Ukraine's New York: the Struggle for Change on the Frontline

The war confounds young people’s efforts to revitalise Ukraine’s embattled east and counter Russian propaganda.

Ukraine's New York: the Struggle for Change on the Frontline

The war confounds young people’s efforts to revitalise Ukraine’s embattled east and counter Russian propaganda.

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Short documentary by Olha Volynska filmed on 22 Feb, two days before the start of the war.
Monday, 21 March, 2022

In recent months, youth activists in the eastern Ukrainian town of New York have organised community events including a literary festival, sports marathon and dozens of historical excursions for locals and tourists alike.

But all such activities have ceased in the town – named by Mennonite Germans who bought these lands in the middle of the 19th century - since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24.

New York lies just five kilometres away from the front line that split the large industrial region of Donetsk following the 2014 conflict.   

Renamed Novogrodovka in 1951 by the Soviet authorities, the town’s historic title was only restored in the autumn of 2021 after the young activists successfully lobbied parliament.

“We created a NGO called New York Youth Initiative. It was very important to give an impetus to the youth so that they understand that, in terms of development, the responsibility lies with us,” said Kristina Shevchenko, a 28-year-old Ukrainian language teacher. “And we understood that the return of the historical name would give the town a chance to recover and develop.”

Since then, inspired by this achievement, young New Yorkers have organised numerous events and activities, including the planned construction of a football field for local youth.

“I like being part of the development of our town, to make people feel brighter. And our organisation does this perfectly,” said another youth activist, 15-year-old Kamila. “We have held many events that brought our residents together. Of course I’d like to stay here, study more and bring new experience and knowledge [into our town].”

The core group of activists also created an online magazine entitled NewYorker City, intended to provide an alternative to intensifying Russian propaganda in the area.

 “It's not just about the magazine,” Shevchenko said. “Our NewYorker City is also read in the occupied territory. There is a lot of Russian propaganda, both television and newspapers. There are also pro-Russian newspapers inside our city, and it is very important for us to give people an information choice.”

But the youth activists now warn that it is no longer safe for them to remain in their home town.

New York and nearby areas are undergoing regular rocket attacks. Two residents of New York were among five people killed and six injured on February 26 when the Russian army fired on a bus of students who were returning from Kharkiv to Toretsk.

Shops and pharmacies are half empty and gas stations do not work, with fuel dispensers wrapped in plastic. A March 4 shelling damaged the gas pipeline and about 30 residential buildings were left without a supply.

There is a curfew in the area from 5pm to 8am.

“The shelling is going on as usual,” said Nadiya Gordiyuk, a local historian. “They [Russian armed forces] already consider us theirs, that ‘everything has already been decided’ about us. Now they have shelled neighbouring Konstantinovka; people died.”

“For the most part, no one left, people stayed, because they have nowhere to go and nothing to go for,” said one local resident, who asked to remain anonymous. “Those who help the Ukrainian army simply went underground. They deleted their [social media] accounts, and some of them changed their phone numbers.”

The UN reported more than 110 dead and nearly 500 wounded in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions since February 24 as of the date of publication.

Human rights organisations believe that the real figures are much higher, as information from areas of particularly active hostilities comes with a delay.

Olha Volynska is a journalist from Dnipro and a producer of the documentary film Unbroken, a trilogy about three female Ukrainian prisoners-of-war.

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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