New York, Ukraine – The Big Apple’s tiny Ukrainian namesake sits uneasily just kilometres away from the front lines of Europe’s bloodiest armed conflict.
Its fewer than 10,000 residents often go to sleep to the sound of cannonades or gunfire, and occasional shells shot by pro-Russian separatists sometimes reach the town that is big enough to be divided into “Old” New York and “New” New York.
In Old New York, one can still see the brick-and-mortar houses built by German Mennonites, a Protestant sect, who arrived here a century after Russia annexed Crimea for the first time.
Or, to be more exact, after the Russian Empire conquered in 1783 the Khanate of Crimea, the mostly Muslim state that ruled the Black Sea peninsula and adjacent lands covered with fertile black soil and plenty of coal and iron ore underneath it.
The Mennonites and other European settlers helped transform the steppe into an industrial heartland – the nearby cities of Donetsk and Luhansk were founded by an Englishman and a Scot.
The Soviets deported the Mennonites to Siberia, started calling the town Novgorodskoye (the New Town), and built New New York centred around a chemical plant named after KGB founder Felix Dzerzhinsky.
‘A chance to tell our story’
Only this July, Ukrainian politicians voted to give the town its old name back.
“New York sounds loud, it’s interesting, it gives us a chance to tell our story to the world,” Kristina Shevchenko, who teaches Ukrainian language and literature in the town’s school, told Al Jazeera.
But this is not a story about a mere geographical curiosity.
New York is a microcosm of modern Ukraine – and a brick in the new Berlin Wall that separates democratic Europe from an increasingly assertive Russia.
The town struggles for survival next to the smouldering trench war that has killed more than 13,000 people and displaced millions.
Hundreds of New Yorkers work at the chemical plant that produces phenol, a highly toxic precursor. The plant belongs to Ukraine’s richest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, and emits odorous fumes that blanket New New York several times a day.
Others leave in droves to work mostly menial jobs in the European Union, just like millions of other Ukrainians who become cabbies, farmhands, construction workers or supermarket clerks.
Some fled to Russia, which lures working-age Ukrainians to replenish its dwindling and ageing population.
And the town’s online newspaper, predictably called the New Yorker, covers the slow, painstaking progress and success of local activists who stood up to endemic corruption.
They want to make things better – despite the war, water supply disruptions, environmental pollution and a flood of propaganda from Kremlin-controlled television networks.
Shevchenko runs a group of two dozen youth activists who fix the town’s park and historic buildings and plan to repair potholed roads, install wind turbines and solar panels.
They show older New Yorkers how to overcome the Soviet-era inertia of people who are used to being surrounded by problems – but not to fixing them on their own.
Importantly, they prove that they are not part of what Russian President Vladimir Putin calls the “Russian world”.
He has used the cultural unity of Russian speakers living in the former USSR as a pretext to “defend them” – and extend the Kremlin’s political clout beyond Russia’s current borders.
“We don’t need Russia here. We had a chance to compare,” Shevchenko said on a sunny October afternoon in the town park filled with falling leaves, Stalinist-era buildings and stucco statues of Russian writers.
In early 2014, months-long protests in Maidan square in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, removed pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich.
Russia responded by annexing Crimea for the second time – and stoking the separatist conflict in Ukraine’s southeast.
The rebels carved out the “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, totalitarian, economically stillborn statelets where expropriations, the death penalty and torture in concentration camps are part of a miserable daily life.
Separatists and the Russian military occupied New York in 2014, locals and Ukrainian officials say. (The Kremlin claims it never sent any military to Ukraine and calls the conflict “a civil war” caused by a “coup” and “violation” of rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians.)
Three months later, the town was liberated by volunteers aiding Ukraine’s underfunded and demoralised military.
“They wore slippers, some enlisted right after the Maidan [protests]”, teacher and community activist Nadejda Gordiyuk told Al Jazeera. He edits The New Yorker and studies New York’s history.
And New Yorkers treated them like family.
“We washed their clothes, made pies for them and collected money for their radio comms,” Shevchenko added.
Since then, the town has been part of front-line territories ruled by a military administration.
But its proximity to war and death does not prevent some New Yorkers from evolving as a community.
Ivan Rudenko, an experienced firefighter, fights corruption and a lack of transparency in the operation of New York’s utility companies. In 2016, he founded a company that took over the services at a lower cost and with far more impressive results.
These days, the cooperative serves more than 100 apartment buildings. Some have been renovated, some boast new playgrounds, gardens and pavements.
“This is a way of uniting people,” Rudenko told Al Jazeera. “In five years, we did what had not been done in decades.”
And their residents realised that things depend on what they vote for and do with their own hands.
“They overcame the stereotypes of Soviet mentality – to be afraid of everything new,” community activist Gordiyuk concluded.