Before the current appalling tragic war, before the conflict in eastern Ukraine and before the annexation of Crimea I was in Donetsk. I was part of a multi-national due diligence team doing technical audit work on some coal mines in the Ukrainian section of the vast Donetsk Coal Basin, which continues across the border with further coal mines in the Russian part.
Language similarities: Russian and Ukrainian
Our team comprised Brits, Russians and at least one Pole, a mining engineer. Our translators and the mining engineer, a Polish and Russian speaker, assured us that there were many words shared between the East Slavic languages Russian and Ukrainian and to a lesser extent the South Slavic language Polish. There is a degree of mutual intelligibility, which is sometimes compared with that between Spanish and Portuguese.
My opposite number was a Ukrainian geologist of a similar age; we had both spent our working lives doing similar work in much the same way under very different political systems. Often, he speaking in Russian and I in English, the geology and the mining carried us without too much input from translators. On the second day, he confided that he had been visited by the KGB, who wanted to know what I had asked and what he had told me.
Communicating in Russian in Donbass
Most Ukrainians speak Russian and our visit was mostly carried out in that language with the aid of Russian/English translators.
We worked together, ate together, drank together, shared something of our personal experiences and laughed together. On a work-free Sunday, we enjoyed a very pleasant picnic together by a lake.
Our Russian translators had, at some stage of their training, learned that British people drank tea and wore bowler hats. I felt the need to tell a joke in the hope of replacing these stereotypes with some new ones.
My story concerned a foreign agent sent on a mission to a remote mining community in South Wales. To provide background I explained that some surnames are very common in Wales and to distinguish between them a job was attached to the name, for example a baker might be Jones the bread, a milkman Davies the milk. (They were already aware of Jones the voice).
To get back to our agent and his dark underworld work of espionage. He knocked on the door of a foreign house and gave his password.
“No no”, said the woman. “It’s Jones the spy you want. He lives next door but one!”
The response to the joke left me in little doubt that there can be no secrets in small mining communities whether they be in Carmarthenshire, Yorkshire, Donbass, Kuzbass or Silesia.
Similarities of the geologists
Sport was an area of shared interest between my Ukrainian geologist and myself. I knew of the Ukrainian footballer Andrey Shevchenko, He admired Ryan Giggs. We spoke of a time when a Ukrainian, Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, (he was surprised I knew of Igor) a Brit, Lynn the Leap (he was my sports master when he won his Olympic gold) and an American, Ralph Boston, dominated the world of long jumping. Sergei Bubka, the pole vaulter, born in Luhansk, was another Ukrainian athlete much admired by myself.
Political tensions in Donbass were not felt at a personal level
Throughout our visit our international team received generous hospitality from our hosts, we stayed in a comfortable hotel. If there were political tensions in the Donbass at the time, we saw no evidence of them. We met hard working generous, good natured, happy people.
Recently a social media post from a Bristol Hospital treating Ukrainian Children for cancer asked for Ukrainian/Russian translators to volunteer to help. I forwarded the post to one of the translators who was on our Donbass visit and who now lives in the UK. It was no surprise to me that she said she was going to contact the hospital.
Hopes for the future
My hope is that the war ends soon, that the people we met stayed safe, that the country is helped by we in the west to rebuild and that they people ultimately get to vote in free and fair elections on their own future.
The following is an extract from the poem, Welsh Testament, by R S Thomas. ‘Welsh’ has been exchanged for ‘Ukrainian’:
All right, I was Ukrainian. Does it matter?
I spoke a tongue that was passed on
To me in a place I happened to be
My word for heaven was also yours
I have come to learn new words for hell.
*The word for heaven in both Russian and Ukrainian is небеса (nebesa)