Did Stalin “raise” Donbas? A myth of Soviet propaganda created at the expense of Europe

How Europeans initiated the industrial Donbas, why the region became a stronghold of resistance against everything “Western,” and the price paid for “Stalin’s industrialization” is discussed in the following material from RBC-Ukraine.

The history of the Donbas region, like a melting pot, blended and transformed the eras of Cossacks and the industrial success of European capital, Stalin’s five-year plans, wars, revolutions, and the fate of millions of people. The region experienced highs and lows, always bustling with life. The year 2014 became a turning point in the history of Donbas. For nine years now, the region has been systematically destroyed by the Russian army, gradually transforming from an industrial center into a wasteland.

Ukraine’s desire to develop and move in a European direction has caused contradictions in the region’s relationship with the central government. Considering the Donbas region’s past, this seems absurd. In many ways, among all the regions of Ukraine, it is historically closer to the West than it may initially appear.

English trace

After the revolution in the Russian Empire in 1917, the Bolsheviks who came to power aimed to create the world’s first workers’ and peasants’ state. To build something new, it was necessary to destroy the old, while also changing people’s consciousness.

Thus, Donbas, which in the 19th and early 20th centuries was essentially a European colony within the Russian Empire, transformed into a showcase of Stalin’s industrialization, a Soviet territory alien to everything Western.

It is important to note the geographic boundaries of this region. Its name itself stands for the Donetsk Coal Basin. This region includes the northern part of Donetsk, the southern part of Luhansk, the eastern part of the Dnipropetrovsk regions of Ukraine (Western Donbas), as well as the western part of Rostov oblast in the Russian Federation (Eastern Donbas).

To realize that the Donbas region has much more in common with Europe, history can serve as a guide. For example, one of the first cities that comes to mind when you hear the names of the region is Donetsk. About a hundred years ago, this city was called Yuzivka. The future center of industrial Donbas was founded in 1869 by Welsh entrepreneur John Hughes, who purchased the right from Prince Sergey Kochubey to build a factory for manufacturing railway tracks. Recognizing the significant coal deposits in the region, the enterprising Welshman decided to go further and establish a fully integrated enterprise.

Thus, John Hughes created the Novorossiysk Society for Coal, Iron, and Rail Production, which became a leader in steel production in the empire at the beginning of the 20th century. After receiving approval from the Tsarist government in 1869, the construction of the first mines and the plant began. In the summer of the following year, equipment and tools, as well as around a hundred metallurgists and miners, were brought from England to Ukraine on eight loaded ships. In record time, they managed to build and put into operation the first blast furnace.

Already in 1872, the first pig iron was obtained, and the rails produced at the factory were used to lay the first 120-kilometer railway line in the Donbas region, connecting “Kostiantynivka – Yasynuvata – Yuzivka – Olenivka,” which was later extended to Mariupol.

Yuzivka obtained the status of a city only in 1917. Before that, it was considered a province. John Hughes, along with his family, cared not only about expanding their factories and mines but also about the settlement that existed alongside them. The city saw the establishment of shops, a Sunday market, taverns, German pubs, hotels, a post office, and even a police department. Later, electricity and telephone communication were introduced to the city.

John Hughes was not the only representative from the Albion who saw a multitude of opportunities and immense potential in the Donbas region in the 19th century. Another prominent figure in the establishment of a great city in the Luhansk region was his compatriot, Scottish engineer Charles Gascoigne.

By the end of the 18th century, the Russian Empire felt the need to produce its own cannons, which were previously imported. At the suggestion of British naval commander Samuel Greig, who served in the Russian service, Charles Gascoigne was invited to the empire to establish cannon production. The Scottish engineer successfully accomplished this task and even organized the production of shells, shot, and incendiary projectiles in the empire.

In 1790, Charles Gascoigne was assigned to conduct reconnaissance of ore and coal deposits in the territory of present-day Luhansk Oblast. Gascoigne discovered that these areas were rich in valuable minerals, the development of which promised significant profit. This became the starting point for the emergence of the future city of Luhansk.

In 1795, Catherine II issued a decree for the construction of the first iron foundry in the southern part of the empire on the Luhan River. Later, it would give birth to a settlement that would grow and transform into a city. The construction and management of the new enterprise were entrusted to Charles Gascoigne. The Scottish engineer formed the entire administrative and technical staff from engineers he specifically invited from Britain. During the war with Napoleon, the Luhansk Foundry, established by Gascoigne, became one of the main suppliers of cannons and ammunition for the Russian army.

