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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #46

Kharkiv is a large, modern city with an unusual history most of which is attributable to the Soviet era although a settlement has existed here since the seventeenth century. The Russian Empire had traditionally been suspicious of Ukrainian culture, and Kharkiv had a reputation for use of the Ukrainian language and for preservation of Ukrainian customs before the Bolshevik Revolution. As a result the city was neglected. However the Bolsheviks had grander plans in store for Kharkiv; they decided to Russify the city and to make it the capital of their nascent Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The reason they did this was because Kharkiv was far closer to Russian territory than distant Kyiv; its cultural resonance for Ukrainians made it an appropriate capital; and the Bolsheviks harboured suspicion over the people of Kyiv whose loyalties were not imagined to be as supportive of the socialist revolution the Bolsheviks had in mind. The competing Ukrainian socialist independence movement to the Bolsheviks, the Ukrainian People’s Republic that had been allied with the Mensheviks (the Bolsheviks’ principal opponents in the Russian Civil War), had established their capital in Kyiv and hence upon the Bolshevik victory Ukraine’s capital would be moved to Kyiv.

Notwithstanding the large proportion of the population in Kharkiv that was Russian in the early twentieth century, Ukraine’s traditional rural communities were emptying out as feudalism collapsed in and around the events that led to the Bolshevik Revolution. The Russian Revolution was premised upon the fact that the substantial majority of the population of the Russian Empire lived in atrocious conditions of feudal poverty; those people moved to the cities on the instigation of the Bolshevik revolutionaries, and served as enormous ad hoc armies that forced the Russian Empire’s leaders from office amidst waves of bloody massacres. The people who moved from rural life to the cities in the course of the Russian Revolution and subsequent events never moved back; those people formed the backdown of the Soviet Union’s rapid industrialisation in the early years of communist rule and they became factory and construction workers, as well as populating the increasingly massive Red Army. It was with this massive sea of labourers, whose efforts had been transferred from feudal agriculture to Soviet industrial command economy industrialisation, that the Soviet Union and modern Russia was built.

These experiences were perhaps unique in history. Never elsewhere have so many people been transplanted from rural to urban living. The essence of Stalin’s Five Year Plans, his liquidation of the Kulaks (rural landowning classes with feudal routes under the imperial system), and his forced collectivisation of agricultural landownings that led to the catastrophic Ukrainian Holodmor (famine) in 1932-33 in which millions of peasants died in the Ukrainian countryside because their feudal landholdings had been collectivised and they no longer had access to subsistence farming, were all integral parts of transforming Russia and her former colonies from agricultural backwaters to the contemporary heavily industrialised Superpower to which Stalin aspired and which he eventually achieved. The cost in terms of human lives was colossal; but it was ultimately a successful project albeit one that could only implemented with totalitarian means of population control. That is the explanation of why totalitarian thinking remains so prevalent in Russia today; the country and her Soviet satellites were built upon command economy thinking in which freedom of thought, innovation and entrepreneurship had no place. Such independence of ideas could only be hindrances to the massive Soviet project of industrialisation of a feudal state and rocketing the Soviet Union ahead of the West, and in particular the United States, from a position of such prior inferiority. This was the Marxist-Leninist project in its most fundamental form, and it was Stalin’s determination to stamp out all independent thinking, and to treat lives as entirely expendable in pursuit of this ideological goal, that caused the Soviet Union to develop as it did (and no doubt to persist as long as it did).

All these matters had consequences for Kharkiv. The city’s proximity to Russia; the Bolsheviks’ desire to Russify the city to dilute its separatist cultural potential; and the influx of educated classes to oversee Kharkiv’s rapid industrialisation at the end of the Russian Revolution, together with the arrival of administrators as befitted the new capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, all encouraged the arrival of a lot of Russians. However forced collectivisation and the Holodmor caused huge numbers of Ukrainians to emigrate to Kharkiv from the surrounding countryside because as their feudal structures were being dismantled in favour of Soviet ones they would starve to death unless they moved into the city and began new lives as industrial workers. That is how Kharkiv grew into Ukraine’s second largest city and one of the largest cities in the Soviet Union, with mixed Ukrainian and Russian populations.

By reason of the relative tolerance of Ukrainian culture in Kharkiv in the early Soviet Union period, reports of the Holodmor and the horrors of forced agricultural collectivisation spread from Kharkiv which became an epicentre for the dramatic changes being imposed upon Ukraine’s rural areas by virtue of Stalin’s central planning. As a result there was a clampdown upon Ukrainian culture in the mid-1930’s, and a large number of Kharkiv intellectuals and cultural figures were murdered by the NKVD, Stalin’s predecessor to what is now the FSB in Russia. The Nazis reached Kharkiv in October 1941 and the city was comprehensively destroyed in World War II, reducing the population from perhaps 1.4 million to some 200,000. The Soviet Union had industrialised Kharkiv but evacuated its industries to the Urals, mostly by train, to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Nazis. The city was then heavily re-industrialised after the end of World War II, leading it to Kharkiv becoming a major centre for military production. This brought with it the incidents of wealth, and Kharkiv was rebuilt. Professional and educated people moved to the city, which is why the university became a key institution in the pro-democracy movement that developed in the late 1980’s. Nevertheless the predominantly Russian population wished to retain the strong infrastructure, energy and transport links that existed between Kharkiv and Russia even after the fragmentation of the Soviet Union, and the city remained loyal to pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich until his ouster in the Maidan Revolution in early 2014.

In Ukraine’s post-Soviet independence period, Kharkiv had been a centre for trade with Russia by reason of the city’s proximity with the Russian border and its presence upon major rail and road arteries leading to Russia. After 2014, and the Russian annexation of Crimea and Russian-backed uprisings in the Donbas, the coal and steel rich territories in eastern Ukraine close to Kharkiv, the city’s economic activity began to dry up and Kharkiv saw a substantial exodus of its younger population to the West, particularly after the Schengen Zone abolished the requirement for Ukrainian citizens to carry visas in June 2017. Since then the population has steadily fallen and the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine only accelerated a process that was already well underway. I have been told that the population of Kharkiv is now barely 200,000 from a height of 1,500,000 but I have no way of checking this figure and neither, I imagine, does my interlocutor. We simply don’t know how many people are left in Kharkiv at this stage. Now a military garrison town, like many Ukrainian cities close to the front line, the city has begun to be repopulated by soldiers and their families.

Kharkiv is a grandiose city built in the Soviet style with a glorious if controversial history amidst the Soviet Union but a profoundly uncertain future. How will Ukraine and the West ever persuade Kharkiv’s departed population to return? The Russian Armed Forces have destroyed most of the industrial facilities in the city, that once comprised its economic backbone, to prevent them being exploited for military purposes. Aside from that, the Russians have abandoned the city and so, in substantial part, have the Ukrainians, save to use it as a base for their military operations. While Kharkiv is beautiful and striking, its streets are eerily quiet after dark. The city has an exhilarating pulse of a kind, but its future is deeply uncertain.


Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.

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