Although far from the front line, Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-biggest city, has suffered from the economic and political consequences of the conflict in the Donbas. Indeed, the war has been shaping the population’s opinion for nearly eight years now.
“Ideally situated” between Moscow and Kyiv during the Soviet period, Kharkiv woke up at independence with a new international border 40 kilometres north. This November, just on the other side, Ukraine’s once friendly neighbour began massing equipment and about 100,000 troops, in an effort to exert pressure on Kyiv and the West, according to experts.
But in Kharkiv, there’s little that would make one suspect that a massive military build-up and intense diplomatic talks are going on. On the city’s main square, a Christmas tree has replaced a 20-metre-high statue of Lenin, the tallest in the country until it came down in 2014.
A product of historical migratory flows, notably Russian settlers from the 18th century and later workers from all over the Soviet Union, the city is still marked by its Soviet and imperial past. Russian is the lingua franca for Kharkivians, two-thirds of whom have family in Russia.
“Kharkiv was not only geographically close to Russia, it largely functioned as a city between the two countries,” says Artem Litovchenko, a sociologist at Karazin University in Kharkiv. “On the one hand, the metropolis belonged to Russia’s economic and cultural area, although politically it was Ukraine.” But progressively, intensive cultural and scientific exchange, as well as economic and political co-operation and transport routes, were shut down. Kharkiv factories lost their main contracts with Russia, forcing a process of de-industrialisation.
The Barabashova market is just one example of the economic consequences of the conflict. From its beginnings as a small bazar in 1996, where traders laid off from factories found a way to survive, Barabashova became the largest trading platform in Eastern Europe.
Ten years ago, 200,000 visitors would arrive every day, looking to buy everything from needles to tractors at the 100-hectare bazaar. According to one of its owners, 100,000 people of dozens of nationalities worked at the market before the war. “Today there are more sellers than clients,” Kateryna says ironically, from her stand where she sells hats. The ratio is not that far off: 60,000 workers to 70,000 visitors a day on average, with more at weekends.
At Barabashova, everybody agrees that “everything has changed since the conflict.” Before, Kharkiv was a central location, with customers coming mainly from the Donbas and neighbouring Russia.
For Elena, trading seeds and then jewellery imported from China was a way to survive the 1990s after she lost her job at a factory. “With the war, we lost about 60% of our activities and we had to close our second shop,” laments the 66-year-old, who worries for her business amid the looming invasion. “It's hard to hold on, even if it’s been eight years… although it’s clear everything is artificial and someone is benefitting from it.”
Next to her, Kateryna says she hasn’t watched the news for years, or else she “doesn’t sleep at night.” Five years ago, the 32-year-old fled Luhansk, where both her parents died when their home was bombed.
Most Kharkiv dwellers prefer to avoid the topic of the war, which they see as “politics from both sides.” The elderly look to the Soviet past with nostalgia and young people have nowhere to look, notes Artem Litovchenko, the sociologist.
Here, Maidan gathered only a few hundred people, mostly intellectuals and activists. After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, a group of aspiring separatists attempted to establish a “Kharkiv People’s Republic,” but loyal special security troops, with the support of the regional elites, prevented them from doing so.
“Kharkivians would have liked a scenario like in Crimea, but after the start of the armed conflict in the Donbas, they preferred to keep their opinions to themselves,” explains Yulia Bidenko, a political scientist from Kharkiv. In 2014-2015, the city lived through turbulent times, with shooting incidents and explosions claiming lives on both sides of the political divide.
Whether they look to Moscow or Europe, politicians fail to represent the views of Kharkivians, experts told BMB Ukraine. According to Bidenko, “people here are not pro-Russian or pro-Ukrainian. They are mostly pro-Kharkiv.”
This article originally appeared in FPRI's BMB Ukraine newsletter. Click here to learn more about BMB Ukraine and subscribe to the newsletter.