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Diary from Ukraine: some days it is unbearable to read updates from Kharkiv

The writer Kate Tsurkan recounts what it's like to watch the assault on eastern Ukraine from her home in the west.

By Kate Tsurkan

CHERNIVTSI — Kharkiv, the former capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and Ukraine’s second-largest city, is under heavy bombardment for the first time since World War Two. When Russia began its full invasion of Ukraine on 24 February it was with the stated purpose of “liberating” its Russian-speaking population. Since then Kharkiv — predominantly Russian-speaking as well as a major IT hub and university city — has become one of the war’s main battlefields.

It’s not the first time the city has had to deal with Russia’s twisted notions of “brotherly love”. Kharkiv Oblast suffered more losses than any other region apart from Kyiv during the Holodomor, Stalin’s engineered famine that killed an estimated 3.5 million Ukrainians in 1932-1933. As a result of the major loss of life, the Soviets resettled a large number of Russians in Kharkiv and throughout eastern Ukraine, rewriting the region’s linguistic and cultural code. Yet it couldn’t rewrite the history of Kharkiv, which played a vital role in the Ukrainian national revival of the 19th-century. Ukrainian theatre and cinema were born there. It was in Kharkiv that the 19th-century writer Hryhorii Kvitka-Osnovianenko, one of the founders of Ukrainian as a literary language, made the decision not to write in Russian — then a radical act.

***

Two days after the war started, my husband and I gave our flat in Chernivtsi, a small city in western Ukraine, to a refugee couple from Kharkiv. They arrived at around 3am after driving across the country. Like us, they’re also in their early thirties; under different circumstances we could have met anyway and become friendly. Now we’re forever linked. My husband and I moved in with my in-laws but we visit our new friends for the latest updates from their relatives who stayed behind. I try not to cry at the mention of every street name or city landmark I recognise.

[See also: Mapping Putin’s war on civilians]

My husband, like many Ukrainians from the western part of the country, has never visited Kharkiv, but I knew of the city even before my emotional cartography of Ukraine took shape. My first Ukrainian teacher, the literary translator Dmytro Kyyan, is a native of the city. His stories about Kharkiv sparked a curiosity that developed into a love for the country in which I now live. During my first year here, after I moved from New York in 2018, I embarked on a pilgrimage by train — a trip that takes more than 20 hours from Chernivtsi — as tribute to him. 

Many of us in the western part of the country talk about one day rebuilding the east. If anything, it seems like this war will end the mental barriers that have divided the country for so long. The uncertainty of war has shown us that our circumstances could have easily been reversed. Chernivtsi now hosts more than 40,000 internally displaced people. We all begin and end our days with news from Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, Kherson, Mariupol and the other cities, towns and villages eastward that are being destroyed.

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***

Oleh Supereka, an old friend of my teacher, Kyyan, joined Kharkiv’s Territorial Defence Forces shortly after Russia attacked. At 53, he keeps us updated on the situation in between street patrols and skirmishes. For every civilian who has had to flee westward, another stayed to take up arms and join the fight. “I saw men asking for guns and military tactical radios because beating the enemy with hammers, bats and pipes is not very effective,” texts Supereka. “I even saw a makeshift barricade defended by a group of archers.”

Some days it is unbearable to read updates from Kharkiv, especially for Kyyan, who is now in New York. While he and other members of the diaspora do their best to contribute to the war effort from afar, nothing can ease the fear they feel when they call their families in Ukraine and hear the sound of explosions in the background. 

***

The fight for the future of Kharkiv — and, indeed, the entirety of Ukraine — was summed up in a recent online Facebook exchange between the Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan and the Russian poet Andrei Pustogarov. The once cool Zhadan has been posting fiery updates since the war began, cheering on Kharkiv’s resilience. Responding to the idea that the Russian army expected to be welcomed with open arms, he wrote that the only thing the people of Kharkiv would welcome them with was their funeral wreaths. “Don’t be a fool,” posted Pustogarov in Russian. “Do you want Kharkiv to flow with blood? You can keep silent.”

Many Russians have stayed silent since 2014 and the annexation of Crimea; silence is now seen by Ukrainians as an act of complicity. “Tell me please Andrei, do you really think that you’ll be able to come here after the war? Are you gonna come read some poetry?” Zhadan replied to Pustogarov, in Ukrainian. “If you come, you’re not gonna leave.”

As the people of Kharkiv continue to fight, the rest of the country remains thankful for each day that the city still stands. But it has become clear as this war continues that nobody will mistake Kharkiv for anything other than a Ukrainian city ever again.

[See also: Ilya Kaminsky: “Putin has managed to get poets to reject their own language”]

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