In Zelensky’s hometown, praise for leadership on Ukraine-Russia war

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KRYVYI RIH, Ukraine – Sergiy Milutin first saw Volodymyr Zelensky when they were both 17 years old – competing against each other in a popular televised improv and comedy writing competition. Zelensky won, and even Milutin, then his rival, begrudgingly admitted that Zelensky was a captivating performer. He had a “crazy energy” that kept your attention, he said.

Nearly three decades later, Milutin now seeks out Zelensky’s appearances every night. The Ukrainian president’s evening speeches – now deadly serious – have become routine for many in the country over nearly two months of war with Russia.

“The whole country can only go to sleep after we’ve seen his latest video,” said Milutin, the deputy mayor of Kryvyi Rih, an industrial city of nearly 700,000 in Ukraine’s heartland and Zelensky’s hometown.

Zelensky has become the unshaven face of a Ukrainian resilience and defiance that has captivated the world. His daily briefings to Ukrainians have evolved from selfie-style videos on the streets of Kyiv – proof that he had not bolted from a country under attack – to more-formal addresses from behind a lectern, dressed in military-green fatigues. They’re a must-see, immediately shared across social media channels.

On the international stage, he has challenged the West’s commitment to supporting Ukraine, criticizing countries and world leaders by name for their economic relations with Russia or reluctance to provide Ukraine with heavy weaponry.

And in Kryvyi Rih, where people have monitored Zelensky’s rise from local boy to star comedian to surprise presidential presidential hopeful to brave wartime leader, Zelensky has come to embody the steel city blue-collar strength. With the war now entering a second phase – what Zelensky this week referred to as the “Battle for Donbas,” Ukraine’s eastern region – people here and across Ukraine are again looking to Zelensky to steer them through it.

“He’s become a symbol not just of Ukrainian unity amid war but also a symbol of the changing principles of the world order,” Milutin said.

Kryvyi Rih has not painted murals or erected statues in Zelensky’s honor. His presence is most directly acknowledged in large yellow signs around various buildings noting that their renovation is part of the Ukrainian president’s infrastructure initiative. Zelensky, meanwhile, gave a nod to his hometown when he named his television production company “Kvartal 95,” referring to the district of town where he grew up. His father is a professor at a local university, and people here are impressed that the Zelenskys carried on with life as normal in the city even after their son swept to an unexpected presidential victory in 2019.

Nowadays, city officials ask journalists not to visit or photograph Zelensky’s childhood home, because it might spook nervous neighbors who fear Russia could target the house with a missile strike as a sort of personal revenge.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin falsely depicted his country’s attack on Ukraine as being against Zelensky’s “neo-Nazi” government. The Kremlin’s initial plans, analysts have said, largely leaned on the assumption that Zelensky would flee the same way Afghan President Ashraf Ghani did last summer when the Taliban closed in on Kabul. Instead, he stayed, and Ukrainians rallied around him.

His hometown has been spared any major attacks, but even as the fighting shifts to the east, Kryvyi Rih sits on a key axis. It’s due north of Russian-annexed Crimea, where the Russian military has several bases, and it is a sort of halfway point between the contested eastern Donbas region and Ukraine’s major Black Sea port of Odessa – considered a potential target.

Hunched over a map of Ukraine in his office, Oleksandr Vilkul, the head of the Kryvyi Rih Military Administration, dragged a pen over the current front line between Ukraine and Russia, some 25 miles south of Kryvyi Rih in the Kherson region.

Moving the pen to create a vertical line from where Russia’s forces were to Kryvyi Rih, he said if the Russian plan is to attempt to encircle Ukraine’s military in the Donbas region, as many suspect, then Kryvyi Rih is in the line of fire as a western boundary point for that operation. And if the plan is to launch an offensive along Ukraine’s Black Sea shore, Kryvyi Rih is still a city the Russian forces will have to get through.

“We’re standing in the way no matter what,” Vilkul said. “It’s all pretty obvious on the map.”

Coined the “longest city in Europe,” Kryvyi Rih’s wide roads were built for military aircraft to be able to land on them. Vilkul said Russia’s forces attempted an air assault on the city in the war’s first days to use it as an “air bridge” for its paratroopers. He ordered large semi-trucks to be parked across the runway at the airport as an obstacle to landing.

Once the practical defense measures were in place, Vilkul took a symbolic step. At the city’s main World War II monument downtown, Vilkul tied a Ukrainian flag into the sculpture solder’s outstretched hand – a not-subtle response to Putin’s neo-Nazi narrative about Zelensky’s government.

“Back then, we fought German Nazis,” Vilkul said. “Well, now this is a war against Russian fascists.”

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With other industrial centers in Ukraine’s east, especially Mariupol and Kharkiv, still under heavy bombardment, Kryvyi Rih’s importance is expected to increase. ArcelorMittal, Ukraine’s largest integrated steel company, restarted production in the city last week – and some of its work is probably dedicated to supporting the war effort.

The opportunity to work in the industrial sector and the hard-nosed identity of the city has made it an appealing landing spot for the thousands of people displaced from Donbas, which is Ukrainian coal country. Some have started calling this area “Kryv-bas.”

“You have to keep your word here and you need to be a strong person here,” Milutin said. “Our president is like that.”

Even amid the war, Kryvyi Rih kept to a spring tradition Saturday – a sort of cleaning day for the city. Volunteers planted trees at local parks and swept the sidewalks. Maria Mirchenko, 37, was picking up trash at a square downtown. The night before, she watched Zelensky’s latest speech and then went to bed feeling reassured, even as Ukraine has been plunged into uncertainty.

“I would be proud of him to be our president even if he wasn’t from here,” Mirchenko said. “You have to be a steel person to withstand all of this. He’s steel, just like Kryvyi Rih. ”

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