Picture credit: Fred Skulthorp
Artillery Row

The return to Kharkiv

As refugees come home, they have found their city changed forever

“Russians suck it,” reads the graffiti inside a burnt out school building on the road to Kharkiv. It was here on 27 February, just three days into the invasion of Ukraine, that a company of elite Russian Spetsnaz soldiers made their last stand.

Kharkiv is the third largest Russian speaking city in the world

Earlier that day, they had attempted to take the Shevchenka Road into the centre of the city to cut off the Ukrainian defenders to the North and single handedly take Kharkiv. On that clear February morning with the shock and awe of the invasion underway and Ukrainian forces in disarray, for a brief moment they must have imagined the old Soviet capital of Ukraine was theirs.

Many in Kharkiv now tell the story of the fight for this school proudly. This is the place where the Russian army first discovered the true force of Ukrainian resistance. For refugees returning to the city for Christmas, the site has become a place of pilgrimage. Peering through shell holes, I can see a man outside taking a selfie. I joke to my translator Pasha that maybe they will leave the buildings in ruins to serve as a reminder of Ukraine’s great victory at Kharkiv. “We will see,” he says slyly as he drives me up the Shevchenka road and towards the recaptured territory near the Russian border.

Picture credit: Fred Skulthorp

The city before Putin’s elite soldiers that morning was in their eyes a Russian one. Kharkiv is the third largest Russian speaking city in the world, home of the Tractor Plant which drove Stalin’s five year plans and the T-34 tank which won Russia its Great Patriotic War. Most residents have relatives across the border just 50km away. Perhaps the plan to take it one fell swoop wasn’t too far-fetched. The reasoning was straightforward: behind the Ukrainian defenders of Kharkiv, lay a sympathetic population waiting for Putin’s army to come home. At least that’s what they thought. “I am so proud of my city,” says Dima, a 22 year old student and one of the returning refugees who first told me about the fight at the school. “I thought there would be so many traitors who would betray Kharkiv to the Russians. I was wrong.”

Dima is back in Kharkiv for the first time since he fled the battle. I find him standing outside the ruins of the University Economics Buildings. “I knew people who studied here,” he tells me in the half light of the winter afternoon. “I saw videos of it being destroyed, but I didn’t believe it had really happened.” As night falls, the blackout turns Kharkiv into a ghost city. By the light of his phone, Dima takes me on a tour. The huge Soviet Constructivist buildings rise out of the shadows like dystopian monoliths. In Freedom Square, Dima gasps. “They rebuilt it so quickly,” he says, showing me a photo on his phone from eight months earlier when it was left in ruins by a Russian rocket attack. Thanks to the defenders of Kharkiv, says one banner in the square, we are together as Kharkiv people. 

As Christmas in the Orthodox calendar approaches, many others like Dima are returning home. As they arrive, they are coming to terms with what has happened to their city. “A family there, I think they were killed,” says fourteen year old Marsha, pointing to a rooftop above a shop where she used to buy clothes. In Northern Saltivka, the district that saw the heaviest fighting, a woman points a cigarette at the ruins of an apartment block. “There are still bodies in that building. They said the smell was awful in the summer. ” Before the war, Saltivka was home to 400,000 people. Locals say just 50,0000 stayed during the battle. Now as the rebuilding starts, more are starting to trickle back and piece together a life. “Home is home.” shrugs a lady in front of a boarded up tower block when we ask her why she has returned.

Jingle Bell Rock plays in a busy cafe in the centre of Kharkiv. What has happened to the pro-Russian population of the city? I ask Dima. “Now, they don’t speak,” he said. “They are ashamed of what Russia has done here.” Dima has tried to escape the war before. He grew up in Luhansk where fighting started in 2014. His family moved west to Kharkiv. Two years ago, his grandma announced that Putin would invade. She sold her house and moved further west again. “Everyone laughed at her. They called her a mad old lady.” When they fled Kharkiv, it was to her new house outside Lviv near the Polish border where they took refuge.

Dima tells me about growing up in Luhansk. At the age of fourteen, friendship groups were built around whether they supported Russia. Friends he went to school with have since been mobilised into Putin’s army. “Some are now dead,” he tells me, showing a picture circulating on social media full of Russian bodies outside Bakhmut. “Russian propaganda teaches you there is no such thing as the truth,” he says. “And when you don’t believe in the truth, you believe in anything.”

Enjoy your last night together, they said

What is the truth, I ask him, when it comes to Russia against Ukraine? Surely it is more complicated than you make out. He pauses and thinks. “I have a story to tell you,” he says seriously. Then he goes very quiet. He excuses himself from the table and goes to the bathroom.

