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Reinforced Concrete: From the Kharkiv Diary

In this travel diary, Tetyana Teren writes about the literary city of Kharkiv. The diary was written in June during a train trip she made from Kyiv to Kharkiv together with five Ukrainian PEN writers.

Tetyana Teren is the executive director of PEN Ukraine. She is also active as a curator and journalist, born in 1986.

Credits Text: Tetyana Teren Translation from Ukrainian: Christopher Atwood. Photo: Olha Danylenko September 06 2022

The morning train from Kyiv to Kharkiv arrives on time, which is unusual. Last time I had traveled in that direction, the train was delayed for four hours. It had stopped at every air-raid alert. While still on the train, we change the location on our mobile air-raid alert apps to the city where we’ll spend the next two days. Finally, the alerts meet us upon arriving at the morning station. By ‘us’ I mean the five PEN Ukraine authors who have set off on this literary volunteer trip from Kyiv.

For us, Kharkiv is certainly a literary city. After all, it was here in the 19th century where the Kharkiv school of Ukrainian romantic poets emerged. It was the birthplace of Ukrainian cultural renaissance which arose in the 1920s and a decade later was executed by the Soviet authorities. In the days of Independent Ukraine, each of us had come to Kharkiv on numerous occasions to book presentations, cultural festivals, and for meetings with students. Any introduction to the city would undoubtedly begin with this fact: Kharkiv is a city of students, hosting nearly 70 institutions of higher education. For that reason, everyone who visits Kharkiv speaks about the feeling of perpetual movement and the tireless energy of the city.

On February 24, when Russia launched its full-scale war against Ukraine, Kharkiv and the Kharkiv region became one of the main targets of the enemy offensive. The city remained under constant artillery and rocket fire. Almost a third of the population was forced to leave Kharkiv, the second most populous Ukrainian city after Kyiv. The situation began to change in mid-May, when the Ukrainian military managed to push the Russians out of the city. Nevertheless, intense fighting has continued in the region. Kharkiv itself is only 40 kilometers from the Russian border.

I remembered how, just a month ago, I was talking to a woman and her teenage son on a Kharkiv train. They were traveling to Kharkiv from Poland, where they had spent the previous two months. City officials were still warning everyone against returning to the city, but the woman and her son did it anyway. “I just couldn't wait any longer,” she told me, “You know, this isn’t about safety. You can’t just make a home in a different city, much less in a foreign country.”

The Russian retreat encouraged Kharkiv citizens to come back to the city. Still, there are not many people and cars on the streets (also because of the petrol crisis in Ukraine). Very few of the restaurants and cafes, for which Kharkiv became famous in recent years, remain open. But the ones that keep working are packed with people. We order coffee on one of the most beautiful central streets of Kharkiv, Rymarska, where the Ukrainian writer Mykola Khvylovy lived. We take note of the visitors’ conversations, of their joy at the opportunity to get together here. Right in that moment, I think it is what it is — everyday life in the well-known and beloved city. In the crowd of afternoon diners, many are in military uniform. The mobile application again notifies us of an air-raid alert.

2014 was one of the turning points in Ukraine’s history. It’s the year Russia started its war against Ukraine and occupied Crimea together with some of the territories of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. But it was also a crucial year for Kharkiv. Eight years ago, the city that is located so very near the frontline, became one of the centers for the volunteer movement in Ukraine. Those acquired skills of mutual assistance and self-organization contributed to how quickly different Kharkiv communities came together to help the locals and the Ukrainian army.

Our first stop in Kharkiv is the Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church on Poltavskyi Shliakh Street. This church is a triumph of XVIII century architecture. In atheistic Soviet times it was turned into a movie house called “Start.” Since the 1980s, the history of this church has been inextricably linked with Archbishop Ihor Isichenko, our colleague at PEN, a literary critic and lecturer at Kharkiv Vasyl Karazin National University. The Archbishop has devoted much of his life to restoring the Ukrainian Church’s independence from Russian influence and freeing it from its Soviet legacy, while at the same time developing the Kharkiv community and promoting the emergence of an active, conscious, and responsible citizenry. It was the group cultivated by the Archbishop that launched one of the largest volunteer centers in the church in early March. “The war became an upheaval that helped people open themselves through pain, suffering, and the manifestation of weaknesses in themselves that had gone unnoticed, and, at the same time, the manifestation of strength”, Archbishop Ihor recalls.

