Sat. Jul 2nd, 2022

You do not mess with the citizens of Kryvyi Rih.

The largest industrial city in Ukraine, and the hometown of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is known for producing iron ore, steel and fearless leaders.

“Kryvyi Rih is the iron heart of our country and the people who live here have an iron character. It’s impossible to break us,” said Colonel Oleksandr Pyskun as he oversaw military training for around 100 local civilians.

“We have a proverb; ‘Be afraid of two things: God and the guys from Kryvyi Rih’.”

Colonel Pyskun is made of stern stuff himself.

He was on the battlefield when Russian forces annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea in 2014 and the war with Russian-backed separatists in Donbas began ..

He was severely injured near Lysychansk trying to save his commanding officer’s life under fire, and was taken prisoner by pro-Russian rebels.

A man in army uniform sits in his wheelchair in a field, looking proud
Colonel Oleksandr Pyskun was injured fighting pro-Russian rebels in 2014 and awarded Ukraine’s Order of Courage.(ABC News: Adrian Wilson)

After he was released, he was awarded Ukraine’s Order of Courage.

He is now the Deputy Commander of the Kryvyi Rih Military Unit No 3011.

“I am proud of our president,” he said.

“He is a native son of our city of Kryvyi Rih. He rallied around him all the people of Ukraine.

“The whole country and the whole city are beating like one heart, as one organism.”

Kryvyi Rih resisted Russian invaders

When the Russians tried to take President Zelenskyy’s hometown with tanks and paratroopers in the first days of the war, they got a classic steel city response.

The airport runway was blocked with large trucks and construction vehicles.

The road in from the nearby city of Mykolaiv was blocked by giant mining trucks around 40 minutes before a Russian convoy was due to arrive.

President Zelenskyy in a bullet proof vest walks through a town, surrounded by soldiers and other men
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy refused to leave the country when Russia invaded. (Instagram: Volodymyr Zelenskyy)

Around the same time his home city was under attack, President Zelenskyy was in the nation’s capital, refusing to leave, despite the risks to his own life.

Reports from the time suggest he survived at least three assassination attempts in those early weeks from Chechen special forces and mercenaries.

After he was offered help by the US to be evacuated from Kyiv, he famously said: “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.”

In his home city, that was seen as very much a Kryvyi Rih kind of response.

A black and white photo of a toddler-aged Volodymr Zelenskyy in the arms of a woman with cropped blonde hair
Volodymyr Zelenskyy was born to Jewish parents in Kryvyi Rih, which was then part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. (Instagram: Volodymyr Zelenskyy)

“I am sure that Zelenskyy had the opportunity to leave the country,” Colonel Piskun said.

“He did not do that, and for this, I thank him very much.”

Even former political rivals here have praised the president’s courage.

Oleksandr Vilkul, the head of Kryvyi Rih Regional Military Administration, was once the deputy prime minister under the pro-Russian leadership of President Yanukovych.

He said Mr Zelenskyy has proven himself under intense pressure.

Men in camo gear and helmets stand around chatting while examining rifles
Kryvyi Rih Military Unit No. 3011 is keeping up its training in case Russia attempts another invasion. (ABC News: Adrian Wilson)

“We are proud that our president is our countryman, he is one of the symbols of the warring Ukraine, and he behaves very courageously,” he told the ABC.

“I think the president united the whole country to fight the aggressor and built effective communications with the entire Western world.”

There was something special about young Volodymyr

Andrii Shaikan first met Volodymyr Zelenskyy on stage during a talent show.

It was 1995 and they were studying at Kryvyi Rih’s State University of Economics and Technology.

A very young and smiley Volodymyr Zelenskky in a puffy, fur trimmed jacket
Despite studying law, Volodymyr Zelenskky pursued a career in comedy and entertainment before eventually running for public office. (Supplied by: Wikimedia Commons )

“We were in opposite teams, competing for the best faculty place of the year,” he told the ABC.

