Anna Goes Ukraine: A Visit to Kharkiv

30 March 2023

Anna Bowles is a pro-Ukrainian activist from the UK, and from 23 March to 6 April she is in East and South Ukraine, with her friends from the Freefilmers NGO, interviewing local people – especially women in rural communities – about their experiences and survival strategies. Anna is blogging about her trip here – we are also republishing some of her blogs on Rights in Russia, but please also visit Anna’s site. You can donate here to support the people Anna meets.

A Visit to Kharkiv

After our time in Mospanove, we spent the night in Kharkiv, which is of course worth a post of its own.

Kharkiv is Ukraine’s second-biggest city. It’s only 20 kilometres from the border with Russia, yet the Russians were unable to take it. As you approach the city from the south, you pass miles of trenches stretching stark and pristine parallel with the road. They were never used.

The invaders were kicked out of the surrounding oblast in September. But it was heavily bombarded, and although it’s now less of a target – the Ruzzians have given up on capturing it, so stick to occasional spite-shelling – it’s yet to spring back into life as much as Zaporizhzhia has.

We arrived after dark, and found that the arterial road leading into the city has quite a bit of life and light alongside it. Sex shops in particular were in evidence. In Zaporizhzhia, too, these were among the first to open after the initial period of panic and fear.

However, that dwindles as you get towards the centre. Although blackouts are no longer a significant problem in Ukraine, the apartment blocks we passed at about 7.30pm had the feel of a British town at three in the morning: just a few lights were on. There was a silence and stillness that went beyond the quiet of empty streets. Many people have left their homes and not come back.

Sashko had to telephone the hotel from the street and the owner came out of a dark archway and guided us inside.

The hotel itself was pretty amazing. Here’s how it looked in daylight.

Sashko pointed out that the boarding up is cleverly done: you can open the small windows for air. Inside, the layout is crazy because it’s designed to look like a kommunalka, or communal flat. Our room was a kind of suite with its own staircase. You walk up the stairs into a single bedroom, which also has a fridge, and then along a corridor to a twin room. Kharkiv hotels aren’t heaving at the moment, so the guy was letting people live for free in some of his other rooms.

The routine introduction you get to your hotel room in Ukraine is at present wi-fi, staff availability, bathroom facilities… and, in case of bombardment, instructions on where to go, and where to find candles and headlights.

The owner joked that we were extra safe because the guy had reinforced the walls and roof himself. With rails (as in railways). From the Tsarist era, no less. I guess they built things to last back then?

The internet had suggested to us that restaurants are operating in Kharkiv again. We asked the guy about where we might go. He gave a long slow look, eloquent with the question, ‘what numpties have I here?’ then said meaningfully, ‘You’ve come to Kharkiv.’ Then Sashko mentioned he was from Mariupol, which tends to negate any accusations of naivety as regards the war.

The most exciting feature of the hotel was the shower taps. They were conveniently labelled HOT and COLD. The cold water came out of the hot tap and the hot water came out of the cold tap. But once you got to grips with the psychology of the place, everything worked fine.

In the morning, Sashko took me for a quick look around the city centre. The buildings date from the nineteenth century and were used as kommunalki in the twentieth, so they are elegant in a crumbly way.

This area has been subject to energetic shelling, and if you look carefully it’s not hard to spot a building with its roof stoved in on every other street. And most, or in some places even all, of the shop fronts are boarded up. The council building was badly hit and now stands empty, bricked and boarded up facing a central square. However, windows boarded up as a precautionary measure outnumber windows boarded up due to actual damage by about 20 to 1.

The resulting visual is still drab. Some businesses continue to operate behind their shields, and have W O R K I N G written on the boards. Silent city centres are familiar to people worldwide thanks to covid; there was just rather more vertical beige in this one than others.

Around the town you can see graffiti art by Gamlet Zinkivskyi. Before the war his work wasn’t political at all, but now it generally has a message. He attends events, and accepts awards, and some fellow artists consider him to have lost his touch. This piece, as you might guess, encourages people to donate blood.

Sashko was determined to find breakfast on a point of principle, and he did find one local place but it didn’t have a bathroom so it was necessary to resort to Lviv Croissants, which is basically Subway. And you can buy this…

That is a tuna croissant. WHAT? Sashko explained that croissants are regarded here a bit like bagels: you can put anything on them. I’m not convinced, but possibly that’s cultural blinkers. The croissant had sesame seeds on it, too. But I bravely consumed it, as I am here to penetrate those dark secrets of wartime Ukraine of which no innocent Westerner can conceive. 

The cafe also had a Post-It board. Written in a mixture of Ukrainian, Russian and English, this is fifty per cent standard messages – ‘I love Kharkiv’, ‘The best café in town’, ‘Coffee and croissant, please’ – and fifty per cent ubiquitous Ukrainian defiance: ‘Glory to Ukraine’, ‘Crimea is Ukraine’, ‘Together we will win’, ‘They don’t want to create their own happiness, they want to debilitate us.’ ‘Mariupol is Ukraine – we will win!’

Around the town there are landmarks, of the traditional kind and the war kind.

This set of buildings is just offices, but it’s impressive in its multiplicity.

The statues are cocooned, waiting for a better time. Ukraine’s national poet, Taras Shevchenko, is under there.

These are in a children’s playground next to the Slovo (‘Word’) Building, where writers and artists were allocated accommodation in the Soviet 1920s and 30s.

The fox is clearly from fairy tales, but the woman with watermelons baffled even Sashko. Maybe she’s associated with Kherson oblast, as watermelons are grown there.

Slovo itself suffered minor damage from shelling. And the original inhabitants were all arrested en masse under Stalin in the late 1930s, and then deported or killed. This was so comprehensive that they are now known collectively as the Executed Renaissance.

Kharkiv was a good place to set the reality of the bombardment across Ukraine in context, as its level of attrition sits between that of occupied cities and those largely unaffected. Reports about the ‘total destruction’ of Mariupol, and now the cities in the east that are the subject of protracted pitched battles, are absolutely true, but media coverage of cities that are affected but not destroyed is misleading. As Zaporizhzhia is so close to the front line and has been shelled, I expected to learn that it had been hit more than twice. And in central Kharkiv I expected to see damage at every turn, even though the city was whole and functioning.

In fact, I saw far more bank branches than I did directly shelled buildings, but no traveller is going to write about that, paid journalist or not. It just wouldn’t interest anyone. So people looking in from outside are always going to get a distorted picture of the primacy of physical damage over psychological damage. Not many residents of Kharkiv have been killed, but they have to walk amid the wailing sirens on streets flanked by blank beige.

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