Ukrainian New York: the true history of the village

Ukrainian New York: the true history of the village

It is about 4 km from the temporarily occupied Horlivka to the Ukrainian New York. There is a large phenol plant instead of skyscrapers. There is an old mill from the Mennonite heritage of the early twentieth century, which the Russians destroyed on May 8, 2022, instead of the Statue of Liberty. 

At first glance, New York may seem an understandable town in the Donetsk region. However, it is distinguished by its European history. Since the village was returned to its historical name in July 2021 [since 1951, it was called Novhorodske - ed. note], locals have sought to rediscover the New York heritage and revive the town's appeal and innovation. Unfortunately, the full-scale Russian invasion thwarted these plans. 

European roots

The first official mention of New York dates back to 1859. Thirty years later, German Mennonites [a peaceful Protestant religious community - ed. note], who previously lived on the island of Khortytsia, bought land on the left bank of the Kryvyi Torets River from Countess Holitsyna. Thus, 244 German families moved to the new lands, and New York became the centre of seven German colonies. Historians still need to figure out why the village was given such a name. Most likely because of the ties with America, where the Germans used to go.

In three years, rapid industrial and cultural development began in the village. In 1893, German entrepreneur Peter Dick founded a factory to produce bricks and tiles. The following year, German engineer Jakob Niebuhr opened a plant for the production of agricultural machinery, which later became the basis of a powerful machine-building plant. Then there was the Olivier iron foundry, the Unrau wagon and carriage workshop, the Redekopy bakery, mills, an oil mill and many other enterprises, factories and plants. 

They also built a quality infrastructure for the life of the community. There was a church, schools with education in Ukrainian, Russian, and German, a bank, a community of consumers, and charitable institutions. 

The beginning of the 20th century. New York is a wealthy town with high European standards. Walking along the neatly paved sidewalk tiles, in the centre, you can see the huge Rempel Mill, a new three-story building, which opened a new place for a bookstore across the street from Aaron Thiessen's cooperative store, as well as a hotel. 

However, half a century later, this would no longer be the case - on August 28, 1941, the Soviet authorities passed a law on the resettlement of Germans living in the Volga region. Formally, it concerned Germans from the Volga region, but it affected all Soviet Germans. On September 3, 1941, all German homes in New York heard a knock on the door- they were given 24 hours to pack and allowed to take along only necessities - documents and belongings, no more than 16 kg per person. 

On September 4, German families were divided into age groups. Non-disabled men and women were sent to Siberian hard labour, the so-called labour army, and the NKVD camp. Women with children and the elderly were deported to Kazakhstan. At that time, the Germans of New York were Soviet citizens and did not formally commit any crimes, and therefore were acquitted. Their only guilt for the Soviet authorities was German origin.

Rehabilitate the repressed name 

On October 19, 1951, New York was deprived of its "capitalist" name. Instead, it was changed to "Novhorodske" without discussing the decision with the population. In 2016, local activists began the process of restoring the historical name. 

Among those involved in this process was Nadiia Hordiuk, a speech therapist at a kindergarten and a specialised New York school for children with special educational needs. She collected archival evidence, interviewed people about the return of the name, and wrote inquiries to deputies. 

"Many times, we submitted petitions to restore the historical name, but they were always lost on the official desks. Later, Pavlo Ostrovskyi, the then the head of the commission for the rehabilitation of the Donetsk region, advised collecting residents' signatures. So the process began. It was not easy because people were brought up for years by the authorities and the information policy of various pro-Russian parties," says Nadiia Hordiuk.

The first argument for changing the name was the lists of posthumously rehabilitated residents of New York in 1936-38 - the time of Stalin's repressions. In addition, there were primarily German and Ukrainian surnames. 

"When I was told that the restoration of the historic name is the way for the development of the village, I said that it was good, but our task was to rehabilitate the repressed name of the village," Hordiuk said.

When the name was changed in 1951, many residents did not even know that they lived not in New York but in Novhorodske. First, the Soviet authorities destroyed the Germans who had built the village, and later the memory of the people about the past.

"The Soviet authorities traditionally and systematically destroyed historical data, so they created their own "legend" about the Soviet industrial region of Donetsk and Luhansk regions," the activist says. 

In early 2017, Hordiuk created the "Ukrainian New York in the Donetsk region" initiative. The name combines the history of Zaporizhzhia Cossacks and the industrial development associated with Europeans. 

"The village consists of two parts: New York itself and the Cossack settlement of Zalizne, which Ukrainian historian Dmytro Yavornytskyi mentions in his book "History of Zaporizhzhia Cossacks". The Cossack Prokopiachenko founded winter quarters near the river Balka Zalizna, which became the beginning of the village’s history," says Hordiuk.

Since 2014, with other activists for two years, Hordiyuk worked at checkpoints as a volunteer: she bought and delivered clothes, shoes, ammunition and medicines to the Ukrainian military. Over time, when the Ukrainian army became less in need of volunteer help, the woman had time to tell the story of New York. 

"In each city, there were Executive Committees and public relations sectors, but no one worked there, so we had to work. Then, I realised that people should be educated: New York is Ukraine. Back in the 80s, when I studied at Novhorod school, teachers talked about the Donetsk-Kryvyi Rih Republic but never mentioned that our village was once called New York. People simply did not understand and did not know the history," the activist says.

Information and cultural breakthrough

Only six months have passed since the village was restored to its historical name, and Russia has fully invaded Ukraine. However, this short period has launched many project initiatives in New York. 

One of them was the online media itself. Nadiia Hordiuk admits that she has always dreamed of this breakthrough. And so it happened, in October 2021, the village launched the publication "NewYorker.City", which tells about how frontline New York is changing, what stereotypes it is fighting and what plans it has for the future. But, of course, the magazine was to be not just local but also valid for tourists and visitors. 

