Ukrainian miners flee from Russian artillery shelling

When a 155mm rocket hits the ground and you’re 2,000 feet below it, you can’t hear anything – you can’t even feel it. That is why Andrey Podgorny was surprised when his manager went on the radio and told the crew in the bowels of St. Petersburg. The Matrona Moskovskaya mine, which was just hit by Russian artillery. They began to move – quickly.

“We were eating when he called us. We immediately went upstairs,” said Podgornay, a wiry 32-year-old man with a weather-beaten face.

“No one wants to risk being trapped there.”

When he got to the surface, he found an elevator tower shrouded in black smoke and a large crater right behind it. He quickly joined the others to inspect the damage, momentarily picking up shell fragments.

The attack last week was the first blow to the mine, but hardly the first. destroyed this landscape. Toretsk, a city with a pre-war population of about 32,000, is just a few miles from the so-called line of contact, a 2015 demarcation line that separated government-controlled parts of eastern Ukraine from those captured by Moscow-backed separatists a year earlier. The city was a frequent target.

But this conflict, which killed more than 14,000 people before a shaky ceasefire took effect, was directed against relatively ill-equipped irregulars on a stalemate front line. Today, the situation is different, when Ukrainian troops are faced with The Russian army took up slow routine work which captures the territory day by day. Toretsk, like many other mining towns in the eastern Ukrainian region known as Donbass, may soon be wrested from Kyiv’s control.

This is a devastating blow to the Ukrainian economy, said Alina Zuykovskaya, a 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 causes “serious psychological trauma” to the very idea of ​​what it means to be Ukrainian.

“Donbass is the embodiment of the industrial heart of the country,” Zuykovskaya said. “The loss of this region is the loss of economic identity for Ukrainians.”

For the miners, this is a blow to a dying way of life that to many here seems almost like a birthright or a generational curse, depending on how you look at it.

Two men stand at the edge of the crater

Workers quickly advance to put out a fire around the St. Mine Matrona Church following Russian artillery fire in Toretsk, Ukraine, June 16, 2022.

(Nabih Boulos/Los Angeles Times)

Donbass is the center of coal mining, its relief is practically defined by skeletal elevator towers and slag heaps, known as “heaps”. The name “Donbass” is a portmanteau of the Donetsk coal basin, where most of the coal wealth is located – 44 billion tons as of 2020, Zuykovskaya said – which once made Ukraine the third largest producer in Europe and the holder of the sixth largest in the world. . reserve. Coal mined from here fed the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union, whose propagandists depicted the region on one poster as a heart pumping blood to factories across the USSR. Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, almost a third of the country’s energy needs are fed by the metallurgy sector.

But much of that has since been undermined, either through government neglect and corruption or conflict, for the first time in 2014 when roughly two-thirds of the coal mines fell under the control of the separatists, and now the Russian invasion. In 1990 Ukraine produced 164 million tons of coal; this figure was halved by 2013 and then more than halved in the years after the war against the separatists. Even before the Russian campaign, many mines, especially those owned by the state, were unprofitable and had to be closed.

“The coal industry was in crisis much earlier than the war because we don’t have a systemic vision of how to develop it,” said Serhiy Kuzyara, a well-known coal mining businessman who fled Donetsk in 2014 and now lives in the capital, Kyiv . .

The lack of investment has resulted in the mines operating well below their capacity, he said. Worse, the Ukrainian government’s coal stocks this year are a third of what they should have been, meaning there won’t be enough fuel for the winter months even as coal prices rise globally.

Toretsk is a typical example of the economic ruin that has befallen the Ukrainian mining industry. Once known as “the city of mines”, all but two of its original seven have closed. Coming Invasion already forced to leave most of the 32,000 inhabitants of the city; those who remained did not have the luxury of choice.

“Now we constantly hear shells. Staying, of course, is risky, but I have no other choice but to work, ”Podgorny said. He added that he sent his parents and sister to the west, to the city of Dnipro. He stayed to continue earning his monthly salary of approximately $350. (This is assuming the company paid on time, which hasn’t happened in months.)

Podgornay started working in the mines at the age of 17, right after graduating from high school. The past 15 years of living underground, watching the Donbass plunge into conflict, and now into full-scale war, aged him: his face was like that of an elderly man, and his hair was gray, which even coal dust could not hide.

