Why Kharkiv, a city known for its poets, has become a key battleground in Ukraine

KHARKIV – For Ukrainians, Kharkiv is a city known for poetry, art, trade, industry, scientific discovery – and now as a key linchpin in the fight for Ukraine’s future.

A mere 25 miles from Russia, Ukraine’s second largest city has faced some of the fiercest battles since Russian troops, tanks, and warplanes pushed across the border Thursday. Kharkiv has been a scene of chaos, with many buildings and playgrounds being destroyed in the midst of the war.

Russian forces briefly took control Sunday of the city of 1.5 million people, only to be expelled by Ukrainian fighters hours later in what’s been an unexpectedly strong show of resistance marking the initial phase of Russia’s invasion.

But Moscow is unlikely to abandon its assault on Kharkiv, a predominantly Russian-speaking city that’s become central to Russia’s advance beyond the east, especially as it faces setbacks in taking the capital Kyiv. The Russian military campaign was founded on the assumption that they would make rapid gains and not face strong resistance,” stated Michael Kofman (director of Russia Studies at CNA), a Virginia-based non-profit research and analysis organisation.

Instead, “it’s the eastern part of Ukraine that’s really holding it compared to the other parts.” He called Kharkiv “the anchor” still holding the eastern front. As Russian bombings increase, Kharkiv may be an indicator of the next stage, which could prove to be even more bloody, after Russia’s hope for swift victories.

“Ukrainian forces have put a pretty strong fight… but the worst is yet to come,” he said. “Russian forces haven’t [yet] tried to take Kharkiv, not seriously.”

More ground troops combined with heavier bombardments of the city “could prove absolutely devastating” to civilians and infrastructure, he said.

Ukraine’s government has urged citizens to take up arms to repel the Russian invasion. People from all walks are responding to the appeal across the country. (Whitney Shefte, Whitney Leaming, James Cornsilk/The Washington Post)

Kharkiv was long considered a likely target in the lead-up to Russia’s invasion as Moscow amassed forces in a staging area in Belgorod, just 90 minutes northeast of the city. The Kremlin might have thought Kharkiv would be easier to conquer because the majority of its population is Russian-speaking. Kharkiv has many people who live and do business across the border.

“The people in the city of Kharkiv only have one issue with the Russian army: ‘What took you so long?'” Olga Skabeyeva, a Russian state television host, said last week.

Instead, over the last four days in Kharkiv, Ukrainians have rallied together under the shared threat of air raids.

“You’re being killed by Russians. This is what Serhiy Zhadan wrote from Kharkiv on Sunday in a thank you Facebook post. “Probably you don’t want, I think.”

Ukrainian forces initially kept Russian fighters to the city’s outside ring, with several social media photos and videos showing destroyed Russian military hardware in Kharkiv’s suburbs. Saturday night and Sunday morning heavy Russian shelling — primarily from multiple launch rocket systems – bombarded northeast parts of the city. Russian military vehicles arrived in Kharkiv on Sunday.

By the afternoon, it was clear that the city had been returned to Ukraine, at least temporarily, following hours of intense firefights. To prevent friendly fire, the “Z” Russia had put its military vehicles on. This made it more obvious to Kharkiv’s residents. They posted their locations via Telegram channels the location of the troops entering Kharkiv for the Territorial Defense and military.

On Saturday afternoon, hours before the city faced its strongest push into the city yet, hundreds of people came to Kharkiv’s Territorial Defense headquarters to volunteer for the civilian reserve force and to grab a gun and fight off the Russian advance.

Viktor Trubchanov, an activist and member of the local Territorial Defense unit, estimated that the group has at least 700 members.

” No one anticipated so many volunteers and unfortunately, we weren’t adequately prepared for it,” Trubchanov stated. “The commander has now found enough uniforms, weapons, backup, and all that’s needed.”

Kharkiv could have gone differently. Eight years ago, when Ukrainian protesters overthrew Viktor Yanukovych (pro-Russian President) in favor of an European-leaning administration, Kharkiv was the first place that the leader fled from east to Kharkiv. He then traveled onwards to Russia. Later in 2014, as Russian-backed separatists seized control of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, one group briefly took control of Kharikiv’s city hall, declaring it the Kharkiv People’s Republic.

At a rally in Kharkiv in 2015 commemorating one year since Yanukovych’s ouster, a bomb exploded, killing two people. This was the first of a series of blasts that rocked Kharkiv in turbulent months following revolution. Officials in Ukraine claimed that Russia orchestrated the attack.

But the insurgency movement fizzled. Eight years of conflict between separatists in Ukraine and the government forces of Ukraine, just an hour southeast of Kharkiv, changed the sentiment back to Ukraine.

Kharkiv’s history, and its sources of splits and strength, run even deeper.

First founded in 1654, the city’s university life became a center of the Ukrainian national movement in the 1820s, said Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University.

Kharkiv later was chosen as the new Soviet republic of Ukraine’s first capital from 1920 to 1934.

In the 1920s “it was the world center for Ukrainian culture,” said Snyder. Soviet leaders initially supported the city’s development of art and literature, only for this “generation of Ukrainian makers of culture” to die during the purges of the 1930s, he said.

Further death loomed during Ukraine’s Great Famine from 1932 to 1933, a man-made calamity caused by Soviet agriculture and redistribution policies, Kharkiv became “the city where peasants went to die” as the starving gathering in the city to beg for money, according to Snyder. In World War II, Kharkiv’s local authorities collaborated with the German Nazis, as in other Soviet cities. From December 1941 to January 1942, thousands of Jews in Kharkiv were shot to death or gassed to death in vans.

Reminders of these painful histories remain visible in the buildings dotting Kharkiv’s streets, from aristocratic manors to Stalinist neoclassical structures to cathedrals, monuments to poets, and modern-era cultural centers. On Sunday, streets were deserted as residents rested in underground stations and bunkers. An eerie, uncertain quiet once more prevailed.

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