DARYA TSYMBALYUK ERASURE: RUSSIAN IMPERIALISM, MY RESEARCH ON DONBAS, AND I
Researcher and artist Darya Tsymbalyuk focuses on the processes of displacement and the after-effects of war in Donbas by employing a fascinating epistemological lens: the disruption of human-plant relations as a result of imperialism, coloniality, and violence. At the centre of this piece, we find the concept of erasure: how to recognise its forms of manifestation and how to try to stop it from amplifying further.
Imperialism, including Russian imperialism, operates through erasure. Today I am thinking of the many forms of erasure Russian imperialism takes in Ukraine, across time and space, where erasure is not a single gesture but a systematic and intentional destruction of people’s lives and everything and everyone that constitutes these lives, including multispecies relations and languages.
My research is on the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, better known as the Donbas region. Donbas is a place where the war came first, where it has been erasing homes, ecosystems, and culture since 2014, already for eight long years, more than 14 000 people have been killed since then, not counting the current escalation. What my research taught me is that this war represents an intensification of processes of erasure of the region, where the act of erasure is a foundation of Donbas as we know it, constructed within imperial frames.
The research that I am conducting on Donbas consists in looking at the way the region has been constructed through geology, where even the name Donbas, Donetsk Coal Basin, was given to these lands by a mining engineer Yevgraf Kovalevsky in 1827. The term Donbas has been criticised for the implied colonial vision of the territory solely as a natural resource and for associations with continued imperial claims to these lands in the form of military aggression. Geology is a colonial tool of identifying, mapping, and extracting matter categorised as a “resource” for the profit of the empire, where the “resources” are fossil fuels, but also people, displaced by the imperial project from their usual ways of living and used as labour to keep the industrial machine operating. What interests me in my research is the erasure of records about forms of life in the lands now known as Donbas, whether these are human or nonhuman lives. As many other colonial projects, Donbas has been constructed as an empty space which only came into life (and industrial flourishing) with its conquest by the Russian empire. These lands were colonised as part of Muscovy’s expansion to the Wild Field, the great Eurasian steppe belt that then lay at the peripheries of the Tsardom. The Wild Field was populated by nomadic pastoralists, Cossacks, and peasants who had escaped from serfdom. Seeking to expand its territories and secure the border from attacks by Tatars, in the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries Russia gradually constructed towns and military settlements in the steppe, moving more and more to the South. Control over new territories also coincided with a growing interest in the profit from salt mining, which highlights the assertion of the centre’s domination over mineral resources in the region as early as the seventeenth century. With Russia becoming an empire under Peter I, who is also known as the first statesman to realise the capitalist potential of coal, military-scientific expeditions provided maps of the Wild Field, which was often falsely portrayed as an empty space “waiting” to be colonised.
In literature and visual representations, the steppe of Donbas has also been portrayed as a void, as emptiness, lending itself to imperial, colonial, and industrial imaginaries of constructing a world from scratch. For example, Vikentii Veresaev, a Russian writer who briefly visited Donbas in 1892, describes the space as ‘silent, deserted (in Russian literally bezliudnya, without people) steppe,’ a boring place. In Perekati-pole, he writes:
Black land, black roads… All around the mine—there is not a single tree, a single bush; there is no pond, no stream. Everywhere your eye can reach—there is a monotonous steppe, scorched by the sun.
While this description could be seen as a criticism of ecological destruction and deprivation in and around mining settlements, it is also telling that the steppe itself is presented as lifeless. These kinds of images of boring nothingness are often employed to justify settler colonialism and erase local human and nonhuman histories. The tendency to see the steppe as monotonous and as a solid single piece exposes the suppression of local knowledges that have existed there since pre-colonial times. Similar representations also feature in nineteenth century photography of Donbas, where often early photographs capture more land than industry, converting the first one into an empty background for the second. In these images the land is considered to be a mere background, and in a teleological interpretation, a space for future industrial expansion. The focus on the industry erases the steppe as a vibrant ecosystem in a gesture of blindness towards its diverse inhabitants. In my research on Donbas, I have been working against these narratives of erasure, of a void, by looking at the multispecies life of these lands and searching for ways of representing the steppe as alive and populated, not as a monotonous and dead space.
When I place the foundational erasure of Donbas next to the war that started in 2014, I realise that the war is an intensification of the erasure that has been ongoing for centuries. For many people in the West the full-scale invasion of Ukraine that was started on the 24th of February 2022 came as an unexpected start of the war. Russia calls the war ‘special operation’ erasing the scale of violence it unleashed and hiding it from its citizens. Western media keeps referring to the escalation of the war as the beginning of the war, also perpetuating the erasure of military violence which has been raging in Donbas since 2014. Both these frames of the recent outbreak of the war erase experiences of those who have already lost their own lives or the lives of their loved ones because of the Russian aggression, as well as those who had to flee their homes and become displaced.
As part of my research on Donbas, since 2015, I have been interviewing people displaced from the region. These days I have been trying to reach out to people whose stories I recorded to see if I could offer some help. While everyone in Ukraine suffers from the current escalation, people who were internally displaced from the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts often lose their homes for the second time, as well as live through a repetition of the violence of shelling and destruction. As we speak about the war against Ukraine, it is very important not to forget where and when it began.