See also: A source of non-knowledge: the history of Ukraine in European school textbooks

The history of the English on the Donbas was interrupted in 1917. After the revolution and the subsequent establishment of Soviet power, the nationalization of all enterprises began. Gradually, experts who had spent decades building local factories and working in their workshops started leaving the region.

Belgian, French, and German capital

The successful example of the English attracted capital and people from other European countries to the Donbas. In addition to Britain, France, Germany, and Belgium also left a significant mark on the development of the region’s industry.

Belgium held the fourth position among countries in terms of investment in the Russian Empire, with two-thirds of their investments focused on the Donbas region. In 1892, Belgian engineer and entrepreneur Ernest Solvay founded a soda production plant in Lysychansk. To ensure the operation of the enterprise, the owners established an entire industrial line, including the construction of mines, a railway, and even the longest leading cableway in Europe to transport the necessary chalk and coal for production.

Later, soda production stimulated the construction of a glass factory. In 1899, the Belgians built the Kostiantynivka plant. In total, around 90 enterprises were established in the region through Belgian capital, which gave rise to settlements around them. Similar to the English, the Belgians also sought to develop settlements where workers from their factories resided. For example, in Lysychansk, architects designed and built a residential area, a dining hall, a hotel, a school, and a cinema for engineers and workers.

During the European “colonization” of the Donbas, the French were also involved. In 1898, the French joint-stock company for iron smelting, ironworks, and steel mills, known as Russia, established a metallurgical plant in the suburb of Donetsk known as Makiivka. By 1899, they produced their first pig iron, and within just five years, by 1904, the plant became a fully integrated metallurgical enterprise.

However, similar to the English, Belgian, and French capital, the French also fell victim to Bolshevik nationalization. The Soviet authorities simply seized all the plants and everything that had been built by Europeans over the years of developing the Donbas region.

Germans also left a significant mark in the region. As early as 1789, Empress Catherine II issued a decree to attract Germans to settle and develop the lands of the Azov region. According to the decree, all settlers were exempt from paying taxes for 30 years. They were provided with funds for housing and farming, guaranteed religious freedom, and exempted from military service.

These privileges contributed to the formation of 68 German settlements in the Donbas region over the next 75 years. One of the largest settlements, recently restored to its historical name, is New York. Another former major German settlement is the present-day district center Telmanove, which was called Ostheim by the German colonists.

However, Germans made their mark not only through the establishment of settlements. Gustav Hartmann, for example, built the second industrial giant of Luhansk, the locomotive manufacturing plant, which operated successfully until the Russian occupation of the region in 2014.

Additionally, the Germans left their mark in Yuzivka. Engineers Eduard Bosse and Rudolf Gennefeld constructed a foundry and mechanical plant in the city, producing steam engines and boilers for the mines, as well as winches and pumps.

The tragic events in the history of German settlers were not limited to the years of revolution when their enterprises were nationalized by the Soviet authorities. The Second World War and Germany’s invasion of the USSR brought even more severe consequences for the colonists. Approximately 100,000 Germans residing in the territory of present-day Ukraine were forcibly deported to Kazakhstan and Siberia.

Soviet industrialization

The revolution, followed by years of Civil War, led to the decline of the industrial infrastructure built by Europeans in the Donbas. Some factories ceased operations, while others became obsolete. The shortage of skilled professionals was a significant issue.

During the New Economic Policy (NEP) in the 1920s, the Soviet authorities managed to partially restore the devastated industry. However, this did not resolve the problem of lagging behind the advanced countries of the world.

“We are 50-100 years behind the advanced countries. We must cover this distance in 10 years. Either we do it, or we will be crushed,” acknowledged Stalin himself, recognizing the urgency of the situation.

Undoubtedly, Stalin’s industrialization breathed new life into the Donbas region. Over the first three five-year plans, new factories were constructed and existing ones were modernized. Blast furnaces and open-hearth furnaces were put into operation, new mines were opened, and outdated facilities underwent upgrades. As a result, by 1937, the Soviet Union ranked second in the world in terms of absolute industrial production, following the United States. Ukraine became an industrially developed republic within the USSR, ranking second in Europe in pig iron production, third in steel production, and fourth globally in coal mining.

However, it is evident that Stalin’s industrialization of the Donbas did not occur in a vacuum. Much of the “success” of the five-year plans can be attributed to the fact that the region had already been developed by European capital. The English, French, Germans, and Belgians had managed to build successful and modern enterprises for their time, which later became the foundation for the Soviet industrial leap forward.

