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Kharkiv letter: Russia looms large for Ukraine’s ‘complex’ second city

Kharkivites at Unity Day events say Kremlin aggression strengthens the city’s Ukrainian identity

At midday Ukraine’s national anthem rings out through the PA system of Kharkiv railway station, around the grand main hall with its ornate ceiling decorated with scenes from Soviet history and the columned waiting room where travellers sit facing a huge mural of the communist-era city in sunny, stylised form.

A couple of dozen young soldiers chat around their duffel bags during a pause on a journey that may take them to Donbas, the region southeast of Kharkiv that has been partly controlled for nearly eight years by Russian-led separatists whose grinding war with government forces has claimed 14,000 lives.

On the snow-covered forecourt outside taxi drivers are also waiting, and among the new arrivals fanning out into Ukraine's second city they hope to find someone heading for Russia, which is just a 30-minute drive from Kharkiv.

“Before we went back and forth non-stop,” recalls one driver, referring to the time before the 2014 revolution that ousted Ukraine’s then Kremlin-backed leaders and turned the country to the West, prompting Russia to occupy Crimea, launch its proxy war in Donbas and poison relations between two deeply connected nations.

The people on either side of the border don't have a problem with each other, and they have lots of family ties

“I took someone across yesterday and it was no problem. The Russian traffic police checked me but they were fine. And I didn’t see any tanks on the border.”

Yet social media are now awash with footage and photos of military convoys moving west by road and rail through Russia, and western powers say Moscow has massed about 100,000 troops and tanks, artillery, missile launchers and electronic warfare systems and other equipment within striking range of Ukraine.

“It’s politicians pissing about,” says the driver, who declines to give his name. “The people on either side of the border don’t have a problem with each other, and they have lots of family ties.”


Kharkiv profited from cross-border trade when times were good, but its location became a dangerous liability during the Maidan revolution of winter 2013-2014, when paid thugs were bussed in from Russia to join local “anti-Maidan” groups in attacking pro-reform protesters in the city centre.

The pro-Moscow demonstrators twice seized the regional administration building on Kharkiv's main square and raised the Russian flag on its roof as mayor Hennadiy Kernes played a waiting game and weighed up his options before finally siding with Kyiv and helping to keep the city under government control.

Kernes ran Kharkiv as his personal fiefdom, and a year after his death he is remembered by many as a shady tycoon for whom personal gain far outweighed the rule of law, democracy, the public good and the national interest of Ukraine.

On Saturday Kharkivites undid a small part of his legacy by unveiling a new memorial plaque to Yurii Shevelov, a prominent Ukrainian linguist, nearly nine years after its predecessor was destroyed when the council ruled that it was illegal.

Shevelov advocated Ukrainian independence and opposed Soviet rule, and stayed in his native Kharkiv and worked at a local newspaper during part of his native city's wartime occupation by fascist Germany – which Kernes said made the future professor at Columbia and Harvard universities a "Nazi henchman".

"Yurii Shevelov doesn't fit the standard communist mould," says Dmytro Bulakh, a Kharkiv councillor who campaigned for restoration of the plaque.

But Moscow will not let us go. Without Ukraine their dream of a big 'Russian world' can never be

“He lived here during the Nazi occupation, but didn’t co-operate with the Germans or the communists. He was a major academic who did a lot for the development of Ukrainian language and culture. He was a patriot of Ukraine, but not Soviet Ukraine, so he wasn’t easily classified,” says Bulakh.

“That why Kernes and the communists didn’t like him. But it’s important to show we can have heroes who were not part of the communist Ukrainian republic. And it’s important for Kharkiv to remember him, because he is a complex figure and this is a complex city.”

National bard

The new plaque was unveiled as dozens of Ukrainians met at a nearby statue of their national bard, Taras Shevchenko, to celebrate the country's Unity Day and denounce the threat of a new attack from Russia.

"We're here to show that Kharkiv is Ukraine and will never be Russian," says Maryna Vorona, who agrees with Bulakh and many other locals that the mostly Russian-speaking city feels more strongly rooted in Ukraine now than in 2014.

“But Moscow will not let us go. Without Ukraine their dream of a big ‘Russian world’ can never be.”

"If before some people here said 'we're brothers!' then now they understand from Donbas that when Russia comes it destroys everything," adds her friend Iryna Panasenko. "History is written in blood, and now everyone's starting to understand that."

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