Mr Shaikan is now the rector of the university. He remembers a creative, strong-willed young man who inspired his peers.

“He was certainly the leader who was at the center of the company,” he said.

“He was the soul of the group. He was modest, but wherever he appeared, he would draw attention to himself.”

Natalia Volosheniuk is an associate professor of finance and banking at the university.

A woman with cropped blonde hair poses in front of the Ukrainian flag with a slight smile on her face
Volodymyr Zelensky’s former university lecturer Natalia Volosheniuk says he was always destined for great things. (ABC News: Adrian Wilson )

She taught President Zelenskyy in the 1990s and said the qualities he displayed then remain today.

“He was a rather inquisitive person who strove for knowledge,” she said.

“He differed from other students in his very subtle sense of humor.

“He was distinguished even in those years by his decency, honesty and desire to achieve his goals.”

‘You had to fight to be yourself’

Much is made of President Zelensky’s background in comedy and acting.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy on stage with four other men holding instruments
Before he was a world famous war-time leader, Volomdymr Zelenskyy was a comedian and entertainer. (Instagram: Volodymyr Zelenskyy)

Before entering politics he produced and starred in a TV program called Servant of the People in which he played a history teacher who becomes president after a classroom diatribe against corruption goes viral.

Mr Shaikan said the president was not only a comedian with a talent for performing. He also built a large and successful entertainment business from nothing.

Mr Zelenskyy named his production company “Kvartal 95,” after the Kryvyi Rih district where he grew up.

“He did not just start as an actor,” Mr Shaikan said.

A man in a suit sits at a desk with his hands clasped
Andrii Shaikan first met Volodymyr Zelenskyy in 1995 when they were fellow students. (ABC News: Adrian Wilson)

“He was a university graduate who came to the capital from the provinces, convinced his team to come after him, and they started from scratch, they had no connection, no patronage.”

Mr Shaikan agrees that Kryvyi Rih had a big influence on Mr Zelenskyy’s character.

He described it as a harsh city that was a tough and competitive place to grow up in.

“In our childhood and adolescence, it was a time when youth gangs and movements of criminal characters were actively present in the city,” he said.

A factory on a tree lined street in Ukraine
Volodymyr Zelensky’s steely resolve was forged in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine’s largest industrial city. (ABC News: Adrian Wilson)

“You had to fight to be yourself in those conditions, particularly if you were involved in creative arts.”

While things have improved, Mr Shaikan said, for much of the twentieth century Kryvyi Rih was a city dealing with extreme adversity.

“This is the city that was destroyed during World War II, that suffered during the Holodomor famine in 1932 to 33,” he said.

“This city knew ethnic cleansing by Nazi Germany, this city also went through Stalin’s repressions.”

Will Russia attempt to conquer Kryvyi Rih again?

There are fears that those hard times are returning to Kryvyi Rih, and that Russia will try again to take this city and the resources it produces.

A road blocked with tires, with a sign showing the silhouette of a man throwing a firebomb
With Russian missiles striking Kryvyi Rih, there are fears they will attempt to take the city again. (ABC News: Adrian Wilson)

After Russia’s messy offensive to capture multiple Ukranian cities at once failed, the invading forces have largely focused on the country’s east.

Kryvyi Rih is not that far from the hotly contested Donbas region.

It would be a symbolic and strategic prize for Russian President Vladimir Putin to capture the birthplace of his Ukrainian foe.

Earlier this week, three Russian missiles struck Kryvyi Rih, damaging a manufacturing plant.

There are concerns it could be the start of something bigger.

But Colonel Pyskun scoffs at any suggestion that the Russians would be crazy enough to take on this city.

“Firstly, the Russians will not come here,” he said.

“They would have no chance.

“However, if this happens, they will face death and fire.”

A row of men brandishing rifles in a field
Kryvyi Rih residents have vowed to fight any attempt by Russian forces to take their city. (ABC News: Adrian Wilson)

.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.