When we first visited the Eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv a month ago it was a hair’s breadth away from falling under separatist control. Our friends in the city were preparing an evacuation plan in case of a Russian invasion, while armed mobs of separatists were roaming the streets armed with bats, knives, axes, and even guns, ready to attack any pro-Ukrainian activist they spotted.
Kharkiv in April 2014. This image shows the aftermath of a separatist takeover of the Kharkiv Regional Administration building. All photos by Eugene Bondarenko.
Government offices were being taken over, while heavily armed policemen stood idle and in some cases even collaborated with pro-Russian forces; in one instance police from Poltava and Vinnytsia had to be brought in to keep the peace. The city government, headed up by Hennadiy Kernes, who recently survived an assassination attempt, was waiting to see which way the wind would blow and despite being elected by Ukrainian citizens was reluctant to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Kharkiv was a key target for pro-Russian separatists because it lies at the crossroads of important routes leading to other Eastern Ukrainian cities. Separatist control in Kharkiv would make an Eastern Ukrainian state viable, while Ukrainian control would mean that the separatists could at most establish a frozen conflict zone like in Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia.
On our latest visit, less than two months later, we found a peaceful city, draped in Ukrainian flags, full of people going about their daily lives, relaxing in the city’s many parks and calmly strolling around its central streets so well-known in Ukraine for their eclectic architecture. The separatists have vanished without a trace. So what happened while we were gone? Shortly after our last visit the city government finally decided that it would side with the leadership in Kyiv. Covert police raids and arrests of separatist leaders helped to undermine the pro-Russian movement and compromise its ability to carry out well-organized operations. Increased police commitment to keeping the peace also played a key role. However, the key factor in the change of course was not a police crackdown, but rather the firm stance taken by the people of Kharkiv, its civil society, in support of Ukrainian unity and statehood. Despite separatist threats, activists continued to organize pro-Ukrainian rallies, some of which were violently broken up by pro-Russian thugs wielding clubs and other weapons. The separatists did not succeed in either scaring the loyalists into submission, or forcing them to also take up arms and thus starting a civil war and creating a pretext for Russia to send in “peacekeepers.”
The perseverance of the people of Kharkiv cannot be explained by just one factor, but certainly one of the decisive elements that kept the pro-Ukrainian activists going was the legacy of the Euromaidan protests. Unlike the 2004 Orange Revolution, which was in essence a revolution of the intelligentsia, the Ukrainian Revolution of 2014 showed that if united, the people of Ukraine can overcome oppressive and hostile rulers, no matter what dirty tactics are used to keep the populace frightened. While the Orange Revolution gave Independence Square in Kyiv its legacy of being a space for open political protest, the 2014 Revolution gave the same value to the square around the Taras Shevchenko statue in Kharkiv, the central square in Dnipropetrovsk, and many other public places in other cities. Last Sunday we witnessed the Taras Shevchenko square being used as a public platform for a pro-Ukrainian meeting for the first time since the formal inauguration of Petro Poroshenko as Ukraine’s 5th President. The meeting was attended by about 500 people and used as a forum to discuss the future political course of the city. What made it different from a revolutionary protest was that instead of demanding something from the government, the citizens were trying to organize and build up the strength of the new civil society they are trying to build.
A pro-Ukrainian rally in Kharkiv in June 2014.
The last time I left Kharkiv, I caught myself thinking that I may never see the city under Ukrainian control again. Back then a separatist takeover and a Russian invasion similar to the occupation of Crimea seemed only a matter of time. I was concerned for the fate of all the people I had met there and saddened that Ukraine was going to lose this beautiful city. This time around, I could not help but smile as the train pulled away from the station, knowing that my friends were safe, and that I had one more place in Ukraine to be proud of.