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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #52

Kharkiv has the luxury of being resplendent with a series of superlative ornate Orthodox Churches. The Cathedral of the Annunciation is certainly the best known. But there are many others. The Assumption Cathedral and the Prokovsky Cathedral are two others that astonish visitors. I have counted dozens of other churches in Kharkiv, catering not just to Eastern Orthodox denominations but to others. It is remarkable to see such a flourishing of culture within Kharkiv’s metropolis.

Indeed the high standards of culture and education, for which Kharkiv has always been known, have received renewed attention in the media recently. Kharkiv’s religious traditions, that support three cathedrals and countless churches across the city, are another indicator not just of the intellectual pride and support for Ukrainian culture found consistently across Kharkiv, but also the emphasis placed upon pursuit of the greater good within the city by all people. Kharkiv has always been a city of educated people, and no person of education, liberal (in the European sense of the word) values and contemplation can suffer the mindless and wanton Russian aggression that Kharkiv suffered.

What I am reminded of in Kharkiv is Stalin’s and the Nazis’ attacks upon Jews and intellectuals that permeated the city in the 1930’s and the early 1940’s when the city was under Nazi occupation. In the face of totalitarianism and government by wanton violence, educated and intellectual people, and the culture they propagate, present an omnipresent threat to dictatorship which rests upon unthinking acceptance of political values, government structures and orders without question or dissent. Education gives you the capacity to question things you are told by those in authority, to reason with such people, and to criticise them and if necessary to disobey them. Authoritarian regimes such as that found in modern Russia not only fail to appreciate the importance of education and questioning in advancing society, but are actively hostile towards it as they perceive it as a threat against their interests.

In the Soviet Union, it was a premise of the governing ideology that history had come to an end. According to Karl Marx, the inventor of the communist ideology writing in the nineteenth century, history had a series of cycles of which feudalism and capitalism were two and then socialism was the third, after revolution, and communism would be a final Nirvana towards which society would progress through socialist transformation. It was a consequence of Marx’s theory that political and philosophical thinking had come to an end, and therefore there was no need for further intellectual or creative movements. Marx and his colleagues had essentially written the last words on all political and other intellectual matters.

This at any rate was how successive Soviet leaders interpreted Marxism, although each of them did in fact develop their own intellectual theories so as to be able to assert that they personally had scored the final intellectual words upon history. The consequence of this approach, so they imagined, was that opposing intellectual ideas that inevitably emerge in any culturally vibrant atmosphere, as educated Kharkiv always has been, were enemies of the Revolution and members of what Marx called the “petty bourgeoisie”: intellectual inferiors trying to detract from the timeless truths of Marxism in order to pursue their own narrow self-interests rather than the greater good. Both Lenin and Stalin developed these ideas to conclude that dissident intellectuals were particularly ripe for persecution under the communist system, and that is why Kharkiv, an educated city that during communist industrialisation attracted yet more educated people to manage and preside over the city’s technological progress, was the subject of periodic purges of its educated classes by the various incarnations of the Soviet secret police.

Kharkiv’s culture and education transcends issues of language. The city has always had a mixture of Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers. Situated close to the border with Russia, and by reason of its status as a Soviet centre of technology, Kharkiv would inevitably attract the Russian intelligentsia throughout the Soviet period just as, in fact, it had done so before during Russian Imperial times precisely because it was known as a cultural centre. Nevertheless the citizens of Kharkiv, whatever their first language and irrespective of their family origins, are united in disgust against the Russian invasion of Ukraine not least because they see it as an attack upon their education and culture, values placed in high store in this city.

The Soviets also tried to suppress religious worship, also a form of cultural domination because within the walls of churches educated priests may propagate independent ideas and even political opposition to oppressive rule. Marx dismissed religion as a drug that caused suffering people to forget their troubles and abandon ideas of revolution and self-development in this life in favour of promises of redemption in a next life. Whatever one thinks of that idea, he neglected another vital role of religion which is to foster independent thinking and to promote education in environments where it may be under attack outside the walls of churches. Religious institutions are places of scholarship and learning and not just, as Marx imagined, places of intellectual suppression. It would be foolish in the extreme to think otherwise, when you study the intimate relationship between religious institutions and public education in the history of western society (and indeed in the histories of virtually all societies).

I am delighted to see religion thriving in Kharkiv. I am delighted to see education thriving. And I am delighted to see the commonality of purpose between Kharkiv’s different people in working to resist Russian aggression in their country. Everyone in Kharkiv shares this common goal, and it is inspiring to work daily amongst people who are doing everything they can, in every way, to contribute to the war effort. That is no doubt why the Russians treated Kharkiv so aggressively and with such contempt in the early weeks of the Russian invasion of Ukraine: they saw the citizens of Kharkiv as a near-existential threat to their wanton and mindless invasion, because there is no ideological, intellectual or political rationale to this war: it is mindless, and its genesis cannot be explained in any terms other than the political power plays of a single man: the President of Russia. The war is not being fought by the Russians with any values in mind, and indeed it is contrary to all the values modern Europe holds so dear: respect for international law, consideration for the welfare of civilians in wartime, economic and political integration of European states, and the right of nations to self-determination.

Hence Kharkiv, as an intellectual centre for Ukrainian patriotism - an Oxford or Cambridge or Harvard or Yale of Ukraine, if you like - once again was to suffer an attempt to crush its spirit, and that is why the city came under mindless bombardment at the beginning of the most recent war. Rows of cultural buildings were destroyed or damaged in central Kharkiv, and as well as the terror this caused the civilian population it was an exercise in wanton cultural vandalism. Nevertheless its effect was to instil in the people of Kharkiv a resolve to resist and a clear understanding that what the Russians are doing is disgraceful and wrong and must be resisted by every means necessary.

If you want to study the war in Ukraine as an intellectual, policy, educational or scientific matter, Kharkiv might well be your best base. Although many people have fled, a number of intelligent, well-educated people remain and they are all working together to achieve the common goal of determined resistance to the Russians. Many of them have suffered appalling privations, and they will tell you about them. Good English is also commonly spoken, as might be expected within a highly educated city. Once you hear these stories, you will understand why resistance to Russian aggression in Europe is so essential a matter of principle.

The staff in my local bar in Kharkiv keep offering me free vodka. I wonder why that is.


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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