Author: Hanna Tsyomyk, Kharkiv
Photo: Diana Ruda
‘Kharkiv – a city of Armoured Concrete. The struggle of life in the city in wartime.’
On the 21st of January, recently elected mayor of Kharkiv, Ihor Terekhov stated in an interview to Suspilne (local news outlet): ‘there will be no war’. The upcoming month, until the 24th of February, Ukrainian skies were clear of any aircraft and other threats. Kharkiv airport delayed its flights and this seemed quite strange. One morning in Kharkiv, like many other oblast centres in Ukraine, the first explosions were heard as a result of air defence systems. The beginning of the anticipated ‘big war’ had begun, a war that was highly discussed but also as highly prepared for.
Along with the rest of the country, Kharkiv prepared carefully, despite the fact that most inhabitants as well as the mayor did not believe that a large-scale invasion would take place. They did not believe this because of past convictions (related to their vision of Russia as a country) which were passed on to them by previous generations. Some argued that this was not possible as Kharkiv was the ‘first capital of Ukraine’ (in fact, it was just the capital of Soviet Ukraine from 1919 to 1934). Some also argued based on their own logical convictions: ‘Putin is not that stupid to escalate this conflict after 8 years’. However, the people who were right were those who were actively buying sandbags (among other defensive equipment), before the war.
After the first wave of this new uncertain environment, the government (both local and central), adapted accordingly. However, the local government did not have a choice but to enter its new regime of martial law and work together with the rest of the country towards victory. Despite the scepticism of the inhabitants of the possibility that the new mayor might collaborate with the invaders, the war completely changed Terekhov’s rhetoric. This was his only chance of retaining power, as there were no street battles in Kharkiv, and there was no one to ‘give the city up’ to. However, after the shelling of newly built parks (which were part of the mayor’s personal initiative) as well as the centre of the city, the invaders crossed the mayor’s personal red line. The Russians started to engage in artillery and rocket fire all over the city, targeting government buildings as well as landmarks which were his own making. One should regard such a drastic rhetorical change in attitudes of politicians without any illusions, but this change has seemingly occurred for everyone.
It can be explained that Terekhov and his predecessor Henaddiy Kernes, who died from COVID-19 complications in 2020, have both maintained the image as the main craftsmen of the city’s prosperity and development – setting an example for the rest of the country. Kharkiv was always known as the most tidy metropolitan area in the country which gave the local government a positive reputation across the country despite its occasional pro-Russian sentiment. Based on this accusation, critics of the local government in Kharkiv also added to the criticism by pointing out some of its policy drawbacks such as: the prohibition of lying down on grass in parks, buying unexplainably expensive fountains for the city’s parks (containing 13 mini-statues of monkeys which sing and move at the same time) and more.
Every evening, the mayor releases a statement in video format to the inhabitants of Kharkiv, where he usually thanks the Ukrainian Armed Forces, the Territorial Defence, the State Emergency Service of Ukraine and сommunal services and ends with the phrase ‘We’re together. We’re Kharkivians’. The war has simplified the political tools for creativity and makes the next preparation for the next political campaign for politicians less complicated. Terekhov speaks Russian when he delivers his statements, which may cause confusion for viewers of Russian television – the mayor of Kharkiv speaks Russian and he has not been detained by any mythical ‘language patrol’ units? After the the war, Kharkiv will not have any toponymic objects or monuments connected to Russia, the invading country – this was promised by Terekhov himself. Furthermore, there will be an annulment of all ‘brotherly city’ associations with Russian cities such as (Belgorod, Nizhniy Novgorod, Saint-Petersburg, Novosibirsk and Moscow). Terekhov also pointed out that the bust of Georgi Zhukov will be taken down ‘after our victory’ as he backtracked on his past determination to keep the monument on display.
The government has clearly started to reflect and articulate the will of its people. If people display a colored ribbon on their arm (obviously not red, as this is the symbol of Russian forces), or a yellow reflective vest, they do not have to wait in queues anywhere and are often fed and served for free pretty much everywhere as a gesture of gratitude. The people that stayed in the city despite the constant shelling, all have numerous sets of keys from their friends, families and even strangers who have left them behind, in order to keep their apartments under some observation and protection (or even to keep their pets for that matter). Even local rivalries between political camps halted: for example, the ecopark zoo belonging to Oleksandr Feldman who had his disagreements with the local government due to the road that penetrated his ‘Barabashovo’ market, had his white tiger shipped to the municipal zoo.
This confirms that the way people cooperate here is analogous to single cells working together to keep the organism alive (social organism in this case). Military activity and the laws of war gave the people a new utopian reality where everyone is working towards a common goal – the goal to survive, to defend themselves and defeat the enemy. As before the war, different areas of the city had different lifestyles. The contrast between outdoor barbecues seen in the Northern Saltivka neighbourhood and the queues for coffee in the centre was always quite noticeable. Calls for evacuation from dangerous areas such as Northern Saltivka and P’yatykhatky which are under constant Russian shelling were not abided by by all inhabitants. Therefore, the need for volunteer workers who deliver medication and food to these areas remains crucial.
On the 18th of April, the Department of Culture and Tourism of the Kharkiv Oblast Administration released data which showed that from the start of the war, the Russians have damaged eight monuments/objects of cultural heritage and 80 architectural objects in the Oblast. One of them was the Memorial Complex ‘Drobytsky Yar’, where the Nazis executed civillians in 1941-42 and the Memorial for the Victims of Totalitariasm, where the NKVD executed 3809 Polish officers and 500 Polish civillians in 1940. From the 8 thousand tower blocks in Kharkiv, around 2 thousand have been damaged (25%), as stated on national TV by the mayor on the 19th of April. Financial and other forms of aid have been offered to the city of Kharkiv for its reconstruction by a British architectural bureau in the name of a prominent designer, laureate of the Imperial and Pritzker Prizes – Norman Robert Foster.
As a matter of fact, there are heated discussions about the manner of the reconstruction of the city. One topic of debate is whether the central building of the Kharkiv Oblast Administration should be reconstructed in its original ‘stalinist’ style or rather a new, modern one.
Despite constant shelling which continues on a daily basis, the city continues to resist and fight for its life. Calls by the government for the reopening of cafés, shops, pizza deliveries and beauty salons have been heard, as communal workers have started to clean broken glass and construct flowerbeds. The people of Kharkiv are known for their regional patriotism. Similar phenomena exist in many other cities but Kharkiv in particular, being a centre of trade and education, this is felt more strongly because of its historical past. In other words, we become very angry when someone interrupts our education, trade, work and the possibility to pass these social traditions onto the next generations.
Kharkiv-based artist Patrick Cassanelli created an art piece displaying Kharkiv’s main symbol – the Derzhprom area of the city, a well known part of the city, known for its square-like buildings. The painting shows the area with the slogan ‘Kharkiv – Armoured Concrete’. The main building of the series of constructions is considered to be the first European skyscraper, built from monolithic reinforced concrete in the early 20th century. Currently, the city, alongside its inhabitants, really does resemble the essence of armoured concrete. Unity became the main weapon against the Russians – our own heavy artillery, as we wait for the real thing from Europe and the US. If the invaders do not hold anything dear, then for the people of Kharkiv the exact opposite has occurred. Private lawns which cannot be trespassed, churches belonging to the Moscow Patriarchate, expensive benches and the fountain with the monkeys, all became very valuable to the locals.