Bakhmut: The Origin And Development Of A Strategically Important City – Analysis
By Matija Šerić
Until recently, relatively unknown to the world public, the city of Bakhmut became world famous during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. From August 1, 2022, the battle for the city began, which turned into the longest and bloodiest battle during the war in Ukraine. Many compare it to the Battle of Verdun from World War I and the famous Battle of Stalingrad from World War II. Such comparisons are logical (although today the character of the war is different) since the number of dead on both sides is estimated at several tens of thousands.
According to Western sources, around 20,000 Ukrainian soldiers have lost their lives so far (middle of May), and Russian losses are reportedly twice as high. More than four thousand civilians were killed. Even if the stated numbers are slightly lower, the fact that in the 21st century, at least 50 thousand people die for the control of a relatively small town of about 70 thousand inhabitants, is terrifying and leaves no one indifferent. In order to better understand the current Ukrainian-Russian battle for the city, it is necessary to look at the history and how the city, which today is called Bakhmut, was created and developed.
Modern Bakhmut is located in the Donetsk region and is the administrative center of the Bakhmut district. It is located on the Bakhmutka River about 65 kilometers north of Donetsk and 580 kilometers from Kyiv as the crow flies. Bakhmut had the status of a city of regional importance until 2020, when this way of marking cities in Ukraine was abolished. Immediately before the beginning of the Russian invasion, at the beginning of 2022, the city had a little more than 71 thousand inhabitants. The city is initially a good place to live due to its favorable geographical location and climate. The climate is humid continental as in the rest of the country. Summer is short, hot and dry. Winters changeable with snow, often very cold. The average monthly temperature in July is 22, and in January -6 degrees Celsius. When you look at the history, you can see that the political climate in the city was often harsher than the natural one.
Origin of names and renaming
The origin of the name Bakhmut is not completely clear. It is certainly known that the city got its name from the near river Bakhmutka. In the first theory, the name of the river probably comes from the Turkish word “bakhmat” which means “steppe horse”. In the beginning, this word acted as a relation in relation to the Turkish word “su” which means “water, river”. That is, “Bakhmat su” turned into “Bakhmut” over time.
This theory is supported by the existence of the river Žerebec (“Stallion”) in the same area. In this case, the river Bakhmutka can be interpreted as a river on whose banks once in history herds of steppe horses (“bakhmata”) grazed. According to another theory, the name of the river is based on the Turkish name Mahmut – a variant of the name Muhammad. If this is so, then the term Bakhmut originated from the term Mahmut su, that is, Mahmut’s river. This theory is supported by the presence of the Aidar river in the nearby Luhansk region, which correlates with the Turkish name Aidar. If this version is correct, then the city was named after a Turk (Ottoman), probably the nomad Mahmut.
Apart from the fact that there are different theories about the origin of the name Bakhmut, the city changed its name several times throughout history depending on the authorities and the political climate at the time. From 1571 to 1924, as well as between 1942 and 1943, it bore the current name of Bakhmut. From 1924 to 1941, it was Artemovsk/Artemivsk, as well as between 1943 and 2016. From 2016 to today, the original name Bakhmut is again in use, which is a consequence of anti-communist laws and Ukraine’s reckoning with its communist history. The city was named Artemovsk after the Russian Bolshevik leader Fyodor Sergeyev, who was also known as Comrade Artem. The Russian government did not recognize the return of the original name in 2016.
The origin of the settlement
Although there is evidence of earlier settlements in 1556, the first official mention of Bakhmut dates back to 1571, when Russian Emperor Ivan the Terrible, in order to protect the southern border of the Russian Empire from incursions by the military forces of the Crimean Khanate and the Nogai Horde (the raiders were looking for slaves), ordered the creation of border fortifications along the Ajdar River and Northern Donets. The settlement of Bakhmutovskaja was then described as a guard station named after the nearby river Bakhmutka, which is a tributary of the North Donets.
