KRYVYI RIH – All around Kryvyi Rih, a city in the Dnipro region in south-eastern Ukraine, there are billboards bearing Volodymyr Zelensky’s face. The Ukrainian president grew up here, and the proud billboards are a reminder. They are also splashed with the words: “Fear God and the lads from Kryvyi Rih”. Andrii Shaikan, the head of Zelensky’s alma mater, Kryvyi Rih State University of Economics and Technology, hates this image. Though the billboards are meant to boost wartime morale, Shaikan thinks they celebrate the town’s history of gang culture. For almost a decade beginning in the 1990s, throughout Zelensky’s youth right after the fall of the USSR, Kryvyi Rih was one of the most crime-ridden cities in the post-Soviet sphere. Zelensky and his wife, Olena Zelenska, however, come from the city’s intelligentsia – both their fathers are professors – and were shielded from that culture.
Yet the city has clearly imbued a certain toughness in the president. “Here in Kryvyi Rih, nobody had the slightest doubt that he would act this way,” says Shaikan of Zelensky’s decision to stay in the country rather than flee in the early days of the Russian invasion in February. “Leaving Ukraine? No way! That’s not how people do things here. I assume many would find the way he governs unorthodox, but from what I know about him, about his family, he is a strategist. He might make decisions which are unexpected or even risky, but they are well thought through.”
Some might be surprised by the extent of hometown support for Zelensky. Kryvyi Rih, home to 600,000 people, is known for its powerhouse steel factory, ArcelorMittal Kryvyi Rih, one of the largest companies in the country, which produces 20 per cent of Ukraine’s steel. The industry dominates the city. For years pro-Russian spin-doctors, as well as the American political consultant Paul Manafort, who worked for the former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych (now in exile in Russia) and Donald Trump’s 2016 US presidential campaign, peddled the idea that steel workers living in the east and south of Ukraine were nostalgic for the Soviet past. They pushed the idea that workers in these regions felt closer to Russia and didn’t care about democracy or other ideas allegedly imposed by the West.
Six months into Vladimir Putin’s grinding war, that is clearly not the case in Kryvyi Rih. At ArcelorMittal Kryvyi Rih I meet Eugen Kasatkin; his job is the most dangerous in metallurgy, maintaining a blast furnace, where the heated air can be as hot as 1,650°C. Dressed in a silver metallic coat in front of a golden flow of liquid metal, Kasatkin’s work resembles a scene from a steampunk movie. Kasatkin, 35, supports Ukraine in its fight against Russia, as do his brother and father, who both work at the steel factory. He is worried for his colleagues. Roughly 2,000 ArcelorMittal workers are fighting on the front lines. Several have already been killed. “Freedom of speech, that’s what makes us different from Russia,” Kasatkin tells me. “I can express any view and I do not have to just follow orders. I have rights.”
Is there anybody here who’s nostalgic for the Soviet Union? Some of the workers I meet explain that while their parents and those of an older generation once might have been, after Putin’s full-scale invasion the final remnants of their affection vanished. The mood among the steel workers is now one of unanimous support for Kyiv. “Working here now, during the war, we try to do our bit so the city receives some taxes, which means the state gets something from it, and if Ukraine is stronger the world is safer,” says Dmytro, 43. “Now our task is to work harder to win the war, and then after victory, to work even harder to rebuild the country, so it gets even better after the war.”
Yet, according to Artem Filipyev, the company’s deputy director in charge of legal issues, “there is [a] limit to what we can do during the war”. Prior to the invasion, ArcelorMittal Kryvyi Rih exported 85 per cent of its finished product, which made it one of Ukraine’s largest exporters. Since the Ukrainian Black Sea ports of Odesa and Mykolayiv are de facto blockaded by Russia, the company is unable to export. “We no longer receive raw materials from Kazakhstan,” explains Filipyev. “We are trying to switch to transporting via railways and establish new supply chains of coal and other critical materials, [but] overhauling the entire system can seem like an impossible task.”
He meets me in a modern office room – a dramatic departure from the gigantic steel machinery of the factory or, thankfully, the front lines of the war. Filipyev’s wife was away on 24 February, so when the attack on Ukraine began, he took both of his children with him to the plant, where they spent the first week of the war. The plant has the strongest bomb shelters in the city.
There are now 60,000 internally displaced people in Kryvyi Rih. “Around 20,000 come from the Donbas, but those people left consciously as families, with their belongings,” the deputy mayor, Serhii Milyutin, tells me. “They come from a similar industrial region, so there are chances for employment, at least for some. But the majority, around 40,000 people, come from villages in the occupied Kherson region – agricultural land which borders occupied Crimea. They were escaping military action, so they walked by foot, fled by rivers, used bikes or any possible means of transport and came with nothing.”
