Donbass Stories

By Giorgio Bianchi

Several tens of thousands of dead and wounded, over a million refugees. The civil war in Donbass has literally erased entire cities and villages from the map, staining with blood the soil of the European continent for the first time in the twenty-first century.

These are two chapters – Alina and Blind Pit – of my Donbass Stories,  which came to life with the idea to portray as main characters those invisible actors affected by the civil war in that region.


Despite power cuts, a shutdown of all businesses, curfews, and nearly daily shelling, residents of the rebel-held city of Donetsk flock to the Opera and Ballet Theater on weekends in search of respite from the reality of life within a battle zone. When war broke out around a third of the theater’s performers fled, including key singers and all four of its conductors. A further setback occurred when a wayward missile destroyed the warehouse where most of the stage sets were stored.

The opera house was forced to close in July 2015 because of heavy clashes, then it recruited new staff and was again operative the following September. Despite the ongoing hostilities and challenging circumstances, audience figures at the 960-seat theater have been impressive since its reopening. In the ground floor cloakroom, camouflage military jackets hang among civilian furs and overcoats.

Alina is a professional dancer from Donetsk and a member of the Donbass Opera and Ballet Theatre chorus. She has been studying at the theatre academy since she was a girl and throughout the entire war period she has continued to dance, convinced that keeping performances alive was one of the few ways to make sure the inhabitants of her city would not think about the horrors of war, if only for a few hours.

The rhythm of Alina’s life follows the timings of the theater: from Tuesday to Friday she has ballet lessons and rehearsals, on Saturday and Sunday the performances; Monday is the only day off the performers have and she goes to visit her maternal grandparents with whom she is very close, or she meets up with her ballet girlfriends to take a walk around town or go to the disco. Even if she doesn’t intend to leave her hometown at the moment, she doesn’t rule out the possibility of moving to Russia in case of an escalation of the war.

Blind Pit: The Story of Sasha

Sasha is a sightless 31-year-old miner. He works in one of the many independent (kopanki) mines located around the small town of Torez. Raised with three brothers in a dysfunctional family, Sasha lost his sight when he was 11, because of a very bad accident.
After a long cohabitation, he married Evgenija (Genia), who had two children – Valerija (15) and Alexander (11) – from a previous marriage. One year ago their third child, Anja, was born. Due to the conflict, the zootechnical farm where they both worked closed down, leaving all the workers without jobs. Because of the economic crisis resulting from the war, many people from the area were forced to choose between joining the separatist militias and trying to get hired at one of the dozens independent coal mines surrounding the city of Torez.
Nonetheless, Sasha remained unemployed for a long time, because nobody would trust hiring a blind man – least of all mine managers – even if his determination and high productivity were widely known. Then, one day he met a Tartar called Ildar, owner of a kopanko, who offered him a job. Since then, Sasha has gone to the mine every day, at 6:30 a.m., led by his father, a miner as well, and goes back home eight hours later with his wife, or one of his elder children. From his house to the mine it’s a 30-minute walk, through fields and woods.
The mine where Sasha works is a thick net of underground tunnels that are never higher than 4 feet and in some places are less than 1.6 feet. These tunnels run under a small natural pond and go as deep as 300 yards. This means that in many places the mine is flooded, which makes it even harder for Sasha and his colleagues to reach the mineral vein. Sasha can go down the mineshaft as quickly and as nimbly as his colleagues. Despite his disability, he has learned to navigate confidently the underground maze, to avoid obstacles and to dodge dangers posed by the uneven beams of the roof, the puddles of water, the slippery clay and the extraction devices placed along the path. His mental map of the mine is made of a continuous flow of sensations that take him, one orderly step after another, to the mine’s core. Sasha’s task is to pour with a shovel the coal, that’s been broken to pieces with a jackhammer, into steel tanks that will bring it to the surface. Sqeezed in a cavity less than 15 feet high, surrounded by the deafening noise of pneumatic drills, covered with coal powder, and immersed in total darkness, made even deeper by his blindness. Accidents are extremely frequent, as it’s well known despite the fact that there are no available official statistics; in the same fashion, there is no available documentation regarding the disease and mortality incidence – well above national average  – among miners due to poor working conditions. Nonetheless, kopankas remain the only source of income for thousands of families.
According to specialists who have visited him through the years, Sasha’s blindness is reversible and could be cured with a corneal transplant. Recently, Sasha has decided to go for the surgery that could help him regain his sight. He and his wife went to the Fyodorov clinics, in Krasnodar and then in Moscow, to undergo preoperative testing. Unfortunately, his healing process is slow and full of uncertainties because of the high cost of the treatment. Maybe one day, upon exiting the mine, Sasha will be able to smile along with his collegues, on seeing the sunlight again, after eight hours spent in darkness.
With director Federico Schiavi, Bianchi is working to create a documentary from Sasha’s story. In order to maintain maximum independence and freedom of movement, they are running a crowdfunding campaign to raise the necessary funds to develop this work. 


Giorgio Bianchi is an Italian photojournalist, documentarist, writer and filmmaker (Rome in 1973). In his work Giorgio has always paid particular attention to political and anthropological issues, and has undertaken a freelance career to focus on a combination of long-term personal projects and client assignments.  He has covered stories in Syria, Ukraine, Burkina Faso, Vietnam, Myanmar, Nepal, India, and throughout all of Europe.  

Since 2013, he has made several trips to Ukraine, where he followed closely the Ukrainian crisis from the Euromaidan protests until the outbreak of war between the government army and the pro-Russian separatists.  Thanks to his robust archive of footage and pictures about the Donbass conflict he is making a documentary film entitled “Apocalypse Donbass”. In 2016 he started covering the Syrian conflict. 

Giorgio has won several international prizes and has received many public recognitions, and his pictures are regularly published in newspapers and magazines, both paper and online.  His work has been exhibited in many international and national festivals. 

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2 thoughts on “Donbass Stories | By Giorgio Bianchi”

  1. Pingback: Semana Fotográfica, ed. XXIII (23 a 31 de maio, 2020) - EFEcetera

  2. Content aside, these are masterful photographs, consistent style, consistent colour palette, beautiful composition, beautiful but not intrusive post processing. This is classic work. I’m very impressed. I’d so love to see this work on paper rather than my computer screen.
    It somehow begs the question about the whole concept of making beautiful photographs of difficult subjects. Would a more “edgy” style be more appropriate? What is the intent? What are we trying to say? Would a Eugene Richards approach be more effective than the more classic Eugene Smith approach we see here? So many questions. On one hand, I’m distracted by the beauty of the images. Should we be making beautiful images of difficult realities?
    Congratulations Giorgio. I love this.

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