Mykolaiv, Ukraine: Where the Rivers Come Together

by Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

Considerable attention has already been given to Vladimir Putin’s claims that Ukraine needs to undergo “denazification” and there is a genocide underway against Russians in the country. Not much rebuttal is needed for these insidious claims, which most in the free world can readily identify as far-fetched and preposterous. 

Zhanna Oganesyan is a multitalented young Armenian woman whose rendition of a traditional Armenian song was one of the highlights of the yearly Mykolaiv Druzhba (Friendship) Festival. She is also an exceptional scholar whose paper on the Armenian genocide was featured at a conference on the Holocaust in Kyiv. Zhanna treasures the Armenian church in Mykolaiv, constructed in 2012, which is a place “where I can find peace for my soul.”

Nevertheless, if there was one shred of doubt in anyone’s mind, we’d like to call attention to our project titled “Where the Rivers Come Together,” created in Mykolaiv, Ukraine in 2017-18. Mykolaiv is a southern Ukrainian city of about 500,000 people. It has already been the scene of atrocious battles in which exceptionally brave Ukrainians defended their city against Russian forces. And now, as Russian forces seek to move toward Odesa from Kherson, Mykolaiv will likely be the scene of further aggression and atrocities. (Amnesty International has already confirmed that the Russian attacks on Ukraine are “a manifest violation of the United Nations Charter and an act of aggression that is a crime under international law,” and the International Criminal Court has said it will “immediately proceed” with an investigation into alleged war crimes in Ukraine.)

Where the Rivers Come Together is a photography and writing project that came about because we were exposed to the surprising diversity that exists in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, which is home to as many as 133 different national communities. Although the city is dominated by Ukrainians and Russians, its spirit and public life are defined by the much smaller groups whose influence extends well beyond their actual numbers, creating an unmistakable heterogeneity in the city’s language, culture, and cuisine. We encountered Bulgarians, Russians, Belorussians, Armenians, Yazidis, Georgians, Dagestanis, Poles, Germans, Karaites, Koreans, Romanis, Muslims, Jews, Crimean Tatars, Romanians, Hungarians, and others. 

Our research confirmed that these diverse communities have lived almost entirely in peace for generations. Although some national identities were repressed during Soviet times, they have been more and more freely expressed in a diverse, multicultural Ukraine in the past several decades. It is only now, under the false pretense of defending such people from a threat that didn’t exist, that their peace is shattered. That they huddle in bomb shelters or basements. That their children face the threat of death from indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets. 

In fact, in our personal experience, those who were most likely to hold “right wing” views were the veterans who had returned from the war in the Eas. We met and worked directly with them, and they chose to express themselves in ways that are very distant from “fascism” or “Nazism.” For example, they worked closely with local environmentalists to defend a natural and cultural site threatened with destruction. We also repeatedly witnessed their sensitivity to multiculturalism. 

Tanya Gomelko is the director of the Israeli Cultural Center at Petro Mohyla Black Sea National University in Mykolaiv. The center maintains close ties between students and the nation of Israel. Tanya reverently pointed to her religious name, Hanna, in a Jewish sacred text.

In creating the project, we focused on individual members of these diverse communities, interviewing them to learn more about their personal experiences and to better understand their strategies for peaceful coexistence. We then made portraits of the participants and then paired them in diptychs with a place or object of great importance to each person’s cultural heritage. Explanations of their choices accompany the diptychs in a caption. 

In an article accompanying the photographs, we highlighted the very personal, face to face approach of Mykolaiv residents as a key reason the city has been able to maintain peace and friendship over the years. You can read the full article in the journal Krytyka here.

The past week, we have been in touch with many residents of Mykolaiv. One couple fled north of Mykolaiv on a motorcycle despite the bitter cold. One couple is hiding in a nearby village, hoping for the best. Many others are still in Mykolaiv itself, where a combination of the Ukrainian army and local citizens have so far successfully defended the city.

Ilya Zielinski is a veteran of the war in the East, having fought in the Buszky Gard brigade of the Azov Battalion. Now returned from the front, he and many of his fellow veterans are also enthusiastic members of a coalition to protect Buszky Gard National Park, which is threatened by a proposal to raise water levels to provide more cooling water to the aging nuclear reactors at Yuzhnoukrainsk. The resulting flooding will threaten endangered plants and animals and submerge Gardovy Island, a sacred place that used to be the site of a Cossack church. 

Of course, the primary tragedy in Ukraine right now is the killing being undertaken under false pretenses, the humanitarian tragedy that unfolds under our eyes, and the brazen attempt to eliminate hard-won democratic freedom and self-determination.

But there is another tragedy worth mentioning: that there are still some who are easily led astray and may believe the bombastic propaganda and lies of a brutal terrorist dictator who increasingly is revealing himself as a dangerous madman. 

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