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Ukraine miners: Coalfaces

Coalmining has hardly changed over the last 200 years. Photographer Gleb Kosorukov captures labourers at one of Europe's largest pits as they return to the surface after a six-hour shift.
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On the night of 30-31 August 1935, the ­Soviet miner Alexey Stakhanov set a new record for coal production. Working deep inside the ­bowels of a mine in eastern Ukraine, ­Stakhanov managed to hew out 102 tonnes of coal in five hours and 32 minutes. This was 14 times more than the standard daily norm.

Although it later emerged he had help, ­Stakhanov's super-human feat became a synonym for heroism and communist endeavour. In a matter of months the "Stakhanov" movement had spread across the Soviet Union, with workers and farmers urged to set their own norm-defying records for personal productivity.

Seventy-five years later, miners still work at the mine where Stakhanov set his record. In a series of 100 remarkable portraits, the Russian photographer Gleb Kosorukov has captured the Ukrainian miners on their ­return to the surface from a six-hour shift ­underground, amid dust, dirt and artificial light. Most of the miners agreed to be photographed for the project. A handful refused. They were indifferent to Stakhanov's record, ­Kosorukov says. They regarded themselves as underpaid. They were also deeply cynical about their c­ountry's ­eternally feuding political leaders.

"Oil and gas have been so much in the news in recent decades. Coal has almost ­disappeared from the territory of Europe. People imagine that it doesn't exist any more," ­Kosorukov says. "In fact, coal is responsible for a major part of the world's energy. I wanted to make coal visible."

In practice, coalmining has hardly changed over the past 100 or 200 years – miners then, as now, face an omni­present fear of death.

"It's an archetype of the working class. It ­encapsulates all the things we think about working class. Miners face extremes in their profession. Mortality is high," Kosorukov says. "There is a little bit of heroism in their life. In some ways they are modern saints. They know that some day they may never come back from the mine."

The photos were taken in September 2009 at the Stakhanov mine, 40km from the ­eastern industrial town of Donetsk. The mine was named after its most famous ex-employee ­following his death in 1977. It is part of a c­omplex of four mines owned by the state.

Production has fallen since Soviet times, from 1m tonnes a year under communism to 375,000 today. There are fewer miners, too: 2,381 compared with 10,000-12,000 in the mine's heyday. Little has changed, however. The miners continue to use the old Soviet equipment.

And yet despite this production decline, Kosorukov argues that coal will continue to play a crucial role in the world's energy needs. He also sees it, moreover, as the answer to Ukraine's energy problems at a time when Russia regularly uses gas as a weapon against its smaller neighbour.

"Coal is responsible for more than 40% of the energy produced by humans, more than twice exceeding respective figures for oil and gas. Because of the restrictive security limitations put on development of nuclear power plants, the situation will hardly change in the near future." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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