Inside Ukraine’s Illegal Mines

Deep under the black soil of eastern Ukraine lays a rich natural treasure: coal. But the miners who toil for it in illegal pits dotting the landscape are far from rolling in wealth – and as their country spars with Russia over its people’s loyalties, these workers sit on the sidelines.

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.

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Vovka, short for Vladimir, is 32 years old and has been an illegal coal miner since he was 18, although he only started at this mine in January. He is from Shahtersk in the heart of Ukraine’s coal-rich eastern Donbas region, where this mine is located.

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.”

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Vovka smokes a cigarette just before descending into the depths. Many of the illegal mines have shut down in recent months amid tensions between Ukraine and Russia, as owners wait to see what happens and where their fortunes will lie.

"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."

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Vovka and fellow miner Sergei Ivanov curl up in a canoe-like vessel they call “the boat,” which carries them 390 feet below ground. In one shift at Shahtersk they dig out 15-20 “boat” loads of coal, earning them the equivalent of about $3 per load between them, they say.

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.

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Sergei Ivanov, 40, has worked in six illegal mines over 17 years. He blames the Ukrainian government for his living conditions. “I don’t like the government in Kiev,” he said.

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.”

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Ivanov carries out what he calls a “safety inspection,” checking the timbers that hold up the mine shaft. One of the support beams by his head is clearly snapped in half.

“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.”

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Max Fedunov, 17, comes from a family of miners. He lives with his grandfather in Shahtersk, and started working in illegal mines when he was 14. His duties remain at surface level for now – unloading coal from the “boats” as they are pulled back up to the ground, for example.

“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.”

Ghazi Balkiz

Fedunov doesn’t like working in an illegal operation, but he says he would need to pay a bribe in order to secure legitimate work.

“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.”

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A pile of dirty mining clothes sits outside the entrance to the illegal mine in Shahtersk. The blackened overalls, heavy jackets and trousers are all used again and again.

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.”

-Ghazi Balkiz

Ghazi Balkiz / NBC News