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Pirate version of Donetsk: Ukrainian woman told how she went to her hometown, where she lived before the war

The self-proclaimed republics of the "LPR" and "DPR" are almost completely closed to independent journalists, both from Ukraine and Russia. As a result, nothing is known about how things are now in everyday life among local residents. Special for publication with the BBC a former Donetsk resident, now living in Kiev, spoke about his trip to his hometown and what has changed there. Further - from the first person (anonymously).

Photo: Shutterstock

Route to nowhere

On a Saturday afternoon, an inconspicuous-looking minibus departs from McDonald's on the square near the railway station in Kiev - there are dozens of them.

Unlike the cars standing nearby with signs "Zhytomyr", "Vinnitsa", "Bila Tserkva", the route of this bus is not indicated. Passengers will find it by the license plate and the name of the driver, which the operator informs in advance when booking a trip by phone.

This is irregular transportation in the truest sense of the word. People who load their travel bags into the trunk and settle in with pillows around their necks in the cabin do not know exactly how long they will spend on the road, what route they will take, and how much the trip will cost.

The driver is reluctant to answer such questions, and no one wants to make him nervous. Ahead of almost two thousand kilometers and four customs.

We are going to Donetsk. Once in a past life, such a journey took a night in a comfortable compartment of the branded Donbass train. In the old fashioned way, many called him "Ear".

Now we will spend 27-30 hours on the road, it is likely that more. During this time, you can get from Europe to New Zealand.

We will have to present several passports at the border control, indicate different purposes of travel and monitor what language you speak with the customs officer.

We have to leave one country, drive through another and enter a territory that no longer has a single designation on the maps.

This is unrecognized territory.

Four customs and several passports

Since the beginning of the pandemic, travel to the occupied territory of the Donetsk region through the demarcation line has become almost impossible.

Checkpoints on both sides were closed in March 2020, when the first quarantine began in Ukraine. Three months later, the Ukrainian authorities opened first two, and then the rest of the checkpoints. But from the side of the territory controlled by the militants, only two points resumed work.

One is near Stanitsa Luhanska, through which you can drive once a month to the “LPR”. And the second one is near Yelenovka, which is 30 km from Donetsk. This is the only point through which it is possible to get into the "DPR" from the territory controlled by Kiev.

It opens twice a week, and in order to use it, you need to obtain a special permit from the "Headquarters of the Donetsk People's Republic." You have to wait a long time, and in most cases they refuse to pass.

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Data on the website of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees shows that before the checkpoints were closed, between one and two million people crossed the demarcation line every month, but now it is no more than 50. Of these, only two thousand people pass through Yelenovka.

The only way to get to Donetsk from the territory controlled by Ukraine was private transportation to a detour - through Russia. They make a detour a thousand kilometers long and cross two borders - first between Ukraine and Russia, then between Russia and the “DPR”.

The cost of such a one-way trip from Kiev to Donetsk averages 2900 hryvnia (a little over $100) – about four to five times more than it used to be by train.

In addition to the exorbitant price and tiring road, such trips also violate the law.

Citizens of Ukraine are prohibited from crossing the uncontrolled section of the Russian-Ukrainian border in the region of the unrecognized republics, and until recently a fine was provided for violating this rule. Now it has been canceled, but the ban remains.

On the border between Ukraine and Russia, it is difficult to check where our bus is going. When asked by passengers what to say to the border guards and the customs officer, our driver Andrey cheerfully answers: “Say that we are going to Belgorod. To the wedding."

We enter Russia with an internal Ukrainian passport and present it at the border of the “DPR”. The passport is not stamped.

A Ukrainian passport must have a Donetsk residence permit, without it they will not be allowed into the uncontrolled territory.

Residents of the unrecognized territory can cross the border between the "Donetsk people's republic" and Russia, which is not controlled by Ukraine, with passports of the "DPR" or the Russian Federation.

Before the first checkpoint near Kharkiv, Andrey places rolled-up Ukrainian banknotes on the dashboard next to packs of cigarettes and cans of energy drinks. At the entrance to the checkpoint, the driver greets Ukrainian border guards by the hand.

At the Ukrainian and Russian customs, we spend about three hours. People shift from foot to foot from the cold. Customs officers move clumsily in winter camouflage and fur earflaps.

