Donetsk, in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, is today renowned as a disputed territory, claimed by Ukraine but simultaneously self-proclaimed as part of a separatist state. It is a less well-known fact that Donetsk emerged in 1870 as a Welsh industrial exclave called Yuzovka, sometimes also spelt Hughesovka.
Whilst the Industrial Revolution had been in full swing since the late 18th century in much of Western Europe, in 1869 the Russian Empire was lagging severely behind. In need of economic development and military parity, the Russians looked to British industry for a man to jump-start their industrial output. That man was John Hughes.
Born in 1814, Hughes was the son of an engineer from Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, and hence an unlikely person to play a significant role in Ukrainian history. Nonetheless, this entrepreneurial metallurgist found his way to the Donbass, purchasing a concession of land near the northern shore of the Sea of Azov.
Here’s the unlikely story of the Welsh industrial exclave of Yuzovka.
New opportunities on the steppe
When Hughes purchased the land, it was an underdeveloped part of the Russian Empire. Less than a hundred years earlier, it had been virgin steppe, a vast grassland sea home to the Cossacks of the Zaporizhian Sich.
But Hughes realised its potential for industry, with its recently unearthed coal fields and easy access to the sea, and quickly set about establishing the ‘New Russia Company Ltd’ in 1869. Within a year Hughes made the move to Ukraine.
Not one to commit half-heartedly to a project, he was accompanied by eight ships, around a hundred skilled labourers from the South Wales ironworks, and enough equipment to commence works.
Better than home
The town Hughes founded, named Hughesovka or Yuzovka in his honour, grew rapidly from waves of migration from Wales, as well as the Russian heartland. This influx of ethnic Russians, as opposed to Ukrainians, would inadvertently contribute to territorial disputes in the 21st century, due to the population of ethnic Russians calling the Ukrainian region home.
Hughes set up home in a palatial house in the settlement and began expanding his industrial concerns to brickworks, railways and coal mines. Mines were vital: given its isolated location, Yuzovka would require self-sufficiency.
With an Anglican church, hospital and school – all provided by Hughes – Yuzovka had all the trappings of an industrial town in Britain. Life could be hard, though often better than that they had left behind.
Merthyr Tydfil was at the time one of the epicentres of industry in the British Empire, renowned as much for its industrial output as its horrendous overcrowding and living conditions. The district known as ‘China’ was synonymous with lawlessness and depravity, with over a thousand people crammed into ‘Little Hell’. It is unsurprising that so many jumped at the opportunity to follow Hughes on his new endeavour in Ukraine.
Yuzovka after Hughes
Hughes died in 1889, and his body was returned to the UK. But the family remained in charge of the business with his sons taking charge. The company went from strength to strength, becoming easily the largest ironworks in the Russian Empire, producing nearly three-quarters of the total of Russian iron by the eve of World War Two.
However, this little corner of South Wales in Ukraine was not to survive the Russian Revolution.
The Welsh exodus
The Bolshevik takeover of Russia in 1917 triggered a mass exodus of Welsh and foreign workers from Yuzovka, and the nationalisation of the company by the new Soviet government. However, Yuzovka – or Stalino as it was renamed in 1924 in honour of Joseph Stalin – remained a centre for industry and coal mining until the present day, expanding to a population of almost a million people.
Yuzovka took on its present incarnation as Donetsk in 1961 during the de-Stalinisation process initiated by Nikita Khrushchev, who had himself started his career as a teenager working as a metal-fitter and political agitator in Yuzovka.
Whilst the Welsh expatriate community in Donetsk is all but a distant memory, Hughes is still prominent in Donetsk’s cultural memory. The local football team Shakhtar Donetsk still pay tribute to the Hughes ironworks in their logo.
A large statue of him, erected since Ukrainian independence, stands on Artema Street, and the ruins of Hughes’ house are still visible.
Prior to the escalation of tensions in the region in 2014, there was regular contact between Donetsk and Welsh politicians, with proposals for a museum dedicated to Hughes drafted.
When the 2014 conflict broke out, some residents of the city even commenced a tongue-in-cheek campaign to join the UK, demanding to return “Yuzovka to its historical fold as part of the UK! Glory to John Hughes and his city!” The Welshman in Ukraine is still fondly remembered in the city he founded.