The little apple of Donbass

New York, Ukraine, Guide to an Unexpected City

by Niels Ackermann and Sébastien Gobert

Black On White, 206 p., 27 €

New York is also the name of a small town in the Ukrainian Donbass. She received it in the XVIIIe century, when Dutch Mennonite settlers came to settle in this steppe. The Soviets then erased this name. But the city has just taken it back and this story serves as a pretext for a report by Sébastien Gobert and Niels Ackermann.

The first was a correspondent in Ukraine for the French press between 2011 and 2020. The second, a Swiss photographer, has produced several reports in Ukraine, including a striking portrait of the youth of Slavutich, the city where the families of employees have been relocated. of Chernobyl.

Together, Sébastien Gobert and Niels Ackermann have already published a book with the same publisher that tells the story of history in this post-Soviet Ukraine. Looking for Lenin (2017) went in search of the statues of the Communist leader which were debunked and which end up today at the bottom of barns.

In New York, Ukraine, the two authors draw a portrait of this small town in eastern Ukraine, populated by 10,000 inhabitants and which is located 4 km from the front line. The book borrows from the codes of the travel guide, with its chapters titled “Where to go out in New York?” “,” Where to dine? »… If this division is funny, there is no irony in the subject which is more of a literary report and carries a look full of empathy on the inhabitants.

The book is the work of two journalists who know and appreciate their subject so well that they do not need to draw a moral from their story, and can simply tell, in text as well as images.

New York in Ukraine, it’s rutted sidewalks, soulless concrete buildings, a closed factory while another, the last one that works, fills the air with a lingering odor of phenol… Here, we don’t laugh a lot, we drink dry, we marry young and we regularly hear the cannons thundering, when it is not a few shells falling on the suburbs.

Sébastien Gobert warns: many of the inhabitants are suffering from what the poet Yevgeny Evtouchenko called “ nostalgia for the future ” : regret ” not of his past life, but of the ideal future once promised by communist ideology », Adds Sébastien Gobert nicely.

However, he tells us how the return to the original name of the city, obtained only a year ago, is a gesture of hope. For the more dynamic inhabitants, it is a way of drawing a line from the Soviet years. New York in Ukraine is now looking for another future, and is banking on its name to, one day, bring in tourists.


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