The billboards of Donetsk: big brother is watching you!

Perhaps before long every “citizen of the DNR” will be forced to carry a collection of quotes from Big Brother at all times? A letter from occupied Donetsk, conflict zone in eastern Ukraine by Anton Averchenko, engineer working in a defense plant, city of Donetsk for

Despite all the calamities that have befallen the Donbas in the last year, the city is still relatively clean and well-maintained. Of course I am talking about the part of the city that is at peace. I don’t know what it’s like in the parts that are close to the front, but in our area the street cleaners sweep the streets and courtyards diligently and the garbage collectors collect the garbage regularly even when the curfew is in force. They say that despite the low pay there are no vacancies in the jobs in housing and communal services. A janitor makes 1300 UAH per square foot. How much space does a square foot occupy? I don’t know, but I believe it’s plenty, like our great Ukrainian writer, Mykola Hohol, had duly observed in his timeless story, Wiy. [a demonic creature]

Apart from courtyards, streets and sidewalks, however, there is this thing called a billboard.
Unlike courtyards and sidewalks street cleaners have no effect on the condition of the billboards; giving one the impression that horror and chaos rule over Donetsk the way they look is a stark contrast to the clean roads and even the public transport facilities. Several months ago a certain member (meaning an ambitious “official”) of the “government” had threatened the sloppy owners that if they failed to clean up their property the authorities will come to begin action.

I hope he was talking about the billboards and not about the owners of the billboards.
But as it turned out wagging the tongue does not get anything done. Half a year has passed and the billboards are still there.

The billboards in Donetsk can usually be found in conditions that are opposite: either they are in completely ruined and depressing condition or in good condition. The ones in good condition serve as a perfect platform for Big Brother about whom another writer had written, this time not a Ukrainian writer but a British writer, George Orwell, in his also timeless book, 1984.

Big Brother is watching you! There he is watching you with reproach as he bestows honor on the new heroes of the young and ambitious republic: “And you, why aren’t you at the front?”

And there he is affectionately congratulating the veterans of the Second World War. And he seems to be asking you: “And what have you done today to help a veteran?”

Quotes from Big Brother are all over the city: “Our grandfathers won and we will win!”

Could it be that the time is approaching when every “young and ambitious” citizen will be forced to carry a collection of Big Brother’s quotations just like during the Cultural Revolution every Chinese citizen was forced to carry the Quotations of Mao?

In addition to the messages from Big Brother that since fall have been plastered all over, all the achievements of the “circus-rendum” [sham referendum] are paraded on billboards as a reminder of the anniversary of the “circus-rendum.”

At one time billboards with appeals to join the ranks of the “separatists” who were presented as the young, ambitious elite, were seen, though now they have disappeared.

Every billboard campaign starts differently but ends the same: “The Zasiadko mine has been returned to the people! The DNR: this is just the start!”

“Supermarkets! ATMs! Returned to the people! The DNR: this is just the start!”

“The money markets of the republic! Returned to the people! The DNR: this is just the start!”

“The gas pipelines! Returned to the people! The DNR: this is just the start!”

“The bus stations! Returned to the people! The DNR: this is just the start!”

Thank goodness they didn’t put one up that said: the airport has been returned to the people!

I don’t understand why when there is just one bus station left in the city the billboard talks about bus stations, in the plural. The other bus station was demolished with mortars, cannon fire and grad missiles in the course of the six-month siege of the airport. The municipal train station got the same treatment.
Besides spreading pure propaganda there is another type of advertising. There are the ads with social themes. “Help our elders.” Or the ads promoting a children’s drawing contest to reward the best picture appealing for peace. Except to whom are the children supposed to address their appeals? On the television station “Oplot” every day Big Brother vows to take by storm the cities and towns of Mariupol, Kramatorsk, Slaviansk, and Krasnyi Lyman along with Kurakhove before any mention of peace can be made.

I have seen only one commercial billboard. An advertisement for some kind of FM radio station. I don’t remember the name of it or where it is on the radio dial. And some sort of restaurant with an unfamiliar name. I have the impression that nowadays any drinking joint in Donetsk can call itself a restaurant. That way the certification and licensing process is simplified and possibly even done away with completely.
Little drinking joints have proliferated, the kind that make one think of the “tsar’s taverns” from back in the days of the Russian Empire. In these joints drinks are served to the drop-ins who come in to take a swig, eat a pickle (olives with lemons are a luxury) and leave quickly so the next walk-in can be served.
The bartender always asks, “Plain vodka or the good vodka?” Sometimes the choice is plain vodka or “cognac” poured out of a decanter. The “cognac” is brought in from our nice northern neighbor in canisters and is offered to the customers.

Talking man to man can be done in the street, especially on a warm spring day. It should be mentioned that many people complain about the high cost of food products even in the settlements that are 20 km from Donetsk and where the troops of the Ukrainian Armed Forces have dug in. All of that is true. Though that’s not the case when it comes to the most sacred food product of the Russian World. That sacred food product is vodka. Vodka has become even cheaper than the cheapest liter-bottle of beer. The drinking joints call the cheapest beer “plain vodka.”

It must be noted that some doctors believe the extremely low prices of vodka when compared to beer or wine have contributed to the rise in the mortality rate among men in the post-Soviet period. Back in the days of dear Leonid Illitch [Brezhnev] for the price of one bottle of vodka you could drink 15 cans of beer, or two bottles of plain port, or a bottle of vintage wine.

Under the DNR a bottle of beer costs as much as a bottle of vodka while for the same price as a bottle of the cheapest wine you can get two bottles of “plain” vodka. We, of course, have had our days of drinking, but what will happen to our kids in these circumstances? Vodka is far worse for the body than any other hard liquor. It doesn’t satisfy the hunger pangs and it doesn’t make you go to the “refreshing office” like beer does. Therefore in terms of pure alcohol one can inadvertently consume far more than the norm. And if we take into account that the origin of the cheapest vodka is unspecified? Though the source of the more expensive vodka is likewise vague. It is no wonder that in some nice places glassware is being used into which expensive vodka is poured from a bottle though the customer tries to make sure that the cap and dispenser were intact.

The counterbalance to all of that is the complete absence of any kind of advertisements for other beverages. But then, what would be the point?

To quote an unshaven philosopher sitting at the bar: vodka is bread in liquid form! It doesn’t even require chewing! Obviously such issues do not concern the young and the ambitious. The important thing right now is to fill the “coffers of the republic” so that social benefits can be paid out. Immediate results are necessary, and after that, who cares.

So alright. God bless vodka. More precisely, the hell with it! In moments when my grandmother remembered the Prince of Darkness she always said, “Not in my home!” If my grandmother were alive! Better that she isn’t, though, at least she is lying quietly and doesn’t have to watch all this horror.
In conclusion let’s talk about something wonderful. A theater ensemble is coming to Donetsk. Is it MAT? Nope. Not the Moscow Art Theater. Is it Lencom? No. Soloists of the Vienna State Opera? No way. Who, for heaven’s sake, wants to come to Donetsk with performances except the Russian Luspekaev Academic Drama Theater from Luhansk?

Just another funny picture of life in Donetsk. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

There is a sign in the entry to the theater: “Please do not bring weapons!”

The ticket prices are affordable. From 10 to 70 UAH. If you plan on being in our city in June, please come to the performance! We welcome you!


EMPR, O. R. contributed to this publication

Original article in Russian is available on


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