"We speak Russian and we are Ukrainians: we don't want Putin's troops here"

Kharkiv, 45 km from the Russian border, is not preparing for another war

6 min
Children playing basketball in the school playground in Oso nueva, a working class neighborhood of Kharkiv

Special envoy to Kharkiv (Ukraine)Kharkiv (Kharkov in Russian) is Ukraine's second largest city, with a metropolitan area of more than 2.3 million inhabitants. An industrial and grey city, located only 45 kilometres from the Russian border, with a Russian-speaking population with Russian cultural roots and close family ties to the other side. It could be one of the first targets should Vladimir Putin finally order an invasion and at the same time the Kremlin's pretext to legitimise the attack: Moscow considers all Russian speakers living in former USSR countries as "fellow countrymen" and says it has to "protect" them, if necessary, militarily. But after eight years of war in the Donbass region, with the front 350 kilometres south of Kharkiv, people have had enough.

"It seems to me that everything is being exaggerated, I don't think Putin will invade us," says Konstanin Nicolaich, a 40-year-old small businessman we met in Shevchenko Park, presided over by a large statue of the 19th century Ukrainian poet. "Before I sided with Russia, but after what I've seen in these last few years, I am no longer. If Russian troops finally enter, I will take up arms and join the civil defence. We don't want them here," he assures. In 2014, after the fall of the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych due to the Euromaidan protests, Russia illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula and supported the rebellion in the Donbass region, where the "people's republics" of Donetsk and Lugansk were self-proclaimed, which gradually came under the military and economic umbrella of the Kremlin with a de facto independence from Kiev. According to Ukrainian authorities, the death toll stands at 14,000.

Svetlana Radi had to flee her home when war broke out in Donetsk in 2014. "The shelling started and I was worried about my children: the eldest was 9 years old and the little one was only five months old and we had no choice but to leave and leave everything behind." Both she and her husband worked in a mining company (the area is very rich in coal). But there are no mines in Kharkiv and they have not been able to find work. At first they were able to rent an apartment in the city, but when they ran out of money they had to move to a refugee camp near the airport. There there are dozens of metal barracks, lined up inside a field perimetered by a fence almost two meters tall, all covered by snow, only the colors of the swings stand out against the gray.

It's 11:30 am and the thermometer reads -3ºC: the woman hurries because the little girl, whose eyes look very lively under a woollen hat which is too big for her, has to go to drawing class. "Here people understand our situation, but the state doesn't help us: we only get 1,000 hrivnias a month [€31]. When the war started we came here because Ukraine is our country, but we have been disappointed. And we can't go back home either, because we would meet checkpoints where they would ask us why we left and what we have been doing here all this time," she laments. Refugees from Donbass are the ones who are most afraid of a new war, having lost everything eight years ago

Entrance to the Kharkiv refugee camp

The linguistic question

Are you afraid of a Russian invasion? Natalia Shevchenko, a teacher at a public nursery school, shrugs her shoulders when we ask her the question: "I work with children aged 2 to 6. If I were afraid I wouldn't be able to do this job!" she answers with irony. And what would you do if you saw Russian soldiers entering the city? She looks at me as if the answer were obvious. "Get the children and take them to the shelter." The teacher, whose aunt, uncle and sister live in the Russian city of Belgorod, is a Russian speaker, but at school she addresses the pupils in Ukrainian, as established by the positive discrimination policy of the Kiev authorities, which some quarters accuse of marginalising Russian speakers. "I speak Russian at home and Ukrainian at school because children have to learn the national language: they also learn Russian, English and Polish, of course. And I wish we could teach them more languages. But if the school doesn't teach the language of the country, who will?". In general this does not cause her any conflicts, even though "if sometimes a family is upset, we try to make them understand that if they speak Russian at home, at school they have to learn Ukrainian." The teacher, who earns less than €250 a month, complains that the public school "is getting worse and worse" and points out two problems: the bureaucracy that forces them to fill out reports and paperwork, and a syllabus that is too heavy for the students to digest

A picture of a central street in Kharkiv

The streets in the centre look busy, in some there are still Christmas lights, which is celebrated here in mid-January, following the Orthodox tradition. The only thing reminiscent of the war is a military tent painted in the yellow and blue colors of the Ukrainian flag and bearing the slogan "Ukraine united", where a group of activists have set up a stage with a trench and a howitzer stuck in the ground. A woman carefully ties small strips of white clothing into a net to make a camouflage for soldiers. Photographs of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, their mouths stained with blood, hang from ceiling panels

Boris Redin, an electronics engineer who now runs a copy shop, explains to anyone who will listen that the February 2014 days in Kharkiv also saw Euromaidan protests, with a thousand people, and claims that groups of Russians sent by the Kremlin came to the city to demonstrate in favour of Putin. "They pretended to be people from Kharkiv, but they didn't know the city: they occupied the Cultural Centre building thinking it was the city hall," he says. A year later, four people were killed in a bomb explosion at a demonstration commemorating the fall of Yanukovych. "I can't wait for the Russian tanks to come in and bathe them in their own blood," he says fervently.

A few meters away, Eugene, owner of a fine art supplies store, proclaims himself a man of peace and says he is not particularly worried nor has he taken any precautions at home, where his two young children are waiting for him. "I don't think Russia would attack us, because it wouldn't make any sense and they wouldn't get any good out of it," he argues. "I am a Russian speaker and Ukrainian, I have relatives in Russia, but I don't want Russian troops here," he concludes. Nor does he want Ukraine to join NATO: "We have to be neutral, we are people of peace."

The arms factory, at half throttle

Nor does the military industry seem to be more active than usual. "There is not much work, sometimes we work a lot and sometimes we spend the whole day here with nothing to do," explains one of the 5,000 workers at the Malysheva factory, which produces tank components, as well as tractors, and snow plows. A plant manager confirms to ARA that production has not been increased. The factory dates back to the 1930s and produced tanks for the Republicans on the Aragon front during the Spanish Civil War. Between 1923 and 1934 Kharkiv was the capital of Soviet Ukraine, one of the founding republics of the USSR. In the hospital where they treat covid patients, they also tell us that they have not made any special preparations for the war, nor have they set up operating rooms or stocked up on material and medicines: they are focused on the fight against the pandemic. Now Ukraine is beginning to suffer the ravages of the Omicron variant and the number of cases has broken records.

In Osnova, a working-class neighbourhood with typical Soviet-era high-rise apartment buildings, children play in the snow in the park next to the school, in front of a huge abandoned industrial complex. "I don't even remember what was manufactured here anymore," says Stanislav Kibalnik, a journalist for the local magazine Assembly. He neither believes in war nor wants Russian troops. "I have friends who are political prisoners in Russia and I have done fundraising campaigns for them. Police repression in Russia is much stronger than here," he explains. But he says that what worries people most is unemployment and precariousness: "Many factories have closed and others owe workers months' worth of salary, and people have contracts that last only a few days". Many young people have taken the path of emigration: "I have friends halfway around the world, from Japan to Canada.... If nothing changes, soon there will be only old people left here." In the neighbourhood, bomb shelters in basements have long been walled up to prevent drug addicts from sneaking in.