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.
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.”
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 Ukraine in 2014 retook the city of 160,000 people from Russian-backed forces. The organization currently puts on cultural events and promotes education. (Volodymyr Petrov)