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Photographing Eastern Ukraine for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

October 10, 2016

UW Jackson School of International Studies REECAS M.A. student Chris Collison spent several weeks interning with the Kyiv bureau of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. During that program, he made two trips to a coal-producing region of Ukraine and worked with Ukrainian journalists on multimedia stories for their website.

It was a hot, sweaty pre-dawn morning when our train pulled into the town of Pokrovsk, an industrial hub in the Ukrainian-controlled part of the Donetsk oblast. The town is still known locally as Krasnoarmiysk, named after the Soviet Red Army. It recently regained its pre-war name with the passage of decommunization legislation in the national parliament. While the town is a safe distance from the front line of the conflict, it’s not uncommon to see military ambulances speeding through the main streets as they transport wounded soldiers to the nearest hospital.


Chris Collison in Pokrovsk, Ukraine. (Stanislav Demianiuk)

I was in town to work on a project about state-run coal mines as part of my internship program with the Kyiv bureau of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. I had previous experience working in Ukraine, and the Kyiv bureau gave me almost free rein to pursue a project that interested me. This project began as a research paper for “Post-Soviet Political Economy”, a course I took through the UW Jackson School of International Studies during spring quarter of my first year. In my research, I learned that Ukraine’s national budget was essentially propping up state-run coal mines, which were hemorrhaging money due to outdated equipment and uncompetitive work practices.

When I got to Ukraine, I wanted to find out if the economic crisis I saw unfolding in my research in Seattle was having an effect on locals who worked at these aging mines.

As it turned out, it was—to an even greater extent than I had predicted.

I spent a few days in Pokrovsk, traveling to and from the nearby town of Selidovo, which was home to a local trade union and was where thousands of workers who serviced several local mines lived. One mine, called Ukraina, granted me a tour. I got to see the surface of the facility, where I photographed some of the aging equipment and interviewed a few of the people who worked there. Despite repeated pleas, I wasn’t allowed to descend into the mineshaft, even though the mine administrators had promised to take me down during phone conversations while I was still in Kyiv.

Near the end of the tour, the trade union leader took me aside and told me and my travel companion Stas about how the miners had not been receiving regular salaries after the government ended subsidies a few months prior, although he was cautious not to say anything inflammatory and assured us that the miners would make no protest. After a largely productive day touring the surface of the facility and taking photos of workers, I headed back to my barebones hotel in Pokrovsk, expecting to spend another full day at the mine and possibly go into the shaft after repeated promises from the mine’s manager.


State-run mines suffer from outdated equipment. (Chris Collison)

In the morning, no one answered my calls. The trade union leader was in no mood to talk to me. Something seemed off. The mine manager called back and assured me that if I got anywhere near the mine, my camera equipment would cause a gas explosion—a strange claim since we had spent several hours photographing the facility the day before. After several hours of calls and pleas to let us back to the mine, it was clear that visitors were no longer welcome. Stas and I hopped on a train and headed back to Kyiv. I was disappointed, but I had enough material to write a short article and make a photo gallery.

A few days later, as I was heading into the office to finish my piece, one of the journalists stopped me.

“The trade union leader is waiting for you in Selidovo,” he said.

As it turned out, the miners had gone on hunger strike over unpaid wages and a dispute between the local trade union, the mining facility, and the central government was playing out behind the scenes while I was working on my story. I rushed back to Eastern Ukraine to see what was going on.


Miners and their families rally over unpaid wages. (Chris Collison)

When I got to Selidovo, hundreds of miners and their families were protesting in the town’s main square. The dispute over wages had spilled out into the open in the few days since I had left, and residents were angry that the state had left them without enough money to buy basic items.

The trade union leader drove me through the surrounding villages to introduce me to current and former miners who were suffering due to the collapsing coal sector.

This experience was an illuminating peak into how economic policy can have a direct and immediate impact on individuals who depend on an industry for their livelihoods. It was a great opportunity to learn from local journalists how to organize stories in the field, how to connect with local organizations, and how to develop multimedia story ideas. While learning more about the role of coal mining in Eastern Ukraine, I was able to provide content for the Ukrainian service of RFE/RL, sending them updates about the strike and publishing photos on their website while deepening my own understanding of the region’s industrial legacy.