An exclusive interview with a Donbass union leader (Andrey Kotchetov)

Below is an exclusive interview with Andrey Kotchetov, an important union leader in the Republic of Lugansk, Donbass.

Mr. Kotchetov (as well as the whole Donbass population) is often labeled by the Ukrainian government as a “terrorist” and a “separatist”. In this interview, he talks about the struggle of the Donbass people (cornered between Russia and Ukraine) who are often bombed by the Ukrainian government (which, in its turn, is funded and armed by the US)

May, 2019

For a start, could you talk just a little bit about yourself? Where are you from? What was your line of work before the conflict started – how did it affect your life?…

So, now you interview me?

Yes, yes. Why not? Do you remember…? We live in a free country; it is a People’s Republic, so it is ok.
So, as you know, my name is Andrey K…. I don’t remember exactly… I’m 50 years old, I think… It is not important. (laughs) Yeah, before our situation, I was a leader of the trade union of innovative entrepreneurs… and small businesses. We had a rather large number of members – more than 10.000 people. We were situated in all the regions of Luhansk but in the 2013 the war started and our territory divided into two parts. I want to say, first of all, that the war changed all our lives. I mean, the people who live in Luhansk region now… because it was a very terrible situation. It was unusual, strange, terrible for us that our army, the Ukrainian army, which we paid our taxes to for all of our life, to support this army… started to shoot our people.

Right.

It was terrible situation, unbelievable situation and it was very difficult for us to understand. They used heavy artillery, they committed many crimes against civilians, and this is why it is possible to say that all our lives were divided in two parts: before the war and after the war. And it was very difficult for us because we were not prepared for the war. We never expected this situation, and this is why from July, August… we had to do many things which were very, very usual…

2014, right?

Yes, yes. Because, you see… the Ukrainian government isolated us completely. The system… All of a sudden, there were no payments available to anyone – pensioners, young mothers, kids and so on. And it was the most terrible situation during July, August, September, October, November… 2014. Because there was no food in the shops and supermarkets. No payments for our people. And it was a very terrible situation, and this is why the trade union had to organise payments for people, for pensioners. We made lists of our citizens. We ran through the streets to find the pensioners and so on. It was a very, very difficult task, a very unusual one for trade unions, but we needed to support our people. After that, we organised our work. You see, we grew up together, our Republic and our trade union… we tried to rebuild our economy because Ukraine completely isolated us as I already told you – banking system… economic isolation, financial isolation, all kinds of isolation they used against us – a terrible situation and we still… many of our people still can’t believe it happened because we live… we are a people of one nationality, one language, one religion and so on and so on. And many people still can’t understand what happened. But now, five years passed, and we already completely forgot that we were a part of Ukraine once because they did everything to push us away to the side of Russia – they themselves. That is why our people now is really happy that President Putin has decided to give us Russian Federation passports… many people now have a right to have their documents, to get a passport because we don’t want to be cut off from the world… in any way, it is a very strange situation when there are about five million people who live in both republics – Donetsk and Luhansk – completely cut off from European countries. How is it possible? They say that they think about us… Russian Federation support is the only one really helping us because nobody from Western Europe wants to talk about us. They say we are all separatists, terrorists and so on. But it is unbelievable. We have many people here: pensioners, kids, young mothers, young fathers, workers, simple workers, students… and all of them are terrorists! I think it is too stupid and I think it is a double standard… So, maybe you have some questions.

now, five years passed, and we already completely forgot that we were a part of Ukraine once because they did everything to push us away to the side of Russia – they themselves

Yes. Most people in Brazil don’t know anything about how it all started. Of course, people heard about the Maidan in Ukraine but the Western media portrayed Maidan in a very positive light because they were supposed to be protests against corruption and stuff, right? So, how did it all start? What were the major problems – about Maidan? What were the anti-Maidan people protesting against, so that people can understand?

