Correspondence from Kharkov: Two Ukraines are divided in Kharkov by a metal one metre, a barrier and a line of policemen
Since last Friday, when revolutionaries occupied the building of the Kharkov Regional State Administration, a group of people, opposed to the ideas of the local EuroMaidan, have been continuously present outside the building. On both sides of the metal barrier, with which the police separated the opposing groups, representatives of two different worlds stand. On one side are middle-aged and elderly people. The lapels of their coats are decorated with orange and black, St. George’s ribbons: a symbol of the Great Patriotic War heroes. On the other side - masked teenagers and students brandishing metal shields and batons gather under Ukrainian flag.
From the day that the building was seized, the temperature of the dispute has continued to rise; outraged Kharkov residents constantly approach and insult young revolutionaries, calling them pederasts, queer-ropeans, fascists, Bandera supporters [radicals] and traitors. Revolutionaries occasionally respond to the taunts, trying to explain their position. Most often, their response to the sharp verbal attacks is limited only to a loud cry, “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes! Ukraine above all!” after which they continue to adamantly stand firm in full combat readiness.
Lenin still stands
Freedom Square, the sixth largest central square of a European city, has become the centre of the Kharkov dispute. It is over 700 metres long and over 100 metres wide and covers an area of 12 hectares. Until 1996, it was called Dzerzhinsky Square.
The wind of change of the 90’s, admittedly, altered its patron, but did not touch the greatest monument of the leader of the revolution in Ukraine; Vladimir Lenin has been invariably looking down on the square for the last 40 years. Even last Saturday it seemed that his days were numbered. The ongoing process of ‘the fall of Lenin’, i.e. the toppling by the Ukrainian residents of rural and urban areas of monuments commemorating the leader of the revolution, has been moving further and further eastwards over recent weeks.
It arrived in Kharkov last Saturday. It was then that revolutionaries tried to topple the statue of Lenin. They were stopped by people who had come out in numbers to defend the leader of the revolution.
Now, the area surrounding the monument is fenced off. The metal fence is covered with sheets of paper which display information for Kharkov residents. Apart from papers with inscriptions such as: ‘Say No to Fascism!’ or ‘Say No to the pogrom of Bandera-like radicals!’, pictures of the Right Sector leaders who allegedly came from the western Ukraine, are visible on the fence. There is also a request to use reliable sources, as the mass media disseminate lies, and a warning against any contact with people who pretend to be tourists, but who are most likely agents or Bandera supporters. I'm trying to talk with the defenders of Lenin. When they hear that I am Polish, two of them turn their backs on me. I induce them to talk only after I have assured them that after ten years’ membership the European Union, many Poles are also not enthusiasts.
- Well, you must already know what the whole ‘Queer-ope’ is about! - 39-year-old Sergey, a Kharkov builder overcomes his prejudice and begins to talk. - We don’t want it here! We are self-sufficient, we don’t need help.
- We are standing here not because we are Communists - adds 41-year-old Alexey, a builder. - We just want our country to be governed by a democracy and regular procedures. We will not allow any group to violently take power in Ukraine.
- If they had a desire to govern the country, they should have waited for the election or bring about a referendum. Let everyone decide, not just a group of radicals! – Vitaliy, who accompanies him, does not hide his indignation. They all have St. George’s ribbons pinned to their jackets. I ask them why they chose this symbol to represent their demands.
- We just respect our history. We know what communism was connected with, Lenin himself had a lot of blood on his hands, but we would like to see some continuum, rather than a break with the past. Nations which do not respect their past, ultimately cease to exist! - Alexei ends. They are trying to convince me not to go to the occupied RSA building, as there are radicals and fascists there, and landing forces from western Ukraine. Supposedly, they are armed to the teeth, and from the windows on the second floor, they are aiming their guns at ‘peaceful protesters’ near Lenin’s monument.
The distance of 354 steps
A few metres further, 49-year-old Vladimir, a lecturer of one of the Kharkov technical universities, is reading one of the sheets of paper. He conducts research in the field of nuclear physics. Like many other people, he brings gifts for protesters standing at the monument of Lenin - food, clothing, money, cigarettes. He does not conceal his aversion to revolution.
- They are heading towards disintegration of the country, and who knows, maybe it would be better - Vladimir says. A few metres away from us, a few Russian flags flutter in the wind. I ask him whether the flags bother him.
- No, why? Supporters of the Customs Union hung them, and I myself also believe that we are closer to Russia than Europe. Russians are our brothers, we share common history with them, and not with western Europe.
