From Donbas to Irpin: one Ukrainian’s journey rebuilding his homeland

From Donbas to Irpin: one Ukrainian’s journey rebuilding his homeland
Alexey Ovchinnikov says he built his new dance studio in war-ravaged Irpin "almost from the rubble". / Neil Hauer
By Neil Hauer in Irpin September 20, 2023

It’s far from the first dance studio Alexey Ovchinnikov has opened, but his latest edition just might be his favourite.

“I think the story behind this one is the best,” he says, smiling as he surveys the evening’s classes at Gratsiya, a modest but spacious dance studio in Irpin, a town just northwest of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv. “Because we built it almost from the rubble, and now look at it,” Ovchinnikov says.

Gratsiya might just be one small step in the revitalisation of the once war-ravaged town of Irpin. But for Ovchinnikov, it’s an opportunity for him to use his experience in restoring the vibrancy of a conflict-affected town. 

A native of Sloviansk, in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, Ovchinnikov was already an established dance instructor and entrepreneur by the time Russia launched its full-scale invasion last February. Perhaps more importantly, he had experience in working in post-conflict areas still not far from the frontlines.

His family history with dance dates back to the Soviet period.

“My mother opened the first dance studio in Sloviansk, in 1983. That’s when my dance life started. I hated it when I was a kid — I preferred football, but I grew to love it,” says Ovchinnikov, who is now a specialist in ballroom dancing.

His career as an entrepreneur and studio owner began in earnest in 2005, the year his mother passed away and ownership of her studio was transferred to him. Over the following years, he expanded to numerous other towns throughout the region.

“I had seven dance studios in Donbas,” Ovchinnikov says. “Many of them are now ruined — we had one in Sviatohirsk, which was destroyed as the Russians captured the town [last autumn], another in Mykolaivka [east of Sloviansk] which was also destroyed. I miss Sloviansk a lot, of course, and I want to restart my studios there, but it’s hard right now — it’s not safe, and so many people have left.” 

Dancing under fire

Ovchinnikov opened Gratsiya in October last year. The first few months were not easy, and the first day in particular was anything but auspicious.

“We opened on October 10, which was the very same day as the first big Russian missile attack [on Kyiv],” Ovchinnikov says, describing Moscow’s mass bombardment campaign last autumn and winter that aimed to destroy enough Ukrainian civic infrastructure to force a surrender. “We immediately shut down for one week, but then we reopened. We had no choice — we need to continue living, we can’t just sit around and wait for the war to be over,” he says.

As the Russian missile campaign continued, with cruise missiles and Iranian-made Shahed kamikaze drones striking Kyiv and many other Ukrainian cities regularly, Ovchinnikov and Gratsiya struggled on. “It was very hard in December — there was no power or heat at all,” he says. “We were a new business, so we still had to make it work somehow, or we would just be forced to close entirely — we had almost no money [left]. Fortunately, from the middle of January, things got better and the power came back,” Ovchinnikov says.

Unlike most in Ukraine, hardships like this were something Ovchinnikov was already well experienced with. Living in Sloviansk, he was at the epicentre of the initial Russian-backed unrest in Ukraine in 2014. He remembers well how pro-Moscow local militants, with Kremlin support, seized control of his hometown in April 2014, ruling it until Ukraine’s army expelled them that July.

“At that time, it was total chaos,” Ovchinnikov says. “The bandits had just taken power into their own hands, they were doing whatever they wanted. Services broke down — we didn’t have any water. In my opinion, that’s worse than last winter here [in Irpin]. You can live somehow without power, but with no water, in a week you’re like an animal,” he says. 

That made it easier for him to adjust to Irpin, with its own sombre recent history.

Situated at a key northwest approach to Kyiv, Irpin was a natural target for Russian forces invading from the north in the invasion’s early days last February. Russian troops reached it within days, setting the stage for a massive battle that, in many ways, decided the fate of the capital. Ukrainian troops put up steep resistance, preventing a full Russian capture of the town and marking Irpin as the furthest point of advance for Moscow’s forces. In late March, as part of their withdrawal from northern Ukraine, the Russian troops pulled out of Irpin, leaving the defenders victorious.

But the price paid by the two towns was enormous. Alongside its sister city, Bucha, just across the river to the north, Irpin was severely damaged by a month of all-out combat, its buildings scarred by airstrikes and entire apartment blocks pummelled to dust by artillery. As the Russian forces withdrew, another part of the terrible price was revealed: the bodies scattered across the streets, civilians murdered during the month-long occupation.

Rebuilding Irpin

Irpin has since become something of a case study for rebuilding in Ukraine. When the town was liberated, some 855 buildings had been completely destroyed by the fighting, and over 12,000 buildings had suffered damage. The price tag of rebuilding it completely has been estimated at one billion euros. Despite that, the progress to date is impressive: driving around the city, the visible scars of war have nearly vanished, with buildings that were in ruins just months ago replaced with major new constructions.

It was this desire to help revive the city that drove Ovchinnikov to set up shop in Irpin.

“We came here in June [2022], with another friend — a guy from Donetsk [city], who had been living in Mariupol and is now [displaced] for the second time,” Ovchinnikov says. “When we got here, [Irpin] was still very destroyed, but I had seen this before, in Sloviansk in 2014. I knew the city would come back,” he says. 

Ovchinnikov, his fiancée Nastya, and their Donetsk friend are far from the only Donbas natives to relocate to Irpin. Ovchinnikov points out the number of cars with number plates whose numbers begin with the letters AH — the letter code for Donetsk oblast. “Our neighbours here are even from Bakhmut,” he says, mentioning the Donbas city destroyed in an eight-month battle that saw Russian forces seize its ruins.

The heavy fighting in Ukraine’s east has led much of its population to leave the area. Ovchinnikov’s family is no different: his 17-year old son is living abroad in Slovakia with Ovchinnikov’s ex-wife, while his own 95-year old grandmother remains in Sloviansk. “You know what it’s like with people from this generation — you can’t get them to do anything they don’t want to,” Ovchinnikov says. “She figures that if she survived the Nazi occupation [in 1941-43], this is nothing she can’t handle,” he says.

While the present war has resulted in massive destruction, Ovchinnikov, a relentless optimist, is confident it will provide new opportunities for the people of Ukraine once it is over.

“I saw how things went in Sloviansk after liberation in 2014,” Ovchinnikov says. “In 2015 and 2016, people opened so many new businesses, cafes, restaurants, shops. The city was really reborn. I am seeing it now in Irpin, too, and I am sure that for every Ukrainian town and city, the future will be a time of opportunities.”