Boys will be boys? Ukrainian energy landscapes during and beyond war.

Lessons learned from the mining settlements of Donbas.

Maryna Semenchenko. Architect, urbanist, researcher.


In this essay, I explore the links between energy production and landscapes, as LABLAB typically does, yet complement this discussion with the third dimension of gender roles. Investigating my home context of Ukraine before and after Russia’s full-scale invasion, I build a narrative in four chapters. Starting with a short introduction to the Ukrainian energy sector, I take a closer look at the coal-mining regions in the East, their experiences of decarbonization, and the gender dynamics established there. Further, I reflect on contributing factors that will affect the future energy landscapes of Ukraine and the potential role of women in this future.

The studied regions preserve traces of both imperialistic and Soviet industrialization and energy production, which to a high degree determined specific spatial and societal relations in the East of Ukraine, or Donbas. So, industries dependent on hard physical labor and coal-based energy shaped centralized and conservative environments where men belong in mines and women at home. Traditionalist gender dynamics are inherent to coal-mining communities in other countries as well, yet decarbonization there was driven by other factors. For instance, in the Check Republic, it was closely tied with criticism of the communist state and democratization. In today’s Ukraine, in turn, decarbonization is severely challenged by the ongoing war, growing financial needs, and fastening climate change, and both outdated gender relations and ways of energy production contradict and even endanger Ukraine’s ambition for green transition and European integration.

Since February 2022, the war has been deepening issues and reversing positive vectors that existed before as well as introducing newer forms of inequality. Since the beginning of the invasion, around 5 million people have lost their jobs and over 8 million have fled Ukraine to one of the European countries. Such mobility is strongly gender-linked as men between 18 and 60 years old are most often not allowed to leave Ukraine. Therefore, numerous Ukrainian families are currently divided in the most archaic manner  – women left for a safer place and took care of children and the elderly; men stayed to either defend the country or contribute to its economy. In this essay, I argue that in order to recover, finalize the green transition, and start its European future, Ukrainian society has to reconsider such rigid gender dynamics and, by contrast, empower diversity in governance, energy production, and, importantly, individual choices. 

While I aimed to secure the objectivity of my reflection, it happened to be highly personal. To a large degree, this reflection was inspired by a study of the Ukrainian NGO Ecoaction, some members of which I consider highly dedicated professionals and my personal friends. Ecoaction’s study on gender-based discrimination in two mining settlements in East Ukraine served as a starting point for both my research and personal reflection on my place in the Ukrainian future as well as the place of others who do not reflect a conventional image of a Ukrainian.

While my mixed background alienates me from my home context, it also presents me with the gift of being an external observer. I was born in Crimea, which has been annexed by Russia since 2014. In 2020, I lived in Belarus, witnessed the heroic resistance of Belarusian society before and after the falsified elections, and moved back to Ukraine due to the risk of political persecution. Shortly after that, the full-scale invasion started, forcing new tough choices. I began writing this text while being a protection seeker in Sweden and finalize it on my spontaneous trip to Poland where I intend to figure out my next steps. When overcoming an identity crisis, I was questioning my right to speak for and about Ukraine considering that I am a native Russian speaker and for most of my life lived outside of the country. Today, though, looking at the colossal numbers of displaced people and learning their personal stories, I am confident that the dominance of only one interpretation of “Ukrainess” is simply inadequate. All these stories constitute Ukrainian society now and will shape its future, and I see my responsibility in ensuring these diverse voices are heard. Finally, being a woman and an urbanist, I am deeply concerned about conservative tendencies around the world and in Ukraine as they may prevent all of us from the future we deserve. However, despite being displaced and precarious, I feel the most Ukrainian and hopeful (which are nearly synonymous) in my life.