Yeah, you see, it is a very interesting situation because… just want to show only one side. You see, Donbass is an industrial region. It was organised 200 years ago as an industrial region. So, our people worked during the whole period of the Maidan. You remember, it lasted for quite a while… December, January, February… 3 months at least! And we know that many, many students were sent, with some help from authorities from the universities in the Western part of Ukraine to Maidan… they supported Maidan. We know that… for instance, something about 2 or 3 weeks before Maidan, one of the deputies showed a video. It was evidence that the United States of America sent big transports, airplane etc via diplomatic cargo. And he also talked, this Deputy, about huge sums of cash sent to Ukraine. They really wanted to organise something, it seems! But all of our parliament just laughed about it. But we know that in Maidan everything was very well organised. Food and so on. Donbass at that time still continued to work, our students were at lectures. We were not involved in Maidan. Sure, we had some crazy people who supported Maidan but we were massively against it. And the special feature of Maidan, is that other ideology. Because, we are a people of Soviet history. We support our veterans of the Red Army, we want to celebrate our Victory Day on May 9. But the Maidan people, they try to bring their ideology of so-called Ukrainians from Canada because many people from the Western part of Ukraine, after WWII, went to Canada. So, they are well placed in the political life of Canada, these Ukrainian people… with the other ideology. And they sent big money to the Western region of Ukraine to support this ideology which is against us. So, it is possible to say that Maidan brought the new ideology to Ukraine, and our people were against this ideology – completely, and we don’t want to accept it. And so, that is why we organised a huge referendum – the whole region of Donbass, I mean the Luhansk oblast, Donetsk oblast… was involved in this referendum and more than 90 per cent of the people said “no” to the new ideology because we sympathise with our fathers and grandfathers and we would never betray them. So, it is possible to say that we just wanted the new government of Ukraine an opportunity to be heard, and to tell that we are here and we are against the new ideology. But we were not against Ukraine. I don’t remember whether I showed you or not… but we still have the Ukrainian theater in Luhansk and the actors perform acts in the Ukrainian language. So, we never were against Ukrainian culture. It is impossible for us – specially for me, because I am Ukrainian, my mother is Ukrainian, my father is Ukrainian. How can I fight against Ukrainians? No. We fight against an ideology. And for us, it is a Nazi ideology because they say that Ukraine – and only Ukraine – is above everything, but we do not agree. Because, you see, in the Soviet period, many people, especially during WWII, were sent to Donbass by the Soviet government from other regions of the Soviet Union: Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tatarstan and so on, and many people still live there with their relatives, their kids. And how can I say they are not Ukrainians? They are citizens of Ukraine; they accepted the state of Ukraine. They were never going to fight against Ukraine, but the Ukrainians said: you are nobody in here, because you don’t know the language well and you don’t use the right language in your own homes. So, for us, it is possible to say that we stand up against the Nazi ideology which was brought by Maidan.

we never were against Ukrainian culture. It is impossible for us – specially for me, because I am Ukrainian, my mother is Ukrainian, my father is Ukrainian. How can I fight against Ukrainians? No. We fight against an ideology. And for us, it is a Nazi ideology

So, it is not correct to describe the conflict as an ethnic conflict, right? You would rather describe it as an ideological conflict?

Yes, it is really an ideologic conflict.

So, do you still have time for 2 or 3 more questions?

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Thank you very much. There is something that is hard for us from outside the region to understand – that the language is not always the same thing as the ethnicity. Like, for example, in Ukraine a lot of Ukrainians speak Russian, right? Even in Western Ukraine. And so in the region of not only Luhansk, but in the whole region of Donbass, do the majority of people identify themselves as ruskiie or just Ukrainians who speak Russian? I mean before the conflict.

