A Ukrainian City Holds Its Breath

A Ukrainian City Holds Its Breath

KHARKIV, Ukraine — This past Monday, around 40 protesters bearing communist flags gathered in the graying, barren central square of Ukraine’s second-largest city. They said they were there to commemorate the anniversary of the Red Army’s first liberation of Kharkiv in 1943. (The current administration in Kiev doesn’t commemorate the date, since it regards Soviet “liberation” as a synonym for “occupation.”) Gennady Makarov, a leading pro-Russian separatist and one of the protest’s organizers, bustled around the group, dispensing orders. Most of his fellow flag-bearers were pensioners, including some Soviet Army veterans, but a notable few were much younger. Across from them, on the other side of the statue, stood a crowd of policemen and some half-dozen riot buses. A policeman approached Makarov and asked what they were planning. “Just give us an hour,” Makarov responded. The policeman backed off, and the protesters began to march through Kharkiv’s drab Stalinist streets against the frigid morning wind, singing old Soviet songs. Russian and Ukrainian journalists hurried behind them, documenting their every move.

The rallying point for the protest was the city’s main Lenin statue — or, to be more precise, what’s left of it. Kharkiv’s Lenin, which rowdy Ukrainian activists tore down in September, has been reduced to a single boot. The razed statue is now jokingly referred to as the “boot memorial.” Its pedestal is covered by an unsightly green awning with a sign that reads: “Dear People of Kharkiv, Please Pardon the Construction Underway.” The unresolved fate of the memorial is an apt summary of the current state of uncertainty in the city, whose residents appear to be split between supporting a united Ukraine and loyalty to the Kremlin’s manufactured state of Novorossiya. It’s unclear whether most of Kharkiv’s residents would prefer to remove the statue or rebuild it — if they care at all. But Russia is just a half-hour drive away. The vast majority of Kharkivites speak Russian as their native language, and there is unquestionably an active minority of “Soviet expatriates” who yearn for the Motherland. Kharkiv was, indeed, one of the first cities that erupted with talk of separatism last year. For some time in February and March 2014, it looked as if the city would in fact become the next pro-Russian “People’s Republic,” just like Donetsk and Luhansk farther east.

Back then, even the city’s mayor, the notoriously shady Gennady Kernes, supported the city’s “anti-Maidan” movement, which arose in opposition to Kiev’s pro-Western revolution. April was marked by bloody confrontations between pro-Russian protesters, Ukrainian demonstrators, and Ukraine Security Service (SBU) officers. Kernes was placed under house arrest by the Ukrainian government, abruptly changed his tune, and began supporting a Ukrainian Kharkiv. (According to one version of the story, leaders of the local underworld persuaded him to rethink his position.) Soon after, Kernes was shot by unknown gunmen. A period of relative quiet ensued, but in the fall it was broken by the first in a series of terrorist acts that continue to plague the city to this day. Over the past few months Kharkivites have had to adjust to a terrifying new normal.

“The fear, everyone carries it in their own way,” Volodymyr Noskov, a local journalist, told me. “We’re getting used to our new conditions. We all understand that this war is not for one year; the physical, moral exhaustion really wears out your body.” The attacks have been relentless. On October 19, military warehouses came under grenade fire from unknown assailants; around the same time the SBU seized ammunition being sent illegally through the mail. In November, an explosion at Pub Stina, a popular gathering spot for local volunteers and activists, injured eleven people. On Christmas Day, another bomb exploded in a furniture store, injuring none. In January, a bomb at a Kharkiv courthouse injured fourteen. Police began guarding Kharkiv’s strategic infrastructure, and security increased in local supermarkets. On February 9, a bomb exploded at a notary’s office, again with no casualties. That day, an advisor to the SBU announced the detention of two young “saboteurs” who had planned to stage an attack using materials allegedly received from Russian special forces.

According to the Interior Ministry, over 700 pro-Russian separatists have been detained in Kharkiv in recent months. Many are members of clandestine organized groups. A man arrested as a suspect in the Pub Stina bombing turned out to be a member of the “Kharkiv Partisans,” a group that prosecutors say receives support from Russia. Five members of a guerilla cell from the separatist Luhansk People’s Republic were arrested for trying to bomb a military recruitment office and a nearby gas pipeline. This week alone, another attack targeted Kharkiv’s railway system, and the SBU detained a small band of criminals in Kharkiv province with connections to separatists from Donetsk. Gennady Makarov, who helped to organize the recent anti-Kiev protest, is himself a former candidate for governor of the abortive Kharkiv People’s Republic. “All terrorist acts on Ukrainian soil have only one organizer,” Colonel Serhii Halushko, deputy chief of the Defense Ministry’s Department for Information Technologies, told me. “They are part of the Russian war in Ukraine.”

