“Salt gave us work and salt gave us life,” said Ruslan, a salt miner turned soldier.
Ruslan, 45, was working 1,000 feet below the earth in one of Europe’s largest salt mines when the Russians launched their full-scale invasion. Almost a year later, he was fighting near the ruined city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine when the Russians took control of his nearby hometown, and the mine with it.
“I can’t even describe that feeling now,” he said when asked to recall how he felt when the town, Soledar, was lost. “Everything dear to me, everything I loved, worked for, and dreamed about was shattered in an instant.”
Soledar — which means gift of salt — fell in January, allowing the Russians to step up their assault on Bakhmut, about 40 miles to the south. The small town, with only 10,000 residents before the attack, also held a special place in Ukraine’s economy and history.
The mine provided more than 90 percent of the country’s salt, and its operator, the state-owned company Artemsil, exported salt to more than 20 countries. Now Ukraine is relying on imported salt for the first time in its modern history.
But the country’s connection to its salt runs deeper than economics: It is a matter of national pride. Nearly every home had a package of salt from Soledar. Salt was among the first resources that made the eastern Donbas region famous for its mineral wealth.
The remnants of more than a century of mining were spectacular, too — excavations more than 1,000 feet deep, linked by more than 200 miles of tunnels, and caverns with cathedral-like roofs big enough to host orchestral concerts, a soccer match and even a hot-air balloon. The Soledar mine had become a tourist attraction, complete with a sanitarium built around the unproven health benefits of breathing salt-infused air.
Soon after the Russians launched their invasion, Soledar came under withering bombardment. Ruslan, whose job was to ensure fresh air in the mines, recalled how they raced to get enough salt from the earth to replenish the national strategic stockpile before shelling forced the company to suspend operations in late April last year.
The salt disappeared from store shelves last summer, but 20 tons of stock that the government and the company managed to recover is now being sold within Ukraine to raise money for the war effort. Its packaging is based on a widely shared illustration by the designer Artem Gusev that turned Artemsil’s salt-crystal emblem into a Ukrainian trident and replaced the word “salt” (“sil”) with “strength” (“mits”).
When Artemsil became aware of the illustration, it saw the chance to “add a little bit of strength to every Ukrainian,” said its head of communications, Volodymyr Nizienko. According to the government platform handling the sales, United24, the campaign has raised more than $1.5 million.
The money cannot replace the more than 2,500 jobs lost, or rebuild what the bombardment destroyed, but it will buy drones for the Ukrainian military to attempt to win the town back.
The destruction of Soledar was part of Russia’s broader targeting of Ukraine’s economy. The occupation of Enerhodar — a town whose name means gift of energy, home to Europe’s largest nuclear power plant — helped the Kremlin turn Ukraine from an energy exporter into a country struggling to meet its own power needs.
Russian occupation of lands used to produce wheat, corn and sunflower oil — normally Ukraine’s top exports — has devastated the agricultural sector. The wreckage of Azovstal, the Mariupol plant where Ukrainian soldiers held out for months, is a testament to Russia’s decimation of the nation’s steel industry. And port blockades throttle what remains.
Before Soledar fell, the town’s annihilation was mostly complete.
“Everything has been completely destroyed; there is almost no life left,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said in early January. “The whole land near Soledar is covered with corpses of occupiers and scars from strikes. This is what madness looks like.”
Ruslan, who now goes by the call sign Miner, learned of the Ukrainian forces’ withdrawal from Soledar from friends as he was fighting in the forest belt north of Bakhmut, near the village of Pidhorodne.
He had a hard time putting into words the brutality of the Russian onslaught there, calling it “a nightmare.”
“Wagner group fighters were attacking us constantly; we didn’t have enough ammunition,” he said, speaking by telephone from a position in a different part of the country. His full name is being withheld for security reasons since he is still on active duty. “Not all of us survived, but we accomplished all the tasks and defended the place.”
He paused. “To be honest, it was hell,” he said.
It was the head of the mercenary group Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who released a video on Jan. 12 trumpeting the fall of Soledar — the most significant Russian territorial gain in months. He claimed he was filming his victory speech in the salt caverns.
The symbolism was potent, and contested by the Ukrainians: Officials and workers from Artemsil said the backdrop looked like a nearby gypsum mine.
Mr. Prigozhin also sought to attribute military significance to the mines, which were rumored to hold an arsenal dating to Soviet times, saying he hoped to make use of both stored weapons and the tunnel network.
The British military intelligence agency said Ukrainian and Russian officials were likely to be concerned about how the other side could use the vast network of tunnels to their advantage.
“Both sides are likely concerned that they could be used for infiltration behind their lines,” it said in a statement.
Ukrainian officials declined to comment on any potential weapons cache. But Viktoria Skrypnyk, the chief geologist for Artemsil, said when Soledar fell that the use of the mines for military purposes was unlikely: The shafts are too deep and narrow to easily move military equipment in and out.
Ruslan — who once guided tours through the caverns — said that he had not communicated with anyone in Soledar since the Russians arrived, because there was no one left.
The handful of civilians who remained, he said, were either too old to move or had looked forward to the Russian arrival because they supported Moscow. Any others, he said, had probably been killed.
Ruslan’s wife, son and daughter were evacuated from Soledar before the Russians came, and the family does not know when it will return. Some of his friends have given up on the thought of going home, building new lives in new towns.
“I cannot let it go,” Ruslan said. “I know that we will win it back, we’ll come back there after the victory, we’ll restore everything and will live on.”
In the meantime, he said, his family holds onto a single bag of salt from Soledar, saving it for holidays and the day they can go home again.
Anna Lukinova contributed reporting.