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Why Dnipro is Ukraine’s future The city is fighting back — and not just its soldiers

Death in Dnipro. Credit: Celestino Arce/NurPhoto/Getty

Death in Dnipro. Credit: Celestino Arce/NurPhoto/Getty


May 2, 2022   5 mins

Dnipro, Ukraine

To arrive in Dnipro is to not quite cross a Rubicon. The city sits at the centre of the Dnieper River, the body of water that sunders Ukraine — both practically and psychologically. It starts in the Valdai Hills near Smolensk in west Russia and runs for 1,400 miles through Belarus and Ukraine all the way into the Black Sea.

The Dnieper divides the country up into its left and right banks, a bifurcation that dates from the 17th century, during a period known as The Ruin, when the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth and Russia fought over the area. Since then, most things east of the Dnieper have had a more Russian feel, while the West has been more European. It’s where the highest concentration of Russian-speakers and pro-Russian sentiment can be found, and where Russian forces chose to invade in 2014, setting up “separatist” republics in the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts (regions) which have nested like lice on the Ukrainian body politic ever since.

Standing between the left and right banks, Dnipro is accordingly of neither. It lies between Ukraine’s two worlds: West and East; Europe and Russia. Its geographical location makes it vital to the country war effort. It is the first stop on my journey to the battlefields of eastern Ukraine.

We pull into the station: large, cream and fronted by stolid columns. It’s impressive, like so many railway terminals in the former USSR. It’s also haunted. The diaries of the journalist Gareth Jones detail his experiences of the Moscow-enforced famine in Ukraine, the Holodomor. When Jones visited the station, it was filled with Ukrainian peasants slowly dying from hunger. I see them every time I come here.

The war between Russia and Ukraine is over territory and nationalism and language, which is to say that it is in large part about historical memory. And the memories are both contested and raw.

Dnipro’s central location makes it the country’s most important logistical hub. On a map, the roads and tracks sprawl out from the city like veins across the top of a fist. From Dnipro you can travel quickly south to the battlefields of Zaporizhzhya and the killing fields of Mariupol. Or you can go east to Kramatorsk and the separatist cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.

The Russians attacked Dnipro on the first day of the war, hitting and destroying the runway; they then struck military bases around the city. Two weeks later, they hit the airport again, and then again on 10 April, destroying it completely. The airport was also the scene of the infamous Russian “double tap”: a tactic several Ukrainians warn me about before I go to the front. It sums up the calculated sadism of the Russian way of war here. It was first struck at around 10am; the Russians then waited for the emergency services to get to the scene before striking it again at 12pm and hitting the fire crew that had arrived. Six firefighters were wounded, one, Eugeniya Dudka, severely.

But the city began to fight back — and not just its soldiers. When I first came to Ukraine to cover the war in 2014, the state was so broke that many of their soldiers fighting in the east lacked the basics: flak jackets and night vision goggles. Many didn’t even have proper uniforms. Ordinary Ukrainians stepped in: using social media to crowdfund money for the equipment, which they then often drove to the front themselves. They became, as I described in War in 140 Characters, a kind of virtual state, doing the things the government could not. Their efforts were vital to the war effort then and remain so almost eight years later.

In a cafe in the centre of the city with sandbags piled up against windows I meet Dima, a soldier in the Dnipro 1 Battalion, who works in IT but has been fighting the Russians off and on for almost eight years. “Look,” he told me. “The only things from the government I have on me are my machine gun and its bullets. Everything else, from my uniform to my German boots, comes from donations.” Dima heads up the battalion’s drone unit and he tells me that he raised $20,000 from friends and IT guys he knows to buy the drones they need.

