March 25-28 by the Donetsk-based Institute of Social Research and Political Analysis, found that 46% of respondents believe the locals should take a “neutral, patient position” in case of a Russian invasion. Only one fifth said they would support a Ukrainian effort to resist the Russian forces, according to an advanced copy of the poll results obtained by TIME on Friday. Another fifth said they would welcome the Russian tanks. But perhaps most surprising was the data on how many locals were even paying attention. Nearly a quarter of them did not express “stable or high” interest in what was going on in their city.
“That is part of what makes Donetsk special,” says Alyona Getmanchuk, the director of a think tank called the Institute of World Policy, which is based in Kiev, the capital. The city of Donetsk, whose emblem is a clenched fist holding a hammer, has always been known as a bulwark of the proletariat, particularly coal miners and factory workers whose income these days comes out to a few hundred dollars a month if they’re lucky. “This is a society where both pragmatism and paternalism are very strong,” says Getmanchuk. “They are very disciplined, very hard working, which is the positive side of their Soviet mentality. But on the flipside, they tend to expect a strong leader to decide everything for them, to determine what to do, what to think, where to go and so on.”
Up until this winter, that leader was Viktor Yanukovych, the President of Ukraine and a native of Donetsk whose political party held an effective monopoly on power across the region. For years he lavished Donetsk with pork barrel spending and placed its native sons in senior posts across the country. But when the revolution chased Yanukovych from power in February, he and his allies were completely discredited, particularly after his decision to flee to Russia rather than return to his hometown. The vacuum of authority he left behind became fertile ground for the region’s pro-Russian separatists. But the locals don’t seem to be playing along. Instead of coming out en masse to support an alliance with Russia, they have mainly chosen to tune out, turn inward, and hope that the situation somehow resolves itself without affecting them too much.
On April 16, Getmanchuk, whose think tank broadly supports the new government in Kiev, visited Donetsk to hold a focus group with what she calls “opinion makers” in the city – prominent businessmen, university officials, activists and community leaders. She spent much of the time trying to get a rise out of them. “This was the intellectual elite, and they kept asking why Kiev doesn’t come to save and protect them,” she says. “We explained that no one is coming, that this is your land and you have to formulate your own identity. Who are you? What kind of country do you want? You must find a social consciousness.”
Never in its history has Donetsk really faced those kinds of questions. Since the break up of the Soviet Union, its role as a blue collar buffer between Russia and Ukraine has left it dangling between two worlds, neither invested in the Ukrainian mission to define itself as an independent nation, nor wholly subsumed into Russia’s cultural matrix. According to the survey conducted in late March, the identity of Donetsk residents is deeply fragmented. Only 36% consider themselves citizens of Ukraine. About a fifth say they are “Russian-speaking residents of Ukraine,” while 29% call themselves part of a unique entity – “people of the Donbass,” the gritty mining region that surrounds them.
If indifference paid, they’d be billionaires.