When a 155 millimeter rocket slams into the ground and you’re 2,000 feet below it, you hear nothing – you barely feel it. That’s why Andriy Podhornay was surprised when his manager came on the walkie-talkie and told the crew in the bowels of the St. Matrona Moskovskaya mine that a Russian artillery strike had just struck. They started moving – fast.
“We were eating when he called us. We immediately went upstairs,” said Podhornay, a nervous 32-year-old with a weather-beaten face.
“Nobody wants to risk being trapped there.”
When he got to the surface, he found the elevator tower shrouded in black smoke and a large crater just behind it. He quickly joined the others in surveying the damage, taking a moment to pick up shell fragments.
Last week’s attack was the first to hit the mine compound, but far from the first to hit this landscape. Toretsk, a city with a pre-war population of around 32,000, is only a few kilometers from the so-called Line of Contact, the 2015 demarcation that separated government-controlled parts of the eastern Ukraine of those seized by Moscow-backed separatists a year earlier. The city has been a frequent target.
But that conflict – killing more than 14,000 people before a fragile ceasefire took hold – was against relatively ill-equipped irregulars on a stalemate front line. It’s a different situation today with Ukrainian troops facing a Russian army engaged in a slow grind that is taking over territory every day. Toretsk, like so many other mining towns in Ukraine’s eastern region known as Donbass, may soon be removed from Kyiv’s grip.
It’s a devastating blow to Ukraine’s economy, said Alina Zuikovska, former head of sustainability at DTEK, Ukraine’s largest private energy company and a major investor in the country’s coal mines. But it also inflicts “serious psychological trauma” on the very idea of what it means to be Ukrainian.
“Donbass is the personification of the country’s industrial heartland,” Zuikovska said. “The loss of this region is the loss of the economic identity of Ukrainians.”
For the miners, it delivers the final blow to a dying way of life, which to many here seems almost a birthright or a generational curse, depending on how you look at it.
The Donbass is a coal-producing powerhouse, its terrain virtually defined by skeletal elevator towers and heaps known as “terrikons”. The name Donbass is a portmanteau of the Donets coalfield and home to most of the coal wealth – 44 billion tonnes in 2020, Zuikovska said – that once made Ukraine Europe’s third-largest producer and sixth-largest global producer. Reserve. The coal mined here fueled the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union, whose propagandists depicted the region on a poster as a heart pumping blood to factories throughout the USSR After the independence of the Ukraine in 1991, the region’s coal-fired power plants provided almost a third of the country’s energy needs and fueled its metallurgical sector.
But much of that has since been undermined, whether through government neglect and corruption or through conflict, first in 2014, when around two-thirds of coal mines fell under separatist control, and now the Russian invasion. In 1990, Ukraine produced 164 million tons of coal; this figure was halved in 2013, then more than halved in the years following the war against the separatists. Even before the Russian campaign, many mines—especially state-owned ones—were unprofitable and had to be closed.
“The coal industry was in crisis long before the war because we have no systematic vision on how to develop it,” said Sergey Kuzyara, a prominent coal businessman who escaped from the city of Donetsk in 2014 and now lives in the capital, Kyiv. .
Lack of investment meant mines were operating well below capacity, he said. Worse still, the Ukrainian government’s coal stocks coming in this year were a third of what they should have been, meaning there is not enough fuel for the winter months, even as the Coal prices are rising worldwide.
Toretsk is typical of the economic devastation befalling Ukraine’s mining industry. Once known as the “City of Mines”, all but two of its original seven towns have closed. The impending invasion had already driven most of the town’s 32,000 residents to leave; those who remained did not have the luxury of choosing.
“We hear shells all the time now. Of course, it’s risky to stay, but I have no choice but to work,” Podhornay said. He added that he had sent his parents and sister to the west, to the town of Dnipro. He stayed to continue earning his monthly salary of around $350. (That assumes the company paid on time, which it hasn’t in months.)
Pordhornay started working in the mines at age 17, just after graduating from high school. The 15 years that had passed – enduring an underground life, watching Donbas descend into conflict and a now full-fledged war – had aged him: his face was that of an older man and his hair was streaked white that not even the coal dust could hide.
