The surprising British origins of eastern Ukraine


The sun sets behind apartment blocks and factory smokestacks on May 3, 2014, near Lukansk, Ukraine. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman for The Washington Post)

The cities of Donetsk and Luhansk are on the front page of newspapers worldwide as pro-Russian separatists in southeastern Ukraine ready for a controversial referendum. The two cities, municipal capitals of their respective regions, are prominent administrative and industrial centers. And, if those representing the "Donetsk People's Republic" get their way, then Donetsk and Luhansk will also become key bases for whatever fledgling, troubled political arrangement emerges after the vote.

The separatists in these cities have pointed to history to assert their regional differences from Kiev, invoking longstanding ties to a greater Russia. But there's a particular historical narrative that's not being trumpeted as much: both Donetsk and Luhansk were founded not by Russians, but by the British -- a Welshman and a Scotsman, in fact.

The Russian czars had a habit of drafting in Western European notables for all sorts of tasks, from drilling their troops to, in this case, setting up factories. One such foreign entrepreneur was Charles Gascoigne, a Scottish-born industrialist who emigrated to St. Petersburg in the 1780s after getting into financial trouble back home. He went on to establish factories and administer mines in various parts of Russia, including a metal-smithing operation in Luhansk in 1795. The fledgling settlement was at the time a part of the vast Eurasian steppe that was still being brought into the Russian fold. Gascoigne was awarded various imperial titles, including an initiation into the historic Order of St. Vladimir. To this day, visitors to Luhansk can go see a bust of their city's founder, Karl Gazkoin, as he is know in Russian.

Donetsk, the bigger of the two cities, was established after John Hughes, a Welshman with experience in ship-building and armaments, won a concession from the Russian government in 1868 to set up a metallurgy factory. Here's a BBC feature on the enterprise:

So in 1870 Hughes sailed to the Ukraine with eight shiploads of equipment and around a hundred specialist ironworkers and miners, mostly from south Wales, to build a metallurgical plant and rail producing factory.

The Hughes factory gave its name to the settlement which grew in its shadow, and the town of Hughesovka (Yuzovka) grew rapidly.

The city's name changed to Donetsk only in 1961. While the Bolshevik revolution saw the departure of most foreign adventurers and company officials, the legacy left behind in the Donbass, the name of the region that comprises Donetsk and Luhansk, is clear. It's the most populous part of Ukraine, defined by its strong tradition of industry and mining. "This is an industrial, proletarian area, whose identity is based on it," said Viktor Mironenko, head of the Moscow-based Center of Ukrainian Studies in an interview with the Moscow Times. "I would call it Soviet more than anything else."

That character in part animates the pro-Russia separatists. But its British past has also led to terrific satire. As unrest began to spread across eastern Ukraine in March, a local newspaper in Luhansk published a comical manifesto, calling for reunification with the "motherland" -- Scotland. A translation of the piece was cited in the Herald Scotland, a Glaswegian daily:

We all know that Luhansk and the Luhansk region owe their existence to the Scottish engineer Charles Gascoigne. It was he who explored our seams of coal and ore and who laid the foundations for our glorious industrial land. The industrious nature of Scottish families formed the basis of the hardworking character of modern Luhansk people. Russians and Ukrainians have cheated us for years, trying to get us to forget out Scottish roots. But we remember that Luhansk is a true Scottish city.

Similarly in Donetsk, activists called for a referendum to decide whether to return to the protection of the Crown--the British one, that is. An online message circulated on social media declared: "We are demanding a referendum on returning Yuzovka to its original bosom — Great Britain!"

But this was also in late March, before the crisis in eastern Ukraine spiraled into the deadly conflict it has now become. The time for a bit of British black humor, perhaps, has passed.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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