When I was a little child, the seasons defined my world and the landscape surrounding it.
In the summer, it was a small village in central Ukraine where my family had its own vegetable garden, behind which were a river and a forest. In the village, working the land was a hands-on task, and the land generously rewarded you with what you nurtured on it. Older relatives also let me work the land – although it remained uncertain whether my efforts there brought more benefit or harm.
During winter in Donetsk, I enjoyed gazing at the horizon marked with slag heaps that resembled mountains. They were particularly striking when snow, black soil, and the silhouettes of leafless trees created an image akin to a woodcut engraving. Of course, I knew they weren’t real mountains, but this quasi-resemblance still fascinated me. My winter landscape consisted of high-rises, snow, and piles of toxic waste, with the soil hidden beneath the asphalt, available only for walking on. Somewhere deep beneath my feet, mining workings lay. I was strictly forbidden from walking on the slag heaps, as they could collapse under the weight.
At the age of fourteen, I visited Crimea and saw real mountains for the first time. I was impressed by their size and the fact that they were unique, summer mountains. Mountains for a special occasion: visible only in summer while you’re at the seaside. These mountains were accompanied by heat and exhaustion from long uphill walks, sudden coldness at the top, and hidden caves. I never saw the mountains in winter.
I stopped going to the village when all my older relatives who lived there passed away. In 2014, Russia occupied Donetsk and Crimea, altering my personal geography permanently. Growing up also introduced a new perspective from which to look at Donetsk’s fake mountains.
Systems rooted in colonial and extractivist modes of thinking and doing have ensnared us in a destructive relationship with the Earth. In this case, heavy industrialization and collectivization under Soviet rule not only claimed millions of lives but also disfigured the beautiful steppe of eastern Ukraine, covering it with factories, plants, and coal mines. Extensive mining, which depleted the earth and marked the city’s horizon with slag heaps, provided the Soviet Union with cheap coal. The policy of colonial extraction and exploitation solidified the toponym “Donbas” (a portmanteau of “Donets Coal Basin”) as a geographical name, reducing the region’s complex identity to valuable resources and fossil fuel hidden underneath its inhabitants’ feet. On a Soviet propaganda poster from 1921, Donbas is called the “heart of Russia,” depicting the region as a red heart-like organ with vein-like branches that supplied cities from Zhytomyr and Kyiv to Penza and Kazan with blood – coal – to ensure the empire’s survival. The entire region is referred to as “Russia,” emphasizing the idea that fossil fuel, the empire’s lifeblood, is indispensable.
The fake mountains were, in reality, scars left by the colonial power – both the Russian Empire, which initiated the coal industry in the region with the significant involvement of European entrepreneurs, and the Soviet Union – on the body of their former colony. Over time, these industrial scars came to be perceived with all the complexity and ambivalence of a regional symbol. The historical circumstances of the region’s formation were such that, during industrial development, people from all over arrived to start anew here – whether fleeing famine, politically persecuted, or individuals with criminal backgrounds. Hence, one stereotype associated with eastern Ukraine became that it was a land without roots, a place without its own history, devoid of anything genuine or original. The slag heaps, which resembled mountains but were merely mounds of barren waste, and the toxic piles of debris dominating the urban landscape, fit seamlessly into this imagery.
Following the Russian occupation in 2014 of parts of the Donetsk oblast, the artificial, mountain-like heaps came to embody a lost homeland. “In your region, even mountains are fake” is an ironic and bitter reflection on colonial exploitation of the land, feelings of loss and belonging, and landscapes of memory.