Conversation with the MGB

Andrei will take us only through one border. Another car is already waiting for us at a gas station near Belgorod. She brought people from the uncontrolled territory and will soon take us there.

While the passengers are heading for the long-awaited coffee and to the toilet, the drivers are transferring things from our minibus with Ukrainian numbers to the minibus with “DPR” license plates. Connecting flight suitcases move in the opposite direction.

Once again on this trip, the thought of our resemblance to illegal immigrants visits me.

Drivers Andrey and Dima quickly smoke a cigarette, exchange the situation at customs, shake hands and get behind the wheel. Andrei, with a new batch of passengers, turns around and returns to the Russian-Ukrainian border, which we have just crossed.

Andriy is not allowed to enter the territory not controlled by Kiev.

Dima will have to drive a thousand kilometers back from Belgorod to Donetsk. With the license plates of the unrecognized republic, he also cannot enter Ukraine.

The driver has been driving for more than a day. To my question, how can this be physically endured, he laughs - his wife has been asking him for a month to re-paste the wallpaper in the corridor, so he is in a hurry to go home.

We drive along the M-4 highway connecting Moscow with the southern cities of Russia, by noon the next day we reach the Rostov region and turn towards Novoazovsk.

A strip of the Sea of ​​Azov is visible on the horizon, next to it is the Khomutovskaya steppe with Scythian burial mounds, stone graves and constant dry winds.

We enter the checkpoint of the self-proclaimed "DNR".

Near the barrier there is a shield with the inscription "Donetsk People's Republic" in three languages: Russian, English and Ukrainian - on a black-blue-red background.

Despite the appearance of sheds and booths, the checkpoint is not much different from the spontaneous checkpoints, fortified with sandbags, that arose here in the first months of clashes.

They collect our passports and ask us to stay on the bus. After a while, the documents are returned to everyone except me. My name is announced loudly and told to go to the next trailer.

“Don't worry, the MGB will ask a couple of questions,” driver Dima reassures.

Inside a dimly lit, plastic-lined cubicle, there is a table with an old computer monitor and a chair on which I sit. At the table, a man in a leather jacket with a competent speech and a piercing look.

Addressing me by name and patronymic, he briefly asks questions: how old, where do I live, where do I work, where do I go, how often do I visit the territory of the “DPR” and when was the last time. I answer just as briefly and clearly, trying not to look away.

Dima says that sometimes they also ask who grandfather fought for, they can check the photos on the phone and calls to frequent numbers, they ask me to show my accounts on social networks, but I think I was lucky.

With my return to the bus, the passengers exhale and visibly perk up despite their fatigue. On the sign - 120 km to Donetsk, we are almost on target and even met the minimum 27 hours.

Outside the window, landscapes familiar from childhood along the road to the Sea of ​​Azov, but the toponyms have acquired a different meaning - we are passing Ilovaisk.

Here, in August 2014, there were some of the fiercest battles between the Ukrainian military and separatists. Those battles largely influenced how the line of demarcation in the Donbass will become for years to come.

At the exit from Ilovaisk, there is a concrete pedestal with a truck of the Russian “humanitarian convoy” – columns of such vehicles came here in the summer of 2014.

According to the assurances of the Russian side, there was humanitarian aid, but the Ukrainian side did not rule out that there could be weapons in the cars. On the pedestal there is an inscription - "From the grateful residents of the DPR."

I am at home, but I no longer have it.

Is there life after the euro

The center of Donetsk still boasts the beauty of the 2012 European Football Championship.

Then a new airport appeared in the city, the railway station was completely rebuilt, hotels were restored and roads were repaired.

Bicycle paths with carefully arranged curb slopes ran in a dotted line along the main Artem Street, and public utilities looked after the flower beds even at night.

When French, English, Spanish and Portuguese fans filled the streets on match days, the illusion of a cheerful European city was incredibly plausible.

It was hard to imagine that the then common joke “Is there life after the Euro” would become a prophecy that would come true in just two years.

Alien hometown

I take to the streets of the city where I was born and lived all my conscious life. Houses, courtyards, squares are filled with memories from early childhood to the last days before leaving in July 2014.

However, now I feel like a tourist here, the heroine of a fantastic story, who flew in a time machine into the past, and when she returned, she found that everything had changed beyond recognition.

