Black, white, and colourless

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

Some have been leaving for the second time, after they’d fled right here from the warfare and from Russian mercenaries, to begin new lives eight years earlier. And now the bottom was slipping once more from underneath their ft. 

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 are not 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 warfare, and now lives within the Kyiv area.

“When a mine-shaft stops being labored, water will fill the empty area. This water erodes the bigger buildings of the mine and rises to the floor the place it’d kind 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 ended to take an image by a tank named Swallow. These have been the members of the 95th Particular Paratrooper Brigade, the longer term ‘Cyborgs’ of the Donetsk airport.

One in every of them acquired married that very same yr or quickly after, and has two sons now, however he’s nonetheless on the entrance — simply went house on depart 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 shaped because 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 completely by synthetic subterranean leaching. This apply lasted till the start of World Battle II.

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

My creativeness typically turns to the Ukrainian Futurists who had as soon as envisioned my area as a utopia and got here right here seeking “rhymes and life”. They thought the longer term can 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 improper: there had been, in reality, 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, other than a handful of his writings I learn. However I inhabit the longer term he had imagined, and discover myself on the identical 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 once I walked salted roads have 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 underneath floor, a statue of ‘the Salt Common’ Nikolai Letunovsky, the then proprietor of the Bryants mine (now Artemsil). 

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

Later, nonetheless, he was celebrated as the person who opened the economic chapter within the lifetime of town—by no means thoughts that salt-mining had been practiced right here lengthy earlier than the economic 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 would it not 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 couple of locals have already taken a swim in it. They are saying it is as deep as a five-story constructing, and also you would possibly very effectively drown.

The residents of Lysychansk baptised this place The Lysychansk Grand Canyon. It does look superior: the pit is stuffed with 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 at the least eight complaints, and the illegally mined coal in addition to the mining gear have been arrested at the least as many occasions. The felony investigation, nonetheless, didn’t start till 2020. 

Even earlier than the warfare, Luhansk and Donetsk areas appeared pock-marked from area: the gaping holes of unlawful pits are straightforward 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. 

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

Conservationists raised alarm: pit mining harms the atmosphere, and isn’t any manner 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 harm or dying on the state-owned mines as effectively, however at the least these supplied a security internet. Unlawful pits provided no assurances of any sort 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 compelled 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 crushed, 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 trade performed an essential function. However the trade was, in reality, enjoying its personal sport. 

“My grandmother got here from Western Ukraine. She broke the regulation when she was fifteen, to have a couple 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 finally, as a result of she began coughing blood.”

I’m talking to Alexander Chekmenev in a restaurant close to the Livoberezhna metro station in Kyiv. It’s late September, 2014, and the warfare 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 individuals stand in opposition to the background of the break. If you happen to might mine salt from their grief and tears, Slovyansk can be a frontrunner of salt-making. Except, 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 contemplate most poignant – Passport – within the Luhansk area through the interval when Ukraine was issuing its first passports to its residents.

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

One in every of 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 have 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.

A lot of the houses Chekmeniov visited have been heated with coal. Miners might purchase coal at a reduction, however it was nonetheless not low-cost. Individuals saved by protecting their houses frigid. Gasoline was thought of a extra progressive and environmentally-friendly possibility.

None of Chekmeniov’s topics gave it any thought, nonetheless: they have been getting ready to commerce the comfy feeling of their houses for the heat of the bottom that might quickly take them. 

Within the early 2006, there was first discuss of the pure gasoline 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 may very well be as deep as 4,500 meters.

This might, in flip, have an effect on the bottom water and your complete ecosystem. The environmental danger and feasibility analyses have been by no means accomplished—primarily due to the warfare. 

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 gasoline keep underneath the bottom at this value.” Immediately, the Yusif basin is likely one of the first front-lines. 

The Donetsk and Luhansk areas have typically been known as the land of black and white gold: coal and salt. However the true treasure is gasoline: 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 warfare, for many European politicians, remained as amorphous and invisible as pure gasoline. Solely now has the wind from Ukraine introduced over the acrid scent of gasoline 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.

Not like their half-divine imaginary kin, nonetheless, the individuals of Donbas weren’t invincible. Day by day, these miners did back-breaking work, climbed down into the center of the earth like moles, denying themselves daylight and dropping their well being and typically 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 sturdy, actually pathological, kinship with the land. 

Not like the Ukrainian Futurists, the Jap Ukrainian farmers noticed the change of their land’s panorama as an act of violence executed 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 have been a member of the household. They made certain 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.

Immediately, the fields of wheat and rye are additionally burning. The hearth that Prometheus had given individuals is put on the service of dying and destruction. 

Industrialisation, in the meantime, identical to pictures, is a part of our trendy historical past. Industrialisation appealed to the longer term; pictures has all the time been in regards to the previous.

Battle retains taking the longer term away, as do the compelled migration and deportation, poverty, starvation, modifications 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 became mud underneath 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. But it surely 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 effectively; 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 additionally wore out, swallowed the desires 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 have been deported in 1938, rehabilitated in 1954. We got here again within the two-thousands. 

I ponder what the pottery my great-grandparents made appeared like and picture myself placing flowers right into a vase formed by their arms. 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 making an attempt 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 house, the place the silver manes of needle grasses wrap the earth like waves of an ocean.

The place holes within the roads are stuffed with coal slag, and in winter the snow is dusted with salt.  The place the roots of the crops are so sturdy, 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 every part that appears at first black-and-white assumes vibrant 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 quite than the fact on the bottom. In actuality, the thymes and needle grasses may not survive the warfare—they lack the resilience to the big 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 perfect 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 enthusiastic about a unique query: did its finish additionally sign the dying of all its visions of the previous and the longer term?

In order that the one factor we’ve got immediately is the current, the place time is measured not by the arms 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 all of a sudden 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 would like most, greater than ever earlier than, is to gulp up our freedom—to battle for every lungful of it just like the parched beached fish. 

The previous utopia was born underground—born of salt, coal, and gasoline. 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 test our watches. Mine tells me it is yr eight and day 162 of warfare. The empire is being counted down. 

This Creator

Kateryna Iakovlenko is a Luhansk-born Ukrainian visible artwork researcher and author. Amongst her publications is the e book Why There Are Nice Ladies Artists in Ukrainian Artwork (2019) and the particular challenge 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 revealed in partnership with Ukraine Lab.



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