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Symbolism of the Donetsk People’s Republic

A new republic, even one – especially one – as uncertain in status as the Donetsk People’s Republic, needs all the trappings of power. But what do they mean? на русском языке

After months of reportage from Eastern Ukraine, the tricolour of the Donetsk People’s Republic is a familiar sight. Legitimised or otherwise – depending on one’s viewpoint – by the contested referendums, held by their forces on 11 May, the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics now talk of popular support for their political project, whatever it might be – federalism within Ukraine or maintaining an uneasy status quo. Yet who will listen? Newly-elected President Petro Poroshenko – having compared the Donetsk militias to Somalian pirates – seems unwilling to indulge them in either ambition.

Russia, for its part, has recently, and publically distanced itself somewhat from the secessionists in the east of Ukraine – though its influence behind the scenes is undoubted. As they lowered the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag, and ran up their own in Kramatorsk, Slovyansk and Donetsk, the supporters of these People’s Republics nevertheless found themselves in political grey zones. So what can their new colours tell us?

Signs and symbols

All but one of these ‘republics’ borrow from the three pan-Slavic colours of the Russian flag (red, white, and blue), and coat of arms.

On the 15 May, the Luhansk People’s Republic announced a competition for the design of  a new flag and coat of arms; graphic designers with political ambitions would do well to consider the symbolism of designs created elsewhere, in other breakaway regions across Ukraine; from the Odessa to the Kharkiv People’s Republics they generally use a similar colour scheme. All but one of these ‘republics’ borrow from the three pan-Slavic colours of the Russian flag (red, white, and blue), and coat of arms, simply substituting white for one of the colours on their existing regional flags. These flags often bear the Russian two-headed eagle, replacing the depiction of St George on the shield (the ‘silver horseman in a blue cape…’), with the local oblast (region) coat of arms; however, the coat of arms for the Donetsk People’s Republic is an exception, showing the Archangel Michael.

The coat of arms of the Russian Federation

А gold two-headed eagle with raised extended wings set against a four-cornered red heraldic shield with rounded lower corners. Two small crowns top the eagle’s heads, with one large crown above them. The three crowns are linked by a ribbon. The eagle holds a sceptre in its right claw and an orb in its left claw. The eagle bears a red shield on its breast depicting a silver horseman in a blue cape, mounted upon a silver horse and slaying a black serpent with a silver spear.

Beneath the coats of arms, is a variety of stirring state mottos – for Donetsk, the Donetskaya Rus (Donetsk Rus); and for the flag of Luhansk, Novorossiya; and all of them, of course, are spelled out in an appropriately traditional Cyrillic typeface.

For the all-important national anthem, the breakaway republics favour old favourites such as the Soviet ‘Vstavai, strana ogromnaya! (‘Arise, vast country!’), but the Donetsk People’s Republic now has its very own (albeit still unofficial) anthem – ‘Arise, Donbas’ (original and covered) – courtesy of Donetsk punk rock band Den Triffidov (Day of the Triffids).

The Donetsk People’s Republic now has its very own anthem – ‘Arise, Donbas.’

A ready-made history

The black of the Donetsk People’s Republic’s flag is commonly thought to represent the nearby Black Sea, although others have suggested either the black of the Russian Imperial tricolour or even the province’s coal mining industry. ‘What a tragic colour’ lamented one Russian commenter. ‘It reminds me of our Estonia.’

One of the most common variations of the flag of the Donetsk People's Republic written in old-style cyrillic. One of the most common variations of the flag of the Donetsk People's Republic.

The design of the Donetsk People’s Republic flag (save for the the two-headed eagle which is a modern addition) is widely attributed to the short-lived Donetsk Krivoy-Rog People’s Soviet Republic, founded in January 1918, with Soviet Russian support, as Ukraine descended into chaos during the Russian Civil War. The Republic notionally included areas both in modern-day Ukraine and Russia; and the cities of Kharkiv and Luhansk both served as its capital at various points. Following the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, between Russia and Germany, both the Donetsk and Ukrainian Soviet Republics ceased to exist; and with the Peace of Riga in 1921, the territory of the former Donetsk Republic was absorbed into Soviet Ukraine.

This, then, is the long and venerable history behind the Donetsk People’s Republic flag. But Vladimir Kornilov, the world’s leading – and only – specialist on the short-lived state (and author of The Assassinated Dream, a book on its history), does not agree. In an interview, Kornilov noted that during the Soviet period, historians engaged in research could choose nearly any topic on Ukrainian history – including (albeit under strict control) that of Stepan Bandera and Symon Petlyura – but the Donetsk Krivoy-Rog Republic was off-limits. Recognising that the state existed, he says, was like ‘removing a stone from the foundations of the modern Ukrainian nation.’ The myths that grew around the Republic, he added, led to distorted views of its history, and ‘pictures of some flag which was never actually used.’

Vladimir Kornilov at a book signing. Vladimir Kornilov, the world's leading (and sole) historian of the Donetsk Krivoy-Rog Soviet Republic. Photo: Kornilov.name.

In fact, the flag used by the Donetsk People’s Republic is, with alterations, that of the International Movement for Donbas or the Interdvizheniye Donbasa, an organisation whose roots started only in August 1989, in a lecture theatre of Donetsk University. The meeting was attended, in particular, by members of the university’s department of Romance and Germanic languages, including academics who had begun to research other controversial topics, from ethnic Germans in the Donbas to the fates of the deported peoples of Crimea. Among them were the aforementioned Vladimir Kornilov, and his brother Dmitry. The movement’s inaugural meeting was held in November 1990, and on 8 October,1991, a red-blue-black tricolour was adopted as their flag. The Interdvizheniye Donbasa, maintains the newspaper Donetsk Speaks, was the only force in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) at the time, which opposed the disintegration of the USSR. Remembering the Interdvizheniye on its 20th anniversary, Donetsk native Aleksandr Chalenko republished a flyer that it distributed throughout Eastern Ukraine. ‘Do you support the act of the declaration of independence of Ukraine? The Donbas says NO.’

