Following a Russian attack on Kharkiv, a civilian walks past a burning gas main.
https://www.spiegel.de-Foto: Maxim Dondyuk / DER SPIEGEL
The violence in Kharkiv has been brutal and the shelling relentless. Those still in the city are doing their best to keep going, keeping the streets clean and even finding time for some classical music – despite their fury, and mourning.
By Christoph Reuter und Maxim Dondyuk (Photos) in Kharkiv, Ukraine
They thought it would be a quiet day.
Quiet, at least, for Kharkiv, the proud metropolis in eastern Ukraine with its 54 institutes of higher learning and glorious Soviet past – a city which had been under almost constant barrage from Russian rockets and artillery shells for the last 10 days.
Quiet enough to pull three retirees out of hell. And Oleg and Yuliya set off to do just that – he the muscular 43-year-old manager of a fitness studio and she, the 23-year-old manager of an IT company. A disparate, happy couple.
Block 271 on Metro Workers Street is the address they had been given for the evacuation, a high rise on the outskirts of the residential district of Saltivka, a collection of prefab concrete buildings located across from a Russian position. And a neighborhood that has repeatedly been hit hard by salvos from the invading army.
But the storm had abated slightly on March 5. The couple quickly zig-zagged their way through the rubble of Saltivka beneath sagging cables and made it to the building at around 3 p.m., as Oleg would later relate. He knew the area well. The fitness studio where he used to work was just across the street, the place where he met Yuliya five years ago.
She ran to the stairs leading up to the elderly women who they then wanted to escort down 12 floors through the debris. “Can you quickly head over to get a couple of those energy bars? I love them,” she called out to him from the stairs. They would be her last words to Oleg. Just a moment later, a blast wave threw him to the floor of the fitness studio as glass and plaster rained down. He was able to free himself and he ran back to the building. He could hardly recognize the smashed car in which an elderly woman sat, bleeding but miraculously alive.
First responders eventually had to pull Oleg away from the debris, from which Yuliya could no longer be saved. He had lost his shoes, and he walked back through the city to his apartment in sub-zero temperatures, feeling nothing and recalling very little of what had just happened.
The war comes in waves to Kharkiv. In the very first days of March, seven-meter-long Iskander missiles from Russia destroyed the magnificent regional administration building and the secret service headquarters. For several weeks, missiles and shells pummeled Saltivka and other districts in the eastern part of the city, until things began quieting down as March drew to a close. Instead, Russian shelling began targeting other parts of the city where residents had thought they were relatively safe.
But even the reports of hundreds of casualties – the precise number of which can no longer be accurately counted by city officials, who are running low on body bags and coffins – say little about the horror that has been visited upon this city. What is the incessant fear doing to those still in the city, the bombs, the screaming of the air raid sirens, the mourning and the anger?
Two-thirds of the 1.5 million people who used to live in the city have fled, according to a local count. Oleg, though, has remained. After thinking about it for a bit, he agreed to a meeting with DER SPIEGEL, and then made a suggestion: “Should we head out to where it happened?”
It is the end of March, and again a rather quiet day. When the war began, the two had fled to Krasnograd, a town southwest of Kharkiv where friends had let them use their apartment. They could have stayed. But Yuliya wanted to go back. “We can’t just leave the people there on their own,” she said, Oleg recalls.
He says he used to be a gang member in the Kharkiv underground, a thug “full of uncontrollable rage. Only Yuliya could calm me down,” by gently rubbing his back with her hand. Now, he says, he is no longer overcome by rage, but by fear – suddenly, at night. He says he is taking sedatives, “but they hardly help. Last night, Tequila saved me,” Yuliya’s chihuahua. The dog, he says, sat on his back and touched him with his paws until the panic dissipated.
Oleg’s head is shaved as always, and he is wearing yellow sunglasses and a heavy, black leather jacket. The car stereo is blasting techno music as we make our way through the apocalyptic, rubble-strewn cityscape of northern Kharkiv. The rumbling of artillery can be heard in the distance as Oleg talks about his panic attacks, with the playful chihuahua bouncing around in the backseat.
Nothing fits together. But that is true of the entire country of Ukraine, and particularly for Kharkiv.
“Why? Why us? Why this city?” Svetlana also lives in Saltivka, a place where mere seconds can make the difference between life and death. A place where Yuliya was standing outside at the wrong moment and where the 59-year-old economist Svetlana emerged from an air raid shelter just a second too soon. She had thought the shelling had ended and was on the top stair on the way out of the cellar when a rocket exploded, the shrapnel hitting her in the back of the head and back and shattering her right arm and left leg.
She is now in Hospital Nr. 17 and not only does she still have her life, but also her sober view of the cards she has been dealt. “On the third day, gangrene set in, and they had to amputate the leg.” She says she constantly tries to rationally evaluate the situation in which her city now finds itself. “And that’s why we didn’t leave. We simply couldn’t believe that something like this could happen in the 21st century. That Putin would have our city bombarded.”