Power and Tension. Ukrainian Energy System Before and During the Invasion 

Before the invasion, urgent change in a centralized and unsustainable Ukrainian energy system was not only desirable and politically driven, yet necessary. In 2020, nuclear power plants generated 54% of Ukrainian energy, and coal-fired plants produced 28%. Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) alone contributed 23% to the overall energy production of the country, simultaneously requiring massive resources for its maintenance and future decommissioning. The planned period of its work was prolonged till 2028 as an extension of the original exploitation period established in the Soviet time. As for coal-based energy, its future was decided. During the COP26 in Glasgow in 2021, Ukrainian representatives announced that state-owned power plants would phase out coal by 2035, which indicated a clear intention for decarbonization. Therefore, Ukraine massively depended on energy that was not meant to last. Moreover, it is such a vulnerability that significantly determined the character of the upcoming war.

For just decarbonization, experts saw coordinated political efforts on national and local levels as a key precondition, however, the state's power in the energy sector has been limited and even compromised. So, a private company DTEK owned by an oligarch Rinat Akhmetov was responsible for producing around a quarter of Ukrainian energy. Additionally, DTEK declared that it would cease coal use by 2040, in contrast to the state’s 2035 phaseout. Later, the Ukrainian government called its own phaseout ambition “optimistic” and introduced a “baseline scenario” adjusting its end date to 20405. A private stakeholder, therefore, possessed enough power to make an independent decision that to a high degree determined whether or not Ukraine would fulfill its national commitments under the Paris Agreement and consequentially, even jeopardized global efforts against climate change.

In addition to other factors of vulnerability, Ukraine’s status as a key energy transit country was benefiting its economy yet exposing it to massive pressure, as in the case of the Russian pipeline Nord Stream 2. This 1.230 kilometers facility was specifically designed to deliver Arctic natural gas from Russia to Germany around Ukraine, depriving its budget of 2 billion dollars of annual transit fees. Opponents of the project claimed that its implementation would threaten Ukraine’s energy and national security. Yet, in 2021, a US-German agreement suggested compensating for these risks with sanctions in the case of Russia’s aggression and investments in the Ukrainian green transition. As today’s events mirror, the actual consequences for Ukraine happened to be significantly more brutal than many could predict. In the future, as Ukrainian experts assume, “climate money” may be used again as a buy-off in favor of big players’ interests, and the more economically vulnerable Ukraine becomes more appealing such offers would seem.

These days, attacks on energy infrastructure are being openly instrumentalized by Russia for conducting violence and blackmail. The UN states that 50% of Ukrainian high-voltage energy infrastructure has been destroyed, which led to industries and households being prevented from light, heat, and water. On certain days in January 2023, about 6 million people were deprived of these basic utilities. Additionally, Russia’s control over both functioning or decommissioned power plants and shellings next to them (including ZNPP) have contributed to the ongoing nuclear blackmail.

Coal, Space, Identities. Realities of the Ukrainian East Before and During the Invasion 

The rapid decrease in coal production in Ukraine started in the early 90s and had both economic and societal consequences forcing people to reconsider their entire identities. While in 1991 the coal production industry provided workplaces for around 1 million people, this number decreased to 40.000 in 20206. Those engaged in the sector, typically male miners, transitioned from having a prestigious, well-paid, and often inherited profession to losing either their employment or the financial and symbolic benefits incorporated into their previous status. In 2021, the state program for just transition in coal regions indicated that decarbonization would affect around 850.000 people in the East and the West of Ukraine. This, in a way, served as a recognition that problems typically associated with Donbas had more than a local scale. As for today, the issues of unemployment, forced mobility, and identity crisis are rapidly scaling up to the whole country.

Forming two clusters, the coal-producing regions mentioned in the program represent deeply rooted differences between the East and the West of Ukraine. Donetsk, Luhansk, and Dnipro regions shape the eastern cluster while Lviv and Volyn regions define a coal-producing hub in the West. The East had dominated in the volumes of production, which, however, did not secure its wealth as most of the state-owned mines in pre-invasion Ukraine had been unprofitable and, moreover, required regular state subsidies2. The western mining settlements, by contrast, depended on coal mining to a radically lower degree and typically had more diversified economic profiles, which resulted in a less traumatizing transition for them. Additionally to these distinctions, eastern regions had higher population density yet the population was older; Donetsk and Luhansk regions demonstrated particularly low birth rates. Finally, people in the eastern areas tended to identify themselves as Russians and to speak the Russian language in everyday life essentially more often than in the West.

