The Uncertain Future of Ukraine's Illegal Mines

Ukraine Travel
by Chris Miller Feb 9, 2012

This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program.

THE BLACK HYUNDAI bounced along Highway 21 en route to the eastern Ukrainian mining city of Torez, each pothole tossing me from my seat. I peered from behind as Alex, a journalist and friend of mine, carefully navigated the car around dump trucks, gas trucks, and 18-wheelers. With just one lane in each direction and no shoulder, every passing maneuver seemed especially precarious.

Denis, another journalist, rode shotgun. Every once in a while he’d turn around to point out something in the distance.

This is a metal factory. That is the home of Rinat Akhmetov — Ukraine’s richest person. This was the childhood home of our national finance minister. He recently named the street it’s on after himself.

We drove past roadside kiosks where locals were selling potatoes, onions, eggs, and all things pickled. Decrepit Soviet-era apartment buildings and steel factories popped up every ten kilometers or so. An elderly man watched his goats graze in a nearby field. In the distance, smoke billowed from the coal refinery chimneys dotting the horizon. We were on our way to visit the men working at one of the area’s clandestine illegal mines or, in Russian, kopanki.

* * *

Torez is located in the Donets Basin, also known as the Donbass. The hard-knuckled industrial region is a 13-hour train ride east of Kiev, the country’s capital. It sits in the plains of the lower Dnieper and Seversky Donets rivers, a vast area both blanketed in sunflowers and marred by smokestacks.

It was here in August 1935 that the Donbass’ most famous miner, Alexey Stakhanov, mined a record 102 tons of coal in under six hours, igniting an industrial boom known as the Stakhanovite movement that over the next 40 years brought a flood of mining and manufacturing jobs to the region. On December 16th of the same year, his face graced the cover of Time magazine. Inside he was profiled in a story titled “Stakhanovism’s Great Stakhanov.”

In the decades to come, coal shaped the Donbass into an industrial mecca, with Torez playing a central role. Record amounts of coal were extracted at record speeds. Apartment homes couldn’t be built quickly enough to accommodate a growing population. Toward the end of the coal boom in 1978, nearly 100,000 people lived in Torez, with even more residing in neighboring Makeevka and Donetsk. Torez, which still flies a flag emblazoned with a piece of black coal, once had more than a dozen large-scale mines, employing tens of thousands.

Now, though, Stakhanovism is long gone, as are many of the jobs it created. The development of coal, oil, and gas in resource-rich Siberia, which began after the 1917 revolution and accelerated in the 1960s, came at great expense to the Donbass region. Independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 all but finished the Donbass off. Ukraine, as an independent country, didn’t have the money to invest in the industry and was forced to close many of its mines. Others were sold to the country’s oligarchs, who invested little in them, interested only in squeezing out what they could to line their own pockets, leaving the mines unprofitable and insolvent. All in all, the industry is in about $200 billion of debt — more than a year’s profits.

The 12 large-scale mining operations that once dotted the area have been reduced to just four. In their place, hundreds of tiny, illegal mining operations have sprung up.

Since then, thousands of residents have left the area in search of remunerative work. A 2001 census showed Torez’s population to be 72,346. By 2004, that number had fallen to 68,230. The most recent census data, gathered in 2011, shows the population to be 60,032.

Now, Torez is surrounded by slag heaps and small, weathered village homes. Driving through town that October morning, I noticed the faded pastel-colored paint peeling off their walls, shutters dangling from the window frames. Across the road two men covered in black dust drank from beer bottles at a bus stop, broken glass strewn about at their feet. It was 10am.

Alex pulled over and asked a young man for directions to the quarry, and he pointed us toward a street two blocks back. We drove down flooded dirt roads speckled with glimmering coal dust and littered with empty mayonnaise packets, and arrived at a large pit filled with water.

As our car neared the edge of the quarry, I spotted a man clad in flannel and wearing a backpack emerging from the bushes. His wild red hair jutted out in all directions from under his Rasta-colored knit beanie. His beard was bushy and matted from months — maybe years — of untamed growth. Alex motioned to me to open the rear passenger door and let him in. “This is our guide.”

Settled into the back seat next to me, the man said, in deep-throated Russian, “So you’re the American. Nice to meet you.” He smelled musty and of cigarettes. We shook hands. His skin was cracked and callused. “I’m Nikolai.”

Despite having an apartment in Donetsk, Nikolai’s lived the past two years in a small shack at the edge of the quarry, which he shares with one other man. A former journalist and current president of the Donetsk-based “Cohort of Light,” a non-governmental organization focused on helping recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, Nikolai is a respected community member. He’s also pals with many of the miners who extract coal from the kopanki. Some of them he’s even counseled.

Before we were to meet the miners, Nikolai suggested we stop at a shop to pick up a few things. In Ukraine it’s customary to bring gifts when dropping in unannounced.

