Stalino Days

by Andrew Stuttaford

I’ve always been interested in “states” that enjoyed a momentary mayfly existence (the republic of Ingermanland, say, or Carpatho-Ukraine) and then disappeared, all too often into an obscurity that masks real tragedy.

But reading this brilliant, sometimes bleakly funny piece by Julia Ioffe for, not altogether inappropriately, The New Republic, of a visit to Ukraine’s “separatist” People’s Republic of Donetsk (itself in, some respects, an echo of the short-lived Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Soviet Republic of 1918) reminded me that this is one republic that would not be terribly missed:

With one 11-story building to its name, the People’s Republic of Donetsk is the smallest country in the world. It must also be the most bureaucratic.

When I first arrived in Donetsk (the city) a Russian journalist who has been stuck covering this place since May 9 advised me and my photographer Max Avdeev to go and get accredited with Donetsk (the people’s republic). The PRD has been in existence for just over a month and is fighting for its survival. But it is also rigorously accrediting journalists.

To get into the country—which is basically just the seized Soviet-era building that once housed the Donetsk city administration—Max and I had to get through a series of checkpoints set up in the adjacent square, now piled high with tires, barbed wire, and signs decrying fascism, Kiev, America, the E.U., and, weirdly, Poland. At each of the three checkpoints, Max showed his Russian press card and I showed my New Republic business card to an endless series of sun-burned, black-fingernailed men in Adidas track pants….

Read the whole thing.

And then read this later piece by Ioffe. It begins like this:

The Donetsk People’s Republic is now heavily armed and well-fortified: tires, barbed wire, grenade launchers, APCs, Kalashnikovs, and seemingly more pistols than they have hands to shoot them. But the fledgling republic’s most fearsome weapon is their grannies. The Russian countryside is populated by the baba, the strong, hefty woman who, according to Russian legend, will stop a galloping steed and save a burning house. But in the Donetsk People’s Republic the legions of baby are simply the shock troops.

Their methods are fierce and sure: these stocky women, mostly pensioners with brightly colored hair, motley, polyester uniforms, and gold Orthodox crosses nestled in their plentiful bosoms, sniff out the enemy and, shrieking their terrifying war call, surround him until he can be liquidated by their men. The enemy is naturally afraid of resisting: these are grannies, women in their 50s and 60s who, likely, remind him of his own grandmother . . .

But there is a sting to this farce, a suggestion of something very badly wrong, a hint of the precipice — and of the abyss too.

The Corner

The one and only.