The beginning of military actions in 2014 severely challenged coal production, either accelerating these differences or establishing new patterns in relations between East and West. Before 2014, among 148 coal mines functioning in Ukraine, 102 were state-owned. 67 out of these 102 ended up on the territories under Russia’s control2. Formerly densely populated settlements of the East had started emptying, and between 2014 and 2021, 1.7 million Ukrainians were forced to move and acquire a new status as internally displaced persons (IDP). Mining towns as well as large industrial cities faced new realities of either adapting to life next to the hostilities or becoming a part of proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” with newly introduced authorities. Some mining settlements left under Ukraine’s control gained a buffer role. So, Pokrovsk in the Donetsk region had served as a transit hub where citizens from both sides of the demarcation line – Ukrainian nearby settlements and occupied territories – were buying goods and receiving public services, which resulted in price raises and queues15.

Ukrainian East that before was strongly associated with hard physical labor and, thus, a sharp division between male and female roles started to represent an even more masculine world of war. Before the full-scale invasion, in 2020, research on two mining settlements in Eastern Ukraine (Pokrovsk and Selydove) indicated noticeable differences between male and female experiences in this part of the country. While female workers were receiving only 62.9% of the men’s salary in the coal production areas, around a third of women in Donbas was not employed at all. As women pointed out, long 12-hours shifts at mines often prevented their employment as they were the main caretakers of children. When imagining career alternatives after decommissioning the mines, respondents suggested that women would get involved in the social sector or service and beauty industries. Men’s future beyond mines, in turn, was associated with typically “masculine” activities like, for instance, working on a construction site, as a taxi driver, or as a security guard.

In relation to space, the qualitative part of the survey revealed that men demonstrated stronger ties with mines than their hometowns. Some, while introducing themselves to outsiders, would even rather use the name of a mine than a town due to its higher recognition. While answering what symbolized their town best, men of Pokrovsk typically enough named terrikons whereas women mentioned roses in a local park. Such answers seem to be almost cliche yet simply depict a hyperbolically patriarchal reality where men work in mines while their wives walk in parks with children.

The invasion has significantly reversed a tendency toward decarbonization and changed the everyday life of mining settlements. Before February 2022, the key private energy producer DTEK was selling coal mines and promoting an image of a green company. In July 2022, however, its management announced the intention to mine as much coal as possible as well as to invest in a state-owned enterprise Lvivvugillya (Lviv Coal). Such a switch can be explained by both the need to support national energy security as well as unprecedented world prices on coal. Some DTEK-owned mines keep operating in proximity to checkpoints, shellings, and a frontline, yet become a new workplace for IDPs who fled even more endangered territories. So, a manager of such a mine describes one individual trajectory from a peaceful life to a war-affected reality by saying, “In a few weeks yesterday’s barista becomes a miner”.

Imagining the Future of Energy Landscapes in Ukraine

Despite support from international organizations and foreign partners, a major portion of financial and intellectual resources for the future recovery of Ukraine has to be generated within the country. The country from which over 8 million people have fled. Before the war, experts predicted that the development of renewable energy would create around 160.000 workplaces instead of 55.0003 lost due to the coal phaseout. These days, Ukraine faces the need to offer millions of workplaces that should include a dramatically wider variety of life scenarios than work in a beauty salon or a construction site. Additionally, funds from external partners may strongly navigate the recovery trajectory and mirror rather the visions of donors than Ukrainians.

Before the invasion, the green transition was seen as necessary and beneficial for the Ukrainian economy from a long-term perspective, yet the needed short-term investments were estimated at 1.6 billion EUR3. Coal production sites, in particular, cannot be simply closed as they create extremely complex three-dimensional landscapes of flood-provoking mines underground and radioactive terrikons above the surface. As for the cost of post-war recovery, the numbers are growing as destruction keeps happening. In June 2022, the Ukrainian Government presented a 10-years recovery plan with an expected cost of 750 billion USD.