On the 26th of March the news came that Russia “finished” its special military operation in Ukraine and focuses on “liberating”—I mean invading—Donbas now. As we speak, the erasure of Donbas, and with it of Ukraine, since Donbas is a part of Ukraine, continues. This erasure happens through ruthless acts of annihilation, of razing cities and villages of the region to the ground. Mariupol, Volnovakha, Popasna, and many other towns have been obliterated. The erasure of these and many other cities can’t be explained through military strategy alone, there is imperial hatred and the will to destroy any form of resistance to the colonial order. This imperial logic means deliberate targeting of schools everywhere in Ukraine. It also means erasure of language in places occupied by the Russian military, where Russians have been forcing schools to conduct classes in Russian instead of Ukrainian.
In the past months, like most people in Ukraine and many abroad, my main concern was stopping this erasure.
While my research is focused on multispecies relations and displacement from Donbas, and it is based on feminist and decolonial approaches, the Decolonising Russia’s War on Ukraine symposium, for which this essay was written, was the first occasion when I directly engaged with my research. Instead, as a feminist, as a daughter of a man who is now in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and of a woman who lives in Kyiv, and as a Ukrainian who wants to stop this war, my life has turned into a campaign for military aid. As the escalation in February began, I was on a phone with a specialist in air power, writing down types of equipment people in Ukraine could use to defend themselves. I have also been on a search for body armour, looking for suppliers through friends of friends and connecting them to other friends of friends. These new learning and new tasks have temporarily erased all my other identities. I stopped being a researcher of environmental humanities, I stopped being a friend to many of my friends, for almost a month I also stopped being a teacher. War has an all-encompassing and totalising effect, even if you live very far away from it in the safety of Scotland, it erases all other aspects of your life.
Being in the West I also notice another kind of erasure here. As I have been interviewed, mentioned, or invited for events, my identity as a researcher of war and displacement has often been erased. With the escalation, in the eyes of others I often become the “local” voice, an activist whose parents are on the ground, a girl from Ukraine who can speak for all Ukrainians of course. Even the university that issued me my PhD just four months ago suddenly forgot that I am a doctor. Or in March I was also invited to a debate society to speak about Ukraine, the only woman and only Ukrainian on a panel of five speakers, of course, the organisers forgot to mention that I was a doctor too, but they did not forget to mention that four non-Ukrainian men were doctors and professors. When I declined, writing back about westplaining, the extractivism of such a case study approach and the importance of representation, they interpreted my words as “she is too traumatised and emotional” to engage in an analytical debate. Feminists and post/decolonial scholars know this space all too well—only white men can be scholars, researchers, and experts on Ukraine and not only. We can only be young Ukrainian women, worried for their mums in Kyiv and their fathers in the army. While in all these individual cases people apologised to me that they did not mean any harm, erasure operates as a repetition, it operates temporally.
Moreover, there is another indirect erasure enacted by Western powers through silence and slow action, often framed through the rhetoric of rationality. There could be no appeasement, no accommodation, no toleration for war criminals. The experience of WWII and fighting against fascism and totalitarian regimes taught us that in the face of evil and expansionist actors, deliberation and hesitation are complicity. The West’s slow response, the response which in the case of Ukraine is eight years old (not speaking of other victims of Russian imperialism), has accelerated the erasure of the people of Ukraine and all things Ukrainian. The sanctions are eight years too late. The military support should be coming much faster.
While diplomatic ties between Russia and the West have been severed, the past month still demonstrated one kind of unity between the two — of course with different levels of intensity, the unity of coloniality of knowledge. Both Russia and the West failed in understanding Ukraine. Ukraine did not fall in the first three days and Russian blitzkrieg did not happen. This was the Kremlin’s grossly miscalculated fantasy and the illusion of well-respected canonical rational political thinkers like John Mearsheimer. While the interpretations of the war against Ukraine are radically different in Russia and in Western countries, coloniality of knowledge prompted the erasure of even a possibility of Ukrainian agency and resistance. And it continues to do so, as the Kremlin and the West still debate whether Ukraine will agree to concessions of its sovereign territory. In all these stories, it is the Ukrainian people who have been overlooked and erased from discourse and often from decision-making.
Darya Tsymbalyuk researchers, writes, and draws. She received her PhD from the University of St Andrews, and her dissertation focused on displacement and war in Donbas, and human-plant relations disrupted by these violences. Together with Julia Filipieva and Victor Zasypkin she is the author of 'Donbas Odyssey' art project dedicated to memories of people displaced by the war; together with Kateryna Voznytsia, Yulia Serdyukova, Victor Zasypkin, and others she is working on an animation film 'Displaced garden' dedicated to people and plants displaced by the war; and together with Victoria Donovan she is an author of a book 'Limits of Collaboration: Art, Ethics and Donbas', forthcoming in 2022.
Cover image: Extinct, from the series every leaf is a word, Darya Tsymbalyuk, 2020