring her bits of the plane. A handbag discovered in a blackberry bush, a notebook which fell down the back of a woodpile. ‘None of the villagers looted anything from the plane,’ she insists. ‘We are good people here. Who would take such a sin upon their soul?’
Rebels have been following the Scottish referendum with interest. ‘Ha! British! Scotland has left you!’ says a soldier with a boxer’s face as he examines my press pass while his mate covers our car with his assault rifle. They are in the uniform of the Podrazdeleniye Besa — the Unit of the Demon, named for its commander Igor Bezler, aka Bes, or Demon. I fill him in on the latest news from Edinburgh. The rebel looks doubtful. ‘Well — if they haven’t now, they will. Soon. And then you’ll have no oil and you’ll freeze in winter and that will be the end of your happiness. And Vladimir Putin will become tsar of the world.’ Under the circumstances, I find it hard to disagree. After he delivers his message the guy kneels down and solicitously pulls a branch out of our wheel well. He tells me he is a miner. His pit was owned by the Donetsk oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. But at the beginning of the war the pinhead gear was put out of action by shelling from a Ukrainian volunteer unit known as Dnipro-1, financed by the Dnipropetrovsk oligarch Ihor Kolomoyski. Other Akhmetov-owned mines and factories were also reportedly targeted — deliberately, the rebels claim. Economists might call this ‘non-price competition’. ‘Be happy,’ says the soldier as he sends us on our way.
One of the Ukrainian checkpoints on the main Dnipropetrovsk-Donetsk road one is run by Right Sector, a ultranationalist group that Russian TV calls fascists. The volunteers wear motley uniforms they have bought themselves. Anatoly Ivanov, 32, sports a fancy new flack jacket, American knee pads and fingerless leather gloves with studs. He is a judge from Omul in central Ukraine who has taken four weeks off from his court duties to fight with Right Sector. ‘I’ve got no quarrel with ordinary Donetsk guys,’ he tells me in flawless, educated Russian. ‘It’s the Russians who invaded our country I want to kick out. I ask every car coming out of Donetsk, when are you going to throw out those assholes who have made us enemies?’
Owen Matthews is a contributing editor at Newsweek and the author of Stalin’s Children and Glorious Misadventures