One of the potential future scenarios for Ukraine, therefore, may be a transition from a postcolonial form of control to a neoliberal one. The latest is likely to offer Ukraine the role of an agricultural European periphery and an energy transit hub where wheat fields are alternated with wind energy plants of anonymous foreign owners. How much power would they have in the energy sector currently dominated by the state and oligarchy? If a strong national government does not sustain its influence, the Ukrainian energy system will be at risk of reestablishing itself as centralized, dependent, and vulnerable as before. Ukrainians, in turn, while expecting the government to lead and facilitate the green transition, also ask for transparency and civic engagement in this process6, thus, claiming for themselves the roles of decision-makers. Neither such fluidity of roles nor the green transition itself is possible without aiming for a modern decentralized system where multiple actors including businesses, households, and cooperatives can produce, sell, transmit, distribute, and consume energy, and where none of these roles is appropriated by major stakeholders.

Additionally to matters of power, such a future raises other questions – who would produce this energy and where? Before the invasion, experts suggested that wind-generated energy would compensate for the major portion of what was generated by coal3. Being predominantly based along the shoreline of the Southeast and, therefore, under Russia’s control, these days none of the wind power plants of DTEK operates18. In these occupied areas, the unpredictable war reality challenges any strategic planning or institutionalized decision-making. However, it is already definite that the entire density and settlement pattern is currently severely transforming and will unlikely return to its previous state. According to the Chief of Defence Intelligence, after the liberation of the occupied territories, there may appear a safe demilitarized zone of 40 or even 100 kilometers along the Russian-Ukrainian border that, among other factors, would determine future energy landscapes.

This zone would overlap with a specific pattern of settlements that differs significantly between the East and the West. While settlements in the West usually have a smaller scale yet higher density and proximity to each other, the settlement in Eastern Ukraine are typically larger, sprawled, and atomized from one another. These days, settlements in the West are indeed facing tough challenges by accommodating thousands of IDPs, yet they remain relatively safe and, crucially enough, populated by people of working age. The sprawled East, by contrast, has been aging and emptying for decades and especially after 2014.

In a landscape of the East that quite literally embodies disintegration, liberated territories will have to return under Ukrainian authority, switch back to the Ukrainian language, administrative procedures, and public education, overcome traumatic experiences of occupation, and restore the pride of their origin compromised by Russia’s presence. What may attract people back to these deserted, massively destroyed places with a fresh memory of violence? Probably and only partly, competitive workplaces in green energy production. Hopefully, new energy landscapes will not recreate an old colonial pattern in which settlements are fully dependent on one type of production and function exclusively for and around it as these rigid systems offer exclusively rigid roles.

Woman: from a Victim to an Agent

An enormous need to repopulate and rebuild Ukraine in the future is inevitable, yet can be approached differently – through strengthening existing hierarchies and referring to the past or introducing newer, more diverse scenarios for people of all genders and backgrounds. Under the war conditions, however, conservative tendencies flourish endangering the European future Ukraine seeks and manifests.

Whereas traditionalist views on gender roles in Ukraine have been partly shaped by its economic or even spatial realities, such a gender dynamic can also be seen as integral to contemporary Ukrainian nationalism. Since Ukraine gained independence in 1991, the image of the nation to a high degree has been inspired by the Cossacks – a military community that played a significant role in fighting for Ukraine’s autonomy from the Russian Empire. In this male-dominated discourse, women, if they are mentioned at all, are typically assigned the role of guardians of nearly godly nature represented either by the Holy Virgin or the Slavic pagan character Berehynia. Males in this narrative, at the same time, are typically seen as brave, strong, patriotic warriors, and such a representation has significantly shaped the self-image of contemporary Ukrainian men. Today, though, president Zelenskyy tends to address Ukrainian soldiers using both male and female forms of the word “defender” promoting a more inclusive image of a Ukrainian warrior, however, still operating in binary terms.

In Russia’s pre-war public discourse, the role of a woman was also instrumentalized, yet as a tool of threat and manipulation. So, in a famous speech several weeks before the full-scale invasion, Putin quoted song lyrics with obvious sexual assault and necrophiliс connotations. While referring to Russia’s demands from Ukraine, he provided some lines from a late-Soviet punk-rock “Sleeping Beauty in a Coffin” that can be roughly translated as “Whether you like it or not, deal with it, my beauty”. So, in this rhetoric, Ukraine itself was presented as a woman in a patriarchal world – dependent, objectified, and abused.

