The Ukrainian city of Kharkiv is located close to the Russian border, and it could become a combat zone in the event of an attack. Many residents fled here from the fighting in the separatist areas. Some are packing their bags, but others are waiting to see what happens.
By Lina Verschwele in Kharkiv, Ukraine
Olena Rozskazova has packed the most important documents in a Mickey Mouse backpack. Birth certificates, diplomas, travel documents, plus medicines and cash. She has also packed her daughter’s favorite stuffed animal and a book of Greek legends her parent’s used to read to her. In the event of an invasion, she says, she would probably leave behind the Beatles photos hanging on the wall of her apartment.
Rozskazova, 46, is someone who likes to wrap unpleasant things in cheerfulness. She also likes to be prepared. She packed the Mickey Mouse backpack “just in case,” she says. So she would have the most important things at hand, just like the authorities recommend in preparation for a possible Russian invasion. Rozskazova would then take the backpack and travel with her nine-year-old daughter to friends in Uzhgorod, in the southwestern tip of Ukraine, because it is easy to get abroad from there. She’s thought everything through.
Rozskazova lives in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, with a population of nearly 1.5 million, about a third of whom are Russians and members of the Russian-speaking minority. She grew up in Luhansk at the country’s eastern edge. But since separatists took control of the city in 2014 and proclaimed the “Luhansk People’s Republic,” Rozskazova hasn’t been able to return. But the threat, though, remains close: Her new apartment is located fewer than 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Russian border. In Kharkiv, she heads the regional office of the Renaissance Foundation, which promotes democracy and human rights and is funded by George Soros.
Because of her work for the American foundation, Rozskazova fears for the worst in the event of a Russian invasion. Back home in Luhansk, pro-Russian separatists have already threatened to shoot enemies, according to friends imprisoned there. When the Russians started amassing troops last spring, Rozskazova and her colleagues created a map of possible shelters in the city. She likens her current situation to a powder keg that could explode at any moment. “But I have done everything that I can now,” she says.
For the past several weeks, around 100,000 Russian soldiers have been stationed near the Ukrainian border. Kharkiv could be a possible target of a Russian attack, but no one really knows what exactly Moscow might be planning. Still, it is clear that the city plays a central role in the current conflict. Ukraine’s internal divisions are especially visible here. Kharkiv, along with Donetsk and Luhansk, has long been considered a stronghold of supporters of Russia and advocates of rapprochement with Moscow. The situation in the city was already tense during the Maidan protests of 2013 and 2014, which saw tens of thousands of Ukrainians demonstrating against the country’s pro-Russian president at the time and in favor of closer ties with the European Union. While some brought down the gigantic statue of Lenin on Freedom Square amid cheers, others demonstrated for a “Russian Spring.”
The Kremlin also promoted the idea of a separate “People’s Republic” in Kharkiv. But unlike in Luhansk and Donetsk, it failed due to the resistance of Ukrainian security forces. In the last parliamentary elections three years ago, the pro-Russian party For Life became the second strongest force in Kharkiv. In the run-up to the elections, there had been disinformation campaigns and acts of sabotage allegedly directed by Russia.
Around 1.5 million people have had to flee since 2014, many from the separatists areas in the east of the country. At times, Kharkiv has been home to more than 300,000 internally displaced persons. For this article, DER SPIEGEL accompanied three women who lost their homes after the protests and are now wondering if a new conflict will tear the country apart again.
There is human rights activist Olena Rozskazova, who views Russia as the aggressor and is thinking about moving abroad. There is social worker Marina Fedorchenko, who feels betrayed by Ukraine and longs for the past. And Russian graphic artist Ekaterina Pereverzeva, who wonders if the rifts in the city and across the country can ever be healed.
The first meeting with Fedorchenko takes place in a shopping mall, where she picks up a few things. Pop music is blaring from the speakers and Fedorchenko sounds like she’s in the mood for a fight. She laughs when asked if she, too, has packed an emergency bag. The 43-year-old considers discussions about a potential Russian invasion to be media scaremongering. “I won’t let that spoil my life,” she says. In fact, there is nothing in Kharkiv to suggest that residents are particularly concerned about war. Even though it’s mid-January, the city’s large squares are still decorated with Christmas trees and strings of lights hang over the wide streets. Few soldiers can be seen.
But having lived in Donetsk until 2014, Fedorchenko knows what war is like. She says that violence was in the air there long before the bullets reached her balcony. She says she no longer wants to be a victim any longer. She will later instruct the photographer in her home to please not take any sad photos of her.
And yet there’s still a bitterness in her tone. She talks about her former life in Russia, speaking quickly and in an agitated manner, apparently still struggling with her past. She left the city back then because of fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian soldiers. In Donetsk in 2014, Fedorchenko also supported the Maidan demonstrators’ desire to move closer to the EU. Now, she says, she is ashamed of having done so. She says the revolution took everything from her and plunged the country into war. More than 13,000 people died in the fighting in the Donbass region, including one of her neighbors.
Fedorchenko now lives with two of her sons in a suburb of Kharkiv. Her window looks out on a furniture factory, and pictures from a trip to Thailand hang on the wall. A photo of her son on the football field of the team Shakhtar Donetsk is set on the piano. Fedorchenko wipes the frame with her finger, even though there is no dust on it, and reminisces about her former life in Donetsk, about long evenings with friends, the nicer apartment, running her own business. Her family lived only a few kilometers from the Donetsk airport, which could process around 3,000 passengers per hour before the war. Fedorchenko ran a travel agency at the time and went abroad several times a year. The war left the Donetsk airport in ruins, and it also destroyed Fedorchenko’s former life. She hardly travels at all anymore.
