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Dobropillia is tiny and cozy (like my bed)

Dobropillia is tiny and cozy (like my bed)
Dobropillia is tiny and cozy (like my bed) | © Goethe-Institut

Reseach tandem: Lisa Korneichuk, Nele Feuring


Arriving in Dobropillia for the first time those who are familiar with the local context would not be surprised about anything. Dobropillia is a typical tiny industrial town at Donbas region in the east of Ukraine. It was built for nothing but mining and has been existing for serving the mines. As well as all the cities around, the glorious times of Dobropillia passed by with the collapse of the Soviet Union and at first sight it seems as if there is nothing left for its citizens to be proud of. Except for the one thing: Dobropillia had the shortest trolleybus route in the world, as the locals tell.
The population of Dobropillia estimates over thirty-thousands of people. There are six mines that are working around the city and small local business, mostly shops. The most important part of the city’s landscape are terricons (“терикони”), huge artificial hills made of coal dust, that evoke the impression of a post-apocalyptic moon-like place. There are four boiler rooms in the city, some of them are abandoned, but some are still working, spreading thick smoke over the city and nearest fields.

Going down the Pervomayskaya street you would come across ATB supermarket, this is the market area, where most of the people usually move unhurriedly. For us, it was a starting point of the journey. Here is a remarkable coffee shop called ‘Zaboynay’, which stands for the face in the mine, the surface where the mining work is advancing. The coffee shop is designed with attributes of the mine, like a miner lamp and rock-drill, also a rat, usual inhabitant of a mine, and the sign above saying ‘What do you know about the sun, if you have never been in the mine?’.

If you turned to the right, you would get to the main alley, where the miner college is located. You would notice a big blue and white 50’s Soviet-style palace with columns, this is a palace of culture of the Dobropilska mine. [3] If you turned back and passed the market, you would probably notice the backyard of the new school, it was built as a regional school particularly for people with disabilities. Move further and you will see a brand new and huge sports centre, recently built by DTEK to prove Dobropillia’s potential as a sport capital of Donbas. If you would like to explore more of the hidden quarters, you would probably find a music school, hearing a folk choir singing, or a renewed library or a stylish wooden open scene.
While you would find many modern playgrounds in the backyards, the most important meeting place is in the city park. The atmosphere is calm and peaceful, couples strolling by and the children playing. Everywhere in the city park are old Soviet relics to be discovered. Two old outdoor theatres and dozens of bizarre fairy-tale statuses in the forest.

[4] [5] 
At the edge of the town an area with private houses can be found, they do not have the best reputation. There is a lot of rubbish and pollution, but on the other hand a little valley with beautiful sunsets in the evening. In winter children sledge there and in summer they burn grass and reed for fun. Some of the residents have started an initiative to develop and change the area hand in hand with the local community.

The Mine

It was only 1953 when Dobropillya officially became a city and during 60s-80s it was on the edge of the industrial development and growth. But long before that during the Russian Empire wealthy landowners built their farms on the place that later became Dobropillya. Soon the locals found stone coal deposits and started to dig it. It is said that somewhere the coal stem outcropped the surface.
There are six mines in and near Dobropillia, that are currently working. All of them are a part of DTEK, the biggest holding company in the energy sector owned by Rinat Akhmetov, the richest Ukrainian oligarch. In fact, DTEK is a monopolist of the energy sources in Ukraine. However, it is more and more difficult for the mines to be profitable, it is said that only 16 out of 33 Ukrainian mines are profitable now [2]. Most of the mines in Ukraine are old and need new technologies and investments to exist, but also the coal is ending. Dependence on mines as the only source for earning money for Dobropillia makes it monotown, a place where it is hard to do something different for living. That is why a prospect of mine closing seems unbelievable for local citizens. ‘In every family, there is a miner, no one can avoid this destiny. This gives a feeling that we are at the Donbas,’ says Svetlana, the director of the Palace of culture.
Nowadays an attitude towards mine is controversial in Dobropillya, and this is familiar for many miner towns in Ukraine. During the Soviet times, mine was perceived as a main nurturing, though very dangerous place. People respected miners and thought of them as heroes. Mine was the main economic entity for the country budget, that’s why miner profession had a lot of privileges, such as big salaries and pensions, possibilities to travel to the sea or go shopping to Moscow (exclusive options for Soviet people), long vacations. As a part of promoting and glorification miner labour in USSR was establishing culture palaces and clubs for miners by government. Those institutions were in charge of organizing the miner celebrations and festivals. It is symptomatic, that those institutions were not supposed to research, preserve and popularize knowledge, history, and mythology of mine industry in the USSR.
It is said that from 1992 until 2008 the number of people who chose the miner profession reduced to 74% [3]. That happened because of the big economic crisis in Ukraine after USSR broke, when miners’ salaries became unproportionally small, though the work still was very dangerous. Today, when the mines become more and more unprofitable, the debts to miners are increasing, and salaries are still very small. Now almost everyone in Dobropillya is related to the mines, either working there by themselves or having relatives who do. But almost everyone, who knows what the mine is, mentioned that he or she would like to leave mine or prevent their relatives to work there. However, at the same time, a few people said that could imagine Dobropillya after mining industry is gone. “Closing down a mine is a very complicated issue. What are you going to do with people?”  says Victor, a local citizen, who previously worked as a miner.