The fundraising and donations are only possible because of the work of a class of Ukrainian civil society that spans almost all sectors of life and makes use of all available civilian tools. The “volunteers”. Ask a Ukrainian packing boxes of underwear to send to the front what he is and he’ll tell you: “I’m a volunteer.” Ask one sorting flak jacket into piles by size and she’ll say the same. As will the one cooking several pans of pasta on different stoves or the one standing outside the supermarket with lists of goods that people walking in can buy inside for soldiers at the front. They are no longer just a feature of civil society, but vital to the effective running of the state in war

Roman Uvarov was shaken awake by his wife at seven am on the first day of the war. “Russia is bombing us,” she hissed. Uvarov was shocked. He had assumed the conflict wouldn’t move beyond the Russian border areas where there was anyway a lot of pro-Russia sentiment. He never dreamed they would try to take the whole country. “Life just stopped,” he tells me. “Everything froze. I had no desire for work, no desire to play with my kids or to do anything really.”

But that didn’t last. “Something switched in me,” he continues. “I knew I had to do something.” So he began to do some casual “volunteering”. It started small. It was February and freezing, and people were looking for heaters. Ok, he thought, I have a spare heater in my garage. Then it was blankets. Then bed covers for the hospital and then medicine…

“I started buying all that stuff — it was minor, but it kept me motivated and made me feel that I wasn’t useless.” Like all Ukrainians he got creative, a much-needed skill when his country is facing an enemy so much larger and richer and well-armed. One of Uvarov’s hobbies was home brewing; he had loads of empty wine bottles lying around so he took them to his neighbour and the two of them started making Molotov cocktails.

The war was getting worse, though; more people were dying.  He needed more resources — and global attention.

He started posting messages on Facebook to crowdfund. He got money from three friends abroad but, still, it wasn’t enough to make a real difference. He had to do something significant. He knew there was a lot of money in blockchain and building online marketplaces — he is an IT project manager — and so decided, with a friend, to introduce Ukrainian art to the crypto communities. The helpukrainestopwar.com project was born. It grew quickly. Artists brought other artists who brought friends and it ballooned.

Uvarov was convinced he could do more. He knew there was money to be made in NFTs, and came up with a simple idea: Ukraine Stands United. It is an NFT collection created by Ukrainian artists which they are selling in the hope of raising 1 million ADA — a coin of the Cardano blockchain that has at the time of writing a rate of 1 ADA to $0,80. It will provide 30,000 ministry standard meals to those on the ground on a weekly basis, alongside essentials such as medicine and transport.

What is so striking about Uvarov’s story is how ordinary — and yet extraordinary — it is. He knew the soldiers needed meals but who could prepare them? He had a favourite pizza and sushi delivery place in Dnipro, Rock’n’Roll, and convinced them to start cooking for what he calls the “defenders”.

Uvarov hands me a rectangle of silver foil the size of a paperback. It’s an MRE (Meal-Ready-to-Eat) containing rice and stewed chicken. Uvarov and the guys started out with their own money and made 500 meals in their first batch. Now they have a team of 15-20 people in production (all of whom cooked sushi and pizza before the first Russian strike on 24 February) who are making 5,000 packets a day. But demand is increasing.

I look at Uvarov. With his dark blue jeans, white hoodie and gold earring, he could be a fresh-faced IT professional from London or New York. Instead, he is integral to his country’s future. Ukraine cannot survive without its army, and its army cannot survive without him.

He looks at me. “I’m a volunteer not a soldier,” he says. “I’m not ready to die for Ukraine, but I am determined to live for it.”


David Patrikarakos is UnHerd‘s foreign correspondent. His latest book is War in 140 characters: how social media is reshaping conflict in the 21st century. (Hachette)

dpatrikarakos

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Russell Hamilton
RH
Russell Hamilton
1 year ago

Many thanks for David’s terrific reporting from Ukraine – such vivid accounts of the war.

