Ukraine War Day #171: The Battle For Soledar

Dear Readers:

Bernhard Goetzke as “Weary Death” in Fritz Lang’s Der müde Tod
Igor Konashenkov: The Messenger of Death.

The battle for for the Donetsk town of Soledar promises to be one of the most brutal of the war so far. Just yesterday Russian Lieutenant-General Igor Konashenkov announced, in his daily briefing, that the Ukrainian 14th Mechanized Brigade lost over 2,000 men, in the course of a single day! I swear sometimes it seems like General Konashenkov appears to be aging by the hour; it’s as if the burden of each death etches a new line into his tragically intense face; or paints another hair white on his head. I was staring at Konashenkov’s photo and trying to remember whom he reminded me of; and then it hit me: He is the spitting image of “Weary Death” in Fritz Lang’s classic German silent movie from 1921. Der müde Tod. Arguably one of the greatest films ever made. It tells the story of Death who is tired of reaping his harvest; but must proceed on with his unpleasant task. Who arrives in a small German town to take his next pre-destined victim. How desperate people bargain and try to cheat Him, and even Death himself is willing to give them a way out, if he can, but in the end neither they, nor he, has any choice in the matter.

Death Is On The March

A few days back I saw this very interesting piece by legendary Russian war correspondent Alexander Kots. Who is embedded with the Second Army Corpus of the LPR. Here are his thoughts about what he has seen and witnessed, it’s not a full translation, I elided a lot, in the interests of more brevity:

Kots: There it is. You can see it in the distance, in the lowlands, stretched out as if on the palm of one’s hand. But to get to it, one needs first to knock the enemy off his commanding heights. This is Soledar, one of the hottest of the hot spots in the Donbass. This is the place that will determine the fate of the cities of Slavyansk and Kramatorsk. Without Soledar you can’t take Artemovsk [also known as Bakhmut], which is where the enemy is keeping his main forces on this side of the line.

From one of the heights I gaze at Soledar, and see the smoke wafting from artillery explosions. I see that the fire is approaching closer, practically right up to the positions of the Second Army Corpus of the LPR, which has fast approached to the city, having first taken the KNAUF factory in the industrial zone.

Our so-called HQ is just the bare foundation of a country house. One one side of the room a screen shows a view from a drone camera. On the other side sits the Commander of the Battalion of the 6th Regiment of LPR. On his desk is laid out a map, marked with red and blue. The earth tremors constantly from the nearby shelling, and plaster sprinkles down from the ceiling.

“Long-range artillery is working on my position,” comes a voice from the radio. “Request that it be suppressed.” At that moment a shell lands directly on our front porch. A soldier hurls himself inside, holding his ears.

“What’s the matter, Vadik? You went deaf?” the Battalion Commander asks, in a fatherly tone, while massaging his own jaw. The soldier, who is raw and only recently mobilized, masks his natural fear with curiosity: “What’s the best way, during an explosion? To open your mouth wide, or to hold your ears?”

“You open your mouth, if you have time,” his colleagues advise him.

It’s An Actual Salt Mine

It’s kind of funny, because you will hear ordinary Americans joke sometimes, when the lunch hour is over, and it’s time to reluctantly vacate the cafeteria, leaving the delicious smells of hambugers and the interesting conversations and good company; and return to their offices and their desks: “Well, back to the salt mines!” Everybody understands this expression, but nobody has ever seen an actual salt mine. It’s just a metaphor for the hardest kind of labor that anybody can imagine.

Kots: “The counter-attack has been rebuffed,” the Commander reports laconically.

Viktor, who heads the HQ staff, tells the reporter: “Our situation is stable but tense. Our enemy, give him his due, is showing ferocious resistance. He just attempted, as you saw, to counter-attack us with infantry. Sometimes he uses tanks, artillery. It’s certainly not boring here. But our prospects of entering the city are very good. The complication is that we have to move through mine fields.”

The Ukrainians hide out in these vast salt mines, dug a century ago.

And speaking of mines: “There is a local feature here. Our enemy has the opportunity to hide out in the deep salt mines. No doubt anyone who lived in the Soviet era remembers those white-blue packets of salt which cost 10 kopecks. In all of our vast Soviet Union, fully a half of those packets contained salt that was dug right here, in Soledar. Hence the name of this town.” [yalensis: in Russian sole-dar means, literally, “gift of salt”.]

