21 April, 08:45 PM


Student who fled occupied Donbas, escaped forced mobilization, tells of life in sham republic

NV reporter Sasha Horchynska has spoken with a resident of occupied Donetsk who managed to leave the territory of the puppet “republic.” 

Until recently, the person had lived in Donetsk — a city first occupied by Russian proxy forces back in the spring of 2014. He asks not to mention his name in the piece and calls himself Aeneas. It is under this handle that the guy runs his Twitter account, where he talks in English about life in the so-called "DPR". He is a 21-year-old student, and this spring the puppet “authorities” wanted to forcibly mobilize him. Aeneas had to flee. In an interview with NV, he revealed what was being said in Donetsk on the eve of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, and how the city has changed over the years of occupation.

 On the outbreak of the war in Donbas

I’ve lived in Donetsk almost all my life. In 2014, I spent a couple of months in the territory controlled by Ukraine, but our family had to return to Donetsk because of work and other issues. We couldn’t settle in another city and we had to stay in Donetsk, where I remained until the beginning of the full-scale invasion.

In 2014, it all started after the change of power in Ukraine — when (ex-president Viktor) Yanukovych fled, everything remained the same in Donetsk for some time. But then rallies with Russian flags began to be gathered, and in early April the news came that the Donetsk Regional State Administration building had been captured and a so-called “republic” had been created.

On May 11, a so-called referendum was announced, and since then, the “DPR” has begun to take more and more control over the territories of Donetsk Oblast.

Ukrainian tanks drive on the street of a village in Donetsk Oblast, April, 2022. / Фото: Photo: REUTERS / Serhii Nuzhnenko

In Donetsk, the war began on May 25, 2014, with the fighting for the airport. For a long time, it was fairly quiet, although there were reports of fighting at the airport and deaths. Where I lived, it was relatively quiet until July, when a nearby mine was struck, after which fierce fighting broke out. It lasted until the summer of 2015, and then declined. And a different life began — devoid of many of the benefits of the free world.

Since 2014, all Ukrainian TV channels in the occupied territories of the Donetsk Oblast have been shut down, and local regional content or Russian television has been aired instead. All regional channels were reformatted into "republican mass media": they changed their rhetoric, ideological vector, and became a mouthpiece for the propaganda of the so-called "DPR". However, Ukrainian media can still be viewed online.

Until 2014, Donetsk did not have openly pro-Russian views — at least those that were attributed to the local population at a later stage. Indeed, in the election they did vote for the Party of Regions, but not exclusively. There are still people in occupied Donetsk who support Ukraine, but cannot express their views openly.

On life in the so-called "people's republic"

The standard of living has dropped significantly, the selection of products in stores is greatly reduced, and stores themselves have closed — global chains such as, for example, McDonald's and others.

The Ukrainian supermarket chain Amstor has closed — its demise lasted several years. Banks ceased operations — they were replaced by the so-called CRB, the central republican bank, which issued cards to people, but they can only accrue a salary or stipend. It is impossible to deposit money, open a savings account, etc. It's as if a “rewind” button has been pressed.

A striking example: the city trolleybuses before the war had tickets on which the date and time of the trip were stamped with an electronic device. And after the war, these devices simply disappeared.

Before the war, we could afford to go on vacation abroad. After the start of the war in Donbas, it became difficult not just financially, but even physically, because it was necessary to pass through checkpoints, and when they were closed due to the coronavirus, we had to leave through the territory of Russia.

All this time Russia has been trying to enter our market. For example, students and children were offered some tourist trips around Russia. After all, it was believed that there is no such infrastructure in the territories of the “DPR” — everything is inferior there. But it existed in Russia.

And when our people went on such trips to Russia, they saw that it was better there. Of course, this is in comparison with life in the so-called "republics." Apparently, this is why someone could have the illusion that life in Russia is fine. People did not want to stay in Donetsk the whole time, so they took advantage of these offers.

Young people often receive passports from the so-called "DPR" and then passports from Russia, because they often have no alternative. I have a Ukrainian passport – I consciously did not want to become a "citizen" of the self-proclaimed “republic.”

We were not forced to obtain a “DPR” passport, but they made our lives as difficult as possible because we chose to be citizens of Ukraine. For example, I was required to get proof of address, without which the local bank would not issue a card. Also, people with Ukrainian passports were not subject to curfew easing. For example, it was sometimes reduced for the holidays, but people with Ukrainian passports were still detained "for violating the curfew."

I was lucky — I studied at a school whose teaching staff was not openly pro-Russian. After the war, they continued to teach the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian history.

There was such a subject as the history of the "fatherland." However, while earlier this school was named after (dissident poet) Vasyl Stus, in 2015 this name was removed, leaving only the number — gymnasium № 107. Also, the bas-relief of Stus from the philological faculty of Donetsk National University building was taken down.

But the monument to (Ukrainian national poet) Taras Shevchenko remained untouched — it still stands. Although some radicals suggested removing the monument and calling Shevchenko Boulevard the Boulevard of the Russian Militia, the idea was not supported.

