IT was an act of defiance that quickly entered the realm of legend. It was a little more than two years ago now on a rocky outpost in the Black Sea known in Ukrainian as Ostriv Zmiinyi or Snake Island, that a Ukrainian border guard uttered the phrase that would become a slogan and rallying call for Ukraine as it stood its ground against the unfolding Russian invasion.

“Russian warship, go fuck yourself,” was the final radio communication ­message made by Ukrainian border guard Roman Hrybov to the Russian missile cruiser Moskva (Moscow) after the ship had told the island’s handful of defenders to surrender.

In no time, the slogan would go viral on the internet, adorn T-shirts and coffee mugs and become an emblematic symbol of Ukrainian resistance. But there was another totemic presence in the events of that day – the perceived villain of the piece in the powerful shape of the Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet.

At 200 metres long, manned by a crew of 520 and equipped with guided missile and anti-aircraft systems, it was the most powerful vessel in the region until it was damaged by an explosion and sank in April 2022.

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Though Russia said the Moskva had been lost as a result of a fire, most likely it was sunk after being hit by a Ukrainian missile, making the 12,490-tonne vessel the biggest Russian warship to be sunk in action since the Second World War.

But behind the story of the Moskva lies another even bigger one. The tale of the city in which it was built, and on which the Moskva’s guns would be turned, ­targeting the very citizens who worked in the shipyard building the cruiser, along with some of Soviet Russia’s other ­mightiest warships.

The southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv is steeped in the history of ­shipbuilding, an identity it shares with the city with which it has now recently been twinned – Glasgow.

Between the near-constant sound of air raid sirens warning of Russian drone and missile strikes echoing across Mykolaiv last week, I asked Anatoly Nikolaevich (below) – who back in 1984 worked at the Mykolaiv Shipbuilding Institute – what kind of city it was in terms of character.

“The character of the city corresponds to the purpose for which it was created. This is primarily a working-class city, and this is how I perceived it when I first came here in 1984,” Anatoly explained.

“People who live here are robust in character. This city is not easy. And it’s very difficult to gain the trust of both the city and its citizens. But if you ­manage to do this then Mykolaiv reveals a ­completely different side – humorous, cheerful and life-loving. It’s a rather complex city,” he says, identifying qualities that could just as easily apply to its new twin city.

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Drawing a further comparison with Glasgow and its once heyday as a shipbuilding city, Anatoly describes how back at its own height as one of the greatest shipbuilding cities in the world, Mykolaiv would wake to the sight of huge columns of workers heading for the shipyards.

“There is one shipbuilding plant next to us and thousands of people used to go there in the mornings. And not far from us is the Black Sea Shipyard – tens of thousands of people went there,” he ­continues.

Mykolaiv’s multiple yards went by ­numerous names over the years. Early in the Soviet era, the shipyard was renamed the Andre Marti (North) Yard. Then in 1931 it was named for the 61 Communards. From then on, torpedo boats, ­destroyers, cruisers, submarines, aircraft ­carriers and naval supply vessels joined the tally of vessels made in Mykolaiv.

Its long historic association with the Black Sea fleet, naval warfare and ­shipbuilding meant that at periods in ­history, Mykolaiv was off limits to ­foreigners and at times designated a “closed city” during the Soviet era.

“There was a period when Mykolaiv was the core of Soviet shipbuilding and no matter what anyone said, the dawn of shipbuilding was in the 1970-80s under the Soviet Union,” says Anatoly.

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“There were three large shipyards and a dozen smaller ones that provided them with work and carried out ship repairs. The main work for the people of Mykolaiv was connected to shipbuilding, and in ­total, probably around 100,000 people out of the city’s 500,000 population worked in the yards,” Anatoly explains.

He himself, after graduating from Kyiv University’s Faculty of ­Philosophy ­during the Soviet era, was assigned by the ­university to teach philosophy and ­sociology at Mykolaiv ­Shipbuilding ­Institute – a measure of the extent to which shipbuilding was integrated into almost every facet of life in the city.

Svitlana Demko (below) was 16 years old when she first arrived in Mykolaiv and got a job working in the canteen of the 61 ­Communards shipyard. Bored with the job and determined to move upwards – quite literally – she applied for, and ­completed, a crane operators’ course before working on the giant ­four-legged Kuna cranes that straddle the ship ­assembly workshop where ships came off the slipway.

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“If someone had told me that I would work as a crane operator, I would not have believed it. I was very afraid of heights,” Svitlana admits.

“The height of the crane which could lift 100 tons was like two nine-story buildings. First, you go up the stairs and then there is a certain closed column inside of which you also go up the stairs. There was no elevator,” Svitlana remembers.

“I overcame my fear. I went up with strangers and I was ashamed to show that I was afraid of something. And so, I ­conquered my fear,” she continues, ­adding that many of the crane operators at the 61 Communards yard were women. With her fear of heights overcome and despite the bitter cold and wind of wintertime, Svitlana has fond memories of her time at the yard. The view from the glass cabin of her crane she says was ­“especially beautiful in springtime and half the city was visible”.

As she talks, what comes across is the extent to which Mykolaiv’s shipbuilding community – like many industrial communities across the world – is a close-knit one.

“Every day you went to work, from hooter to hooter. This hooter was heard everywhere in the city. You went through the yard checkpoint. There is even a song about the checkpoint and about the ­factory. I forgot the words, but there is such a song,” she says.

