After returning historical name, Ukraine’s frontline New York debuts with literary festival

Participants of the event on the stag of the first literary festival in the front-line settlement of New York, Donetsk Oblast that took place on 1-2 October 2021. Screenshot: tsn.ua, the caption reads, "litterateurs in New York." 

Culture

In early October, the small Ukrainian settlement of New York, located on the frontline in war-torn Donbas, hosted its first ever literary festival. The town reinstated its striking historical name, New York only months ago.

The New York Literary Festival welcomed authors, journalists, musicians, and other artists from all over Ukraine. The festival continues a trend of cultural revival in the precariously situated city. Oh, and it now has a New Yorker magazine, too.

“You know, there are no absolutely safe places in the world – this is just an illusion that we humans sometimes cherish. There are just places where they will cover you or forgive you if something happens. This is called Home. In this sense, in New York I am at home. In both New Yorks,” author Viktoria Amelina told Channel 24, commenting on security concerns.

The local online magazine NewYorker.City points that the core group of the participants of the fest arrived by bus from Lviv across almost all of Ukraine to read lectures, carry out discussions, present their projects, perform songs, and hold exhibitions and competitions for two days on 2-3 October 2021.

New York of Donetsk

The town chosen as the location to hold the literary festival has a rich and rather tragic history. Unlike its overseas American metropolitan namesake, the Ukrainian town of New York is now home to only about 10,000 people and is administratively subordinated to the larger city of Toretsk.

It is believed that its unordinary name comes from German Mennonite settlers who had bought the settlement named Oleksandrivske in the mid 19th century from the authorities and by the end of the century formed their colony of New York from seven nearby settlements. However, local historians argue that the American-flavored naming had several mentions in documents dated back to the years before the Germans arrived.

The town flourished through its industry until Soviet rule was established in the region in the fall of 1917, which marked the imminent decline of Ukrainian New York.

With Nazi Germany’s invasion of the USSR in 1941, the last ethnic Germans who managed to endure the Soviet-induced perils of the 1920-1930s – – blanket seizures of properties and requisitions of food stocks of the war communism, collectivization, and industrialization years — were deported by the Soviet authorities to Kazakhstan to never return.

The Soviets feared that German-speaking locals would easily collaborate with the invading army. At least, the genocidal famine of the Holodomor didn’t hit the town hard in 1932-1933 as it was largely industrial with a large part of its population being not Ukrainian, while the Soviet authorities targeted chiefly rural Ukrainian communities.

New York’s “new city’s” past

New York of Donetsk’s “club” or “the House of Culture” – the community center in the days of the literary festival on 2-3 October 2021. Photo: Facebook/Victoria Amelina via NewYorker.City

The venue of the festival — the local House of Culture or the community center — was built in 1950 to host culture-related events for workers of local phenol-producing chemical-factory and their families.

The town still bore its original name of New York at the time, and it was not until a year later when the Soviet authorities amid the then-unfolding Soviet cold war against the US and the rest of the civilized world renamed the town, whose name sounded too American, as Novhorodske, which literally means “the new city’s.”

The town carried the made-up Soviet name for 70 years up until 2021, when the Ukrainian Parliament greenlit the proposal to restore the historical name of New York — something local activists strived for since at least 2016. Then, under the Decommunization Laws, many settlements in Ukraine got rid of the mentions of Soviet-regime leaders and celebrities in their names.

Being only a devised name, the toponym Novhorodske wasn’t related to any Soviet-celebrated personality, so it lingered for several more years since.

Writer and poet Serhiy Zhadan (L) performing with Mark Tokar (R) at their special joint project “Brecht & Jazz / Zhadan & Tokar: German poetry, American music, Ukrainian interpretation” at New York Literary Festival. Photo: Donetsk Oblast Administration

The festival

The first New York Literary Festival which promises to become an annual event took place only three months after the return of the town’s historic name. The subject of this year’s event was “Real names. Real stories.” Participants and visitors of the event were looking for the true history of Donetsk Oblast with its stories of European emigrants, entrepreneurs, farmers, dissidents, poets, and musicians.

The festival’s founder is author Victoria Amelina, whose husband is originally from New York, so the place for the festival wasn’t chosen by mere chance. Ms. Amelina said in her interview with NewYorker City that she got acquainted with the local community back in May, a month before the city got its historic name back as she and other future organizers of NLF met with local activists and authorities.

Audience at one of the literary festival’s events in New York, Donetsk Oblast. Early October 2021. Photo: Channel 24

A number of celebrated Ukrainian cultural figures were reading lectures and holding discussions on various cultural issues, among whom were writers and poets — Victoria Amelina, Serhiy Zhadan, Olena Styazhkina, Tamara Orikha Zernya, Halyna Vdovychenko, Olha Herasimyuk — a well-known TV journalist who had published her debut book a couple of years ago, and several more authors. Video addresses came to the festival participants from several Ukrainian authors living abroad.

“New Yorkers are cool and open-minded. I heard them sing along ‘We are the Champions’ to the performance of the Colors Trio. They did applaud Olena Styazhkina, Halyna Kruk, Serhiy Zhadan, and others. And they asked whether the authors had their books for sale,” the festival’s organizer Viktoria Amelina shared her impressions with NewYorker.City.

One of the music performances at the New York Literary Festival. Photo: the festival’s Facebook page

Local children drawing their vision of New York’s future at the festival. Photo: Facebook/Halyna Vdovychenko

“For some reason, I was afraid that New Yorkers might not like the brilliant jazz performance by Mark Tokar. I now want to apologize for this fear. Because everyone I talked to was delighted. So, jazz is there to stay in New York. People here have both style and taste — I promise never to doubt in them again. And how great high school students are in New York – all cities need such ones!” said Ms. Amelina.

Writer and historian Olena Styazhkina, the former lecturer of Donetsk National University who now works at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in Kyiv, gave a lecture “History of Donetsk: Lost or Stolen?” in which she argued about historical issues of the region.

Meanwhile, Olha Herasimyuk, during the discussion on local media and the launch of the NewYorker.City online magazine mentioned that as a student she had an internship at the newspaper Kocheharka in the now occupied Horlivka.

Various popular musicians gave their live performances and presented their video clips.

Participants and winners of the essay writing competition at the New York Literary Festival. Photo: Channel 24

Head of Donetsk Oblast Military and Civil Administration Pavlo Kyrylenko welcomed the festival and noted that the return of the historic name to New York is a success story of many,

“The community, as well as local, regional, and state authorities, public activists, Parliament, and President, – all put their efforts to [make this happen]. In our joint effort, we are regaining what is ours. The settlement of New York in Donetsk Oblast is a living testimony that our region was formed as a European one. At some point, its history was stolen and distorted. But not destroyed,” Kyrylenko wrote on Facebook.

Closing ceremony of the New York Literary Festival. New York, Donetsk Oblast, 3 October 2021. Photo: Channel 24

According to NewYorker.City, in total, more than 600 residents of Ukrainian New York attended the festival, which isn’t a small number for the town of only about 10,000.

Further reading:

Ukraine needs independent journalism. And we need you. Join our community on Patreon and help us better connect Ukraine to the world. We’ll use your contribution to attract new authors, upgrade our website, and optimize its SEO. For as little as the cost of one cup of coffee a month, you can help build bridges between Ukraine and the rest of the world, plus become a co-creator and vote for topics we should cover next. Become a patron or see other ways to support. Become a Patron!

Tags: , , ,