Editor’s note: this is an opinion-style travel piece by Hromadske photojournalist Anastasia Vlasova
Every day they travel to “Berlin” or “Shanghai” without even crossing the town border. These are the names of some of their favorite parts of the city Shchastya – “happiness” in English – located in Ukraine’s Luhansk region, close to the demarcation line. Here, teenagers can only dream of traveling: they can’t even go outside their hometown without an adult chaperone, let alone the real Berlin and Shanghai.
“Luhansk is a town of opportunities. For example, you have the opportunity to leave” is a common joke among Luhansk locals. Before war struck Donbas, Shchastya was part of Luhansk, so the joke is often applied to this town too.
This is a story about teenagers who dream of leaving Shchastya, some of them forever. But there are also those who think differently.
It was once possible to get from Shchastya to Luhansk in 20 minutes. Life here used to be simple: a nice, clean town not far from the region’s capital and surrounded by forest. And for those industrial romantics, it also has a picturesque view of the Luhansk power station.
My driver in Luhansk Eduard fondly remembers what his dacha on the outskirts of Shchastya was like before the war. He knew the area well. I met him on my first trip here in early 2014.
Within a few months, Shchastya became unrecognizable. Although the town itself has not been ruined, the atmosphere has. There are constant explosions and roaring sounds from the heavy weapons. While we eat at a roadside cafe, the war continues outside of Luhansk.
Shchastya is now the border of the Luhansk region. It’s not easy to get out of here. The minibus from Severodonetsk comes here twice a day: in the morning and at lunchtime. The bus is small and usually packed with people. Locals say that before war, nobody even talked about Severodonetsk and now it’s an administrative center.
You can walk around the whole of Shchastya in about 15 minutes. There’s no cinema here, no shopping center, no parks, and not a single cafe. The only local restaurant opens at four. They have karaoke and disco nights at the weekend. And that’s pretty much all the entertainment there is.
It seems as though the only time Shchastya was quiet was when Eduard took me to his holiday cottage.
Karina, Tanya, two Nastias, Alina, Ilya, Misha, Shypa, Alim, Gosha, Diana, Adel, and Yegor are a group of friends from Shchastya. They became friends here. They fall out, make up, fall in love, get upset, but they all dream of one day “leaving Shchastya and starting to live.”
Some of them have already finished school and left. Some are trying to do the same, not wanting to get into the local vocational-technical college – the only educational institution in the town which you can go to without leaving home.
Work-wise, there’s not a lot on offer in Shchastya too. A lot of people go to work at the power station – if they are lucky enough to get a place. Women mainly work at the local orphan boarding school.
A lot of the teens’ classmates come from broken homes, while some don’t even know their biological parents. Some families have been separated by the war, so part of the family lives in separatist-controlled Luhansk and the other part in government-controlled Shchastya. The journey to Luhansk, which once took 20 minutes, has now become a logistical nightmare.
“I have an aunt who lives in Luhansk. The last time we went there via Stanitsa Luhanska checkpoint, we had to stand in the sun for a long time, it was summer and it was hot. In front of us was an old man who became unwell. He turned pale and started to stagger around. Then he just suddenly fell and died. I still have that image in my head of him standing in the queue with his waxy face. We’ve not been to Luhansk since then,” recalls 17-year-old Adel Krasinska.
I want to take pleasure in the stupid little things and be happy. And I already dream so much about visiting lots of countries and finding out where I feel most ‘at home.’ Finding the place I want to live. That the goal I follow in my head. Who knows if it will happen. Alim Alimov
Almost everyone in the school year dances or sings because they go to the town’s only music school in the evenings. There is no other way of expressing yourself in Shchastya. Sometimes they wander through the woods or walk to the stadium.
The stadium is located near the power plant, which is often fired at. Illya Shlykov remembers how, last year, him and his friends rooted for their favorite team at the stadium when just 500 meters away shells exploded. Another place where teenagers hang out is the canal near the power plant, but it’s best not to go there during shelling.
I want to list all the moments and memories that make me think truly and differently. The Serhiy Zhadan concert, which, even after a few days, I couldn’t get over how cool it was. The house concert by YouTube singer from Kyiv Lera Yaskevich (I had shivers down my spine, tears, joy, smiles and a lot of emotions.) Nastia Horlova
To pass the time, these teenagers walk around the town several times until their feet hurt – from “Berlin” to “Shanghai,” from the “White House” to the “blues,” and then back to “Mayak.”
The “Berlin” housing complex was once “elite” accommodation for the power plant workers. It has an incredible view of the forest and the best sunsets in Shchastya. But no one lives in the complex anymore.
A big, three-story building was once planned to be built in a private housing sector, but for unknown reasons never finished. Known as the “White House,” it became a favorite hang-out spot for the local teenagers where you can hide from prying eyes.