Billboards with portraits of militants and symbols of the new government have created another reality on top of familiar urban landscapes - alien and absurd.

To get back in touch with the familiar world, I take out my cell phone and check if I can make a call. The Ukrainian operator "Vodafone" is still working, although it is not possible to get through immediately and the conversation is interrupted several times.

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Many residents of Donetsk still have valid numbers of the Ukrainian operator, because mobile communication with Ukraine is possible only through it. You can replenish your account on the Internet or with the help of numerous intermediaries. Previously, before the checkpoints were closed, SIM cards were replenished when they left for the territory controlled by Kiev.

However, it is now possible to call landline numbers, call a taxi or order movers only via the local Phoenix mobile connection. It works just as badly as Vodafone.

"Phoenix" was created on the capacities of the Ukrainian operator "Kyivstar" seized by the separatists. From it you can call to Russia and connect to the Internet, but there is no connection with Ukraine.

To buy a Phoenix SIM card, you need to present your passport and TIN, the price of a starter package for a month starts from 120 Russian rubles.

Along Artem street

I decide to follow my old walking route - from the former main institute of the coal industry of the Soviet Union to the pride of pre-war Donetsk - the football Donbass Arena, where the Shakhtar club played and Euro 2012 matches were held.

The gloomy majestic building of the DonUGI in the style of Stalin's empire now houses the Ministry of Revenue and Duties of the "republic". Among the still well-groomed flowerbeds and markings on the main street of Artyom, boarded-up shops, abandoned coffee houses and grassy playgrounds are unexpectedly striking.

Tennis courts of the sports complex "Locomotive" near the "Olympic" overgrown with bushes in human growth. The White Swan shopping center and the adjacent BUM supermarket are closed - they have turned into ghostly giants.

White Lebed was the largest department store in Donetsk, housing costume jewelry, haberdashery, shoes and household appliances, and has not opened since May 2014. There is still a sign at the entrance saying "The department store is temporarily closed."

The paths around the stadium and the Victoria Park adjacent to it were a favorite place for residents of the city to relax. Now the lawns are covered with withered grass. Only the facade of the arena itself has been restored, and in the evenings they even turn on neon lights. The $400 million stadium is now the backdrop for selfies by the occasional youth strolling through.

All construction projects in the city that were not completed by 2014 also froze.

One of the oldest hotels in Donetsk and the first ten-story building in the city, the Ukraina Hotel, is in disrepair. Its restoration was not completed by Euro 2012, according to rumors, due to problems with the foundation.

Then the facade was covered with a huge banner with the symbols of Euro 2012, which remained on the building for several more years. The hotel is still empty.

Next to it is a monument to Taras Shevchenko. Here, at the end of 2013, the Donetsk Euromaidan gathered, which demanded the resignation of Viktor Yanukovych. And already in the spring of 2014, barricades of militants were erected in front of the captured building of the Donetsk Regional Administration.

Pushkin Boulevard begins from the city administration building, on which all the secular and cultural life of the city is now concentrated. People sit in cafes and restaurants, fountains work. On the posters of the drama and opera theaters located nearby, there are performances by Russian troupes. They say that you need to buy tickets for a few months - sold out theaters. The Shevchenko cinema is showing a current American blockbuster.

This part of the city has not changed much since pre-war times. The usual respectable Donetsk public walks here, many expensive cars are parked. Only occasionally on the doors of shops and cafes come across signs with a crossed-out pistol or the inscription "Leave weapons here."

There are a lot of people in uniform on the streets, in transport and at bus stops you can see announcements calling to join the ranks of the "People's Militia of the DPR". The Putilovka district in the north-west of the city and the Oktyabrsky settlement contrast sharply with the center. They suffered the most during the battles for the Donetsk airport.

Entire neighborhoods were deserted there, there were holes in the walls of houses from shells, windows with glass shattered from explosions were boarded up with boards. There are traces of mortar attacks on buildings located much closer to the center, for example, on Chelyuskintsev Street near the Museum of Local Lore - not far from the Donbass Arena.

Some houses have been restored, others are gradually being destroyed.

During the day, there are no less pedestrians and cars in the city than in pre-war times. However, in the evening the streets die out. Cafes are open until 22.00.

