On 26 May, the day I arrived in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Russia shelled parts of the city for the first time in weeks. A family was walking on the street. The man died immediately; the woman was hospitalised. Police later found the dead baby. The body had been thrown up onto the roof of the building’s entrance by the blast wave.
Kharkiv had been trying to return to life after Russian troops retreated from the city, but the attack made some fear that full normality would never return this close to the Russian border. Most shop windows remain boarded up. Other windows are broken or shattered and no one feels it is time to replace them. Most vehicles are military. The air alarm goes off numerous times a day and the distant sound of artillery rounds follows you everywhere. On street corners, long lines of pensioners wait to receive a plastic bag with milk or potatoes from humanitarian relief cars. Charred and partially collapsed buildings dot the central avenues and the streets remain eerily quiet. One apartment building on Svobody Street has been ripped open by missiles and shells. Someone painted three words across an exposed bedroom wall: Time hears us.
An illusion is broken
Later in the day I was sitting in the hip Protagonist café, where alcohol is still banned but every table is full with animated journalists and locals discussing the war. The sun was shining through the windows and the sirens had stopped. I felt as if I’d been transported to the city before the war. One could be happy here. Abruptly, the young woman at the table next to mine stood up and rushed to the door. Her friend had walked in and they embraced, sobbing. It’s a scene I witnessed a few times. People are returning or visiting friends they feared could be lost. A few minutes later they were chatting about common acquaintances and shared teenage memories, but for me the illusion was broken and the beautiful spring day darkened again. In Kharkiv everything occurs in the gap between life and death.
The voice of Ukraine
In one of his books, the poet Serhiy Zhadan described a series of encounters between the living and the dead inside Kharkiv’s metro. It was a prophetic work. When the bombing started in February, thousands of residents moved to the metro and many remained underground for three months. The city has now decided to resume normal metro service and everyone was forced to return to life outside. These days Zhadan has become a poet everyone in Kharkiv knows by name and an activist organising money and equipment donations for the army. Kharkiv is the centre of a new Ukrainian national movement and Zhadan its main voice.
[See also: If Ukraine has a future, it’s with the EU]
War on the home front
Who are the people sitting in the city’s pizzerias and cafés? They are soldiers from the “Kraken” volunteer battalion that is mainly responsible for Russia’s failure to take Kharkiv. Things here were not like in Kyiv, where the Russian invasion took a few days to reach the outskirts of the city. In Kharkiv the invaders were in the ring road by the early hours of 24 February, and many special forces and saboteurs even marched down the main avenues. (Some of those early developments still need to be properly explained; President Zelensky has just fired the head of the security service in Kharkiv.) The outcome of the battle was close, but the Kraken were prepared. Now, during scheduled breaks between combat, soldiers in the Kraken come down to the city centre to meet their girlfriends or relax in the cafés. By evening they are back in their positions pounding the Russians with artillery. Theirs is a war where you never leave home. The soldiers do not have to become fish swimming among the people, as Mao said, because they are the people.
Moscow no more
One morning, as I walked along Moscow Avenue, the boulevard running through the city, I noticed construction workers on top of a ladder. They were replacing the street signs. Moscow Avenue is now called Heroes of Kharkiv Avenue – just one of many Russian toponyms now being replaced across the city.
A silent journey
I leave by train on the morning Zelensky arrives in Kharkiv for his first visit outside the capital since the war began. In the station only the children seem relaxed. There are soldiers leaving and arriving, walking fast despite the obvious exhaustion. The few civilians waiting for the train carry their pets in boxes. It is raining so everyone waits until the last moment to board. My wagon is empty. I travel in silence until we arrive in Poltava, where the sky is blue and a throng of people enter the train, the living taking over from the dead.
[See also: How will the Ukraine war end?]
This article appears in the 01 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Platinum Jubilee Special