Strike. Donbas Miners Recall Protests of the ‘90s
23 September, 2019
Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

Thirty years ago, massive miners’ strikes began in the region of Donbas. They started in Russia’s Kuzbass on July 10, 1989, and spread to Ukraine’s Donetsk region a week later. Half a million miners suspended their work.

The general economic crisis in the Soviet Union added to the problems of the mining industry – production deaths, inefficient management of mines, the requirement to produce more and more coal. All this led to the fact that the miners eventually put forward a long list of demands for the government – from reducing the retirement age to providing miners’ families with apartments.

From 1989 to the late 1990s, the Donbas miners went on strike almost every year.

The walk of the miners of western Donbas to Kyiv in 1998 was the culmination of the protests. It took miners three weeks to get to the capital, on their way they passed dozens of Ukrainian cities. Later there were smaller marches to Kyiv, the crackdown of the miners' protest in Luhansk on 1998 Independence Day by the police and Berkut special police, the act of self-immolation by the Luhansk miner Oleksandr Mykhalevych in December 1998. But the miners’ protest movement was losing scale every year.

The miners of eastern Ukraine were credited with playing a role in the collapse of the Soviet Union and Ukraine gaining independence. But the miners themselves say that they were not interested in politics. And researchers suggest that these large-scale protests were inspired by the authorities.

Hromadske tried to understand why people went on strike, what they were prepared for, and what this experience had changed in their minds.

Pavlohrad is the center of the western Donbas coal basin. After the war, machine building, chemical, industrial, and construction enterprises appeared here, and in the 1950s mines began to emerge. Miners from other regions of the Soviet Union came here; infrastructure appeared.

West Donbas Mine (Pavlohradcoal), Ternivka, Dnipropetrovsk region. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

Ternivka, Dnipropetrovsk region. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

Ihor Ivanychenko, who now manages the Pavlohrad Border Guards Association, moved to Pavlohrad as a young man – his father got a position of a sinker at a new mine in the late 1960s.

Probably in the eighth grade we visited a mine in a field trip. We were dressed in uniform, got helmets, heard the equipment turn on, this clatter, dust. But the impressions were so strong that after school all the boys went to work in the mine. We didn't have much choice either: it was either mines or several factories,” Ivanychenko recalls.

Ihor Ivanychenko in Pavlohrad, Dnipropetrovsk region. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

At that time, miners in Donbas were paid very well compared to other spheres.

"In a few years I earned money for a Zaporozhets [car]," says Ivanychenko. “The boys and I remember going to Moscow for a weekend to have a beer. After the bus arrived at 9 p.m. at the Kursky station, we would enter the “Moscow” restaurant and drink beer all night. And then we would take the train home to get back to work."

"My minimum salary was about 300 rubles, whilst an engineer earned around 120. At the mining site, the salary went up to 400, 500, 600 rubles. All my relatives combined were getting less money than me alone,” says miner Mykola Zhovnirenko. He worked at a Donetsk mine for more than 15 years – from the position of a mining worker to the head of the coal mine.

Pavlohrad, Dnipropetrovsk region. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

People from other professions became miners too. Volodymyr Stepanenko initially worked as a structural engineer, but with all the bonuses and allowances he could not earn as much as a master at a mine.

If work with pickaxe and shovel is rewarded more than mental labor, then society is doomed to work with pickaxe and shovel. There were many people like me at the mine. It brought a decent wage even to those who were in prison. A bunch of people came to make the same amount of money as criminals did, but legally, and they could drink after work as well."

Volodymyr Stepanenko in Pavlohrad, Dnipropetrovsk region. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

Things changed in the late 1980s.

We, the miners, work hard and require a lot of energy. It is necessary to eat in small amounts, although something energy-boosting. The best option is lard. If you don’t eat lard, you can’t work with a shovel. But at a certain point, everyone started to bring such snacks, where not only the lard was missing, but the meat too. I never thought that adults would eat boiled carrots and beets. We were promised that everything would be fine. But the good times never came,” Ivanychenko recalls.

His daughter was born on the eve of a strike. He didn’t get the salary and had to ask for money from parents. It was a shame, he says, but there was no choice. And you couldn’t miss work, the salary was tied to production.

The protest was already hanging in the air. We knew that there was a strike in Siberia, and so it should happen here as well. At one point, when I came to the mine, the work had already stopped,” Volodymyr Stepanenko recalls. 

People started going out to the square as if for work. Everything was clear: counting people, exemplary space organization, dry law. In this sense, people had shown themselves as capable of self-organization.

Volodymyr Stepanenko, Pavlohrad, Dnipropetrovsk region. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

One day we came to the mine, dressed in a dirty uniform. And then the guys came and said, let’s go back to the bus station. Well, we took buses to the central square of Pavlohrad. We lied on the asphalt in helmets, rubber boots – wet, smelly, dirty as hell,” Stepanenko remembers.

