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Dispatch from Dnipro How ‘Ukraine’s outpost’ and its people are faring after one year of all-out war
Story by Aliide Naylor for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow reportedly expected to last just three days but is now a year old, continues to take a massive human toll. The total confirmed number of civilians killed since February 2022 — 8,000 per the latest U.N. Human Rights Office data — is undoubtedly a fraction of the souls lost in Russia’s invasion. A December 2022 Associated Press investigation identified more than 10,000 new graves in Mariupol alone, but again this is an incomplete picture: the city’s exiled municipal government estimated months ago that at least 25,000 residents were killed during the Russian siege, and AP journalists learned that the real death toll might be three times higher. More than eight million Ukrainians have fled abroad as refugees, and another 5.3 million people are internally displaced. At least 153,000 have sought refuge in Dnipro, a city that just yesterday marked 40 days since a Russian airstrike on a residential building killed 46 people and left hundreds without a roof over their heads. In a dispatch for The Beet, journalist Aliide Naylor reports on how “Ukraine’s outpost” and its people are faring after one year of all-out war.
This article first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.
The Dnipro Metallurgical Plant was once a behemoth of Soviet production. Founded in the late 19th century, it was nationalized after the Bolsheviks took over the city and imposed the new regime. In an old medical building on the factory grounds, food supplies from the 1980s and red-and-orange Soviet posters still clutter the dusty basement. But upstairs its walls are covered in the tiny yellow-and-blue handprints of children from Mariupol, Donetsk, Melitopol, and other war-torn Ukrainian cities, who frolic in a foam-carpeted play area while their parents try not to disintegrate from the sheer scale of their losses.
“We are left without a past,” says 62-year-old Rimma Dorosheva from northern Donetsk, as she knits woolen socks for soldiers fighting on the frontline. Her own children live abroad, in Israel. She fled her home last March, leaving behind treasured memories. “Photographs of our children, our photographs, photographs of our parents, the graves of our parents on the other side. Now everything is unknown.”
“Tanya’s house was completely burned down,” Dorosheva continues, gesturing to a nearby woman. “A direct hit, right in front of her eyes. She stood and watched her house, which she had been building all her life with her husband, burn.” Dorosheva tries to wave Tanya over, but the woman hurries away. “She cries all the time,” Dorosheva says.
Dnipro has become a hub for evacuees from frontline cities, with Mariupol, Kherson, Kharkiv, and Donetsk all within a 320-kilometer (200-mile) radius. The Dnipro Metallurgical Plant is one of several factory buildings, schools, and other spaces converted into refugee housing across the city, which had a pre-war population of around one million. Its more than 150 residents are overwhelmingly women, according to Anna Datsenko and Lena Lagoda, the events organizer and project manager at the shelter, respectively. “Seventy percent are women and children,” says Lagoda. “Twenty to thirty percent are men.”
While soldiers also return to the city for medical treatment, the men here are mostly those who couldn’t fight in the first place — for example, due to medical conditions. The center is well equipped with washing machines, proper windows, and refrigerators, making it one of the better residences available to the displaced. “We receive very good support from many charitable foundations,” Lagoda explains. “Windows, beds, pillows — everything in order to make people more comfortable.” They’ve even managed to procure a large boiler. “We have been striving for a long time to be this warm,” she says.
Today, the center is hosting something of a party: a recently displaced woman from Bakhmut knits a scarf meant for a soldier at the front, while other women have made delicious varenyky, creamy fruit tarts, and layered honey cake. But keeping spirits high remains tough. “You’re a hostage of the situation you’re in,” a woman named Larysa says tearfully. “When you strove for what you had all your life and are left with nothing, […] you can’t sugarcoat it.”
‘We’d need to live in a bomb shelter’
Despite the relative safety, Dnipro’s residents still have to endure air-raid sirens several times a day. “If we constantly responded to the alarms, we’d need to live in a bomb shelter,” says Dorosheva, whose daughter gave her a whistle to blow in case she ever gets trapped under rubble. Over the course of a single day reporting this story, the city had six different air-raid alerts responding to threats from operational-tactical aviation and rocket launches from the Black Sea.