I’m going across the square, heading towards the occupied RSA building. I'm walking, and I’m counting - two warring camps are separated in Kharkov by exactly 354 steps.
Having progressed the few-hundred metres, I become immersed in a completely different world. It’s full of Ukrainian flags and it roars with Ukrainian words. However, the first person I talk with, speaks Russian. This is 36-year-old Andriy, an entrepreneur. He went out onto the street to fight, because he is tired of living in a corrupt country.
It’s about the future
- The insolence of the police and state authorities exceeds all limits. In fact, from my total income I have to share half, and they do nothing but fill their pockets. That's no way to live - he says. Andriy is a Russian-speaking person, and that saddens him. As he says, he was raised in the Soviet system of education, which treated Ukrainian language as a second-class tongue.
- And that’s what those SOB’s did to me. “Ethnically, I am pure Ukrainian, and I cannot speak my own language” – Andriy openly reveals his emotions.
Along with Andriy, there is a group of students. Some serve in the self-defence forces, others help in the kitchen and accept donated goods and produce; others deal with the logistics. They administer the protest pages on social networks, print flyers and stickers. They all emphasise that they are here because they are fighting for their future.
- We don’t want to live in a country full of corruption and scams and where having connections, is all that counts, and where skills are unimportant. We want democracy, not oligarchic feudalism - says 20-year-old Maksim, a student of one of the Kharkov universities.
He works at the press centre of the revolution, as the organisation of protest is, as usual, a grassroots initiative and therefore surprises everyone with its professionalism.
In the evening, the tense atmosphere reaches its peak. Across Sumskaya Street, which separates the RSA building from Freedom Square, a group of several hundred opponents of the revolution gather. Standing under the Russian flag, they are chanting: "Kharkov! Kharkov!" and "Russia! Russia!". As they say, they are from Kharkov, and it’s a basic point of reference for them. They do not like that the fact that Bandera landing forces from western Ukraine have come to interfere in their matters.
The Mayor perpetuates the split
Occasionally, AutoMaidan cars decorated with Ukrainian flags, drive along the street, evoking applause on the side of revolutionaries. After a while, however, cars with Russian flags begin to drive through, being enthusiastically welcomed by Kharkov residents. Also, the duel is fought with the help of music - the most famous songs of the Ukrainian music group, Okean Elzy, are broadcasted through loud speakers, installed near the RSA building. One of the songs lyrics’ are about the collapse of the walls which divide people. In response, from its makeshift stage, the other side plays the Russian song about "the best city in the world, Kharkov".
At one point, protesters are visited by the mayor of Kharkov, Gennady Kernes. After a short speech, calling for unity and urging everyone to cease carrying out the scenario of a split, he approaches revolutionaries. However, they don’t allow him to speak. In response, the mayor assures his supporters from the stage that he has just seen Bandera supporters under the influence of alcohol and drugs, infected with the European virus; he calls them zombies and simpletons, and assures those gathered that the retaking of the occupied building would be a five-minute exercise for the authorities.
A few minutes after the Mayor’s speech, on the stairs of the occupied RSA building, I talk to Serhiy Zhadan, a well-known Ukrainian writer, who has been involved in the Kharkov EuroMaidan activity from the early days. He underlines that the building was seized by Kharkov residents, while only a scarce number of people came from Kiev and Lviv, mostly those who were born in Kharkov. He also draws my attention to the main issue of the local EuroMaidan.
- It’s Kernes, the pure evil. He skillfully plays on antagonisms in the city. The biggest problem lies in the fact that he has sincere supporters. The people gathered near the monument of Lenin really believe in what they say; no one is paying for their efforts.
On that day, Zhadan, along with a group coordinating the protests in Kharkov, wrote a letter to the Anti-Maidan. He doesn’t believe, however, that anything can change the situation.
- Here, we really have two different worlds. We sing the national anthem, they shout ‘Russia’. We praise the ‘Heavenly Squadron’, they respond by chanting ‘Berkut heroes’. We want to join Europe without Lenin, they want to join Russia with the leader of the revolution. Is there any kind of common ground here? I have no idea, really. I have no idea how to resolve this situation. Meanwhile, however, we do not lay down arms.
I walk towards the window on the second floor of the occupied RSA building. Even late at night, one can clearly see the monument of the leader of the revolution, proudly puffing his chest out and gazing at the headquarters of the Kharkov revolution; as if he were demonstrating to the protectors gathered at his feet, where their enemy is. And only the empty space of Freedom Square divides the opposing groups.