Mary Thomas
Mary Thomas
1 year ago

A wonderfully graphic picture of war in a fundamentally proud but impoverished country, thank you. As my husband’s family is Ukrainian I’m feeling heartbroken and proud in equal measure – and they are determined and strong people who will return, rebuild, regenerate.

martin logan
martin logan
1 year ago

Some great reporting on the ground–and a good explanation of why Russia has failed and will fail.
As in 2014, the Ukrainian resistance is a bottom-up effort. Ukrainians immediately volunteer, whereas Russians wait to be mobilized (or, more often, find creative ways to avoid any participation in the war at all). Despite many similarities, the national characters are also very different in important respects.
It also shows how all Putin’s efforts to recreate a strong Russian empire have really only created a house of cards.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
1 year ago
Reply to  martin logan

Correct, but don’t be surprised if Mr Putin ops for a Tactical Nuclear Strike on or about he 9th May next.
What is there to stop him? This conflict is not worth Armageddon.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
AA
ARNAUD ALMARIC
1 year ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Withdrawn.

Last edited 1 year ago by ARNAUD ALMARIC
Michael Webb
Michael Webb
1 year ago

Awe inspiring. The Ukrainian spirit is so reminiscent of Britain in the 1940’s. How the West has shrivelled. Too pathetic and the less said about the UN’s hand wringing apathy, the better.

Yana p
Yana p
1 year ago

Please, correct “Dnieper” to “Dnipro”. The river is called the same as the city. “Dnieper” is Russian transliteration, it’s incorrect and can’t be used. “Dnipro” is the only correct option. When we are fighting Russians on the battlefield, it’s also important to eliminate any influence they have on us in all other spheres.

chris brenton
chris brenton
1 year ago

…“separatist” republics in the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts (regions) which have nested like lice on the Ukrainian body politic ever since.
The word lice refers to the created republics, the 2 regions, NOT to human beings as such.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
1 year ago

If Putin thinks he will be back in charge a few days after cancer surgery, his doctors have been deluding him. Or, more likely, they are telling him what he wants to hear. He is a very ill man and evil. Who knows how he will react when the prospect sinks in of death before long. Will he want to take as many people with him as he can? Hitler at the end wanted to see the destruction of the Germany he led to war for much the same reasons as Putin has.

judith englander
judith englander
1 year ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

How do you know he has cancer? That’s only conjecture on the part of journalists isn’t it?

Terence Fitch
TF
Terence Fitch
1 year ago

My two pennorth: Putin consolidates East Ukraine puppet state; Ukraine joins EU. Korea type scenario. At this point, whatever you think of the EU, Ukraine joining is a crucial symbolic step. As for the next step, Russia realising that it has lost it’s superpower status to China. That’ll take a while to sink in whilst Russia continues to glower away in self pity as Ukraine gradually becomes a nicer place to live.

Douglas Proudfoot
DP
Douglas Proudfoot
1 year ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

The Russian Army does not have enough manpower to hold half of Ukraine against an insurgency, let alone conquer half of Ukraine. A full Russian mobilization would take 8 months to a year to train and equip all of the new forces. Keep in mind that a lot of the existing experienced Russian officers and sergeants will be dead by then.

The Russian Donbas Offensive hasn’t gone anywhere in 2 weeks. The Russian initial offensive to take Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy failed so badly that those Russian forces were forced to retreat completely out of Ukraine. There is no reason to expect that Russian forces can do any better now, particularly since most of the forces for their new offensive are the same folks who failed before.

The Russian Army has lost at least 600 tanks, visually confirmed by posted photos/videos on social media. The Ukrainian Army estimate is over 1000 Russian tanks lost. Most European countries don’t have that many tanks to start out with.

The corruption in Russian Army maintenance, supply and even manning can’t be discounted. Published estimates say up to 60% of Russian precision guided munitions are duds. Many Russian reactive armor pockets on tanks, intended to defeat anti-tank missiles, have no explosive in them. It’s been stolen. The behavior of Russian tank and armored fighting vehicle turrets may indicate that they are being driven without full crews. The turrets seem to be locked in the 12 o’clock position, and don’t react to point toward hostile fire. Russian vehicles running out of fuel on the road to Kyiv might be the result of the fuel being stolen and sold, not just bad logistics planning.

