Donbass - Protestant Split in Russia

Donbass in Late September


Report on a fizzled visit


S m o l e n s k – On 19 September, I tried to enter the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) via two different crossing points. Matters were finally resolved early in the morning of 20 September: My companion, a Russian Quaker from Moscow, would be allowed to continue on to Donetsk – not me. The reason given was that I possessed neither a press card nor accreditation from the press office in Donetsk. Apparently, it is presently not possible for a Western citizen to enter the territory as a private visitor or tourist. But it is difficult for me to get upset at the DPR’s rigid behaviour – how easy would it be for a loyal resident of the DPR to enter the USA? Russian inspections when exiting from Russia were very strict. I assume the Russians thereby take over a considerable amount of burden from the DPR’s border police.


Russian border police were very correct – the DPR’s officials at the first border crossing (Marinovka) also. When waiting on the Ukrainian side at Marinovka, the head police officer helped us get our mobile phone running on a Ukrainian card. Late at night, back on the Russian side, a cordial border guard called a taxi for us. That made it possible for us to continue on to a second border crossing.


The mood of the border guard and the Russians in general was: „Let them come – we’re ready to show them a thing or two.” Self-confidence appears sufficient. The crossing point Marinovka was the scene of battles in July 2014; war damage is still apparent. The border guard reported that units of the semi-fascist “Pravy (Right) Sector” had advanced right up to the Russian border then – not a joking matter for Russians.


I very much enjoyed the relaxed and amiable atmosphere between Russians and Ukrainians. But that’s easy to claim, for who in the border region is actually a Russian, and who is Ukrainian? Ukraine has always had an official Russian minority. A traveller at the border showing a Ukrainian passport is not necessarily an ethnic Ukrainian. An ethnic Russian can sport a Ukrainian pass – or vice versa.


The border between Donbass and Russia has always been a fuzzy one, both in geographical and ethnic terms. It must have been similar after 1776 between the new USA and Canada. Who really belonged where? The US’ Revolutionary War was also a civil war. According to “Wikipedia”, 15-20% of the populace in the US-colonies emigrated, even to Spanish-held Florida. Whether one regarded oneself as a Canadian or US-American was an individual matter. Each person could decide alone, for these two “peoples” were indistinguishable in visual and acoustic terms. The decision both then and now was more political than ethnic or cultural; one was that which one said one was. This dividing of the waters is also happening now in Ukraine.


The Kiew writer Oles Buzina, who was murdered in April, had claimed that Ukrainians were essentially a subgroup of the Russian – or Rus – nation. “I’m Ukrainian, which is a kind of Russian.” This phenomenon is also present in Germany: A Bavarian is not only a Bavarian, he is also a German. Bavarians and Swabians are a subgroup under the larger heading of “German”. But why are the Austrians not regarded as Germans?


What is language, and what is dialect? Austrians have German as their mother tongue, but they are not Germans. Their Austrian is only a dialect. The Belarusians are not in total agreement with the Russians: Are the Belarusians a subgroup of Russian, or are they a completely independent people like the Poles? These disputed issues are a mix which nationalists can easily concoct into an explosion. Great powers are adept at utilising these differences for their own purposes.


Regarding economics: The war in ex-Yugoslavia had shown me that war does not make everyone poor. Not everyone in Donbass is destitute: Some autos at the border crossing points would even have impressed Moscowvites.


On 19 September, it took 4,5 hours for our bus out of Moscow to get up to the Russian customs hall. There had been three buses ahead of us. On the DPR side, nearly 50 lorries were waiting to enter Russia. Their drivers surely had to reckon with a multiple number of days before entering Russia. That makes no sense – the economic loss must be enormous. Humanitarian aid is at times also severely restricted.


A biography I still need to think about: During the long night, Andrey Babitsky, an Uzbek Jew with a Russian pass, had waited at both border crossings in hopes of helping us. During both wars in Chechnya, the Russian government had described him as a traitor because of his support for the insurgents. (Have a look at the English and Russian “Wikipedias”.) Until being fired in mid-2014, Babitsky had worked for a quarter of a century as a leading reporter for the US-government’s “Radio Liberty”. Now he is attempting, as a freelancer, to found a private TV station in Donetsk. Why this change of mind? He regarded the treatment of the Donbass populace by Western media as “highly unjust”, he responds. He now hopes to give them a voice.


The Paris talks on 2 October made clear once more that the major powers in East and West do not want to prolong the war in eastern Ukraine. A land route for the pro-Russian side from Russia to Crimea is no longer envisioned; work is progressing rapidly on a 19-kilometre-long bridge. A detour is also being built for a segment of the rail line Rostov-Voronesh-Moscow running through Kiev-held Ukraine for 26 kilometres. War is only to be tolerated on the back burner. Perhaps precisely for this reason, the current cold war could well become even colder; Christians should undertake efforts to counter that trend.


On 22 September, the Baptist congregation in Krasny Luch (Lugansk region) received uninvited guests from “separatist” security officials. They demanded financial information and membership lists. News on the incident was readily passed on to church media in Kiev. Yet in such instances, the Kiev-based churches rarely request aid or “interference” from Moscow – after all, such matters involve churches located strictly in Ukraine. Nevertheless, only Russian Protestants are in a position to appeal for understanding regarding the Protestants of Donbass. Separatists correctly regard the Kiev-run churches as adversaries.


My Quaker friend visited “Dom Evangeliya”, a major Baptist church in the centre of Donetsk, on 20 September. He described the congregation as friendly and alive. Its regular visitors and helpers from Krasnodar and Rostov in Russia are heartily welcomed.


1.085 words


William Yoder, Ph.D.
Berlin, 07 October 2015


A journalistic release for which the author is solely responsible. It is informational in character and does not express the official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #15-10a.