Europe’s Biggest Salt Mine Is Now in ‘Minecraft,’ and It’s Helping Ukraine Rebuild

On February 24, 2022, Stepan Bandrivskyi woke up before dawn and got ready for a special day: his birthday.

It wouldn’t be a particularly happy one. Hours earlier, a couple dozen miles away, Russian tanks had rolled across the borders of his native Ukraine. The full-scale invasion had begun.

Like so many other Ukrainians, Bandrivskyi didn’t know what to do. So he went to work, to the Soledar Salt Mine, a cavernous state-run operation in Eastern Ukraine. Kyiv says it is the biggest such mine in Europe. His manager told him to go home: The mine was closed. It hasn’t resumed operations since.

Bandrivskyi fled the region not long after, as Russian forces advanced. After nearly a year of fighting, during which the mines were turned into bunkers, Russia seized and occupied the town of Soledar—although fierce fighting continues nearby. Over time, Bandrivskyi came to the painful realization that he may never see the salt mine, and its eerie and isolated beauty, ever again.

Last year, Bandrivskyi received a phone call from a colleague. “He invited me to participate in a very interesting project,” he says.

The Ukrainian government wanted to completely map the mine “and translate it into a game environment,” he says. Bandrivskyi seized the opportunity. “I wanted to keep it in my memory, and I wanted other people to be able to kind of immerse themselves in this world as well,” he says.

With that, Minesalt was born.

The idea for Minesalt comes from United24, the official crowdfunding arm of the Ukrainian government. For nearly two years, United24 has raised funds to rebuild apartment blocks and purchase de-mining equipment. Last year, United24 began shipping batches of salt to donors, through its “Soledarity” campaign—raising some $3 million to purchase reconnaissance drones.

But as the war drags into its third year, donor fatigue has set in. That has pushed United24 to come up with new and innovative ways of attracting the world’s attention—and support.

Minesalt, which launches today, might be their most inspired effort yet.

On the left, the Soledar Salt Mine in Ukraine. On the right, a recreation of the mine in Minecraft. (Move the slider in the middle to see a full view of each image.)

“It is important for us to remember and talk about every Ukrainian city that is under temporary Russian occupation,” Yaroslava Gres, chief coordinator of United24, told WIRED in a statement. Last summer, when a team suggested bringing Soledar to life as a video game, it was a very easy idea to say yes to.

Built for the wildly popular sandbox game Minecraft, Minesalt challenges players to race through the mine, collecting 140 hidden salt crystals as fast as possible. At the end of the run, a quiz tests players’ recollection of details from Soledar. But, like in the rest of Minecraft, Minesalt players can also opt to wander at their own pace.