The old utopia was born underground— salt, coal, and gas. But there is no need to drill to find the new one—it is right on the surface.
This article is published in partnership with Ukraine Lab and has been translated from Ukrainian by Nina Murray.
The air is so heavy in the summer you can hardly move your feet: your body becomes heavy and it feels like your nostrils are made of brick.
You gasp for breath like fish beached by a powerful ocean wave. It is hard to tell if this is because of the bright steppe sun or the dust that worms its way into your clothes and skin.
I cannot fathom how the miners, who must wear their protective overalls every day and climb down into the guts of the blazing-hot Earth, survive in temperatures like this. I never asked my father about this — he used to work as a power engineer at a mine.
In winter, it's a little easier. But the winds can be so strong they send the very ground under your feet skittering in every direction.
The local road crews would put salt on the iced Donbas roads. This did not always prevent injuries, but made it necessary to clean the white rosettes of salt off your black fake-leather shoes every night.
The time was the late 1990s and the beginning of the new millennium. The bright colors of childhood were painted in the shades of the gray everyday.
And yet, this unruly industrial poetry mesmerised me. Exact sciences were entirely foreign to me. I always wondered: how much salt does there need to be in this country to make it okay to put it on our minor roads? So many of us traveled them.
One of the people that walked the roads of my city was the photographer Alexander Chekmenev.
In the early 2000s, he made his most famous series “The Donbas” about the poverty of the region, its social challenges, and the self-sacrifice required to mine coal.
In fact, it is about more than a century-old vicious cycle of these problems, anchored to mankind's abusive dependence on natural resources.
Let's check our watches. At 15:00 Kyiv time on the 4 April the workers of mine number four of the state-owned enterprise Artemsil in Soledar in the Donetsk region finished their shift. They all received their pension-credit records and left in different directions.
Everyone was expecting a Russian assault in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, but few had imagined its scale and cruelty: industries that underpin entire cities are being shelled constantly, critical and civilian infrastructure is being destroyed, housing razed.
The old utopia was born underground— salt, coal, and gas. But there is no need to drill to find the new one—it is right on the surface.
Artemsil had to halt its production because of this. Two thirds of the city's population left.
Some were leaving for the second time, after they had fled here from the war and from Russian mercenaries, to start new lives eight years earlier. And now the ground was slipping again from under their feet.
The ground is caving. This is not a war-time metaphor but a real prospect unless salt- and coal-mining enterprises can return to work.
“There are no lacunae in nature,” the resource geologist Mykhailo Kulishov tells me. Kulishov was born in Horlivka, moved to Bakhmut in 2015 because of the war, and now lives in the Kyiv region.
“When a mine-shaft stops being worked, water will fill the empty space. This water erodes the larger structures of the mine and rises to the surface where it might form a salt lake.”
I have swum in one. There are salt lakes outside of Sloviansk in the Donetsk region, with a resort built around them. The last time I went was August of 2014.
The intolerable Donetsk sun was blazing hot, and it felt like time itself slowed down in the heat. Exhausted Ukrainian soldiers wandered around the resort.
My photographer Mykola Tymchenko and I stopped to take a picture by a tank named Swallow. These were the members of the 95th Special Paratrooper Brigade, the future 'Cyborgs' of the Donetsk airport.
One of them got married that same year or soon after, and has two sons now, but he is still at the front — just went home on leave in June, for the first time since the full-scale invasion.
Yevgraf Kovalevsky, a 19th Century Kharkiv scholar, believed Slovyansk's Salt Lakes to have formed as a result of the near-surface salt-bearing strata being eroded by ground water.
Salt mining was never as developed here as 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 decision to work all salt deposits exclusively by artificial subterranean leaching. This practice lasted until the beginning of World War II.
The years of fighting and occupation exhausted the industry. Ground caved, homes collapsed. In 1961, the authorities closed down the central salt mining operation in Slovyansk for good. Time stopped.
