The 44-year-old’s parents still live in the same apartment in Kryvyi Rih, where Russian troops attacked in the early days of the war before retreating. But with Putin's focus shifted eastward, the people who grew up with Zelensky brace for more attacks.
KRYVYI RIH — The housing project where President Volodymyr Zelensky grew up is called Muravenik, which means "anthill." The Anthill is circular and built like a fortress. The 10-story apartment blocks in this southeastern Ukrainian city date to the Soviet era, and you can tell. Large swathes of the outer cladding are missing. The old doors, windows and makeshift extensions give the whole housing complex a run-down look. In winter, the leafless trees and muddy grass add to the bleak atmosphere.
It’s hard to believe that this is where the country’s president grew up.
The 44-year-old’s parents still live in the same apartment in Kryvyi Rih. His father Oleksandr Zelensky is a professor of computer science at the nearby Kryvyi Rih State University of Economics and Technology.
Proud of her president
An older woman outside the store that occupies the ground floor of the Zelenskys’ building says she knows the President and his parents.
“Be quiet! Don’t say anything!” the storekeeper suddenly calls to the woman from inside. “We’re under martial law, and we’re not allowed to speak to anyone.”
“No, don’t worry, I’m not saying anything,” the retired woman replies.
She continues to speak, and begins to cry: She was born at the start of World War II, so the shrieks of the sirens bring back fears from her childhood. “We were just living our normal lives,” she says, tears running down her cheeks. “Why are they bombing us? What have we ever done to them? We just want peace.”
Of course, she says, she is proud of her president, and proud of the fact that he comes from the place where she’s lived for 35 years. Still, she manages to squeeze in a shot of criticism: “Unfortunately he’s too young. He needs better advisors.”
As the storekeeper continues to tell the woman to be quiet, a young man walking home with his little brother speaks: “My parents are friends with the President’s parents. They’ve known him since he was young.”
There's widespread fear of saboteurs scouting out targets for air attacks.
But the 25-year-old, who says his name is Vald, is also cut off. As strangers to the area, we’ve caught the eye of a group of angry residents from the Anthill. They don’t believe that we’re journalists. They call the police, who arrive in four squad cars. We have to wait over an hour while secret service members check our identity.
Zelensky (center) with his parents and relatives, who still live in the hometown
Kryvyi Rih targeted
The background to all this is a widespread fear of saboteurs scouting out targets for air attacks. Anyone filming or taking photos comes under suspicion. There have also been a surprising number of gunfights near military hospitals and army checkpoints in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities – which are believed to be the work of saboteurs.
“It’s not the army that’s fighting Russia. It’s the whole Ukrainian people,” explains Oleksandr Vilkul, head of the military administration in Kryvyi Rih. He notes the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who are fighting, manning checkpoints, caring for refugees and delivering food to those sheltering in bunkers. And the vigilant residents of the ‘Anthill’, who called the police.
“That all goes hand in hand,” says Vilkul, who has worn a uniform since the war began, although he is actually a politician. Up until 2014, he supported the Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych, and for two years he was Deputy Prime Minister. “He is a coward and a traitor,” Vilkul now says of the former President, who was ousted in 2014. “I was one of those who voted for him to be removed from office.”
The 47-year-old acknowledges that at first he was one of President Zelensky’s critics. But he says that's water under the bridge. “Now we need to come together. We have an enemy that wants to destroy us.”
Kryvyi Rih was one of the main targets during the early weeks of the invasion. “On the second day of the war, the Russians tried to land military equipment at the airport,” he says. “On the third day, they sent a column of 300 military vehicles, which we managed to halt.” He says that there were ten days of intense fighting, but they drove the Russian troops back to 40 kilometer outside the city.
“Russia would very much like to conquer Kryvyi Rih,” says Vilkul, lighting a cigarette. He notes that the city is one of the most important industrial centers in Ukraine, representing 10% of the country’s gross domestic product.
Zelensky (left) spent his whole childhood in the city.
The city is known for its steel and chemical industries. The largest employer in the region is international company ArcelorMittal, which has 26,000 employees there.
Since the war began, production has been running at only 25%, but all employees are receiving their full salary, a spokesperson told Die Welt, saying that the company plans to reduce employees’ hours in April and cut their salary to 66%.
Kryvyi Rih is a city of 700,000 people. Its importance is not only economic; it also occupies a position of strategic military importance, as it lies 180 kilometers north of the Black Sea Coast, which is a strategic priority for Moscow.
The Russian army has already occupied many port cities on the coast, and is now trying to take Odessa. There were reports of missile strikes there last weekend. Kryvyi Rih is also a gateway to Central Ukraine and the Donbas in the east of the country, a region where the Kremlin has recently announced it will focus its military efforts.
“In my worst nightmares, I wouldn’t have dreamed that Russia would attack all of Ukraine,” says Vilkul, shaking his head. He adds that, like many others, he undoubtedly overestimated the Russian army.
All of the Ukrainian people are fighting this war, and Russia didn’t expect that.
“But I underestimated the capabilities of the Ukrainian military far more,” he says, smiling. “All of the Ukrainian people are fighting this war, and Russia didn’t expect that.” He is convinced that the war can only end in victory for Ukraine.
An accidental worldwide icon of democracy
Ukraine Presidency/Planet Pix via ZUMA
Fleeing from Mariupol
But until then, the suffering of the Ukrainian people goes on. The former Palace of Culture in Kryvyi Rih has been turned into an aid centre, and up to 500 people arrive each day from other parts of the country, having left their homes to flee the guns and bombs.
“We had a family whose car tires had been shot out by Russian soldiers,” recalls Nadia Alexandrova, the center’s manager. “They had to walk 20 kilometers through the war zone. When they arrived here, the woman was hysterical, and the children just stared into space for hours.”
Maria is sitting on a sofa in the aid centre and listening to Alexandrova. She knows only too well the utter desperation experienced by those fleeing. Just two weeks ago, she fled Mariupol as Russian troops moved in and almost razed the city to the ground. “I am so lucky that I escaped,” the young woman says. She collapses into tears, unable to say another word.
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