Until recently, she worked for the Catholic charity organization Caritas in Kharkiv, first in providing family assistance for internally displaced persons and later for a peace project. “It was my dream to establish dialogue,” she says. But the project has since ended and she’s now looking for a new job.
Fedorchenko has no doubt that Russian forces and Russian weapons are behind the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk. She says she doesn’t know anyone there who would have been in favor of seceding from the rest of the country. As proof, she brings up a couple of photos on her mobile phone. In the first one, there are a few dozen people at a pro-Russian demonstration in Donetsk, while the second shows demonstrators packed together at a Maidan protest.
“It was naive to think we can fight Russia.”
Fedorchenko says she expected nothing but interference from Russia. “Russia is defending its country, in its very own, very Russian and aggressive way.” However during fighting between separatists and Ukrainian soldiers, Donetsk was also shelled by the Ukrainian army, she notes. She wipes tears from her cheek and says she expects an apology for that.
Like many who fled the occupied territories, Fedorchenko initially found it difficult to find a place to live. She was repeatedly confronted with the prejudice that displaced persons like her hadn’t done enough to defend their hometowns, that they were pro-Russian traitors or simply criminals. Even in 2020, less than half of Ukrainians polled said they trusted refugees from the east.
“Here in Ukraine, people think I’m pro-Russian,” she says. A friend in Moscow, on the other hand, recently insulted her by calling her a Banderovka, a Ukrainian fascist, when she talked about Russia starting the war in 2014. Fedorchenko isn’t a fan of Putin, but she also doesn’t believe that Ukraine can get by without Russia and that it might even have to succumb to what Putin wants. Looking back, she also now sees the Maidan protests as a mistake, saying it was stupid to support any revolution. “It was naive to think we could fight Russia,” she says.
In Kharkiv, the question of who would defend Ukraine in the first place is particularly pressing. In a December poll, one-third of Ukrainians said they would fight back militarily if Russia attacked their respective cities. But Fedorchenko says she doesn’t need new heroes. Either way, though, she says she’s not going to let the army get her three sons.
Fedorchenko has so far ignored the many summits, talks and press conferences held between Washington, Moscow, Berlin and Kyiv in recent weeks. She sees all that as unimportant. In 2014, she read and followed everything, but it was of no use. Now, she just watches movies.
Graphic designer Ekaterina Pereverzeva hardly says a word about the negotiations. For her, following the news just adds to the stress. When her boss read an article about the Russian threat of war out loud the other day, she says she couldn’t get anything done for an entire afternoon because she was too upset about it.
Pereverzeva is 27 years old and holds a Russian passport. She’s part of the population Putin alleged he wanted to protect with his annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. But like Fedorchenko, she also fled Donetsk, though she even lived in Bryanks, Russia, until she was 11 years old. She offers a brief, sarcastic laugh at the Kremlin’s reasoning: “Because they wanted to protect us, I lost my home.”
It’s mid-January and she is sitting in a basement workshop, surrounded by friends. A bear made of silver cardboard hangs from the ceiling, and there’s a rabbit made of wood on the wall. During her spare time, Pereverzeva plans concerts and festivals that she hopes will bring internally displaced persons and longtime local residents together. By day, she works as a designer for a cultural magazine. She says she enjoys helping to create a shared identify for the city.
A few days after my interview with her, a new law would go into effect in Ukraine that will also affect her. Newspapers that are published in Russian must now print an equal number of copies in Ukrainian. Similar laws already stipulate that hairdressers, waiters or bar operators must first address their guests in Ukrainian. Supporters of the law argue that it prevents the Kremlin from isolating the Russian-speaking minority from the rest of the country and exploiting it for its own ends. But critics fear that the Kremlin will use an alleged threat to the Russians in Ukraine as an opportunity to act even more aggressively. Ekaterina Pereverzeva doesn’t really think Russia cares at the end of the day. “Russian propaganda always finds something,” she says. “And if not, they will make something up.”
And yet she still fears that the debate over the proper form of patriotism will further divide the country if Russian-speaking Ukrainians and residents of the self-proclaimed people’s republics feel left behind. She hopes for and fears an end to the war in equal measures. “We imagine it like a fairy tale, that everyone then cries for joy and hugs each other,” she says. “But the time after the war could be harder than the time during the war.” She is already wondering how the different groups in the country will be able to reconcile.
There aren’t too many people in Kharkiv at the moment who speak openly about their love for Moscow. Many supporters of the pro-Russian demonstrations have left for Russia in recent years.
Those who stayed in Kharkiv have to live with the threat, with the TV images of Russian troops on the border, with the threat of war. Most just ignore them and hold out hope that things won’t take a turn for the worse. And yet the war is everywhere in the city, in the memories of the refugees, in the minds of Fedorchenko, Rozskazova and Pereverzeva.
Fedorchenko last visited her parents seven years ago in her hometown of Alchevsk, which is under separatist control. Since the war, she has only been able to get there via Russia. Rozskazova no longer has any contact with her father. He lives in Luhansk and considers his daughter to be a pro-American traitor.
Some of Pereverzeva’s friends from her school days still live in the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” but for very different reasons. She says one of them does youth work there for the self-proclaimed government of the People’s Republic. Another stayed on as a psychologist to help people. She says the three are rarely in contact anymore.
Ekaterina Pereverzeva says it was easy for her to leave Donetsk. “But to leave Kharkiv,” she says, “I don’t even want to even imagine that.” She has parted with many of her memories of Donetsk and has instead acquired a dog as a sign that this is home for her now. She says that “out of principle,” she wouldn’t pack a suitcase for the event of an attack. If Russia does, in fact, invade, she has a different plan. She would organize a party in the basement workshop with her friends. They would at least be together then. And then they would see what happens next.