It is not easy to write about what is currently happening in the occupied territories of Ukraine. You have to browse for reliable information among the mass of Russian propaganda and fakes. What remains is fragmentary, often subjective data that is weakly verifiable. Even specifying the real names of informants is a luxury that has long been unavailable to Ukrainian journalists. It is easier to postpone this issue for later, until the liberation, when normal work «in the field» becomes possible. Some do so, limiting themselves to stating well-known facts. But this is not enough. Indeed, today this part of Ukraine is separated from us by the wall of occupation. However, sooner or later it will fall and we will have to face a reality about which we will know much less than we need to cope with it.
First of all, we are talking about the part of Donbas that has been under occupation since the spring of 2014, for which the abbreviation ORDLO («Separate Districts of Luhansk and Donetsk Regions») is now firmly established. It so happened that I spent my childhood and youth in Luhansk — a city stuck in the beyond of the «Russian world». I have never lost touch with my hometown. But it is getting more difficult to describe the realities there every year — not so much because of a lack of information, but because the picture, overgrown with new details, is becoming more and more bizarre. In 2014-2015, when «field commanders», «Cossacks» and self-appointed leaders of «militias» ran rampant in ORDLO, frank absurdity implicitly worked in favor of credibility. When the unremarkable guy Sasha from my gym suddenly became «Batman», the ruthless leader of the infamous detachment of separatist insurgents — this is a completely typical literary and cinematographic plot. But the «normalization» of life in the occupation turned it into a boring and off-key arthouse, when it is difficult for the viewer to distinguish the whimsical director’s idea from his — the director’s — negligence.
Human life has been of little value in the occupied Donbas. We still don’t know how many died during the COVID-19 epidemic, which the local authorities «counteracted» by ignoring and dubious Russian vaccines. And how many local residents were killed by the occupiers and their accomplices in the course of political or criminal massacres, we will probably never know. The local «authorities» had eight years to hide the traces of their crimes. Well, after February 24, death has become almost commonplace. Russian generals do not care much for their own soldiers, so they treat the «mobilized» from the «people’s republics» as expendable material. As it turned out in the spring, Luhansk morgues were nowhere near designed for such a number of corpses. And this is taking into account the fact that far from all the dead «mobics» (derogatory name for «mobilized» from ORDLO) have been delivered home. A relative of my friend, who was forcibly mobilized back in March, lies in a mass grave somewhere near Kharkiv.
It is not surprising that thousands and thousands of Luhansk men have not gone out from their houses since the end of February, that is, for about 8 months. Carelessness can cost you your life. Buses used by the «commandant’s office» men for gathering those unlucky guys, whom they manage to grab from the streets, still cruise around the city. Well, then — a military squad, the frontline and, most likely, mutilation or death. The latest Luhansk innovation: recently the «commandant’s office» began to use for this purpose regular public transport. Even the route numbers are not removed from the buses, so that «mobics» can be caught just at the bus stops. The population reacts in the spirit of the times: in local telegram channels, people quickly share information about the situation in their districts, inform about the movement of «commandant’s» men, about raids, etc.
By the way, not only those who do not want to fight against Ukraine for political reasons are hiding from mobilization. Putin’s fans, who have not yet lost the instinct of self-preservation, prefer to cheer for the «special operation» from a safe place. However, there are hardly any places in Luhansk that can be considered safe in the full sense of the word. Once upon a time, back in the pre-war years, there was a joke in Luhansk: «Luhansk is the city of possibilities. For example, it’s always possible to leave.» Now it sounds different: «It`s always possible to die.»
The uncertainty deepens
When Putin announced the annexation of the «republic» on September 30, it caused mixed feelings among the locals. In the spring of 2014, the separatist uprising was inspired by the example of Crimea, which quickly «returned to its native harbor», and even «without firing a shot». Local supporters of «reunification» with Russia hoped for something similar. But unlike Crimea, which was an «independent republic» for exactly one day, occupied Luhansk and Donetsk regions were stuck in limbo for eight years. It would seem that the «referendum» held in the occupied territories of Donbas, as well as Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, was supposed to be the realization of cherished dreams for supporters of «Russian world». But, I say again, this plot is written according to the whimsical laws of arthouse.
My friend, who currently lives in Luhansk, said that among his relatives, friends and acquaintances, no one took part in the «referendum», with the exception of one woman. The «polling station» where she went was a table that was set up right in the street near residential buildings. Those who wanted to vote did not even have to show their documents — it was enough just to state their name and date of birth. The woman in question came alone, but she was urged to vote for her parents, grandfather, grandmother, and other relatives as well. Such a careless imitation of will expression discouraged even Putin’s bigots. Why go somewhere, if the decision will be made in Moscow anyway? In addition, for all eight years the people of the «republic» were convincingly proved that their opinion does not matter at all, even if it completely coincides with the official line. Therefore, instead of the «Reunion Day» there was a «serf theater».
Moreover, when Putin announced the annexation in the Kremlin, assuring that these territories are now «forever with Russia», the Armed Forces of Ukraine carried out a successful counteroffensive in the vicinity of the city of Lyman in Donetsk region. Two days later, on October 2, Volodymyr Zelensky announced that Lyman was completely under the control of the Ukrainian Army. And shortly before that, the panic flight of Russian troops from Kharkiv region ended. All this made Putin’s statements extremely unconvincing. This is good news for those who are still waiting for liberation (and there are many of them in Luhansk, despite everything), and bad news for bigots of the «Russian world». After all, decisions made in Moscow can be challenged on the battlefield. Uncertainty is increasing, and therefore the space of possibilities is expanding. And for the city, seemingly forever stuck in the occupation beyond, this is a good sign.