Before war came to Ukraine, critics saw Oleksandr Vilkul as an unofficial Russian representative in their country.
Mr. Vilkul is the head of the military administration in Kryvyi Rih, his latest post after a series of regional and national leadership roles. For nearly two decades, he and his father have ruled over this sprawling city in Ukraine’s industrial heartland. The Russian-speaking centre is built on an iron ore deposit so rich that, local officials boast, its production can continue for another thousand years.
Now, after years of being seen as friendly with Moscow, Mr. Vilkul scorns Russia with the fervour of the newly converted. The Kremlin, he said in an interview last week, presides over a totalitarian cult, where territory has been elevated into a religious ideal and where weapons of mass destruction have become objects of worship.
“Their main god is not Jesus, but the nuclear button,” Mr. Vilkul said.
“It has become clear that Russia is a military empire that will never change and will continue to be an aggressor. We now have no choice but to join NATO after our victory.”
Mr. Vilkul’s transformation reflects much broader change in Ukraine, where identities and allegiances have been recast by the war. The shift has raised hopes for a more united national future – if Ukraine can fight off Russian forces that continue to battle for territory.
He cemented his reputation as a Russophile while serving as vice-prime minister under former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, whose leadership was backed by Vladimir Putin. After the Euromaidan protests drove Mr. Yanukovich from office, Mr. Vilkul was filmed with a flash mob in a train station in eastern Ukraine singing old Soviet standards. Since then, human-rights groups have recorded many attacks on pro-Ukraine activists and political critics in Kryvyi Rih.
Though Mr. Vilkul denies having been pro-Russian, he and his father have been “emissaries of the Russian world in this country,” said Inna Ivanchenko, a Kryvyi Rih human-rights activist. The Vilkuls’ politics “brought the war here,” said Yuriy Myloboh, who lost a mayoral race to Mr. Vilkul in a 2015 election marred by allegations of fraud. “They opened Pandora’s Box.”
On the second day of the invasion, Russian Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko called Mr. Vilkul to offer a peace and friendship agreement, promising him an important role in Russia’s new Ukraine.
But Mr. Vilkul refused, and in the months since has made Kryvyi Rih into a bulwark against Russia. In the early hours of the invasion, he ordered heavy equipment onto the city’s airport runway, to block heavy-lift aircraft from using it to establish a beachhead. Industrial equipment has been dispatched to excavate more than 1,000 kilometres of trenches and tank barriers around the city.
His administration has enlisted local entrepreneurs in the war effort, urging the city’s manufacturers to make “hedgehog” tank barriers, uniforms, armour plates and even smoke bombs.
“All I can say is, what he is doing is defending the city – and it’s visible,” Mr. Myloboh said.
“Kryvyi Rih is becoming a heavily fortified industrial fortress.”
It may need it. Several recent missile attacks have struck the city, underscoring a continued Russian interest in subduing it.
Before the war, many in Kryvyi Rih straddled Ukrainian soil and a Russian cultural world. The city is the birthplace of Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president and a native Russian speaker, who has been celebrated for his unbending stand against the Russian invasion.
“It’s not easy to understand that you are Ukrainian when you are thinking in Russian, when you are watching Russian movies and everything around you is Russian,” said Roman Haman, a local songwriter who leads a seven-piece band called Royal Cat.
But change has been palpable. Friends have stopped watching Russian YouTube channels and openly expressed regret over the warm sentiment toward Russia they once felt. At band rehearsals, Ukrainian has become the language of choice. (The band’s newest song celebrates the country’s heroes. The chorus repeats: “I will stand. I will definitely stand.”)
Viacheslav Merzlikin is among those who have reconsidered their views on Russia. A Kryvyi Rih filmmaker, he cultivated connections with Russian artists. After the invasion, however, those artists did little but wring their hands, saying there was nothing they could do.
Mr. Merzlikin broke off ties with Russia and has taken up a role as a cultural ambassador for Ukraine. He spent last week in Western Europe raising support for a new film he wants to make about Ukrainian lives upended by the war. It will be a darker film than his previous work. He nonetheless sees reason for hope.
People have “demonstrated a lot of cohesion during this war,” Mr. Merzlikin said. It’s the kind of cohesion that could alter the country’s future.
In Kryvyi Rih, it has already altered factories. Across the city, assembly lines have been devoted to the production of goods for war. Metallurgy shops are using ferro molybdenum alloys to make bulletproof armour. Others are making silencers for Kalashnikovs, spike strips for checkpoints and camouflage netting for artillery installations.
Vikonda, a company that fabricates windows, is producing army cots and even smoke grenades. “We have workers who are not busy, and we started this work to keep them busy while also helping the army,” co-owner Yevhen Karis said.
Anton Belikov runs a clothing maker that is now sewing military vests and body carriers. “Mr. Vilkul arranged money from private businesses to create a foundation to fund all of this,” he said. “We received a very clear signal that we need to forget about competition and everyone needs to get to work.”
The city is finding other ways, too, to remake itself in opposition to Russia. A municipal committee has identified 430 local place names related to Russia – such as Moskovska Street, named after Moscow – and has begun a process to find local alternatives.
“Culture determines the future of a country,” Kryvyi Rih deputy mayor Serhiy Milyutin said, and “people understand that Ukraine must start from a fresh page.”
But behind that fresh page lies many chapters of a very different past, and the abrupt changes in Kryvyi Rih have also raised questions about forgiveness toward those who spent years involved in Russian dalliances.
Ms. Ivanchenko, the human rights activist, has no love for Mr. Vilkul. Still, she said, those who give themselves to the war effort are worthy of redemption.
“If we emerge victorious and he protects Kryvyi Rih and the region until the end, then of course he will be forgiven,” she said.
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