Although far from the front line, Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, suffered the economic and political consequences of the conflict in Donbass. Indeed, war has been shaping public opinion for almost eight years now.
“Ideally located” between Moscow and Kiev in Soviet times, Kharkiv woke up to independence with a new international border 40 kilometers to the north. Last November, just across the country, Ukraine’s once-friendly neighbor began to collect materiel and around 100,000 troops, with the aim of putting pressure on Kiev and the West, experts said.
But in Kharkiv, there is not much to suggest that a massive military build-up and intense diplomatic talks are underway. In the city’s main square, a Christmas tree replaced a 20-meter-tall statue of Lenin, the tallest in the country until it fell in 2014.
A product of historic migratory flows, including 18th-century Russian settlers and later workers from across the Soviet Union, the city is still marked by its Soviet and imperial past. Russian is the lingua franca of the Kharkivians, two-thirds of whom have family in Russia.
“Kharkiv was not only geographically close to Russia, it largely functioned as a city between the two countries,” explains Artem Litovchenko, a sociologist at Karazin University in Kharkiv. “On the one hand, the metropolis belonged to the economic and cultural area of Russia, although politically it was Ukraine. But gradually, intensive cultural and scientific exchanges, as well as economic and political cooperation and transport routes were closed. The Kharkiv factories lost their main contracts with Russia, forcing a process of deindustrialization.
The Barabashova market is just one example of the economic consequences of the conflict. From its beginnings as a small bazaar in 1996, where traders laid off from factories found a way to survive, Barabashova has grown into the largest trading hub in Eastern Europe.
Ten years ago, 200,000 visitors arrived every day, looking to buy everything from needles to tractors, in the 100 hectare bazaar. According to one of its owners, 100,000 people of dozens of nationalities worked in the market before the war. “Today, there are more sellers than customers”, ironically Kateryna, from her stand where she sells hats. The ratio is not that far: 60,000 workers for 70,000 visitors per day on average, with more on weekends.
In Barabashova, everyone agrees that “everything has changed since the conflict”. Before, Kharkiv was a central location, with clients coming mainly from Donbass and neighboring Russia.
For Elena, trading in seeds and then in jewelry imported from China was a way to survive the 90s after losing her job in a factory. “With the war, we lost about 60% of our business and had to close our second store,” laments the 66-year-old, who worries about her business amid the impending invasion. “It’s hard to hold on, even though it’s been eight years… even though it’s clear that everything is artificial and someone is taking advantage of it.
Beside her, Kateryna says she hasn’t watched the news for years, or “doesn’t sleep at night”. Five years ago, the 32-year-old fled Luhansk, where both her parents died in the bombing of their home.
Most residents of Kharkiv prefer to avoid the subject of war, which they see as “the policy of both sides”. The elderly look at the Soviet past with nostalgia and the young have nowhere to look, notes Artem Litovchenko, the sociologist.
Here, Maidan gathered only a few hundred people, mostly intellectuals and activists. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, a group of aspiring separatists attempted to establish a “Kharkiv People’s Republic”, but loyal special security troops, with the support of regional elites, did so. prevented.
“The Kharkivians would have liked a scenario like in Crimea, but after the start of the armed conflict in Donbass, they preferred to keep their opinions to themselves”, explains Yulia Bidenko, political scientist from Kharkiv. In 2014-2015, the city went through a turbulent period, with gunfire and explosions killing people on both sides of the political line.
Whether they look to Moscow or Europe, politicians do not represent the Kharkivians’ point of view, experts told BMB Ukraine. According to Bidenko, “The people here are neither pro-Russian nor pro-Ukrainian. Most of them are pro-Kharkiv.
This article originally appeared in FPRI’s BMB Ukraine newsletter. Click here to learn more about BMB Ukraine and to subscribe to the newsletter.
Photo: Sergiy Bobok. From Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0 license.