In the New York of Ukraine, community reels from death of writer Victoria Amelina

Russian bombs reduced the House of Culture — located in the east of the country — to rubble. Shortly before the attack, a literary festival filled with hope had begun. Its organizer was killed a few weeks later

Guerra en Ucrania
The theater of the House of Culture in the town of New York, in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, on July 24, 2023. It was bombed this past May by the Russians.Luis de Vega
Luis de Vega (Special Correspondent)

“It happened in the afternoon, around three or four. We felt a noise like thunder,” recalls Valentin Taranov, 85, in the small Ukrainian town of New York, in the eastern Donetsk region. Afterwards, “it was all dust and rubble,” he adds, jogging towards the site that was attacked in May, in an effort to show that he’s in good shape. Seconds later, the silence was punctuated by some detonations in the distance, accompanied by the crumbling of the stage, the luxurious hall, the stairs, the façade. The effects of that “thunder” that Taranov describes — a Russian bomb — didn’t spare a single inch of the House of Culture.

As a clear example of how culture has become yet another victim of war, the late writer Victoria Amelina dreamed of permanently establishing a literary festival, which she launched in the impoverished eastern Ukrainian region. Sadly, that event died in its infancy, only lasting for one edition. It was held in October 2021, four months before the invasion by Russian President Vladimir Putin began. In the current situation, it’s impossible to foresee a second event in the near future. The invasion in February 2022 by the Kremlin worsened the already-tense climate of violence and death in the Donetsk region, which, in 2014, was the scene of an armed insurrection by Moscow-backed separatists.

Starting in 1951, the Soviet authorities renamed New York (frequently transcribed as Niu-York) as Novhorodske (“new city”) for a few decades. The town regained its original name in 2021. The origin of the name of this industrial enclave — which had about 10,000 inhabitants until last year — comes from local workers, who emigrated to the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries, explains journalist Natalia Gumeniuk, who was a friend of Amelina.

The facade of the House of Culture, during the literary festival organized in October 2021 by the writer Victoria Amelina. She died this past July 1, after a Russian attack. Luis de Vega

In an incomprehensible and painful paradox of war, a few weeks after the destruction of the cultural center — a colonial-style building from the mid-20th century — it was Victoria Amelina herself who died in early July, after a Russian missile exploded. “I’ll remember her as young, beautiful, ambitious…” laments Ludmila (who prefers not to give her last name), the 58-year-old manager of the Family Club restaurant. This place, located about 700 feet from the cultural center, became the canteen for the festival’s participants and attendees.

“I want to send a message to her family about what Victoria did for New York and for the town’s children. We don’t have many people in Ukraine who are so patriotic and who fight to educate kids,” she stresses, still racked with pain and disbelief. She then launches a poisoned dart of irony, shaking her head at Putin’s claim that he was going to take Kyiv in three days — a boast he made nearly 18 months ago. “[The Russians] were going to liberate us in three days. They’ve now liberated the cultural center, the sports center and other parts of the city.”

Gumeniuk, who spoke with EL PAÍS shortly after Amelina’s death, also emphasizes the author’s commitment to culture and education. “Before the invasion — in a few more or less peaceful months — Victoria founded a literature festival [in New York]. Her magazine is run by the kids there,” she says. “Victoria was a person very close to the hearts of those young people,” she adds.

“The first time she came to New York to present one of her books, she visited the school… She gave herself completely to the cause,” Ludmila recalls.

The writer — originally from the west of the country — chose this small town to organize the festival, because it’s where her husband and his family come from. New York is one of the parts of eastern Ukraine that’s shaken by high unemployment, a degraded environment and an intermittent water supply. It’s also at the gates of the zone occupied by the Russians, from where they launch attacks against these towns, as described by reporter Katerina Sergatskova, in a report published by the online Ukrainian news outlet Zaborona at the end of 2021. The town is filled with gardens and colonial touches, as well as sturdy brick buildings constructed by German settlers. These Mennonite Protestants — who arrived in the middle of the 19th-century — were later exiled to Siberia by the Soviet authorities.

The hall of the House of Culture, bombed last May by the Russians. This was where Victoria Amelina – who died on July 1 following a Russian attack – organized a literary festival in 2021. Luis de Vega

Today, New York appears almost completely deserted. It’s located close to the combat zone and is a frequent target of Russian missiles. Three days before EL PAÍS visited the town, near the end of July, a bombardment killed four residents. And, in May and June, the phenol factory — an essential engine of the local economy — was bombed. As was the House of Culture, where Amelina celebrated the literature festival last year. This cultural institute — or what’s left of it — is owned by Rinat Ajmetov, a Ukrainian magnate who also owns the destroyed phenol factory.

Several police officers are finishing up their meal at one of the tables in the Family Club. As they put on their bulletproof vests to go outside again, one of them, Vitali, tells EL PAÍS that they have a list of 50 minors who remain in town and need to be evacuated. During the conversation, there’s a lot of uncertainty about what will happen to these at-risk kids; Amelina used to support them via her cultural initiative.

Valentin Taranov, 85, stands in front of the House of Culture. He explains how the Russians bombed this building last May.
Valentin Taranov, 85, stands in front of the House of Culture. He explains how the Russians bombed this building last May. LUIS DE VEGA

At the beginning of the War in Donbas, in 2014, Russian fighters took control of New York for three months. The town, which is nestled in the great front that surrounds the disputed town of Bakhmut, seems to be a continuous festival of detonations. Some missiles are launched from Ukrainian positions, while others come from the Russian side. But, despite the years of conflict, Valentin Taranov — the retired resident who described the attack — tries to look on the bright side: “Here, we have internet. There’s internet in the air, too,” he points out, referring to Wi-Fi.

Taranov will never forget that terrible afternoon, when the enemy destroyed the House of Culture’s theater. “I was sitting by the window, which was ripped out and hit my arm when it was shattered by the explosion. In my room and in other rooms, the windows [popped out]. Everything was destruction and smoke. Everything was shaking: the ground, my legs, my hands... We ran outside and people were shouting: ‘They’ve destroyed the club [the House of Culture], they’ve destroyed the club!’” After checking the damage, they returned to the apartment and “the dust had settled.”

“Our dog went under the bed and then he couldn’t get out, because the hole was so small. When everything calmed down, we had to lift the bed up to free him. He was crying. I would like them [the Russians] to see it: the dog crying, trembling and trying to protect itself between us,” he explains, still gesturing furiously.

“With this festival, I wanted to say that the real Donetsk region is very beautiful, delicate, touching and stubborn — vulnerable and strong at the same time,” the writer commented in October 2021, in a profile published by Zaborona. “The fairest thing would be to be able to celebrate the festival again and have it bear the name of Victoria Amelina,” Ludmila opines, while sitting at one of the tables in the Family Club. “I’m sure we’ll end up having a cultural center named after her,” she adds.

Between the coming and going of the uniformed men, who order food and drinks, one of them, an acquaintance of the deceased writer, concludes sadly: “We’re still in shock.”

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