What does a town in war-torn eastern Ukraine have in common with New York City?
On almost every conceivable level, absolutely nothing. There are no skyscrapers, yellow taxis or world-renowned museums.
But that hasn”t stopped locals in Novhorodske, near Donetsk, bidding to change its name to New York.
A parliamentary committee has approved the switch, but it must now go before all MPs for its fate to be decided.
What’s the history of Novhorodske?
It was founded by German settlers and first found on the map in 1846 with the name New York. It grew from only housing a few people to become the centre of several German settlements.
The settlers were said to have been very religious and living a life secluded from others. They had their own schools and became rich, producing food and agricultural machinery.
Germans began leaving Ukraine first after the Russian Revolution and then, during World War II, were forced out by the Soviets.
The post-war era and the onset of the Cold War saw the town’s name changed. New York became Novhorodske in 1951.
“We don’t know why the name was changed, but we think that it was because of the political situation during the Cold War,” said Nadiya Gordiuk, a teacher for children with special needs. “It could not remain being named New York.”
Novhorodske became a prosperous industrial town and kept growing until the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s.
Three decades on and the town is in a desperate state. Industry has collapsed and the town is near the frontline of a war that has killed around 13,000 people.
“We have seen much better times here,” said Gordiuk. “Many have left since the war, and we only have one factory left here working, but we hope that we can change this reality [by changing the town’s name].
“We used to have many factories and even produced some cars, tiles, and paper,” she added. “Much has changed.”
The decline of Novhorodske is shared by many other cities in the Donbas region. The conflict has seen them lose access to both the Russian market and the main cities in the region like Donetsk and Horlivka, which are currently occupied by Russian-backed separatists. Horlivka is just five kilometres away.
Why do locals want to swap Novhorodske for New York?
It is hoped it will give them a fresh start and help to attract tourists.
During the time of the German settlers, the main street was named Gartenstraße (Garden Street), and it is still visible today with several old brick houses, an old war-worn-down paper factory, and several old school buildings from the time of German settlers. These are the attractions that locals hope will pull in the visitors.
Nearby a new cultural centre is being finished. It will act as a small museum with photographs of the German settlers and old maps, revealing how the town grew over the years from only a handful of settlers to a significant-sized town.
Tatiana Krasko, secretary of the local city council, happily shows off both the old photos and the new plans for the cultural centre.
When asked why it is essential to change the city’s name, Krasko says it is about tourists.
“It will be a fresh start for us,” says Krasko, “We hope that it will bring us investments and that we can have tourists come here and experience our history.”
For others, it’s about returning the town to its origins. Kristina Shevchenko is the leader of the town’s youth group, Initiative Youth of the Ukrainian New York. In a nod to history, she has helped restore the cemetery of the German settlers, which sits on a hilltop overlooking Novhorodske.
“We hope that the new name will bring attention to our town and we have many plans to restore it for a better future,” she said, adding that the name change about returning Novhorodske to its roots rather than be a replica of New York City.
‘Getting rid of Russian influence’
Shevchenko says she does not like the name Novhorodske because it represents Russian and Soviet influence over the town.
The conflict means Russia is at the forefront of people’s minds. With the frontline just kilometres away, there is occasional shelling on the town’s outskirts.
“It is important that we get rid of the Russian influence here,” said Shevchenko, who has been advocating for the name change in the Ukrainian parliament in the capital Kyiv.
“If we change the name, we can show the whole world that our city has no base in Russia. Because our history is not Russian history, it is our history. A European history.
“We think that this new name can give us new investment, workplaces, and more tourists,” she said, expressing hope that the name change will be approved soon. “Many people have moved since the war, and we want to change that.”
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, many of the town’s plans have been postponed. One of them is to hold a New York festival as a big celebration of the town’s new future.
For non-Ukrainians to attend, however, they would need permission from the Ukrainian army. Novhorodske is still considered to be in a war zone.
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