You see, it is very interesting situation… everybody, the whole people in our country understands both languages. Everybody. If you can speak Ukrainian, it is perfectly possible for you. : If somebody talks to you, you will understand it completely. You answer in Russian and you know your friend will understand you without any problem and… for example, in my own family, my grandmother was a Ukrainian language teacher – she taught literature for 42 years. She knows her Ukrainian very well. Professionally. She knows all the poets, all the literature and so on. But in her own house, she spoke Russian. Because it was used by her parents. And it is not a problem. It is possible. Before the war, just a few years before the war, we had a huge TV show and it was very good to watch the whole program in Ukrainian. However, the last section, about sports, was in Russian. In the same show! So, there is no problem about language. Before the United States tried to… they placed Viktor Yushchenko into power… supported by the first Maidan in 2004. He has an American wife – she is Ukrainian but she has worked for the American government for many years… You see. As a large country, we have many dialects of the Ukrainian language and our scientists find that the region (it is a small region) between 2 oblasts – Kiev and Cherkasy and Poltava oblast – between these, very small regions… you find the “purest” Ukraine language. But for Yushchenko the pure language is that Ukrainian language of our Canadians. You see, how is it possible? So, for ten years, they tried to organise… the first Maidan… their slogan was: “pure Ukrainians live in the Western part of Ukraine; they’re all bandits and hooligans in the East!” It was their election slogan during the presidency campaign. It is unbelievable. We understand that everything was organised by the United States with their money and the money from Ukrainians from Canada. And that is why they want to change completely the ideology. They organised an ideology against the Russian Federation. In Eastern part of Ukraine our ideology is like the one in Russia. Because we were for many years one country. Many, many years. Not just one hundred. That is why it is impossible for us to understand how we can be against Russia. For us, it is impossible. But Americans want to set us against Russia.

we were for many years one country. Many, many years. Not just one hundred. That is why it is impossible for us to understand how we can be against Russia. For us, it is impossible. But Americans want to set us against Russia

So, I found it very interesting that in the beginning… you were saying something about Ukraine and you said that the Ukraine government itself kind of pushed the population away from its…

Yes. You see… I want to tell you the truth. As Ukrainians, many people were against the war and even against a war that is fought against us. Lots of people thought that this war was the worst possible situation but, they thought, we need to finish the war so that we can live together again. But for 5 years, the Ukrainian government did so much against our people – so many things – that even the most pro-Ukrainian people – and I know some – just said “Enough! We don’t want to be a part of Ukraine. Forget about it.”

So, the initial goal of the movement was not to secede from Ukraine, right? Initially it was more about autonomy for the region. Is that correct?

We want to live according to our own rules. Not the rules of Western region and so on. We respect and value our history, our grandmothers, grandfathers, and so on. We want to live our own way.

From the beginning?…

Yeah, when the demonstrations against Maidan started…

Yeah, yeah, yeah… please, don’t forget that we never fought against Ukraine. We just wanted their parliament to listen to us. And that is all. And we asked them: please, we are here. We don’t accept the new ideology. We want to be citizens of Ukraine and so on…

So, what were the main requests? Was it like linguistic freedom?

No, no, no… not linguistc. Ideological. We want to live according to our own rules. Not the rules of Western region and so on. We respect and value our history, our grandmothers, grandfathers, and so on. We want to live our own way.

it is our history. We understand that it is a complicated history, but it is our History. Our fathers and grandfathers believed in Lenin and communism very strongly. Now, we do not live under communism, but we are not against our History.

You mean, like, for example, when Ukraine government made the Soviet symbols illegal… The Stepan Bandera thing…

Yeah, yeah, yeah. You had the opportunity to see the Lenin monuments. They are in Luhansk, nobody says anything against them. You see, it is our history. We understand that it is a complicated history, but it is our History. Our fathers and grandfathers believed in Lenin and communism very strongly. Now, we do not live under communism, but we are not against our History.

“it is possible to say that in our souls we have a very strange mix: between communism and the Orthodox religion (laughs). It really is so. It really is so”

I saw for example during the anti-Maidan demonstrations… pictures of people demonstrating carrying banners of the Soviet star, Soviet symbols and also Christian Orthodox icons… and some people in the West think it is a contradiction because communism was against religion and so on. They don’t understand it.

