Ukraine's Second City, Kharkiv, Eludes Rebel Hands

Kharkiv seemed ready to go over to the rebels. Not so fast
Activists in the central square of Kharkiv topple Ukraine’s biggest monument to Lenin Photograph by Igor Chekachkov/AP Photo

Located in a Stalin-era building, the office of Ihor Baluta, governor of the Kharkiv region, overlooks the 30-acre Freedom Square—one of the biggest in Europe and the center of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest metropolis with a population of 1.5 million. In the Soviet era, the square bore the name of the founder of the USSR’s secret police.

Today, at the square’s far end, a granite pedestal supports nothing but a giant bronze shoe with a Ukrainian flag sticking out of it. The shoe belonged to a 28-foot-tall statue of Lenin that towered over the square from 1964 until Sept. 28. When Ukrainian nationalists and right-wing soccer hoodlums toppled him that night, the police chose not to interfere. Baluta was in favor of removing the statue, the focal point of pro-Russia separatist rallies. But he’d have preferred a more civilized approach. Asked if a majority of the city wanted Lenin to go, he says, “No. But there was hardly any protest afterward either, which is quite telling.”

On the eve of Ukraine’s parliamentary election, as war between the nation’s army and pro-Russia separatists smolders in the eastern part of the country, the city of Kharkiv is uneasily at peace, attached to Ukraine by force and luck. The vast majority speaks Russian in daily life: Russia is only 25 miles away. The city isn’t far from Donetsk and Luhansk, the epicenters of the fighting, which sputters on despite a truce. Although Kharkiv has been spared the ravages of combat, it’s still consumed by the war. Soldiers on a short leave from the front, volunteers delivering supplies to the war zone in their own cars, and thousands of refugees are part of the urban landscape.

Recent polls suggest a light turnout in Kharkiv for the election on Oct. 26—the city’s voters are confused about their allegiances and identities. Despite these ambiguities, Kharkiv remains firmly tied to the government in Kiev. Appointed just after the February revolution, Baluta oversees a region that staunchly supported the pro-Russia regime of Viktor Yanukovych. Baluta’s predecessor, Mikhaylo Dobkin, was a vociferous supporter of Yanukovych and an enemy of the pro-Europe protesters in Kiev. Dobkin’s face adorns dozens of billboards in central Kharkiv, where he’s running for Parliament as part of the Opposition Bloc, a party whose members have ties to the previous regime. Polls suggest its chances of passing the 5 percent threshold of support needed to enter Parliament are fairly slim.

Kharkiv had every chance last spring to be engulfed by the war. Around midnight on April 6, Baluta barricaded himself in his office as separatists took over most of the main government building. A mob outside was pelting the windows with stones, one of which landed on the governor’s solid oak table. The mark is still there. Baluta eventually managed to escape through the back entrance. In the wee hours, riot police from central Ukraine stormed the building, which had been torched by the separatists. In Donetsk and Luhansk, rebels succeeded in seizing and holding government buildings, which became strongholds of the insurgency. “It all happened at the same time, according to the same scenario. But here in Kharkiv, we opted for decisive action,” Baluta says.

The government swiftly purged the Kharkiv police and the local office of the SBU, the Ukrainian security agency that had many Russia sympathizers. When the separatists tried another uprising on April 22, the now loyal local police put down the revolt. Artyom Litovchenko, a sociologist active in the separatist movement, says his friends’ defeat was a result of swift strikes by the authorities and a show of force that cowed local officials and security agents unsure of which side to take. “It is very important that, unlike in Donetsk, the authorities removed weapons out of the SBU depot,” he says. In Donetsk, Litovchenko says, the SBU commander and his followers (and their guns) joined the rebels.

Baluta says that in the following months, “we conducted preventive chats with the most active separatists, after which some changed their point of view, others fled, while others ended in prison awaiting a fair trial.”

Pro-Ukraine activists almost went underground after a series of attacks by pro-Russia thugs in April. Now they’re at the forefront of local politics and the effort to support the army. Many people hailing from the Russian-speaking middle class and intelligentsia have reinvented themselves as Ukrainian patriots. Oleksandr Mamaluy, an arbitration court judge who’s presided over high-profile cases involving the richest people in Kharkiv, is now a sniper patrolling the area around Donetsk’s airport, which has witnessed some of the most ferocious fighting in the war. In corrupt Ukraine, it’s easy for a judge of his stature to dodge the draft, Mamaluy says. But he volunteered for a company of sharpshooters, even though he could face a horrific death should the enemy take him prisoner. “I have six snipers MIA in my platoon. I hope none of them has been captured alive,” he says.

Mamaluy says he’d never been a “super-Ukrainian.” Russia’s annexation of Crimea changed that. The peninsula had been the holiday spot for generations of Ukrainians and Russians who once mingled peaceably there. “Nationalist ideas were alien to me to say the least,” he says. “But when the Russians took Crimea—my very personal Crimea which I knew in and out—I said that I would fight back.”

    BOTTOM LINE -

    The bottom line: Kharkiv’s citizens mostly speak Russian, but Ukraine has held on to the city through both luck and force.

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