“The Russian Army is a criminal organisation,” Nataliya Gumenyuk had said to me in Kyiv the previous week. The Reckoning Project is her mission to try and document as many of the estimated 61,000 war crimes already carried out by the Russian Army since the invasion. In previous conflicts like Syria, accounts of journalists have been thrown out by courts as evidence. Now, Nataliya and her team of journalists want to record accurate testimonies that can be used to bring justice to Ukraine. Are there really more Buchas waiting to be discovered? I ask her, referring to the massacre of civilians unearthed outside Kyiv in April. “Yes, most likely.” According to Nataliya anyone remotely associated with the Ukranian government in occupied territory can lead to beatings and torture — a civil servant, a veteran of the police, even a history teacher. Dima had already told me about another relative, now in prison, after some neighbours had told the Russian occupiers she had brought food to Ukrainian soldiers. “Fear and violence is the method of occupation,” says Nataliya. “In the West, you are yet to fully realise the scale and nature of this violence.”

When Dima returns from the toilet, he sits down and composes himself. Then he tells his story. A fifty year old relative of his grandma was the leader of a village in Luhansk Oblast. When pro-Russian Chechens arrived, they asked her to sign a document saying she would work with them. She refused. They took her into a basement and tortured her. We were at Bucha, they told her whilst they electrically shocked her with a wire attached to her vulva. Then they found her husband, and they tortured him in front of her, too. After that, they dragged them both outside to a freshly dug grave. We will shoot you in the morning. Enjoy your last night together, they said. The pair managed to escape. They walked twenty kilometres until they found safety in the nearest Ukrainian village. When they were found, they were bruised blue.

“This is their psychological torture,” says Dima. I tell him about Nataliya Gumenyuk’s work. You must tell your relative to get in touch with her. “I will try,” he says. “But most people in Ukraine now know a story like this.”

To the North of Kharkiv, Pasha drives me through the village of Tsyskuny. During the battle for Kharkiv it was occupied for five months as a crucial base for the Russian assault on the city. “No one here now,” says Pasha as we drive through the village, row after row of destroyed houses. Eventually, we find an Orthodox church, one of the few buildings that stands out in the wasteland of destruction. Pasha points out the grenade holes in the car park, the bullet holes on the church. Yet still it stands. We open the door carefully, uncertain if anyone is inside. Through the haze of incense, we see people. Soldiers light candles for the souls of the dead; elderly locals chant passages from the bible. It is Christmas Eve in Tsyskuny.

Picture credit: Fred Skulthorp

We ask one of the Church elders to speak to us. “From England? Great, we’ve been waiting for you,” he says dryly as we enter his office. I tell him about my meeting with Nataliya Gumenyuk and ask him if he witnessed any war crimes in the village. “He will not speak about the Russian occupation,” says Pasha after some exchanges. “He says there is no point in shedding more tears.” I ask him what happened to the church during occupation. “The villagers came here day and night to pray, and when the fighting started we went down into the crypt. And there we prayed day and night too.” He gives us an icon of St Nicholas, the patron saint of travellers to take back to England. “You can have this,” he says, “if you pray for us in your English church.” Then he asks us to leave him alone with the last of his congregation.

“Did you not notice,” says Pasha excitedly as we head back to the car. Across the ruins of the Tsyskuny, the winter sky is retreating. Notice what? I ask. “He spoke in Ukrainian, not Russian. No one normally does that in this region. This is very cool!”

Driving back towards Kharkiv through the ruins of Slatvika, more and more people start to emerge from the ruined tower blocks. There is a long silence as we drive past the lonely figures. This is awful, they can’t live here, I say looking at the temperature gauge in the car. Tonight they will freeze. “No, man, it’s okay,” says Pasha cheerfully, lighting up a cigarette. “It was awful three months ago. Really, don’t worry. Now everything is getting better here.”

Christmas day in Kharkiv starts with an air raid siren. No one pays attention. There is faith in the air defence systems, and the people of Kharkiv have grown tired of hiding. Life must go on. On the way to the station, Dima shows me the plaques of the city’s famous Ukrainian writers killed by the Soviets, the small park where the statue of Lenin once stood until 2014. When we reach the station, Dima describes the panic the last time he was here. The people were clinging to the side of the train, whilst shell fire screamed from the Russian advance. “Returning here is a victory for me,” he says.

Author: Fred Skulthorp

In front of a Christmas tree in the dark station, families wave goodbye to relatives. This time more are staying, placing their faith in the defenders of Kharkiv — who now wait in freezing trenches to the north of the city for the next Russian attack. On the platform, I pass on Nataliya’s number and tell Dima to give it to his relative. She must tell her story, I say. “I will,” he says. “I promise.” From the darkness of the city, the spectral whine of the air raid siren sounds once more. Dima says goodbye. “After the war, I hope to see you in London,” I say, having promised a return for his tour of Kharkiv. “Of course,” says Dima, shaking my hand. “One day I hope to see you in London, too.”

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