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Let's talk about Donbass


Donbas has never been talked about as much as now. Yet many had never heard of this industrial and mining region in eastern Ukraine now disputed between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists. But those "wild lands", from the time of the Cossacks to the great famine of 1932/33, from the Russian migrations up to the entire Soviet period, have seen important chapters in the history of Eastern Europe flow.

The Donbas region takes its name from the Donetsk River, a tributary of the Don which flows into present-day Russian territory. Located at the eastern end of the Ukrainian space, these Ukrainian steppes can be considered part of the dyke pole or "wild lands", i.e. those sparsely populated territories which in the first centuries of the modern era constituted a transition zone between the Rzeczpospolita (the large Polish-Lithuanian state) to the Black Sea and the Tatar-Muslim world; at the time they were mainly inhabited by Cossacks, i.e. by those peasant-soldiers who had settled there to escape serfdom .

The Donbas, which corresponds to the current territories of the Ukrainian oblasts of Luhansk and Donetsk (plus a part of the Russian province of Rostov on Don), was however not the epicenter of Cossack life, which took place mostly in the areas west and corresponding to the current industrial cities of Zaporizhzhya and Dnipropetrovsk. It remained scarcely inhabited until the mid-nineteenth century and its population was mainly due to the discovery and the beginning of the exploitation of the coal deposits ; for this reason, the Donbas was the Ukrainian region that first experienced a strong flow of immigration from Russia. In fact, before the mid-nineteenth century there was almost no trace of the Russian presence in Ukraine , but the country was mainly populated by Ukrainians, Jews and Poles, as well as numerous other ethnic minorities (Germans, Czechs, Bulgarians, Greeks, Tatars, etc. .).

The Cossack legacy, immigration, industrialization, urbanization of peasants, social riots and anti-Jewish pogroms of the era before the Revolution, spread the idea - still alive today - of the unstructured and violent nature of society of Donbass . The inclement and unhealthy climate ("hotter than in Palestine in the summer and colder than in St. Petersburg in the winter" a French engineer said in 1908), the insufficient supply of water, the intolerance towards the central, the harshness of the working regime, the inter-ethnic contrasts (with a basic hostility between Ukrainians and Russians), the scarce social opportunities offered to the inhabitants, are other long-lasting aspects that characterize the image of Donbas.

A region, therefore, which has its own special physiognomy, a sort of Sicily or Corsica, intolerant of central powers: imperial, Soviet, Russian or Ukrainian . At the same time, a region that has managed (much more than Italian Sicily and French Corsica) to play a political role that goes beyond its borders: two secretaries general of the CPSU, Kruščev and Brežnev , are sons of Russian workers immigrants to Donbas or surrounding Ukrainian regions; originating from Donbas and the Dnipropetrovsk region were also many secretaries of the Ukrainian Bolshevik Party and some of the main exponents of the political life of post-Soviet Ukraine: Yanukovyč , the president overwhelmed by the EuroMaïdan revolt (which was also a revolt against the dominance of Russian-speaking Donbass over Ukrainian political life) is from Donetsk , while its Prime Minister Azarov is a Russian immigrant to Donbas; on the other hand, Tymoshenko and former president Kuchma are both Russophone (or bilingual) Ukrainians from Dnipropetrovsk . The fact that the political history of post-Soviet Ukraine has been dominated by people from these southeastern areas, while the most prestigious politician produced from the western regions, the Galician Čornovil (a former Soviet dissident) was assassinated in a car "accident" on the eve of the 1999 presidential elections provides some important keys to understanding the Ukrainian events of recent months.

Imperial and Soviet Donbas.