Moreover, the industrialization itself did not occur without the participation of the West. The revolution, war, repression, and famine resulted in a severe shortage of skilled professionals — engineers, architects, designers, and even ordinary workers in the Soviet Union. There was also a lack of indigenous technologies, which forced the Soviet government to rely on the services of Western experts and companies.

The English, Germans, and Americans played a significant role in the industrialization of both the Donbas region and the entire Soviet Union. Thanks to the acquisition of technologies from the United States and the involvement of American experts, various industries were developed in the Soviet Union. A symbol of pride and showcase of Stalin’s industrialization, the Dnipro Hydroelectric Station (Dniproges), was created with the participation of the American company Cooper Engineering Company and the German company Siemens.

See also: Victory for Donbas: all about the European Court’s decision which will change the world’s opinion on Russian aggression

As Stalin’s plan aimed to achieve a rapid leap forward to overcome the 100-year lag of the USSR compared to the West in the shortest possible time, the country resorted to the principle of conveyorization. This meant that new enterprises were planned to be built at the speed of a conveyor belt, which stamps out parts in a factory. To fulfill this goal, the USSR entered into a contract with American architect Albert Kahn. In the United States, he was known as the man who built Detroit, the heart of the automotive industry in the country.

Over the course of three years, architects and engineers from the company Albert Kahn Associates, Inc. worked on designs and supervised the construction of approximately 570 industrial facilities in the USSR. Additionally, the Americans also trained Soviet specialists in the method of conveyor design.

In Ukraine, predominantly in the eastern regions — Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, dozens of military, machinery, and metallurgical plants were constructed based on the projects of architect and engineer Albert Kahn.

One should not forget the price that the USSR paid for the work of designers, architects, engineers, as well as for the imported machinery and technologies. Towards the end of the existence of the Soviet Empire, its main currency on the world market was gas and oil. However, in the early 1930s, the world did not particularly demand these valuable resources, and their industrial extraction in the Soviet Union was just beginning. The way out of this situation was “bread,” which is still highly valued worldwide today. According to Joseph Stalin’s plan, grain, which could be converted into money and technology on the world market, needed to be taken away from the peasantry.

As it will repeatedly occur in Soviet history, the principle where the end justifies any sacrifices comes into play. The collectivization of villages initiated in the late 1920s and the forcible confiscation of grain from peasants led to a massive famine that, according to various estimates, claimed the lives of 4 to 10 million people in Ukraine alone.

Welsh journalist Gareth Jones becomes a witness to the catastrophe in Ukrainian villages. He was familiar with Ukraine because his mother worked as a governess in the house of John Hughes, the founder of Donetsk, before the revolution. Amidst the famine, Jones manages to reach the eastern regions of the USSR. Upon his return from the Soviet Union, he becomes the first to truthfully report to the world about the consequences of the collectivization policy and the massive death toll among peasants resulting from the confiscation of their grain, leaving them without means of survival.

At the cost of millions of lives, the Soviet authorities managed to find the necessary funds for industrialization, but irreversible processes began to unfold in the villages. The establishment of collective farms and state farms led to the demotivation of peasants and a decline in productivity in rural areas. By the 1960s, the USSR was forced to import grain from abroad because it could no longer feed itself.

The living conditions of the working class were also far from ideal. In January 1931, a rationing system was introduced in the USSR, and severe shortages were observed. Despite Soviet propaganda’s attempts to discredit the tsarist regime and portray the capitalist oppression of the working class, the facts indicated the opposite. In his memoirs, Nikita Khrushchev admitted that as a locksmith in one of the mines in Donetsk, he lived much better before the revolution than in the 1930s under the Soviet Union when he became a party official in Moscow.

“While working as a simple locksmith, I earned 45 rubles when black bread prices were 2 kopeks, white bread was 4 kopeks, a pound of bacon cost 22 kopeks, and an egg cost 1 kopek. What is there to compare? When I was involved in party work in Moscow, I didn’t even have half of that, although I held a fairly high position. Other people were even worse off than me,” he recalled.

During the years of Soviet propaganda, the memory of how and thanks to whom the Donbas transformed from an empty land into a developed industrial center was literally eradicated from people’s consciousness. The Soviet authorities diligently fought against anything that reminded them of the British, German, French, and Belgian presence in the region, even resorting to renaming settlements. The authorities managed to create a myth about the industrialization of the Donbas, claiming that it was accomplished solely by their own efforts. By rewriting history and omitting its least attractive parts, the Soviet Union forgot about the Western world’s significant role in the creation of the “industrial miracle” for a second time.

Originally posted by Ivan Kazora on RBC-Ukraine. Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website

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