The future of Ukrainian New York

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Soviet era palace of culture in New York in October 2021, the location of the New York Literary Festival. Photo by Olya Rusina, used with permission.

This story is part of a series of essays and articles written by Ukrainian artists who decided to stay inside Ukraine after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. This series is produced in collaboration with the Folkowisko Association/Rozstaje.art, thanks to co-funding by the governments of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia through a grant from the International Visegrad Fund. The mission of the fund is to advance ideas for sustainable regional cooperation in Central Europe.  

In 2021, the name New York started to appear in the daily reports by the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The phrase “There was shelling around New York” sounded ambiguous, so the media outlets started to add: “New York in the Donetsk region.”

While Ukraine's New York has only started frequenting media and military reports in recent years, the town's history dates back to the 19th century. Like in many cities in eastern Ukraine, western European settlers played a leading role in the economic development of New York. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they built steel plants and coal mines among local settlements. In New York, these were Mennonite Germans. Later, there were several legends about why the Germans named their community after the iconic US city: some claimed that the wife of an original settler was a US native who was homesick, and others said the settlers hoped that the town would develop as rapidly as its overseas namesake. Indeed, at the beginning of the 20th century, it was a very progressive town with a steam mill, a railroad, a fire station, industrial plants, a bookstore, and educational institutions. 

Then Soviet rule came, repression started, and after World War II, New York lost its initial name. For a half-century, the town was called Novhorodske (from the Russian “novyi gorod” meaning “new city” or “new town”). Then, in 2014, Russia launched a military campaign in the east of Ukraine. The Luhansk and Donetsk regions were crossed by a frontline, with Novhorodske neighboring the frontline and the occupied territory. Horlivka, which is part of the Russian puppet entity DPR, is visible from a hill in the center of the town. Amidst this campaign, Ukrainian locals advocated for restoring the town's historic name and eventually were successful in 2021. This is how the name of the American metropolis appeared on the map of military developments in eastern Ukraine.

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Panorama from the hill in New York, October 2021. Photo by Olya Rusina, used with permission.

Skeptics might point out that the exotic name changes nothing in the life of a typical provincial town that has been a war zone since 2014. Yet New York attracted the attention of media outlets as well as its own residents as the fight to return the historic name united an active part of the local community. The activists saved the four-story Peter Dik’s steam mill, which was built in 1903, the local landmark, from being dismantled. (In 2022, it burned down after being targeted by a Russian rocket.) Half a year before the full-scale invasion, the town held its first literary festival and the first town’s online media outlet — NewYorker.City — was unveiled. High school students from New York wrote essays about their town, and five winners of the competition even managed to get their prize, a trip to Kyiv and Lviv, which took place less than two months before the full-scale invasion. 

“This time, it was scarier than when I was a child”

When the war broke out in the east of Ukraine, Valeria was ten years old, and she remembers little about those times. Until 2022, there were no air raid sirens in Novhorodske/New York. But the children were taught: if you hear a whistle, it means a shell is flying somewhere but toward you; if you hear a rustling sound, lie down on the ground immediately, better in a ditch. The girl says:

24 лютого ти бачиш, що обстріляли не Краматорськ, Слов'янськ чи Торецьк, як бувало раніше (міста на Донеччині — авт.), а Харків, Одесу, Київ. Ти просто не розумієш, що відбувається. Можливо, з початком повномасштабної війни мені було так страшно через те, що ще лишилися якісь несвідомі дитячі спогади про початок війни 2014-го. У мене почали здавати нерви, я дуже боялася прильотів. Я вже була доросла і розуміла, які можуть бути наслідки цих вибухів, через це мені було страшніше, ніж у дитинстві. Я дуже добре розумію тих людей, які почули їх уперше.

On February 24, you can see that they did not shell Kramatorsk, Sloviansk, or Toretsk [all in the Donetsk region] like before, but shelled Kharkiv, Odessa, Kyiv instead. One simply did not understand what was going on. Maybe, I was so scared at the beginning of the full-scale war because I still had some unconscious childhood memories about the beginning of the 2014 war. I started to lose my nerves, I was very afraid of landing shells. I was already an adult and I understood what the consequences of these explosions could be; because of this, it was scarier than when I was a child. I really understand people who heard them for the first time.

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Valeria, photo provided by her. Used with permission.

