Page last updated at 17:36 GMT, Friday, 25 March 2011

One Square Mile of Dnipropetrovsk

Allie Wharf
Producer, One Square Mile

Monastery Island, Dnipropetrovsk
Dnipropetrovsk boasts the longest river embankment in Europe and the largest Jewish cultural centre in the world.

Arriving by train in the city of Dnipropetrovsk is a dramatic affair.

Uniformed station guards stand to attention on the platform and the Ukrainian national anthem blares out of tinny tannoys.

The vast Soviet style railway station is impressive, if freezing cold, on a windy, grey day in March.

Temperatures here can vary from as much as thirty degrees in the summer to a distinctly chilly minus fifteen in the winter.

Outside the station the city itself is a hotchpotch of architecture and potholed roads. Modern European stands side by side with ornate Orthodox churches, their onion domes towering over run-down Stalinist apartment blocks.

Allie Wharf
Producer Allie Wharf was won over by the cities unlikely charms

The city itself dates back to the mid-eighteenth century when it was originally known as Yekaterinoslav.

It was renamed in Soviet times after the vast Dnieper river that snakes through the city on its way to the Black Sea.

Dnipropetrovsk, known simply as Dnipro to those who live here, is a city of contrasts.

It lies about 400 km south-east of the capital Kiev and is best known for being the industrial heart of the former Soviet space programme.

Tourists to the Ukraine flock to the cultural and historic cities of Kiev and Lviv in the west of the country, but the charms of the east are often overlooked. Because of its top secret missile plant Dnipro was closed to foreign visitors until Ukraine became independent.

Most of its inhabitants speak Russian as their first language rather than Ukrainian.

Why Dnipro?

Wandering around the city filming was a strange experience. Whilst we were there it was the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day. Here it's not a day to champion women's rights, but to celebrate beauty and femininity.

The flower shops and street stalls were crammed with men buying huge armfuls of flowers whilst the women spoke demurely of how important it is to "look beautiful and be enchanting", all the time.

Woman selling flowers
Ukrainian women are bought flowers on International Women's Day

It felt rather old-fashioned, yet charming.

In the street curious passersby would interrogate the film crew in Russian. Helplessly, I'd put up my hands and say, "I'm sorry, I don't speak Russian", followed by the magic words "BBC". It is always surprising how many people the world over recognise those three letters.

For those who could speak a little English the question was always: "Why, what on earth are you doing in Dnipro?"

Although most of the spectators were polite, one man who'd obviously been sampling the delights of Ukraine's national drink (vodka of course) insisted on sharing with us his limited command of English: "**** your President", accompanied by relevant hand gestures. I think he thought we were American.

We were rescued by the delightful Dennis Davidoff, a young Dnipro native, who'd travelled the world and spoke great English. He volunteered to be our guide and show us the highlights of his hometown.

When he spoke about how much he loved the city I couldn't initially see what he meant. But after a few days Dnipro really did begin to grow on me.

We had a series of extraordinary encounters whilst we were there - which proves the One Square Mile theory: every town and city has its own story to tell.

Top Secret

A visit to Yuzhmash, the rocket and ballistic missile manufacturer, was both slightly scary and fascinating.

As we progressed through the plant our crew was joined by more and more sinister, elderly men whose presence were never explained.

Frustratingly, we weren't allowed to film the American rocket under construction. Some things are still top secret!

Since Ukraine achieved independence it has been free to sell its expertise in aerospace technology all over the world.

The One Square Mile team at  uzhmash
The team were still restricted from filming in some areas at Yuzhmash

They have been so successful that they are now building rockets and missiles for the US military. They wouldn't tell us any more - just that the Americans are now highly valued customers.

The directors general Olexander Degtyaryov and Victor Shehogel looked like aging football managers in their sheepskin coats.

They are obviously proud of their role in the Cold War, the history of space exploration and the plant's continuing success.

It is not as busy as it was - 55,000 people worked there during the cold war. It is now down to about 11,000 but Mr Degtyaryov doesn't miss those days.

He loves being free and able to work with different countries around the world, especially with the Americans. He enjoys the irony of working with his former enemies and says that although the world changed dramatically for his factory and its workers in the 90s it was all "good change, not bad change".

On the map

Finally we visited the building site of what will be the largest Jewish cultural centre in the world.

A magnificent seven towers represent the Menorah, the branched candelabra which itself symbolizes Judaism. The building will commemorate and celebrate the history of Jews in Ukraine.

Dnipro sits on the main flight path between the Far East and Europe and passengers will be able to see the lights on top of the towers as they pass overhead - truly putting Dnipro on the map.

Zelig Brez is one of the directors of the community and described the centre as the fulfilment of a long-held dream.

Artists impression of the Jewish cultural centre
The Jewish cultural centre will be the largest of its kind in the world

He shared with us his memories of growing up under the Soviet system where Jews were constantly discriminated against.

Today, he says, his children have total freedom to practice their religion and don't believe his stories of persecution and oppression.

It is not just the Jewish community who are proud of their new claim to fame. Our taxi driver, who wasn't Jewish, really believed the cultural centre will make Dnipro known all over the world.

Amazingly the new centre is not the only world beater in Dnipro. The city also lays claim to the longest embankment and the shortest metro, of which they're not so proud!

Over the course of the two days filming Dnipropetrovsk shared its secrets with us, and what had at first seemed an unlikely location for One Square Mile proved to be full of interesting and memorable stories.

One Square Mile: Dnipropetrovsk will be showing on BBC World News on Friday 25th March at 1330 and 2030 GMT, and Saturday 26th March at 1030 and 2330 GMT.

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