 The Conflicts

While thinking about the conflicts, the first thing that comes to mind is the war in the east of Ukraine, that seems to be distant from Dobropillia. The war is not present either in public spaces or in people’s talks or thoughts. Citizens are far more concerned with immediate challenges. The main of them is economic development and lack of a strategy for the city. It does not look like there is a plan for the city development in the government, and it is hard to imagine what other industries could start up here soon if the mines closed. Local business services the mines and miners and is dependent on them. Young people often try to leave the place for bigger cities to avoid the hard and unpredictable job in the mine. The uncertainty of the future and the need for a holistic structural change seems to be the most urgent conflict Dobropillia is facing right now.
Many years of mining have caused a poor ecological situation and tangible pollution in Dobropillia. At the western entrance of the city, you can easily notice a huge brick stone chimney with heavy smoke coming out of it. This is one of the city’s boiler rooms, located on the main street of Dobropillia. When you are in the city, you can feel the dust on your face and in your hair after a short walk around the place. This is the result of zhuzhalka (“жужалка”), coal dust left after coal burning. All the terricons are made of it, locals also use it in winter to cover the road to protect themselves from slipping. The climate in Dobropillia is dry, the summers are very hot and the dusty air makes it even harder to bear.
Katya is young woman who is actively engaged in the local NGO ‘Dobro’, she and her husband own a vegan store and she is also the yoga teacher of Dobropillia: “I used to live and work in Donetsk, then in Makiyivka. After the war began, I moved back here where I started my yoga business. They called me and asked me to teach a yoga class in a salt room. They do it in big cities. It is pleasant and good for your health. While doing breathing exercises in a salt room, your lungs are being cleansed and saturated with benign negative ions of salt.”
Let alone the fact that a mine itself has a huge environmental impact. Mines turn into traps shortly after being created. The idea of invading solid and removal its layer means the destruction of the entire ecosystem around. When coal layer ends and the mine loses in profitability, it is still very difficult to close it down. The mine cannot simply be closed down, as it would flood by underground waters and this will become an environmental catastrophe for the area around it. Thus, the mine requires a lot of attention and resources, and the lack of a plan to revitalize the mines makes the future of the regions obscure and frightening.

Cultural landscape: mono versus diversity

Dobropillia is facing the problem of expiry of mine industry, as the coal sources are ending. At the same time, it seems that the local government has no city development strategy yet and locals are not ready to abandon their miner identity. Thus, the process of transformation and transition will be very challenging for the town. The concept of ‘mono’ dominates not only in economy, but in cultural and societal development too. This is the result of a monopoly of politics in the town, where everything is dependent on one industrial company and predictably developing due to its interest. It is also in their interest to grant Dobropillya a more specific profile. The town is considered to become the future capital of sports of Donbass. The highly modern and continuously expanding sports centre built by DTEK is the starting point. [6] Aside from these top-down cultural initiatives, Dobropillia offers much more that is not to visible on the first sight. A vegan shop offers regional self-made products. Different yoga classes are offered to all generations and very much accepted and appreciated by a broad audience. Another people’s initiative to be mentioned is the bike club. It is a quite new and revolutionary approach to cycle through the city and in the surrounding nature, the structure of the city is not ideal to go by bike. A local bike club still understood the high potential of founding a community, to share a hobby, activities and time at the weekend ends. The local library conducts animation workshops and promote the idea of creating a city tour based on miner history.
Still several aspects of the daily lives of people are limited, the opportunities for going out for dinner are restricted. There are some locations, but they have mainly international fast food options. Moreover, there are now places for going out in the evening, no bowling alley, no cinema, no bar with live music. During the time in Dobropillya these aspects were often mentioned as missing, by the locals. Dobropillia offers more than you would see in the first moment and the grassroot initiatives react to the obvious gaps.

