Everything was going wrong in Kharkiv pretty much since the moment I arrived today, so this afternoon I decided to put all my woes to one side and engage in some culture and some retail therapy. Kharkiv has a giant market full of all sorts of bric-a-brac that I have written about before in these diaries and I thought I’d spend the afternoon there. Before I went, I thought I would enjoy some of the wonderful old cathedrals and a splendid monastery that sits in isolation in central Kharkiv amidst all the bombed out Neo-Stalinist buildings that once pompously lined the city’s enormous central square. I paused for a few minutes in each one to take in something of spirituality and joy in this increasingly desolate and soulless city that feels as though it has had the heart ripped out of it. The buses still mindlessly plough up and down the main thoroughfares but with nobody on them; nobody seems to be going anywhere; this once grand, pompous metropolis has just given up.
I sat by the elderly ladies on park benches outside the churches because the meetings I was anticipating weren’t taking place - the typically chaotic sort of thing that happens in wartime Ukraine and I have got used to it. A haggard old dear approached me to beg but I couldn’t find any coins to spare and I rather pathetically left her empty-handed. Feeling hungry, I thought I might head to the local MacDonalds only to find it boarded up and hollowed out. I went into what advertised itself as an English shoe shop only to find piles of mouldy products stopped one on top of the other in a damp cramped warehouse with no other customers and at shockingly elevated prices. So I went into the gun store.
Kharkiv has by far the best gun and military store of anywhere I have found in Ukraine, and I got chatting with a few lunatics from the International Legion. We paused to survey the selection of hand grenades together, that were just sitting there loose on the shelf waiting for one of us to pull the pin out and roll it across the floor. We studied various varieties of giant carving knives, sniper mats, assault rifles and carbines, and other idiosyncratic objects that this store has for sale. I purchased a very neat pair of sniper’s sunglasses, so now I am all decked out for an afternoon on the sunny roof terraces in Bakhmut. But by this time I’d walked myself to death all over the city and I’d got sick of Kharkiv. The flea market mostly sells poor quality Russian manufactured clothes, mostly of a military variety, which I suppose is no surprise given that Russia is so near but it belies the existence of a war. Trade always continues, even in wartime, and Kharkiv remains what it always was - a commercial gateway between Russia and Ukraine. This has always been where the two nations do business and as far as I can tell it still is.
There’s certainly no need for the body armour here or for the underground hotel with the over-the-top protections (although the hotel is perfectly pleasant). Kharkiv looked like a damp, dreary northern English city on a bleak winter’s day, and that’s how I felt as I muddled around its warren of small stores. The grandiosity of the city I once knew has been lost. Kharkiv’s sheen has been worn away by all this war, and that is undoubtedly a shame as it was once a special place.
Kharkiv is well known also for having lots of bars but unfortunately they’re virtually all of them empty in wartime as the student population in Kharkiv’s various universities is right down; who would go to university only 30 kilometres from the Russian border and with the missiles raining down every few days? Well, one of my friends is such a student and although I don’t know her well I am meeting her after her university classes this evening to enjoy one of these bars. She is a very nice person so it will be a pleasant evening; but the nightlife scene in Kharkiv has really suffered from the loss of its students. There are streets and streets lined with watering holes, half of them boarded up and the other half vacant like school playing fields during the summer holidays. There’s just nobody around. The population of Kharkiv has emptied out because nobody wants to live in the vicinity of an imminent Russian assault upon a metropolis.
I’m starting to think as though these big grey ugly Stalinist concrete blocks of apartments buildings in Kharkiv are staring down at me angrily, as though I’ve done something wrong. Maybe it’s the poor weather; I came from bright sunshine in Lviv to grey drizzly gloom today. Maybe I’m just tired from an overnight session of rattling and rolling on the train. Nevertheless I’ve decided that I’m out of here tomorrow. There are other adventures to see, and Kharkiv isn’t one of them. The ghastly grey palls on people’s faces that predominate here are too depressing and the sunny breezy city of open parks and tree-lined boulevards that I remember from last Autumn just aren’t here anymore. Nor do I think there are many foreigners left here, and very few that are doing anything useful: apart from my occasional friends from the International Legion, interspersing their gun purchases with casual swear words. I’m pleased I came back here, if only for what turned out to be a short period because now I know I probably won’t return. Kharkiv is one of these Ukrainian tragedies, a once glorious city emptied out of people and with its architecture left to rot indefinitely.
I don’t know how you persuade the population that has departed such a place ever to come back, with so violent a menace as the Russian Armed Forces on their doorsteps. And I don’t know how you rebuild so much lost glorious architecture. Whatever the course of this war, Kharkiv seems destined to remain in limbo, and grey empty wasteland on the edge of a hardened front line. Maybe western international intervention will see Kharkiv returned one day to its former glory, another free city along the front line between Europe and the Russians, subject to international oversight and a foreign military presence to keep the Russian hordes at bay. I hope so, but for now these ideas are just my speculation, trying to keep me optimistic about a once beautiful town.