The place where the canal passes through the private housing is called “Shanghai,” and the locals call the five-story housing complex “the blues.” Near the entrances to these buildings, there are benches and porches covered in vineyards. This is a cozy place to gather where the teenagers also connect to the neighbors’ wifi without a password.
The shop called Mayak (Lighthouse) is a convenient place to meet – it’s not far from their school or the city center.
Some stay out until 9 p.m., some until 10, but the boys always walk the girls home.
You can’t go anywhere without a chaperone if you are under 18. Between Shchastya and Kostiantynivka, there are six checkpoints/
“I love traveling,” Ilya Hudzovatiy tells me. “I would like to go to Petra, Jordan most of all. “
“Where have you already been?” I ask him.
“I’ve been to a lot of places. I like to travel on Google Maps, where you can see the streets. I do that quite often. I was sat at my computer in my room once, and my grandmother said: “Ilya, what are you doing?” “I said: “I’m traveling! Come with me!” And we went to Washington, next to the White House, then we looked around New York, at the Statue of Liberty and finished at the Champs Elysees in Paris."
Most of the young people from our town shout about wanting to leave, saying that they won’t miss it, and so on. Honestly, I used to do the same. Only after finishing school I realized that it wasn’t like that. I dream of becoming a theater director. Why? Because I want to change people’s minds, change perceptions and spark internal processes. I hope I’m not taking too much on. What will I miss? Hmm… Why “what?” No, it’s who I will miss. I will miss the people who have always been with me, the people I’ve grown up with, had fun with, suffered with, won and lost with, been afraid with. The people who always make me happy in the town called Happiness. What a paradox. LOL.
They fall in love fast and hard, as if it were the last time. Although, for many, this is their first time. Two years ago, Oleh Vilkov found his other half at a summer camp outside Odesa. The only problem was that she lived in another region – in the town of Svitlodarsk, north-east of Donetsk.
He has not seen Polina since, however, Oleh felt that he had to do something in her honor. He went to Severodonetsk to get a tattoo of her name in Latin letters. He wanted to add two hands and a heart, but did not have enough money. Polina liked the font.
The girl was a year older. She planned to go to study in Kyiv after graduating school. Oleh broke up with her after six months because Kyiv is a lot further away than Svitlodarsk and the relationship wouldn’t work long distance. Another six months later, Oleh covered the tattoo with a rose, knife and a teardrop.
The main thing is to leave Shchastya, get a good grade in my university entrance exams, and get an offer to study journalism. Next, find happiness, love and a family. I want to go to Egypt and travel lots and lots. I also want the war to end and my parents to be well. And a sub-point of my dreams, let’s say, is that I want a car and to pass a driving test.
They treat soldiers with caution as they have suffered at the hands of both sides.
School friends Illya Shlykov and Nastia Sarancha recall how their school held a gala concert for the soldiers on Volunteer Day.
“They came to the school with guns and dogs. I knew they had nothing against us, but it looked terrifying. I was hosting that concert,” Illya tells us.
One of the most striking memories that will stay with me after leaving this town is my first flat concert. I felt like a new me opened up then. When I was studying at music school for many years, I performed classical music and songs in a completely different genre. And then I experienced a certain discovery: for the first time I sang in front of such a big crowd. I enjoyed the atmosphere, everyone who was there. It was a very cool experience. After that concert, there were a few other memories, but it’s exactly then that I made a step toward my dream of finding myself.
The town does not officially have a curfew, but as soon as it starts to get dark, soldiers can stop you and ask: “What are you doing? Where are you from? Where are your documents? Where are your parents?” Not long ago, my friends were stopped like that in the street. And when the teenagers started resisting, one of the soldiers pulled out a gun, handed the magazine over to the boys and the weapon – to Alina. “Come on, do your thing!” he said.
“I pointed the gun at him and said “bang!” After that, we seemed to become friends, so we were lucky,” says Alina.
I had a fever. I was coming back from the seaside with my mom. We arrived, but I thought it wasn’t our home… When we got into the flat, I thought: “Is my mom really my mom?” They checked my temperature, it was 39. I called my grandmother and asked her to pretend to be a doctor and take me away from this strange woman (who was my mother.) I then went out onto the balcony. I thought my grandmother was standing there below. I whispered, saying that I will come down soon. I then heard some footsteps and jumped into my bed. My most terrible and most epic phrase was: “Mom, you’re not my mom!” (And this wasn’t a dream.)
On graduation evening in Donbas, the teenagers dress in suits and gowns and walk through the whole town to the central square outside the cultural center. There they will dance the last waltz and receive their certificates.
It takes a while to get to the center. The road is uneven and the girls are wearing high heels and lacquered hairdos. Almost the entire town population come out to welcome the teenagers into “adult life.” They wave their handkerchiefs, which double-up as tear dryers, thank the parents and shout their wishes.