‘Do you support the act of the declaration of independence of Ukraine? The Donbas says NO.’

The Interdvizheniye was one of a number of groups in eastern Ukraine pressing for autonomy in the Donbas, throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. A ‘Donetsk Republic’ organisation appeared in the city in December 2005, with some level of support from the local administration. Moskovsky Komsomolets reports that on the 11 April 2007, several Donetsk Republic flags appeared at a demonstration in central Kiev – on the Maidan. In Summer 2008, a lawsuit was filed against the organisation for its advocating of secessionism; Moskovsky Komsomolets notes that the resulting ban did not prevent the Donetsk Republic’s tricolour being raised on Donetsk’s central square in 2010.

This is the republic, which, as Novaya Gazeta discovered, has no fewer than three Ministers of Information.

That the inaccurate history of the Donetsk separatists’ flag is so widely believed – by Russian and Western media alike – is testament to the strength of the myth that Kornilov describes. Separatists themselves appear to believe it, though this is the republic, which, as Novaya Gazeta discovered, has no fewer than three Ministers of Information.

History repeats itself

‘The Kyiv government has invaded our Donetsk Krivoy-Rog Republic […] we, [its] government of the Republic declare that there can be no peace without recognition of our Republic.’ These are the first words of a document dated 7 April 1918. The words bear a striking resemblance to declarations made in 2014. The basis on which the Donetsk Krivoy-Rog Republic was incorporated into Soviet Ukraine, notes Kornilov, was that the ‘consciously proletarian nature of the Donbas [could] dilute the petty-bourgeois element of Ukraine.’ Furthermore, the Donbas was given assurances that it would enjoy autonomy within the Ukrainian SSR, which would ‘never be organised on a national basis.’ Kornilov asserts that all these guarantees were violated by Ukraine in 1991, upon its independence. These facts, he believes, contributed to the Donetsk Republic’s absence in Ukraine’s official history during the Soviet era; and in the early 1990s, ‘the forbidden fruit [became] simply too sweet.’

‘These Odessa Republics, these Donetsk Republics – they never existed and never will exist’ 

In 2011, Chalenko, then a journalist for Obozrevatel, recalled a statement made by President of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko on Unification Day. ‘And what could you tell me about the Donetsk Krivoy-Rog Republic?’ he asked. ‘Well, tell me, please? What is this Republic? What evidence is there for this state? Its money, its army, its government, its foreign policy? Did they have any? Let’s be serious, gentlemen. You know, we had tens of these ‘Republics,’ from the White Sea to Vladivostok… There’s just one thing I want to say – these Odessa Republics, these Donetsk Republics – they never existed and never will exist, and there’s no discussion about that.’ Poroshenko today may not be quite so dismissive.

Patriotic fan art from the Donetsk People's Republic's VKontakte page. A miner carries a rifle against a background of the flag. Patriotic fan art from the Donetsk People's Republic's VKontakte page.
‘The history of the Donetsk Krivoy-Rog Republic’ concluded Chalenko ‘is important because it is a powerful argument in favour of the federalisation of modern-day Ukraine.’ The myth has taken hold, and Chalenko sees new opportunities – new novels, plays, films and documentaries sanctifying it in a modern-day Donbas nation-building project. In his April Op-Ed for RIA Novosti, Kornilov stated that events in the east have reached a point of no return, where there can be no future for a unitary Ukraine. Federalisation, he stresses, is the only solution for easterners unwilling to live ‘by Galician rules.’

Ukraine has seen many power structures come and go: ‘According to the calculations of the Kievans,’ wrote Mikhail Bulgakov, author of 'The White Guard,' ‘they had 18 changes of power. Several of the travelling memoirists have counted 12. I can state with certainty that there were 14, 10 of which I experienced personally.’ The (first) Donetsk Republic existed in a very complex political background. It was a Bolshevik state, which existed in the Russophone, industrialised Donbas during a Civil War, fighting the forces of a Ukrainian nationalist state. Once a Ukrainian Soviet government had been installed in Kyiv, it ceased to exist. Nevertheless, at an emotional level, its mythic symbolism is still extremely potent.

The separatists in Donetsk do not fly the flag of the Donetsk Republic of 1918. Their flag is cut from more modern grievances.

The separatists in Donetsk do not fly the flag of the Donetsk Republic of 1918. Their flag is cut from more modern grievances, whatever the historical parallels. For the historian Kornilov, theirs is a mistake made in good conscience, their myth being an end to the right means.

'The Donetsk Republic[s] of 1918 and 2014 were not founded for secession, they were founded in order to remain with Russia,' Kornilov said in a June interview with online news portal KavPolit. 'For now, the possibility [of recognising the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics] is very small. But 10 years ago the Russian Foreign Ministry found the idea of recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia endlessly amusing. Then again, 25-30 years ago, nobody would have believed that countries such as Kosovo, Montenegro, Slovakia and Ukraine would appear on the European map.'

The Donetsk Republic of 1918 was proclaimed, occupied, and dissolved within a year. It was ultimately absorbed into a Ukraine of its allies’ choosing. By being associated with the former, the separatists in Donetsk project a powerful myth for their supporters – that history, repeats itself. First as tragedy, then as farce. 

About the author

Maxim Edwards is an Editorial Assistant at oDR. He writes on nationalism, inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations, with a focus on post-Soviet countries. His articles have appeared in Al-Jazeera, Al Monitor, Souciant and the Forward among other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @MaximEdwards.