Neven Curlin
Neven Curlin
1 year ago

Standing between the left and right banks, Dnipro is accordingly of neither. It lies between Ukraine’s two worlds: West and East; Europe and Russia.

If this is true, it shouldn’t be too hard to find someone to balance your pro-Ukrainian interviewees. Are there people who are pro-Russia, or who are critical of the role of their own corrupt government in the escalation of this war? Are they afraid to talk? If there aren’t any, where are they? Have they fled, were they killed?

In other words, where is the balance? Mr Patrikarakos, if you went there to paint a one-sided story of the heroic Ukrainians against the Russian orcs, you might as well have stayed at home. We’ve got plenty of that sentimental drivel in 98% of media.

Or isn’t this news site called Un-herd?

Stephen Lawrence
Stephen Lawrence
1 year ago
Reply to  Neven Curlin

When I first came to Ukraine to cover the war in 2014, the state was so broke

…something like this, you mean? That was certainly the mood in Crimea, when they decided that the Russia of the time was the better option: they got their pensions paid. Your guess that Russian-leaning or -speaking Dniprovians may well have fled East seems likely.
I think any community has to be careful of those who “help out”, lest they start asking for bigger and bigger favours afterwards. I mean that’s the way Mafia-ism works. Military battalions would like to make sure they keep a hand on the country, then Generals become Dictators; that’s happened all over the world. So, what you are trying to save needs to become something that you then let go of, just like you would if you were raising kids.

Hal Wilson
HW
Hal Wilson
1 year ago
Reply to  Neven Curlin

Truth has very odd ways of revealing and therefore undermining evil…. hence hope and heroes. Begone small man. Oh and its 99.3% media (as I reckon Putler owned media is 0.7%) and 100% of sensible humans….for many very good reasons.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
AA
ARNAUD ALMARIC
1 year ago
Reply to  Hal Wilson

Is that splendid dog in your cartouche a Bavarian Mountain Hound by any chance?

Irene Ve
IV
Irene Ve
1 year ago
Reply to  Neven Curlin

Balanced discussions about which government is more corrupt – Russian or Ukrainian – were all good before the war. In fact, Unherd’s audience used to hold rather pro-Russian views discussing geopolitics, history, NATO expansion and such.
This war, however, changed the game completely.
Two neighbours were very unhappy with each other, each had some valid points in the dispute. But the moment one of them took a gun and went to his neighbours’ house to kill in order to resolve all the issues once and for all, he became a criminal, and decent people just want to end the bloodshed and bring him to court.
It is next to impossible “to find someone to balance your pro-Ukrainian interviewees”. I know a few Ukrainians who used to be pro-Russian before the war, they are all extremely anti-Russian today, they even refuse to speak Russian and use broken Ukrainian instead.

Last edited 1 year ago by Irene Ve
zee upītis
zee upītis
1 year ago
Reply to  Irene Ve

Exactly what Irene says. Even before the war it would have been difficult but now? Forget about it. Of course, it’s not like there aren’t any but including a voice from 0.5% isn’t what makes “balanced”.
Edit: Just to establish relation, Dnipro is my home away from home, I speak the local language and I have certainly spent there enough of time to know the sentiments.

Last edited 1 year ago by zee upītis
Mathieu Bernard
Mathieu Bernard
1 year ago
Reply to  Irene Ve

In 2019 I traveled to Sumy, Ukraine to see a lady I had met online. Sumy is in eastern Ukraine, north of Kharkiv and about as close to the Russian border as you can get. Her family emigrated from Russia in the Soviet era. Her primary language is Russian. She used to tell me about the better living conditions in Russia, more generous pensions, etc. Now she’s more or less a refugee in France, completely distraught and horrified at what the Russian government is doing to her country. So I would agree with you – the war has changed the perspectives of many, and primarily those who have been most impacted by it.

