What’s in a name? Quite a lot, particularly when applied to cities – and none more so than this one. There’s nothing particularly intriguing about ‘Donetsk’ – which this city of almost a million people became in 1961 – it’s simply derived from the Donets river on which it stands. But this anodyne moniker was chosen by Nikita Khruschev to replace the polluted industrial town’s most toxic asset: its former name of Stalina, dubbed in honour of his monstrous predecessor. But not satisfied with one Bolshevik titan, Donetsk had even briefly in the 1920s been named Trotsk, until the eponymous Leon was air-brushed out of history.
However, the eastern Ukrainian coal and steel town began life with a very different name entirely: Юзовка or Hughesovska. You’re right, it doesn’t sound very Ukrainian so what is it? Welsh? Yes, it was named after John Hughes of Merthyr Tydfil who dug a hole in the ground in 1870 and found iron and coal in abundance. So much of the stuff indeed that they’re still digging, burning and smelting it to this day, as if Global Warming and the Great Post-Industrial Transformation never happened.
Which is why I found Donetsk both reassuringly familiar but also unnervingly strange. Familiar because I myself grew up amongst coal dust, slag heaps and the smell of sulphur in the air, and being in Donetsk was a shocking reminder of how quickly and absolutely this world has disappeared in Britain – and much of the rest of Europe. It was terminated violently and vindictively by Thatcher in my native Yorkshire, and with rather more respectful decorum in the rest of western Europe, but it went all the same. It’s going too in eastern Ukraine but, presently living side-by-side with a very different kind of world. That very strange demi-monde that lies somewhere between Moscow and Las Vegas, which is still populated by characters from Bulgakov and Dostoyevsky, but is no longer ruled by either commissars or boyars, but the олигархи - oligarchs.