Although I am in my fourth year at St Andrews, I know full well that I have been inadequately engaged with the opportunities available. Yes, I’ll collect as many leaflets as my coat pockets will allow and I’ll take pictures of the posters by coffee shops. That being said, my attendance at these events is a real rarity. In fact, it’s non-existent. The immediate excitement of discovering a new event is eventually met by the melancholic cycle of fishing out these month-old bits of paper from my pockets. I just grew more and more frustrated with myself when I missed these events. Finally, I knew it was time to change.
Thankfully, I came to this realisation before the invitation to the Scottish premier of ‘Eurodonbas’ (2022) flew into my inbox. My Russian studies got me onto the invite list and on 25th October, I successfully attended the screening at Sally’s Quad. This documentary film, directed by Kornii Hrytsiuk and produced by Anna Palenchuk, explores the common histories between the Ukrainian Donbas region and Europe. Since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24th February, much of our attention has been drawn to this part of the world. Yet, many of us are completely ignorant to the historical connections between Europe and Donbas.
Although almost certainly translated poorly by myself, in an interview with Ukrinform, Hrytsiuk said: ‘For us it is important to show the film in Europe, despite the fact that it was made for Ukrainian viewers. The Donbas myths and stereotypes that were fed to Soviet citizens make up the plot of this film. And it is just now that we are tearing up these connections with the empire and returning to the Western world.’ And Hrytsiuk shares his wishes for the film’s potential impact: ‘we hope that this film and discussions surrounding it in Europe will be noticed, attract attention, and that the media will help to promote economic, military, and institutional aid to Ukraine.’
In the early minutes of the film, the attractive coal of the region is shown in all of its abundance. Even at the point of filming, a forest wanderer certainly did not struggle to find layers of coal in some raised earth. This resource led to the European industrialization of Donbas and is the central narrative of the documentary. Naturally, the British connection to this history is of particular interest to me. In 1870, Welsh engineer and businessman, John Hughes moved across the seas to build a metallurgical plant and rail factory in eastern Ukraine. In honour of the factory’s founder, the industrial town was named Yuzovka and this town would grow and develop into modern-day Donetsk which continues to produce great quantities of steel and coal.
This historical connection to Europe and beyond is not limited to the story of John Hughes. Belgium, France, Germany, and Switzerland all invested their own capital in the industrial and economic development in the Donbas region in the 19th and 20th centuries. The footage and historic archives of photographs from these regions astounded me. I noticed my attention being distracted from the English subtitles as I gaped at the individual examples of European architecture strewn across these various regions. One surprising German addition to Ukraine is the small town of New York and whilst there are whispers that the name was to please an American wife, others think it originates from Jork in Northern Germany.
In essence, ‘Eurodonbas’ showcases these historic trails of foreign investment across the whole region. Although I kept the horrors of the ongoing conflict at the back of my mind whilst watching the whole film, the conclusion of the film simply broke my heart. The screen fades to black and the audience is informed that since production concluded, most of the buildings had been destroyed and many of those interviewed were unresponsive. I was devastated by this news, yet I was grateful for the film’s preservation of this rich architectural history.
Viewers at the St Andrews premier were treated to something really special. The organisers of this event, including one faculty member directly involved in the film, arranged a Q&A session with Hrytsiuk and Palenchuk. Prior to the screening we were sadly reminded of the difficult situation in the country. Whilst Anna Palenchuk was safely on standby in Canada, Kornii Hrytsiuk remained in Kyiv where electricity shortages could prevent the session. Luck was very much on our side as Kornii arrived on the call and the session could continue as planned.
From my perspective, the most intriguing point of discussion was how the filmmakers overcame the endless hurdles that arose. A major stylistic feature of the film is the use of animation of photographs to represent the narrative information. Anna explained that given the film’s low budget, they were unable to create full animations. Their solution was to bring pre-existing photographs from the archives to bring this history to life. These animated photographs complemented the scenic drone footage and interviews and really added to the film’s individual expression of the history.
Although I am sure it has been made clear, I feel that I have learned so much from this film. Moreover, the experience of joining together with other members of the university to share this was incredible and inspiring. I know many of us, myself included, find it easy to get frustrated with academic pressures that come with being an active student, but having engaged further, I felt revitalised in my subject. Exams are slowly approaching all of us, but I urge anyone who has the time to seek out these events and make the most of you time here.