That is how, in mid-July 1989, the first large-scale workers’ strike that wasn’t suppressed by Soviet authorities began. According to various reports, up to half a million miners throughout the Soviet Union participated.

The previous attempt at such mass resistance by the workers took place in 1962. About 5,000 people took part in that protest. The military shot 27 workers of the Novocherkask electric power plant in the Rostov region, sent more than a hundred to the camps, and sentenced seven people to death.

"And this one was not shot. Apparently, the country itself was going to collapse. At the expense of us, they wanted to speed up the process. But we didn't realize it then. I did not even think about anything like that. I had a little child, I had to think where to get a penny to buy milk," says Ivanychenko.

Ihor Ivanychenko in Pavlohrad, Dnipropetrovsk. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

Vasyl Pavlichenko was a member of the first strike committee at the mine in Vuhledar (60 km south-west of Donetsk). He would later join the miners' independent labor union. He recalls how people were treated on the eve of the strike.

We had this Oleksiy Bokariev, who was gathering people and talking about life and salary abroad, that half of the production volume is paid for salaries there; and we get only 10-15% and are treated like non-humans. I met him and asked why the state security officers and police do not detain him. I realized that something sketchy was going on. He traveled and performed like this for a month. And later a police car started bringing him to the rallies. This turned out to be an activity, meticulously prepared by the ruling circles of the Soviet Union."

Vasyl Pavlichenko, Vuhledar, Donetsk region. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

Pavlichenko came to the protest straight from a vacation. He arrived and asked a colleague: "what's going on here?" "No soap, no clothing, no equipment whatsoever," the colleague replied. 

But it's utter nonsense. Nobody would protest to get soap. If the authorities wanted to, they would nip the strike in the bud. The police and the KGB didn’t touch us. There were suspicions that everything was headed by [Mikhail] Gorbachev,” says Pavlichenko.

"The fact that miners' strikes were organized by the KGB was imposed by Moscow and Donetsk after [Ukraine gained] independence," says Mykola Volynets, head of the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine.

He joined the miners during the 1989 strike.

Mine "South Donbas №1", Vuhledar, Donetsk region. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

During the first strike of 1989, the miners came to the square straight from work – dirty, tired and hungry.

All this was directed by ordinary workers, they had no money. And I allocated the union funds, took people to the cafeteria. The first secretary of the city hall came to the mine and began to threaten, he said I would be punished for supporting the scoundrels who dared to come to the square. I replied that time would tell.Вугледар, Донецька область

Vuhledar, Donetsk region. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

After the first strike, the miners got a two-month vacation. The list of possible work-related diseases got expanded. Miners got soap and uniforms.

But it's not that important," Pavlichenko says. “The main thing is that at that moment the miners felt they were humans. We had achieved the right to speak and to demand. We had strength and cohesion, the right to speak, to act and to fight."

Vasyl Pavlichenko, Vuhledar, Donetsk region. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

For a decade, strikes were happening almost every year. In 1990, almost half of the mines in Donbas went on strike, the strike committees expressed distrust of official unions and demanded the closure of party committees at enterprises. Eventually, in the spring of 1991, there were demands on the resignation of the USSR president and dissolution of the parliament.

In 1993, a large-scale strike began in Donetsk’s Zasyadko Mine, which was joined by machine builders, steelworkers, and energy industry workers. The miners put forward not only economic but also political demands – a referendum on mistrust to the president of Ukraine and the parliament and granting regional autonomy to the Donbas. Raising the level of minimum wage and other social improvements didn’t happen. But the demands concerning the interests of directors of mines were satisfied, and subventions were paid.

This protest was the last to have miners make political demands. All of the following protests focused solely on economic and social demands, not political ones.

Vuhledar, Donetsk region. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

Among those who participated in the first strike of 1989, few attended strikes again," says Ivanychenko. “We told young people: 'now it’s your turn.' We realized that we were completely exploited... We retire, young people arrive  and everything we demanded is again taken away from them.”

The protests continued more or less regularly, at various scales. Several years later, miners from western Ukraine went to Kyiv too, demanding not to close the mines. In 1998, a thousand miners from western Donbas walked to Kyiv.

Oleksandr Boyko came to the western Donbas in the early 1980s. His dad was a Ukrainian, his mom – a Crimean Tatar. They lived in Crimea. During the deportation of the Crimean Tatars, his grandfather was expelled from the peninsula. When Oleksandr was a month old, his parents escaped to Kazakhstan with their family.

Later came the parents’ divorce, relocation to Lithuania, boarding school, army, marriage, and another move – to Siberia. A few years later news came that thousands of kilometers away, in a promising region in Ukraine, young people are recruited to work in the mines. Boyko says it didn't take him long to make a decision.

Oleksandr Boyko, Ternivka, Dnipropetrovsk region. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

“Compared to Siberia, Dnipropetrovsk region was like paradise – there were three varieties of meat on the shelves, apples were handed out in buckets, apricots were lying everywhere,” Boyko says.

