If you ask me of the Moscow skies, I’d say I never saw the Moscow skies. They have always been a background for dramas, tragedies or comedies, but never a subject by itself. And even being alone with the clear blue sky in front of me, I would always be able to put something between me and the sky.
And all was well, until one day I did look up and see it. I could not bear the deep feeling caused by the sight. The fascinating, traumatizing beauty of the red cold sunset sky. I could hide myself from the view in a building, or, as I like, an art gallery, but it was not much of a solution. It was there too. Art, for example, includes Kandinsky, and he drew some of his works inspired by the Moscow skies.
That was about the time when I thought of the sky in Donetsk. A destination most stupid for plain tourism, a city in state of war. How will it look like, would it be any different?
Generally, a city in the post-Soviet space could have been easily created in a computer program, picking out standard elements from a short list and adding random details. A square in the city centre, topped with a Lenin monument, streets named “Lenin”, “Peace”, “Marx” and “Pushkin”, streets named after famous or local October Revolution martyrs, some old or new Russian Orthodox churches, a few richly decorated Stalin-time buildings, and lots of dull grayish block apartments. Thus, visiting a Russian city was never about the city, it was much more of an inner experience.
But Donetsk was even a more different case. Being a city of madness, the inside view should be quite the opposite. In the crystal clarity of its own raison d’être, the one insane will be the world around it. As I see it, the general idea of this new country’s existence is caused by a more philosophical matter. The Communist party didn’t do much of a favor replacing the struggling ideas of Christianity by those of communism, but just delayed the painful question of the meaning of existence. After the fall of the Soviet Union, a silent void was left in place of a reason to live for, making any efforts useless. The old totality was lost, but the phantom pains are still strong. There was only one way of finding out if I’m right and only one “country” where you are institutionally welcomed with a Russian passport, lol.
So, on a sunny morning in May I headed for the road. I chose the funniest way to get there – I hitchhiked to Rostov and then took a taxi to the border, and from there – to Donetsk. A great contrast between 24h of trying to speak of art, literature and philosophy to truck drivers and feeling the wind in hair in a taxi flying past the green fields. On the customs I was just inattentively asked for the reason of my visit and continued to the city. I watched the sky at this side of the border. From the very start, things had a little wrongness to them. Even the Donetsk side of the customs had bullet holes. Some trees on the way were obviously cut by missiles, and the roads were bumpy. The fields that are not being cultivated were just not cleared of mines and are considered dangerous to walk on. A few buildings we drove past were destroyed.
I was staying at the house of my friends, both Russian and not politically involved. I told them that the Emperor is in good health and sends them his greetings from the metropoly.
The very first evening I heard distant shooting during our night walk after the hour of curfew.
In the city
The city that is the source of television. In fact, it does not consist of flesh, guts and skeletons of destroyed buildings you see in the press. Presumably, the journalists make quite an effort to hunt down all these views. The city centre is quite peaceful, with lots of cafes and nice streets where locals wander in the evenings and play with kids during daytime. It does seem calm and normal, if you don’t think of it. The most terrifying thing is that the war does happen, but in a distance.
The unacknowledged republic has no adequate banking system and surely no ATMs or cards. Only cash is in use, both Russian and Ukrainian. There are shops; they do have an acceptable, though not wide choice of food. McDonalds is closed, if you ask.
There are military trucks driving past; some soldiers walking on the streets, usually with guns. I can say nothing to prove or reject the statements about any of them being forcefully sent by Russia. Meanwhile, the locals are eager enough to support their own army, many have relatives fighting.
Parts of the city closer to the fighting can be bombed, once in a while. There you can see more bullet holes, shell holes and shattered windows. Donetsk was more known as a city of a million roses, but now it’s a city of millions of windows covered in masking tape. That should prevent the window shards from killing the inhabitants if anything explodes nearby.
Going to an opera and a philharmonic in Pompeii was funny, the scenes on stage being totally separated from reality. Both things I visited were so deadly classic and so distant from modern life. But a feast during plague is much more entertaining by just the fact of it happening. Soldiers, grannies, couples, overdressed ladies – everyone sought some culture.
Is such a show necessary for those watching it, or does it pass without leaving a trace, becoming a subject of discussion at work tomorrow, like “I’ve been there, it was Good”. Those cultural artifacts, so infinitely far from real life are doomed to remain in casual small talk. They become a commodity, a certain amount of which should be acquired. Art rejects the very concept of meaning. But the question is whether there is a meaning in its negation of meaning, or it just merely agrees to this state of affairs.
Grannies in parks discuss casual life, sometimes adding in things about missiles, bombings and deaths.
Paramedics speaking about their work. Add details yourself.
“The missile fell at the bus stop just some 15 minutes after the bus left with all the workers”.
I won’t continue with further quotes or descriptions, I don’t want to. I guess the worst about all of it is how this is all interwoven with casual life.
Not hiding while rockets hit the houses next to us, not having some of our neighbors dead or relatives join the army, we, visitors, will never truly experience Donetsk and cannot really represent it.
I have postponed my departure at least three times, by then I did know some main parts of the city quite well. The streets, boulevards, small passages, markets and blossoming trees. This hot summer city, calm, though in state of war will have its place in my memories. Like a hero of an ancient Greek tragedy, the city chooses to follow its self-destructive passions to the very end.
If you ask me of the Donetsk skies, I would not be able to tell much. First being a subject by itself, they quickly became a background for dramas, tragedies or comedies. Yet they will remain something irreducible to a textual description and incomprehensible after a few weeks of watching them, asking for a life to be spent below them.
PS: In regards to exploration
All working industrial sites fear saboteurs, being paranoid as hell. But anyway, I present a coal mine, around half a kilometer deep.
The Skies –
“Russia, my dear, I love you”
The lady military
Don’t you dare, savage, enter a theatre with a gun!
The balcony of Juliet (look at all the fancy masking tape)
Day of the Kids celebration
Fromagerie à Donetsk:
The decaying propaganda