New York, Ukraine – The Big Apple’s little Ukrainian namesake sits awkwardly just miles away from the front lines of Europe’s bloodiest armed conflict.
Its less than 10,000 residents often go to sleep with the sound of cannons or gunfire, and occasional shells fired by pro-Russian separatists sometimes reach the town large enough to be in “Old” New York and ” New “New York to be divided.
In Old New York, one can still see the brick-and-mortar houses built by German Mennonites, a Protestant sect, who arrived here a century after Russia annexed Crimea for the first time.
Or, to be more precise, after the Russian Empire conquered the Khanate of Crimea in 1783, the mostly Muslim state that ruled the Black Sea Peninsula and adjoining lands covered with fertile black soil and plenty of coal and iron ore beneath it. .
The Mennonites and other European settlers helped turn the steppes into an industrial heartland – the nearby cities of Donetsk and Luhansk were founded by an Englishman and a Scotsman.
The Soviets deported the Mennonites to Siberia, began naming the town Novgorodskoye (the New City) and built New York centered around a chemical plant named after KGB founder Felix Dzerzhinsky.
‘A chance to tell our story’
Only this July, Ukrainian politicians voted to give the town back its old name.
“New York sounds loud, it’s interesting, it gives us a chance to tell our story to the world,” Kristina Shevchenko, who teaches Ukrainian language and literature in the town’s school, told Al Jazeera.
But this is not the story of a mere geographical curiosity.
New York is a microcosm of modern Ukraine – and a brick in the new Berlin Wall that separates democratic Europe from an increasingly assertive Russia.
The town is struggling to survive next to the smoldering trench war that killed more than 13,000 people and displaced millions.
Hundreds of New Yorkers work at the phenolic chemical plant, a highly toxic precursor. The plant belongs to Ukraine’s richest oligarch Rinat Akhmetov and emits odors that cover New York several times a day.
Others leave in masses to work mostly minor jobs in the European Union, just like millions of other Ukrainians who become taxis, farm workers, construction workers or supermarket clerks.
Some have fled to Russia, attracting working-age Ukrainians to supplement its dwindling and aging population.
And the town’s online newspaper, predictably called the New Yorker, covers the slow, arduous progress and success of local activists who have faced endemic corruption.
They want to make things better – despite the war, water supply disruptions, environmental pollution and a flood of propaganda from Kremlin – controlled television networks.
Shevchenko runs a group of two dozen youth activists who repair the town’s park and historic buildings and plan to repair pothole roads, install wind turbines and solar panels.
They show older New Yorkers how to overcome the Soviet-era inertia of people who are used to being surrounded by problems – but not to correct it on their own.
It is important that they prove that they are not part of what Russian President Vladimir Putin calls the “Russian world”.
He used the cultural unity of Russian-speakers living in the former USSR as a pretext to “defend” them – and to expand the Kremlin’s political power beyond Russia’s current borders.
“We do not need Russia here. We had a chance to compare, ”Shevchenko said on a sunny October afternoon in the village park full of falling leaves, buildings from the Stalinist era and plaster sculptures by Russian writers.
In early 2014, months-long protests in Maidan Square in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, removed pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Russia has responded by annexing Crimea for the second time – and inciting separatist conflict in southeastern Ukraine.
The rebels carved out the “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, totalitarian, economically stillborn states where expropriation, the death penalty and torture in concentration camps are part of a miserable daily life.
Separatists and the Russian military occupied New York in 2014, say locals and Ukrainian officials. (The Kremlin claims that it never sent any army to Ukraine, calling the conflict a “civil war” caused by a “coup” and “violation” of the rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians.)
Three months later, the town was liberated by volunteers who helped Ukraine’s underfunded and demoralized army.
“They wore slippers, some entered directly after the Maidan protests,” teacher and community activist Nadejda Gordiyuk told Al Jazeera. He edits The New Yorker and studies New York’s history.
And New Yorkers treated them like family.
“We washed their clothes, made pies for them and raised money for their radio communications,” Shevchenko added.
Since then, the city has been part of frontline areas governed by a military administration.
But its proximity to war and death does not prevent some New Yorkers from developing as a community.
Ivan Rudenko, an experienced firefighter, fights corruption and a lack of transparency in the industry of New York’s utility companies. In 2016, he founded a company that took over the services at a lower cost and with much more impressive results.
Today, the cooperative serves more than 100 apartment buildings. Some have been refurbished, some boast new playgrounds, gardens and sidewalks.
“It’s a way to unite people,” Rudenko told Al Jazeera. “In five years we have done what has not been done in decades.”
And their residents realized things depend on what they vote for and do with their own hands.
“They have overcome the stereotypes of Soviet mentality – to be afraid of everything new,” concluded community activist Gordiyuk.