New York, Ukraine—— The little Ukrainian man with the same name as the Big Apple sits restlessly just a few kilometers from the front lines of the bloodiest armed conflict in Europe.
Its less than 10,000 residents often fall asleep in the sound of cannons or gunfire, and the occasional shells fired by pro-Russian separatists sometimes reach this town that is big enough to be divided into “old” New York and “new” New York.
In Old New York, one can still see physical houses built by the German Mennonite Protestant sect, who arrived here a century after Russia first annexed Crimea.
Or, to be more precise, after the Russian Empire conquered the Crimean Khanate in 1783, the Crimean Khanate was the main Muslim country that ruled the Black Sea Peninsula and adjacent lands. The land was covered with fertile black soil and a large amount of Coal and iron ore.
Mennonites and other European settlers helped turn the grasslands into industrial heartlands—the nearby cities of Donetsk and Lugansk were founded by an Englishman and a Scot.
The Soviets expelled the Mennonites to Siberia and began to call the city Novgorodskoye (New City), and named after the KGB founder Felix Dzerzhinsky (Felix Dzerzhinsky) New York was built in the center of the chemical plant.
“A chance to tell our story”
Just in July of this year, Ukrainian politicians voted to restore the old name of the town.
“New York sounds loud and interesting, and it gives us the opportunity to tell our story to the world,” Christina Shevchenko, who teaches Ukrainian language and literature at the town’s school, told Al Jazeera.
But this is not just a story about geographic curiosity.
New York is the epitome of modern Ukraine — and a brick on the New Berlin Wall, which separates democratic Europe from the increasingly confident Russia.
The town struggled to survive in the smoldering trench battle, which has killed more than 13,000 people and displaced millions.
Hundreds of New Yorkers work in a chemical plant that produces phenol, a highly toxic precursor. The factory belongs to Rinat Akhmetov, the wealthiest oligarch in Ukraine, and it emits the smell of New York several times a day.
Others left in droves to do mostly humble jobs in the EU, just like the millions of other Ukrainians who became taxi drivers, farm workers, construction workers, or supermarket clerks.
Some fled to Russia, which attracted Ukrainians of working age to supplement its declining and aging population.
The town’s online newspaper, known as the New Yorker predictably, reported the slow and painstaking progress and success of local activists against endemic corruption.
They want to make things better—despite war, water interruption, environmental pollution, and a lot of publicity from the Kremlin-controlled television network.
Shevchenko manages a team of two dozen young activists who have restored the town’s parks and historic buildings, and plans to repair potholes and install wind turbines and solar panels.
They showed older New Yorkers how to overcome the inertia that people were accustomed to being surrounded by problems in the Soviet era—but not by solving them on their own.
It is important that they prove that they are not part of the “Russian world” as Russian President Vladimir Putin called.
He used the cultural unity of Russian-speaking people living in the former Soviet Union as an excuse to “protect them”-and extended the political influence of the Kremlin beyond Russia’s current borders.
“We don’t need Russia here. We have the opportunity to compare,” Shevchenko said on a sunny October afternoon. The city parks were full of fallen leaves, Stalinist buildings and stucco statues of Russian writers.
In early 2014, months of protests on Kiev Square in the Ukrainian capital ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Russia’s response was to annex Crimea for the second time—and to instigate separatist conflicts in southeastern Ukraine.
The insurgents established the “People’s Republic” of Donetsk and Lugansk, a small totalitarian, economically dying country, where expropriation, death penalty and torture in concentration camps are part of tragic daily life.
Locals and Ukrainian officials say that separatists and Russian troops occupied New York in 2014. (The Kremlin claims that it has never sent any troops to Ukraine and that the conflict was a “civil war” caused by a “coup” and “violation” of the rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians.)
Three months later, the town was liberated by volunteers who helped Ukraine’s underfunded and demoralized army.
Teacher and community activist Nadejda Gordiyuk told Al Jazeera: “They wore slippers and some enlisted immediately after Maidan”. He edited “The New Yorker” and studied the history of New York.
New Yorkers treat them like family members.
“We wash clothes for them, make pies for them, and collect money for their radio communications,” Shevchenko added.
Since then, the town has become part of the frontline territory ruled by the military authorities.
But its proximity to war and death did not prevent some New Yorkers from developing as a community.
Ivan Rudenko is an experienced firefighter dedicated to fighting corruption and the lack of transparency in the operations of New York utility companies. In 2016, he founded a company that took over these services at a lower cost and achieved impressive results.
Today, the cooperative serves more than 100 apartment buildings. Some have been renovated, and some have new playgrounds, gardens and walkways.
“This is a way of uniting the people,” Ludenko told Al Jazeera. “In five years, we have done things we haven’t done in decades.”
Their residents realize that things depend on their votes and what they do with their own hands.
“They overcome the stereotype of the Soviet mentality-fear of all new things,” community activist Gordiyuk concluded.