Fragments from a War Diary, Part #49
Early this evening I visited Saltivka, a northeastern suburb of Kharkiv that was shelled heavily by the Russians from the outskirts of the city in the early weeks of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Saltivka is a moderately densely populated suburb of mostly high rise Soviet era buildings organised along a rectangular grid of streets. The residential apartment buildings are not interspersed with any form of light or heavy industry and apart from supporting shops and hospitality venues the area is exclusively residential. It is not obvious why the Russian Armed Forces singled out Saltivka for such extensive bombardment at the same time as they focused upon targets of military and manufacturing significance in an attempt to neutralise Kharkiv as a source of war matériel for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. One possibility is that they were testing whether they might be able to subdue a residential suburb using artillery in readiness for a ground invasion of Kharkiv. The conclusion they apparently reached was that this would not be practical, and the Russian invasion of Kharkiv never in fact took place.
Today there is not much to see for the casual visitor to Saltivka, and I felt something of the gaudy war tourist as I surveyed this typical Soviet scene. Extensive building damage remains evident but the most egregious damage has tarpaulins over it and much reconstruction has taken place or even been completed. A number of windows remain blown out and unreconstructed concrete rubble can be seen in a number of the tall structures in the neighbourhood. The suburb is surrounded by a series of now mostly abandoned military checkpoints including the obligatory piles of tyres and tank trap. It is obvious that at one point the Ukrainian Armed Forces were preparing for a full onslaught by their Russian opponents against Kharkiv with the invading troops coming from Saltivka, and they had made preparations accordingly.
The visit was fairly constructive. The first thing I noticed was that notwithstanding the damage done to the buildings, virtually all of them - with a couple of older, low-lying exceptions - had remained standing. Although the Soviets made their buildings look ugly and not necessarily very comfortable - a number of tall Soviet residential buildings do not have elevators - they were apparently designed to survive direct shelling and missile strikes. Holes were punctured in these enormous monolithic structures, and then they were patched up again afterwards. These buildings were designed to resist armed conquest, and they seem to have done so. Today Saltivka is not the barren wasteland of destroyed buildings and empty of people, that one might imagine from contemporary journalists’ images early in the war last year. Instead the streets were full of people on a sunny Sunday evening at the beginning of October, and I even find a grooving early evening bar-cum-nightclub with music pumping out and full of beautiful people. Or, at least, they were more beautiful than the buildings of Saltivka.
To reach Saltivka involves the by now standard routine of taking the Kharkiv metro to a remote stop, trying to get off at the right place and using the right exit (all easier said than done), and then taking a tram in the wrong direction; getting off; getting on a tram going back in the right direction; getting off that when it veers off course; starting to walk; checking Google Maps; realising it does not work because the GPS is scrambled; and then approaching various more or less unkempt people and asking them for directions in clumsy Russian which directions may or may not be accurate. However I eventually got there. It is perfectly safe, if somewhat arduous, to travel round Ukraine and even to get well off the beaten track. A good pair of shoes is a necessity, as both roads and sidewalks tend to be full of craters or gravel; my shoes are shortly due replacement, as the terrain is gradually ripping holes in the supposedly impermeable rubber. Nevertheless if you are reading this you should not think that Ukraine is a particularly dangerous place to visit. It is not. It is chaotic, disorganised, and on occasion shambolic. It is all the more difficult if you have neither Ukrainian nor Russian language skills. But people do try to be helpful; few of them try to cheat you because they realise that you are here to support them; and there is no danger or petty crime whether on the streets or otherwise.
Having perused Saltivka’s pumping disco-bar, I decided to take a cross-town bus to the location of my evening meeting with my colleagues. Very few people know about the cross-town buses, but they turn out to be faster and more frequent than the metro - as long as you can work out where they are going. As our modern bus rumbled through Kharkiv’s eastern suburbs, we passed one industrial building after another that had been burned out, boarded up, bombed, shelled or razed. I spotted the other passengers on the bus, perusing with dismay the state to which their once fine city had been reduced. Nevertheless they were lucky to be alive. We all are. Kharkiv has been enfeebled because the city’s economic base was industry; and if the Russians could not take Kharkiv for themselves, then they were going to destroy all the vestiges of industrial achievement that the city represented. Hence Kharkiv’s future is now profoundly uncertain. Nevertheless the city is at peace, and there is no danger here. That cannot be said for much of the rest of Ukraine, so close to the front line or to Russia herself.
My cross-town bus dropped me off in a pleasant leafy southeastern suburb of Kharkiv called “Tractor Factory”. Notwithstanding the inauspicious name, the buildings are pleasant and the area manifestly relatively wealthy. The cars on the streets are above average; there are lines of reasonably decent shops; and one of Kharkiv’s better nightlife venues, “Tractor Bar”, was my destination. A pleasant place with cheery music, attractive clientele and attentive staff, Tractor Bar sports an old and decrepit Soviet-era tractor outside its front door as a piece of Soviet kitsch to lure in its customers. The good news however is that I can see no evidence of the existence of a tractor factory in the suburb of Tractor Factory. Maybe the Russians have blown it up. Or maybe that is just an industrial odyssey I can live without discovering on this pleasant Sunday evening.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.