Dnipro (called ‘Dnipropetrovsk’ from 1926 to 2016) is the capital of Ukraine’s industrial heartland. Until the 1990s, because of its concentration of heavy-industrial, military and aerospace enterprises, Dnipro was one of the Soviet Union’s “closed cities.” Until recently, there was little reason for any foreign tourist to want to go.
The city was founded as Yekaterinoslav (‘Glory of Catherine’) under the Russian Empress Catherine II in 1783, roughly eight years after the destruction of the Zaporozhian Sich. But nearly 150 years prior, in 1635, it was the site of a fortress built by the Polish Crown. The Zaporozhian Cossacks captured it in 1648, and in 1654, under the Treaty of Pereyaslav, it became part of the Russian Empire. In 1711, following Russia’s defeat in one of many Russo-Turkish wars, it was demolished, but its ruins remain. In 1917, the city became part of the Ukrainian People’s Republic under the government of the Central Rada in Kyiv. The city then changed hands several times – between Ukrainian nationalists, Bolsheviks, the Tsarist White Army and anarchists – until finally becoming part of Soviet Ukraine in 1921. Following World War II, Dnipro became a center of industry for the entire Soviet Union. One of its aerospace design bureaus became the most prestigious and sought-after rocket manufacturing facility in the USSR. As such, the city took on a unique status, and many of the most talented engineers and scientists moved to the area from all parts of the Soviet Union.
After the pro-Moscow president of Ukraine was overthrown in the Maidan Revolution in February 2014, Dnipro became a flashpoint for potential separatism of the kind that had begun to appear in other eastern cities such as Luhansk and Donetsk. Pro-Russian street demonstrations were seen from Kyiv as being financed and organized by the Kremlin through sympathetic local officials and other fifth columnists. In March 2014, to prevent Dnipro going the way of Luhansk and Donetsk, acting Ukrainian President Olexander Turchynov appointed a local businessman, Ihor Kolomoisky, as governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region.
Although considered an “oligarch” by many in Ukraine, Kolomoisky, unlike most wealthy Ukrainian businessmen, had never expressed interest in attaining state or official posts. As Kolomoisky had declared loyalty to the new authorities that had come to power after the Maidan Revolution, he was appointed governor, and accepted the post. He then equipped and financed – reputedly out of his own pocket – a battalion (Dnipro-1) to defend the region against the threat of Russian aggression from the east. As such, he has already earned the title “warlord” from some observers. But he could just as easily be labeled a patriot and a Ukrainian national hero.
Dnipro has – in common with other ex-Soviet cities – a generally degraded and run-down appearance. But it also has a sense of vitality and bustle that sets it apart from most cities of similar size. It is clearly economically active. Having not visited Dnipro in over 18 years, I could not help but notice all the transformations for the better: shops, bars and restaurants were everywhere. My visit was confined to the central area around the incongruously named Karl Marx Boulevard, along the length of which run trams offering free Wi-Fi for passengers. The city is not without its historical charm either, as I found several 19th century buildings that had been renovated to an impressive level. The historical museum features exhibits which are well-kept by Soviet standards, including a striking hall devoted to the victims of Stalinism in Ukraine. In short, the city has a way to go, but it has potential. As an American, I sometimes had the vague sensation of walking in Brooklyn.
In May 2016, by an act of the Ukrainian parliament, the name of the city was changed officially from ‘Dnipropetrovsk’ to ‘Dnipro’ (the Russian transliteration had been ‘Dnepropetrovsk’). The reason for the change was to remove the suffix signifying commemoration of the Bolshevik Grigory Petrovsky, who was an architect of famine and terror in Soviet Ukraine. Petrovsky’s statues had already been removed from prominent places, but the name change of the city was late in coming.
The full album oh photos can be viewed here: Flickr