People rush to go home before the curfew, which lasts from 23:00 to 05:00. Already at 23:05 p.m., there is a serious risk of getting into the police station and sitting there all night in the company of those who went out in slippers to get beer or take out the trash - and did not reach the entrance.

"Live free, act according to your conscience"

Billboards with portraits of militants, graffiti with the symbols of Novorossia, flags and emblems of the unrecognized republic and Russia create a completely different space than before.

Billboards with statements by the former head of the "DNR" Alexander Zakharchenko and militant Arsen "Motorola" Pavlov hang along the streets at every step. These are quotes like: "We are building a just society of free and equal people" or "Live free, act according to your conscience."

Just a few kilometers from the city center, there is a prison on the site of the former Izolyatsia cultural center. There, according to the testimonies of surviving prisoners, among whom, for example, Ukrainian journalist and writer Stanislav Aseev, people are detained, tortured and executed without trial. Among the modern inhabitants of the city, many do not believe in the existence of this prison (or do not want to believe).

The slogans “Our choice is Russia” and “We are the Russian Donbass” literally flooded Donetsk on the eve of the elections to the Russian State Duma in September 2021.

Residents of Ukrainian territories not controlled by Kiev were actively campaigned to take part in them. For this, bus tours were organized to polling stations in Rostov, and those who had already received a Russian passport could take part in electronic voting.

New heroes

There are unexpectedly many new monuments on familiar streets. Most of them are individuals related to Russian and Soviet history, but not connected with Donetsk in any way: for example, Tsarevich Alexei or World War II hero General Ivan Panfilov.

Near the monument "To the Liberators of Donbass" to the heroes of World War II, an alley of "heroes of the Donetsk People's Republic" was broken.

Busts of Alexander Zakharchenko, singer Iosif Kobzon and militants - Motorola, Givi and Mamai appeared in turn on black marble pedestals.

Only one of them was born and lived his life in Donetsk - an electrician and a businessman, and then the head of the "DPR" Alexander Zakharchenko. The Russians Arsen Pavlov with the call sign "Motorola" and Oleg Mamiev ("Mamai") ​​until 2014 had nothing to do with the Donbass.

Zakharchenko died in an assassination attempt in August 2018 in a cafe called "Separ" (that is, a separatist) on Pushkin Boulevard. It is still not clear who organized the murder: the authorities of the "DPR" and Kiev adhere to mutually exclusive versions.

There is now a memorial at the site of the murder. People bring flowers and soft toys to Zakhar, as Donetsk residents call him, and dedicate poems. According to many, life under him was better than under the current government - "prices are lower, and there is more order in the city."

"MasterSport" and "tincture of whiskey"

Flags, coats of arms and other symbols of the unrecognized republic are literally everywhere - from coupons in transport and shop signs to stripes on jeans; You can even get a matching manicure.

The words “republican” and “people's” have become obsessive labels: supermarkets and banks are “republican”, goods are “made in the DPR”, even children are referred to as “born in the DPR”.

The Kinokult cinema, where we went to watch Woody Allen retrospectives or art-house movies before the war, is now called the Republican House of Folk Art and Cinema.

All former Ukrainian and international chains of stores were also rebranded.

The supermarket of the Ukrainian chain ATB has turned into the "First Republican", the stores of the Amstor chain have become "Hercules". Most of the new names are consonant with the old ones: "Varus" became "Sail", the sportswear store "Sportmaster" is now "MasterSport", and the seller of household appliances "Foxtrot" is simply "Fox".

Expensive neon and designer signs on storefronts have been replaced in many places with budget-friendly large-format printing. It quickly fades in the sun and wears out from the weather.

Chains of brand stores such as Benetton, Nike, Zara or Adidas no longer exist in Donetsk. Clothes and shoes are mostly sold in small shops from the 1990s or more expensive - they are filled with goods from Turkey or Milan sales.

The same assortment is offered by the preserved shopping centers, for example, Donetsk City, Continent or Golden Ring near the South Bus Station. A large Chinese-made youth clothing store, Like, opened in place of Sportmaster near Detsky Mir.

Salons of expensive fashion brands, located along the main street of the city - Artyom, are closed. Many of the old signs remained, the windows boarded up with boards. Renting their premises is expensive.