On our way we passed a conspicuous mine sitting just off the road. Denis asked Nikolai if this was a kopanka. It was not. Despite its primitive appearance, it was a legally sanctioned mine. But like the kopanki, most mines of this type operate with numerous violations. Their owners, often public servants or businessmen in bed with them, have either forged or paid for proper documentation and fabricated production numbers. It’s because of this that they’re allowed to operate as normal during crackdowns on the kopanki. Nikolai suggested we stop to see if the men working it would mind speaking with us.

It turned out they did. From inside the car I couldn’t hear the conversation, but one miner waved Nikolai off, as if shooing a pesky cat away. After that, the miners retreated inside a small shack, peering out a window at us as we pulled off, their darkened faces illuminated by the light of burning matches held to cigarettes.

At the shop, Alex and Denis waited outside while I ran in with Nikolai. With a glint of gold in her teeth, a woman behind the counter wearing a blue apron asked what we wanted.

“Ten beers will be enough, I think,” Nikolai told her. “Let’s get cigarettes and two fish, too.”
The car bounced back and forth and bottles clanked in the space between Nikolai and I as we made our way back down the rutted road.

We paused briefly for a woman and her goats to cross; we pulled over to the shoulder so a tractor could pass. And then a little further on down Nikolai instructed Alex to stop the car and park.

We trudged five minutes through the forest, kicking aside fallen tree limbs in our way, across a rickety footbridge spanning the width of a narrow creek. Spindly, naked branches of the canopy disappeared into the fog. Crows cawed around us. Approaching a clearing in a small ravine, I could hear the clinks and hisses of something mechanical. The noises grew louder as we got closer.

Then, as the ravine opened up slightly, the mining operation appeared in plain view, just 20 meters from where we stood. Nikolai turned to me. “We’re here,” he said. “I will do the talking first.”

* * *

In the days of the Soviet Union miners were treated as celebrities and given their own holiday, Miners’ Day, the last Sunday of August. They even had a football team — Shakhtar — named for them.

A Ukrainian friend’s mother once told me to be a miner was to be a hero.

“We celebrated them,” she said. “Because they gave us everything.” Until the mid 1970s, one-third of every household in Ukraine was dependent on coal — and the coal miner — for power.

Miners used to be some of the highest paid workers in the USSR. Now their wages are in line with the nation’s average — about $300 a month. Those working at the kopanki, however, pocket maybe $200 each month.

Much like the miners do, Nikolai believes Torez itself is descending into a black hole. Each year there are more empty houses, fewer people, and even less coal. It’s been estimated that just 10 years of reserves remain here. Because of this, along with fewer public and private investments, the city — and its mining heritage — is at risk of disappearing. Already, it’s a shadow of its former self.

Residents have only themselves to blame for the deterioration of the city, Nikolai told me. “They squandered all their land in order to mine.” Instead of seeking alternative solutions, residents have opted to mine until the coal is gone.

* * *

“Poyekhali!” Let’s go, shouted a stout middle-aged man named Viktor, flipping the switch of a generator that powers a four-cylinder engine taken from a Soviet-era Lada sedan. Smoke puffed out as the engine bellowed and rattled. A winch began to turn, slowly hauling a weighty object to the surface from deep below ground.

A few minutes passed, and then a shell of a bathtub appeared from the black opening in the earth. Inside was a heap of coal, some pieces as large as a shoebox. The winch pulled the tub to level ground and lifted one end in the air, spilling its contents into a pile.

Viktor switched off the generator and, swiping his forehead with his forearm, said, “There it is — our black gold!”

This was what he and his fellow miners called “the hole,” one of hundreds of kopanki in eastern Ukraine.

Viktor’s mined for so long he can’t remember when he began. He didn’t always work in the kopanki. Like many older miners in the region, at one point he worked at a legal, government-operated plant. It wasn’t until he lost his job there that he resorted to mining illegally. “I wasn’t able to do anything else.”

The hole was as wide as a small elevator and nearly as deep as a football field, its opening supported by medium-sized fir trunks and old fence boards nailed together. Tubs attached to a rusted cable carried men, equipment, and coal up and down an earth track compacted from years of use. An engine more than 20 years old powered the entire operation.

Another miner, Aleksey, said that six men work the hole. His skin and clothes appeared mostly clean, except for a few black swipe-mark stains on the thighs of his pants. While speaking to me he sharpened the head of a jackhammer bit on a grinder. Despite sparks shooting off in every direction, he didn’t wear protection of any kind.

Three men were inside the shaft, carving away at the walls, filling the tub with coal and sending it back to the surface, all the while trying not to breathe in too much black dust, cause a cave-in, or ignite a methane pocket. That day, Aleksey had chosen to remain above ground with two other men, though it meant pocketing a little less cash at the end of the day.