Those same salt mines now provide something like 300 kilometers of subterranean communications, along which even a truck can barrel along at high speed. At one time the worked-out mines were turned into tourist attractions in which, at the depth of 280 meters below sea level, people could play ball as if on a football field. No grass grows down here, the floor, walls and ceiling are all made out of salt. Tourists could also listen to music in a concert hall and even rest in a salty sanatorium; it is said that the cool dry air, saturated with salt, has a good effect on one’s health. People came here to heal skin and breathing problems.

These salt caves were a tourist attraction, in Soviet times.

But today this subterranean kingdom is used by Ukrainian soldiers as a shelter from Russian artillery. The most interesting mines are the ones in the village of Praskoveevka. Many legends are told about this place! People say there is an underground treasure hoard, consisting of mountains of WWII-era weapons. After the Great Patriotic War, mounds of trophies were brought here for preservation: Mosin rifles, ППШ-41 and ППС-43 automatic pistols, German MP-38/40 automatic pistols, American Thompsons from 1928, Mausers, Colts, Degtyarev machine guns, Maxim machine guns… Which, by the way, Russian soldiers have found abandoned Maxims at former Ukrainian positions, which fact indirectly confirms the legend.

Ukrainian soldiers have been known to employ these old Maxim machine guns in the current war.

People say that in the 1990’s, certain elements of the former Ukrainian security forces even created a business selling some of the trophey [German] weapons as souvenirs, to the relatives of the fascists. The rumor is that Germans could peruse the archives to find the exact serial number of a weapon used by their ancestor, and now located in the Soledar arsenal.

And indeed, the weapons are in such good shape, you could just pick one up and fire it. The constant temperature and humidity levels in the salt mines, serve as ideal conditions for preservation.

Vladimir Shanaev, who used to serve as Commander of the 9th Unit for Guarding the cache, confirms to me that: “There truly is a secret arms cache in Praskoveevka. It’s called the 152nd horizontal, which means 152 meters below sea level.”

I remember well the name of that particular mine (=Volodarsky), because back in 2014, after the Maidan, and after Crimea had reunited with Russia, I covered the story here; local Donbass residents had gathered to protest the removal of weapons from this cache for the use of the Right Sektor and the Ukrainian National Guard.

“So, how do you get in there?” I ask Shanaev.

“There is only one way into the technical territory. A cage lowers you down to the 152nd horizontal. When I was working there, people were mining for salt at even lower levels, 208 meters and 243 meters. But there is only one cage. Since this arms cache was supposed to be a secret, we would dress up in regular mining costume, with the booties and helmets. Once we got to our level, we would change into our military uniforms. Although we weren’t really fooling anybody, the local residents knew exactly what was hidden down there.”

An exterior view of the mining complex.

“What does it look like?”

“Imagine a tunnel-like chamber 17 meters wide and 50 meters high, all surrounded with a metal grille. Then, one after the other, a series of several sub-chambers, each 150-200 meters long. It’s huge, you could run a train with 500 cars through it. There are literally thousands of wagons filled with weapons.

“The weapons are stored in the wagons?”

“No, the wagons bring them in. For example, they brought us train-cars full of weapons after the first Karabakh War. And tons of Nazi memorabilia: swastikas on belts, holsters, rifles…”

Shanaev explains that, in USSR times, he graduated from the Higher Artillery Academy in Penza, Russia. Right after his graduation, he was dispatched to this job, in the Donbass. And here he served until the collapse of the USSR. “Our duties included receiving and inventory of weapons. I was in charge of this unit, I was responsible for 12 chambers…”

“Would it be theoretically possible to blow up these caches?”

“I can’t imagine you could even find enough explosives for that task.”

“I Already Took An Oath”

After the fall of the USSR, Vladimir, whose title was Senior Lieutenant, took his wife and two children back to Russia, where he served in the 53rd Arsenal in the Nizhegorodskaya Oblast. By the time he retired, he was a Major. He built himself a small business and ran a store. Now he serves as a nanny to his two grandchildren. When they lived here, in the Donbass, his wife worked as a schoolteachers in nearby Artemovsk (Bakhmut), where she taught entry classes and music. She still receives letters from her former pupils, who have scattered all over the wide world.