Dnipro has suffered scores of missile attacks over the course of Russia’s full-scale invasion. Just last month, the city’s relative sense of security was upended when a missile slammed into a nine-story apartment block, tearing a massive crater through its core. Birds now fly in the empty space where people once lived. At least 46 died, and more than 460 emergency workers participated in the subsequent search-and-rescue operations. Cleanup is still ongoing.
“A rocket can hit here, there, anywhere,” says 57-year-old Dnipro resident Sergey as he surveys the ruins of the famous Yellow Kitchen. “No one is immune from this.” The missile passed just 100 meters (109 yards) from his friend’s home, Sergey says.“[The] glass flew out of the balcony [from the] force of the impact.” At least one refugee from eastern Ukraine was among the wounded: psychologist Olha Botvinova, who fled Donetsk in 2014 and then Kherson last spring, before ending up in Dnipro. “We’re starting again for the third time,” she told Deutsche Welle after surviving the blast.
The city plans to turn the area into a memorial square officially – something it’s already become organically as scattered stacks of bright, damp toys and flowers salute the space. Every day, people like Sergey come to stand and just look at the shattered building. Rebuilding the two destroyed sections and returning residents to their homes would only force them to relive the pain of the tragedy, Dnipro Mayor Borys Filatov said in an interview. “How can you live near the place where your loved ones, relatives, friends, acquaintances died, and where there will always be a place of mourning? It will be hard for us to go back there,” resident Vladyslav Solovyov told ZN.UA.
The city pulled together in the midst of the crisis. “[It] became a kind of act of unification of all Dnipro residents and residents of other cities,” says Natalya Kozhina, the program director of the Dnipro-based Human Rights Group Sich. Ordinary citizens and volunteers helped with “debris removal, hot drinks, food, warm clothes, the collection of funds for the victims, [and providing] accommodation for the night,” Kozhina explains. “It’s impossible to list everything that was done.”
Dnipro residents have become experts at self-organizing, completely eschewing any fears they might have (few who opted to stay in Dnipro say they are scared) and helping refugees and frontline soldiers in whatever ways they can.
In another factory in the city’s southeast, a group of 15 or so friends pour makeshift candles, chipping away at giant slabs of paraffin wax (their main expense) and then melting it down to submerge cardboard spiraled inside old food cans. They started this project around a month ago, just in their kitchens, before expanding the operation. They make around 350 candles every four hours, and volunteers take them to the frontlines by car.
Grassroots initiatives like these are Ukraine’s backbone today. “In Kyiv, in every big building, there’s a place on the first floor where everyone can bring their [cans] to make candles,” says 31-year-old Yefim who helps his mother, Viktoria, and her friends with the project. “We have to help, everybody helps if they can,” he continues. “We volunteer only because we want [to] — it’s not like some government organization.” Dnipro, he adds, is “like a small country” — a special type of “character” lives here.
The flow of people in and out of Dnipro is almost normal. It’s a city constantly in flux. According to historian Andrii Portnov, who grew up here and authored Dnipro: An Entangled History of a European City, Dnipro has been a city of migrants “for centuries.”
The Dnipro River, which cleaves Ukraine in half, was a key 16th-century trade route, and the city has attracted people from all over Europe since the late 18th century. “Then we have the First World War, when the city hosted a lot of refugees from the Western, let’s say, regions of the Russian Empire, and then the Second World War — so people were evacuated, and then went back,” Portnov explains. During the Nazi occupation, more than 20,000 of the city’s Jews were shot, but today Dnipro is home to one of the largest Jewish populations in Ukraine.
Even the city’s name isn’t fixed. Previously known as Yekaterinoslav and then Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine’s parliament renamed it Dnipro only in 2016, in a concerted effort to break from the old Soviet identity imposed in the 1920s. Dnipropetrovsk — a rocket and missile manufacturing center — was off-limits to foreigners and even people from other parts of the USSR. The KGB maintained the highest possible level of secrecy over the “rocket city,” and its special status brought both an aura of mystery and very Soviet uniformity. Little information left the city, and foreign influence was kept to a minimum. Today, the local aerospace companies Pivdenmash and Pivdenne (among others) are Ukrainian state-owned and still in operation. Russian cruise missiles hit one plant last July, killing three people.
