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Recap: VISIONS OF ECOLOGY on Art and the Environment in Eastern Europe and Eurasia, EVENT #4: The Making and Unmaking of the “Black Myth” of Donbas

April 4, 2023

Visions of Ecology is a year-long series on art and the environment in Eastern Europe and Eurasia supported by the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies (REEES) program at the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale University. The series is convened by Molly Brunson, Associate Professor in Slavic Languages and Literatures and History of Art, who also serves as Faculty Director of REEES. The series is co-organized by Barbora Bartunkova, PhD Candidate in History of Art, and Elena Adasheva-Klein, PhD Candidate in Sociocultural Anthropology.

For the fourth event in the series on March 28, 2023, Dr. Victoria Donovan presented a talk titled, “The Making and Unmaking of the ‘Black Myth’ of Donbas: Art as Witness to Deindustrialization, Ecocide, and War.” Dr. Donovan is a Senior Lecturer in Russian and Director of the Centre for Russian, Soviet, Central and East European Studies at the University of St. Andrews. Her current research is on the industrial history and heritage of the Ukrainian East, questions of heritage management and manipulation, and the role of the industrial past in forming community identities and politics. Dr. Donovan is the co-author with Darya Tsymbalyuk of Limits of Collaboration: Art, Ethics and Donbas (Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, 2022), and co-editor with Iryna Sklokina of Donbas Imaginaries: Heritage, Culture, and Community, a special collection published with REGION: Regional Studies of Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia in 2021. Before she began her research in Ukraine, she worked on Russian cultural nationalism and heritage politics in the historic northwest of the country. Her monograph, Chronicles in Stone: Preservation, Patriotism and Identity in the Russian Northwest was published with the Northern Illinois University Press imprint at Cornell University Press in 2019.  Dr. Donovan’s current research engages with the public, civic and engaged humanities, and her methodological writing in this area has been published in Modern Languages Open and is forthcoming in 2023 with Canadian Slavonic Papers. Dr. Donovan’s research and knowledge transfer work has been recognized with prestigious national prizes and grants, including an Arts and Humanities Leadership Fellowship, British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award, and an AHRC/BBC New Generation Thinker award. Her new book Monotown: Tales of Resistance from the Ukrainian East will be published by Daunt Books Publishing in 2024.

Donovan began her presentation with a question one frequently comes across when researching Soviet literature about the Ukrainian East: Что такое Донбасс?, or what is the Donbas? This question expresses the desire to exhaustively define this region in relation to its imperial and ecological history, especially given its origins in extractive terminology (the Donetsk Basin) and the discovery of coal in the mid-18th century. Today this question continues to resound in the political landscape as the neo-imperial Russian army is brutally fighting to claim ownership of the region. When we think about the Ukrainian East, we often think about industry, deindustrialization, and war, all dramatic and highly politicized parts of the region’s story. But according to Donovan, there is another side of Donbas that is not commonly visualized or imagined. The mineral composition of the region’s subsoil means that this part of Ukraine is also characterized by rich biodiversity and the variety of natural landscapes. If the region’s flora and fauna are in part the answer to the question “What is the Donbas?,  then why do we think, almost solely, about industrial destruction and ecological depletion when we imagine of the region? To answer this question, Donovan turns to environmental historian Asia Bazdyrieva who has proposed the framework of “resourcification.” Resourcification is a dual process that includes agricultural and industrial exploitation and depletion, on the one hand, and the crystallization of Ukraine in the geopolitical and cultural imaginary as a resource, an extraction site, and a transit space, on the other hand. Bazdyrieva points out that the idea of resourcification pertains across the distinct historical periods and political regimes of Soviet communism, post-Soviet oligarchy, and Western neoliberal capitalism. 

In the first part of her talk, Donovan discussed what she calls “the making of the ‘black myth’ of Donbas.” This process constituted the reduction of the region in the cultural imaginary to a simple extraction resource through slow violence and ecological destruction. Donovan laid out a history of the region’s cultural narrativization. She began with the production of a geological map of the Donetsk Mountain Range (1823-1827) by Ukrainian geologist Evgraf Kovalevsky who was also the first to use the name of Donbas as an abbreviation for the Donetsk Coal Basin. These events marked the transformation of the region from a neglected imperial periphery into a viable extraction resource and a site of interest for foreign industrial capital. Postcards and photographs of Donbas from this period represent the earliest articulations of visual discourse, exhaustively characterizing the region as industrial while excluding other kinds of imaginaries. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and especially during the Stalinist period, intensive construction and industrialization created a new era of cultural mythologizing. The images of heroic miners and steel workers, including the cult of Alexey Stakhanov and Nikita Izotov, in films, photography, and literature paint Donbas as a site of industrial socialist modernity. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, another kind of mythologization emerges: the reverential celebratory tropes of Soviet propaganda are replaced by the fetishization of socio-economic deprivation in the Ukrainian East. For instance, the photography of Alexander Chekmenev, Viktor Marushchenko, and Valerii Miloserdov break with Soviet aesthetic practices while demonstrating the movement towards self-exoticization and fetishization of poverty. These visual narratives become part of the new cultural mythology of the region in the post-Soviet period called чернуха (chernukha). With the outbreak of war in 2014, the notion of Donbas as a bleak and miserable place is magnified with the images of military destruction. While these mythologies were not wholly misrepresentative, they produced the imagination of Donbas as a landscape of multiple apocalypses, a post-human landscape that was no longer fit for habitation.

