For a long time, Kryvyi Rih was considered a sanctuary of all things soviet and one of the pro-Russian cities where «regional managers» ruled for decades without alternative options. In the spring of 2014, Kryvyi Rih presented itself in a pretty unexpected way: by contrast to the separatist rally announced in the city earlier, thousands of the locals took it to the streets to declare Ukraine’s unity. One of the first volunteer battalions called Kryvbas was created here right away, a strong volunteer movement emerged and civic activity intensified.
Despite all this, the Vilkul family clan that was at the helm of Kryvyi Rih back under the flags of the Party of Regions still manages to control the city, now under the flags of its successor parties. Yet, nobody dares to refer to the city as pro-Russian anymore.
A proactive local offshoot of Automaidan functions in Kryvyi Rih to this day. Its leader Anton Kravchenko explains that the victory of the Maidan failed to solve the city’s problems, so this movement on wheels remains active, focusing on civic and information space in the city. Activists join rallies and activities to draw the attention of the authorities to important issues. «Kryvyi Rih has a huge problem with public transport,» Anton Kravchenko shares. «We still ride old marshrutkas that are literally falling apart. They raise ticket prices but the quality doesn’t change. The authorities have promised to launch comfortable buses but that ended nowhere. We took on this issue two years ago and even drafted a standard agreement between the executive committee and transport companies. They promised to approve it last year but the city council does everything to prevent it from coming into effect. In turn, we keep pushing, not letting them «forget» about this issue.»
Automaidan representatives founded the Kryvyi Rih Investigation Center that monitors public tenders and does journalist investigations. The center was launched as an alternative to the press and TV controlled by the local authorities.
«We launched this project as an opportunity for the youth. But we then faced the problem that a lot of young people leave the city,» Kravchenko explains. «People feel uncomfortable here. I moved from Kryvyi Rih to Dnipro in 2012 myself. But I returned during the Maidan and decided to continue with civic activity in my home city. It’s very difficult here because many things happen against sound reason. If anything is done here, it’s done formally, like in the Soviet Union.»
After the Maidan, Plast, a scout organization for the youth, was revived in Kryvyi Rih. It now has over 100 members. People at the Plast hub say that the national patriotic upsurge made it clear that children want to act and feel important in the city’s social life. Moreover, the system of education in educational facilities still has soviet elements, resulting in poor civic education in Kryvyi Rih.
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«Scout organizations were persecuted and repressed in the soviet time,» says Tetiana Asadova, representative of Plast’s central office. «It wasn’t until 1991 that Plast reappeared in Kryvyi Rih. These were two boys’ groups that existed until 2004 when the boys grew up and moved elsewhere from Kryvyi Rih, so the groups stopped. In 2017, we managed to restart Plast. It now counts 114 members, including one group for children aged below 4, 5 groups for children below 11 and 8 groups for children aged 12 to 18.»
Worth mentioning is Dosyt truyity Kryvyi Rih [Enough Poisoning Kryvyi Rih] in Ukrainian, one of the strongest and most effective environmental movements in Ukraine. It is the movement of residents, environmentalists, lawyers and entrepreneurs who stood up to protect the ecology of the Kryvbas region that four mining and processing plants, machine-building factories and ArcelorMittal, the biggest polluter, have been damaging for years. Since 2016, the activists have been forcing industrial giants to comply with their environmental commitments, participating in public hearings on pollution certificates, analyzing environmental impact reports by these companies, integrating expert comments and defending their rights to clean air in courts.
One may have an impression that there was no visible civic movement in Kryvyi Rih before the Maidan. SHELTER+, a cultural and civic center, counters this, exemplifying how a small youth center can grow into an actual community, even if it is in the 2000s and in a provincial city. That’s when the locals decided to create a space where young people could do arts, sports and learn leadership skills. The initiative group transformed an abandoned kindergarten in an industrial district into the open space called SHELTER+. For many teenagers, it is a center of the opportunity to practice music or debates, or this is where they have heard the word «volunteer» for the first time.
It now offers a concert hall, a recording studio, a gym, a pottery workshop, training rooms, rehearsal studio and other facilities that enable many different initiatives and the best service to the community. Yuliy Morozov, one of the founders, refers to SHELTER+ as a pinpoint effort to keep the youth in town, even if this effort often has the opposite effect.
«The most successful projects like SHELTER+ actually encourage their participants to leave,» says Morozov, SHELTER+ founder and the newly elected deputy with Syla Liudey [Power of People] party. «In these projects, people cooperate between different cities, even countries, they become more self-confident, expand their horizon and even present themselves to other people who can appreciate and headhunt them. We used to feel sad about this — that we encourage many young locals to leave the city. But they will start coming back one day. When people come to power who are interested in developing the city. And when they need human resources of good quality, with good experience, and preferably with some organic connection to the city. Many countries and cities have experienced similar processes. Kryvyi Rih will one day, too.»
Indeed, many young people see Kryvyi Rih as a depressed city with nothing but factories, nine-storied panel buildings and bad ecology. The authorities have their own view of how the city should help the young and develop civil society. Up until 2020, it ran a youth program called the New Generation of Kryvyi Rih. For the most part, it was about payments of bonuses to young people from the mayor, various competitions and ceremonies. The city executive committee takes pride in being the leader in terms of personal scholarships, municipal awards and bonuses for the youth. Yuliy Morozov refers to this as showing off and simulation: «The city authorities have set up all kinds of youth councils, executive committees and pocket pseudo-civic organizations. As a result, the most obedient become officials and play their small roles without really changing the situation seriously. At 35, they become typical old bureaucrats.»
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The offshoot of Syla Liudey in Kryvyi Rih can offer a good example of how a civic movement transforms into a political one: the party ended up with 5 seats at the Kryvyi Rih City Council. For now, the carcass of the offshoot is made up of civic activists. Still, activists fear that the latest election results only cement status quo in the city.
«The city budget and strategy passed this year is just eating up the money with free transport and handouts through social benefits. There are no development or solutions that could elevate the city from the ruin and chaos in view,» comments Taras Yurchenko, representative of the Association of Responsible Citizens NGO and secretary of the Dnipro Oblast Organization of Syla Liudey.
«Some new deputies might surprise us with initiatives and readiness to defend quality changes in some areas, but this is very unlikely. If the proactive cohort of people whom we are consolidating with more or less success has enough patience to play the long game, we have a chance to change. Because there is almost nowhere lower to fall,» Yuliy Morozov notes.
Daryna Tverdokhlib, Kryvyi Rih
Translated by Anna Korbut