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God Save The Queen — And Donetsk, Too?

A Welsh iron and steel magnate, John Hughes, founded Donetsk, Ukraine, in the mid-19th century. The city continues to be a center of mining and steel production.
Oleg Nikishin
Getty Images
A Welsh iron and steel magnate, John Hughes, founded Donetsk, Ukraine, in the mid-19th century. The city continues to be a center of mining and steel production.

The eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk has been the center of a standoff since Sunday, with demonstrators pleading for the city to join Russia, while government leaders insist it will remain part of Ukraine.

In the midst of this tug-of-war, there's a third country that may have a claim on the city — though admittedly, a much looser one.

"God Save The Queen" isn't just the British national anthem, it's also the name of a campaign to bring Donetsk under the sheltering wing of Her Majesty's United Kingdom.

(You read that correctly: the UK. Stay with us here.)

Yevgeni Bilous started the campaign as a joke, on the Russian equivalent of Facebook. His digital petition said Donetsk must hold a referendum on whether to join Great Britain. The initiative caught fire online, as he explained to a local Ukrainian TV channel.

"A lot of people in the comments joked, 'Yes we are Englishmen! Russians and Ukrainians oppress us!' A few people took it seriously," he said. "They wrote, 'What are you smoking? This author was paid by someone!' But I want to tell you that I do not smoke, and nobody paid me."

But it wasn't just a random choice. The tongue-in-cheek movement has its roots in local history: Donetsk was founded in the mid-1800s by a Welsh iron and steel magnate named John Hughes. In fact, Yuzovka was the name of this city before it was called Donetsk. (In Russian, "Yuz" sounds pretty close to "Hughes.")

To this day, Donetsk is a center of mining and steel production, and signs of the Hughes legacy are all over town.

"It's really interesting to go to a city in the far east of Ukraine and to see a statue of a Welsh man," says Chrystyna Shymera. She is part of a movement in London called London Euromaidan that organizes protests against Russia's actions in Ukraine.

If Russia can annex the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine, says Shymera, well then why shouldn't the UK claim Donetsk?

"I think it opens people's eyes to the ridiculousness of Russia's claim over parts of Ukraine," she says.

To be fair, eastern Ukraine does have far stronger ties with Russia than Donetsk has with Wales. People here speak Russian, and they were part of the Soviet Union until the USSR collapsed in 1991. There is an authentic affinity with Russia among many people in Donetsk.

The statue of John Hughes — cast in iron, naturally — oversees downtown Donetsk.
Ari Shapiro / NPR
The statue of John Hughes — cast in iron, naturally — oversees downtown Donetsk.

An affinity with Britain is a little tougher to find.

The statue of John Hughes, cast in iron, stands proudly in the center of Donetsk. One hand is on his hip, and the other holds a hammer resting on an anvil. He wears a 19th-century waistcoat, with a high collared shirt and a beard.

Kate Kozhnitzova walks by. Does she know who this man is?

She replies cautiously: "It's Lenin." She laughs.

Nope, John Hughes.

"Yes, of course," she says. "He's the founder of our city."

Kozhnitzova mulls over the idea of becoming a British citizen.

"It would be great," she concludes. "Ukraine wants to have Donetsk! Russia and the United Kingdom! I would be an English citizen, why not?"

A college science teacher named Pavel Volvenko strolls past. He's well versed in the history of Hughes and says this kind of ridiculous campaign is exactly what Donetsk needs right now: "Because humor can defuse tensions, and help us avoid conflict."

Volvenko says he has no desire to be a British citizen. He just wants to be a citizen of Ukraine, with the freedom to travel to Europe, and America, with more opportunities to communicate.

And where does the British government stand on this crucial international relations issue?

"We're flattered that Donetsk wants to join this small island," a government spokesperson said when asked for comment. "But we've no intention of annexing you, and the referendum we're all focused on is to keep Scotland as part of the UK."

And that digital "God Save The Queen" campaign? Organizer Yevgeni Bilous tells us it was shut down. It was deemed to be anti-Russian.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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