In the second week of May, a man climbed up a ladder and unscrewed a street sign on Moskovsky Prospekt, the longest street in Kharkiv. To cheers and whoops, his co-conspirator dumped the faded blue sign in a bin, and they pasted a replacement onto the chipboard covering a shattered window. The new sign read ‘G. Skovoroda Prospekt’ – the museum dedicated to the Ukrainian poet and philosopher had just been destroyed by a Russian rocket. This was seen as yet another deliberate attempt to eradicate Ukrainian culture. A few days later, the city council changed several street names: Moskovsky Prospekt became Geroiv Kharkiva Prospekt (Heroes of Kharkiv Avenue); Belgorodskoe Shosse became Kharkivskoye Shosse; the district of Moskovsky became Saltivsky – confusingly named after another district, Saltivka.
Street names, statues and language are heaped with meaning in this city. The biggest statue of Lenin in Ukraine was toppled here in 2014, when many feared Kharkiv would fall to Russian separatists, and there were violent clashes involving far-right gangs. Kharkiv is known for these groups, but it is also known as a place that values poets and artists. This mostly Russian-speaking city, the capital of Soviet Ukraine between 1919 and 1934, is a deeply contested place with a strong, if messy, identity. Much value is placed on Kharkiv’s eclectic architecture, but when the bombs began to fall on 24 February it quickly became clear that the Russians had no interest in its preservation. The activists pasting up their Skovoroda sign were surrounded by devastation. In the expectation that these attacks can’t last forever – Russian troops have been pushed back towards the border – thoughts are turning to rebuilding the city. This, too, is contested. Activists who for years have been trying to preserve and protect its architecture fear that reconstruction will be a cover for comprehensive redevelopment. A combination of corruption, disregard for planning laws and poor standards of development have affected Kharkiv since independence. The redbrick 19th-century industrial neighbourhoods, reminiscent of Manchester, and Constructivist experiments like the soaring Derzhprom building and the Slovo block of flats, have been undervalued for a long time.A flood of foreign money and a lack of local involvement could result in the city losing its identity. In late April, Norman Foster met Kharkiv’s mayor, Ihor Terekhov, in Geneva and announced that he would ‘assemble the best minds’ to work on the ‘rebirth of the city of Kharkiv’. ‘Haven’t we suffered enough?’ one man asked me. ‘Intellectual colonialism’ was what the staff at the Kharkiv School of Architecture called it in an online debate.
On the way back from the burned-out neighbourhoods of north Kharkiv one day, my driver screeched to a halt and shouted at the workers who were using a digger to lift a whole section of tram track into the air, shaking it to dislodge the soil and grass. It turned out that Oleksiy had been campaigning for years to save the city’s neglected tram network. Now, under cover of war and martial law, the council was ripping up the track. In recent years people in Kharkiv had started using the phrase ‘tramvayniy drift’. You can see videos on YouTube of old tram carriages coming off the broken tracks and careering across busy junctions. ‘It’s incompetence,’ Oleksiy shrugged, saying that the council thinks cars are king. The acute fuel shortages in Ukraine only make this position more misguided. ‘Diesel is a strategic resource,’ he said. ‘They should be giving it to the military, or those delivering humanitarian aid.’
It’s easy to ignore such matters in a city under attack, where everyone is concentrating on how best to support the civil defence battalions fighting on the outskirts, and how to get food and supplies to those still sheltering in basements. But what kind of country will emerge from the war? In 2018 I spoke to activists who were trying to organise the city’s first Pride march. They told me that they had been threatened, that they couldn’t be sure the police would protect a march from far-right violence. They were right to worry: a year later their first ever parade was attacked. Far-right gangs chased participants, in what they called ‘safari’ hunts, according to an Amnesty International report which heavily criticised the local authorities.
But these things are muddy in Ukraine. Four years ago, the activists told me they had raised money for the Azov Battalion – now a regularised part of the army and celebrated for holding out in Mariupol, but with its origins in Kharkiv’s far right. ‘We knew they’d come for us,’ one woman told me then, ‘but what choice did we have?’ The Ukrainian army was so weak when Russia invaded in 2014 that these militia groups were the only thing holding the line, and the young activists knew it. Ukrainian society is now united by a hatred of Russia and by the collective efforts to win the war, but these divisions remain.
When I was in Kharkiv last month, I caught up with a friend who spends every waking minute sourcing supplies and aid for her city and those defending it. She told me that she had hoped the crisis might bring together opposing groups – even far-right militia organisations like Freikorps, which was involved in beating up and chasing the Pride marchers. The group’s ideology is the usual mash-up of a hatred of gays and ‘liberals’, and some stuff about Christianity and the right to bear arms. For years my friend had tried to persuade its leader, Georgii Tarasenko, that Russia was his real enemy, not Kharkiv’s leftists and queers. ‘I told him, when the tanks roll in we’ll be on the same side.’
When the tanks did roll in, Tarasenko was on the front line, and my friend was among those buying supplies for him and his comrades. He was killed near Mala Rohan, a village just east of Kharkiv, at the end of March. ‘He was the first guy I cried for,’ she said. ‘He was my political opponent, but he did a great job, a young general.’ She said the same on social media, prompting a hail of abuse from his comrades; now there’s no dialogue. Despite this, when I asked her how things might look after the war, she insisted there would still have to be co-operation. ‘It’ll be challenging,’ she admitted. ‘We made the mistake in 2014 that we didn’t provide dialogue.’
This example is, of course, an extreme one. At impromptu gigs to raise money for the battalions, in aid distribution centres and in soup kitchens, ideological differences have largely melted away. People with wildly different political views find themselves working side by side. In an underground bunker kitted out as a music studio, Serhiy Zhadan, in a black leather jacket, read poetry and bands played folk songs, all livestreamed to a party in Berlin. The event raised about £1000. The warren of rooms was stuffed with recording equipment – Alexander, the tattooed studio owner, said they had rescued much of it from other studios that were flooded after being bombed. ‘We’ve got everything we need down here,’ he said, and it felt like you could live in this cosy space, with a little kitchen now installed next to the recording studio. He even had a cat. Most of the people milling around the low-ceilinged rooms were wearing fatigues – for volunteers, even those not fighting, it’s become the dress code, as it is for Zelensky. For these volunteers, and this generation, Ukrainian is the lingua franca, even in this Russian-speaking city. Putin has managed to unite Kharkiv – and all questions of ideological difference are met with the same answer: ‘After the victory.’
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