Kharkiv, of all places, the most Russian of all large cities in the country, where 70 percent of the population said that they had spoken Russian in their daily lives until recently. The city was largely depopulated in the 1930s by the famine that Stalin intentionally unleashed, and then became the focus of repeated fighting in World War II and was destroyed. It went on to become a city of Soviet glory during the Cold War. It is here where the first T-34 tank was built and it was also home to the brains of the Sputnik mission, which saw the Soviet Union launch the first satellite into space. The city attracted experts and companies from across the Soviet Union, along with skilled workers looking for good jobs. Until just 10 years ago, musicians in Kharkiv dreamed of making it in Moscow, and not in Kyiv or Berlin.
The Soviet Union, says Svetlana, had been just fine, a coexistence of many different nations. “But Russia? It’s a country just as we are. With no right to invade us.” Russia’s murderous invasion, she says, isn’t just destroying Ukraine, but also the two country’s joint history.
Svetlana’s sister-in-law is Russian and lives in Belgorad, the first city behind the border, 50 kilometers away. “When we first told her about the war, she played it down, as if we were imagining everything,” says Svetlana’s husband Ivan, who is spending his nights in the bed next to his injured wife so he can help her. “At least she believes us now.”
The parallel universe created by Moscow propaganda, which has claimed over and over again that civilians are being spared, is more painful for those in Kharkiv than in other parts of Ukraine. Many here have family members in Russia, who frequently prefer to believe the lies coming from Russian television than the stories told by their own relatives. “They’re zombies,” says Nataliya, an aerospace technician, of her cousins in Russia. Her parents came to Kharkiv during Soviet times from Sakhalin, an island off the east coast of Siberia. The rest of her relatives are spread out in a number of different cities in Russia. “All of them, except for a cousin in St. Petersburg, believe the story that Russia is fighting Nazis here. My own relatives! I don’t want anything more to do with them!” Natalya spent three decades working on the top-secret development of the control systems now guiding the missiles that are destroying her city.
And civilians aren’t just accidental victims of this war. They are targets themselves. Even first responders are being fired at by the Russian invaders.
On Friday of last week, the smoke rising from the Barabashova district could be seen from several kilometers away. The flames roared dozens of meters into the air for more than an hour from the stricken gas main, with a tire depot next door burning up in the inferno and a car parked on the roadside nearby ultimately exploding in flames from the sheer heat. The fire department didn’t show up until quite some time had passed, with the squad leader saying gloomily: “We had to wait. There have been too many secondary attacks striking the same target shortly after the first.”
Such attacks are known as “double-tap strikes,” a tactic that the Russian and Syrian air forces used for years in Syria. Over and over again, first responders and firefighters were killed when jets would return just minutes after the first attack to bomb the exact same site.
“They’ve been doing that for the last week and a half,” says Volodymyr Horbykov, chief of the main fire station in Kharkiv. “After several firefighters were injured and one of our men was killed in this manner, we ordered all units to wait and refrain from responding to fires initially. As difficult as that is for everyone.” The firetrucks have also stopped using their lights and sirens. “In Saltivka, especially, the Russians aim right at us.” Down below, in the vehicle bay, bulletproof vests and military helmets are lined up waiting for the firefighters.
In Horbykov’s office, where he has been sleeping for the past several weeks, the guitar that he used to play on occasion is leaning against the wall. On one recent day, he pulled 20 bodies out of the rubble, including an old friend. “I have been a fireman for 27 years, but I’ve never seen such destruction.” His 75-year-old mother, he says, is stuck in no-man’s-land between the fronts not far from Saltivka. He doesn’t even know if she is still alive and hasn’t heard anything from her for 15 days. “Who does such a thing? They aren’t human.” Even more than hate, his primary emotion is disbelief.
Prior to 2014, before Putin took control of Crimea and the Donbas, the fire chief says, they used to periodically work together with Russian firefighters, most recently in the 2013 forest fires around Voronezh, about 300 kilometers to the east in Russia. “My grandfather was in the army and fought against the Nazis. He was decorated three times with the Order of the Red Star, took part in the conquest of Berlin, something he was proud of his whole life. What should I do with the medals now?”
While the streets of Kharkiv may be empty and abandoned, there is plenty of life underground. Subway stations have become protective bunkers for thousands of people, who have lived below-ground on and off since the beginning of March. They have settled either in the subway trains or on the cold floor of the platforms.
“Heroes of Work” is the name of the station near Saltivka. When you walk down the stairs into the station, a sea of displaced residents stretches out in front of you, blankets spread out on the floor along with plastic bags full of possessions, children playing amid the chaos. It smells like one might expect and many are coughing – whether from bronchitis or COVID-19. “That doesn’t really matter at the moment,” says Artem, 33.
He and his wife have found shelter in one of the subway cars with their two-year-old son. In their previous life above ground, they were rose breeders in the village of Zyrkuny, northeast of Kharkiv. When their town was attacked, Artem’s wife says, “I started stuttering so badly that I couldn’t even say the word ‘war’ when we got here.” They are sharing their subway car with two other families and with Ala, a furious pensioner who wants to see “Putin suffering just as we are. My father fought for Kharkiv. He is spinning in his grave! Who has the right to drive me out of the city?!”