To get dressed, buy household appliances and other things necessary for a modern person, young people and wealthy people go to Rostov, the rest go to the market.

Before the pandemic, many ordered goods online from Ukraine to the nearest post office from the demarcation line. From there, the parcel was picked up by a courier and brought through checkpoints to Donetsk. The delivery of a small parcel weighing up to 3 kg then cost 300 hryvnia (almost $11). With the closure of the checkpoint, it has become more difficult to buy things in this way.

Now, as a friend says, every two or three months she goes with her husband or mother to Rostov, books a hotel there for a few nights and goes shopping in the city.

Donetsk residents also go to Russian cities for quality medical care, if, of course, finances allow.

The prices for ordinary products in the supermarket are approximately the same as in the Ukrainian capital, if you convert them into hryvnias, but it is difficult to find good quality food in the middle price segment - there is practically no choice.

The shelves are stocked mostly with alcohol and snacks. Almost all products are Russian-made, cheeses are brought from Belarus.

Among imported goods, counterfeit goods can often be found. For example, in the alcohol department of Sails, one of the city's central supermarkets, Black and Red Daniels drinks are sold.

The labels on the bottles imitate a well-known brand of whiskey, but on the price tag the inscription is “whiskey tincture”. Such a drink costs 175 rubles, 10 times cheaper than the original Jack Daniels standing next to it.

Bank card of the "electronic wallet" system

Since the end of 2015, the Russian ruble has become the currency in the “republics”.

Back in the fall of 2014, the “DPR” created the so-called “central republican bank”. Branches were placed in the seized premises of Ukrainian banks.

On the facade of the Ukreximbank building for a long time there was a trace of the letters UKR, on another building the sign "Central Republican Bank" was pasted with adhesive tape directly on the green brand colors of the Ukrainian Privatbank.

The "Central Republican Bank" has issued its own cards, but their functionality is limited. As explained on the website of the “bank” itself, this is a kind of electronic wallet through which you can replenish your account, pay in large supermarkets and withdraw money from an ATM.

These cards are used to pay salaries to state employees, and to pensioners - pensions.

But since a full-fledged banking system does not exist here, money transfers from both the territory controlled by Ukraine and Russia are impossible. This problem is solved with the help of underground cashing.

If you need, for example, to transfer money to a relative in Donetsk from Kiev, you transfer it to the cashier's hryvnia card, and he gives the recipient cash in rubles, as a rule, at a low rate and with a 5-8% commission.

After the authorities of the "republics" actually blocked the passage through the contact line, and most people, and especially pensioners, lost the opportunity to travel to the territory controlled by Ukraine, the commission for cashing out increased.

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Now, in order to withdraw a Ukrainian pension from a card, people transfer its data to an intermediary, he transfers the required amount to his card, and takes from 15 to 20% for issuing rubles.

Housing problem

A couple of years ago, no more than half of the windows burned in the central quarters of the city in the evening. Now realtors claim that there are practically no empty apartments left in the center. They are bought up by visitors from the region or the broken outskirts of Donetsk.

Everyone who was forced to leave their home dreams of selling an apartment in the occupied territory, but few people feel joy after making a long-awaited deal.

Real estate prices fell three to four times. A three-room “Stalinka” with a good repair in the very center of the city costs less than $30. However, it is not easy to sell it either - apartments in the price range of $15-18 thousand are in demand.

Apartments are being sold with furniture and household appliances, and the supply is so much higher than demand that the buyer can literally choose the color of the wallpaper or the brand of the coffee machine.

Since 2019, the “DPR” has banned the sale of real estate by proxy. Now, in order to sell housing, the owner must personally come to the uncontrolled territory, re-register the documents for the apartment in accordance with the local "legislation", and then carry out the transaction.

Since, since 2017, transactions are no longer executed on the territory controlled by Kiev, in the Ukrainian registers, the owner remains the owner of an apartment or house sold in the “DPR” or “LPR”.

All this could create an interesting precedent if Ukraine regains the occupied territories in the future. People will begin to return home and will have the full right to the housing sold under the invalid laws of the “republics”.

If you managed to sell an apartment, the question immediately arises: how to take money and things out of here.

Semi-legal financial schemes again come to the rescue in transferring money. You transfer dollars to a certain currency exchange office in Donetsk, and your authorized person simultaneously receives them at a pre-specified exchange office in Kiev.

