This is an interview with Sophie Lambroschini, a researcher of socio-economic history of Central and Eastern Europe at the Franco-German Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin.
Sophie teaches socio-economic history at the Paris Nanterre University and is the lead researcher of the Franco-German project LimSpaces. The project brings together colleagues from France, Germany, Moldova, and Ukraine to study how Ukrainians and Moldovans adapt to the geopolitical crisis and war in their everyday lives. Sophie’s research began in 2014 in Donbas. She collected material for a book on the history of Ukraine for a French audience and studied the operations of the Water of Donbas utility company. In this work, reflections emerged on the combination of infrastructure and political sovereignty, citizenship, and communal services. We experienced this combination firsthand during the extensive power outages caused by Russia’s missile attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure.
Yevhenii Monastyrskyi: I was impressed by how you integrated infrastructure, communal services, sovereignty, and citizenship in your research, as well as the idea of participation in resistance and individual resistance. How do you combine these phenomena and what examples can you provide?
Sophie Lambroschini: In my view, the continuity of public service during war creates new forms of solidarity. The necessity to meet essential needs has fostered horizontal connections between local authorities, international organizations, municipal enterprises, consumers, and volunteers. These new forms of solidarity, forged during an extraordinary situation like war, can serve as the foundation for social reconstruction.
However, these processes began even before the full-scale Russian invasion on February 24, 2022. The war began in 2014, and it was then that the resilience of infrastructure and its social significance became apparent in Donbas.
I started working in the Donbas after 2014, and while researching how people adapt to geopolitical, ideological and military events, I found a unique example.
The water supply company, Water of Donbas, operated on both sides of the demarcation line to ensure the provision of water to millions of people, numerous enterprises, and farms despite active combat operations. Their water distribution network spanned nearly 300 kilometers, stretching from the Siverskyi Donets River north of Sloviansk to Mariupol. The system of pumping stations, pipelines, and canals supplied drinking and industrial water to consumers on both sides of the demarcation line, exposing both people and infrastructure to significant risks.
At that time, Water of Donbas employed 11,000 people, several thousand of whom worked in the areas not controlled by the Ukrainian government, while others operated in the territories under their control.
“The company suffered losses early on during the conflict in Donbas. For instance, two engineers, a mother and son, lost their lives while on duty. Since 2014, the water supply infrastructure became a target of shelling and incurred damages. Checkpoints along the demarcation line and financial challenges resulted in significant disruptions in the supply and communication chains, leading to serious accidents,” said Sophie Lambroschini.
Even before the full-scale invasion, when the region became the epicenter of hostilities, many vital water supply nodes in cities and villages were destroyed or temporarily occupied. However, for eight years, Water of Donbas managed the system, adapting to an incredible level of uncertainty and risk.
I was curious about how the company could continue to function under such conditions. If it does operate, how does its economic and supply system function, disconnected by the front line? How does it operate in terms of corporate structure, organizational structure, and management practices when half of its staff is located in non-government-controlled territories and faces political pressure from separatists and occupying authorities (who may view them with suspicion for working for a Ukrainian company on the other side of the demarcation line)?
See also: Fighting for every defender. How the Russian Federation manipulates relatives of war prisoners
As you may recall, since 2017, there was what was sometimes referred to as an economic and trade blockade of the temporarily occupied territories, which significantly reduced economic contacts across the demarcation line. The self-proclaimed separatist republics, controlled by Russia, attempted to confiscate Ukrainian companies at that time. Furthermore, the coronavirus pandemic further complicated crossing the demarcation line.
I focused on the issue of crossing the demarcation line by the company’s employees as it was a paradox for me. The Water of Donbas operated despite all the aforementioned factors. The company, and specifically its employees, had a practical, improvised, but also strategic approach in their work to continue providing their services. Therefore, the longer the war lasted, the more professional this utility company became. It should be noted that with the onset of the full-scale invasion, all critical infrastructure in Ukraine operates under similar conditions.
Did you also communicate with employees who were located outside the government-controlled territories when conducting this research before the full-scale Russian invasion?
No, the research I conducted only took place in the government-controlled territories, in cities where the water supply system was connected to the Water of Donbas network.
In your publications, when examining the example of water supply infrastructure, you argue that infrastructure is also an agent of the state as it represents the state in occupied and frontline territories. How does this work? Of course, in occupied territories, it is not possible to study public opinion, but how do providers of municipal services see themselves?
