Hughesovka; a Welsh Connection to Ukraine

Ukraine and the Donbas region might seem a long way from Wales. But there are historical connections linking the two places. This blog, written by Dr Victoria Donovan, a Senior Lecturer in Russian and the Director of the Centre for Russian, Soviet, Central and East European Studies at the University of St Andrews, discusses the history of the Russian war against Ukraine, Welsh migration and industrialisation in the Donbas region and the complex legacy between European heritage and Russian imperialist ideology.

Conflict in Ukraine

On 24 February 2022, Russia escalated its violence against Ukraine into a full-scale war. While many western news outlets presented this escalation as the “start” or the “outbreak” of war, the conflict has been ongoing in Ukraine since 2014. Following country-wide protests against then-president Yanukovych’s refusal to sign Ukraine’s EU Association agreement, a counter-revolutionary movement started in several territories in the east of Ukraine. With Russia’s covert backing, this quickly turned into hybrid warfare, and in eastern areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, collectively known as Donbas, unrecognised “people’s republics” were established. At the same time as these self-proclaimed “people’s republics” were created, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, staging a forged referendum. 

In 2014-2015, a series of international agreements favouring Russia’s position, known as the Minsk Agreements, was proposed to stop the fighting. Fighting never ceased, however, and until February 2022, the war simmered on as a low-intensity constant conflict. The eight-year war in Ukraine has had catastrophic humanitarian consequences. Since 2014, more than 14,000 Ukrainian citizens have been killed and around 43,000 injured, not counting the deaths and injuries resulting from this recent escalation. Between 2014 and 2022, around 1.6 million people were displaced from their homes because of the conflict, and 400,000 were drafted to fight. 

As Russian violence intensified in February 2022, many of these people were displaced for a second time, re-experiencing the traumas of 2014-2015 after making new lives for themselves in the Ukrainian government-controlled regions in which they had resettled. 

Wales’s connection to Ukraine

Ukraine and the Donbas region might seem a long way from Wales. But there are historical connections linking the two places. Donbas is a shortening for the Donets Coal Basin (Don-Bas) and is a landscape rich in coal and iron ore deposits. These lands, which were always inhabited by nomadic peoples (Tatar and Nogai hordes) and Cossacks, were colonised by the Russian Empire in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries during its expansion to the “Wild Field” in the South.

Coal was first discovered in Donbas in 1721, after which the Russian Empire commissioned extensive surveys and studies to map the region’s rich underground mineral resources. While mining took place in Donbas in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, it wasn’t until the Russian Empire revised fiscal policy and invited foreign capitalists to develop the region’s coal and steel-making industries that coal mining began to dominate local economies. 

From the 1860s until the Bolshevik Revolution that brought communism to power in 1917, Donbas was flooded with foreign capitalist entrepreneurs (from Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, France, the US, and the UK, among other places), who moved their industrial operations to the region to exploit the emerging markets. Among these capitalist industrialists was John Hughes of Merthyr Tydfil, who moved to the Ekaterinoslav province, now the Donetsk region, in 1869 to establish a mining settlement named after himself, Hughesovka, later Stalino, and from 1961 Donetsk. Before the war, Donetsk was the largest city in the region.


The history of Hughesovka has often been told as a story of brave Welsh pioneers who ventured to the barren eastern steppe to develop mining industries there and make their fortunes. And reading the archival letters and postcards held at the Hughesovka Research Archive in Cardiff, it is clear that many of those Welsh labour migrants were indeed brave and ambitious. Leaving behind their lives and family to try to make something of themselves. To climb up the social ladder at a time when Britain was facing economic depression and when job opportunities back home were limited.

But there is also another side to the story. The British colony in Hughesovka was a place of relative privilege compared to the wretched conditions in which local labourers from the Russian Empire (Ukrainians, Russians, Armenians, Germans, Greeks, Jews, and others) lived and worked.  While the Welsh lived in neat white-stone bungalows that Hughes had built for them, hosted tea parties and performed in amateur dramatics clubs, local workers often lived eight-to-a-room in earthen dugouts or stayed in overflowing barracks where typhoid and cholera were rife. 

While Welsh workers often took up managerial and engineering roles, supervising workshops and individual mines, local labourers (many of whom were seasonal agricultural labourers) worked excessive hours in dangerous conditions underground. They were often hospitalised following accidents or injuries sustained at work. Life was hard for everyone in Hughesovka, but for some, it was harder than for others. 

The Bolshevik Revolution 

When the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, the remaining Welsh and other British settlers in Hughesovka fled the country. They made their way to Canada, the United States, France and Norway, and in some cases, back to the UK, though only a few ended up back in Wales. Some managed to take money and valuables that they had accumulated with them. Others left with nothing and had to build their lives again from scratch. 

During the Soviet period, under communism, the history of foreign investment in Donbas, including the history of Hughesovka, was presented as a tale of Dickensian capitalist exploitation: foreign managers were depicted as capitalist vampires feeding on the sweat and blood of the local workforce. While there is a degree of truth in this – workers were undoubtedly exploited for capitalist gain by foreign elites – this was also a selective presentation of reality. The lines separating foreign capitalists and local labourers were not necessarily clear cut: by 1917, some Brits had been living in Hughesovka for several generations. They had intermarried with Ukrainians and Russians and mixed languages between Ukrainian, Russian, English and even Welsh.  

The “Russian World” ideology

When Russian-backed separatists occupied parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in 2014, including the city of Donetsk (formerly Hughesovka), they argued that they were acting in defence of the “Russian World” [Russkii mir]. The “Russian World” ideology holds that Russian-speaking territories outside Russia’s borders form a social totality with Russia through shared history, traditions, and culture. This ideology also acts as the justification for the current escalation of the war, a war that asserts that Russian-speaking Ukraine does not exist as a distinct cultural space from Russia.

What the history of Hughesovka, and the many other foreigner-financed industrial settlements across Donbas show, however, is that this ideology is built on faulty historical foundations. Russian history and culture do form part of the cultural fabric of Donbas, but so do British, German, Dutch, French, American, and, most importantly, Ukrainian history and culture. Russian was spoken in this region for the same reason that English was spoken in the industrialised Valleys in South Wales in that industrial regions tend to attract labourers from many different countries and therefore, many language cultures come together and interact. 

European heritage

Since the outbreak of war in the Ukrainian East in 2014, there has been a growing interest in the “European heritage” of Donbas, in part as a form of resistance to the Russia-sponsored narrative of the region as an integral part of the “Russian World.” In 2022, for example, a documentary film directed by Kornyi Hrytsyuk will be released, exploring the influence of European capital and technology on the region’s development. 

While it is tempting to celebrate Donbas’s historical links with Europe without criticism, particularly in light of Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine, we must remember that this relationship was not harmonious. It is one that involved human and environmental exploitation that benefitted European and Russian elites disproportionately at the expense of local lives and ecologies.

Teaching Resources

In this set of teaching resources, we aim to introduce high school pupils to the history of Welsh migration to Ukraine. This topic is still woefully underexplored in the national curriculum. At the same time, we have tried not to romanticise Welsh interactions with the Ukrainian East but to explore the inequalities, exploitations, and complex legacies that characterise this history.


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