Now, the girl is 19. She lives in the Lviv region and is going to enroll in university this year. Currently, she works for the NewYorker.City. Several years ago, Valeria and other teenagers formed an NGO called Initiative Youth of Ukrainian New York (Ukrainian: “Ініціативна молодь українського Нью-Йорка”, ІМУН) which took part in the literary festival, held a lot of their own activities, and engaged in educational campaigns, including efforts to restore the town’s historical name.  

Valeria’s father was killed in February, at the very beginning of the full-scale war, during a Russian assault. She said:

Про його загибель вже знали у селищі — ходили чутки, але нашій родині ще нічого точно не було відомо. Ми насправді розуміли, що щось відбувається, бо він перестав відповідати на повідомлення і дзвінки. Потім мені написав знайомий і питає: ‘Лєра, твій батько загинув?’. Ми з мамою стали дзвонити батьковим друзям. Знайома з батальйону ‘Айдар’, яка була на сусідніх позиціях, сказала: ‘Так, нас звідти евакуювали, а їх не змогли забрати, навіть поранених — бо росіяни продовжували штурмувати’. Там лишилося і батькове тіло. Мабуть, найгірше для мене було — це дізнатися про його загибель отак, із якихось чуток.

People in the town already knew about his death: there were rumors, but our family didn’t know anything for sure. We actually knew that something was going on because he stopped answering text messages and calls. Then an acquaintance wrote to me asking: ‘Lera, did your father die?’ My mom and I started to call my father’s friends. An acquaintance from the Aydar battalion, who was in a neighboring position, said: ‘Yes, we were evacuated from there, but we didn’t manage to take them out, even the wounded, because the Russians continued the assault.’ My father’s body was also left there. Maybe, the worst part for me was to learn about his death like that, from someone’s rumors.

Dreams about coming back

Now, 22 people from the Initiative Youth of Ukrainian New York are scattered all over Ukraine, some found themselves abroad. Initially, they had been occupied with providing humanitarian aid to civilians, then switched to military assistance: they have fundraised and bought equipment. They also created a line of branded “New York” clothing and stencils with Ukrainian inscriptions, sent postcards and food to the frontline, and made a video clip for civilians on providing first aid. Valeria believes that after the war, New Yorkers will come back: 

Дуже важко жити в евакуації, у незнайомому тобі місті чи країні. Хочеться додому. У нас насправді багато активних людей — вони, як і, власне, ми з нашою громадською організацією, повернуться і візьмуть на себе відбудову. Знаєш, зараз кажуть, що найбільш зруйновані міста та селища Донеччини не відбудовуватимуть. Але я думаю, що це вирішувати не президентові чи обласній владі, а тим людям, які захочуть і будуть там жити. Якщо вони захочуть відновити свої домівки, то зроблять це.

It is very difficult to live as an evacuee, in an unfamiliar city or country. We want to go home. We actually have a lot of active people — they, like us with our NGO, plan to come back and take over the reconstruction. You know, they say that the most destroyed cities and towns of Donetsk region won’t be rebuilt. But I think that it is not for the president or the regional authorities to decide but the people who want to live there. If they want to rebuild their houses, they will do it.

The motto of the second New York literary festival will be “Deoccupation of the future.” “We wanted to learn together how to think strategically and play the long game despite the constant threat from Russia,” said writer Victoria Amelina, the founder of the New York literary festival. Before the beginning of the full-scale invasion, she managed to plan who she would like to invite to New York in the autumn of 2022, which was then canceled because of the invasion. Not all of them will be able to come to the renewed festival. For example, famous reporter and soldier Olexandr Makhov was killed in May 2022.

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Victoria Amelina in front of the former New York Literary Festival facility in early 2023. Photo provided by Victoria Amelina, used with permission.

While working on this story, I had an opportunity to talk with Victoria about the future of New York and its festival. But like Oleksandr Makhov, Victoria will never return to the town in the Donetsk region. On June 27, 2023, she was heavily wounded when the Russians conducted a rocket strike at the center of Kramatorsk, targeting a popular pizzeria called RIA. Twelve people were killed there, including three children. Victoria was the twelfth victim: she died in a hospital in the city of Dnipro on June 1. Victoria’s friends and relatives are planning to develop and continue the New York Literary Festival. While there is no possibility of doing this in New York at the moment, they are going to initiate educational activities for children and youth somewhere in a safer place.

The author of this text, together with PEN Ukraine, is organizing a campaign to fundraise for the festival

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