Sheffield’s forgotten twin

A view of a monument of founder of Donetsk British businessman John Hughes in Donetsk, Ukraine, Monday, June 6, 2011. The city was founded in 1869 by a Welsh businessman, John Hughes, who constructed a steel plant and several coal mines in the region; the town was thus named Yuzovka  in recognition of his role in its founding ("Yuz" being a Russian or Ukrainian approximation of Hughes). During Soviet times, the city's steel industry was expanded. In 1924 at the plenum Yuzovsky executive committee had decided to rename the town from Yuzovka to Stalin. In 1929-1931 the town was renamed in Stalino .  In 1932 the city became the center of Donetsk region. In 1961, during the De-Stalinisation the city was again renamed to its modern name Donetsk.  Donetsk is one of Ukraine's four host cities for the Euro 2012 soccer tournament.  (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
A view of a monument of founder of Donetsk British businessman John Hughes in Donetsk, Ukraine, Monday, June 6, 2011. The city was founded in 1869 by a Welsh businessman, John Hughes, who constructed a steel plant and several coal mines in the region; the town was thus named Yuzovka in recognition of his role in its founding ("Yuz" being a Russian or Ukrainian approximation of Hughes). During Soviet times, the city's steel industry was expanded. In 1924 at the plenum Yuzovsky executive committee had decided to rename the town from Yuzovka to Stalin. In 1929-1931 the town was renamed in Stalino . In 1932 the city became the center of Donetsk region. In 1961, during the De-Stalinisation the city was again renamed to its modern name Donetsk. Donetsk is one of Ukraine's four host cities for the Euro 2012 soccer tournament. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

IF England’s footballers find themselves at a loose end before or after their Euro 2012 match against France in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk on Monday, they may like to take a stroll around Sheffield Park.

Created along the riverside, “it is full of marvellous flowers, trees and bushes ... and looks especially romantic in the evenings”, says the tourism guide.

It’s a reminder of a link that was forged during the Cold War in 1956 and especially activated in the 80s.

As part of the so-called Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire, and at a time when left-leaning councils were declaring themselves nuclear-free zones, Sheffield was keen to demonstrate a peaceful affiliation with this corner of the Soviet Union.

It was appropriate that a place dominated by steel and mining should be twinned with Sheffield, even though not everybody in Sheffield was convinced.

But the affiliation has now faded away. Travelling between the two places was always difficult, the political climate has changed and the relationship was essentially one pursued by councillors rather than fuelled by the local community.

Yet one of the main roads in the south-east of Sheffield, Donetsk Way, which skirts around Hackenthorpe towards Beighton, bears testimony to the days when local Labour politicians believed they were making a bold statement of faith.

Former deputy Labour leader Peter Price, still a councillor, said Sheffield was one of the first cities to twin with part of the Soviet Union after the War.

“I led a delegation many years ago. I’ve been a couple of times and we once took a Sheffield junior football team to play in their stadium,” he recalls.

The match ended suspiciously in a diplomatic 1-1 draw, he seems to remember.

“It was a lovely city, very attractive. It copied Sheffield and built a ‘hole in the road’ (the old underpass for pedestrians at Castle Square).

“On the street, people were very warm and they loved the English. They saw us as allies. They hated the Russians. They used to sing nationalist songs which were anti-Russian. I remember saying at the time that the Soviet Union wouldn’t last.”

Sheffield’s civic leaders were joined in Donetsk on one occasion by a delegation from Bochum in then West Germany, which is another of Sheffield’s twin towns. It was perhaps the first time a German city had formalised links with the Soviet Union after the War, said Coun Price.

“We haven’t been there as a council for a long time. I think one or two schools used to have a link. We have lost a lot of the contact but I think the links between Donetsk and Bochum have continued.”

Civic delegations were not always the cushy numbers that might be imagined.

“I remember being 1,000ft down a mine, sitting on coal dust and drinking cold tea,” says former Lord Mayor Coun Price.

And you had to tread carefully. One Sheffield Lord Mayor proposed a toast to the Soviet Union and the Olympics – at a time when the Soviet Union was boycotting them.

“Everywhere we went, everybody had to propose a toast. If you were tenth in line, you were thinking of a theme for your toast. You began to get desperate. There was all this vodka and you had to be careful how much you drank.”

Another visitor, former council leader David Blunkett, says: “As visitors we were taken down the showcase pit and were allowed to walk around freely but even 30 years ago it is remarkable to recall how reluctant people were to talk openly.”

There were wide open streets with extremely friendly local people proud of their Ukrainian origins at a time when the Soviet Union was seeking to impose cultural hegemony, adds the now MP for Brightside and Hillsborough.

“Lots of roubles were being earned by the very high status miners – mining dominating the city – but with very little for them to spend it on.

“Georgian champagne was a luxury and I shall never forget the flight to Moscow with live chickens, large melons and goodness knows what other goodies being taken to relatives in the capital.”