Even when Podgornay first entered St. Petersburg. Matrons, it employed hundreds of people and was the backbone of the local economy. But since last year the mine has not been working; The government has filed a lawsuit for the return of the rent of the Ukrainian company Coal Energy for non-payment of wages, insurance premiums and wages. Podgornay is part of the main team, which usually arrives before 7:30 am for maintenance, including daily pumping of groundwater.

Someone might think that the bottom of the mine is the best place to be during ruthless artillery and rocket attacks sprinkle Donbass. But they would be wrong. Even at the best of times, going down the mine is risky.

In fact, Podhornay was lucky to be alive: if the shell had landed a few yards to the right, it would have crashed straight into the elevator tower, leaving the crew trapped at the bottom. It could hit a nearby relay, cutting off power to pumps that remove groundwater and a buildup of methane that threatens any mining operation. Even if nothing substantial was damaged, the shell fragments started a small fire around the shaft which, if left unchecked, could destroy vital equipment. Podgornaya and the rest ran to trample and pour buckets of water on the flames.

It doesn’t matter how advanced your mine is when the artillery the war rages near be it the tired Soviet-era infrastructure of St. Petersburg. Matrony or a more advanced facility such as DTEK’s mine in Pershotravensk, a city 60 miles east of the Dnieper. But when it comes to operational safety, the comparison is like comparing Nokia from the 90s to the latest iPhone.

Descending the elevator to a height of 600 feet, 47-year-old chief engineer Oleg Belousov said that DTEK’s mine has a network of underground roads stretching over 100 miles. Workers have digital sensors on their belts to measure methane and toxic gases, use GPS to track their location, and use special fireproof smartphones with QR codes to order maintenance. The mine even holds the record for the deepest depth in Ukraine with Wi-Fi (1,640 feet, in case you’re wondering).

Gone were the days of pickaxes, but the faces of the workers who controlled the giant saw it crash into the seam, glistening with effort, coal dust swirling on their foreheads. They spent a good 20 minutes in the company shower, washing the dust out of their nostrils.

Perhaps these difficulties are part of what fuels the atavistic bond between miners, the impulse that drives sons to follow their fathers and grandfathers down the elevator shaft every day.

One of the many art installations in Toretsk, Ukraine, in honor of the miners.

One of the many art installations in Toretsk, Ukraine, in honor of the miners.

(Nabih Boulos/Los Angeles Times)

“People who work in their mines, this is a job for life. When they lose them, they have to change everything, – said Belousov, becoming more serious.

He started working as a miner 19 years ago and rose through the ranks to manager. He never thought about leaving his job.

“I’m proud that it’s such a hard job,” he said. “When you leave it for something else, it’s just nothing to compare to.”

It is easy to see how important this pride is to the identity of the Donbass. Walk through mining headquarters and you’ll see the stern faces of former directors – stern men with rows of medals pinned to their chests – looking down from the paintings hanging in the corridors.

Wall sculptures of miners lining up together to excavate the seam; a statue of a miner who triumphantly raised a piece of coal; signs praising the courage of workers in their underground labor: No self-respecting mining town can be found without at least one such anthem miners (“Miner” in Ukrainian). The loss of the mines means the destruction of the very reason cities exist.

“Stopping production means stopping life in these communities,” Zuikowska said.

The war did it.

However, the legacy of mining in the Donbas may turn out to be less of an identity and more of an environmental disaster. The mines never close, even when they are depleted: contaminated groundwater must be pumped out and disposed of so as not to pollute nearby rivers. And because mines are often hydrologically connected—safety measures allow excess water to flow into another mine when one is flooded—the abandonment of one puts others miles away at risk. Not to mention land subsidies or stockpiling enough methane to trigger earthquakes and explosions.

But in the meantime, Podgorny had more pressing concerns. The sound of artillery fire continued in the distance; there will be no more work that day. He quickly changed into street clothes, without even bothering to wash himself, before he stopped Konstantin Nikolaevich, a senior mechanic, who was taking people out of the area in his car.

Even with the approach of the Russian army every day, even without real mining in St. Petersburg. Matron, he knew he would be back in two days for his six-hour work shift. He was, after all, a miner, he said: what else could he do?