Durham and Donbas – solidarity in action

Julie Ward on ‘archiving against erasure’

Trade union links between Durham and Ukraine provided the inspiration for a fascinating and timely event at Spennymoor Town Hall on May 26th. Jointly organised by Redhills (Durham Miners’ Association) and academics from the University of St Andrews, the Archiving Against Erasure workshop offered participants an opportunity to engage in “heritage conversations between Durham and Donbas”, prompted by a rich array of archive material and personal testimony. 

The event opened with a warm welcome from Nick Malyan (CEO of Redhills) and Dr Victoria Donovan, who leads an Arts and Humanities Research Council project, ‘Donbas in Focus: Visions of Industry from the Ukrainian East’. Donovan set the context for the day’s discussions, drawing comparisons between North East England and Donbas, both old industrial regions with rich and complex histories of mining and steelworks. Both regions have also experienced enforced industrialisation driven by neoliberal state policies. However, in Donbas, deindustrialisation has been hastened by the violent neo-imperial war waged by Russia against Ukraine, starting with the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and followed by the full-scale invasion in February 2022.

Donovan outlined the aims of the workshop, inviting participants to consider the value of industrial heritage in the context of rapid social change and post-industrialisation. She drew attention to the purposeful erasure of working-class cultural heritage, especially in the case of Russia’s war against Ukraine, and “intentional forgetting” for political purposes which often renders invisible the histories and unique cultures of the people and communities from post-industrial regions. 

“While post-industrialisation is welcomed by elites and some groups within the local communities,” she said, “it is often accompanied by the silencing of working-class voices.”

The workshop participants, who were drawn from many different walks of life, were far from silent. Rather, we were encouraged to discuss our responses to a wide range of archive material provided by speakers from the Pokrovsk Local History Museum in the Donetsk region, the Museum of the Scottish Shale Oil Industry and the Amber Film & Photography Collective, which is currently fighting for its existence in the wake of Arts Council England’s retrograde decision not to renew its regular core funding agreement.

A guided tour of the on-site Durham Mining Museum & Gallery offered additional food for thought, and Nick Malyan provided handling objects from the Redhills collection, evidencing the Durham miners’ long association with their comrades in the Donbas region. 

The workshop concluded with a session on ‘Emergency Archiving’, with contributions from the Donetsk and Slovyansk Local History Museums along with local Teesside lad Connor Clements, who captured the iconic Dorman Long tower on the British Steel site in Redcar before its recent demolition following Nadine Dorries’ controversial axing of Grade II-listed status. Clements has now created a virtual reality experience for the benefit of future generations.

A pre-recorded presentation from Dmytro Bilko, filmed on a mobile phone on the front line of occupied Ukraine, was profoundly moving. Prior to the war, Bilko was the director of Donetsk Local History Museum. Like so many of his fellow countrymen, he had felt compelled to take up arms to defend his country and his culture. He spoke to us from a war-ravaged landscape with the sound of fighting in the background and talked of the deliberate targeting of cultural heritage by the Russian forces, a strategy which has been condemned by the international community. Bilko told us how Ukrainian defenders were documenting their daily lives, including evidence of Putin’s attempts to erase Ukrainian identity and the joy felt by communities liberated by brave Ukrainian forces.

Yevheniia Kalugina, director of Slovyansk Local History Museum, described her current work as crucial in order to ensure “we will have history beyond the war”. It is clear that the work of dedicated museum and heritage professionals and local history enthusiasts cannot be under-estimated. We need to ensure that future generations understand how the fight for freedom, democracy and social justice can only be won when communities under attack stand together and fight back.

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