Did you know that, in the late 19th century, Belgium had a firm foothold in Ukraine's Donbas region?
By the end of the 19th century, Belgium had established a reputation for mining, heavy industry and railroad construction. This reached even into the Russian Tsarist Empire. Particularly in the now severely ravaged Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, the name Belgium would ring a bell.
Between 1853 and 1856, a conflict raged mainly on the Crimean Peninsula between Russia on the one hand and an alliance of France, the British Empire, the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia on the other. This so-called Crimean War went down in history as 'the first industrial or first modern war'. Whoever had the most advanced technology and the best war industry would emerge victorious. This was the alliance, with the former industrial giant Great Britain in the lead.
Big on trams, coal, steel, glass and chemicals
As a small neutral country, Belgium's industrial leadership enjoyed a privileged position over the British in Russia's eyes. From 1860 onwards, the Russian tsars had eyes for the know-how and capital of Belgian investors, entrepreneurs, skilled workers and craftsmen. They invited them to come and expand the industry in St. Petersburg and the Baltic provinces. Starting in 1880, our countrymen turned their gaze to the former Yekaterinoslav province, in south-eastern Ukraine. They then laid the first tram line in the current capital city, Dnipro. However, the centre of gravity was all the way to the east, in the Donbas. As many as 133 of the 227 Belgian companies in Russia were active in that region, in coal-mining, steel, glass and chemicals. By the end of the 19th century, the young Belgium still had nine provinces, but the over 10,000 compatriots in the Donbas – more than in the Congo Free State – sometimes earned the region the nickname 'our tenth province'.
Recognisable heritage of ours
Certain buildings in the city of Lysychansk exude a Belgian atmosphere. Like the director's house at the old soda factory that Ernest Solvay erected there in 1892. For many years, it housed a sanatorium. Or the residential neighbourhoods with the modest quarters for the factory workers, the slightly larger homes for the superintendents, and the magnificent villas for the engineers and directors. Until recently, the students at the grammar school were taught in a now-protected building. It passed for one of the high schools with the best reputation in Ukraine. At the site, you could imagine yourself in the Walloon coal basins, with that typical brick from here. Hopefully, that will continue for a very long time...