Developing and conducting the project

From the beginning on it was important for us to listen and try to understand as much as possible about the town. It was a very intense experience for us, but we soon realized that a first irritation and even frustration about the place, would be accompanied and followed by a strong sentiment and sympathy for the place and its diverse people.
As we understood it from the beginning and also based on what the locals shared with us, it was obvious to do an environmental project. The ecological issues are of high importance for the citizens of the town.  Nevertheless, due to the short amount of time we would have to implement the project we tried to focus on another major aspect, important to us.
The idea of the project was to explore and capture memories of people's lives with the coal mining industry in Dobrobillya. We wanted to record the voices of different people, whose personal and family life has been influenced by the stone coal. It was our aim to outline the multitude of diverse voices and memories in Dobropillya. The town is located in a conflict-driven area in Ukraine and in a country on Europe's periphery, but a vivid dealing with the transformation would have far-reaching meaning. With our project, we wanted to contribute to a lively commemoration, accessible for younger generations. Our earlier research made us understand, that remaining silent on the origins of Dobripillia would stand in contrast with an inclusive outlook on the future.
The practical part was the filming of several video interviews with people from Dobropillia, who are connected to the history of the town and the contemporary life. The interviews focused on the individual memories. Moreover, all videos tried to outline the multitude of narratives in Dobropillia on: the mining identity, small town history, recent cultural and social reforms, young generation and participation, ecological politics and future with all the dreams and expectations people do have about it. We start with interviewing miners and people we had met before, who knew about our project. For each respondent we prepared special questions and locations. The video interviews are not representative, but combine particular stories, for depicting the town with its problems and in its landscape.
The main challenge during the process of conducting and filming interviews was to ask the right questions. To what extend one's life and identity is connected to the mine, is not an obvious question to answer for locals. We realized, that we had been out of the town and its narratives for quite some time and had to readopt. Furthermore, the language barrier became a high challenge during the process.  As we did not have a translator, the division of task during the interviewing could not be balanced.
When asking the locals what they liked about the place we would often hear the words “tiny” and “cosy”, rather than specific places, people or memories. Moreover, the question itself was some irritation for the locals, often they would react with some suspicion towards the camera and our question.
During our first week in Dobropillia, we explored the town very much like tourist would do at any place. Eagerly we visited every possible places, tried to understand the structures and the relations. It was a practice that was natural for us. Returning back to the town, we tried to ask questions possible only locals of touristic places would be able to answer easily. It was an interesting experience, our excitement for the place our look and sentiment for the scenery, was to some amount disconnected from the town itself. Still we agreed and later decided that “tiny” and “cosy” should become the name of the project.
Nevertheless, every conversation we had was unique and gave us different perspectives on the life with the mine. Which seems for some so inevitable and absolute, while other have hopes for a life without the mine. The mines and every traditions and story are a integral part of the daily life, omnipresent and still not really spoken about. It is astonishing that some people still have dreams, hopes and act for a Dobropillia without the domination of the mine.
The local Vladislav is concerned about the future and development of his town: “ I was born in the town of Dobropillia and I have been living for 31 years now. Even if the mines become really good,but people will still be working only for money, there will simply be more consumerism. People will live more comfortably,but society will not progress. The situation will not change.“


For us it was not difficult to tell which places we liked in Dobropillia. We liked the park in the evenings, the big square and to watch the people to walk around without any hurry, maybe without any goal, just having a stroll. The atmosphere in the town is calm and peaceful and still not debilitating. The town full of surprises and contradictions, clashes between the miner's Soviet past and inexorably looming modernity. What is happening with the town today, in a sense, is true for the whole of Ukraine. As a miner monotown in the east of Ukraine, it has no long history and no strong basis for future growth. Vice versa Dobropillia is now facing the problem of expiry of mine industry, as the coal sources are ending. At the same time, it seems that the local government has no city development strategy yet and locals are not ready to abandon their miner identity. Thus, the process of transformation and transition will be very challenging for the town. Even though, many people seem to be frustrated about the situation, the locals are starting various initiatives to broaden the opportunities and to enhance the quality of life. The focus hereby is on constructing, creating and enjoying things together.


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