Utility services and those who maintain critical infrastructure generally fall under the responsibility of the state, not only in Ukraine but worldwide. However, there are exceptions when water or power supply networks are partially privatized. In such cases, an implicit connection arises between the state, the provider of critical services, and the preservation of social order.
The agency role of workers in such structures can be observed through the example of the team at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. While the equipment at the station may be under Russian occupation, the stance of its employees is quite clear — the majority of them resist and refuse to sign contracts with Russians.
The targeted attacks by Russia on the power grids in the fall and winter of 2022/2023 had the same goal — to destroy the sense of normalcy and dignity, but also to sever the connection between the community, the state, and its citizens. This is what I share in France and Germany to explain what Ukrainians are going through and why Europe must make repair and recovery in Ukraine its ongoing priority. In a very short time, citizens (including those in occupied territories), like you and me, entered a pre-urban mode of existence: fetching water from rivers, using makeshift pits instead of toilets, and cooking food on improvised fires. Therefore, in this context, recovery will also mean supporting social cohesion.
This tragedy highlights the social and civilizational role of utility services.
How do they adapt and what does this mean for society?
I had many conversations with local managers, directors of local water supply stations, as well as engineers, technicians, and accountants — people who worked alongside their colleagues on the other side of the demarcation line, operating within the unified complex of Water of Donbas. The company came together and created its own identity as a provider of critical services, fostering a corporate culture. Their slogan was “Water is life.” And while it may sound cliché, it holds true.
The Water of Donbas company tried to carve out a distinct sub-space for itself that existed in a unique realm through corporate practices and culture. The company identified itself as Ukrainian and was legally Ukrainian. Financially, it operated with the hryvnia, making it difficult to collect rubles in the non-government-controlled territories. Representatives of the Russian occupying “administration” there attempted to turn the company into their agent: making separate statements and exerting pressure on the company in an attempt to expropriate it. However, they were ultimately unsuccessful because the water supply system, pipes, and pumping stations are located on both sides of the conflict line. It was impossible to divide it into two parts. Therefore, the geographical and material limitations of this infrastructure helped withstand pressure from Russian troops and maintain the company’s operations. There are many other aspects related to the internationalization of the company, which had been working at a very localized level for years. Its work was also supported by international organizations such as the OSCE, UNICEF, and the Red Cross.
See also: How Ukrainian museums survive during the great war
“As I observed the work of utility workers and electricians, what impressed me the most was their ability to adapt to crises and improvise. They faced serious attacks on the networks, yet they already had experience in maintaining the operation of systems under very challenging conditions,” explained Sophie Lambroschini.
After the era of the Soviet deficit economy, crisis years followed, which meant that critical infrastructure workers had to “figure it out” in some way. This ability accumulated over time and was utilized now. A well-known example is Mykolaiv, which created a network and water pumping system from the estuary after the city was cut off from the Dnipro River. Another significant example is Chernihiv during the siege. When the city was severed from the rest of Ukraine and left without electricity and water, a broad support network formed around Chernihivvodokanal (water utility in Chernihiv), which helped find solutions: gas stations shared their reserves, businessmen with generators made them available to everyone, and volunteers transported trucks with water to dangerous areas.
How can critical infrastructure companies work as agents, as representatives of the state? Can their presence in the frontline and temporarily occupied territories also be considered a sign of sovereignty?
To embody the traditional understanding of sovereignty, the Ukrainian state would need political and physical control over the occupied territories. However, in our case, the idea is that sovereignty can be exercised through actors or agents. These agents are Ukrainian workers in utility services or even consumers who continue to pay for services. Thus, sovereignty is formed through the interaction between utility services and the consumer, in their working together as Ukrainians, and it is in this context that hypothetical expansion of the state becomes possible. If the consumer is willing to pay for these services, he recognizes that they are provided by utility enterprises, which are an extension of the state’s social responsibility.
Let’s talk about infrastructure workers. How important is their work for the everyday life of Ukrainians under occupation and in communities affected by infrastructure destruction?
In recent months, the focus has been on the “energy front,” involving energy companies like Ukrenergo and private companies like DTEK, as well as other workers in the Ukrainian infrastructure, such as railway employees. The understanding that providing services is also part of the fight, and that everyone has a role to play in defending Ukraine, is an important aspect of the so-called home front in wars. However, the full-scale Russian aggression has its own specifics, as it is the first modern invasion and occupation in a highly integrated and modernized country and society like Ukraine. This makes the responsibility placed on Ukrainian infrastructure workers even more significant.
