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The Pen is Mightier than the Pickaxe
How ex collier Maxim Butchenko became a novelist determined to tell the truth about the Ukrainian mining communities affected by Russia’s war on Ukraine
Maxim Butchenko was born and raised in Rovenki a mining town where everyone worked in the mine. He was a collier in the 1990s working in the primitive conditions of Ukraine’s mining industry. He saw the corpses of his colleagues being carried out of the pit on a weekly basis, draped under a sheet to preserve their dignity. The miners frequently drank litres of vodka almost as soon as they had rinsed the coal, dust from their bodies. Many of them developed silicosis by the time they were forty resulting in huge stones forming from coal dust in their lungs.
Maxim realised that the area was, as he says, the result of a huge Soviet experiment. The original Ukrainian population was diluted as workers were shipped in from all over that vast pseudo state. The Soviets enforced strict standards on the buildings in these mining communities “copying and pasting” a Soviet culture onto the Ukrainian Steppe. Many of the workers relocated to the area in the fifties were convicts. During the 90s after the collapse of the Soviet Union criminals rapidly formed gangs who controlled all the politics and business in the area. The ex-president Viktor Yanukovych and his backer the oligarch Renat Akhmetov both emerged from this criminal underworld. Eventually a political party, The Party of the Regions, was developed to represent the interests of these oligarchs. They ruled the mines and rustbelt industries of their native region like feudal lords and their workers were effectively serfs. They almost never travelled outside their region and it remained sealed, an enclave of Soviet culture ruled by organised crime.
Maxim rose from being a collier to become a deputy site manager but yearned to see a world beyond his sealed region. He graduated from university and settled in Ukraine’s cosmopolitan golden domed capital Kyiv. He worked at the "Correspondent" journal and resigned from it after the magazine was bought by Yanukovych linked oligarch Sergei Kurchenko.
In November 2013 students took to the streets after Yanukovych had broken a pledge to sign an association agreement with the EU Yanukovych tried to smash the protests with escalating violence including the use of snipers. Maxim reported on the Euromaidan protests for the Focus journal and then, subsequently, at the influential Novoye Vremya site. He watched as Russia subsequently annexed the Crimea using Special Forces. Yanukovych’s party of the Regions organised demonstrations to secure their power base in the Donbas after his fall from power. Russia quickly intervened and sent in Special Forces to seize public buildings. Maxim saw his birthplace torn from Ukraine. He understood why some of his fellow miners had taken up arms against their country. However Russia’s plan to dismember Ukraine failed because most of the country had a strong Ukrainian identity. It gained traction in the Donbas for reasons Maxim knew only too well. His relatives and friends were split apart by Russia’s assault on Ukraine.
Maxim decided to tell the tale of those families torn apart in the Donbas. The first of these novels The War Artist concerns two brothers on different sides of the conflict. Its tale of a population trapped in a bubble of fake news and controlled by oligarchs resonates now for all of us. Maxim left the coal face to become a journalist. But as he notes a miner is changed permanently after his first descent into the pit. Maxim is uniquely qualified to tell the tale of these men who fought against their country because they lived and worked in the darkness.