Kryvyi Rih is just 25 miles from the newly occupied territories Donetsk and Luhansk. It is also a desirable target for Russia to invade. Apart from its symbolism as Zelensky’s hometown, the airfield in Kryvyi Rih is the biggest in the region and the Russian army had intended to use it as a base for invading the south. On the morning of 24 February, Oleksandr Vilkul, a former politician with authority in the town, ordered heavy equipment, bulldozers and trucks to block the airfield’s runway and had the tyres shot so that the vehicles couldn’t be moved. “The Russian planes were already close, but were unable to land,” he tells me. The following day Zelensky appointed Vilkul, 48, the head of the city’s military administration, making him the de facto mayor of Kryvyi Rih.
Vilkul’s political career encapsulates the complexity of the Ukrainian political climate. He was a vice-prime minister in the government of Yanukovych, who was toppled during the Maidan Revolution in February 2014 and fled to Russia. At the time Vilkul was against European integration or Ukraine joining Nato, and after the revolution joined the Opposition Bloc, the major pro-Russian group in parliament. But in December 2018 he revolted against his fellow party member Viktor Medvedchuk, an openly pro-Russian politician whose children were baptised by Putin himself, and who has recently been charged with treason by the Zelensky government.
The reason for the rebellion, Vilkul says, was that “Medvedchuk came to us, politicians from Ukraine’s east and south, and told us we needed to coordinate all actions with the Kremlin. I told him I wouldn’t do so. He called Moscow, then the next day the Russian government put me onto the sanctions list.” While Vilkul had insisted on keeping good relations with Moscow, he didn’t want to be controlled. That was the moment he retired from national politics.
Vilkul’s political outlook has shifted markedly. “Russia became a totalitarian sect, which combined some Christian rites, Lenin’s cult, a distorted understanding of the victory in World War Two and worship of the nuclear button,” he says. “Ukraine belongs to and should become a member of the European Union and ideally Nato. I was mistaken when I was against both, but I truly believed our neutrality was a guarantee of our security. But Russia is an aggressive military empire and we need to be defended.”
He plans to leave politics again as soon as the war is over, but for the moment he remains the only legitimate and respected person among former and current pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine. Even political opponents in Ukraine give him credit for not only for admitting his mistakes, but for keeping the territory under control. Though Zelensky could appoint a mayor of his choice thanks to Ukraine’s martial law, he has stuck with Vilkul. The mayor of Dnipro, Borys Filatov, a member of the pro-European Proposition party, told me that Vilkul “is definitely the right person in the right spot”.
There are few historic sites left in Kryvyi Rih; most of them were destroyed during the Second World War. One of a very few places to survive was the former synagogue, which today is Kryvyi Rih State University. This is where Zelensky studied, started his showbusiness career, and where his father continues to teach, running the Department of Informatics and Applied Software. (Throughout the war, says Shaikan, “Oleksander Zelensky was teaching online. Of course, he should be now in an undisclosed location, but he is preparing for the new university year.”)
Shaikan has spent much of his life at the school, studying there before teaching. He was a student at the same time as Zelensky but he doesn’t pretend to know the president well. He does recall, however, him and his team around Moscow, where Shaikan has relatives, when Zelensky came to town for his first performances in the 1990s. In the West, Zelensky’s fame is usually credited to the TV series Servant of the People, in which he played the president. For Ukrainians he became famous when he was just 18 and acting in comedies on Russian TV for students from all over the former Soviet Union. At the time Zelensky and his friends represented his university and town.
“If he had a hunger for fame in the early stage of his career, being a superstar in his youth meant he overcame that [hunger] decades ago,” Shaikan says when we discuss Zelensky’s global prominence and PR savvy. Zelensky named his production company Kvartal 95 Studios after a central square in Kryvyi Rih, in the district where Zelensky and his friends lived. His parents still have an apartment nearby. Kvartal 95, the business, is now one of the most successful production companies in the post-Soviet regions. Some of its former employees, now working in government, are behind the videos and clips Zelensky releases to keep the world focused on Ukraine’s ordeal.
The square itself is not particularly lovely: a road junction with many shops and a McDonald’s, though the latter stopped operating in Ukraine after the invasion. The only distinct feature here is the photos of the Ukrainians who died during the Maidan Revolution, and later the war in the Donbas. Like the billboards bearing Zelensky’s face, this memorial serves as a way of highlighting another distinction of Kryvyi Rih’s when it comes to Putin’s war on Ukraine. Since 2014 the number of military casualties from the Dnipro region has been higher than anywhere else in the country, and the number from Kryvyi Rih is the highest in the region.