From Potemkin Village to Potemkin Empire: The Specters of Extractivism in the Donbas

The imperial strategy of territorial expansion and colonization of resources advanced by the Putin regime will accelerate the decline of Russia because behind its facade lie a large number of unknown, unexamined, and unaddressed systemic problems, Elena Batunova argues in her contribution to the BG text series “After Extractivism,” exploring the case of the former mining town of Novoshakhtinsk.


Since February 24, 2022, the word “Donbas” has become known worldwide as a battlefield and the main objective of the Putin regime’s aggression against Ukraine. In September 2022, Russia’s government organized so-called “referendums” in two parts of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine: Donetsk and Luhansk. On September 30, Putin signed agreements on the accession of the regions of Donbas to Russia (together with the Zaporizhzhia and the Kherson regions).

However, few people know that Donbas is a large coal and industrial area on both sides of the Russian-Ukrainian border. Within Ukraine, the Donbas includes the northern and central parts of Donetsk oblast, the southern part of Luhansk oblast, and the far east of Dnipropetrovsk oblast; within Russia, it includes the western part of Rostov oblast.

I began writing this essay in December 2021 to reflect on the post-extractivist evolution of a mining city in Russia. When Russia attacked Ukraine and used Donbas as a reason, it took me a while to reflect and elaborate on the importance of the story to be told. My main protagonist – Novoshakhtinsk, a mining city in Rostov Oblast, Russia, within 20 kilometers of the Dovzhansky border crossing to Ukraine – remained the same but portrayed from a different from the initial perspective.

Donbas divided

Donbas was crucial to the rise and collapse of the Russian and Soviet empires, and after the USSR’s disintegration, analysts believed the region would be a source of geopolitical tension. The region’s name is self-explanatory: “Donbas” is an acronym for the Donetsk Basin, a mining and industrial area known for its coal resources. Up to the 18th century, the area called “Wild Fields” was sparsely occupied by nomads and progressively colonized by the Cossacks. Coal mining, railroad building, and the growth of the metallurgical industry led to its fast urbanization. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Donbas became a space for ‘international cooperation,’ in which industrial players from US and Europe were notably present.

Donbas was a key target throughout WWI, the October revolution, the subsequent civil war, and WWII. Labeled by Soviet propaganda “the heart of Russia,” after the USSR’s disintegration, Donbas experienced a protracted era of upheaval. The coal-mining industry’s decline is considered one of the primary causes of the USSR’s collapse; the ensuing miners’ strikes symbolized its conclusion. Both the Donbas parts Ukraine and Russia experienced a substantial economic depression, population crises, environmental degradation, and economic restructuring. Post-Soviet history was defined by initiatives to reorganize Donbas’ economic networks and improve cross-border cooperation and European integration (see, for example, Euroregion Donbas). However, international relationships altered significantly after the “Revolution of Dignity” in 2014 and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in the same year.

The Eastern Donbas in Russia

The coal-mining cities in the Rostov region associated with the Eastern Donbas represent one-third of the region’s entire cities’ number. The names of some cities come from their coal-mining origin: Shakhty (literally: mines), Novoshakhtinsk (the words’ new’ and ‘a mine’), Kamensk-Shakhtinsky (the words ‘a stone’ and ‘a mine’). The transformed steppe landscape around the cities immediately reminds the observer of the area’s extractive character: strange-looking cone-shaped hills that contrast sharply with the rather flat land are the local “Rostov Mountains” – ironically called spoil heaps.

Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

The spoil heaps, somewhere overgrown with greenery, somewhere smoking like dormant volcanoes or being mined for the sake of minerals, are imposing traces of the past “coal rush” in the region, where only five of once 80 operating mines remain. The mining past is present not only in visible landscape elements but in the socioeconomic conditions of people’s life: the miners’ protests have been continuing during the whole post-Soviet period, and every (former) mining city has its own story of coping with the end of their glorious mining era.

Novoshakhtinsk: the end of the mining era

Novoshakhtinsk arrived on the map in 1939, when several small towns formed during the 19th century around the mines were consolidated and given city status. By 1962, the city’s population had reached 108.000, up from 48.000 in 1939. The population varied until the end of socialism, then slightly declined to 103.000 in 2021. After the USSR collapsed, Novoshakhtinsk’s coal industry lasted relatively briefly. Implementation of the national coal-mining industry restructuring program and the mine ‘Zapadnaya-Kapital’naya’ disaster led to the closure of all mines in the city by 2003.