The Ukrainian historian Petro Lavriv quantified the total inhabitants of Donbas at 700,000 in 1897, which increased to 2 million in 1920 and to 7 million in 1959. As a result of Russian immigration, the demographic phenomenon that persists today, namely a slight prevalence of Russian speakers in medium and large cities and Ukrainian speakers in small towns and the countryside . In 1926 Russians constituted 31.4% of the inhabitants of Donbas and two thirds of them lived in cities, of which they constituted about half of the inhabitants and in which the Russian language was prevalent. The Ukrainian Bolshevik Party was dominated by Russians (many from Donbas) and it was thanks to Lenin - who rejected the proposal - that the birth of an autonomous republic of Donbas was avoided. The leaders of the Ukrainian party, led by the German Emmanuel Kviring (who had been in favor of the secession of Donbas) and by his deputy Lebed' (Russian), were however hostile to Ukrainian culture; among civil servants enrolled in the party, only 18% knew Ukrainian.

From 1923 the policy in favor of the Ukrainian language ( korenizacija ) began : in 1926 30% of the newspapers and 50% of the books were published in Ukrainian, a language whose use had been discouraged and forbidden with two provisions by the tsarist authorities during the 19th century (the circular of the Interior Minister Valuev of 1863 and the imperial decree of Ems of 1873). The number of Ukrainian immigrants in the industrial cities of Donbas and south-eastern Ukraine also increased : in Luhansk, Zaporizhia , Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk Ukrainians by 1933 now accounted for half or more of the inhabitants; in Stalino (current Donetsk ) they represented 31% of the population, and 36% of the mining and metallurgical workforce of Donbas. However, the Russian language continued to be in common use in the factories.

Korenizacija represented in the cities of Donbas a phenomenon endowed with a triple complexity : the Russian speakers suffered a sort of linguistic shock linked to the Ukrainization of the administration (and a part of the Russians resolved to learn Ukrainian), many peasants and the workers Russified Ukrainians first came into contact with their own culture and became aware of their nationality, while the de facto preponderance of the Russian language and the process of Russification of urbanized Ukrainians continued. A complexity that explains why even today, alongside the patriots of both sides, there is a vast area made up of people who are alien to national and linguistic crystallizations .

But already in 1926 a trend reversal began which was to have dramatic results . In 1928 Kosior , a Pole from Donbas, who never learned Ukrainian, was appointed first secretary of the Ukrainian Bolshevik Party . Alongside the repression of Ukrainian culture and forced collectivization, the forced withdrawal of grain and seeds by the Kremlin led in 1932-33 to the catastrophic artificial famine (or Holodomor ) in which 3 to 7 million Ukrainians perished , according to various estimates by the historical (in those years censuses in the USSR were suspended and an entire generation of demographers was eliminated in the purges). The Holodomor also decimated the Luhansk region (from 1935 renamed Voroshilovgrad ); less severely affected was the Donetsk region (then Stalino).

Holodomor and World War II were a double demographic catastrophe for Ukrainians. In just over a decade, the total number of Russians grew from 78 million to 100 million, while Ukrainians fell from 31.2 million to 28 million . All this increased the Russian presence in the whole of south-eastern Ukraine and especially in the Donbas.

The Russification campaign waged under Brezhnev had important results . The share of Russian-speaking and bilingual Ukrainians increased. In the Donbas, also due to the absence until the second half of the 1960s of a university and therefore of an intellectual layer which was the repository of national culture, the Russification of the Ukrainians was 5 times greater than the national average: in 1979 it reached 35% of the total, to which must be added 45% of bilinguals, with only 20% of pure Ukrainian speakers (data comparable only with those of the city of Kyiv and Crimea)

Dombas today _

Nonetheless, there is currently no region of Ukraine where Ukrainians are not the majority of the population, except Crimea . Throughout Donbas Russians are 38-39% of the population and even in the cities their prevalence is minimal: for example in Donetsk Russians are 48.15% of the inhabitants and Ukrainians 46.65%. And in 1991 all the regions voted mostly for the independence of Ukraine, with percentages always higher than the share of the resident Ukrainian population; therefore with the favorable vote of many Russians: 54% in the Crimea, 77% in the Donetsk region , 84% in the Luhansk region, 85% in the Odessa region.