My imagination often turns to the Ukrainian Futurists who had once envisioned my region as a utopia and came here in search of “rhymes and life”. They thought the future would be dynamic and fast-paced, so time ran faster on their watches.
The writer and journalist Oleksiy Poltoratskyi walked these steppes and imagined himself roaming the bottom of an ocean that used to exist “an astronomical number of years ago.”
He was not wrong: there had been, in fact, a large body of water in the present-day Donetsk region, but a sea, not an ocean. It was this sea that left behind salt deposits.
Unfortunately, I know very little about Poltoratskyi, aside from a handful of his writings I read. But I inhabit the future he had imagined, and find myself at the same cross-roads, reflecting on my own life and the life that will come after mine. Perhaps, this is the most powerful thing that connects us.
It feels to me now that the winter days when I walked salted roads were also an astronomical number of years ago.
Paradoxically, temporality can crumble or concentrate exactly like a lump of raw salt. The kind the Bakhmut carpenter and self-taught artist Yegor Popov used back in 1889 to carve, 122 meters under ground, a statue of 'the Salt General' Nikolai Letunovsky, the then owner of the Bryants mine (now Artemsil).
Slightly yellowed with time, the statue is still held in the Donetsk regional history museum. The Russian Tsar had stripped Letunovsky of all his titles and duties.
Later, however, he was celebrated as the man who opened the industrial chapter in the life of the city—never mind that salt-mining had been practiced here long before the industrial revolution. Be that as it may, the two-metre general, now nearly faceless, has survived two empires. He'll survive the third yet.
“How much time would it take for the water to fill these mines?” I ask Kulishov. “Twenty-to-thirty years perhaps”, he says.
It has been two years since the ground water began to flood the illegal open-air coal-pit near the Lysychansk gelatin factory. No one knows the exact chemical content of that water, and yet a few locals have already taken a swim in it. They say it's as deep as a five-story building, and you might very well drown.
The residents of Lysychansk baptised this place The Lysychansk Grand Canyon. It does look awesome: the pit is filled with blue-green water and surrounded by ruby-coloured sandy bluffs, dotted with green shrubbery. Birds circle overhead. Insects buzz. The only downside is the smell of animal bones from the factory nearby.
Local rights defenders and environmental activists have been reporting the illegal pit to the authorities since 2017. They have filed at least eight complaints, and the illegally mined coal as well as the mining equipment have been arrested at least as many times. The criminal investigation, however, did not begin until 2020.
Even before the war, Luhansk and Donetsk regions looked pock-marked from space: the gaping holes of illegal pits are easy to spot on Google Maps.
The number of these wounds is growing: now, there are also holes left by exploding mortars, craters from air-dropped bombs, and the graves of soldiers and civilians.
People used to mine illegally on the sites rich in high-grade anthracite coal. My home-town was famous for it. But since the war began in the spring of 2014, these pits have sprung up everywhere.
Conservationists raised alarm: pit mining harms the environment, and is no way a rational use of natural resources. Economists warned of the corruption and shadow markets.
Rights advocates spoke out about the absence of safety measures or social benefits. Miners faced the risk of injury or death at the state-owned mines as well, but at least those provided a safety net. Illegal pits offered no assurances of any kind and would hire even high-schoolers.
Boys like the fourteen-year-old Yura Sikanov from the town of Snizhne in the Donetsk region. Mine Number Eight, the documentary film about him, traveled across half of Europe in 2010, but was not allowed onto the festival circuit in Ukraine.
The film tells the story of a very young man taking responsibility for his family when his father dies and his mother abandons her three children. His decision to work illegally is a forced one.
Yura became a hero for his two younger sisters, but most of Snizhne's residents did not share their view. Two years later, the boy was severely beaten, his jaw broken.
The film was accused of slandering the 'real' Donbas, a heroic and striving region, with no room for poverty or black markets, where industry played an important role. But the industry was, in fact, playing its own game.
“My grandmother came from Western Ukraine. She broke the law when she was fifteen, to have a few years added to her record, so she could go to work.