At the entrance, there is a queue. Every morning after the church service, bread is distributed here for free. Thus, the smells of bread and incense mix within the temple. Archbishop Ihor takes us to the second floor. Since March, a call center has been operating here for the residents of the city and region, as well as internally displaced persons in need of help due to the war. Since then, more than 4,000 people have turned to the call center for help. Nearby, on the same floor, there is a room for children. Downstairs rooms are stocked with medicine and humanitarian aid, as well as a fully equipped kitchen, where food for volunteers and the military has been prepared throughout all these months. The latter category can be found every day in the noisy and crowded courtyard behind the temple. The military stop by briefly. Everyone asks them about the news, needs, and losses to their battalions. The volunteers unload produce, medicine, and items needed at the frontline from their cars. Then, they stay to drink some coffee. Among them there are quite a few cultural figures: the director of a literary museum, a publisher, an artist, a writer. Having arrived from another city, you see the subtle and elusive connections between those who remained in Kharkiv during all these difficult months of war. Those who decided to live in shelters or even, on principle, refused to go down there. Those who realized that they would not be able to leave their city, and therefore should try to be as useful as possible. Those who have found their place.

Even so, the rich cultural life we remember has not yet returned to Kharkiv. After all, it was not just a literary city, but one of the main cultural centers of Ukraine. A unique creative energy has always raged here. It inspired people to create, to look for something new. Kharkiv offered innovative theaters and galleries that have produced new names in Ukrainian contemporary art. It is the city with the largest number of publishing and printing houses in the country. Kharkiv became home to dozens of leading Ukrainain musicians. It hosts countless international and national Ukrainian cultural festivals. Serhii Zhadan, the writer, translator, musician, and tireless kulturträger, is involved in many of these processes and projects. For several decades now, Serhiy has been changing and rewiring Kharkiv with his texts and cultural initiatives.

Since the end of February, Serhii has been one of the most active Ukrainian volunteers. In the first days of Russia’s full-scale invasion, the writer decided to stay in the city. He spent the most difficult moments of the shelling in a bomb shelter underneath the Kharkiv Puppet Theater, where he’s got his own mattress. Before February 24, Serhii’s social media accounts had featured new poems and songs. In recent months, they’ve turned into a solid volunteer’s diary in which he documents life in the city and makes notes about the Kharkiv residents and servicemembers he has managed to support. Today, in his words, he writes nothing but these texts. “The surrounding reality is much more versatile than any literature”, explains Zhadan.

Today, cultural volunteering takes on many forms. People from several Ukrainian museums have come together to set up the Heritage Emergency Response Initiative. Their objective is to inspect and document the condition of the damaged cultural monuments and, together with the Security Service of Ukraine, to open criminal cases against Russian invaders to recover compensation from the aggressor country. In total, during the full-scale invasion, Russians have destroyed or damaged more than 200 cultural buildings in Ukraine. Tetyana Pylypchuk, the director of the Kharkiv Literary Museum and one of the coordinators of the Heritage Emergency Response Initiative, leads our group to Myronosytska Street. Here, you can clearly see the kinds of wounds war has left on the body of the city. Nothing but walls, for instance, has remained from the building of the Faculty of Economics, one of the most prestigious faculties at Kharkiv Vasyl Karazin National University. This is the result of the three Russian missiles and two blast waves. The servicemen guarding the building already recognize Tetyana. She has come here several times with her colleagues to document the destruction. So we are allowed to enter. Papers, dictionaries, and students’ scorecards with the first pages burnt are scattered across the floor in the rooms that once used to be classes or the professors’ offices.

Broken windows or windows boarded up with plywood, can be seen in every building on the neighboring Sumska Street, Kharkiv’s Main Street. Here we arrive at the largest square in Europe, Kharkiv’s Freedom Square. Photos and videos from there had been shared by the international media in early March. That was when, after Russian bombings, the Kharkiv Regional State Administration building was destroyed. Nothing has been left of it but walls. The sky shines through the collapsed roof, but the building holds up. “It turned out that most of the houses in the center of Kharkiv, which were built in the early twentieth century, are made of reinforced concrete,” says Tetyana Pylypchuk. “That’s why they withstood the attacks.”

