Fragments from a War Diary, Part #51
Kharkiv was intended to be a paragon Soviet industrial city, and it needed to have a metro that corresponded. Opened in 1975, after the city’s post-World War II industrialisation caused a substantial increase in the city’s population that strained the old-fashioned Soviet trolleybuses and tram routes in an increasingly spread-out urban area, Kharkiv’s metro was the sixth in the Soviet Union. As the city continued to grow in the 1980’s, additional stations and routes were opened and the metro represents one of the last technological achievements of the Soviet period. Although some have said that the Kharkiv metro system is less beautiful than those in Moscow and St Petersburg, this is rather mean: many of the stations are adorned ornately in the art-deco style, particularly in the centre, each representing some pinnacle of Soviet achievement.
The names of the stations are unusual. One is called Turboatom. One is called Army. One is called Tractor Factory (although I could not find the tractor factory; it seems to be a pleasant residential suburb). One is called Prospekt Gagarina, after the Soviet astronaut being the first person in Space. My local station is called Arkhitektora Beketova, after Alexei Beketov, a Russian and then Soviet architect in the classical style who designed several prominent buildings in central Kharkiv and set the style for the city’s classical Stalinist grandiosity. Unfortunately many of the buildings constructed in that style, particularly along Kharkiv’s principal central street vulica Sumska, were destroyed or heavily damaged by aerial bombardment in the early weeks of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Beketov himself died in late 1941 in the Nazi occupation of Kharkiv. He was elderly; I could not establish whether he was murdered as part of the Nazi purge of intellectuals or whether he died of natural causes.
Alexei Beketov, the Soviet architect whose classical designs inspired the Stalinist grandeur of Kharkiv's broad central boulevards. Alas many of the buildings constructed in his style were destroyed in the early weeks of the Russian invasion of Ukraine from late February 2022, and all for no purpose: in the event, the Russians never even attempted to invade Kharkiv.
In those early weeks, the Kharkiv metro became used as an ad hoc bomb shelter as many thousands of people sought refuge in the deep hallways of the metro far underground. Indeed many people came to live in the Kharkiv metro system for a number of weeks as an anticipated Russian assault upon the city was awaited. In the end the assault never came, the metro was evacuated and services were recommenced. Now the Kharkiv metro has the unusual distinction, along with all other Kharkiv public transport, of being entirely free. I am not sure if any other city in the world has totally free public transport; but this is the mechanism that has been put in place in Kharkiv and it might serve as a model to encourage people out of their cars and to use public transport elsewhere in the world. Whatever the purpose of this policy was, it seems to have worked and people now use the Kharkiv metro and the city’s comprehensive bus system largely in lieu of private cars. Kharkiv has some of the best public transport I have seen anywhere in the former Soviet Union.
The trains themselves for the most part are identical with the Soviet trains used in the Moscow and St Petersburg (and Kyiv) metro systems: sturdy, solid, noisy and fast, with hard seats, that hurtle between stations fairly distantly spaced. Central Kharkiv is not in fact a huge place; you can walk between most central locations in about 30 to 45 minutes. Nevertheless there are a number of central metro stations and people do use them. The various limbs of the metro system also go several kilometres out of the centre and serve the city’s principal suburbs.
I find it remarkable that even amidst war and the destruction wrought upon Kharkiv’s cityscape in the early weeks of the Russian “Special Operation in Ukraine”, the metro can still work impeccably. Now that the population of Kharkiv has decreased (and we really do not know how many people still live here and how many have fled), the trains run somewhat less frequently than normal: approximately once every ten to fifteen minutes, depending on the time of day and the day of the week. The service runs from half an hour after curfew is lifted, service beginning at 5.30am, and you are counselled not to attempt to catch a train later than 9.30pm, one and a half hours before the curfew which is at 11pm. Bars and restaurants typically close their doors by 9.30pm each night to allow staff and customers alike to get home using the metro system. In my local British pub - yes, Kharkiv has a superlative British pub with a Union Jack hanging proudly outside - you want to start a bit earlier than normal. In war zones, all waking hours are shifted forward to fit around the curfew.
Notwithstanding the city’s efficiency in advanced Soviet styles of public transport, I cannot help seeing the pain and suffering carried by the users of the metro. Many of the people on the trains and platforms are wearing military fatigues - including occasionally me, with my military jacket with British and Ukrainian flag patches adjacent to one-another. They look glum, despondent and determined, knowing they have just a few days of leave before they must return to the front line. The other passengers - mostly women or the elderly, as the man are mostly on the front - look tired, dreary and fed up. They must continue their daily struggle for existence in this warlike environment. They tramp through the metro’s long passageways and up and down its deep Soviet escalators without pleasure or happiness.
Just before I descend into the Central Market metro station, one of the grand central stations in the Kharkiv metro system full of Soviet mosaics of workers going about their business, I pop into the local military hardware store. Finally I have found a shop that sells various assault rifles, carbines and automatic long-barrelled weapons to the general public. Another shop, almost adjacent, sells hand-held flamethrowers. I wonder casually in my mind what might happen if I were to purchase one of these items and then transport it by metro back to my home. My eyes twinkle momentarily, and I smile ironically while pausing on this thought. Then I realise it is a ludicrous thing to contemplate. These weapons should not be on sale at all, still less to the general public or to wondering foreigners like me. I return my thoughts to the colossal problems of gun control that Ukraine is sure to face once this war is over, and the risks of these weapons spilling over into other states with conflicts or gang violence. The mind shudders.
After reflecting on these potential horrors, I decide to ride the metro home. I will go for a beer with a colleague, starting just a little earlier than usual, and to enjoy that simple pleasure no firearms will be necessary.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.