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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #397

I’m sitting on the train, swigging and swilling the filthy swollen cognac my friend bought from the local store and I’m looking out at Kharkiv railway station with a sense of sadness and regret, wondering when I will next see this glorious grandiose boastful and beautiful city again. I am drawn to tears as I sit here, thinking of the relentless cruelty of the Russians in bombing and smashing their way through northeastern Ukraine like a set of revolting barbarians, and I think of the people of Kharkiv and their determination to stand fast in the face of this diabolical distortion of the European polity.

Kharkiv exhibits such beauty, such glamour, such fascination and such glory. It was the pride of the Soviet Union, striking out as a model of socialist success and yet the Russians have crushed their own gem. They have destroyed what they wanted to make special in the twentieth century, and like the people of Kharkiv I don’t know whether I can ever forgive them for the wanton cultural vandalism they have inflicted upon this city. They are monsters who devour their own children, who will stop at nothing in the pursuit of their voracious neo-imperial ambitions including even destroying their own cultural assets and alienating the once majority native Russian speaking people who lived in this fantastic Elysium of a city.

Now Kharkiv lies in smoking ruins, with only a handful of remnants of the past jammed between the destroyed buildings and the sense of diabolism that pervades the air as the Russians are just seeking to force out civilians and cause them the maximum damage in the hope of resurrecting Kharkiv in their own ghastly image at some unidentifiable point in the future. These remnants of Kharkiv in its former glory stand proud but they are few and far between. One is the glorious railway station with its hammer beam roof and its socialist realist murals, at one point designed tp impress and overwhelm any visitor from the former Soviet Union as to the success and grandiosity of the Soviet project. Another is the metro, built to be the finest in the Soviet Union after Moscow, a representation of Soviet success in a period of profound stagnation and dismay in the Soviet Union in the 1970’s as the Kremlin realised that they had run out of moral and ideological steam but they still wanted to present a bright face of success to their internal Soviet and Communist audiences. Even in the 1970’s the Soviet Union was trying to present itself as a serious rival to the United States and Europe in terms of aerospace technology, nuclear technology and science and industry in general and contemporary Kharkiv is the product of those aspirations. Now the Russians have destroyed it all.

Another feature of Kharkiv so indicative of the pretensions of the city’s past are its fine restaurants and cultural institutions. At one point, with the purpose of attracting the finest minds from the Communist Party from across the Soviet Union, the Kremlin poured money into Kharkiv and ensured that it had the best of everything. The people of Kharkiv are consequently still used to living well, just as they were in the past, and this is reflected in the technicolour array of its finest cuisine that my friends and I had the pleasure to enjoy this afternoon before we finally wended out way to the railway station to bid our goodbyes. The cultural buildings have for the most part been destroyed, with the exception of the churches: even the Russians are not such crass hoodlums as wantonly to destroy religious buildings with which the centre of Kharkiv is replete.

Now Kharkiv has reinvented itself as a centre for the war effort, and everybody I met is committed to a man and to a woman to preparing food and military supplies and repairing vehicles and doing things to support the war effort. An air of paranoia persists in Kharkiv, presumably from the Soviet times because the city was always much more Russian in spirit than many of the major population centres in Ukraine; nevertheless the people of Kharkiv are united, as far as I can tell, in their determination to maintain their cultural integrity and the integrity of their nation which is Ukraine. They might be living right on the Russian border but they will not be cowed by the aggression and hostility that they have experienced and they will walk to work through the bombs, missiles and drones and volunteer to work for the Ukrainian Armed Forces and this is an extraordinary thing to behold. The sheer tenacity of these people that the Russians expected just to roll over in the early days of the second Russian invasion of Ukraine is extraordinary.

My train is now creeping and jolting out of Kharkiv railway station as I write these words and I see the lights of the station gradually recede into the distance. I wonder when I will be back, and I hope it will be soon. My family have been concerned about me here with all the explosions and drones and bombs and my fearful stories of the chaos. I see armed soldiers and armed police on every corner around the railway station, carrying different types of assault rifles and an assortment of military clothing and other gear, and I realise that everyone is on edge as the train to Lviv pulls out of the station. My friend and I share a glass of this foul home-made, home-distilled cognac as we brace ourselves for the cramped journey back to Lviv and we contemplate what awaits us tomorrow. But I have realised that I am committed to Kharkiv and I salute the courage both of the city’s people and of the brave if isolated members of the international community still present in the city, wondering where all the international attention has gone. I am determined to continue supporting Kharkiv and its people in any way I can. It is an edgy city on the front line of an edgy war, and we must do everything we can to support it.


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