"So she went: they sent her to push the coal-carts. They had to fire her eventually, because she started coughing blood.”
I am speaking to Alexander Chekmenev in a cafe near the Livoberezhna metro station in Kyiv. It is late September, 2014, and the war has been going on for six months.
Chekmeniov has just returned from Slovyansk where he photographed residential buildings shelled into rubble by the Russians and their proxies.
In his pictures, exhausted, hopeless people stand against the background of the ruin. If you could mine salt from their grief and tears, Slovyansk would be a leader of salt-making. Unless, of course, their tears became a lake.
I am talking to Chekmeniov about his photographs and his connections to the region. He shot the series I consider most poignant - Passport - in the Luhansk region during the period when Ukraine was issuing its first passports to its citizens.
Chekmeniov helped social workers who visited the elderly, and took portraits in people's homes. Among the citizens of the new state were men and women in their 90s who had their own death—not a political renaissance—on their minds.
One of Chekmeniov's subjects had a coffin placed preemptively next to his bed. The poor homes' interiors remained outside the frames of the passport photos, but were still there, like the worn-out stage-sets, in Chekmeniov's pictures.
He took his photographs in 1994; all of them breathe with cold. Some subjects wrap themselves in blankets; others are wearing thick sweaters.
Most of the homes Chekmeniov visited were heated with coal. Miners could buy coal at a discount, but it was still not cheap. People saved by keeping their homes frigid. Gas was considered a more progressive and environmentally-friendly option.
None of Chekmeniov's subjects gave it any thought, however: they were preparing to trade the cozy feeling of their homes for the warmth of the ground that would soon take them.
In the early 2006, there was first talk of the natural gas deposits in the sandy soils of the Yusif basin which encompasses parts of the Donetsk and Kharkiv regions, right next to the country of salt lakes, pine forests, and the incredibly clear air where we took the picture of the iron Swallow.
One struggled to imagine a new mining operation in that landscape. Gas lies in the deep strata of sandy soils, and the wells could be as deep as 4,500 meters.
This could, in turn, affect the ground water and the entire ecosystem. The environmental risk and feasibility analyses were never completed—primarily because of the war.
In 2014, the company that ran explorations for Shell stopped operating with the notice that it was taking “a hiatus in our ground operations.”
In mid-February of 2021, the national concern Naftogaz also threw in the towel: “Let the gas stay under the ground at this price.” Today, the Yusif basin is one of the first front-lines.
The Donetsk and Luhansk regions have often been called the land of black and white gold: coal and salt. But the real treasure is gas: an invisible compound that is now tightening the energy dependence noose around European nations.
For the eight years since the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of parts of Luhansk and Donetsk regions, the war, for most European politicians, remained as amorphous and invisible as natural gas. Only now has the wind from Ukraine brought over the acrid smell of gas and burning.
For the large part, this invisibility was a result of the Russian media campaign that manipulated historical knowledge and the facts of the Ukrainian frontier. In fact, the only thing that Moscow is after is resources—including the human one.
The Soviet propaganda cast the workers of Donbas as brothers of the Titan Prometheus who first sculpted human beings out of mud and then gave them fire and its heat.
Unlike their half-divine imaginary kin, however, the people of Donbas were not invincible. Every day, these miners did back-breaking work, climbed down into the guts of the earth like moles, denying themselves daylight and losing their health and sometimes lives.
The propaganda machine kept silent about their 'occupational' illnesses and the high rate of mortality in the mines. Only their very particular cough and the black circles around their eyes reminded of the cost they paid—the coal dust that no soap could wash off. The only thing that remained invincible was their strong, literally pathological, kinship with the land.
Unlike the Ukrainian Futurists, the Eastern Ukrainian farmers saw the change in their land's landscape as an act of violence done to their own bodies and identities.
They saw industrialisation as a form of violence, while they cared about their land as if it were a member of the family. They made sure the soil did not erode or get washed out by planting winter wheat or rye to give the land a chance to rest and renew itself.