You see, it is very difficult to understand. I completely agree with you.

Communist ideology was strongly against the Church. Nobody talked loudly… but during the war, Josef Stalin renewed their… the Church, Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union [was made legal again] and my grandmother, a very committed communist, also told me once: “I really regret that I don’t know the life of the Church and Church tradition because now I am very old and I feel that I need it”. So, you see, for example, me, if I have an opportunity I go to the church with pleasure because I feel great comfort for my soul there. I can pray, I use some prayers… But in my view, I am a leftist – I am not communist, but I am from left-wing. So, it is possible to say that in our souls we have a very strange mix: between communism and the Orthodox religion (laughs). It really is so. It really is so.

the Russian Federation now is a real capitalist country. Real capitalist. So, I think that they (laughs) will not allow us to become a socialist republic (laughs) because it would be a very bad example for them! (laughs)

Ok! So, is it socialism like a vision for the future of the Republic of Luhansk or is it just… respect for the past, for the history… because…

You see, I think we are very strongly supported by the Russian Federation, as you know, as you understand. But the Russian Federation now is a real capitalist country. Real capitalist. So, I think that they (laughs) will not allow us to become a socialist republic (laughs) because it would be a very bad example for them! (laughs) So you see, we try to go between drops of rain (laughs). I think… yes… but now many people… it is interesting… many people try to remember Josef Stalin – and I had once a conversation with a very interesting guy and I asked him: “Why so?” He explained to me a very simple thing: he told me that people already… you see, in the first period of the Soviet times, people believed in socialism and communism, very strongly. Why? Because they still remembered the situation during the Tsarist empire: very rich people against poor people, very poor people… and so on. Now the situation is the same. Now the situation is the same! We got so much capitalism, that we are really tired of it and so many people start to think again about socialism. And the flag of socialism in the Soviet Union was Josef Stalin.

We got so much capitalism, that we are really tired of it and so many people start to think again about socialism

So, it is very interesting because it is an idea of socialism that is as you said, mixed with the Christian spirit of the majority of the population and also patriotic, right?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Completely.

About the Cossacks, they seem to suport the cause of Donbass in general….

Yeah, yeah yeah. And also many Cossacks were amongst the very first who came to Donbass to support our people.

From Don Cossacks Host, right?

Yeah, yeah yeah. And, sure, we’ll never forget.

So, as I was able to see, the war is not over. Contrary to what many people have been saying, the war is still on.

And I know that many people try to run away from the Army and defect so as to not fight against fellow Ukrainians. But in many ways somebody wants it to continue and I think they will continue indeed because they still don’t want to talk to our leaders at all. And you know, in the usual situation if you want to fight your way out, you need to start to talk

I think so because the US already paid for this and I know that many people from that side don’t want to fight against us. They understand very well what is really happening. And I know that many people try to run away from the Army and defect so as to not fight against fellow Ukrainians. But in many ways somebody wants it to continue and I think they will continue indeed because they still don’t want to talk to our leaders at all. And you know, in the usual situation if you want to fight your way out, you need to start to talk.

Of course, yes.

They still completely refuse to do so.

And the agreements of Minsk were not respected.

So, how do you see the future for the Republic of Luhansk?

I think it will be a territory which will exist within the body of Russia. I don’t know in which way exactly, as an autonomous territory or a republic, I don’t know. But this is the only way.

It is not easy to imagine the Donbass region being part of Ukraine again, right?

I don’t think it is possible – specially for our people. Specially for our people.

You see, very simple example: my own family. My younger boy is 16 years old. but when the war started he was just 11. So he grew up under Ukrainian artillery. So I think he will never forget

It would take many generations for the memories…

You see, very simple example: my own family. My younger boy is 16 years old. but when the war started he was just 11. So he grew up under Ukrainian artillery. So I think he will never forget.

Thank you very much for this interesting conversation.

Thanks to you. If you have any questions in the future just let me know. Specially to you I am very open.

Ok. Wish you all the best.

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