Zirrus VanDevere
ZV
Zirrus VanDevere
1 year ago

I have a friend whose family fled from Kharkiv 25 years ago, and she will tell you that no one was treating Russian speakers with any prejudice that she could see, and that of course the government in Ukraine is corrupt, but any of its actions absolutely pale compared to Putin’s vicious KGB tactics. She will also admit to corruption she sees in Canada (her home since she was 15) and in the US, but can not impress enough the sentiment that those of us in western democracies are mostly not able to understand just how cruel and evil Putin is and can be. I know it’s complicated, and there are Ukrainians who like the idea of seceding from the nation to be under Russian rule, and there certainly seems to be a faction of neonazis involved (which is also flat-out repulsive), but this war appears to me to be a disgusting disaster that never should have gotten this far.

judith englander
JE
judith englander
1 year ago
Reply to  Neven Curlin

Since when is hatred of injustice – the injustice of unprovoked invasion of another country, turning its cities to rubble and murdering its citizens – ‘sentimental’? You’ve lost your moral bearings, my friend.

William Jones
William Jones
1 year ago
Reply to  Neven Curlin

Those responsible for the war are:
1/ Ukraine which refuse to accept that they should let the Russian inclined areas separate and become Russian (as has happened in the Crimea).
2/ The USA and its consortium represented by NATO which is eager to support a proxy war against the Russia they hope will be crippled by the conflict – a conflict which they are eagerly arming to ensure continuation and the hoped-for result, The Ukraine is just the tool they are using regardless of the increasing damage the tool suffers. That glory-seeking head of the Ukraine should be aware of his real role as far as the USA and its followers are concerned and get out of the mess by letting the Donbas go

Sarah H
SH
Sarah H
1 year ago

I got as far as “lice”. I will not support or condone any description of fellow human beings like that, no-one. Factually, the Donbas republics refused to support the coup installed government and declared themselves independent. This course did not involve Russia and the Minsk Accords that Russia signed up to after the militias gave Ukrainian forces a bloody nose was for the republics to rejoin a neutral Ukraine, a plan sponsored by Germany and France but reneged upon. While the reporting on the ground is possibly fair, this vile slur and factual inaccuracy kicking it off invalidates it. Unherd, you should be ashamed of yourselves for letting the word “lice” appear in your journalism like this for a racial/cultural group. This word has been used historically, hasn’t it. Have we all forgotten.

martin logan
martin logan
1 year ago
Reply to  Sarah H

The problem, of course, is that both Crimea and the Donbas republics are simply illegitimate.
No internationally supervised referendums have ever been held there–in sharp contrast to Ukraine. No Ukrainian (or Tatar) has ever been allowed to campaign there. If Russia had allowed Blue Helmets to come in and restore order for both sides, it might have some room to talk.
So this is a direct assault on the international legal order. It was (and is) colonialism at its very worst. Putin sent in people like Girkin to start a war in Donbas in 2014, when there was no war. They failed–so then he had to use the Russian army surreptitiously to prevent total defeat. Now, in 2022, it is simply an overt–and very incompetent–land grab. It is facilitated by suppression of all dissent. Yes, this also brings out the worst on both sides. Things far worse than calling people “lice” are well documented.
But the sole person responsible for all this horror is someone called Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

William Jones
WJ
William Jones
1 year ago
Reply to  martin logan

Those responsible for the war are:
1/ Ukraine which refuse to accept that they should let the Russian inclined areas separate and become Russian (as has happened in the Crimea).
2/ The USA and its consortium represented by NATO which is eager to support a proxy war against the Russia they hope will be crippled by the conflict – a conflict which they are eagerly arming to ensure continuation and the hoped-for result, The Ukraine is just the tool they are using regardless of the increasing damage the tool suffers. That glory-seeking head of the Ukraine should be aware of his real role as far as the USA and its followers are concerned and get out of the mess by letting the Donbas go..

zee upītis
zee upītis
1 year ago
Reply to  Sarah H

How nice of you to be outraged for using word “lice” by someone who has seen the atrocities of the war, you clearly got your priorities straight.