When I ask Mykola Lenko why his town was once called New York, he tells me a couple of stories. He especially enjoys the tale about how the owner of one of the town’s brick factories came to meet his wife-to-be.
“In the 18th century, this factory owner went to New York city to visit an exhibition. He fell in love with the daughter of his interpreter and brought her here. She missed her home so much that he renamed the place New York.”
The story may be just a piece of town legend, but at least it brings a smile to Lenko’s tired face. The 46-year-old mayor of Novhorodske, a village in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, is responsible for a settlement seven kilometers away from Horlivka, a major town under control of Russia-backed separatists.
But after more than five years of conflict, the war in eastern Ukraine has become a sad reality. For residents of Novhorodske, shelling and explosions are not the scariest part of it anymore. Now the utility bills, housing problems and economic instability are the more urgent issues for town residents.
An elderly lady knocks on the door to the mayor’s office, barely lit by sunlight. As soon as Lenko asks her in, she starts to complain about the garbage that has been piling up outside her apartment block for weeks.
Lenko says that he is doing what he can and, with a practiced hand, dials the local utility service. “We live in the 21st century, not the 16th,” he tells the person at the other end of the line to take care of it.
The lady also asks when the power in her house will be restored. Lenko is aware of the situation, but his hands are tied. There is one resident in this particular block who doesn’t pay the electricity bills, Lenko says, and that is why the electricity company can cut off the supply. “I don’t know where he is. Maybe he left, maybe he died,” the woman says.
The United Nations currently estimate that 2.7 million people living close to the frontline require humanitarian aid. Novhorodske is one of many isolated settlements that are either fully or partially cut off from surrounding areas due to the ongoing war, checkpoints and landmines.
“The town is slowly dying,” Lenko says, and explains why. Since the war began in 2014, many people have left Novhorodske, especially the young ones. The number of local children in schools and kindergartens has shrunk from 800 to 350. Jobs are scarce. Out of the ten enterprises that used to work here, only the Phenol plant, a chemical factory in the centre of the village, is operational.
Ukraine’s previous government introduced a tax discount for enterprises operating next to the frontline. This may have been a good deal for the Phenol plant, but it’s a bad one for the village according to Tatiana Krasko, secretary at the village council, who says the council has lost about 85 percent of its local budget. These funds cover maintenance of roads, streetlights and the salaries of employees of the village council and the municipality. That's why citizens need to come up with their own strategy on how to boost the economy here.
Some locals, mainly pensioners, are against the renaming of the village - or at least indifferent towards it
Mayor Lenko sits behind his desk, which is surrounded by objects from the past. In the corner are shells from the ongoing war, flags, a grenade. But the table is covered with documents from the 19th century. They carry the names of early Mennonite settlers who came here from Germany. Old maps show the town as being called “New York”.
Both the Germans and the name “New York” were removed by the Soviet Union in the 1940s and 1950s - the Mennonites were deported on Stalin’s orders in 1941, and in 1951 the town was renamed. But for Lenko, this European legacy means everything. During our interview, he emphasises the cultural heritage of his town located in Donbas, which many consider a bleak industrial area.
“This residential area was founded by Europeans and there was a time when German was the most spoken language here.”
Lenko is convinced that this heritage is of international interest. He hopes that one day international students will explore the area, and that people from Germany will come, and exchange with the locals.
Recently, a tour for journalists from all over Ukraine was organised, to promote the potential of the town. But while the political situation in the country and the further development of the military conflict is not clear, it is too early to talk about concrete plans. First, to really boost tourism, the place has to be “rebranded”, Lenko says.
The mayor’s office provided the necessary documents for the request of renaming Novhorodske to the Donetsk Regional State Administration. In 2016, two MPs submitted a draft bill to rename the town to Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada. It was rejected due to the lack of independent historical experts who could confirm the town’s historical legacy.
Some locals, mainly pensioners, are against the renaming of the village - or at least indifferent towards it. But while these residents are used to their town’s name, they are yet to pose organised opposition to the initiative.
