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‘We will not let them take it’: Bustling Kharkiv defies Russian bombardment

A million people have returned to Ukraine’s second city since Kremlin troops were on its outskirts

Open the map on your phone while standing on Freedom Square in Kharkiv, and the blue dot places you in a remote field in eastern Ukraine rather than the heart of the nation’s second city.

The electronic “spoofing” is to confuse the missiles and drones that are fired at Kharkiv nearly every day from just over the Russian border, which is only 35km from a city that was a priority target for the Kremlin when it launched its full invasion of Ukraine two years ago.

The defence of Kharkiv has been one of Ukraine’s key victories, but this city – famous for its universities, its achievements in everything ranging from IT to tank building, and an arts scene that still thrives despite the war – has paid a heavy price for its defiance.

Many buildings in the city centre are gutted and almost all have had windows blown out. Dozens of people were killed and injured in March 2022 when rockets slammed into the regional administration building at one end of Freedom Square, and the landmark Kharkiv Palace hotel suffered the same fate last December, though somehow no one was badly hurt.


Outlying residential areas such as Saltivka suffered colossal damage when Russian tanks and artillery shelled them from close to Kharkiv, and attacks still come with little or no warning from across the border; last month, three children and their parents were among seven people killed when their street was incinerated after a drone hit an oil depot.

Yet the modern express trains that make the five-hour run to Kharkiv from Kyiv are often packed, delivering thousands of people each week to a city that is busily finding big and small ways to live better: from opening classrooms in the metro and building its first underground school, to letting local artists use boarded-up buildings as their canvas.

Mayor Ihor Terekhov says about a million residents fled Kharkiv early in 2022, turning it into an eerily empty home to just 300,000 people. That number swelled with the arrival of about 200,000 people displaced from other parts of Ukraine, and then by a wave of returnees who are still coming – bringing the population back up to about 1.3 million now.

“We always believed and believe that Kharkiv will be a free Ukrainian city and we will not let them take it,” he tells The Irish Times.

“Everyone in the city is working for this. I remember the huge queues that formed when our military handed out weapons to territorial defence volunteers at the start of the war. We were united, like a single person, and we all understood that we wouldn’t give up our city.”

Yet it was a close-run thing, and not everyone in Kharkiv wanted Ukraine to win.

Several locals have been jailed for spying and providing targeting information for Russian missile strikes, and the head of the SBU security service in Kharkiv region at the start of the war, Roman Dudin, faces treason charges for allegedly aiding the enemy. He denies wrongdoing.

“We weren’t ready for this war – Kharkiv and Ukraine and the whole world weren’t ready for this war,” Terekhov says.

“On February 23rd, 2022, the now former head of our security services said in a meeting that we don’t need to be afraid of anything, that they [the Russians] are just on training exercises and we don’t need to be worried about that . . . There was even an attempt to remove me from office,” he adds, while declining to give details.

“So when the war started on February 24th, when we were woken in the middle of night with explosions and fires, we had to react really fast to defend our city. We built fortifications and worked with citizens and the military to protect the city,” Terekhov (57) recalls.

“Russian forces were on the Kharkiv ring road, shelling residential districts and hitting infrastructure with a variety of weapons . . . Some special forces did get into the city from different directions. One unit came in with Tigr [Tiger] armoured vehicles and barricaded themselves in School number 134,” he says, referring to building just 4km from Freedom Square. “Thanks to our military and territorial defence forces they were completely wiped out.”

That battle on February 27th, 2022, was the closest the Russians came to seizing central Kharkiv. In September that year, the whole region was liberated in an operation led by Oleksandr Syrskyi, who last month became Ukraine’s military commander-in-chief.

That counterattack put the city out of range for regular Russian artillery, but missile and drone strikes have continued unabated. From the high-rises of the northeastern Saltivka district, S-300 and Iskander ballistic missiles can be seen taking off from Russia’s border region of Belgorod on a flight to Kharkiv that takes less than a minute.

“The main task now is to close the sky over the city. Today we are in huge need of modern air defence systems . . . and we are fully reliant in this area on help from international partners, because we don’t have our own equipment of this type,” Terekhov says.

“When we have modern air defence systems there will be a completely different security system in the city. Children will be able to go to school, students will be able to attend universities and businesses will feel safer, and maybe more of them will open.”

More than five million children in Ukraine have had their education disrupted by the war, and more than 7,000 schools have shut down due to damage or security risks, forcing a generation to continue the online learning that began with the Covid pandemic in 2020.

More than 150,000 people sheltered in Kharkiv’s metro system during heavy shelling in 2022, and now classrooms have been installed in five stations, allowing more than 2,000 children to attend in-person every day in two shifts, even as trains keep running. Two underground schools are also being built in the region to cater for more than 1,000 pupils.

It adds to the spiralling cost of a conflict that Terekhov estimates has inflicted $10 billion (€9.3 billion) in damage on Kharkiv, and highlights the long-term threat that Kremlin aggression is expected to pose to a border city that had deep ties to Russia.

When the pro-reform Maidan revolution pivoted Ukraine to the West in 2014, Russia created separatist militia to carve out Moscow-controlled “people’s republics” in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and sought to do the same in neighbouring Kharkiv.

As in Donetsk and Luhansk, “anti-Maidan” protesters in Kharkiv – who included many men bussed in from Russia – stormed the regional administration building and raised the Russian flag over Freedom Square, but their bid to seize power here ultimately collapsed.

It failed due to a lack of local support and the decision of Kharkiv’s then mayor Hennadiy Kernes to publicly back Ukraine’s new post-revolution government, after he had seemed to flirt with separatism and had been accused of involvement in the kidnapping and torture of Maidan activists. The charges were dropped before Kernes died in 2020.

Kernes, who was paralysed after being shot while jogging in Kharkiv in April 2014, portrayed himself more as a defender of his home city than of Ukraine, and distanced himself from the wave of patriotism sparked by the revolution and Russia’s attacks.

He even took against a tent in Ukraine’s blue and yellow colours that activists pitched on Freedom Square in 2014, to keep alive the protest spirit of Maidan and show support for the soldiers and volunteers fighting a few hundred kilometres away in Donetsk and Luhansk.

“I always spoke out against this tent,” Kernes told Ukrainian publication the Babel in 2019. “I said: what’s the point of this tent, if it stands there and reminds people of some war that we don’t hear and we live under peaceful skies.”

The tent survived Kernes and Russia’s bid to seize Kharkiv, and still stands facing the now gutted administration building, bearing the same slogan as in 2014: “Everything for victory”.

The peaceful skies cherished by Kernes are long gone, and his successor – like many people in this traditionally Russophone city – now speaks Ukrainian in public to show his rejection of what Moscow represents.

“The attitude we all have towards Russia and Russians has completely changed,” Terekhov says. “The pain that we all feel will be with us for many generations.”

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