By Brian Dooley
Next week marks six months since the largescale Russian invasion of Ukraine. Although many battle lines have shifted across the country in that time, the eastern city of Kharkiv has been consistently bombarded with Russian missiles almost every night since the initial attack in February.
Nestled up against the Russian border, Kharkiv has a reputation for endurance. During the Second World War it was captured by Nazi Germany in late 1941, taken by the Soviet army in February 1943, recaptured by the Germans a month later before finally being retaken by the Soviets five months after that.
More recently, Kharkiv was on the up, a thriving city long known for its industry and universities but also developing a reputation for culture and art. A cool hipster scene had started to grow, says Anna Hontarenko, a businesswoman who has stayed in the city despite the obvious dangers. “Everyone must make what choice they can, but for me I wanted to stay, to still be part of this city during the war,” she said. “I try to do normal things, find a balance between the bombs and work and drinking coffee with friends. There is something special, something interesting about Kharkiv that’s hard to describe.”
Its history of resistance is palpable, with a strong sense of identity and defiance. Russian rockets have killed hundreds of civilians in this region in the last six months. In the early days of the invasion there was hand to hand fighting on the city’s streets with Russian soldiers, and while Putin’s army has been pushed back outside the suburbs, Russian S300 rockets and other missiles explode in the city virtually every night.
Kharkiv is around 25 miles from the Russian border and so there is often little time to take cover when the air raid alarms sound. In some other Ukrainian cities it’s possible to run to a bomb shelter before the rockets hit, but here they can land and explode within seconds of the alarm sounding. The best many people can do here is to quickly dive into an inner room in their homes, often a bathroom, and wait out the attack.
Laying on a Kharkiv bathroom floor while bombs shake the ground around you and threaten to collapse the building you’re in is a sobering experience.
Offices and homes with blown-out windows are all over the city center; bomb damage and debris is everywhere. For a while a pattern emerged of attacks happening around 11pm, but lately the bombardments have intensified and are more likely to arrive around 4am, but there is no set schedule, and daytime attacks happen at random times too.
But despite the bombardments, Kharkiv is much more alive than when I reported from here in May. Many more shops and hotels are open, and the internet and public transport are running efficiently. There is still a nighttime curfew and blackout, but this is a city coping in the face of immense adversity.
I’ve met local activists supplying basic supplies to those in most need across the city. Vasyl Malikov organizes the distribution of food and other donations from Europe to some the city’s vulnerable LGBT community. “Humanitarian aid is important in such a crisis, but so is social support,” he said. “Volunteers from all over the city show up to help give out supplies. Kharkiv has responded to the invasion with a mass, voluntary mobilization of civilians.”
Kharkiv has come through many crises before. A giant thermometer overlooks the city’s Constitution Square – I’m talking colossal. It’s an iconic meeting place for locals, a longtime symbol of the city. Its range goes from plus 45 degrees down to minus 35 degrees, Celsius. Apart from telling the temperature and the time it’s also saying: “This City Can Deal With Extremes.”
It’s now dealing with vast numbers of attacks on civilians and other war crimes, something it has also endured in the past. The first war crimes trials of the Second World War took place here in Kharkiv, two years before the Nuremberg Trials.
In December 1943 four men – three from the German occupying forces and a Soviet collaborator – were charged under international law and convicted of war crimes by a court in Kharkiv organized by the Soviet authorities. Charges involved hundreds of murders by mass shootings, including 60 children.
The court convicted the four and sentenced them to death. They were executed in one of Kharkiv’s public squares the next day. Grisly, grainy, black and white film footage shows the trial and the four being led to gallows in front of a vast crowd.
The New York Times reported: ATROCITY KILLERS HANGED IN KHARKOV; 50,000 See the Executions of 3 Germans and 1 Russian in Market Square CAMERAS RECORD DEATHS Trial Also Was Filmed for Use in Breaking German Morale — Hitler’s Guilt Stressed.
The city’s past has shaped its stubbornness, and locals are now looking ahead to a potentially harsh winter, with possible Russians attacks on the infrastructure needed to heat the city in the extreme cold. The last six months have been brutal, but the next six will offer a different kind of challenge.
“It might be hard, the war might still be on, but if Kharkiv knows one thing it knows how to endure and how to resist,” says Hontarenko.