“They’ve got the difficult jobs,” he told me, pointing toward the miners inside the shaft. In the time I was at the hole, from late morning to evening, no one mining below ground came to the surface. “If you want to see them, you will have to go down.”

“Poyekhali!” Viktor shouted again.

Another bathtub was being hauled up with the winch, its rocky contents dumped on the ground. I watched as Ruslan, a well-built 25-year-old miner, scooped the coal with a large, flat shovel into the bed of a truck. Around him hung a shadowy cloud. His face, hands, and forearms were blackened from the coal, but I could still make out the hastily drawn flames of a tattoo on his forearm. It took less than 10 minutes for him to shovel it all in.

Afterward he lit a cigarette, drew slowly from it, looked at me and raised his eyebrows.

I asked why he mined.

“The money is good and studies are a waste of time,” he explained. “And this is Torez.”

While speaking to Ruslan, Aleksey sauntered over. I wondered aloud how much a truck of coal was worth, and he began doing the math on his fingers.

“About 100 dollars for one ton,” Aleksey said. “And this truck can hold 10 tons, so maybe $1,000, every day.”

But this is split between each miner, with those down in the hole pocketing a slightly larger percentage. A majority of the profit — about fifty to sixty percent — goes toward expenses such as gas, repairs, and paying off local law enforcement.

Ruslan’s been doing this now for the better part of a decade. He left school to begin work and help support his family.

Aleksey began mining illegally when he was 18. He is now 32, and admitted he’ll probably be mining for the rest of his life. “Or until [the coal’s] all gone.” His reasons were much the same as Ruslan’s.

“I didn’t like school,” he said. “And I didn’t want to leave [Torez] and my family.”

Aleksey said he makes good money mining the hole, though he didn’t say exactly how much. He has a car, a house, and a beautiful young wife and child. He can afford to buy them the things they need.

A typical workday might last eight to 12 hours, sometimes longer even, depending on how many men are working. But they don’t think about time at the mine, Aleksey said. “We’re finished when the truck is full.”

Once the truck has reached capacity, the load is taken to a nearby storage center. From there, coal from the kopanki is mixed with coal from select legal mines in the region. All together, there’s no telling it apart.

Eventually, the coal’s shipped across the country; only some might be sold locally. In Torez, most people make less than the national average, and coal is expensive. A popular anecdote, the miners told me, goes like this: A miner works all day extracting fuel to heat the houses in the rest of the country, only to come home to find his own family freezing.

Aleksey turned to me and asked that I watch my step. A third tub was on its way up from the mine and I was standing in its path.

Ruslan tossed his cigarette butt to the ground and pulled on his gloves. The wench lurched to a halt, the tub spilled the coal and the shoveling began again.

Taking a break, I followed Aleksey over toward the miners’ shack, where Alex and Denis were snapping photos and taking video. Aleksey took one of the salted fish we brought out of its white paper wrapping and laid it atop a stump. With a large knife he pulled from his pocket, he slit the fish up the belly to the head, cut out the insides and tossed them on the ground. Then he chopped the fish into pieces to share with the other miners.

I asked about the police, and whether or not there’s a chance the kopanki could be closed. He said he’d explain the situation to us, but only if Denis, who’d been recording parts of our conversation, switched off his video camera.

As with many of the kopanki, he explained, about 30 percent of revenue from the hole goes toward paying off local law enforcement and government officials. Intermediary firms that are owned by people in positions of power, including some of the same authorities, buy the coal that goes to the storage containers. In that way, the kopanki are also protected.

Aleksey doesn’t expect that the kopanki would ever be shut down; there are just too many of them to regulate. It’s more likely that the coal will run out.

There was a time, not long ago, however, before current president Viktor Yanukovich came to power, when illegal mines were at risk of being closed.

During Orange Revolution leader Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency, from 2004 to 2010, a large-scale plan was enacted to shutter hundreds of illegal mines and fill them with water, rock, or other materials. A fervent opponent of eastern Ukrainian politics and Yanukovich’s Party of Regions, Yushchenko promised to put an end to the corruption and lawlessness that plagued the country, which included the kopanki of the Donbass.

But the closed kopanki didn’t remain that way for long. The defiant miners dug out their holes. “It’s not difficult to pull out rocks or pump out water,” Aleksey said. “We knew there was a chance [the authorities] could close us again, but we needed the money.”

He and others working at the mines breathed a sigh of relief in 2008, when Yanukovich won a tight presidential race against ex-Premier Yulia Tymoshenko. His hometown of Donetsk, as well as the rest of the Donbass it seemed, would be safe to conduct business as usual.

Officials, though, still want the public to believe that they’ve taken a strong stance against illegal mining operations. In September, the Chairman of the Donetsk Regional Council, Andrew Fedoruk, went as far as to say that all the illegal mines in the Donbass region had been “eliminated.”