The bombing campaign is hardly limited to Kharkiv: similar explosions have been staged in Odessa, Zaporizhya, Mariupol, and even Kiev. But of those cities, Kharkiv, a mere 25 miles from the Russian border, is probably the easiest target for those wishing to create a new separatist republic. “The Kharkiv People’s Republic may have failed, but now that the Kremlin sees the utter helplessness of the West, and especially the leaders of key countries in the EU, it will try to move the conflict beyond the Donbass,” one Ukrainian news site warned on Wednesday. “That there are weapons here, that everything is ready, everyone understands that,” Svetlana Revzan, a local pro-Ukrainian activist, told me. But who finances Kharkiv’s separatists, and through what channels, is unknown.

Only a fraction of the rioters who participated in last spring’s unrest have been apprehended. The SBU is still searching for separatist sympathizers in the city — the same sort of people Oleksandr Zakharchenko, leader of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, had in mind last week when he threatened to attack Kharkiv if Ukrainian forces broke the latest cease-fire. “First of all, we will destroy ‘the Debaltseve pocket,’” he said, referring to the enclave within separatist territory that has since been abandoned by Ukrainian troops. “Then we will capture Mariupol. And after that, we will throw all our forces into occupying Kharkiv… Some people are waiting for us there. We have a lot of our people in Kharkiv. When it’s necessary, they will take up arms.”

It was on the day after Zakharchenko’s announcement that Makarov, wearing the ubiquitous post-Soviet uniform of a black leather cap and jacket, led his Communist march around the city. He described himself as the “leader of an association for cultural and language equality.” He is the Chairman of the Coordination Council of Russian organizations in Eastern Ukraine, one of many cell-like organizations working to make Kharkiv a Russian city. “We fight against falsification of history and for Russian language, and for Russian culture, and against discrimination of Russian population,” Makarov told me. I asked him and several of his fellow-marchers what they thought of Zakharchenko’s call to arms. “I don’t know, I don’t watch TV. What announcement?” he answered. “We can’t discuss political problems because for any discussion you can end up in prison.” No one among the protesters was willing to say anything about Zakharchenko’s comments — but given their inclinations, it’s hard to imagine that any of them disagreed with him.

It doesn’t help that the endless stream of terrorist attacks has worn down the city’s already depleted capacity to resist. “It’s not only pensioners. It’s hard to say what the percentage is, but probably half of the city doesn’t support Ukraine. People are hiding. They’re sitting and waiting,” Vladimir Mazur, the head of a local TV station, told me. “The explosions aren’t meant to harm people yet,” said Dmitry Kutovyi, a Kharkiv businessman and activist. “They’re meant to cause nervousness. When something blows up every week, people get nervous. The result is that we get distracted. We can’t focus on more important business. We’re always wondering when and where we will get hit.” The psychological toll of the conflict can’t be underestimated. Serhiy Zhadan, a Kharkiv resident and well-known poet, warned of further Russian advances: “They took Debaltseve and they’ll go further,” he told me. “How come they’re not already in Kharkiv?”

One of the main objectives of the Russian takeover of Debaltseve was to gain control over a crucial rail junction between Russia and Donetsk. But the railroad there was largely destroyed in the course of the fighting, and Kharkiv, another vital rail hub, would be a boon to Russian-backed forces. Nor is that the only factor that makes the city a likely target of separatist expansion. Over the past several months, the city has absorbed thousands of refugees and injured fighters from Donetsk and Luhansk. The remains of passengers from flight MH17, the Malaysian airliner shot down over separatist-controlled areas, were brought here for forensic examination. (One thwarted bomb plot targeted a visiting Dutch delegation after the remains were relocated, according to the Los Angeles Times). Kharkiv is also a major hub for volunteer recruitment and an important military base.

“They will always be trying to destabilize us. Until there’s a change of power in Russia, and maybe even after that,” Mazur told me. “Lately, many people have been comparing our situation to Israel and Palestine. We can’t run away from each other but we can’t expect anything good.” Kharkiv hasn’t figured out what to do with its Lenin; nor has it figured out whether it’s ultimately a Russian or Ukrainian city. “Kharkiv is not spoken for,” Lidia Starodubtseva, a professor at Kharkiv University, told me. “The ground here, it’s like lava. It could explode at any moment.”