In the second part of her presentation, Donovan demonstrated how contemporary forms of activism in the Ukrainian East have resisted the resourcification of the region, which she calls the “unmaking of the ‘black myth.’” Thinking alongside feminist decolonial scholars Madina Tlostanova and Darya Tsymbalyuk, Donovan discusses four instances of art practices from the Ukrainian East that manifest a “decolonial choice” (Tlostanova) by breaking with the dominant imaginary of the region. This work is based on Donovan’s long-term participant observation between 2019-2021, interviews carried out before and after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and close analysis of the art practices and artworks.

The first practice highlights the contrast between two ways of engaging with ruins: “ruin porn” characterized by the reduction, aestheticization, and dehumanization of landscape by a distanced viewer and the “zabroshka erotic” (Donovan & Tsymbalyuk) which refers to local values of care, compassion, and the desire for preservation and creativity. For example, during a summer school in Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in 2019, local artists from the Plus-Minus art residency carried out regular expeditions to abandoned industrial buildings. They collected objects from these sites and upcycled them in their creative work. This engagement with ruins involved the embodied inhabitation of the sites and the careful recovery of objects, often called ‘historical trash.’ These practices resulted in the formation of the ‘archive of de-industrialization’ which digitally preserved excavated objects and the creation of artworks, giving new life to the objects. Another form of engagement with abandoned buildings is a project called “gareleya neotodryosh” (a gallery that you can’t rip down) curated by Vitaly Matukhno – a series of exhibitions of works by local artists installed on the very sites of industrial ruins. Matukhno’s curatorial initiative aims to resist resourcification and exotification of the region while stepping outside a conventional gallery space.

Donovan’s second example of decolonial art was produced as part of the Un/archiving the Post/industry project led by the Center for Urban History in Lviv in collaboration with the University of St. Andrews and three local history museums between 2019-2021. The participants digitized around 30,000 photographic negatives and 90 hours of archival film from vulnerable industrial heritage collections at the museums in the Ukrainian East, many of which have now been destroyed, displaced, or looted. All materials are available at the Urban Media Archive on the Center’s website. ‘Unarchiving’ through community engagement involved exhibitions of industrial photography, home movie days, and community workshops. During a summer school in Pokrovsk in 2021, artists, curators, and researchers were invited to engage with the digitized collection of industrial photography. For his project titled “De?industria,” artist Oleksandr Kuchynskyi used Pavlo Kashkel’s photographs of work and life in Soviet Mariupol, layering them with images of urban textures to mask industrial iconography.  

The ecocritical filmmaking of the Freefilmers collective from Mariupol represented Donovan’s third example of decolonial artistic thinking. Filmmaker Zoya Laktionova, for example, challenges the notion of the Ukrainian East as an extractive resource by foregrounding the multispecies subjectivities and entanglements that characterize local environments. Her short film Diorama (2019) depicts interspecies relations at the Azov Sea, traditionally ignored in the narratives of industrial modernity.

Donovan concluded her talk with the project titled Mariupol Memory Park, produced by the Freefilmers collective following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. By archiving the artistic life of Mariupol before the invasion, the makers of the site resist the erasure of the city by preserving its spirit and culture. Accordinf to Donovan, these domestic visions do not extract from the place but rather are of the place. Donovan’s presentation ended with an audio story titled “Toretsk Bing” by artist Sashko Protyah about an encounter with a slag heap.

During the discussion period after the talk, Donovan and Brunson considered the decolonialization of Slavic studies in Western institutions and the dangers of academic resourcification and knowledge extraction from local communities. Donovan emphasized the importance of archival digitization in benefitting local communities and the necessity for recognizing such work in academic institutions. She also discussed how the displacement of local artists from the region during war causes the inevitable move away from embodied artistic practices in the landscape toward digitization. The archival drive is a direct response to the conditions of precarity and cultural erasure which becomes even more important during wartime destruction. Responding to questions from the audience, Donovan discussed inter-generational engagement and the inclusion of working class and older people in her collaborative projects as well as comparative thinking across post-industrial sites in Ukraine, Europe, and the United States. The discussion concluded with a question about the future of Donbas, touching on the problematic history of its name and the possibilities for an alternative imagination of the region.   

Watch video recording on the Yale European Studies Council YouTube chanel.