Twelve months into Russia’s full-scale invasion, some of the fiercest battles are raging east of the Dnipro River. Its historic rapids, where granite bedrock splits the deep water into fast flowing branches, gush around some 60 different islets and flow directly into the Zaporizhzhia region, where the Kakhovka Reservoir — which Russian forces are now reportedly draining — cools Europe’s largest nuclear power plant and provides locals with a vital source of drinking water. Further downstream still, it passes through Nikopol — the site of heavy artillery strikes this past week. While refugees have flocked to Dnipro from Ukraine’s eastern regions, local soldiers and volunteers trickle back in knowing that their city is very much on the frontlines; the Dnipro-Holovnyi railway station swarms with people in camo, including one man on flimsy crutches carefully picking his way through the ice, one foot wrapped in a thick, knitted sock.
The city’s wealth, plentiful hospitals, and proximity to Russia-occupied territories have granted it the moniker of “Ukraine’s outpost.”
“People from Dnipro went first — [they were] the first line of soldiers [in 2014] because they were very aware of this dangerous situation,” says journalist Olena Andriushchenko, the author of a forthcoming book about wartime Dnipro. She recalls Russia’s more covert invasion after the Euromaidan Revolution in 2014, and the subsequent influx of internally displaced persons. “We started to receive a lot of refugees, and we understood that it’s very serious and we need to protect our nationality, our identity,” Andriushchenko says. Pro-Russia political movements actually lost support in parts of Ukraine, and the weaker central government back then meant that local politicians could take the reins.
The political and business elites carved out a new path for the city (Dnipro produced top Ukrainian oligarchs such as Victor Pinchuk and former Governor Ihor Kolomoisky). They “clearly understood that their own economic future could be more or less safe only in Ukraine,” says Portnov. Kolomoisky and Filatov enjoyed a notoriously close relationship as former business partners, and both personally bankrolled volunteer battalions, Politico Europe reported last year. Researcher Olena Ishchenko even claims that “Kolomoisky was the guarantor of the city’s stability.” (The U.S. sanctioned Kolomoiskiy in 2021, and he was recently targeted in nationwide anti-corruption raids.)
While the elite’s political alignment was clear, grassroots support cemented it further still. Local soccer fans were broadly pro-Euromaidan, and Dnipro residents began expressing their Ukrainian identity more openly and proudly. “[They] started to wear Ukraine’s symbols. [...] I saw a lot of Ukrainian flags on balconies,” Andriushchenko recalls. Today, even those who grew up speaking Russian are making deliberate efforts to speak Ukrainian. “A lot of people, especially old people, spoke Russian, and it was hard for them to change [languages]. But still, they started to speak Ukrainian, and it was impressive,” says Andriushchenko.
The shift is most prominently embodied in the city’s giant Hotel Parus — an unfinished Brezhnev-era structure that has a massive blue-and-yellow trident (Ukraine’s coat of arms) splashed across its façade. Dnipro is also home to Ukraine’s first museum dedicated to the war in the Donbas and has an avenue commemorating the Heavenly Hundred who died on Kyiv’s Independence Square in February 2014. This February 20, city officials came to lay flowers of varying shades of blue and yellow at the Heavenly Hundred memorial.
“Until recently, those new places somehow coexisted with [primarily] Soviet memorials,” says Portnov. Most of Dnipro’s monuments and museums were constructed after World War II, he explains, and there is almost nothing left from the pre-Soviet period. Now, however, many of the city’s Soviet-era monuments have been removed. Statues of writer Maxim Gorky and pilot Valery Chkalov were carefully dismantled last December, in stark contrast to the toppling of the massive Vladimir Lenin monument in the city’s center in 2014.
Nine years later, there’s simply a wide-open space where the Russian revolutionary once stood. But perhaps a tabula rasa suits this city best. With such a diverse and collectively motivated population, this is one of its strengths — shades of grey in a country upon which the Kremlin has attempted to impose black-and-white identities. “It’s not [a] city that wants to tell you or me its history,” Portnov concludes.
Rather, it’s emblematic of the “people’s war” that the entire country is fighting, no matter their roots. For refugees from Ukraine’s east, “one problem that unites us is that we’re here,” says Rimma Dorosheva from Donetsk. “And therefore we sort of understand each other.”
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