In Ukraine’s New York, Some Want USSR Back

New York is a city that never sleeps.

But this New York, once known as Novgorodske, is in Ukraine’s Donetsk region. In its empty streets, half-abandoned buildings and dark cellars, the sound of cannons seems louder, even more frightening. Russian and Ukrainian soldiers are around, entrenched within a few kilometers of each other. The artillery never seems to stop.

“I take barbiturates every night, but when the bombs start to fall too close, they just wear off, I don’t relax, I don’t rest, I don’t sleep,” Ianna Nikolaivna, 55, told VOA on a cold, sunny day in late February.

Nikolaivna is one of 2,000 people left living in New York, Donetsk. Another 10,000 people left this city, so classically Soviet, so typically industrial, so typically eastern Ukrainian.

“When the city changed its name to New York, we thought that the tourists would come, that things would get better, that Kyiv would finally look at us,” Nikolaivna said in front of the building where only she and a neighbor live now. “But we only got the war; New York at the end means sadness and destruction to all of us.”

The news started to spread in July 2021. The old Novgorodske was changing. They decided to abandon the Russian name. The small hilly city, home to a chemical industry named after former KGB founder Felix Dzerzhinsky, would be called New York.

Officially, the change was related to history. It was the Germans, brought by Empress Catherina, the Great, who first named the town of Neue York. With the rise of the Soviet Union, the city gained a Russian name: Novgorodske, or New City.

But that was just the official excuse. People here wanted to get the attention of the world, including the West, and Kyiv. The city has felt abandoned since a separatist war in the Donbas broke out in 2014. Donetsk is part of the Donbas region.

“They wanted to show that they were Ukrainians, that they had nothing to do with the separatists, that they didn’t support Russia,” Yuri, an unemployed driver, said while standing in a small line for donations at the city hall. “They thought they were going to get support, money, that tourists would come here to experience the New York of the Donbas,” he said, to the laughter of the other men waiting to collect the supplies.

Yuri laughed too. And then became serious: “Just walk around to see that nothing has changed, that nothing new has come; there is only misery and destruction here.”

At first, New York gained attention and even some support. The city museum was renovated, promises of renewed roads and streets spread and a new school considered. Some even believed that old chimneys would again litter the sky with dark smoke.

Hopes were so high that the city administration organized a New York marathon three months before the war started. It was November 2021 and the war around here had already begun seven years ago. But in those autumn days, battles were rare and the guns were quiet. Hope still glowed like Times Square lights in New York City in the United States. But in New York, Donetsk, only five competitors showed up for the marathon.

Galina is a small country town woman. She was born 43 years ago in a village on the outskirts of Novgorodske. It was the time when everything here was part of an extensive empire.

“During the Soviet Union, the industries were working; there were jobs for everyone; we lived well. I remember that, that we lived well,” she said while giving a tour of a 6-meter-square cellar built to store potatoes. At her side were three of her five children: Mark and Vlad, 11 years old, and Yelisej, 9. Since a bomb fell in their backyard two months ago, they have been living here, squashed, scared, under candlelight and the warmth of a small coal stove.

“I believed things would get better, that becoming New York would make them look at us, that we wouldn’t stay … ”

Tears flooded Galina’s face. She tried to hold back her tears and seemed ashamed to show her pain in front of her children. But she can’t hold back and cries again.

“We’ve been stranded here for over 30 years, since the Soviet Union collapsed, nobody cares about us anymore,” she said.

Galina is married to Yuri, from the food distribution line at city hall. He, too, said he misses those times they barely experienced, the time the elders always say were the best times around here.

“Our hopes started to die in 1991; that’s the truth,” he said, pointing out where the Russian troops are now.

This New York sits on top of a hill. From here, you can see the outskirts of Horlivka, a city under the rule of the Russian troops.

“They’re over there,” Yuri said, pointing to the buildings on the horizon. “The people there, you know, must be suffering the same as us over there.”

Ianna Nikolaivna doesn’t know Yuri, Galina or any of their children. But she said she understands well why young people like them say they miss a government that became known around the world for its brutality, hardship and cruel treatment of Ukrainians during the times of the great famine in the 1930s.

“Anyone over 40 years old misses the Soviet times; this is an industrial city in a mining area,” she said. “It was tough work, but there were good rewards. The salary was good, the houses were good and the services always worked.”

Her husband spent part of his life in a coal mine until he lost his leg in a car accident. She dedicated her life to the city library.

They lived the good life until the neoliberal reforms of the ’90s swept the countries of the former Soviet Union from east to west. She said the reforms pushed them into poverty. Now the war is pushing them into misery.

“We don’t have water, electricity or gas here,” she said. “Today we are lucky that the weather is good. We can go outside, walk and we don’t have to stay in a cold room all day.”

A loud explosion startled Nikolaivna. She calmed down and said, “I’m like this; every time I hear a loud sound, I jump. But now it was a bomb, let’s go to the basement; they’re falling close.”

At the City Hall, Olena no longer cares about the sound of the bombs. There are so many of them, and it’s so frequent that she said there is no reason to be scared.

“It’s a matter of luck; we can’t do anything about it,” she said.

She was the only city employee working that day. She spent the day tending to those who ventured into the empty streets to pick up supplies donated by volunteers.

On her table, a solitary Ukrainian flag seemed to challenge the men who remember the good times when everything here was part of the Soviet Union. She doesn’t laugh at the jokes they make about the town’s name change, nor does she seem to care much about the conversation between the reporter and the residents who remember the Soviet times.

During a short break, she explained why she’s still in New York despite everything.

“I have the feeling that if I leave one day, I’ll never come back, that everything I’ve built in life will be destroyed. I will stay. After all, I’m a New Yorker,” she said, with her first smile of the interview.

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