We are all heroes

If you look at the administrative map of Ukraine, this area of ​​479 square kilometers is called Vylkove town territorial community, in which 11,400 people live. Apart from Vylkove, they live in the small town of Bile and four villages – Desantne, Myrne, Novomykolayivka and Prymorske.

But it is better to look at it from the other side. This jewel of Ukraine, which borders Romania in the south of the Odesa region, is rightfully considered Ukrainian Venice. There is an explanation for that. Vylkove is located on canals called yerik. Many Ukrainians took their vacation there, many heard about it and dreamed of visiting the city of Old Believers Lipovans. During the war, the brave border guards of Zmiiny Island, which is part of the city, made Vylkove famous. We asked Matvii Ivanov, the town mayor, how the war had affected Vylkove’s daily life and what plans it had interfered with.

He is Gagauz by nationality. He was born and grew up in the Gagauz village of Stari Troyany, Kiliya district. They taught only Russian at school. He speaks Gagauz at home and Russian at work and in everyday life. Actively studies Ukrainian. He says he has never had any problem related to a language issue. Therefore, he could not believe that in the 21st century someone would cynically kill women and children in a foreign country.

“Adequate people can’t wrap their head around this,” says Ivanov. “For example, can I put blame on a neighbor who lives better than me? In fact, I am to blame for living worse than him. I won’t kill or rob him for that. I have to think about how to earn money and live better.”

But war is a reality, and time cannot be turned back. We have to win, and the mayor has no doubt about it. After all, the Ukrainian Danube region has a special attitude to freedom.

“We live with faith in Victory, with confidence in Victory. Ukrainians are freedom-loving people, and especially the people of Vylkove,” explains Ivanov. “To begin with, the people of Vylkove are rebels at heart. It is a settlement of Old Believers, Lipovans, who did not submit to the authorities, which introduced meaningless changes and gave a double meaning to religion. They created difficulties for themselves, but they remained free, they chose freedom.”

How is the community getting by? I can feel that this is a painful question for my interlocutor, and it’s clear. On the one hand, although with great efforts, they manage to fulfill the revenue part of the local budget. And if there is a budget – there will be wages, community development, and considerable assistance to the army. On the other hand, there are a lot of problems.

“For you to understand, the Vylkove community lives on funds of agricultural enterprises, tourist business, and fishermen. This year, “thanks” to our aggressive neighbor, all these industries are suffering,” Matvii Kostiantynovych notes. “Farmers suffer first of all. This year’s harvest is lower than average – 20 centners per hectare. You can hardly call it a harvest. Besides, they are denied loans for diesel fuel and fertilizers. On top of that, there is nowhere to store the harvest – the largest warehouses are located 20-30 km away. They did not count on these logistical costs – they always had the harvest taken from the field, they did not have to store it. And now, not only is there no harvest, but the prices of fuel and fertilizers have also risen, and the costs of logistics to storage sites have been added. They have to pay for storage, too. Therefore, they can no longer pay us in full even for land rent. We cannot go and shake them, because we understand that the army has to be fed, the country has to be fed. So we make concessions and give a deferral.”

Tourism in Ukrainian Venice was flourishing. 200-300 thousand tourists came here every year. Today, tour operators cannot make money. No earnings – no payment to the budget. They do not have the funds to maintain staff, fleet, tourist bases. If people lose their jobs, the burden falls on the community’s shoulders. The situation is the same with the sea.

“We are at the mouth of the Danube,” Ivanov continues. “At first there was a threat that an enemy’s sabotage-reconnaissance group would come to Vylkove, so fishermen were not allowed to enter the water. After some time, they were allowed to do it, but the herring was almost gone. Our fishermen wait all year to go out to catch herring. This is their main income.”

Now the community lives at the expense of personal income taxes. That is, they received a salary – paid tax – received a salary again, and so it goes in circle. And what about development? What plans were thwarted?

“The war did make its negative adjustments,” the mayor agrees. “We had grandiose plans, and we already had money for many of them. For example, this year we planned to reconstruct the central street of Vylkove and the street to the naval station. We also planned to build a road, sidewalks, and to install lighting in the Prymorske recreation area. We have already reached the allocation of money for water supply in Mykolaivka. There were also plans to build a modern medical center, because we have a polyclinic in one part of the city, and a hospital in another. We were ready to do all this, but…”

However, the community head does not give in to despair. He is sure that after the war Ukrainians will restore everything. People will be ready for it. The mentality and worldview have changed, everyone has understood that we have to stick together and support each other. After all, the war in our country hasn’t just begun, it has been going on for 8 years, but we have not felt it. Therefore, Ivanov believes that after the Victory, Ukrainians will unite not only for the sake of restoring communities, but also for the sake of strengthening the nation.

“Honestly, I was very impressed by the President’s position in this situation, the position of a strong-willed person,” the Vylkove mayor admits. “I think that with such a position, our Victory is inevitable. Our army, our soldiers who steadfastly defend our land and us are also impressive. However, unfortunately, there are people who believe that if the “Russian world” comes, it will become easier for us to live. I am 100% convinced that it is not true. Ukraine is our country, and we have not asked anyone to free us from anyone. It is very depressing that there are such people, that they were next to us, and we did not see them.”

Our meeting with Matvii Ivanov took place on the very day when the Armed Forces of Ukraine kicked the Russians out of Zmiiny Island. They were kicked out of the island – they will be kicked out of Ukraine as well.

“Songs are written about our border guards from Zmiiny Island, they are real heroes who have made history,” Matvii Ivanov concludes. “But our people, the residents of Vylkove, who have remained in the city, are also heroes. Because living during the war near the island, under shelling and knowing that a missile can fall on the city at any time is already heroism.”

Olesya Lantsman


The material is prepared within the project “Countering Disinformation in Southern and Eastern Ukraine” funded by the European Union.