“Can I ask you a personal question?” Kots finishes his interview. “Why did you not stay in the Ukraine?”

“Because they asked me to take a new oath. I am a Russian person from Nizhniy Novgorod. I didn’t feel comfortable taking a new oath, although at that time it wasn’t as clear to me, it was just a gut feeling telling me not to do it. But now it’s all clear. Nationalism will destroy any culture, and it’s a pity that people in Europe don’t understand this.”

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22 Responses to Ukraine War Day #171: The Battle For Soledar

  1. buratino says:

    “Because they asked me to take a new oath. I am a Russian person from Nizhniy Novgorod. I didn’t feel comfortable taking a new oath, although at that time it wasn’t as clear to me, it was just a gut feeling telling me not to do it. But now it’s all clear. Nationalism will destroy any culture, and it’s a pity that people in Europe don’t understand this.” – claims a “Russian person”(not nationalist naturlich)…

    Again and again, the devil is in the details of our semantic games.

    Why can`t we be just honest for a minute?

    Like

  2. Lex says:

    My personal best depth is 495m below sea level (btw, all mines are mapped this way rather than below grade). What’s interesting to me is that the mine uses lifts for access, which will severely limit its actual usefulness as a military installation. Most modern underground mines have a “portal” and a haul road that runs from the surface to the working areas. If this mine is dependent on lifts, then getting things in and out, including people will likely be problematic as it relies on powered infrastructure. There will be smaller lifts for evacuation but those would only carry people and there would also be unpowered escape ways, but they’d be ladders between levels. Very long ladders. I’d tell my CO to stuff it if he decided we’d go into a mine for safety. The air in a salt mine would be ok, but if the electricity goes out you are confronted with a blackness I cannot describe. And if fire breaks out in an underground mine, even a giant salt mine, it’s really, really bad. I’m an active US mine, everyone underground carries a chemical oxygen generator, but they last no more than like two hours. You’ve got that long to get out or get to a refuge chamber and hope someone can put out the fire and rescue you. The idea of trying to use the secondary escape routes in a mine I’ve never been in without people who know the site intimately, without electricity, is the stuff of nightmares. That’s not a fortification; it’s a tomb.

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    • Sacha says:

      My grandfather was electrician in chief in Eastern France mines in Lorraine and they used lifts for the workers and ladders for the emergency way out. The priority was the ventilation system so it’s fully depending on power on a daily basis with constant checks. I can’t imagine even a company not talking about a battalion hiding there. Unless they plan to surrender.

      Like

    • yalensis says:

      So scary! Okay, you guys have convinced me, they would have to be insane to hide inside those caverns.

      Like

    • buratino says:

      What I found strange was, that storing steel in a salty environment for long periods of time seemed a reasonable endeavor to anyone…I mean hide something there in an emergency, sure, but get them out of there asap. Just me…

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  3. Susan Welsh says:

    Very interesting report from Kots, although I don’t know why you call him “legendary.” As for Konashenkov, to me he looks and talks exactly as he looked and talked on the first day of the SMO: like a robot.

    Like

    • yalensis says:

      I dunno… to me it seemed like Konashenkov had a little more spring in his step at the beginning…
      🙂

      Like

    • peter moritz says:

      Seems to me the typical response of a non – Russian interpreting a Russian official’s demeanor. Yeah, those Russians all behave like robots, how often did I have to hear this bloody idiocy in West Germany while still living there. It seems not only West Germans do this stereotyping quite well. Zum Kotzen.

      The man comes across as quite serious, and not at all happy to have to relate those messages. And why should he not be sad, after all, why is the Russian army not bombing the bejeezus out of Kiev and destroying, like the good old US army and their pupils the Ukranians are doing so well infrastructure, housing, and public buildings. And of course, blaming it on the “other guy”.

      Like

  4. BM says:

    “Imagine a tunnel-like chamber 17 meters wide and 50 meters high, all surrounded with a metal grille. Then, one after the other, a series of several sub-chambers, each 150-200 meters long. It’s huge, you could run a train with 500 cars through it. There are literally thousands of wagons filled with weapons.

