Ac­tivists change cities, hope for bet­ter fu­ture in Don­bas


SLOVIANSK, Ukraine — Be­fore the cat­a­clysmic year of 2014, Alexey Ovchin­nikov put most of his time and ef­fort into his dance stu­dio, Grat­sia, or Grace, in Sloviansk, the Donetsk Oblast city some 670 kilo­me­ters south­east of Kyiv.

Life changed for the na­tion — and the 39-year-old Ovchin­nikov — af­ter Rus­sia un­leashed its war on Ukraine in the spring of that year. The city with a pre-war pop­u­la­tion of 117,000 peo­ple was caught up in the fight­ing. A shell blasted a huge hole in the roof of the Palace of Cul­ture, where Grat­sia was based.

“Be­fore the war, ev­ery­one minded their own busi­ness,” Ovchin­nikov told the Kyiv Post on Aug. 16. “Now peo­ple have be­come more ac­tive and con­cerned about what’s go­ing on in their city. They won’t stay quiet if they see that the author­i­ties are fail­ing to do some­thing, or they see some­one is steal­ing money.”

Dur­ing the pe­riod of fiercest fight­ing, Ovchin­nikov moved his stu­dio to Kyiv, but af­ter the city was lib­er­ated by Ukrainian forces in July 2014, he de­cided to re­turn to Sloviansk.

Grat­sia has also opened sev­eral new stu­dios — in Kram­a­torsk, Druzhkivka and Svi­ato­girsk — while Ovchin­nikov along with a group of ac­tivists has cre­ated an ini­tia­tive called Zmisto to re­pair pub­lic spa­ces and de­velop the city.

Af­ter the war, Sloviansk and Kram­a­torsk, along with other eastern cities, re­ceived fund­ing from in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions which al­lowed ac­tivists to cre­ate dozens of non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tions. Most of them started as hu­man­i­tar­ian ones, help­ing to re­build dam­aged cities and sup­port­ing peo­ple af­fected by the war.

Af­ter the fight­ing ended in Sloviansk and Kram­a­torsk, many of the ac­tivists switched to cul­tural and ed­u­ca­tional work, along with city de­vel­op­ment.

In Au­gust 2014, Ovchin­nikov de­cided to ren­o­vate Shovkovy­chny Park, lo­cated near the city cen­ter, and hold there a fes­ti­val called “Birth­day of the Coun­try” to mark Ukrainian In­de­pen­dence Day.

Af­ter the suc­cess of that fes­ti­val, which fea­tured work­shops, live mu­sic and var­i­ous ac­tiv­i­ties for chil­dren, the ac­tivists de­cided to make it an an­nual event. In 2016, the U. S. Agency for In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment and the city coun­cil funded the event, and in 2017 Ovchin­nikov and his team raised Hr 40,000 ($1,534) through crowd­fund­ing.

Ovchin­nikov and other ac­tivists have also helped to build new play­grounds, dec­o­rated new pedes­trian cross­walks with up­lift­ing slo­gans, built new mod­ern in­for­ma­tion boards for ad­ver­tise­ments, and made other im­prove­ments to the city cen­ter.

“The idea was to make peo­ple re­al­ize that they need to do some­thing with­out the gov­ern­ment. We wanted to bring some pos­i­tive ideas, be­cause peo­ple thought that their lives were over,” he said.

Ac­tive youth

Like many of his peers, then 23-year-old Mykola Dorokhov from Kra­ma­trosk, a city of around 160,000 peo­ple in Donetsk Oblast, planned to leave Kram­a­torsk in 2014. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from the city’s en­gi­neer­ing acad­emy, he headed to the western city of Lviv to study there.

But in Lviv, Dorokhov met a group of ac­tivists who planned to go to Kram­a­torsk and help peo­ple whose homes had been de­stroyed in the fight­ing.

“I thought that it was not right that I had come to Lviv to build a new life, while they were go­ing to my home­town to re­built ru­ined houses,” the now 26-year-old Dorokhov, a co­or­di­na­tor at the Vilna Khata (Free Home) youth or­ga­ni­za­tion told the Kyiv Post on Aug. 15.

The ac­tivists of Vilha Khata, which was founded in De­cem­ber 2014, re­paired the build­ing where their of­fice is now lo­cated with their own hands — a lot of the fur­ni­ture is hand­made and huge graf­fiti are painted on the of­fice’s walls.

Dorokhov said that now that the city has mostly been re­built, the ac­tivists have switched to hold­ing cul­tural events, such as film screen­ings, po­etry evenings, jazz per­for­mances, and pro­mot­ing self-ed­u­ca­tion among lo­cal cit­i­zens. Vilha Khata has held classes in English, web-de­sign, com­puter graph­ics, and so­cial en­trepreneur­ship, as well as lec­tures by jour­nal­ists, ra­dio hosts and fes­ti­val or­ga­niz­ers.