There is not much information about the history of Bakhmut before the 18th century. It is known that in the beginning the city was actually a border post, and only much later did it become a fortified city. In the beginning, there was no permanent population in the border station because it was not a settlement or a fort, but actually a place where Russian border guards met to exchange information about the situation at the border. In the 17th century, Cossacks discovered salt lakes near the Bakhmutka River. At that time, salt mining was a very profitable business. From time to time, up to 10,000 workers gathered in that area to work on extracting salt. In particular, the salt production center began to take shape in the area of today’s Bakhmut. As a permanent settlement, Bakhmut was founded by the Cossacks between the 1680s and 1690s.
Rapid development of the city in the 18th century
In 1701, the Russian emperor Peter the Great ordered that the border fortress of Bakhmut be expanded and that the neighboring free village of Bakhmut be declared a city. The new fort was completed in 1703 and 170 people lived in it. The following year, Peter the Great ordered some Cossacks to settle on the Bakhmutka River and extract salt. The population of Bakhmut doubled, and the city was assigned to the Izium regiment (administrative unit), a province of Free Ukraine.
In the fall of 1705, Bakhmut became one of the centers of Bulavin’s uprising. A detachment of Don Cossacks led by ataman Kondrati Bulavin captured the salt mines and held the town until March 1708 when it was retaken by Russian imperial troops. From 1708 to April 1725, Bakhmut was assigned to the Azov Governorate. On May 29, 1719, it became the administrative center of Bakhmut Province within the Azov Governorate. From 1753 to 1764, it was the capital of Slavic Serbia, a territorial unit of Imperial Russia populated by colonists from Serbia and other Balkan countries such as Bulgaria, Romania and Greece.
In 1783, Bakhmut became a city in Yekaterinoslav Province (Novorossiysk Governorate). At that time, there were 49 large estates and five factories producing bricks, candles and soap in the city. The town had about 150 shops, a hospital and three schools: two private boarding schools for the children of wealthy parents and a Sunday school for the children of workers. Bakhmut had a large town center where fairs were held twice a year: July 12 (Day of the Apostles Peter and Paul) and September 21 (Day of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary). The annual income of the city was about one million rubles, which was a considerable amount for those times.
19th century – the city of salt
In August 1811, the city coat of arms was approved by the Russian Emperor Alexander I. The coat of arms of Bakhmut symbolizes the natural wealth of the area and the main occupation of the local population: salt extraction. The green color on the upper field of the coat of arms is a symbol of the fertility of the Bakhmut soil, while the black color of the lower field is a symbol of the richness of the deeper layers of the earth (minerals). In the middle, between the green and black fields, there is the alchemical sign of salt.
In January 1851, Bakhmut became a district. In 1875, the city water supply system was installed. The following year, large deposits of rock salt were discovered in the Bakhmut basin, which led to a rapid increase in the number of salt mines. The city soon produced 12% of Russia’s total salt production. The construction of the railway line Kharkiv-Bakhmut-Popasnaya stimulated the production of alabaster, gypsum, bricks, tiles and baking soda. The streets were paved in 1900 as a symbolic introduction to the turbulent 20th century.
Turbulent 20th century
At the beginning of the 20th century, the metal processing industry developed rapidly in the city. Already by 1900, the city had 76 small industrial enterprises, which employed slightly more than a thousand workers, as well as four salt mines, which employed 874 workers. Before the beginning of the First World War, 28 thousand inhabitants lived in the city. There were two hospitals with 210 beds, four gymnasiums and two vocational high schools, six primary schools, four parochial schools and a private library. In April 1918, after the collapse of the Russian Empire, troops loyal to the Ukrainian People’s Republic took control of Bakhmut. In December 1919, the Red Army pushed back the Ukrainian troops and established its own administration.
In 1923, there were 36 enterprises in Bakhmut, including the “Victory of labour” factory, which produced metal equipment, the “Lightning” factory, which produced agricultural equipment, as well as brick, tile, and alabaster factories, and one shoe factory. The local mines were renamed “Karl Liebknecht and Sverdlov”, “Shevchenko” and “Bakhmut sol”. From April 1920 to August 1925, Bakhmut was the administrative center of the Donetsk province. In 1924, as already mentioned, the city became Artemovsk after the eponymous revolutionary leader Artem, who lived and worked in the city in the first years of the October Revolution and was a close friend of Stalin. In 1938, a man named Moskalenko became the first secretary of the district committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine in the city, to be succeeded in 1941 by Vasily Panteleevich Prokopenko.