    Is that right? Should it be 50m long? 50m high seems implausible, (especially only 17 meters wide), and there is no length mentioned.

    If there are wagons rolling in, there must indeed be another entrance (or the wagons only reach the top and everything lugged down via the cage – very unlikely). In a salt mine the salt has to be brought out. Ergo, very unlikely the railway does not go down to lower levels (probably several levels). It may be the railway is unsuitable for entry/exit on foot during normal operation of the mine, but obviously that won’t apply here.

    The Russians need to destroy the ventilation equipment, then the Ukrainians will be out of the mine in a flash.

    Like

    • BM says:

      Quite obviously there is no natural source of water down there, so using the mines as a bunker like Mariupal would be out of the question.

      Like

    • BM says:

      “There is only one way into the technical territory. A cage lowers you down to the 152nd horizontal.

      Of course the Soviets might have removed rail access specifically to the 152nd horizontal after filling it, because it was supposed to be a secret cache. But (a) the Ukrainians could have easily restored rail access; and (b) there are probably countless entrances and exits to the complex as a whole.

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    • yalensis says:

      I double-checked my translation, this is the part where Kots is talking to Shanaev, who used to work down there as a supervisor over several of the storage unit:


      – Что из себя представляют хранилища?

      – Представьте выработки шириной 17 и высотой 50 метров, перегороженные металлическими воротами. Так друг за другом в одной выработке находятся несколько хранилищ. Длинна каждого – по 150-200 метров. Есть просто огромные, куда бы влезли 500 вагонов. Всего там тысячи вагонов с оружием.


      -What does this storage place consists of?
      -Imagine developments (?) with a width of 17 and a height of 50 meters […] And one after the other in a single development there are several storage areas. The length of each is around 150-200 meters..

      When I try to see this in my head, I am seeing a tunnel, very narrow but long, and also very high. Does that make sense?

      Like

      • BM says:

        Not to me, no. I think there must be a typo in the original.

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        • yalensis says:

          Maybe. I’m honestly not sure.

          Like

          • BM says:

            OK, I’ll come back to it! I put your Russian text into DeepL:

            – What are the vaults like?
            – Imagine an excavation 17 metres wide and 50 metres high, separated by a metal gate. One after the other, there are several vaults in the same excavation. Each one is 150-200 meters long. Some of them are huge, 500 rail cars could fit in there. All in all there are thousands of wagons with weapons.

            There’s your clue right there. How are you going to fit in 500 rail cars if they are 50m high and only 17m wide? It has to be 17m high and 50m wide.

            Other than that, 50m high and 17m wide makes no sense (to me) at all as a mining technique. 17m high and 50m wide does make sense as a mining technique. Latter is plausible, former is not. Also 50m high is utterly absurd for storage – 90% of your storage volume is wasted.

            17m wide and 50m long is also a possibility, but from your short snippet it is not clear how it all fits together, and whether the 150-200m long also applies to the 17×50 part or whether that is a separate segment (if a separate segment, then the 50m should most likely be the length).

            Finally, it makes no sense linguistically – that simply is not the way spaces are usually described (whether Russian differs in that respect I don’t know, but my other objections still remain).

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            • yalensis says:

              I think you are probably right that the original author switched height/width just as a typo or erratum.

              It distresses me that your computer translation is a little bit better than my own (human) translation, for example they got the word “excavation”, I don’t think I knew that word, but it is probably the correct term.

              Maybe the Day of the Machines is upon us sooner than I imagined. Computers can already beat chessmasters, so what’s next?

              On the other hand, that’s just technical translation. I still think mine is better when it comes to colloquial conversation!
              🙂

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              • Blame Gravatar for the swastika says:

                I’m no expert on mining techniques, but if I had to stand in the middle of an underground chamber, I’d rather be 8.5m away from the walls with the ceiling 50m above me than to be 25m from the walls with 50m wide of unsupported mass just 17m above me. I guess in the case of collapse it wouldn’t make much difference anyway, but it seems to me the chance of collapse would be WAY less in a tall narrow chamber than a wide short one. Maybe I should check mining techniques just to see. I promise I will before the next time I go to a salt mine.

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              • yalensis says:

                The only way to really know for sure is to go there in person with a measuring tape…!

