The cold air of the cavernous factory is cut with the smell of oil, mud and metal – the base elements of a war Ukraine is fighting just three hours' drive from here.
“The whole city is proud of the Malyshev plant. Almost every family in Kharkiv has had at least one member work here,” says Alexander Lukirich, a burly man of few words who is the factory’s deputy production director.
“The Russians say Ukrainians aren’t good for much,” Lukirich growls, his grey moustache briefly twitching with the suggestion of a smile. “But even they admit that we know how to build a tank.”
Tank production began in Kharkiv in 1927; a decade later work started on designing the famous T34, which is credited with turning the second World War in the Allies’ favour at the Battles of Kursk and Stalingrad.
When German forces invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 and bore down on Kharkiv, the factory was disassembled and moved 2,000km east, to the Ural Mountains. Production resumed in Kharkiv after the war, and, in 1957, the factory was named after Vyacheslav Malyshev, a leading figure in wartime Soviet industry.
Now snow settles on a retired T34 sitting atop a suitably imposing monument to its legacy, as the towering factory doors swing open and one of the iconic Red Army tank’s successors, a T64 Bulat, roars out for a test run. It is one of 50 tanks and armoured personnel carriers that have returned home recently from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, for repairs to damage suffered in fighting between government forces and Russian-backed militants.
More are expected to arrive soon in Kharkiv – which is just 40km from Russia – following the army’s retreat under rebel fire from the strategic town of Debaltseve.
Body and turret
“If the body and turret are intact, then we can fix anything else,” Lukirich says as workers hook thick cables around another Bulat and signal to a colleague to activate the plant’s mighty lifting gear.
Moments later, the muddy tracks of the 42-tonne tank gently leave the ground, and the workers are soon gazing at its underbelly as it soars high overhead on its way to the far end of the factory and the next stage of repair.
It flies over fellow Bulats – some with battlefield grime still clinging to their flanks and tracks – which are being readied for a return to action, and over more advanced Oplot tanks built for the Thai military.
Lukirich is a stern presence in the factory, but there is camaraderie between men and women who chat and joke as they work; one team has a ginger-and-white cat for company, lounging on cardboard laid out for it on a tank’s nose.
“There has always been a very patriotic feeling here, whether building tanks for the Soviet Union or for Ukraine,” says Vladislav Grigorovich, an impish machine operator who has worked at Malyshev for 58 of his 74 years.
Clad in identical navy-blue overalls beside him stand his 49-year-old son, Sergei, and 26-year-old grandson, Alexander, who also work on the factory floor.
“I’ve seen generations of vehicles built here, and our family is a workers’ ‘dynasty’,” says Vladislav. “When I tell someone we all work at Malyshev it’s a great feeling.”
In the Soviet days Malyshev and the rest of Ukraine’s defence industry were part of a vast military-industrial complex controlled by Moscow.
When the Soviet Union broke up, in 1991, financial woes and corruption brought chaos to Ukraine, pitching its costly and inefficient arms factories into sharp decline.
“For 20 years almost nothing was done to prepare our army against threats,” says Serhiy Pinkas, deputy director of UkrOboronProm, the state holding in Kiev that controls Malyshev and 133 other defence firms. “Everything was done to bury the company . . . Money was simply stolen . . . and state property was sometimes sold for pennies.”
After last winter's revolution ousted Viktor Yanukovich, the Russian-backed president, and his regime, the pro-western leaders who came to power set about reviving Ukraine's decrepit defence industry.
“The entire management of the company has been changed,” says Pinkas, a bookish 34-year-old with a background in local administration. “Fifty-six of our companies were losing money half a year ago, and 30 were in bankruptcy procedures; Malyshev had no working capital and was heavily in the red.”
Pinkas says the new management – which he describes as “not military people or politicians vying for positions but administrators with world-class educations” – turned a loss of €12.6 million in the first half of 2014 into a profit of €3.9 million in the second half.
He attributes the turnaround to a sharp rise in state orders because of the conflict in the east, and a tough anti-corruption programme that has seen graft cases brought against 45 former managers.
“For some types of weapon we have recently given more in one day to our armed forces than we produced in the entire period since 1991 . . . And we’ve fulfilled 98 per cent of tasks assigned to us – the defence ministry predicted that we’d fulfil no more than 60 per cent.”
UkrOboronProm is increasing production of its latest Oplot battle tank from just five last year to a planned 120 next year, and thousands of jobs are being created across the arms industry, including for people who have left the conflict zone.
The failure of Ukraine’s previous reform drives fuels scepticism about this one, but Pinkas insists there has been a qualitative change in how its defence industry is run, and a lack of professionalism – or patriotism – will no longer be tolerated.
“People with a certain motivation should lead this type of company,” says Pinkas. “If you can’t follow the new rules, then you have to go.”
Russia, the huge neighbour with which Ukraine is deeply connected on all levels, now supports rebels in a conflict that has killed 6,000 people and displaced one and a half million.
Managers like Pinkas must find ways to make or import substitutes for tens of thousands of parts previously supplied by Russia, while also overcoming the loss of factories that are in rebel-held territory.
For Ukrainians as a nation – particularly those living as close to the border as Kharkiv – perhaps the biggest challenge is accepting that their country is now in a virtual state of war with Russia, which refuses to accept Ukraine’s pivot to the West
“Such a situation with Russia was unimaginable,” says Lukirich, standing between tanks recently scarred by fighting.
“So many families in Kharkiv are mixed, half-Ukrainian and half-Russian, and ties to Russia are very close.”
Ukraine’s security services say there are pro-Russian agents in Kharkiv, and last weekend four people were killed and more than 10 injured when a bomb exploded at a pro-reform rally in the centre of the city. Investigators claim the suspects received training and weapons just across the frontier in Russia.
Malyshev has tightened security to prevent possible attacks and infiltration by spies, and workers insist there are no divided loyalties at the factory.
“If people come here with weapons, we won’t welcome them with flowers,” says Pavlo Miroshnichenko, a press secretary for Malyshev, whose gruff humour feels closer to the factory floor than to the corporate boardroom. “Uninvited guests should be warned,” he says, “that we will die fighting here if we have to.”