With the closure of the last mine, the prefix “former” became key to describing the city’s nature: “Former Soviet,” “former mining,” “former growing.” Its economic-geographical position also changed. Once located in the middle of the vital mining region, the city ended up on the marginalizing periphery of the country. Novoshakhtinsk had to face economic decline, unemployment, and degradation of its social sphere. Coal mining left physical traces not only on the surface of the urban area but also under the city. A significant part of its residential areas turned out to be on undermined territories. The underground emptiness endangered the existing housing stock and increased the range of urgent challenges to address.

However, the Novoshaktinsk’s administration quickly realized the changes that had taken place, their inevitable consequences and the opportunities giving a city a chance for its post-mining development. In the 2010s, the municipality successfully reshaped and diversified the city’s economy and attracted state and private investments into economic, cultural, and social projects. The city profitably used its new geopolitical position, focusing on logistics, transportation, and cross-border cooperation. The municipality benefited from the state program to rehabilitate the former mining cities’ urban environment. In the 2010s, the city became one of the leaders in housing construction among the mining cities included in the program.

Concealed necrosis behind the front facade

Driving through the city, visitors will notice different signs of the post-extractivist revival: newly constructed residential areas, industrial sites, enterprises, and shopping centers. However, if a visitor has time for closer observation, he or she will discover heartbreaking post-apocalyptic images of entire blocks of buildings in varying degrees of decomposition in many parts of the city. There are almost intact buildings in one place where only clogged windows indicate their emptiness. In the other places, one can guess there were houses here only from the remains of foundations in lush thickets. There are more than 2,000 abandoned houses in the city, and some residential areas are reminders of the destruction caused by the war. Animals, birds, and greenery are taking over the once-urban landscape.

What is the reason? Novoshakhtinsk is a shrinking city, as are all other cities in the Donbas region in Russia, and for that matter, 70% of all cities in Russia. The long-term depopulation in Novoshakhtinsk resulted in the degradation of never complete settlements’ peripheries, while abandonment spread throughout the city. However, the main contribution to the city’s decomposition made the “successful” implementation of the new housing projects.

The fixation on a result of success measured purely according to quantitative criteria (such as the amount of square meters built), the absence of monitoring and research, the grounding on false or missing initial data, a centralized inflexible legislation, the ignorance of “inconvenient” issues such as depopulation, the lack of resources and power at the local level – all these factors have led to the rapid and irreversible degradation of the urban landscape provoked by the new housing development and the people’s relocation there. Today, the local authorities do not have the means and legal tools to resolve the situation, while the problem remains ‘invisible’ to the upper levels of government.

The start of the war against Ukraine will bring new, more severe challenges to Novoshakhtinsk. The part of its economy focused on cross-border cooperation will likely die. Military mobilization and economic decline will intensify depopulation. Reducing state budget expenditures and changing the budgeting priorities will significantly affect the development opportunities of the city, in which the budget is formed by 82% at the expense of state budgets at the regional and federal levels. The decay of the city will accelerate.

Still extractivism

Novoshakhtinsk is an excellent, yet sad example of how the state strategies in Russia work. The strong power vertical, top-down implementation of state programs without an opportunity and willingness to get any truthful feedback from the bottom, constant data falsifications at all levels, and common use of the “Potemkin village” approach resulted in a huge gap between the reality in Russia and the perception of this reality by the state decision-makers.

Developing an alternative to the extractivism-based story of Russia in the post-Soviet period would require freedom, critical thinking, innovations, transparency, and ‘healthy’ competition. Russia failed to create such an environment and remained a hostage of its resource-producing economy. Many experts explain the Putin regime’s interest and its invasion of Ukraine through its willingness to seize the Donbas region’s rich natural resources and to reject the claims of the West to these resources. This hypothesis seems logical considering the priorities of Russia’s national and international politics built around natural resources.

Most likely, however, the imperial strategy of territorial expansion and colonization of (new) resources will not lead to success, but will accelerate the decline and erosion of the country, behind whose facade lies a large number of unknown, unexamined, and unaddressed systemic problems.

Editor’s note: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here:

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