When it comes to the agency within the provision of essential services, I often use the concept of the “invisibility” of critical infrastructure workers, which has two sources. The first is the sociology of infrastructure. As long as infrastructure networks function smoothly, the workers of utility services remain invisible. In other words, you don’t think about where the water in your pipes comes from as long as it’s there, and you don’t consider the fact that it has traveled dozens of kilometers to reach your home and needs to be pumped up to your 14th floor. People only become aware of this when the water disappears.
“What happens when water, electricity, or gas disappear? It is what happened in Mariupol, Chernihiv, and many other cities in Ukraine. These are highly dramatic examples of the destruction of vital infrastructure that suddenly becomes highly visible,” said Sophie Lambroschini.
So, the destruction of critical infrastructure in a sense equals the destruction of civilization, especially in highly urbanized societies like Ukraine. Within a few days after the start of full-scale invasion, many frontline cities in Ukraine had no electricity, no water, and no sewage. People were taking water from heating systems, using buckets as toilets, and then carrying them out, sometimes descending from the 10th floor. The familiar sense of humanity associated with modern municipal services quickly collapses. These systems of critical infrastructure, as German historian Dirk van Laak called them, are “life arteries of society” (“die Lebensadern der Gesellschaft”).
At this very moment, the workers of critical infrastructure become essential and the founders of civilization. And, of course, they become highly visible.
The concept of the invisibility of infrastructure workers is also significant in another context — the Covid-19 pandemic. All the hospital workers, ambulance drivers, supermarket and delivery workers exposed themselves to the virus because they had to provide these essential services while everyone else was allowed to stay at home. There are many studies on the invisibility of blue-collar workers, whose importance becomes evident when the networks of economic infrastructure are disrupted — whether it is due to a pandemic, war or earthquake.
See also: Rebuilding democracy in Ukraine: taboos on criticism of the government and monopolization of the information space
Do you believe these critical infrastructure workers become visible when they receive state awards or when their work is recognized by the President in their addresses? In August-September 2014, when I was under siege in Luhansk, where there was no electricity, water, or telephone communication for nearly two months, the workers of critical infrastructure did not become visible. They remained behind the scenes. So does their work truly make them visible, and noticeable? Perhaps, is there a chance for a change in attitude towards them?
That’s a very good and valid question, and it is, of course, partially still open.
In everyday life and everyday practices, these workers do remain unnoticed. Although I have interviewed workers from water utilities and power grids who told me that sometimes people stop them on the street to express their gratitude. Call center workers have mentioned that consumers have become more polite, show greater respect for their work, and are less critical. This indicates a better understanding of their work.
“At the same time, they told me that they can now recognize whether a person has survived a siege or occupation of the city, or they have left and now returned: the first group of people will be more patient and understanding because they have experience of major infrastructure destruction; the latter, who has not experienced water supply interruptions, will treat water utility workers the same way as before,” noted Sophie Lambroschini.
This illustrates exactly what I’m trying to explain: in order to have effective civic cohesion or even a sense of Ukrainian identity, both state-provided communal services and consumers are needed. This can be called “everyday citizenship,” which is manifested in rather simple things such as payment for communal services and grounded expectations of service. Social interaction is necessary, and it does not exist in isolation. We can all see that experiencing extreme situations, uncertainty, and danger together creates social bonds that are evidently absent in other circumstances.
This be compared to the situation with COVID in many countries like France or Germany. Have the workers who were “invisible” before the pandemic gained a better status in the long term? Have their salaries been increased? Have they received greater social benefits? The discourse on heroism and visibility should be translated into practical terms. This will partly depend on the government’s policies, which, in turn, will depend on the choices made during recovery and reforms.
And then a conscious decision must be made to recognize these individuals. You know, the miners of Donbas were heroes in the Soviet ideological pantheon, but by the late 1980s, they became among the first in Ukraine to challenge the Soviet system through their strikes.
They became agents of change.
Yes, agents of change. It may seem premature to talk about agents of change in this war because it is still ongoing. However, at this stage, it is important to remember that Ukrainian professionals in Water of Donbas and beyond — have accumulated incredibly valuable experience and know-how in their daily practices and corporate culture, and they can share this experience. The Association of water suppliers Ukrvodaekolohiya is already working towards facilitating such knowledge exchange among companies that previously operated separately. And their experience can certainly be useful worldwide.
Originally posted by Yevhenii Monastyrskyi on LB. ua. Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website
See also: Maturity test: What will happen to Ukraine and Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the future?