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A fortress in the east. Notes from Kharkiv in September 2022

A dispatch from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, which has been under constant shelling for much of the war.

November 29, 2022 - Kateryna Pryshchepa - Articles and Commentary

A scene of destruction in one of Kharkiv's residential districts. Photo: Kateryna Pryshchepa

In September this year, almost eight months after the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion, the city of Kharkiv and its residents seemed to be slowly re-establishing a life as close to normal as possible. The intensity of the shelling of the city diminished over the summer due to the advances of the Ukrainian army in May. And under a gentle September sun, Kharkiv residents —like Ukrainians everywhere — were rejoicing over the successful Ukrainian offensive in the Kharkiv region. While I was on my way to the city, one of my potential interviewees excused herself from our meeting. The village of Kozacha Lopan had just been liberated by the Ukrainian Army and she was rushing to evacuate her parents, who had spent the whole period of occupation there. High hopes for the future were almost tangible in the air in Kharkiv. And yet the fast-approaching winter was looming over the city’s future as Russia had opened a new stage in its war against Ukraine – the targeting of critical civilian infrastructure.

I arrive in Kharkiv by train from Zaporizhzhia on a sunny Sunday. When packing to board the train that morning still in Zaporizhzhia I record a soundtrack to the war of sorts. While the air raid siren in Zaporizhzhia is sounding, the bells of an Orthodox church close to my hotel begin chiming for the Sunday service. The bells don’t stop for over ten minutes, and blend with the ongoing siren into one sonic composition. Later that day it turned out that the “soundtrack” was marking a new phase of the war. That day Russia launched the first coordinated missile attacks on Ukraine’s critical energy infrastructure. Several power plants in Ukraine were damaged, two of them in the vicinity of Kharkiv. Two engineers at the Kharkiv power plant were killed in the strike.

 

I still haven’t heard about the strikes when I step down off the train in Kharkiv later that day. Guided by the urge to see once more the now famous Kharkiv metro, which had become the bomb shelter for the locals for so many months, I opt for the metro ride and a walk to my hotel instead of catching a taxi. Half an hour after I arrive at my hotel the electricity supply in the city is cut off.

When I get off the metro it is already dusk. The streetlights in the city haven’t been on since February and with the sunset the streets in the city centre start to empty. But life goes on quietly. While walking to the hotel I notice the “feeding station” and several stray cats hanging around it. I open several packets of cat food I happened to have on me and five or six more cats appear. Just as I am ready to go a local woman walking a dog approaches the cat feeding station. She jokingly laments me spoiling the cats with wet food, concerned they won’t be too keen on the dry food she has just brought them.

The next morning the electricity is back on in town for several hours and I meet local political activist and co-founder of the Maidan Monitoring Centre Natalia Zubar. Zubar and her colleagues, who never left the city even under the heaviest shelling, now run the project which documents the damages caused to the city and the region by Russian military action. The group uses photo and video cameras and drones to capture evidence of the damaged apartment blocks. Some of the materials have already been exhibited in Ukraine and abroad as a part of the Fracture exhibition. Their photo and video archive is expanding all the time.

We meet in the Nikolski shopping mall in the city centre where Zubar takes me to one of her favourite coffee shops. Nikolski is a convenient meeting spot thanks to its big underground car park, which is used as a bomb shelter. When the air raid begins, we can take our coffee and go downstairs, Zubar explains. In March this year the shopping mall was hit by two missiles, so for now only the ground floor here is open for business. On the first floor the workers are trying to repair the roof and replace damaged windows before the cold season begins.

From Nikolski we go to Zubar’s home office where she shows me the immense archive she and her colleagues have amassed. She is spending most of her time on processing and cataloguing photo and video footage now. Zubar’s home office features several sets of protective gear – flak jackets and helmets – all donated by the volunteers and colleagues from abroad. The team uses them when filming in the areas like Saltivka neighbourhood in Kharkiv.

While scrolling through video archive on Zubar’s computer we hear the air raid alert and soon afterwards the sound of an explosion not far from our location. Later we found out the missile had hit one of the police headquarters in the city. A high voltage power line is located close to the building, so it is hard to say whether Russians had been targeting the police headquarters or the power line. A few minutes after we hear the explosion, the electricity is down again. It would be restored only several hours later, after dusk. With the electricity off Zubar suggests that, once the air raid is finishes, I come with her colleagues who will be doing their round of the city to document the new destruction.

I go on the expedition around Kharkiv with Oleksiy Svid, a local journalist and member of the Maidan Monitoring Centre team. Svid quickly identifies the spot where a missile hit yet another building in the city and we go and see the fire brigades working on extinguishing the fire in the police headquarters.