At the start, there were three village residents in the publication team: Kristina Shevchenko, Valeria Panasenko and Nadiia Hordiuk. After February 24, only one journalist works in the editorial office. 

"At the first days of the invasion, we did not understand what to write and talk about. Stories about locals and their activities were inappropriate. Later they started writing about the war: shelling, destruction, and victims in the community. "NewYorker.City" tells exclusively about the situation in New York. After our victory, we will return to the stories of our heroes, but these will be stories in the aspect of war," says Kristina Shevchenko.

The entire editorial staff left New York - the military recommended leaving the village immediately because of the danger. Before and after the full-scale war, the media team repeatedly received threats from the temporarily occupied Horlivka. 

"They were written both by locals waiting for Russia here and by representatives of the illegal armed groups. But we do not take these threats seriously because some of these people are already serving their sentences," Shevchenko said.

Another big event for the town took place in October 2021. New York hosted the first literary festival. The event gathered more than 30 participants, a dozen journalists and over 600 visitors in the House of Culture of the Phenol Plant, the centre of the village's social life.

The writer Victoria Amelinaorganised the festival. Her husband's family comes from here. There were many famous Ukrainians at the New York Literary Festival. Among them were Serhiy Zhadan, Olha Herasymiuk, Olena Stiazhkina, Tamara Horikha Zernia, Halyna Vdovychenko, Halka Kruk. During the event, French journalist and traveller Sébastien Gobert remotely presented his book about Ukrainian New York - "New York, Ukraine. guide d'une ville inattendue" [in French - guide to an unexpected city]. 

"When Sebastien Gober discovered that the village had such a name and an interesting history, he started writing the book. The presentation took place in Europe; thus, our little New York became known in Ukraine and other countries. It was one of the most powerful cultural breakthroughs. Now the author is working on translating the book into Ukrainian and publishing it in Ukraine," says Hordiuk.

In addition, the woman learned that Ukrainian director Kornii Hrytsiuk was shooting a documentary film, "Eurodonbas", about the European heritage of the east. Therefore, together with Kristina Shevchenko, she turned to him to film the history of New York. 

"The team has already filmed Lysychansk, Mariupol, and Druzhkivka. But what about us? What about our New York? We also have a strong European heritage. So Kornii got interested, and we sent materials. As a result, in May 2021, even before the restoration of the historical name, the film "Eurodonbas" about the German monolithic heritage was filmed in our village," the activist says.

Civic activism

Kristina Shevchenko was born in Ukrainian New York. When in 1921, the Soviet authorities renamed the village Novhorodske, her family did not accept the new name - her grandfather continued to call the village New York until his death. 

She found out why it was New York in 2019 when she met Nadiia Hordiuk. 

"We started cooperating with Nadiia. She taught our youth and conducted a tour of the settlement. I realised that the history of our village was a source of information. Every day, I discovered more facts with each archive," Shevchenko recalls.

The girl travelled the world and lived in different cities, but realised that she wanted to stay in New York and develop it. 

"This is the land of my parents, my ancestors. One can find prospects for development in a small frontline village in the Donetsk region," she says.

Kristina Shevchenko is a Ukrainian language teacher and founder of the NGO "Initiative Youth of Donetsk New York". It all started in July 2019, when together with young people 11th-grade students, they organised an evening on Ivan Kupala.

"I asked the youth: "What do you lack for a happy life in New York?". Then we immediately realised that after the outbreak of war in 2014, there were no celebrations in the village, that is, nothing to promote a positive attitude of the population," Shevchenko says.

They prepared an event in two weeks. We expected up to 50 people, but about 500 residents came. 

"We danced to Ukrainian songs and walked together around the fire. It was the point of understanding that we needed to unite the community to take joint actions to improve life in our village. Thus, we began to unite people," Shevchenko says.

In 2016, the youth organisation joined the initiative group for the return of the historical name - they explained to people why it was essential and what are the prospects for this decision. However, on February 24, the team's activities changed dramatically. 

"Before that, we were engaged in cultural and educational work. Now our reality is unloading bulletproof vests, medicines and food," adds the organisation's founder.

Shevchenko also works remotely as a Ukrainian language and literature teacher at a local school. After the Russian airstrikes on the town, the school building survived, but a missile hit the classroom of the 9th grade, where the girl was the class teacher — the shell went through, destroying the classroom. 

"If the school remains in this condition, it will be possible to rebuild it. But, of course, it is a great pain for the children; it is their classroom, and they would like to stay there until graduation, sit at their desks, and remember shared school moments. But there will be no opportunity", - the teacher says.

Life after February 24

There used to be six high-intensity mills in the village. However, until February 24, only one was preserved - Peter Dick's mill. It was preserved, in particular, due to the activity of the village community. But, on May 8, 2022, Russia hit the roof of a German building with a missile. 

"A significant part of the building, which survived the October Coup and the German occupation, burned down, as the Russian army became the most aggressive among the aggressors. Russians deliberately destroy such monuments throughout Donetsk and Luhansk regions," says Nadiia Hordiuk.

Anna Koshel, a resident of New York and an elementary school teacher, just returned from her home village to pick up her belongings and visit her mother. She was forced to leave New York in the summer. Her house is intact, but there is no gas, water or electricity. In addition, her husband was killed near Bakhmut. 

"There are mostly retired people in the town who are not ready to say goodbye to their homes," Koshel said.

The villages have many painful scars. Although initially, they were left by the Soviet government, today, this mission has been inherited by Russia, which destroys educational institutions, medical infrastructure, and kindergartens, and also kills people.