“We have recaptured Kharkiv, we will recapture Donbas”. My favourite city in eastern Ukraine
I remember when in February, after Maidan’s victory, the whole of Kiev was celebrating. It seemed that the most important victory had already been won. And then, immediately in fact, disturbing signals from the east started to come. At the end of February, I went to Kharkiv and understood instantly that everything was only just beginning there.
At the time, the two sides of the conflict were literally standing opposite each other. The administration building was occupied by Maidan’s supporters. Some of them had come straight from Kiev and some did not even go home after getting off the train. They were noticeable from the start because they behaved differently to the local activists who had not been involved in the revolution. They checked the barricades for strength and were getting ready for the defence – their memories of what had been going on a week earlier in the capital were still fresh and the scenario was expected to be repeated in Kharkiv. The local authorities tried not to take any action but a possible Russian intervention had already been mentioned.
Exactly opposite the ODA, around Lenin’s statue, the tent town of Anti-Maidan was spontaneously erected. Initially, in order to defend the monument because the famous “leninopad” reached Kharkiv too. Interestingly, many of those people were later completely opposed to separatist movements initialled by that tent town. They believed then that they were defending a monument of the past and – without having accurate knowledge of what had happened in Kiev – they feared a coup d’etat and the chaos which might subsequently be caused in the state. Thus they guarded Lenin, who became a symbol of maintenance of the old order and any order for some. Boys from the Right Sector, with masks and clubs in Kharkiv, who had been quiet before, raised anxiety amongst ordinary residents rather than joy and a sense of safety and security.
But on those days, talks were still ongoing between these two camps, and a basketball match was even played between representatives of Euromaidan and Anti-maidan. The forces (not only in the sports teams) seemed worryingly balanced and it was clear that victory in the town might be won by either party. The balance seemed to be very frail.
As it turned out, those were the last days of relative peace and quiet in Kharkiv. Two days the Right Sector occupied the seat of the Oplot which was officially a sports club and in actual fact, a breeding ground for Kharkiv “titushkas”. In response to this, the Anti-maidan forces captured the administration building. From that moment on, aggression and a sort of ‘bouncing of the ball’ started which I followed with a lot of tension over the following months. Whilst in cities like Donetsk or Lugansk it was obvious from the outset that they would have a pro-Russian inclination, in Kharkiv the situation was not so clear. Admittedly, quite a large number of residents of the district proved to be pro-Russian. The Kharkiv Oplot became one of the most active and recognisable organisations in the Donetsk People’s Republic, a model then followed by similar structures of a local nature. But, at the same time, it was Kharkiv which became the place of an exceptionally active and long-lasting struggle for the Ukrainian character of the state’s eastern territories.
This might relate to the history of Kharkiv which has always been the cultural capital of the east and even Ukraine’s capital for some time. In any case, in the tense situation when the authorities in Kiev proved to be too weak to restore order in the east of the country, and the local militsya clandestinely supported pro-Russian movements, a vast proportion of the local community got active and undertook the hardest imaginable task – in the face of the threat of separatism, keeping the Kharkiv district part of the Ukrainian state.
Describing the situation in this way now probably sounds like an over exaggeration. But at the beginning of March and later, especially after the annexation of the Crimea to Russia, everyone was sure that Putin was planning for this scenario to be repeated in the east. The separatists were getting ready to receive the Russian Army; the followers of the new government in Kiev were planning not to let this happen. It is just for that reason that Kharkiv attracted my attention the most at that time. Under conditions of absence of centralised coordination and high pro-Russian activity, it became the city which was constantly fighting its Ukrainian character – with the power of the grass-root mass determination of ordinary residents of the city (Dnipropetrovsk, where the Ukrainian position of the local oligarch helped introduce peace, even without support from Kiev, was more fortunate).
This Kharkiv clearly became an example and inspiration at that time for the other cities of eastern Ukraine. Above all – under the continued threat of pro-Ukrainian demonstrations, the “ultras” of Kharkiv became a symbol of (effective) civil self-defence. They authored the famous anti-Putin ”hit” which is known beyond Ukraine’s borders too. Despite continued provocations from the separatists, pro-Ukrainian activists never ceased to gather and there were almost always several thousand of them which, compared with other cities of eastern Ukraine, is quite an impressive figure.
Kharkiv impressed me also with something I did not see in any other city – the number of small but intermittent pro-Ukrainian actions. Kharkiv residents were operating at that time a little like the Grey Ranks during War World II – continuously, in each part of the city, at night, Ukrainian flags and symbols painted on walls and fences appeared. They were initially made of fabric but because they were systematically torn down, paints were used later. Blue and yellow graffiti decorate trees, pillars and bridges in the town, virtually everywhere. The mass scale of the actions rendered any attempts to wash off or paint over the Ukraininan flags by pro-Russian activists, ineffective. The national colours are used also for all signs upon entry into the city (they started from the Russian side). On most of Kharkiv’s bridges, flags have been placed with the use of cranes supplied by pro-Ukrainian businessmen. During one of the pro-Russian meetings, there was a remote-controlled helicopter with a Ukrainian flag, flying over the heads of “kolorados” who were initially scared and later annoyed, as it was effectively distracting attention from pro-Russian speeches being delivered on the stage (Auto-maidan’s action).
During the last few months, I have returned to Kharkiv a number of times and each time I observed how much was going on in the city each day. I think that it was with that high number of small-scale scattered actions that Kharkiv won the fight with the centrally controlled, not very spontaneous, pro-Russian propaganda. Recently, there was a new slogan at a manifestation (in addition to the classical “Kharkiv means Ukraine”) which is an expression of the feeling that they’ve succeeded after all. It reads“We have recaptured Kharkiv, we will recapture Donbas”. The new authorities are planning to move all socialist statues (including Lenin’s statue) away from the city. I hope I can be in Kharkiv when the biggest statue of the revolution’s leader in Ukraine will be pulled down. And so – to be continued.