During the Second World War, the Wehrmacht occupied the city from October 31, 1941 to September 5, 1943. During the German occupation, Nikolay Mihajlovic Zhorov was the secretary of the secret city party committee that managed partisan operations. At the beginning of 1942, SS men from the Einsatzgruppe C detachment took about 3,000 domiciled Jews from Bakhmut to a mining shaft two kilometers outside the town. The SS fired into the gathered crowd, killing several people, and drove the others into the mining tunnel. The soldiers then walled up the entrance to the tunnel, while the thousands trapped inside the tunnel died from lack of air in the most horrible way possible.
After the war, life in the city stabilized. Between 1953 and 1958, the Northern Donjec – Donbas canal was built, which passes seven kilometers from the city and is of great importance for water supply. During the continuation of the existence of the USSR, the city recorded stable economic development due to its favorable location between the Ukrainian and Russian Soviet Socialist Republics and economic potential.
The city also developed a chemical industry based on the local minerals limestone and coke. In 1961, Kuzma Petrovich Golovko became the first secretary of the party’s city committee, and was succeeded by Ivan Malyukin in 1966, Nikolai Tagan in 1976, and Yuri Smirnov from 1980 to 1983. From April 1990 to 1994, at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Alexei Reva was the president of the city council and was elected mayor in 1994. In January 1999, a local Jewish charitable foundation, the Artemovsk city council and the winery that opened on the site in 1952, inaugurated a memorial to the victims of the mass murder of Jews in 1942. The monument is built into the rock in an old mine where water collects and is called the “Wailing Wall” for the brutally murdered Jews.
According to data from 2001, 83,146 people lived in the city, of which 71% of the citizens of Bakhmut spoke Russian, and 29% spoke Ukrainian as their mother tongue. In modern Ukraine, Bakhmut is the main center for the extraction of rock salt (more than 30% of the national production). Recently, salt mines are located in the suburbs of the nearby town of Soledar (translated as “giving salt”). The maximum annual production of the company “Artemsil” exceeded 7 million tons in 1991. Also, in the city there is a factory for processing non-ferrous metals (the only one in Ukraine) and several other important industrial enterprises.
“Artwinery” is one of the largest companies in Eastern Europe that produces sparkling wines using the classic method of fermentation in the bottle. The history of wine production in Bakhmut began in the middle of the 18th century, thanks to the exploitation of gypsum deposits. In 1950, a wine warehouse was created on the basis of plaster galleries and the construction of a sparkling wine factory with a capacity of 5 million bottles per year began. In 2005, its productivity reached 300 million bottles. At domestic and international competitions, the wines of the “Artwinery” company received many awards. The wine ages in underground alabaster shafts at a depth of 72 meters, where around 30 million bottles are stored at the same time.
Bakhmut is also known for its rich cultural heritage (at least before the Russian invasion). The Church of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker is one of the oldest churches in Donbas. The church was built in the style of the architectural traditions of Free Ukraine in 1797. In 1858, the Russian Emperor Alexander II. he approved the construction of the bell tower. The three-story stone bell tower in honor of Ivan the Baptist was built in 1861. The Bakhmut local museum was built by local industrialist V.G. Frantsuzov in 1911. Its collection includes about 30 thousand exhibits from ancient and medieval history, ethnography, Ukrainian culture, crafts of the local population, photographs and archival documents, as well as paintings created by local artists.
During the Ukrainian crisis, Bakhmut again became a battlefield and a place of bloodshed. As part of pro-Russian riots in the spring of 2014, pro-Russian separatists declared Bakhmut part of the self-proclaimed separatist Donetsk People’s Republic. On March 1, 2014, the first pro-Russian rally was held in the city. The organizers of the meeting openly called for separatism and unification with Russia and demanded a referendum.