What does the future hold?

The main question I ask people during my visit to Kharkiv is what they think will happen to Ukraine’s second largest city after the war.

At present, life in Kharkiv is somewhat surreal. During daylight hours the streets in the city centre are quite colourful and full of people. Although many coffee shops have their windows boarded up, the signs on their doors welcome customers.

When the weather is good, locals go for a promenade along the Lopan river. One day, during an air raid alarm, I see there a small procession consisting of a bride, a groom, several guests and photographers. The bride is dressed in full wedding attire; her white dress has an open back despite the temperature outside being not more than 15 degrees Celsius.

One of Kharkiv’s most famous residents, street artist Hamlet Zinkivskyi, has never left the city. His response to the invasion was a series of new street art on the city walls. “The doors are missing their keys” one of them announces. Another depicts helmets, flak jackets and weapons, and is titled “Novi oberehy” (“The new totems”). Hamlet’s work is one of the many manifestations of Kharkiv’s artistic spirit and its activity in the face of war. The pizzeria at the Lopan riverside now has large pieces of shrapnel and unexploded Russian shells in the cabinet which once housed desserts.

And yet the city is severely damaged by the war. Several thousand buildings have been damaged or completely destroyed by Russian shelling. On the street next to Freedom Square, workers clear rubble from a damaged building. Across the street one can see another in cross-section. The shelling has obliterated one of the external walls of the building, exposing the apartments on every floor. In the rubble next to the building there are old letters and postcards, all addressed to one man who presumably used to live here. Some were posted back in the 1970s.

Walking around the city, you see the distribution schedule for food parcel on some doors. The curfew in Kharkiv starts at 10pm, while the metro runs only until 8pm. It is getting dark quite early and the city centre, seemingly full of busy people only a short while ago, becomes deserted by 7pm.

It is hard to say how much of Kharkiv’s academic and research activities can be revived in the near future. My tour guide Svid takes me to see the building of the University of Kharkiv’s School of Physics and Technology in the Piatykhatky neighbourhood. The school is one of the partners in the consortium formed around the Large Hadron Collider. Until very recently it ran tests on its own particle accelerator. But the school was shelled and critically damaged in April this year and it is unclear if the particle accelerator can be repaired. At the entrance to the damaged building there is a memorial plaque to former professor Ihor Tolmachov. A Kharkiv Maidan activist, he was killed in a terrorist attack on a pro-Ukraine march in February 2015 — a reminder that Ukraine’s struggles did not begin in 2022.

The locals have taken a hard hit. One day, a young man approaches me while I sip my coffee outside a cafe close to one of the buildings of the Kharkiv University. His name is Sania, he tells me, and he is still recovering from injuries he sustained in a shelling in April this year. He now needs to collect several thousand hryvna for another operation. A piece of shrapnel wounded his intestines and now he has an ostomy apparatus which needs to be replaced. Sania says he is on the way to a full recovery and the ostomy system will eventually be removed, but he needs it for a while yet. “Look” – he pulls his shirt up – “you can take a picture if you want” he says. The ostomy system is there all right, and Sania himself is very thin and very pale. He says he was in training to become an electrician under the supervision of his girlfriend’s father. He cannot work for the moment as he cannot carry even the lightest weight, so money is tight and he depends on charity to cover a large portion of his expenses.

On a street in the city centre I meet Svitlana, who is selling vegetables from an improvised street stall. Svitlana lives in one of the western suburbs of Kharkiv. Thanks to the distance to the Russian border, her area has not been a target of Russian shelling, and Svitlana decided not to seek refuge elsewhere in Ukraine. However, she was afraid to come to Kharkiv after the Russian invasion began; she made the trip for the first time in July out of necessity.

Svitlana says that she normally runs a small company which organises theatrical events. She was supposed to open a new play in a Kharkiv theatre in March this year. Now she sells fruit and vegetables she has grown in her own garden to earn an income. Svitlana’s produce has already become popular in the Kharkiv city centre. While we are chatting two repeat customers approach and ask for bell peppers.

What about business?

I discuss the prospects of the city’s economy with businessman Yiry Sapronov. Sapronov is an ethnic Russian and the son of a Soviet Army officer. Outside Kharkiv, Sapronov is mostly known as the owner of Kharkiv golf club and spa resort Superior, which on several occasions has hosted the Ukrainian national football team, as well as for his early support for the most famous Ukrainian tennis player, Elina Svitolina. However, Sapronov’s biography also includes a stint working in the Kharkiv Regional State Administration and diverse business ventures in Kharkiv.