A few cars further along, a hairdresser named Nataliya has set up a chair in the subway door where she is cutting and dying hair for free. “Women should be beautiful,” she says, as the woman in her chair lets out a giggle. “Especially in wartime.” That, too, is part of Kharkiv’s current reality: deathly fear and defiance, panic attacks and laughter, all mixed together. The last Saturday in March saw the first classical concert belowground. To start off proceedings, the mayor of Kharkiv spoke of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, the so-called “Leningrad Symphony,” which was intended to give courage to the city’s residents during the brutal World War II siege by the German Wehrmacht. A string quartet then played the Ukrainian national anthem, Bach’s aria “Erbarme Dich, Mein Gott” and Antonin Dvořák’s “Humoresque.”
“Would you like to come along?” asks Provincial Governor Oleg Synyehubov after the concert, who had come to the show together with the mayor, wearing a military parka and green wool cap. He says he wants to drop by his old office to pick up a few documents and his business cards – an errand that requires clambering through the rubble left behind by the three Russian rockets that struck the building.
Three policemen wearing balaclavas and carrying Kalashnikovs lead the way past a deep crater left behind by one rocket that just barely missed the building on March 1. Search and rescue teams have cleared paths through the rubble. A jovial giant with a full beard, Synyehubov greets a couple of soldiers and structural engineers with a thin smile before wading through the wasteland of shattered double doors, doorframes, plaster and bricks to his desk. Which is still standing. On top of it, covered in dust, is a copy of the “Development Plan for the Kharkiv Province 2021-2027.” The plan, he says wryly, must now be revised. Synyehubov packs up his business cards and says they simply hadn’t thought it possible that Russia would bomb the administration building. “They didn’t even do such a thing in Kyiv.”
Had the missiles struck 15 minutes later, he says, he would have been sitting at his desk, together with all his department heads. “Putin actually wanted to kill us,” he says. But the explosives arrived a quarter hour before the meeting, killing technicians, secretaries, police officers and passersby out on the street instead.
The survivors continue with their work, carrying documents, stamps and a few miraculously intact laptops into temporary quarters. This city has come to be characterized by an unshakable tenacity. The streetsweepers are still keeping the sidewalks clean, even near Saltivka, where firefighters occasionally have to chase them out of the danger zone with a volley of curses. In the center of the city, dozens of men and women just spent two days using several cranes to pile up sandbags around the giant bronze statue of Taras Shevchenko, the most celebrated of all Ukrainian poets. He was born into serfdom in 1814 before Russian friends from St. Petersburg bought his freedom. Still later, he was banished by the czars to the Urals. “With the distribution of his poetry in Ukraine, notions pertaining to the possibility of Ukraine as an independent country could gain credence,” the secret service minister said perceptively at the time.
Back then, 170 years ago, such ideas could still be beat down and banned. But they never disappeared entirely, and now, Ukraine has been an independent country for 30 years – and even after a month of war, it is showing no interest in being bombed back into submission.
In the middle of last week, Ukrainian troops fighting to the east of Kharkiv were successful in recapturing high ground from which Russian troops had blocked the highway to the nearby town of Mala Rohan. The bodies of civilians, dried out by the sun and the cold, were still lying at the edge of the road next to their wrecked cars when the Ukrainian military escorted the first journalists to the site. The copper wiring stretched across the road, used by the Russians to detonate mines, is glistening in the sun. Many Russian soldiers died here, recalls a Ukrainian officers, not only a result of Ukrainian fire, but also because Russian artillery fired indiscriminately into the embattled area.
Just a couple of days earlier, on March 26, the town of Trostyanets, located 130 kilometers to the northwest, had been retaken by the Ukrainians. It was one of the first towns in the entire country to be reconquered.
Back in Kharkiv, Oleg curses out a plunderer who had just started to search through his destroyed car out in front of Block 271 for any valuables. Using his old connections to the city administration, he managed to get a spot in a cemetery to bury Yuliya. “I didn’t want her to end up in a mass grave like the others,” he says.
On March 9, Oleg’s birthday, she was laid to rest in Cemetery Nr. 3. Two days passed before helpers had managed to make their way back to Block 271 to recover Yuliya’s body. A handful of friends from the army and the Territorial Defense Forces came to the burial straight from the front, before then heading back into battle. Aside from them, nobody else dared come to the cemetery.
Oleg is still doing what he can to help, driving medical supplies to the frontlines, sometimes even using detours to reach Russian-occupied territory. Giving each day a bit of meaning. “But what then? What happens when the war is over?” This war which has taken everything from him: his old life, his Yuliya, his friends, his city, his fitness studio. “I am still going through the motions and hoping for the end of the war. But I am afraid of what is waiting for me then.”
With additional reporting by Pavel Dorogoy