NYC to Donetsk & back: an American visitor discovers a new nation in the making in eastern Ukraine

Alexander Korobko, “NYC to Donetsk & back” (Russian Hour, 2018)

Made in 2017 or 2018, or some time after the death of Mikhail Tolstykh aka Givi in February 2017 (his death in his office is mentioned early on in the film), this remarkable documentary follows the travels of Russian-American actor Peter von Berg in the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) to discover the truth ignored by Western mainstream news media (MSM) about the experiences of the people living in the region, as opposed to what is reported by the Western MSM. Before 2014, the DPR was an oblast or province of Ukraine, predominantly Russian in ethnicity and language, and one of the most industrialised and prosperous parts of that country. After the Maidan Revolution in February 2014, the overthrow of the Yanukovych government, and Crimea’s own escape from Ukraine and reunion with the Russian Federation, Donetsk Oblast held a referendum in May 2014, the result of which led to the establishment of the DPR. Ukraine then invaded the DPR and its fellow rebel republic the Lugansk People’s Republic (also a majority-Russian area in Ukraine) and the three fought a brief hot war from May to early September, 2014. At the time von Berg visited the DPR, it was recognised as a state only by South Ossetia and was still claimed by Ukraine along with the LPR as part of its territory.

With political scientist Alexander Kazakov as his guide, von Berg tours areas that were part of the front-line in the DPR’s fight for survival in the summer of 2014 and is introduced to various people including DPR head of state Alexander Zakharchenko and at least one of his ministers, Alexander Timofeyev, who takes von Berg on a trip to a greenhouse farm growing tomatoes. The actor visits a specialist surgical hospital and talks to the head administrator and medical staff there; he also visits a steel-making factory, an Orthodox church, and a theatre and its cast of actors.  He even meets a Texan, Russell Bentley, who decided in 2014 to throw in his lot with the DPR and help the republic fight the post-Maidan regime in Kiev. The discussions he has with Zakharchenko and others about the society they are building in the DPR are very revealing: the people intend to create a socialist society in which primary and secondary education and healthcare are provided for free by the government, and cultural pursuits and enrichment are taken for granted and are the right of the people to enjoy.

Von Berg is very moved by many of the sights – in particular, the bombed remains of houses and other buildings near the front-line, and a Soviet-era memorial on a hill outside Donetsk city that was deliberately targeted and ruined by Ukrainian tanks – and marvels at the resilience and determination of DPR residents. They are highly educated and cultured and are mindful of their long history and traditions. Zakharchenko reminds von Berg of the significance of the Boston Tea Party in American revolutionary history and Timofeyev quotes the Roman poet Virgil; theatre director Natalia Volkova tells von Berg that the first play her theatre performed after the cessation of war in 2014 or early 2015 was Nikolai Gogol’s “Marriage”, in which a civil servant tries to find a suitable bride through a match-maker. (The travails of the civil servant and the bride might well mirror the DPR’s attempt to urge a federal style of government to Kiev and then its later attempt to become an autonomous republic, then form a federal union with the LPR, and then finally become more or less independent.) The fact that von Berg finds such friendly and cultured people, irrespective of their vocations, will surprise many Western audiences accustomed to societies where everyone knows only enough from his / her own school and college education to perform his / her chosen vocation and little else apart from what s/he picks up from news media and social media. Strangely though, after visiting a medical centre, a factory, a cultural centre and a politician’s office, von Berg does not visit a school, a university or a technical college to find out how the DPR produces people with such a rich and varied education.

In many questions that von Berg asks of his gracious hosts, there is implied criticism of the neoliberal capitalist system as it operates in his home country. Von Berg is impressed with the DPR’s ability to provide medical care (including specialist surgery) for free and education for free up to a certain level as well. Zakharchenko explains to von Berg that the state will fund particular university students’ studies in full if the young people are studying in an area where the government has a shortage of qualified people, on the condition that upon graduation the students agree to work for the government for a given period, otherwise the students are expected to pay for part of their studies. No doubt, on hearing of what students in the US must pay for their studies, Zakharchenko and others must have fallen over backwards at the sheer insanity of a system that bankrupts young people just so they can gain qualifications for jobs that are unlikely ever to pay off their tuition loans over a lifetime of work. What von Berg discovers as he travels around the DPR is also an indictment of the Western MSM’s failure to report the reality of the war in eastern Ukraine and the support that the West gives to fascist, even neo-Nazi regimes to repress their own citizens and to use violence against them where such governments and such actions advance Western political and economic elite goals of seizing other people’s lands and natural resources.

Von Berg comes away with new respect and admiration for a people who, under conditions of war and political and economic uncertainty, have created a thriving society and a rich and layered culture where people have the opportunity not only to fulfill their potential in particular fields but blossom in other areas. At the same time, the threat of a renewed hot war against the DPR by Ukraine, rent by political corruption, economic decline and extreme neo-Nazi terror, and encouraged by the West to recover what it considers to be its territory in the DPR, the LPR and Crimea, is never far away.

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