The other New York: the small Ukrainian town fighting to recover its historic name

24 March 2021

Start spreading the news: Novhorodske, a town of just 12,000 people in eastern Ukraine, has just received preliminary approval to recover its historical name. The name in question? None other than New York.

New York, they say? But there is no Manhattan here, no Times Square, no statue of Liberty. Instead of skyscrapers, a large phenol factory that overlooks a few worn streets of this typical Donbas town. The former industrial and mining region has been divided by raging conflict between the Ukrainian army and Russian-backed separatists since 2014. The frontline itself lies on the town’s western outskirts.

The foundations of the Ukrainian New York lie in the 19th Century, when a group of German mennonites were invited by the Russian tsar to develop the newly-conquered area. The origin of the name itself, meanwhile, has been a never-ending dispute. Recent research asserts that the settlement was called New York before the mennonites’ arrival. Some believe that the new settlers named New York after Jork in northern Germany, from whence they had came. Others believe that the name arose after a local officer married an American from the Big Apple itself, while alternative stories involve a local entrepreneur who relocated to the USA. In his research, late local historian Viktor Kovalov did not exclude the possibility that it may all have started as a practical joke.

One thing that is certain is that at the turn of the 20th century, the Ukrainian New York was one of the most developed settlements in the region. It boasted a telegraph office, a bank, a bookstore, a hotel, a large machinery factory, and a school for both boys and girls. In 1917, prior to the Bolshevik revolution, the town was chosen by tsarist authorities to build the first phenol factory in the Russian empire. But New York ultimately lost its name at the start of the Cold War, when in 1951, Stalin’s regime decided to call it Novhorodske, or “new town”.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Novhorodske, along with the rest of Donbas, was plunged into industrial decline and economic crisis. Later, from 2014, it was war that ravaged the place. Close to the frontline, Novhorodske is exposed to the constant danger of shelling. In order to get to the nearby town of Horlivka, a separatist stronghold, residents must take a three-hour detour through various checkpoints and controls — a journey that would have taken 15 mins prior to the war. It’s not everyday that a journalist from the local Novosti Donbassa will start a report with a bright smile “from New York, Donetsk Oblast”. But since the launch of the campaign in 2016, the municipality’s long-standing ambition to recover the town’s historical name has provided a beacon of hope, garnering overwhelming enthusiasm in the national media.

“It is important to know our past if we wish to look into the future,” resident Nadia Hordiuk told a crowd of curious journalists shortly after the parliamentary committee VOTE. Hordiuk has been promoting the campaign through the “Ukrainian New York” Facebook group.

Meanwhile, mayor Mykola Lenko hopes the name change will kickstart a road to greater recovery, attract investors and tourists, and boosting morale. “The most important aspect of this project is to give our residents some hope and perspective, so that young people find a reason to stay here,” his deputy Tetiana Krasko told The Calvert Journal. “Fighters will think twice before bombing our town now! Just imagine the international scandal it would be if New York were to be shelled!”

Photographer Niels Ackermann and I travelled to Novhorodske in 2017. We were originally drawn by the German mennonites and the town’s fascinating founding story, which tells a complex history of Donbas that goes beyond Soviet narratives. Upon arrival, we found a deep admiration for the local people: the pupils preparing for school celebrations despite the raging conflict next door; the factory workers producing chemical products which are exported to all corners of the world; a local entrepreneur who boasts making “the best croissants in the region” from her bakery, New York; or the teenagers who have been self-organise trash-picking sessions to clean up the city streets. Everyone in Novhorodske pulls together to create a better life.

There is plenty of talent here, too. Young actor Karina Varfolomeieva and her peers have brought performances about the war to prestigious theatre venues in the capital, Kyiv. “We need to tell our story of the war in order to move on,” she explained. For her and her friends, the name “New York” is a chance for a restart, and a catalyst for many future creative projects.

Meanwhile, deputy Mayor Tetiana Krasko has worked relentlessly with Ukrainian and international partners to build a social centre for the elderly, to install solar panels on street lamps, and to modernise the town’s buildings. Her flagship project is the rebuilding of the “Unger House”, one of the few buildings leftover from the town’s German period. In April 2021, it will open as an elegant cultural hub — “the only hub along the 400 kilometre-frontline”, Krasko boasts — ready to host conferences and workshops as well as movie screenings and photo exhibitions. You really could call the town a Ukrainian New York, a place where ideas never sleep.

We wanted to collect all of these stories and voices in one book, which will be published by éditions Noir sur Blanc, at the end of 2021. As with our previous project Looking for Lenin (FUEL Publishing / éditions Noir sur Blanc, 2017), we want to show the complexities and nuances of this ever-transforming country that are often left out of mainstream media. The Ukrainian New York is a fascinating showcase of these changes.

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