Ukrainian -speaking counties are more numerous . The national and linguistic question of the whole of south-eastern Ukraine therefore does not have a strictly territorial character , since one cannot strictly speaking of entirely "Russian" or "Russophone" regions, in the sense that Russophone cities and counties are often enclaves within a Ukrainian -speaking territory .


This greatly weakens not only secessionism (which is already weak in itself given that it involves illegal and violent actions), but also the so-called federalism . From the point of view of linguistic discrimination, the surveys conducted annually by the Institute of Sociology of the Kyiv Academy of Sciences (NAN), show significant data: the percentage of Russian-speaking Ukrainians who complain of episodes of linguistic discrimination has dropped from 8.6 % from 1994 to 3.7% in 2012, while the share of Ukrainian speakers who felt discriminated against increased (from 6.8% to 8.4%); however, these are minimal percentages, which blatantly refute the alleged dangers of linguistic discrimination in Ukraine. A 2007 research on linguistic usage, conducted by the same Institute, attested that in Crimea and Donbas the percentage of speakers who privately use only Ukrainian is 11.8%, a figure which drops to 8.6% if it refers to public use.

All these data make us reflect on the often instrumental nature of the alleged attacks on linguistic freedom ; the oversizing of the use of Russian, in the whole of Ukraine, can be measured, for example, by the number of Russian-speaking Ukrainians, who make up 29% of the population, while ethnic Russians in Ukraine are around 17%. All this can be explained by the centuries-old administrative and scholastic domination of Russian , by the existence of bans on the use of Ukrainian which were in force in the Tsarist Empire from 1863 to 1905, by the direct and indirect Russification practiced during the soviet era. Therefore, the intrinsic strength of the Russian language is still consistent, although the schools that teach lessons exclusively in Russian (but not in the Donbas) have decreased a lot in Ukraine.

Therefore the uniqueness of Ukrainian as a national language, adopted in 1989 by Soviet Ukraine and confirmed by the new independent State, whose Constitution also provides for the "protection of the Russian language", actually represents a sort of "positive discrimination" in favor of the most disadvantaged entity . This is all the more true for Donbas. However, the 2012 Kolesnyčenko-Kyvalov law , wanted by Yanukovyč 's Party of Regions , recognized the status of official regional language to any language spoken by more than 10% of the inhabitants of individual regions. The Central Parliament had voted to repeal this law immediately after Yanukovych 's flight , in February 2014, but it was not promulgated by the provisional head of state, Turchynov . So the law is still in force today.

Finally, it should be noted that the Russian Federation does not guarantee equal rights to the Ukrainian language in its territory, which is spoken by at least 3 million people according to the 2001 census. In fact, there are no Ukrainian schools in Russia and in a few educational institutions (8 in the whole Russia) optional tuition of Ukrainian is provided. Crimea could also adapt its legislation in this field to the Russian one, although about 25% of the residents are Ukrainians.

Economically and productively, Donbas (especially the Donetsk oblast ) makes an important contribution (12.1%) to the gross domestic product of Ukraine, higher than that of the western regions, but it is an economy subsidized due to the technologically obsolete nature of its industries and mines : the Donetsk oblast received one third of all central transfers to the regions in 2013, while private companies received subsidies and refunds of one third higher than the taxes paid .

A poll conducted shortly after the annexation of Crimea by the Pew Research Center indicates that 70% of the inhabitants of eastern Ukraine are against the division of the country (against 18% in favour); even the majority of Russian speakers, 58%, are against secession, while 27% are in favor. Conversely, 61% of citizens of the Russian Federation are now convinced that there are regions of Ukraine that actually belong to Russia .

Despite all its problems, the Donbas had still managed to maintain balance and internal peace for centuries. Today, however, it has become a battlefield for the responsibility of those who wanted to fan the flames of rivalry and arm the hand of self-proclaimed "separatist" adventurers.

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