“We don’t want war to hap­pen here again,” Dorokhov said. “We want peo­ple to see the world with a broader per­spec­tive.”

Dorokhov said that in Kram­a­torsk many young peo­ple are pas­sive and avoid tak­ing on any kind of re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, but at the same time many have now re­al­ized that the war might hap­pen again “if they con­tinue to act like veg­eta­bles.”

Fol­low­ing peers

Kram­a­torsk’s Vilna Khata in­spired youth ac­tivists from Sloviansk to cre­ate their own or­ga­ni­za­tion, called Te­plyt­sia (Green­house).

Ovchin­nikov, who was in­volved in set­ting up Te­plyt­sia, said that the num­ber of young ac­tivists in the city has sig­nif­i­cantly in­creased com­pared to be­fore the war.

Eu­gen Skrip­nik, 20, one of the deputy heads of Te­plyt­sia, said that just like Vilna Khata, the ac­tivists started by re­pair­ing houses and mak­ing the city look bet­ter. Sim­i­larly, the or­ga­ni­za­tion has now switched to or­ga­niz­ing movie screen­ings, mu­sic fes­ti­vals and var­i­ous cour­ses and work­shops for young peo­ple.

This year Te­plyt­sia plans to or­ga­nize three art ex­hi­bi­tions, a mu­sic fes­ti­val and to bring three con­tem­po­rary theater groups to the city, be­cause most of the per­for­mances staged in Sloviansk are de­scribed by Skrip­nik as the ones “for babushkas (grannies).” In Septem­ber, the ac­tivists also or­ga­nized doc­u­men­taries screen­ings.

More­over, Skrip­nik said that the ac­tivists were also or­ga­niz­ing ex­change vis­its for young peo­ple to other cities, and would bring suc­cess­ful peo­ple to Sloviansk to give lec­tures that would help school stu­dents choose a fu­ture ca­reer.

Skrip­nik, who co­or­di­nates Te­plyt­sia’s in­for­mal ed­u­ca­tional projects, said he wants to help oth­ers be­come suc­cess­ful and happy, and he hopes to im­prove the sit­u­a­tion in the city so that in sev­eral years peo­ple won’t need Te­plyt­sia at all.

Land of op­por­tu­nity

Be­fore the war, Alena Kucheruk, 36, worked as a teacher at the Eco­nomic-Hu­man­i­tar­ian In­sti­tute in Kram­a­torsk. She used to be openly pro-Ukrainian, de­spite many of her col­leagues not shar­ing her views.

“It was scary to openly speak about your pro-Ukrainian views, be­cause sep­a­ratists were walk­ing around the city car­ry­ing weapons, and peo­ple went miss­ing on the streets,” she re­calls.

Kucheruk said that in 2014, af­ter all of the teach­ers of the in­sti­tute went on va­ca­tion for the sum­mer, she de­cided not to go back.

In­stead, she joined the or­ga­ni­za­tion Free Ua, and started mak­ing her own ed­u­ca­tional projects for young peo­ple and kids. One of them was a sum­mer camp called “IT for Kids,” where IT com­pa­nies sent em­ploy­ees to teach chil­dren pro­gram­ming.

Kucheruk and other ac­tivists have also re­built a pedes­trian walk­way near the city’s four uni­ver­si­ties, all of which are lo­cated on one street, Mashynobu­di­vnikiv Boule­vard. She hopes that the ne­glected green area be­tween the boule­vard’s road­ways will soon be­come a pub­lic space for stu­dents. So far, the ac­tivists have set up new benches and book­shelves for book ex­chang­ing.

Apart from ac­tiv­i­ties for youth, Free Ua opened a co-work­ing space where the Swiss-founded Beet­root IT Acad­emy holds pro­gram­ming classes for adults. The or­ga­ni­za­tion also launched a men­tor­ship pro­gram for dis­placed women who want to open busi­nesses in Kram­a­torsk or nearby towns.

“We … de­cided to fo­cus on teach­ing peo­ple how they can earn money, while also high­light­ing so­cial prob­lems,” another Free Ua ac­tivist, Kristina Shostyr, told the Kyiv Post.

Ac­tivists in both Sloviansk and Kram­a­torsk re­al­ize that in cou­ple of years the grant sup­port for the cities will de­crease. So the ac­tivists are al­ready try­ing to at­tract do­na­tions from lo­cal busi­nesses for so­cial work.

Mean­while, Ovchin­nikov plans to open an ed­u­ca­tion hub in Novem­ber, where suc­cess­ful busi­ness peo­ple will give lec­tures on en­trepreneur­ship.

“Eastern Ukraine is a land of op­por­tu­nity now,” he said.

Mykhola Dorokhov (L) and other ac­tivists of Vilna Khata youth or­ga­ni­za­tion in Kram­a­torsk, some 700 kilo­me­ters south­east of Kyiv, look at pho­tos from a sum­mer camp party on Aug. 15. Vilna Khata and other non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tions were founded af­ter...

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