Some residents, though, are excited about the idea. Nadiya Gordiyuk, 56, and Tatiana Krasko, 43, proudly say: “I am from New York”.
For two years, Gordiyuk has been running a Facebook page called “Ukrainian New York in Donetsk” and Krasko, the local council secretary, takes care of “souvenirs from New York”: fridge magnets with pictures of local attractions, like public buildings, the park and residential buildings built by German settlers.
These buildings are located in a street once called Gartenstraße, or Garden Street. The architecture of the houses is unusual for eastern Ukraine: the walls are thick and there are solid cellars. Cellars that save lives in times of war.
But in Soviet times, nobody cared about this. Gordiyuk tells me about attending a Soviet school. “I learned about the history of Stalinism and Communism. I was a Homo Sovieticus.” She explains how she learned about the Russian Empire, but she says that the cultural heritage of her own town was passed over and forgotten, not written down.
For Gordiyuk, it was only when the war broke out in 2014 that the importance of creating a local identity became clear to her. “When the war started, I saw the strength of Russian propaganda and I realised that through our history, I can show people who we really are,” Gordiyuk says. “There were Germans here, and we are Europeans too.”
It’s only four kilometres from the town’s school to the frontline, school director Olga Sosova points out as she leads me through the building, the voices of excited children echoing down the halls. One class room has been decorated with Ukrainian folklore objects, with musical instruments and traditional clothing. There was no such thing before the war.
Sosova, whose own children attend the school, explains how stressful the work is under the current conditions. Her eyes fill with tears, and when her hands start trembling, she crosses her fingers.
“If we had closed the school, the people would have left the place quickly. It was crucial to keep it open,” Sosova explains, saying that the school stopped working for only three weeks over the past five years.
Meanwhile, the school’s teachers and pupils have trained how to behave in dangerous situations, such as shelling. But they hear the noise of explosions in their homes too. “Sometimes we tell the kids it was thunder. But they understand the reality of the situation.”
The pupils’ behaviour has changed, says Sosova. Some have become introverted, some more aggressive. Others now jump when the door is shut too loudly.
Sosova also thinks that if the name of Novhorodske changes back to “New York”, things will improve here. “New York is like a brand. We will get more attention.”
The hopes for the revitalisation of Ukraine’s New York are great, but everyday reality - the number of military vehicles and soldiers in the streets - makes it hard to believe that things will improve soon
The hopes for the revitalisation of Ukraine’s New York are great, but everyday reality - the number of military vehicles and soldiers in the streets - makes it hard to believe that things will improve soon. For Lenko, tourism and rebranding might not only help the town’s economic struggle, it could have security consequences, too. “I don’t think that there are a lot of people who would like to shell New York.” He believes that the renaming will also affect the media coverage of front-line settlements. “Because no one listens when ‘Novhorodske’ is being shelled.”
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s plan to disengage the forces in Donbas is worrying for locals here. After the announcement on 1 October, some residents made a banner that said “Do not withdraw Ukrainian troops from New York”. These residents are afraid that disengagement will aggravate the situation again and leave the town unprotected.
But in addition to the economic problems, there are other challenges. The number of HIV infections has also increased, with 146 current diagnoses. “Unemployment has boosted drug consumption,” Krasko explains, and says that it’s mostly men who have been affected.
Likewise, the number of recorded lung cancer and cardiovascular diseases in Novhorodske has been rising and the reason, Tatiana Krasko says, is obvious. For decades people in the area have been working in the Phenol plant or the mercury factory in nearby Horlivka. Now, these enterprises carry an additional risk for the environment: in case of damage, chemicals could leak and poison the soil and surrounding rivers.
Krasko shows me a red two-storey building in the centre of town. Soon, she says, this building will be the village’s new community centre, complete with a local history museum and a small guesthouse. A ramp for wheelchairs has already been built next to the entrance. Back when the concrete was still fresh, Krasko and others carved their names into it.
Research for this article was conducted during a scholarship from the Stiftung für deutsch-polnische Zusammenarbeit.