                Like

  5. Beluga says:

    Thanks, yalensis!

    Based on this post, I researched salt mines and Soledar doesn’t even make the top ten world wide. Yes, I used that thing called an internet search engine. Also, many other disused parts of salt mines have churches, auditoria and cafes and trinket shops in them, and have guided tours like Soledar. You don’t need to go to the Donbass for a tour — Switzerland, Poland and the USA have such mines, and I forgot the others but they’re all over the place. No wonder everyone’s blood pressure is so high!

    For the various commenters who express their disbelief at the size of “rooms” that can be carved into solid salt, well, that’s why there’s Duck Duck Go and Alphabet Co. Find out for yourselves!

    The world’s largest salt mine is in Goderich ON Canada, run by Sifto Salt, has galleries much larger than Soledar, and used to have an underground bus service to get miners arriving on a new shift to their particular part of the rock salt face. But now they use ATVs. Over 100 miles of roadways there, not as much as Soledar, but as the mine was only opened in 1959 they made bigger holes and roads underground using more modern equipment. The mined salt is carried in 40 ton dump trucks, which were disassembled to get them down the elevator shaft, and then reassembled underground. In the US, some old salt mine in Kansas has apartments where scaredy-cats can hide from nuclear holocausts and munch on canned food. Dunno what they do for water — drink it from tanks full of blue-green algae, I guess. While the fuel supply lasts and before the lights go out, hey, it’s perfect hermit land. “Whaddya mean, Putin won?” growled Rip van Tinkle as he stepped out into a nuclear winter, having shimmied up an elevator cable and confronted the apartment concierge with a melted face at the surface. “Where’s the hot cawfee and donutz you guys promised in the brochure?”

    Whether there are ramps with railroad tracks etc wasn’t mentioned in anything I read about any of these deep salt mines. They seem to be mostly an elevator lift only enterprise for both salt and miners. Maybe the Swiss one has a railway, because it gives a trip across an underground lake too — it seems to be the odd man out.

    And naturally, with the constant temperature and non-condensing humidity in a typical salt mine, your average hunk of I-ron or steel doesn’t corrode. You need free water as liquid for that to make a solution. Since I already knew that fact from efforts around here to store natural gas in an old salt dome told me by a fellow engineer, it gave me the impetus for an enjoyable search session to learn a bit more. Of course, due to Soviet-era secrecy, there are no doubt larger mines than Sifto’s Canadian property somewhere in Siberia, where bad-behavin’ proles mine salt with teaspoons and buckets Concentrates the mind wonderfully, I’m told.

    That’s being honest for a minute, and shows that your average troll is no chemist but merely possessed of a superior air and a secret handshake. So if I were a UFA soldier, I wouldn’t want to be trapped underground, nor breathe the air for too long. Salt miners croak on too much salt dust, which is bad for the lungs — the almost dried-out Great Salt Lake in Utah has had recent salt dust storms causing many human medical problems in Salt Lake City proper. Google it. Several places in California have already experienced that problem previously. Moderation in most things is the ticket, so maybe your average health-seeking tourist who wants a lungful of salt dust for its alleged naturopathic “benefits” is lucky they don’t hang around for months thinking that if a little is good, a lot would be better.

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    • yalensis says:

      Beluga, thanks for that erudite comment. When you mentioned the Great Salt Lake in Utah — believe it or not that is actually a place I have visited as a tourist, and it’s awesome — but anyhow, I googled it and found this , well it’s a different place in Utah, where salt from the Jurassic era is mined at 370 feet below sea level.

      Ain’t our planet amazing!

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  6. BM says:

    And naturally, with the constant temperature and non-condensing humidity in a typical salt mine, your average hunk of I-ron or steel doesn’t corrode.

    Sorry, but it is completely wrong to say that iron and steel don’t corrode in non-condensing humidity. If you have a warm environment and moderately high NON-CONDENSING humidity, corrosion proceeds at a very high rate, even without any salt (but with salt, much faster still)!

    If temperatures are low that is another matter – low temperature and non-condensing necessarily means far less H2O held in the air.

    At low temperatures, I’m not sure what effect the salt has – at a guess, maybe it pulls humidity out of the air, thereby keeping humidity down? Just guessing, no idea.

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