Today, the fields of wheat and rye are also burning. The fire that Prometheus had given people is put at the service of death and destruction.
Industrialisation, meanwhile, just like photography, is part of our modern history. Industrialisation appealed to the future; photography has always been about the past.
War keeps taking the future away, as do the forced migration and deportation, poverty, hunger, changes of climate, and new diseases.
The past requires constant vigilance: archives and cultural heritage are being destroyed. My own analog photo archive did not survive the blaze of artillery in March of 2022, and turned into dust under a Russian barrage.
As a token of memory, I have a portrait of myself taken against the backdrop of the empty, burned-out walls. But it was not the first time I had stood amid my ruins.
I had only been to my grandfather's village once. No one knew my grandparents' history well; my grandmother never showed me her family pictures: stacks of them gathered dust in her wardrobe for many years until she died.
Grandfather had died before her. Wars and revolutions had destroyed that village. Industrialisation and the empire not only occupied the local landscapes, but also wore out, swallowed the dreams of my grandfather's family—once potters who became coal miners.
We took a family picture against the background of the devastated landscape where the Ukrainian church and my grandfather's parents' house had once stood. They lived here in the 1920s. They were deported in 1938, rehabilitated in 1954. We came back in the two-thousands.
I wonder what the pottery my great-grandparents made looked like and imagine myself putting flowers into a vase shaped by their hands. I wonder what the clay felt like—the clay that gave them strength and inspired them to make new things.
But I don't have that knowledge—or those artifacts. I don't even have that picture with the vanished village in the background. A century of my family's biography—that's what I'm trying to put back together, like a broken jug.
I also think about my own connection to this land. The late-summer wind and the sharp smell of thymes that sends me, like a magic potion, instantly home, where the silver manes of needle grasses wrap the earth like waves of an ocean.
Where holes in the roads are filled with coal slag, and in winter the snow is dusted with salt. Where the roots of the plants are so strong, they grow in the abandoned rusted frames of factories, reclaiming what's theirs. Where the faceless salt general is counting down the time left in the life of a third empire.
Where everything that looks at first black-and-white assumes bright colors and comes to life. Just like the propaganda trains that Vasyl Yermilov painted with flowers before they went cruising the local rails in the early 1900s.
My memories might be closer to a Futuristic epic rather than the reality on the ground. In reality, the thymes and needle grasses might not survive the war—they lack the resilience to the enormous numbers of machines and explosions.
And to help the salt general see political change, Ukrainian soldiers dig trenches—and watch sunrises and sunsets from them. The best of them become the salt of that earth. And the cost of it cannot be measured.
Scholars argue about the exact moment when modernity ended and whether we are still processing its demise. I am interested in a different question: did its end also signal the death of all its visions of the past and the future?
So that the only thing we have today is the present, where time is measured not by the hands of a clock but by the firing of air-defense system as it stops the crawl of a reborn imperialism?
If the last century's Futurists suddenly found themselves in our times, would they be disappointed? We have tense rhymes, cryptic words, and an everyday struggle for survival.
As we survive air-raid alarms and our own anxieties, endure loss, pain, and the destruction of our native city, what we want most, more than ever before, is to gulp up our freedom—to fight for each lungful of it like the parched beached fish.
The old utopia was born underground—born of salt, coal, and gas. But there is no need to drill into the sand to find the new one—it is right here, on the surface. We are the shelf of the ocean that will live here an astronomical number of years later.
Let's check our watches. Mine tells me it's year eight and day 162 of war. The empire is being counted down.
Kateryna Iakovlenko is a Luhansk-born Ukrainian visual art researcher and writer. Among her publications is the book Why There Are Great Women Artists in Ukrainian Art (2019) and the special issue Euphoria and Fatigue: Ukrainian Art and Society after 2014 (with Tatiana Kochubinska, 2019). Currently, she is a Senior Research Fellow at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES). This article has been translated by Nina Murray.
This article is published in partnership with Ukraine Lab.