In the winter of 2000, I visited one of the mining villages in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine. It was a Sunday, and I’d been invited to the birthday party of Lyubanya, one of the locals. From the outside, her house looked like a derelict shed. Indoors, it was bursting with life.
By the small hours of the morning everyone was dancing and drinking like there was no tomorrow. At some point, amidst the revelry, one guy who had been asleep on a bed in the corner got up without a word, put on his work clothes and boots, took his helmet and his lamp, and left.
Perplexed by this little scene, I asked Lyubanya where he was going.
"To the mine of course, where else."
"But it’s dark outside!"
Dead drunk and half-asleep, she smiled at me and pronounced softly: "Down there it’s always dark. Any time of day."
Like virtually all the inhabitants of Mine No. 7 – the villages are named after the adjacent pits – Lyubanya’s sole income came from digging coal out of makeshift mines. The mining companies had extracted all they could from the area and moved on, leaving behind a gutted landscape of craters and slag heaps. In the late 1990s, entire villages founded once upon a time for the purpose of extracting coal were left without any reason to exist.
Mining became an artisanal labour. Wherever the coal came close to the surface, the villagers simply dug a hole in the ground or used the abandoned mining shafts. Like a hundred years ago, the hammer and chisel became the primary instruments of the miner, clawing himself into the ground wherever he ﬁnds a modicum of coal.
A network of improvised underground coal mines envelops the Donbass like a spider web, running beneath railway lines, residential houses, cemeteries, shops and administrative buildings. They have changed the landscape, and they have changed lives. The illegal mining industry has sparked a spontaneous boom in enterprise in the local villages. Some chop down trees from the nearby forests to make wooden reinforcements for the shafts. Others transport the wood to the mines on their shoulders or on carts. Hot lunches and tea are served. Trade ﬂourishes, too. A bucket of potatoes costs three buckets of coal; a bottle of homemade liquor – a sack.
I was staying in the town of Thorez. The decrepit, ﬁve-storey apartment block I lived in didn’t even have central heating. Most people had simple iron stoves that were heated with wood or else with the coal from the mines. The stove chimneys stuck out of the windows, which were blackened by soot – a common sight in the city. Running water was available according to a timetable: around two hours in the morning and another two hours in the evening. There was no hot water. It was so cold in the ﬂat that I had to sleep beside the stove fully dressed. When my money ran out, which was pretty soon after my arrival, I would walk for several kilometres through the snowy steppe every morning to an illegal mine, where I was already a familiar face. There you could have three meals a day and tea to your heart’s content.
I had already grown accustomed to the conditions of my new life amongst the miners. The only thing that never ceased to bafﬂe me was how people who produced enough fuel for an entire nation were unable to heat their own homes.
I remember my ﬁrst time down an illegal mine. It was the winter of 1999. Initially, no one seemed to notice or care about me. But then they agreed to let me into their underground world. At the entrance, ﬁgures in boiler suits and helmets emerged from underground, emptied their sacks of freshly mined coal and disap peared again. The homemade lift was large enough for two people at a time. We descended the shaft to a depth of 34 metres, after which we had to walk another half-kilometre down an incline until we reached a maze of small galleries. There, on their knees, sometimes lying on their sides, the miners did their job. Once they had hacked away a decent amount, they col lec ted it in a sack, crawled out of their nook and set out briskly uphill to the elevator. They made this trip dozens of times a day, collecting half a tonne of coal in one shift and more than a tonne on a good day. Every "hole" (as they called the illegal mines) has its own name, like "Glukhovsky Forest", "At school", "The Glass". The entire village, including the police and the local administration, lives off the mines one way or another.
In the mines themselves, there is a strict discipline. Whether it’s a legal mine or an illegal mine, there’s one rule: no drunksallowed. The work underground is hard and one miner’s mistake can cost precious time or even cause a tragedy for the entire workforce. Solidarity and a sense of duty are the most important aspects of a miner’s life. Weddings and christenings are celebrated all together. An ill miner is a concern for the whole team.
Once I was invited to one of these get-togethers, where ﬁve miners or so were celebrating their birthday. It was winter, yet the party took place outside. A buffet was laid with simple, ﬁlling food and an abundance of homemade vodka was served out of three-litre jars. Slowly the remaining miners joined the party. The monot ony of their working life gave way to the smell of bonﬁre in the icy air, baked potatoes and bacon, rice with meat, and never-ending toasts. The entire mine – around 70 people – danced and sang and drank like only truly reckless folk can. At night, those who could no longer stand on their feet from the booze were carted away on sledges or accompanied home.
From time to time, the illegal mines were shut down: the entrance would be boarded up or ﬁlled with cement. But of course this could only ever be temporary. Without the mines, entire villages would lose their only means of survival. The harsh conditions of the job and the imminent danger of life not only led to occasional industrial accidents; they destroyed lives. On one of my trips to the mines I was told that an eighteen-year-old guy I’d chatted to previously had hanged himself. Another, the same age, perished on his second day underground. I’ll never forget the sight of a young woman by the open cofﬁn of her ﬁancé, killed at the mine face a week before their wedding. Around the same time, in the nearby city of Lugansk, in front of the regional administration, a young miner on a hunger strike set himself on ﬁre. They couldn’t save him.
Amateur coal mining in the Donbass is becoming increasingly professional. Mines are being privatised and licenses for the exploration of new deposits handed out, while the amount of coal excavated illegally is reaching industrial levels. A diversiﬁed in fra structure is booming, including transport, retail and para military security contractors, who guard the mines and quarries. Villages and entire towns once again have something of an economic basis on which to exist.
But I witnessed many who decided to leave the mining settlements in search of a better life, promising themselves never to return to that arduous and dangerous labour underground. Some stayed true to themselves, but most came back. I was told that the mine is like a magnet that draws the miners to it and doesn’t let them go.
After all, for the miners coal is not just a mineral: it is black gold lying buried beneath their feet.