These days, the war radicalizes gender inequality and women’s victimization, as it typically happens in conflict-affected areas. Investigation of gender-based violence in Ukraine is unfinished, therefore exact numbers are not known (if they ever will be). It is already evident, though, that such cases are numerous and include mostly female victims whose age ranges between 4 and 80 years old. With forced mobility, victims face obstacles in receiving medical and psychological help, and cross-border mobility, while giving them a certain advantage in comparison to men, turns women into targets for human trafficking.

While displacement experiences are certainly dangerous and traumatizing they can also be seen as empowering, offering women a different role in the green transition. If displaced women of the Ukrainian East come back home in the future, they will bring with them new identities, skills, and knowledge as these days private spaces of their household are expanding to a scale of the whole country, Europe, or even the world. Such an expansion promises to transition women from their traditional roles of responsible consumers and thrifty housewives to strong agents of change when this change is desperately needed. In the underpopulated post-war country, however, this future will likely be challenged by conservative groups and their aspiration for reproductive control and instrumentalization of traditionalist national myths.

Conservative tendencies do not offer much diversity to men either as well as exclude any other gender identities preventing millions of people from successful integration into a peaceful future. Both war and manhood while being extremely masculine concepts are emasculating to those who do not fit into the dominant image of a man. If today Ukrainian society preserves a place in the future only for those who represent an exemplary man, an exemplary soldier, or an exemplary Ukrainian, it will, in fact, neglect the diversity for which Ukrainians are currently fighting. This diversity has multiple dimensions as well as each Ukrainian has multiple identities that are not mandatory mainstream yet essential. A group that will shape the Ukrainian future, therefore, may range from the exclusive veteran elite to the entire society including baristas, miners, and those who spent the wartime under occupation or abroad.

As individual identities are tied to collective as well as spatial ones, new or rebuilt settlements will have to reinvent themselves as much as individuals. Numerous Ukrainian mining towns originated in the Cossack times and, therefore, have a deeper history beyond the problematic Soviet era. While this additional layer in the past of energy landscapes offers alternative identities beyond the Soviet and beyond the coal, these alternatives should be approached critically. The Cossack era, specifically the second half of the nineteenth century, is linked to Russia’s imperialist rule and industrialization.

Ukrainian energy landscapes the way we know them, therefore, are to the highest degree formed by colonial exploitation, if not by the Soviet Union than by the Russian Empire. Additionally, the dominance of exclusive interpretation of the Cossack history may encourage a shift from outdated pre-war gender dynamics to an even more conservative model, and therefore recreate spatial structures and relations where male and female roles, perceptions, and representations are demarcated as strongly as before.

Kind of a Conclusion

While nothing compares to the bravery of my fellow Ukrainians who defend our freedom on the battlefields, others show bravery by being bold critical thinkers. Ukrainian politicians, academics, and professionals approach the unprecedented by its scale and complexity task of future recovery and find the courage of being critical not only to our troubled Soviet heritage but to 30 yeast of independence and the mistakes we had made ourselves. I am sure neither of my bravery nor the impact of my contribution, yet my privilege is quite evident to me. While being safe, I thank the defenders of all sorts, genders, identities, and origins and wish Ukrainian children who are likely growing up abroad and without their dads around to define their future the way they dream. I hope this future will be possible in Ukraine.


Maryna Semenchenko. Architect, urbanist, researcher.

Being originally trained as an architect, in 2018, Maryna graduated from KTH with a Master’s degree in Urbanism Studies. Since 2016, she has been working as a consultant on spatial issues for municipalities, businesses, NGOs, and educational institutions in Ukraine, Belarus, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden. After the beginning of the full-scale invasion in Ukraine, Maryna relocated from Kyiv to Stockholm and currently works on a project Future Images for Ukraine with Architects Sweden.


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This essay is part of LABLAB:s New Energy Landscapes focusing on the question of landcapes and the green energy transition in the Nordic and Baltic region. This project funded by the Swedish institute.