Back when Podhornay first entered St. Matrona, he employed hundreds of people and was a mainstay of the local economy. But since last year, the mine has not worked; the government sued to recover the lease from Coal Energy, a Ukrainian company, for non-payment of salaries, insurance premiums and wages. Podhornay is part of a small crew that normally arrives before 7:30 a.m. for maintenance, including daily groundwater pumping.
Some might think that the bottom of a mine shaft is the best place to be during the relentless artillery and rocket attacks that dot the Donbass. But they would be wrong. Even at the best of times, going down a mine is risky business.
In fact, Podhornay was lucky to be alive: if the shell had landed a few meters to the right, it would have hit the elevator tower, leaving the crew trapped at the bottom. He could have touched the relay nearby, cutting off the power to the pumps that evacuate groundwater and the accumulation of methane that jeopardizes any mining operation. Although nothing essential was badly damaged, fragments of the shell had started small fires all around the mine which, if left unchecked, could destroy vital equipment. Podhornay and the others ran to smash and pour buckets of water over the flames.
It doesn’t matter how advanced your mine is when an artillery war rages nearby, whether it’s the tired Soviet-era infrastructure of St. Matrona or a more developed facility such as the DTEK mine in Pershotravensk, a town 60 miles east of Dnipro. But when it comes to operational safety, the comparison is akin to a Nokia from the 90s versus the latest iPhone.
Descending 600ft in an elevator, chief engineer Oleg Bilousov, 47, said the DTEK mine has an underground road network more than 100 miles long. Workers have digital gauges clipped to their belts to measure methane and toxic gases, use GPS to track their whereabouts, and use special fireproof smartphones over QR codes to order maintenance. The mine even holds the record for the deepest place in Ukraine with Wi-Fi (1640 feet, in case you were wondering).
Gone are the days of pickaxes, but the faces of the workers tending the giant saw as it cut the seam shimmered with effort, coal dust swirling across their foreheads. They spent a good 20 minutes in the company showers washing the dust from their nostrils.
Perhaps these hardships are part of what drives the atavistic bond between minors, an impulse that drives sons to follow fathers and grandfathers down the elevator shaft every day.
“The people who work in their mines, it’s a job for life. When they lose them, they have to change everything,” Bilousov said, his face turning serious.
He started as a miner 19 years ago and worked his way up to management. He had never thought of quitting work.
“I’m proud that it’s such hard work,” he said. “When you leave him for something else, it just doesn’t compare.”
It is easy to see how central this pride is to the identity of Donbass. Visit the headquarters of mining companies and you’ll see the austere faces of former administrators – tough men with rows of august medals pinned to their chests – peeking out from pictures hanging in the hallways.
Wall sculptures of miners lined up to dig a seam; a statue of a miner triumphantly holding a lump of coal; signs praising the bravery of the workers in their underground toil: No self-respecting mining town can be found without at least one such anthem to the shakhtyur (“minor” in Ukrainian). To lose the mines is to remove the very reason cities exist.
“Stopping production means stopping life in these communities,” Zuikovska said.
The war did that.
Yet the legacy of mining in the Donbass may end up being less a matter of identity than an ecological disaster. The mines never really close, even when they are exhausted: the contaminated underground water must be pumped out and disposed of so as not to dirty the nearby rivers. And because mines are often hydrologically connected – safety measures allow excess water to flow to another shaft when one is flooded – abandoning one puts others at risk for miles away. Not to mention the question of ground subsidence or the buildup of enough methane to cause earthquakes and explosions.
But in the meantime, Podhornay had more immediate concerns. The noise of the bombardments persisted in the distance; there would be no work that day. He quickly changed into street clothes, not even bothering to wash his face before signaling Konstantin Nikolayivich, the chief mechanic, who was ferrying people out of the area with his car.
Even with the Russian army closing in every day, even with no real mining work at St. Matrona, he knew he’d be back in two days for his six-hour maintenance shift. He was, after all, a miner, he said, what else could he do?