The bombings also damaged houses on the street next to the administration building, including the Old Hem art pub which is a popular spot among the Kharkiv cultural community. The basement of the building, a 19th century cultural landmark, was turned into a bomb shelter after the start of the full-scale invasion; today only ruins remain. These are not only losses for our tangible heritage: no place has remained for my memories of conversations, discussions, and stories I had heard in this pub. Not only is Russia killing our cities, it is constantly encroaching on our memory.

The criminality and absurdity of Russia’s actions are most acutely realized in the district of the Northern Saltivka. People were allowed in here only a few weeks ago. Prior to that, this part of Kharkiv was the most shelled. Those residents who refused to leave their homes had to stay in basements and bomb shelters all the time. Northern Saltivka is a typical residential area of the sort you’d find in any Ukrainian city with more than a million people. It’s here, among the single-type high-rise buildings that several hundred thousand ordinary Kharkiv citizens live out their lives. Since my own studentship, I remember the courtyards with fruit trees, homemade tables where neighbors would gather for summer dinners amid the well-groomed flower beds. Life bustles in city centers, but this is where it passes — in these quiet, familial, homey residential neighborhoods.

Now, after the three months of Russia’s war, Northern Saltivka does not exist anymore. Sixteen-story buildings with gaping signs of missile hits, collapsed floors, burnt-out black windows, through which you see the insides of someone else’s ruined life — wallpaper on the walls, charred curtains, remnants of furniture… There are few people at the porches. The district is still bombarded and not mine-cleared yet. Russians keep shelling the village of Tsyrkuny, which is nine kilometers from here. At one of the porches, a family loads a car with whatever had survived in their apartment — a refrigerator, a washing machine, jars of canned fruits and vegetables… In a neighboring building, on one of the upper floors, a resident uses a hook to drop bags with items, with what is left of life as it was until recently. It is difficult to understand, and contain within oneself, all these human lives and destinies, so criminally invaded and destroyed by Russia.

Yet, this is all that has already happened to us before. Russia has repeatedly invaded our culture, our cities, our destinies. You cannot help but think about it in the Slovo house in Kharkiv, where we all gather before our night train to Kyiv. Slovo is one of the symbols of the Ukrainian cultural renaissance of the 1920s, the building that became a meeting place for so many prominent Ukrainian writers of that time. But the wave of Soviet persecution against Ukrainian culture also began with Slovo: starting in 1933, most residents of the house were repressed. This Ukrainian cultural renaissance later became known as the Executed Renaissance: the Soviet regime killed most of the Ukrainian intellectuals active in those years. It is difficult not to think about history repeating itself, when in March 2022 Slovo House was damaged by missile and artillery shells from Russian troops.

Kharkiv teaches us to see the authenticity of things. For many centuries, Russia has been trying to russify Ukrainian cities. It has tortured and killed our artists. It has imposed the names of its cultural, political, and military figures on our streets. The current Russian government is convinced that memory can be erased and history rewritten in order to start an unprovoked, full-scale war against a neighboring country in the 21st century. But memory is like Kharkiv’s reinforced concrete: its walls are so strong that they will not let us forget and forgive anything.

Several years ago, a literary residence began operating in one of the apartments of Slovo House. This evening it’s hosting us. By ‘us’ I mean writers and journalists from Kyiv, Lviv, and Uzhhorod, along with Kharkiv artists, cultural managers, volunteers, and service people. More precisely, a young military couple. Until recently, Alla was a literary and cultural journalist, and now she has enlisted in the army together with her boyfriend. Summer has just begun, yet for them and for each of us, it is still February 24, 2022.

“Tomorrow we will wake up one more day closer to our victory”, Serhiy Zhadan concludes each of his posts on social media.

We board the train to Kyiv. Our mobile application reports an air-raid alert: Kharkiv had been bombed again that night.

4-5 June, 2022

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