By NATALIJA MINJAJLO for Retrò Online Magazine – Translated by OLGA MAGALETSKA.

Natalija Minjajlo (Cherkassy, 1988), has a master’s degree (2009-2011) in History and a PhD in World History from the “Taras Shevchenko” National University in Kiev. She has been working as a journalist for the “Gazeta” since 2014. 

I have spoken to Oleksandr Riabokrys, 63-years-old film director at his house in Kyiv. He has been living here since 1974, after graduating from Donetsk Polytechnic Institute. He was born in Donbas, in the town called Krasnoarmiisk. This town is often called “the western gates of Donbas”.  Now it is controlled by Ukraine, even if there were many separatists there as well. We have spoken about Oleksandr’s childhood and adolescence in Donbas. 

You were born in Donetsk region. Can you please compare the situation back then and now? 


Photo credit: Rutenien / Foter / CC BY

I had been living there for 22 years. When I went to school many people in the cities spoke Russian. Back in 1920-1930 Ukrainian was widely used there, but I heard it only at the marketplace. There were people from the surrounding villages and they spoke Ukrainian but nobody spoke Ukrainian in cities. Children learned Ukrainian in schools and used it only during the lessons. Also there were kids, whose parents didn’t want them to learn Ukrainian. 

Really? Can you tell more about it?

If parents didn’t want their child to learn Ukrainian, they wrote an application and the child was free not to attend classes. It was the only subject schoolchildren could refuse to learn. In other USSR countries people knew their mother tongue better, as there was no such languages persecution.  

Professor Oleksandr Nikiliev from Dnipropetrovsk University told me that at the beginning of 1930s Moscow’s Ministry of Education conducted a survey among pupils in Donbas asking what was their mother tongue. 31 out of 34 thousand children choose Ukrainian. It was decided by the government this outcome was “the result of forced Ukrainisation” and from then onwards  the Russification of that region started to intensify. 


Ukraine was very important for USSR and Stalin was afraid since  in the 1920s -1930s there were many rebellions against collectivization and sovietization. People had intense national feelings but such people were killed or sent to labor camps. Yet when I was young it would be strange for my friends to hear me speaking in Ukrainian. I didn’t notice any enmity against those who spoke Ukrainian, though. I was studying in Donetsk Polytechnic Institute and there was a young man studying with me from a village of the Vinnytsia region who went to a Ukrainian school. It was hard for him to learn chemistry and our instructor let him speak Ukrainian. “I understand you” – She told him. 

Was there antagonism between Ukrainian and Russian speakers? 

No, I didn’t notice that. However, I read about one case in the memoirs of Vasyl Stus. Once he came with his friend to the canteen in the school where he worked as Ukrainian language teacher and asked for food in Ukrainian. “Talk our language, not Bandera’s!” – One of the miners told him in Russian. “I speak my native language. Nobody here can forbid me to do this.” – Stus replied. They almost got in a fight but women took Vasyl’s part. “They are teachers. They teach our kids.” – They said. 


Photo credit: theglobalpanorama / Foter / CC BY-SA

Did anybody speak Ukrainian in Donetsk? 

For the 5 years that I was studying there, from 1969 till 1974, I heard nobody speaking Ukrainian, except in the theatre. I think that maybe if I started speaking Ukrainian, nothing would have happen. Of course, some people would have looked at me wonderingly. I remember when I went to first grade there were 8 schools in my native town (Krasnoarmiisk, Donetsk region, Kyiv-controlled territory).  One was Ukrainian, the rest were Russian. The Ukrainian was the oldest and not suitable for studying. If all of them would have been equal, maybe we would not have such events nowadays. Paradoxically, antagonism only become stronger during independence years. 

How can you explain this? 

I think local authority in Donbas always was pro-Russian, even pro-Soviet. Their cultural requirements are based on Russian culture, not Ukrainian. Here in Kyiv, Ukrainian radio and TV stations were starting to develop while there could be no Ukrainian TV channels at all, only Russian. Local authorities created cultural reservation which has been existing for 20 years. 


I remember one incident. I made a film about Symchych (one of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army Commanders). Then I received a call from Donetsk, they asked me to bring the film and assured me of broadcasting it on regional television and I was also promised they would organize meetings with students and the urban asset. So I went there, had a very long talks with the regional broadcaster chairman. He told me that he needed a letter from the manager of my television company in which he asked to show this film. When I told this to my chief executive he was surprised. “I should ask somebody to show this film? Do not waste your time. Nobody is going to broadcast it.” – he told me. The Union of Cinematographers sent the letter. After some time, a local activist went to the regional television and asked if they could broadcast the film. He was told that they received the letter but they misplaced it. The letter was sent again and then my editor, my coauthor Andriy Danylchenko and I went to Donetsk. We showed this film to local Ukrainian activists. Then during one hour we received many calls and every meeting we had arranged was canceled. 

Did you manage to meet students?

We had a meeting with students of Pryazov State Technical University in Mariupol. The local authority didn’t know about it, we arranged it with the principal. The hall was full. Students watched the film “Sandarmoh” and we couldn’t leave after as they kept asking us different questions. 

Which solution do you see for the present situation?

I think it is hard to solve this conflict by ourselves. Moreover, Russia is not interested in solving it peacefully. We have so many victims. It could have been solved at the beginning, by quick maneuvers. I think UN forces should occupy the border between Ukraine and Russia and then Russia has to withdraw its troops and the conflict will be over in two weeks. Without Russian soldiers and Russian “humanitarian aid” militiamen will go away. 

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