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Living next to the front trying to forget the war

The Menorah Center is a modern building 77 meters high. It stands in the heart of Dnipro, 250 kilometers from the war front where the Ukrainian Army and Russian separatists are fighting. It is the largest Jewish center in the world. It was inaugurated in 2012 on the foundations of an old synagogue from the 19th century. It aims to combine business, culture and spirituality. Dozens of companies have their offices here. The building was built by two multimillionaire investors without skimping on luxuries or details.

Everything revolves around Judaism. In the hotel breakfasts they do not put any meat because the Torah prohibits mixing meat and milk. And on Saturdays, his holy day, one of the elevators is programmed to stop floor by floor, without the need to press any buttons, so that the Orthodox do not have to break the restrictions of their holy book. It is estimated that in this city, the fourth largest in Ukraine with a million and a half inhabitants, about 40,000 Jews live. Many years ago it had about 50 synagogues and it is estimated that around 35% of the population belonged to this religious community. The current president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, is also Jewish.

Dnipro is a city of contrasts. It is the most important in this area. There are all kinds of services, many skyscrapers and modern facilities. But also neglected and abandoned buildings that are reminiscent of another era. The Menorah, for example, is surrounded by houses from the turn of the century. Many have broken roofs or are in ruins.

“Here we are fine because our compatriots are giving their lives on the border,” says Artem

Dnipro’s contrasts are not only architectural and cultural. Also cheap. There are older people who survive on pensions of 70 euros a month and neighbors who can collect thousands of euros. With the war Donbass has become the military capital. There is a war hospital, a cemetery and a museum that remembers those who fell against the pro-Russian forces. What has suffered enough is the economy. Until 2014 Olexandr Zabigaylo earned a lot of money importing furniture from Europe and decorating hotels and administrations. In recent years nobody wants to invest. He now lives on the income provided by his rented flats. They all try not to alter their routines and forget about the Russian soldiers deployed on the border.

Yuriy Sergienko is Olexandr’s friend. He is 50 years old and lives well. It is noon and he has just returned from a private club swim. He has a personal trainer to improve his technique. His father was a miner in Donbass. He lives comfortably in a nice apartment with his wife, Tatiana, and his little daughter, Serena, 5 years old. The eldest, from a previous marriage, lives in Munich and speaks four languages. After swimming she is always hungry. A couple of times a week he likes to drink borsh, a traditional soup that has red beets as its main ingredient. Today he has also opted for some fried fish and squid.

Yuriy works as a salesperson for a powerful Italian steel company. She has a fixed salary of 1,000 euros, which can grow a lot depending on a series of variables. Before the covid pandemic she traveled a lot. Too much. Above all, by the countries of the former Soviet Union. His wife runs a hair salon. They have three cars, plus another provided by the company. He drives a BMW. When he has time he dedicates himself to renovating a new apartment that they have bought. The minimum salary in Ukraine is 6,000 hryvnyas, about 200 euros. The average salary is around 580 euros. He defines himself as a middle class man.

The intense diplomatic activity moves away the warlike conflict in Ukraine

Yuriy grew up in the time when Dnipro was closed in on itself. She was one of the main symbols of the power of the USSR. Here was the Pivdenmash factory, which produced much of the missiles and space rockets. It is estimated that, in the midst of the cold war, it manufactured more than 10,000 missiles and had a workforce of around 50,000 workers. Dnipro was a strategic place, one of the cities where the most valuable secrets were kept. Their workers had better conditions, but also more restrictions. They needed special permits to be able to travel to some areas and, until the mid-1980s, access to the city on the Dnieper River was forbidden to any foreigner.

Difficult reconversion

These factories have tried to convert to civilian industry. Just a few days ago, a National Guard soldier killed five of his companions who were laughing at him in one of these facilities. Things have also changed for the inhabitants of Dnipro. Starting in the spring, Yuriy and his family often spend weekends with friends. They like to go on excursions into nature. In summer they go to Italy. He doesn’t know much about Spain. He has never been there. He has heard of Mallorca and the Canary Islands, and would like to visit the “old cities” such as Córdoba.

– What do you like least about your life?

– The conflict. I am not a nationalist to go to fight. But I have relatives who have stayed in Donetsk and whom I cannot see. No one expected what has happened. I also don’t like that since all this started, I can’t send my daughter to a Russian-language school. My wife fled Belarus after the Chernobyl disaster and she doesn’t speak Ukrainian. 90% of Dnipro speak Russian.

Artem Ivantsov’s life is very different from Yuriy’s. Artem is 51 years old and lives in a flat on the outskirts of Dnipro. There he takes care of his mother. He earns about 200 euros a month and has problems with the bills. “Last week they threatened to cut off my electricity,” he explains. He is a linguist. He is especially interested in the history of languages. He expresses himself very well in Spanish. He has learned it “from songs and movies.” In fact, he has been to the Iberian Peninsula many times. “I’ve been to more cities in Spain than you,” he says.

Artem is a cheerful man. He only frowns when he is asked about the Donbass war. “Here we are fine because our compatriots are giving up their lives on the border,” he stresses.


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