On the same day, the Russian flag was raised on the city council building. In April, pro-Russian protests continued, and on April 12, a pro-Russian government was established. The separatists prevented Ukrainian presidential elections from being held on May 25. Due to the large-scale Ukrainian offensive, the pro-Russian rebels withdrew from the city at the beginning of July, and on July 5, city was returned to Ukrainian control. In May 2015, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed a law that began a six-month deadline for the removal of communist monuments and the renaming of cities whose names were linked to communist heritage. On September 23, 2015, the Artemovsk city council voted to restore the original name Bakhmut. The final decision was made by the Verkhovna Rada on February 4, 2016.
The strategic importance of Bakhmut in the Russian-Ukrainian war
During the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Bakhmut became a front-line town in May, and was regularly shelled by Russian forces. That month, according to local authorities, around 20,000 civilians remained in the city. Since August 1, Russian and Ukrainian troops have been fiercely fighting for the city, and the continuous fighting has entered its tenth month. Although 90% of its inhabitants fled, thousands were killed and most of the city was reduced to ruins, the fighting does not abate. The remaining civilians live in shelters without access to electricity. energy, plumbing and gas. Although many Western analysts downplay the city’s strategic importance, it certainly exists for both Ukraine and Russia.
Conquering Bakhmut as a strategically important regional transport and logistics center would be extremely welcome for Russian forces, although this advantage depends on how much of the city’s infrastructure is usable. The Kharkiv-Rostov and Donetsk-Kiev highways pass through Bakhmut, which are of great strategic importance for any army that controls them. More importantly, the capture of the city by Russian troops would represent a springboard for further advances and the conquest of two larger cities in the Donetsk region that have been targeted by pro-Russian separatists since 2014: Kramatorsk and Slovyansk.
In the case of the capture of Bakhmut, both would be within easy range of Russian artillery, and at the same time Ukrainian logistics routes would be cut off. The nearby town of Chasiv Yar, west of Bakhmut in the district of the same name, would be the next to be hit by Russian forces, although it is on higher ground and Ukrainian forces are believed to have built defensive fortifications nearby. In any case, the Russians are forced to occupy Bakhmut, Kramatorsk and Slovyansk and other nearby towns and villages in order to occupy the entire territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic, which together with the Luhansk People’s Republic, Zaporizhia and Kherson regions, was annexed by the Russian Federation on September 30 last year.
Besides its strategic importance, the conquest of Bakhmut would bring a symbolic victory to the Russians. A lot of time has passed since the summer of last year, when Russian forces occupied towns like Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. Since then, the territorial gains they have made have been gradual and slow. Like Russia, Ukraine also gave Bakhmut great political importance, perhaps even more so than Moscow. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the Ukrainian government have made the city a symbol of resistance. When he visited Washington in December 2022, Zelensky declared it “the fortress of our morality” and presented the city’s flag to the US Congress. “The fight for Bakhmut will change the trajectory of our war for independence and freedom.” Although Bakhmut was about to fall in early 2023, a large number of Ukrainian forces were sent there to prevent the Russians from completely conquering the city.
The price of Bakhmut
Summarum, Bakhmut is undeniably a city of rich historical and cultural heritage with great economic capacity, and it is no wonder that Ukraine and Russia are fighting for it like lions. Sooner or later there will be a truce and an end to the war, and whoever conquers the city with a soldier’s boot will have the right to it regardless of international law.
But the real question is: is the administration of Bakhmut worth a fierce trench battle that resembles those of the First World War and takes tens of thousands of lives and creates an equal number, and perhaps more wounded, many disabled and broken families?
This is a question that will have to be answered by Ukrainian and Russian politicians, because the war is being waged because of politics. In any case, it is a tragedy for all humanity that such a bloody city battle is being fought in the 21st century, and the resources of the Ukrainian and Russian people are being spent on conquering a smaller city. However, the battle for Bakhmut is not an exception, as the Syrian cities of Aleppo, Homs, Deir ez-Zor experienced a similar fate in recent years and in the 1990s, cities such as Vukovar and Vitez. Unfortunately, the international community did not learn much from all these examples, so it is likely that some similar terrible battles will follow in the years to come.