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Review:  Dreaming a City – From Wales to Ukraine by Colin Thomas

02 May 2022 6 minute read
Dreaming a City – From Wales to Ukraine by Colin Thomas

Jon Gower

We know the name Donetsk from the news coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, especially now as it concentrates on the east of the country but this deeply fascinating book tells us how the city has had other names and lived through other testing times. For a while it was called Stalino but before that it was known as Hughesovska, after John Hughes, the Merthyr man who helped build here ‘a city of steel.’ By telling the story of the city the distinguished TV maker Colin Thomas also tells us something of the story of Russia, Ukraine and the Soviet Union over a century and a half.

It’s also the story of Thomas’ relationship with Gwyn Alf Williams, who presented 30 programmes they made together over the course of 15 years and so becomes a brisk and loving portrait of the firebrand Marxist historian. There’s a great story about Gwyn volunteering in Dowlais to join the International Brigade to fight in Spain. ‘A face appeared over the high counter, looked down on the diminutive Gwyn and told him, “Son, come back when we’re desperate.”’

Dreaming a City also charts the historian’s changing views about Russia as learns more. One night he had his wallet lifted and as a consequence, suggest Thomas, ‘the glow he had had about Russians faded a little…I sometimes felt that it was as if he was in mourning for the Soviet Union that he had once believed in so passionately. It was obvious by then that it was breaking up – and that Russians hated the sight of their empire crumbling, especially the departure of Ukraine or The Ukraine as they insisted on calling it.’ They are sour Russian sentiments which one can so easily see expressed in the actions of Vladimir Putin today.

When John Hughes came to the Donetsk basin he chose a site for his steelworks that was literally in the middle of nothing, miles away from the nearest port. He would not only need to build blast furnaces, but find ways of supplying coal and building railways to move the metal they made. And he would need to do all this in a place without any roads, even, where bullocks had to drag construction materials across the steppes. When the Czar declared that the area would ‘supply the whole of Russia with coals and iron material’ there were only 164 people living in the town, along with 2500 bullocks for moving coal, iron and limestone.

Intense cold

The local Cossacks were bolstered by the efforts of 70 Welsh workers who moved here with Hughes, to work in conditions of intense cold – “I have seen sixty degrees of frost here’ wrote Rees Richards, a furnaceman from Dowlais – or ravaged by cholera. Despite these challenges the Russian and Welsh workers erected and fired furnaces leading to a spectacle such as that described by the Ukrainian writer Konstantin Paustovsky who ‘saw a terrifying sight. The molten iron ran in trenches in the ground, belching clouds of blood-red steam. Everything was either scarlet or coal-black. The workers, lit by the glow of the molten metal, looked like demons from hell…’

Some of those workers dreamed of owning a city to be run by the workers but when the Bolsheviks took control they ‘started to crush their former comrades,’ crushing that dream in so doing. The city was renamed Stalino, after the Russian word for steel, not after the dictator. But steel was only one important product in the Ukraine, which was also the Soviet Union’s grain basket. Deportations of better-off peasants to the gulags under Stalin during the Terror – when possibly two million died in labour camps and one million were executed – meant that food production in Ukraine ground to a halt, leading to a desperate famine. This was officially denied, leaving it to the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones to tell the world about the dire situation and describe how the bread basket was totally empty.

Beacon of hope

Colin Thomas tells us about all this whilst also charting the way in which people in Wales reacted to news from the Soviet Union, for, in Gwyn Alf’s words ‘thousands of people looked to the Soviet Union as a beacon of hope, as I did myself. We knew little or nothing of the repression…’

The third name change for the city came in 1961 when Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, himself an Ukrainian – who often wore Ukrainian peasant costume – decided it should be known as Donetsk rather than Stalino. It would be ‘the jewel of the Donbass region’ and a model for the future of the Soviet Union and it did become the cleanest industrial city in the world, despite having a steel works right in the middle.

It was an area in the news in the late 1980s when thousands of miners occupied the square outside the local Communist Party headquarters which prompted Gwyn Alf Williams to ask ‘What was the Tonypandy, the Maerdy, the storm centre of the revolt? – Donetsk.’ But by the time Thomas and Williams revisited, the city was priding itself on other things, such as the fact that there were a million roses in the city, one for each of its inhabitants. Interestingly the symbol of the city is now a metal palm tree, based on those that used to be found at John Hughes’s grand house. There is also a statue to him outside the technical college.

There is so much more in this superb book which mixes travelogue with personal reminiscence, from the biggest tank battles in history through the growth of Ukrainian nationalism to the siege of Stalingrad. Here the Black Division, being the Donbass miners’ division stood firm against a hundred German tanks. The miners slept in the forest when it was minus 35 degrees, simply not afraid of tanks because coal mines were much more frightening. Perhaps they did so because, as the great Ukrainian novelist Vasily Grossman wrote in one of the greatest ever novels, Life and Fate that ‘Nearly everyone believed that good would triumph, that honest men, who hadn’t hesitated to sacrifice their lives, would be able to build a good and just life.’ The contemporary resonance of those words, when we consider Ukraine, is simply thunderous.

Dreaming a City is published by Y Lolfa and comes with a free DVD, Hughesovska & the New Russia. You can buy a copy from good bookshops or you can buy one here…

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