Despatch from Kharkiv

  • Themes: Ukraine

Beyond the city’s fragile bubble of normality, the fight rages on.

Glow from a Russian rocket attack on Kharkiv
Glow from a Russian rocket attack on Kharkiv. Credit: Dmytro Nikolaienko / Alamy Stock Photo

In Kharkiv, ordinary people didn’t do much to mark the two year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion. ‘There isn’t much to celebrate in barely surviving’, my neighbour explained. Russia’s first strike in the ‘big war’, as people here call it, was on Kharkiv. The missiles took out most of the city’s air defences. Later that day, 24 February 2022, Russian special forces drove along Sumskaya Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, in Tiger armoured vehicles. They drove calmly, hardly expecting to meet the fierce civilian-led resistance that would soon drive them out of the city and eventually out of the region almost entirely.

The bravery of ordinary men and women, who became warriors overnight, has kept Kharkiv free. It is why, instead of FSB torture chambers, Sumskaya Street boasts beautiful cafés, where I can sit, savouring macarons and the overwhelming tiredness of this battered city. In one such café, exactly two years on from the full-scale invasion, everyone is doing their best to ignore the war. Two tables away sits a strikingly disfigured soldier. The unnatural mechanised horror of this war is scarred onto his face. Everyone sees the horror, everyone knows how this happened to him, and everyone tries hard to look away.

Beyond the city’s fragile bubble of normalcy, the fight rages on. In Kupiansk, Kharkiv region, exhausted men are fighting wave upon wave of Russian assault battalions. Their equipment is running out, their friends are dying, and all roads seem to lead to death. Russia’s insistent offensive in Kupiansk is part of a wider strategic objective to seize the administrative borders of Luhansk and Donetsk Oblast, the commander of Ukraine’s 32nd Brigade, responsible for defending this area, tells me. Kupiansk is a major railway hub and its capture would allow the Russians to better supply their troops for assaults further south in east Ukraine. Eyeing up the city of Sloviansk, which they have never fully taken, the Russians are pushing from all directions.

Two years on, this  is what it feels like here in Kharkiv. Pressure from all directions. Phone calls with requests to find donors to buy phones for the resistance in the occupied territories. News clips of Polish farmers blocking goods transit and playing air raid sirens to distress Ukrainians. Nights filled with alarms that rouse you to check the air raid app. There are no missiles setting off from Belgorod, over the border, they are probably flying somewhere else. So you go back to sleep.

Nobody here paid much attention to the politicians and dignitaries making their way to Kyiv to mark the two-year anniversary. Across social media, a thousand posts bloomed: ‘We are so proud to stand with Ukraine.’ But where exactly do these politicians stand? It isn’t always clear. Some of the foreign visitors are as bold in their statements as they are meek in action. Are they in Kyiv to pay homage to Ukrainian bravery or to bask in a glory paid for in blood? Maybe, like me, they do it so they can sleep easier at night, feeling like they have helped somehow.

Yet the people of Kharkiv still don’t sleep at night, no matter how beautiful the rhetoric.

Sometimes, when they are not sleeping, my friends send messages tortured with confused desperation about why America isn’t providing more aid, why the West isn’t doing more to help. They say that the West’s cowardice is leading to dead babies and that the Russians will come for our babies next.

My first instinct is to reply that it isn’t that simple, but maybe it is: Britain, the EU, the US would do more, much more, if our babies were being incinerated by Russian missiles. When I visit Cemetery No. 18 in Kharkiv, it feels unbearably simple. I walk among the flags that mark the gravestones of heroes, prematurely buried under snow and earth. Their eyes stare at you from the portraits that adorn their graves. I can’t meet their gaze.

When I look up, I am alone among the flags. My soldier companions have dispersed to visit their many friends scattered around this graveyard. They easily meet their fallen friends’ eyes because they also know death, and live with it every day.

Many of my companions have PTSD. Sometimes, unexpectedly, they become angry, even scary. In many cases, their marriages and relationships have broken down because the men their wives sent to war came back as different people. They came back with a sadness in their eyes that penetrates even the happiest moments. I like to imagine all the different things that could happen to them for that sadness to be vanquished.

Later, in the same restaurant where they once designed Kharkiv’s would-be resistance movement, should the city fall to the Russians, Dmytro and Yevhen ask me whether the US Congress will approve the next aid package. They ask me when the war will end, when will the West do what it takes to stop him (Putin, they refuse to utter his name). They ask me ‘why don’t you (the West) see that our loved ones and friends are dying like flies’. Someone brings up the Budapest Memorandum, the shallowness of the EU, NATO’s refusal to offer Ukraine membership. Their questions land like cries of anguish into the dark, a darkness illuminated sporadically by the artificial lighting of a Western politician’s photoshoot.

Sometimes I feel upset by these questions. I want to argue that their accusations are unfair, that Britain has done more than other countries, that the vast majority of Europeans are on Ukraine’s side. I want to list the details of recent Swedish and Norwegian military aid packages. I know, though, that such answers are coldly bureaucratic insults when pronounced to people who have lost so much and will lose so much more – their limbs, their minds, their loved ones, their lives – before this war is over.

Meanwhile, in the West, the taxpayers who contribute to these military aid packages feel a lesser but still persistent sense of disorientation. When will this war end? What will it take to stop the killing and the pain, to protect Ukrainian civilians, to save Ukrainian lives? Some in the West even try to convince themselves that Ukraine’s capitulation will bring peace. The reality is that it will bring only further child deportations, torture, assassinations, and edge the war ever closer to their own homes. Among Ukraine’s allies, the populations engage in wishful thinking, searching for political leaders who have the courage to tell the truth, as ugly as it is – and it is truly ugly – and devise a plan of action.

There are no such leaders right now. Instead, there is just this question, raised in dozens of different languages, in anguished voices: When will the war end? The Ukrainian voice is more anguished and more persistent than the others but it makes no difference to my answer because I don’t have one. I don’t know when the war will end. Nobody does.


Jade McGlynn