When the full-scale invasion began, Russian leaders claimed they would be welcomed in parts of Ukraine, especially near the border, where the Russian language is commonly spoken, many ethnic Russians live, and cultural ties are strong.
Thanks to people like Ivan Fedorov, the welcome has not been warm.
“My primary task today is to help people and quicken the Ukrainian victory,” says Fedorov, 34, the youngest mayor ever elected in Melitopol, a city just north of Crimea, where 90% of residents speak Russian. Fedorov quickly labelled the Russians as “occupiers,” kept the Ukrainian flag flying as long as possible and openly encouraged resistance.
Melitopol has been under occupation since the war began and is part of the four regions Russia annexed in September. Fedorov makes regular live broadcasts on social media to reassure residents that the city is doing everything possible to keep services functioning. In videos, he encourages citizens to stay calm and vows to return the Ukrainian flag to the city centre. “There can be no other flag here,” he said in one address.
Love the city and develop it further
Life has been hard in Melitopol during the war. The city had about 150 000 people at the start of the war, but now has about a third of this number. The area came under a fierce assault on the first day of the invasion, 24 February, when Russian rockets destroyed the city airfield and big Russian military vehicles rolled through the streets. It was one of the first cities to fall in Ukraine.
On 11 March, Russian soldiers came to Fedorov’s office in central Melitopol, put a bag over his head, and arrested him. He was held for a week, until a prisoner swap was arranged. He wasn’t physically tortured, but he did sit next to people who had been hurt by interrogators, including some whose hands had been broken.
Fedorov is well known to European Investment Bank loan officers and engineers. The Bank has been helping the town and its region of Zaporizhzhia since the 2014 Russian invasion. Bank investments rebuilt kindergartens, grade schools, sports gymnasiums, a hospital for infectious diseases, care centers and other sites in Melitopol. The many years of partnerships and construction projects helped residents lean towards Europe when Russia arrived.
“This is about improving the quality of life,” Fedorov says, when asked why he works with the European Investment Bank. “We get help with business, tourism, logistics. We are able to further develop a plan for reconstruction, there is zero tolerance for corruption and people get to love their city and develop it further.”
Today, in Melitopol, many residents are arrested regularly to squash resistance. Children attending schools are subject to Russian-controlled learning. Evacuation is dangerous, but those who make it out get free accommodation in Zaporizhzhia, the administrative center of the region, about 170 kilometres north of Melitopol. Fedorov works online out of Zaporizhzhia.
More resilient and braver since the invasion
“Every day you have to solve a lot of new issues,” Fedorov says of the occupation. “I feel pity for my city and my people. We all, the whole team, have become more resilient and braver during this time.”
There is no doubt in his mind that Ukraine will win the war.
“I am definitely an optimist,” he says. “Ukrainians choose life and demonstrate it daily, both at the front and behind the lines.”