Donetsk was a city of million people prior to the Russia-Ukraine war in 2014. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
There are, though, occasional exceptions to this theory, and the Ukrainian city of Donetsk is certainly one of them. It does not occupy the flank of a major river (the Kalmius, which passes through it, could scarcely be described as such), nor gaze at an ocean – and it was not founded by Romans, or even ancient Slavic peoples. It is a glitch in the timeframe, forged as recently as the late 19th century – and, in a significant way, in origin, it is British.
It is not, of course, a place which demands tourist exploration. At least, not at the moment. For there Donetsk sits, in the far east of Ukraine, just 60 miles from the Russian border – a conurbation cloaked in smoke, strife and enduring doubts about its status. Indeed, it is difficult to say whether the term “Ukrainian city” is even correct anymore. As of April 2014, it has been part of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” – a self-proclaimed separatist entity, backed by Russia, which is fighting a civil war against its mother nation. This is not a place that anyone should wish to trawl in these dark times.
The remains of the Donetsk airport. Photo: Wikipedia
But if Donetsk’s present is tense, its past is remarkable – and it starts not in Ukraine but in south Wales. In Merthyr Tydfil. For it was here, in 1814, that the businessman John Hughes was born – the son of an ironworks engineer whose skill with this key metal of the Industrial Revolution would see him build a city over 2,100 miles from his birthplace.
This was to be no small operation. In the summer of 1870, Hughes found himself – and a team of around 100 Welsh miners and metal-workers, sourced from his home turf – sailing east, through the Mediterranean and into the Black Sea. They went in eight ships, with all the equipment and knowledge needed to begin their project from scratch. The “New Russia Company Ltd” settled on a parcel of land close to the River Kalmius (in what is now Ukraine, but was then Russia), which had been acquired from a Russian statesman, and set to work. Within two years, the team had eight blast furnaces up and running. Collieries, mines, brickworks and rail lines followed. So did churches, hospitals, a school and a fire brigade. By the time of Hughes’s death in 1889, aged 75, the site had become a city. And in Russian fashion, it bore the name of its “creator” – Hughesovka.
Hughesovka in old times. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Hughesovka may have been a Welsh endeavour at root, but its fabric was soon blown apart by the chill winds of change which gusted across the Russia of the early 20th century. By 1913, the town was producing 73 per cent of the country's iron ore, but the bursting of the seams that was the Russian Revolution of 1917 changed everything. Hughes had been gone for almost 20 years (he died suddenly on a business trip to St Petersburg) – but his brothers, who were running the metalworks, had to return home as the plant fell under Bolshevik control. As did the majority of the Welsh labourers. In 1924, Hughesovka was re-named "Stalino", in tribute to a more powerful figure – but it thrived under Communist stewardship. It took on its modern title, Donetsk, in 1961. It is now home to a population of almost a million.
Stalino in 1930s. Soviets House. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The link between south Wales and eastern Ukraine has not been completely forgotten. In 2014, the Welsh rock act Manic Street Preachers – a band which has often dug into its own national identity for cultural inspiration – included a track called Dreaming A City (Hughesovka) on its critically acclaimed album Futurology. That this four-minute rush of squalling guitars and rumbling bass is an instrumental perhaps says something about the problem of distilling events of the late 19th century into a 21st century pop song.