The broken-down beauty of Eastern Ukraine, 25 years after the end of the USSR

Before there was a raging civil war that devastated the region’s infrastructure and polarized its population, the Donbass region in Eastern Ukraine was an economically depressed area, far removed from the authority of the central government in Kiev.

Historically, Donbass—known officially as the Donets Basin, which encompasses the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts—was the center of Soviet industrialism, a region that symbolized the power of Soviet might where towns and cities sprung up alongside coal mines and factories. Following the USSR’s collapse, however, much of the region lay in ruins.

That’s the theme behind the series, “Donbass Romanticism,” by Moldovan-born photojournalist Misha Friedman, who photographed the region in 2010 and 2011 while living in Kiev. Friedman set out to depict the ruined, crumbling infrastructure as a symbol of government neglect and the collapse of Soviet ideals.

“To a certain degree, the decay in Donbass reminded me of the processes of Western Europe in the age of Industrialization, as people moved into towns and cities, we separated ourselves from nature,” Friedman tells Quartz. “The idea was, ‘What if I photographed Eastern Ukraine in the same aesthetic?’ The relationships between humans and nature has always been complicated and especially in Donbass, which is at one end dependent on the land for survival but on another end has lived and died by industry for centuries.”

Donbass’ location was key for developing an important industrial zone based on coal, heavy industry and, later, the implementation of newer technologies, says historian Tarik Cyril Amar, a Columbia University professor and expert on Ukraine.

“Going back to czarist times, Donbass has always been a largely autonomous region that socially, politically and economically speaking did not entirely adapt to any central ruling power,” Amar told Quartz. “After independence in 1991, the factories left and unemployment and other social problems took hold but Donbass largely kept its political autonomy and developed local power structures that essentially made it a state within a state.”

It is this historical narrative, Amar explains, that is critical to understanding why the region is at the front lines of Ukraine’s civil war, where pro-Russian separatists are engaged in guerrilla-style warfare against the Western-backed Ukrainian army in the streets of Donbass’ cities and in the small towns that dot the region’s vast, picturesque landscape.

Today, industrial city Donetsk’s unemployment rate hovers (pdf) around 8%—the highest in Ukraine—though many economists believe that number to be much higher. Though the region remains the country’s industrial center—it was responsible for 27% or $18.3 billion of Ukraine’s total exports in 2012—the war has ravaged a local economy that was only beginning to recover from a slump that dates back to the fall of the Soviet Union, when the factories closed and the jobs went to Asia, says Amar.

The regional economy nears a collapse today, Amar explains, but to project the current crisis entirely on economic conditions “would be a serious error and misunderstanding of history.”

A statue of a deer on top of a slag heap overlooking Donetsk. (Misha Friedman)
An inhabited house near Enakievo, a town of a hundred thousand residents 60 km east of Donetsk. (Misha Friedman)
A coal miner smokes a cigarette after his shift in Enakievo. (Misha Friedman)
Abandoned Catholic Church near Enakievo Metallurgical plant. Not in use during the Soviet rule, volunteers are only now trying to bring it back into service.
An abandoned catholic church near Enakievo’s metallurgical plant. The church was abandoned under Soviet rule and volunteers are only now trying to restore it for services. (Misha Friedman)
Coal miners drink moonshine after work in Enakievo. (Misha Friedman)
Coal Mine_Donetsk
An abandoned coal mine near Donetsk. (Misha Friedman)
Cemetery expansion in Donetsk. (Misha Friedman)
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