The Russian-backed separatist-controlled regions in eastern Ukraine: Donetsk and Luhansk

Donetsk, Ukraine

Russian-backed separatists rule Donetsk and Luhansk, the eponymous breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine. These two totalitarian “People’s Republics” are Europe’s only homes to capital punishment.

Founded in 1872 as Yuzovka by Welshman John Hughes to make iron and then steel rails, the city developed rapidly. Its postwar modernisation saw it grow into a major coal and steel industry.


The dominant industry is metals, based around the Donetsk Metallurgical Plant and the Yenakievo iron and steel works. Coal mining and coal processing are also important. Other industries include petrochemicals, coke by-products and heavy engineering.

A number of large institutions of higher education exist in Donetsk, including the National Technical University and the Donetsk Medical University. In addition, the city has several hospitals.

The self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic is a Russian-backed entity in eastern Ukraine, which is dominated by armed separatist groups that have captured government buildings and hoisted the autonomy’s red, black and blue flag on them. But the region’s history goes back a long way, even before Putin’s cynical attempt to annex it from Ukraine in 2019.


In 1872, an ironworks was established by a Welshman, John Hughes (from which the town’s pre-Revolutionary name, Yuzovka, is derived), to produce iron rails for the expanding Russian railway network. The industrial development of Donetsk has continued to this day.

Coal mining remains the dominant industry, but Donetsk is also known for its metallurgical plants, coke chemical production and heavy engineering works. The city has a number of hotels and large shopping centers.

In the early years of the 21st century, Donetsk was a focal point of fighting in the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War, as pro-Russian separatist forces battled Ukrainian government troops for control of the city and surrounding areas. Since 2014, Donetsk has been controlled by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, an internationally unrecognised state ruled by Moscow-backed proxies.


The economy in Donetsk revolves around heavy industry, mainly coal and steel. There is a large iron and steel plant, as well as other industrial plants; food, light, chemical and other manufactures.

The economic crisis of 1991 shattered the stability of local economies. Its reverberations were felt throughout Ukraine, but especially in the industrialized Donbass. The rapid severance of economic ties triggered galloping inflation and the destruction of a familiar way of life.

People who had grown accustomed to ordering their lives according to the rhythms of heavy industry found themselves suddenly without any perspective for the future. They lost their ability to live a self-sufficient life and were filled with nostalgia for the past. Many switched to Russian, the Soviet lingua franca, as their mother tongue.


After the czarist government established steel, coal and rail plants in what is now Donetsk and Luhansk, the areas became a melting pot. Welshman John Hughes, who developed the tsarist-era steel, iron and coal deposits in the area that would later become Yuzovka, constructed many homes, railway stations, telegraph buildings, schools and hospitals.

Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the region enjoyed 23 years of religious freedom, Krezhanovsky said. Evangelicals, Catholics and Greek Catholics built new churches and reopened shuttered ones.

Now, he says, it is hard for Ukrainians to enter the regions under Russian control. Those who attempt to travel to the region must cross into Russia and show a Soviet-era residency registration card or risk being detained or even killed. They must also be aware of a constant threat from secret police and militia.


In the prewar period, coal mining and steel were the economic foundations of Donetsk and Luhansk. Welshman John Hughes established an ironworks in what was then Yuzivka (hence its pre-Revolutionary name of Yuzovka), and in the Russian era the city grew rapidly because of the czarist government’s desire to develop its huge coal and iron ore deposits. This expansion gave rise to a style of building that is reflected in some of the preserved buildings.

These buildings feature rectangular and triangular shaped facades, balconies, green rooftops and large windows that occupy much of the façade. There are also some monumental buildings such as the 360-metre-tall TV tower, which is one of the tallest structures in the world.

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