This illegal coal mine in Shahtersk, eastern Ukraine, is in an open field in plain sight. The miners who work here say authorities don’t interfere with it because a high-ranking security official in the region owns it.
Illicit mining began in earnest after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Newly independent Ukrainians struggling without the massive infrastructure of the USSR dug small holes in the ground to retrieve coal to heat their homes. Organized crime rings and corrupt opportunistic businessmen soon spotted it as a lucrative opportunity and took over the industry, running operations with terrible working conditions and safety standards that are questionable at best.
Experts have warned that after annexing Crimea, Moscow has set its sights on eastern Ukraine, one of the USSR’s biggest economic contributors until communism collapsed in 1991. Russia has been accused of provoking tensions in this part of the country, which is home to many pro-Russian separatists hostile to the central government in Kiev.
Here, Vovka – who would not provide his last name – checks the support beams that hold the mine shaft together before he starts his eight-hour shift.
“I want stability,” said the father of four, explaining that he supports neither Ukraine nor Russia. “I just want to support my family and feed my children and this is the only available work in this region.”
"If this part of Ukraine becomes Russia, things will improve, but not for us,” Vovka said. “The Russians will own the mines and they will benefit."
As for Ukraine, losing the “resource base” of the east would be disastrous, analysts say.
"The remaining part – the northern and the western part of the country – is not economically strong," said Mark Almond, a historian and communism expert at Oxford University.
"If the government in Kiev lost control – which it has in Crimea and parts of the east – the sustainability of Ukraine would be very tough, even with Western aid. Ukraine as a country and as a society would suffer."
The rickety equipment is from Soviet days. Two months ago a friend at another illegal mine was killed when the steel cable attached to his “boat” snapped, sending him plunging to his death.
Since these mines are illegal and unregulated, families of miners injured or killed on the job are not entitled to compensation or pensions from the state or mine-owner.
In the ongoing tensions between Russia and Ukraine, Ivanov takes the Russian side.
“Mining conditions in Russia are a lot better than they are in Ukraine. I have friends in Russia who are miners and who live a lot better than me,” he said. “If war starts, there will not be work, so I will fight on the Russian side.”
“It is dangerous and hard work, but I need the money,” he said.
Ivanov, who has a 7-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter, wants to work in a legal mine, but he says they don’t hire people his age anymore. “They want younger and stronger people.”
“I started doing this for the money,” Fedunov said, adding that he does not take sides in the Russia-Ukraine crisis. “I do not think about taking sides. I only want stability.”
“I want to work in a legal mine to get a pension when I am old,” he said. “But I need to pay the officials about $1,500 to get a job there and I don’t have that kind of money.”
Experts say Putin is wary of Ukraine becoming too successful and independent.
“If Ukraine resolves corruption issues, it has the potential to become one of the most growing economies,” said Andy Hunder, an analyst at the London-based Ukraine Institute. “Putin does not want to see that because it could start demonstrations in Russia.”
A small black dog keeps the miners company, hanging around the outside of the mine and eating scraps that they bring from home. They named it “Druzok,” which means “friend.”