When (the former leader of the Russian proxy forces in Donetsk) Aleksandr Zakharchenko was still the head of the “DPR”, all this was not manifested so strongly, but then, when Denis Pushylin came in his place, there was more pro-Russian agitation and propaganda.

In the beginning, there was talk about Donbas as a special, separate territory, about "federalization", etc. — such ideas were supported by Zakharchenko. But thanks to Pushylin, calls have already begun to emerge for Donetsk to join Russia, and this has been stressed everywhere. I mean, it is not even about some Donetsk or Donbas "patriotism" there, but purely Russian.

There was no "regional" consciousness — the local population began to prepare for the coming of Russia, and therefore people should consider themselves the same Russians as those in Moscow or St. Petersburg. And that there is no difference between them and us.

Until 2020, evenings of Ukrainian music were held in Donetsk — covers of such bands as Okean Elzy, Skryabin, etc. were played. But later those were banned too.

On "patriotic education"

On such holidays as Feb. 23 and May 9 rallies and various events are held in Donetsk. At first, it was something of a post-Soviet notion of patriotism, with an emphasis on the past. But later the agenda turned more radical — in recent years that they began to promote the idea of "DPR’s accession" to Russia.

Until April 2021, there was no conscription as such on the territory of the “DPR.” But in April 2021, the first call-up took place — just for a term of six months, but students were exempted from it. Only in February 2022 did the general mobilization of the entire population aged 18 to 55 begin.

This time, our universities did not grant us any deferment — on the contrary, they themselves formed lists of students by which it was easier to identify us. I went into hiding: I turned off my phone, took out my SIM card, and stopped leaving home. Then I fled to another place when I heard that they could pay visits to apartments and check if everyone was there.

It is said that evading mobilization in the “DPR” is punishable by eight years in prison. But, as a rule, this does not even come to that at all. Because people are taken to collection points by force, and in fact, it is impossible to refuse. If you try to resist more radically, you may face corporal punishment.

In general, there is no mass resistance in our region, so I do not know for sure what is happening to such people. However, I know of cases where people, like me, are hiding from forced mobilization in the "republic."

The people who were mobilized are kept for some time at an improvised military base, where there is almost nothing — only clothing and food. Then columns are formed and sent to the Russian territory.

And from there to those Ukrainian territories that are now occupied by Russian troops, such as Kherson Oblast or other areas. That is, these mobilized people are fighting, in fact, not even for their so-called "republic", but for other territories. They serve along with the Russians.

On moods in the self-proclaimed "DPR"

Earlier this year, the issue of a possible full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine was never raised among the local population. There were other, important topics at the time — for example, COVID-19.

Just a week before all these events broke out came the forced evacuation of locals from the so-called "DPR", the mobilization of men, the Russian attack, and a complete lockdown. At the same time, they began to introduce QR-codes and everything else. Ironically, a week later all this was simply abandoned.

When an evacuation was announced on Feb. 18, allegedly because Ukraine was planning to attack Donbas in the near future, the men began to be taken away right off the streets. After Feb. 24, when Russia launched a full-scale offensive, events began to pan out very quickly for everyone.

Now locals are discussing among themselves the possible aggravation of the situation in the Donbas. And that's where they plan to throw all these people who are taken from the streets — these are men without any combat experience, who are sent to the front line.

They have no choice but to serve, and nowhere to go. Neither previous experience nor profession matters — it is completely disregarded.

 On the escape

Other people helped me leave the territory of the “DPR.” I cannot say who exactly, so as not to endanger them. I can only add that everything there is un lawful, so I too managed to leave unlawfully – so to speak. Thanks to bribes, family ties and other things.

At the moment, there are still people close to me in the territories controlled by pro-Russian militants. These people are genuinely in danger — nothing good is happening there. However, it is, in fact, impossible to leave the “DPR” now. Especially for men of military age.

There are "gangs" on the streets that forcibly take men to fight. There is also danger at checkpoints — people are "taken out" of cars and sent to the "army." Therefore, even if someone decides to escape, you must first somehow leave the house unnoticed and walk down the street so that you are not taken away, then get through the checkpoints.

But at the very "border" of the "DPR" there are no de facto bans on men crossing it. I think for local "border guards" it's like a signal: If a man has already reached this "border," he is quite a "big dog," and he can be let through.

People from Mariupol and other territories of the Donetsk Oblast began to pop up in the so-called "DPR" and in other previously occupied territories of Donetsk Oblast. But in the self-proclaimed” republic” there is no physical infrastructure even to put up these people anywhere.

Therefore, they are housed, for example, in some gyms, in Spartan conditions. Some of these people are going to Russia. For example, when I crossed the border, I saw two young men on their way to Rostov-on-Don in (southern) Russia. But they left voluntarily, not under pressure – so to speak. They decided to get ahead of the events because they did not want to be forcibly taken away.

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