Standing atop small, scattered pieces of coal, 10 meters from the opening of a pitch-black shaft in which men were scraping away at the walls for more, Aleksey laughed at the mention of this.

“Do you ever worry?” I asked Aleksey. “Isn’t this work dangerous?”

“Yes! Of course it’s dangerous,” he chuckled. “You don’t know what can go wrong down there. But it’s worth it, right?”

Alex, Denis, and I stood silent.

“Anyway,” he added a moment later, “usually it’s just the drunks that find trouble.”

Many men drink on the job. And those men, along with the safety risks and the poor image they foster, are the reason the authorities want the greater public to believe the kopanki have been shut down.

As we chatted, Aleksey was drinking a beer. But he pointed out that beer wasn’t the problem — the problem was samigon, or moonshine.

“Some miners drink samigon while they work, and– ” with his middle finger he flicked his throat, the eastern European sign for wasted. “That’s when accidents happen.”

And accidents happen frequently. Ukraine has Europe’s highest mortality rate among coal miners, according to Iryna Kurylo, head of the Department for the Quality of Demographic Processes at the Mykhailo Ptukha Institute of Demography and Social Research, Ukraine’s Academy of Sciences. Since Ukraine became independent in 1991, nearly 6,000 people have died in mining accidents, and those just in the legal mines. The statistics for the illegal mines are unknown, but thought also to be in the thousands.

When I asked if there have been accidents at the hole, Aleksey grinned but didn’t answer. Asked if he knew anyone who’d died in the kopanki, he nodded. “Of course. We all do.”

The causes of death in the mines range from explosions and collapses to cardiac arrest caused by methane poisoning. Colorless and odorless, methane is difficult to detect. And being lighter than air, it’s extremely flammable; a single spark can ignite a fireball within the mineshaft.

This past July, east of Torez, at a legal, large-scale mine near the city of Lugansk, an explosion more than 3000 feet underground killed 28 miners. Officials believe it to have been a methane explosion. In 2007, a methane explosion at another nearby mine killed more than 100 people.

“It is very important to be safe while working here,” Aleksey said, taking another tug from his bottle of beer.

“This work is not for everyone.” But it is for many, especially those lacking higher education. Plus, Aleksey added, there isn’t much else to do. “Here, we mine. That’s it.”

But for how much longer is anyone’s guess.

* * *

My close friend Igor once told me, “Ukrainians live day to day.” Though the country is now independent, the Soviet mentality of ‘whatever is done is for the better’ still exists. “We can’t know what will come tomorrow,” he added. “But we believe it will be good.”

With coal production rapidly depleting and the Donbass’ once-great industrial esteem no longer extant, the region has taken measures to ensure its mining legacy.

Stone monuments to the once-thriving industry dot the region’s city squares: Alexey Stakhanov, in the city named for him, with a jackhammer slung over his shoulder and his eyes on the horizon; in Donetsk, an anonymous miner offering a piece of coal in his outstretched hand; and in Makeevka a group of three miners standing stoically at the entrance of a mine shaft, equipment in tow. The Donetsk Shaktar football team, owned by billionaire mogul Rinat Akhmetov (he also owns Krasnodonugol, one of the country’s largest coal companies), has become an international success, winning the UEFA Cup in 2009. (This is due mostly, however, to the team’s $400 million, state of the art Donbass Arena and its imported Brazilian football stars, which Akhmetov himself financed.)

But it’s unclear what, if anything, has been or is being done to ensure the future of Torez and its people. When the coal is finally exhausted — and mined at its current rate, it will be soon — what will people in Torez do?

“Torez will be dead,” Aleksey said. “After coal, nothing. We can only wish this will happen after our time.”

* * *

It was nearly five o’clock in the evening and the engine thundered on, despite having been working for more than eight hours, and despite the fact that it was Saturday. The wench kept turning, tubs continued to be hauled up and emptied, and Ruslan kept shoveling.

I followed Alex, Denis, and Nikolai back through the forest and over the footbridge, fighting the cold the whole way. The sun had ducked behind the trees and dense clouds had rolled in. I could still hear the roar of that Lada engine, though it faded into the distance with each step I took toward the road. Soon, the only sound was the leaves crunching beneath our feet and our heavy breathing.

Smoke from village burn piles wafted through the forest and around the skinny trees. I watched two men shuffle down the road as we approached, tattered rugs filled with leaves slung over their shoulders.

We dropped Nikolai off where we found him, at a thicket near the edge of the quarry. We waited there for a few minutes until his friend came across in a raft to meet him.

Back on the highway, we passed trucks with beds filled to the brim with coal. Darkness covered the steppe and the refineries – ever so faint in the distance — spewed smoke. Somewhere beyond them, a wench reeled up a bathtub full of Torez’s black gold, one closer to the last.

[Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]

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