For such a "transfer" you will have to pay 3-4% of the amount and part with a significant number of nerve cells. It is equally difficult to find a reliable carrier who will agree to transport your items through four customs offices.

The price for the move is $1,5-2 thousand, but not everyone agrees to take it. Oversized furniture and sofas, especially books at customs, may not be allowed to pass for weeks.

It is forbidden to export stamps and souvenirs, medals and documents of your grandparents will also not be able to be taken out. The ban also includes books published before 1971, that is, more than 50 years ago, and this is the majority of collected works on the shelves of old home libraries.

Carriers say that apartment moves have become especially complicated recently. Now, in order to get through Russian customs, they take a passenger with a Russian passport with them, who will say at the border that these are his personal belongings, and if necessary, he can even name people in the family album.

Dinner at DonMak

On the evening of one of my last days in Donetsk, I meet my friend and former classmate.

I suggest that she drink coffee at McDonald's on Lenin Square. The restaurants of the global fast food chain closed in the spring of 2014. But soon, instead of three McDonald's in Donetsk, a network of cafes was opened, which survived the already familiar simple naming - DonMak.

We order a burger, fries, coffee, and sit in front of an old Firebird mosaic I remember from my childhood.

With the outward similarity of packaging and design, the taste of dishes is strikingly different from the food of a well-known fast food manufacturer.

I draw my friend's attention to the fact that there is something sham in the products on the table. And she bitterly replies: “Yes, everything is like that! Everything that was before was replaced with a low-quality fake.

“You know,” she says. “We live here in some kind of dystopia. People barely survive, and on the slogans - a great future. Do you remember how it used to be, a plane ticket to Georgia from Donetsk cost 800 hryvnias, but now a trip to Sedovo [a small resort on the Sea of ​​Azov, the only one in the uncontrolled territory] is the ultimate dream.”

“In seven years, nothing has changed in the city: there are no jobs, business is not developing. Any issue, as with a scoop, is solved with bribes,” she says. - But at the same time they are afraid of the basement. Only stories about the fact that one of the civil servants was imprisoned.”

People are busy with where to find proper food and how to dress, she says, and remarks: “It’s good that the children are small – they don’t understand yet, but they will grow up soon, and how to explain to them.”

Remembering her pro-Ukrainian position earlier, I ask her if she would like the return of Ukraine, but her friend replies evasively: “Every year I believe in it less and less. Here, the majority already have Russian passports. During the two years of the pandemic, they practically stopped traveling to Ukraine, but to Russia - all the time.”

According to her, several trips of double-decker buses with a capacity of more than 100 people depart daily from the collective farm market and travel to different cities of Russia.

Customs, unlike vehicles heading to Ukraine, they pass quickly, you can cross the border with any of three passports: internal Ukrainian, Russian or "Deneer".

Donetsk residents also go on vacation to Russia, where they dream of sending their children to study. For residents of the unrecognized republics, the Russian Federation simplifies all formalities.

Parents of minor children who have received Russian passports can now apply for maternity capital even for children born before 2014.

“This is such a widespread occupation of the brain,” sums up my interlocutor. - And many people are afraid of the arrival of Ukraine. Those who work in the structures of the “DPR” are afraid of persecution or loss of work, someone is afraid of isolation from Russia, and everyone is also afraid of the Ukrainian communal apartment.”

In the unrecognized republics, it has remained almost the same as it was before 2014, and in Ukraine since then it has grown 5-6 times.

On the clock - eight in the evening, we say goodbye in a hurry to go home. Although the curfew is still three hours away, there is no one on the streets anymore, shops other than grocery stores are closed, and public transport is infrequent.

I manage to jump into the "two" - a trolleybus that goes from the Donetsk Metallurgical Plant through the entire center to the station.

The route repeats the direction in which the city developed - from the small working settlement of Yuzovka, which grew up near the plant, to the modern industrial millionaire, which until 2014 was connected to the world by the latest railway station and airport. From a flourishing Ukrainian metropolis to an unrecognized capital.

The trolleybus leaves the stop. In an empty cabin, an ominous announcement sounds over the loudspeaker: "The Ministry of Emergency Situations of the Donetsk People's Republic warns: it is dangerous to walk on thin ice."

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