She recalls also singing that song at the 80th birthday of the yard director, and how back then houses were built for the workers and how a large loaf of bread was baked and a bottle of champagne “crashed” when a ship was launched. “I still remember it all,” Svitlana now in her late 60s reminisces.

During her time at 61 Communards, she became active in working with an ­independent trade union that had been set up in the yard.

“We competed with the official trade ­union which was always present at the plant. We fought for justice, tried to achieve better conditions for people so that there would be wages. There were times when everything went downhill, when salaries were not paid,” she tells me, before ­going on to explain how this brought her into contact with a ­certain young politician called Volodymyr ­Zelenskyy, now, of course, the Ukrainian president.

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“We hadn’t been paid our full salaries for five years and during that time I had been trying to get it paid to us. There were also strikes that I helped organise and the guys from Kyiv helped me.

“Zelenskyy was then facing the ­second round of elections,” she continues the ­story. “I managed to get his phone ­number and I called him. And said that they should come to our city Mykolaiv. And he arrived and people at the plant were waiting for him there and I talked to his security manager.

“They were already leaving the factory. At that moment I didn’t care anymore. I stood at the gate and said that I would not leave until I met with Zelenskyy and talked in person. He came out from his motorcade, and we talked. I ­personally handed over the documents where I ­described the reason why we were trying to contact him.

“It was April 19 and there were ­elections on the 20th and within three days, they gave us our outstanding five years of ­salary. Someone paid off our debts,” ­Svitlana says with a knowing smile.

I asked her what she thought of ­Zelenskyy today.

“I don’t have any thoughts right now. I just wait and dream for the time when this will all stop,” she says speaking of the war that in Mykolaiv threatens the lives of its citizens daily.

In shipbuilding cities people ­working on certain vessels often feel a close ­affinity with a ship they have helped build. Was that the case with the Moskva, I asked, and how did Svitlana feel when news broke that it had sank?

“The ship was built here, and huge human efforts, work and money were ­invested. It was a pity that such a large ship sank. But another thought is that thank God it did. Nobody could have ­imagined that this ship that we built would end up shooting at us.

“This is a nightmare. I’m glad it sank and doesn’t shoot at us anymore,” ­Svitlana replies candidly.

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Her view is shared by Anatoly Nikolaevich.

“You have to understand that Mykolaiv was shelled every day and many times. At night, no one could sleep, ­missiles were constantly flying in, attacks were made on factories, the airfield – ­including the yard where this ship was built.”

“Any damage to the enemy was ­perceived as normal. There was no time for regret,” Anatoly explains. “Many ships that are in service with the Russian Black Sea Fleet were built in Mykolaiv. Nevertheless, everyone was ready for this to be done. We did not start this war and since it is a war … ‘À la guerre comme à la guerre’, as the saying goes.”

He says that he has not met a ­single ­person in Mykolaiv who regrets the ­Moskva’s sinking or those who say: “I built such a good ship, but it was sunk”.

“I don’t know such people,” Anatoly insists.

Today, it’s still possible to see the ­Moskva in Mykolaiv, for its image – along with other Russian warships like the aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov – is depicted on painted murals on city walls. And of course, its unfinished sister ship still sits in Mykolaiv’s yards, mothballed but c­osting a fortune to maintain.

In the city’s Museum Of ­Shipbuilding And The Fleet, you can also see the ­Moskva in the shape of a large-scale ­model ­sitting in a glass case along with other vessels built at the city’s yards going back ­centuries.

In one room during my visit, reminders of the current war were never far away as three of the museum’s technicians and archivists worked to repair one installation exhibit showing Mykolaiv-built submarines, which had been damaged after part of the room’s ceiling collapsed following a Russian airstrike on the city.

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I put it to both Anatoly and Svitlana that my home city Glasgow – like Mykolaiv – has a great history of shipbuilding and asked what they thought of the recent twinning arrangement.

“Today, the very existence of Ukraine depends entirely on Western help. That help can be provided both at the ­interstate ­level and at such a level as ­contacts ­between cities, contacts between regions. This is a good experience,” ­Anatoly ­replies.

“Moreover, Glasgow is a very famous and iconic city in the UK. Many believe that it is the second city after London. And as I understand it, the fate of ­shipbuilding in Glasgow is very similar to Mykolaiv. We both have difficulties of ­different kinds but a shared industrial past. I can only welcome our twinning,” he adds, his reply something of a gentle ­riposte to those critics who argue that twinning arrangements are little more than virtue-signalling.

As for Svitlana, she too welcomes Mykolaiv’s twinning with Glasgow.

“It’s important to support each other. I hope that shipbuilding will be revived both here and in Glasgow for I know, you no longer have it now either. It’s a shame and let’s hope it all happens again,” she says.

I joke with her that while it’s unlikely that shipbuilding will ever be revived on the Clyde to the level it once was, ­Glasgow would welcome her experience as a crane operator.

“Why not,” she says throwing the jibe back at me.

“I’m already a pensioner but I can share my experience if I still have the strength. There were so many specialists who knew how to build ships. If it weren’t for the war, we could share our experiences. But that’s how it is for now.

“But we will get through it too – just as we did in the past.”

No sooner had Svitlana finished ­speaking, than once again the air raid ­sirens warn of potential incoming ­Russian drones and missiles. Mykolaiv once more braces for what might be heading its way, but this time at least it can be sure it will not be coming from the Moskva.