He worked underground for 24 years. At the beginning of the protest march in 1998, Boyko was in the Miners' Independent Trade Union.

I was in Kyiv and found out about the march. I went straight from there, in a suit, with a suitcase, without uniform. The column was going to Dnipropetrovsk. I got off the bus and tears welled up. Five thousand people, you can’t see the end! Undressed, some barefoot. It was hot,” he recalls.

Coal Industry Workers Union Museum, Pavlograd, Dnipropetrovsk region. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

Coal Industry Workers Union Museum, Pavlograd, Dnipropetrovsk region. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

There were plenty of obstacles on the way to Kyiv. The miners were constantly provoked, they were offered alcohol, Boyko says. The authorities thought they could then play the march down as drunken debauchery.

The biggest provocation happened close to Kyiv, remembers Boyko. Representatives of the government arrived and offered an agreement: the government pays everyone in the column the outstanding nine months’ worth of salary, but the march has to end.

Miners were ready to tear them into pieces. They said, ‘Do you want us to become traitors?’” the man says.

Independent Pavlohrad television was probably the only source of information that regularly reported everything on the march. It was founded by former miner Ihor Ledin.

Ігор Лєдін, Павлоград, Дніпропетровська область

Ihor Ledin in Pavlohrad, Dnipropetrovsk region. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

The cameramen went [to the strikes] daily. When one brought the footage to the studio, he was replaced by another cameraman. It lasted for three weeks. Every day we broadcast the marches for those who [couldn't attend],” Ledin tells.

Miner Viktor Bondarenko led several dozen people at the march. 

"I remember walking down the avenue and people around crying and blessing us. They believed we’d overthrow the government that treats people like cattle. It only ever needs people  both then and now in three cases: for statistics, elections, and to obtain benefits for those in power. Wages were not paid across the country at the time,” Bondarenko recollects.

Viktor Bondarenko in Pavlohrad, Dnipropetrovsk region. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

Viktor Bondarenko with his wife, at home in Pavlohrad, Dnipropetrovsk region. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

As a result of that strike, all the due wages were paid to the miners and they were sent back home by train. In a few days, they returned to work.

At present, all the mines in western Donbas are private entities owned by oligarch Rinat Akhmetov’s DTEK energy holding. One of them has a museum of miners' glory – it's focused on coal mining, technology, and records. There is only one strike-related stand there and it informs about the march to Kyiv in 1998.

The 1998 march was not the last protest, but it was the most notable. After that, there were no miners' movements of that scale.

"The thing is that mineworkers get exhausted not only physically, but psychologically too... After work, you want absolutely nothing,” Bondarenko explains.

Viktor Bondarenko with his wife, at home, Pavlohrad, Dnipropetrovsk region. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

"We were like the frontline soldiers who see the tank and the face of the enemy in front of them. And we did not understand what was planned strategically  the destruction of the socialist system and the seizure of people’s property. We were, in fact, the driving force behind the destruction of socialism. The force that was used behind the scenes,” says Volodymyr Stepanenko.

We wanted to overthrow the bad guys and make life good for others. It didn't work. But no one even believed then that ten mines scattered throughout western Donbas could be mobilized. But we did it,” Bondarenko says.

Bondarenko’s family house in Pavlohrad, Dnipropetrovsk region. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

Almost everyone who participated in the strikes 20 to 30 years ago is now retired. Almost everyone has occupational diseases. Some illnesses were put on the list thanks to the protests, former protesters note. 

"The biggest victory is that they started to reckon with the region," says Boyko. “We, in western Donbas, have one of the best collective agreements. All over Ukraine, they do not pay compensation for gas and electricity, but we are paid. 6,000 workers get compensations, which is not bad, I suppose. The salary here in Pavlohradcoal is also stable.

Now in Pavlohrad, we have a situation where strikes are impossible altogether,” Stepanenko says. “Well, they are possible if done anonymously. Unemployment is widespread, mines are private, if you start a strike, they would hire someone else, because there are no jobs around. Therefore, people care about their position.

"We fought in general for the implementation of the western model," says Boyko. “That a person receives a salary regardless of the amount of coal produced. It’s the so-called hourly wage. But no one agreed. Therefore, the control lever remains in the  hands of the Soviet model."

The country's coal industry is still one of the most subsidized. According to Economic Pravda, every year Ukraine allocates about 3 billion hryvnias ($120 million) to finance it. The E.U. has abandoned the strategy to modernize the mines. Instead, they are trying to eliminate them with minimal losses. Will Ukraine take on this experience, and if mines are eliminated, will people have alternative jobs?

That’s another story for another time.

/ The story was created within the informal history education program Living History Studies

/ By Alyona Vyshnytska, Anastasia Vlasova

/ Translated by Vladyslav Kudryk