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French heritage of Druzhkivka – Cast Iron, Iron and Steel Plant (1894)

“Where are we and where is Europe?” – I had to hear during the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the European Union on May 16. Closer than it seems, – I answered everyone. After all, Donetsk region was already European a century and a half ago, they just forgot to tell us about it. Soviet industrialization of the twentieth century was preceded by European industrialization – associated with capital from Belgium, Germany, France, Britain, Holland, Switzerland.

Cultural specialist Dmytro Bilko calls this layer of our history as “European industrial Atlantis in Donetsk steppes”. What does remind of it? For example, lilac, which now is the decoration of almost every yard, gardens and squares. It appeared in Donetsk region together with the French, their money and technology. Some other names – in particular, New York. Previously, it was thought that the name of the village came from an American city, but local historians have proved that it is a reference to German York, where some of the Mennonite colonists came from. There is also a structure of urban space in Donetsk, Kramatorsk, Druzhkivka, Kostiantynivka, Makiivka and other cities, which was created on the principles of industrial European cities.

Few people notice, but football, cycling, cinema, trams, photo salons, medicine, park culture, orchestras, theaters – for the first time were brought by Europeans, giving them the status of entertainment more or less available not only to foreign but also local workers.

Unfortunately, few material monuments left. If in Europe, old enterprises are being turned into recreational areas, in Sloviansk authentic building of the Essen faience plant has simply been dismantled into bricks. The same ruin is in Kostiantynivka, which at that time even was called the tenth province of Belgium. The main directorate of Belgian plants in Donbas was here: glass, cement, iron. By the way, the first football league of Donbas (1913) was created here and the first cups competitions started.

– Then the Bolsheviks said that they came to Kostiantynivka with straw shoes on their feet and built an industry here, – local historian Volodymyr Berezin is indignant. – In fact, the Belgians have invested billions here. They say that there was a European culture in Lviv, but not in Kostiantynivka?

Belgian glass plant, KostiantynivkaIndeed, the topic of foreign investment in Ukraine in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was hardly studied or brought to the attention of people. Only John Hughes was known among industrialists, who founded Yuzivka, which later became Donetsk. Instead, the myth about the industrialization of the east of the country by the Soviet Union was advancing. However, history completely destroys this myth.


And the story is that from about the middle of the eighteenth century, Europe survived several waves of modernization. Changes in the economy have led to tremendous changes in society, which began to rely on progress in science, technology and culture.

– Science, education, medicine, cultural entertainment, minimal comfort, participation in political life have become available to the public at large. The very structure of European society has finally ceased to be agrarian, – Dmytro Bilko tells us.

The former Russian Empire barely approached this phase in the second half of the 19th century, continuing to be a feudal agricultural country. 20 years after the defeat in the Crimean War in 1856, the government managed to build in Donbas (then the Yekaterinoslav Governorate) only a railway line from Kharkiv to the coast of the Sea of ​​Azov and several low-profit mines.

The global crisis of the late nineteenth century accelerated the process of modernization. The interests of the parties, one of which had a territory rich in natural resources, and the other – technology, converged in the steppes of Donetsk region. It is interesting, that the main investors in the development of former Dyke Pole were the French, to whom Russia had recently lost the war – so urgent was the need for European capital for new production facilities that would provide inexpensive labor that could be ignored by former military disputes.

From the late 1880s to the early 1900s, Europeans built dozens of metallurgical, chemical, and machine-building enterprises and mines and laid hundreds of kilometers of railroads. Two thirds of the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk regions grew out of workers’ settlements at mines, plants and railway stations. The industrial boom turned the region, where in the first half of the 19th century there were only five cities, into the most urbanized region of Ukraine.

And even before 1920, two generations of foreign colonists grew up here, who often entered into mixed marriages, spoke the local language fluently and named children by local names. Under rather difficult environmental conditions – when the heat is mad in summer, blizzards and frosts in winter, lack of roads and mud in spring and autumn – Europeans tried to recreate the usual way of life. Initially, the benefits of civilization were available only to a small circle of colonists, and later – to a growing number of inhabitants of working-class settlements.

– Between European capitalism and Russian civilization there is a gap. We can compare the behavior of the Belgian “capitalists” Louis Lambert, Paul Noble and Joseph Sisele with the Russian aristocratic land aristocracy… The Belgians are building profitable plants and working-class settlements. Around them, Russian businessmen are on standby. They envy. They are creating conditions to snatch something for themselves; – a local historian Ihor Bredikhin describes the situation. – Indeed, local capitalists gladly took advantage of the fact that new technologies and equipment were not taxed, so they often turned to foreign specialists and bought equipment from them.

– Having failed to take full advantage of all the resource advantages of  Donetsk region, the Russian Empire was trying to make up for lost, – Dmytro Bilko says, analyzing the fact that the anger of local workers (whose rights, of course, were much narrower than rights and profits of foreign workers who worked with them) was very favorably directed against the foreign administration of enterprises. – In the future, because of this, it was quite easy for the Bolsheviks to find support in these areas of Donbas.

In the early 1920s, the Soviet government managed to finally “squeeze” the factories and plants from the former owners and begin a second wave of modernization. Since the Bolsheviks did not have their own design and management experience, they had to turn to class enemies – Germans and Americans (it was not possible to cooperate with the French or Belgians, because they were the largest investors of “squeezed” enterprises). Thanks to such cooperation, for example, NKMZ appeared in Kramatorsk. This giant plant was built in 1934 by American engineers, on a currency that came mainly from the sale of grain seized from Ukrainian peasants. The same situation has developed with the Mariupol giant plants – they were modernized or built from scratch by the Americans.

The Communists tried to oust the mention of previous possessions of Europeans in Donetsk region as completely exploitative and unacceptable. As a result, the signs of old life broke through the reinforced concrete of Soviet reality, like the ruins of the mythical Atlantis, which was not mentioned in a positive way. However, on a number of formal grounds, Donetsk region did not cease to be “European” even in “Soviet” times. The same cannot be said about the way of life in these cities. However, this is a completely different story, which rather distances us from modern Europe than brings it closer to it.


Dmytro BILKO, cultural specialist, scientific secretary of Donetsk Regional Museum of Local Lore:

– What do we usually mean when we talk about Europe, the European standard of living? These are primarily technologically advanced countries lying to the west of Ukraine, where people live comfortably and under the protection of the law. This is how we imagine Europe today. But we forget that the foundations of this Europe have once been laid, as they say, at our feet.

Yevhen TOPOR/Gromada Skhid No. 9 (18) 2020