Some trusted Kharkiv volunteers recommend him as one of the local business owners who have been supporting refugees from Donbas who came to Kharkiv in 2014. When I meet Sapronov in a restaurant he is wearing an amulet in the shape of the Tryzub, Ukraine’s coat of arms. He says that while he is himself ethnically Russian, since Russia started destroying his hometown, he now chooses to speak Ukrainian.

Sapronov estimates that of the city’s population of 1.6 million, by September 2022 only about 900,000 remain living in the city. That includes at least 300,000 people who fled at the beginning of the invasion and who have returned to the city during the summer. “On May 6 and 7, the Ukrainian Army liberated two settlements in the direct proximity of Kharkiv — Tsyrkuny and Ruska Lozova, which the Russian army had used as an artillery base to shell the city with Grad missile launchers”, Sapronov explains. “Since then, life in Kharkiv has become much calmer.”

Between the May 6 and June, people came back in droves, causing traffic jams on the city’s approach roads. However, Sapronov says despite the appearance of normality, only 10 per cent of Kharkiv business is operating for the moment and the winter is going to be hard for the city. He expects the authorities to cover the cost of heating at least for the most vulnerable city residents.

But there is art and hope

Maryna Konieva, art curator and lecturer at the Kharkiv Academy of Art, says that she has attended more artistic and musical events in Kharkiv over the last few months than she did in the previous few years. Konieva represents those Kharkiv residents who are full of optimism for the future.

Konieva never left the city following Russia’s full-scale invasion and has spent her time volunteering and preparing for the new academic year. As a curator of one of Kharkiv’s private art collections — the Hryniov family collection of modern Ukrainian art — in March she helped to pack the collection for evacuation abroad. She tells me about having to walk for several kilometres along cold snow-covered streets to get to the collection storage spot, as public transport in the city was suspended.

However, all these memories do not dampen Konieva’s optimism. On the contrary, having lived through all the events of the spring and summer, she tells me she feels energised by her attachment to the city and the symbolic power Kharkiv now has. “All my colleagues from across Europe at first called me offering a place in their countries and now they are calling me to say they are coming to Kharkiv with new art projects as soon as the war is over. We are going to be a cultural hub here”, – she believes. “The art community is very active now and there is much less work so people meet up much more often.”

Winter is coming

Oleksiy Svid, who remained in Kharkiv under the heaviest Grad shelling in spring this year, is worrying winter will be the critical time for the city. “In some neighbourhoods, even if the apartment blocks have not been directly damaged by shelling, there are so few residents left that it is not economically viable to heat the block during the winter”, Svid says. “It could be that the residents will have to move out just due to the sheer cold.”

On my way from Kyiv to Poland it turns out that I share my compartment with a retired couple from Saltivka, a suburb in North-eastern Kharkiv. Their apartment destroyed by Russian shelling, Volodymyr and Tetiana are travelling to Poland, at least for the winter. There they will join their daughter and granddaughter, who fled the city in April and found shelter in Warsaw. In September the granddaughter started school in Warsaw and the couple’s daughter is getting ready to start a new job. Tetiana says she would like to return to Kharkiv as soon as possible but there is no way they could survive the winter in their apartment given its current state. So, the exodus continues.

The new fortress

On our tour of the city Svid took me to see the Saltivka district. Located on the eastern side of Kharkiv, the neighbourhood was heavily damaged by Russian shelling. It is here that Kharkiv’s famous bunker-style public transport stops have been installed. Made of concrete blocks, the installations are intended to protect residents from shrapnel and larger pieces of rubble in case they are caught in an air raid.

It would seem that fortification is the future of Kharkiv. The city is too close to the Russian border to remain just a business centre. Perhaps the city will dispose of its bunker style public transport stops, but there will have to be a significant military presence in the area for the foreseeable future. Activist Zubar believes the academic potential of the city will be used wisely if it becomes a security studies and advanced military training centre. “Kharkiv was founded as a Cossack outpost so it would seem it will retake its historical role”. Businessman Sapronov has similar ideas — he believes one of the directions the city and the region could go is the production of supplies for the army.

I was thinking of that during a meeting with Maryna Konieva as we were queuing to buy our coffee at Strelka – a famous Kharkiv meeting spot in a park on the Lopan riverbank. Konieva arranged for us to meet here as the power supply in the city is still cut off and the coffee vendors at Strelka are all equipped with batteries or generators and are always open for business. Pampered local beauties are waiting for their turn next to the men and women in uniforms, some of whom obviously only arrived from the front lines a few hours ago. The scene reflects the atmosphere of a frontier city, which Kharkiv has become.

All photos by Kateryna Pryshchepa.

Kateryna Pryshchepa is a Ukrainian journalist and a frequent contributor to New Eastern Europe.


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