The city is still ours. But we had to leave. It was getting too dangerous…” The former deputy mayor of New York, Tetiana Krasko, decided to leave her city on March 20. Three weeks after the start of the Russian invasion. Eight years after the start of the Donbass war. Since the spring of 2014, Tetiana Krasko has lived a few kilometers from the front line, on the side controlled by the Ukrainian forces, at the mercy of bombardments that regularly tore through the night. “It was eight years of stress and fear… But at least we lived at home. That’s too much.” Now in a safe place in central Ukraine with her family, she waits and “seeks to do something useful, but I don’t know what…”
Change is tough for the worker bee that is Tetiana Krasko. For years, she, her municipal team and a group of residents have mobilized to revive their city of 10,000 inhabitants. When he took office, Novhorodske (literally translated as “New Town”) was a depressed locality, with decrepit facades, potholed roads crossed by military convoys and an aging population. 25 kilometers north of Donetsk, it found itself confronted with war in April 2014, before the front line was buried along its southern flank. When she left her post in 2021, the situation had not structurally changed. But the mobilization of the community, from 2016, to find the historic name of the city, New York, had brought an unprecedented wind of hope.
An atypical story
New York is a colony founded at the beginning of the 19th century, inhabited by German Mennonites invited by the tsars of Russia to develop newly conquered territories. The origin of the name has been lost in the meanders of history and feeds many legends. Did one of the mayors rename the locality in honor of an American friend? Had an entrepreneur from the Big Apple settled there? Is this a transliteration error? Or maybe a local joke? No one knows. On the other hand, it is established that New York was, at the turn of the 20th century, a center of modernity in the region. The Germans had a telegraph, a bank, a bookshop, a school for boys and girls there… This prosperity suffered from the wars, famines and persecutions of the first half of the century, carrying the Germans into waves of violence, emigration and deportations. In 1951, right at the start of the Cold War, the Stalinist regime decided to remove New York from its territory by renaming it Novhorodske.
For a population devastated by the industrial decline of the 1990s and the start of the war in 2014, rediscovering the name New York therefore meant “reclaiming our past, rediscovering a sense of pride, attracting tourists and investors, giving prospects to young people…”, explains Karina Varfolomeeva, a young artist and student, very involved in the renewal of the community. She and her theater troupe have put on several shows in prestigious venues across the country to tell their compatriots about their daily lives in the war zone. A drama now daily for the vast majority of Ukrainians. Karina Varfolomeeva also left the city at the end of March. He was too “very important to prove that the history of the region is not only Russian or Soviet”says Nadiya Hordiouk, a local activist who is very active on social networks. “In the context of the Russian information war against Ukraine, we have helped to dismantle the propaganda discourse on a supposedly uniform ‘Russian world’. The history of our region is much more complex than that. We are not not little Russians. We are Ukrainians and New York is Ukraine!” The community’s efforts bear fruit on July 1, 2021, when the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) endorses the return of the historic name of New York.
The activism of Tetiana Krasko and many others has made it possible to obtain political and financial support to rebuild an old German house, a retirement center, a gym or even to organize all kinds of festive events. Carried by its mythical name, Ukrainian New York has hosted an international literature festival or even a “New York marathon”, popular throughout the country. In the region, dozens of localities had decided to “turning the page on trauma” and to seize the opportunities offered by the strong presence of humanitarian organizations and by the support of the State, explained to Free regional governor Pavlo Jebrivskiy in 2018. Kramatorsk, Avdiivka, Severodonetsk, not forgetting Mariupol, had become dynamic and attractive cities, despite the proximity of an active front line.
Hopes dashed by the bombs
Faced with the difficulties encountered on several fronts, the Russian high command has announced that it wants to refocus its offensive on eastern Ukraine. The “protection” of the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and the “liberation” of territories they claim was one of the official justifications for the invasion launched on February 24 – even if the objectives seem to have been multiple and adapted depending on the circumstances. Relieved in the north of the country by the evacuation of the Russian army around kyiv, the Ukrainian army takes the threat very seriously. 90% of the Luhansk region is already occupied. On the side of the Donetsk region controlled by Ukraine, the capitalKramatorsk has been under heavy bombardment for several days, pushing the civilian population to flee en masse.
New York has been the victim of intense bombardments for ten days, especially in its residential areas. On April 5, the phenol factory, the city’s main economic activity, in operation since 1917, was also bombed. “We have to leave now”, calls Pavlo Ovstrovskiy on social networks. He is a parliamentary assistant to the district deputy, who supported the name change project. “Our troops are not going to give up our land, so we have to expect merciless fighting. And if by misfortune the Russians take control of New York, we know that they have absolutely nothing to do with civilians . Look at Boutcha!” Evacuations by bus are organized, emptying the city of its most active inhabitants.
“Today, there are only a few old people left in New York. I don’t know who is going to take care of them…”, laments Tetiana Krasko. If Nadiya Hordiouk wants to believe that “New York will always be Ukrainian”, Tetiana Krasko is in despair over the fate of the city and the annihilation of years of effort. In case the Russian attacks lead to more territorial gains, one of the Kremlin’s top propagandists, Olga Skabaeeva, has already announced: “This New York… will obviously be renamed Novhorodske after ‘liberation’.”