On Wednesday, the intelligence community warned that Putin’s war plans could include a major attack on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city. By Thursday morning, multiple media outlets captured video of explosions near the city as Russian President Vladimir Putin declared war on Ukraine.
The city appears to be one of the primary targets of Putin’s renewed invasion — and it’s a city I love and am deeply worried about, having spent a year working in its archives for my doctoral research. So I wanted to share some thoughts on the Kharkiv I know: a dynamic, multi-ethnic metropolis of 1.4 million, located just 40 kilometers from the Ukraine-Russia border.
As with many other cities in Eastern and Southern Ukraine, Kharkiv is bilingual. The first time I visited in 2006 at age 22, I spoke no Russian and relied on my heritage Ukrainian. When I checked into the Hotel Kharkiv downtown, the concierge told me that I’d have my room, i budet zavtrak (“and there would be breakfast”).
The Ukrainian word for breakfast is snidannia, though, which sounds nothing like zavtrak, so I had no idea why I’d need to wait until tomorrow (zavtra in both Russian and Ukrainian) to check in – I needed a room that day! The woman laughed and said, “don’t worry, your room is available today and you’ll have breakfast tomorrow.”
When I returned six years later for dissertation research in 2012, the default language was still Russian. Whenever I told people that my Ukrainian was stronger than my Russian, though, most people switched to Ukrainian. This was especially so with young people, who had mostly been educated in Ukrainian after 1991 (before 1989, Ukrainian-language schools were quite rare in the city). They chatted and cursed in Russian, but when I asked if they spoke Ukrainian, their beautiful, slightly formal Ukrainian would come out. “Of course! We learned it in school! We are Ukrainian citizens, and no one speaks Ukrainian better than Kharkivites!” And of course no one in Ukraine spoke more idiomatic, sarcastic and hilarious Russian, either.
I have a happy memory of hanging out with Kharkiv National University alumni one summer evening. Their defiantly unorthodox claims to Ukrainian identity point to something scholars have noted: Kharkiv’s residents want to be taken seriously on their own terms. Kharkiv has an unusual place in Ukrainian history: it was the site of both a major renaissance of Ukrainian culture in the 1920s and that renaissance’s subsequent brutal repression.
As the capital of Soviet Ukraine (1919–1934), Kharkiv’s political class presided over the Holodomor, the horrific famine that killed several million Ukrainians in 1932–1933. That political class in turn was almost entirely wiped out during the Great Purges, the grisly details of which historian Lynne Viola draws out based on interrogation records found in Ukrainian archives. For Ukrainian artists and poets flocking to Kharkiv in the 1920s, though, it was a cultural mecca where they could create a revolutionary Soviet Ukrainian culture. Although it seems paradoxical today, the category “Soviet Ukrainian culture” was one that these writers and Soviet bureaucrats alike took very seriously at that time, as Mayhill Fowler argued in a 2019 scholarly article and in her sparkling book Beau Monde on Empire’s Edge: State and Stage in Soviet Ukraine.
After being decimated by the Stalinist state in the 1930s, these artists and writers became known as “the Executed Renaissance.” This trauma hung over the city’s cultural scene as it shifted from the capital city of Soviet Ukraine to something slightly more provincial, if still ambitious. During the 1960s, as Olga Bertelsen writes, Kharkiv’s literati formed a multi-ethnic milieu of artists, writers and poets, writing in both Russian and Ukrainian, whose cross-ethnic loyalties to one another resisted KGB pressure.
The Soviet nonconformist artist Vagrich Bakhchanian (an Armenian Kharkivite turned New Yorker) wrote a hilarious satirical poem in 1974, which embodied its residents’ ambitions. Its narrator claimed 200 million people lived in the city (not including the suburbs), it was the birthplace of Stalin, and the site of Christ’s crucifixion. In the late 1980s, the authorities allowed a long-sought city literary museum to open and its exhibition “Ukrainian Golgotha” paid tribute to the 1920s generation of writers. The museum’s existence inspired the young Serhiy Zhadan to pursue a career in literature.
When I went to Kharkiv for research in 2012, I found a city with a history and population that constantly defied stereotypes and challenged my interpretive frameworks. There was and continues to be no single way to be a Ukrainian/Kharkivite. Whether my friends were Russian-speakers, Ukrainian activists, Jews, computer programmers, fitness enthusiasts, industrial engineers, violinists, beer aficionados, honey merchants, book sellers, or all of the above, this was Харьков, пассажир (loosely translated as “this is Kharkiv, buddy!”). They lived in a city full of students, factories, Ukrainian poets, bookstores, Red Army veterans, cutting edge artists, and the world’s most beautiful statue of Taras Shevchenko. Ten years ago war with Russia was simply an unthinkable proposition.
Before the attack yesterday, article after article appeared in my newsfeed, showing that Kharkiv’s vibrant, freewheeling mood has given way to an atmosphere of solemnity and solidarity. After a violent, pro-Russian uprising failed in 2014 and the Donbas war broke out next door, Kharkivites faced a choice. When I visited subsequently, people were horrified that war had returned to Ukraine and wanted no part of “the Russian spring.”
Refugees flooded Kharkiv, and the city became a hive of volunteer activity, with new organizations appearing like the humanitarian assistance group Станция Харьков/Станція Харків (Kharkiv Station). As the border officer in this article says, “Before 2014, we used to have coffee or tea sometimes with our Russian counterparts, but no longer.”
One of the tragic casualties of this war will be Kharkiv’s tolerant, cosmopolitan attitude toward language, ethnicity, culture, and the complexities of Ukrainian history. War forces people to make choices and hardens the boundaries of belonging. This process has been going on for 8 years already, since the bloodless but forcible annexation of Crimea and the initial armed conflict in the Donbas. It will only accelerate with a wider war. With this latest invasion, I suspect things will never be the same.
In 1923 the Soviet Ukrainian poet Pavlo Tychyna famously asked “Kharkiv, Kharkiv, where is your face? To whom do you call?” His question hangs over all of Ukraine today.
Markian Dobczansky has a Ph.D. in Russian/Soviet history from Stanford University and is an Associate at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute.