Nationhood forged in blood
Published by The i paper (23rd May, 2022)
Gorky Park sits in the centre of Kharkiv. Before the war, families would flock there to feed squirrels, ride Ukraine’s highest ferris wheel or enjoy some of the other fairground attractions on the 320-acre site. Now it is deserted. I strolled alone down a long avenue of towering chestnut trees, past a burst of vibrant tulips planted by the entrance and ranks of empty park benches. It felt beautifully peaceful – apart from the distant rumble of war, shell holes in the lush grass and a patch of burnt trees where a missile exploded last month, leaving a woman with shrapnel wounds.
Bombarding a place of simple family pleasures symbolises the nihilistic savagery of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. This hideous war, a dictator’s act of self-preservation to crush a blossoming democracy on his border, was dressed up in ludicrous rhetoric about saving fellow Russians in places such as Kharkiv from neo-Nazis in Kyiv. It is horrifying to see the legacy of their “salvation” on streets left lined with burnt flats and broken windows but bereft of people. Thirty per cent of homes are ruined, along with one in five medical facilities, according to Maksym Khaustov, the region’s director of health. Even the children’s hospital was struck three times.
Among the distraught citizens I met was Pavlo, 52, an officer in Ukraine’s army until he left last year due to diabetes. We began chatting outside a block of flats that bore the usual obscene scars of war with blackened walls and shattered windows. He pointed out his family apartment on the seventh floor, a green blind flapping in the wind through windows broken when his neighbour’s flat was hit by a missile. We climbed the stairs to see the cracked walls and smell the smoke that clung to his family’s home, then he showed me where a young female neighbour was killed while smoking a cigarette in the yard outside. “It felt like they were taking revenge on us for not greeting them with flowers so decided to punish our people,” he said.
As we stood in his wrecked home, this charming man told me how his nephew was shot dead while sitting at traffic lights in his car less than six hours after the first missiles were fired in this war. Then he pulled out a black and white photograph from his officer training days in the former Soviet Union, explaining how his former classmates started phoning soon after their forces crossed the border. The Russian officers, some now senior figures in Putin’s military, thought Pavlo would be pleased by arrival of their forces. They promised him a good job and offered protection from torture if he was captured.
Pavlo replied that they must be insane, telling them never to call him again. Yet his story exposed again the delusions behind Putin’s barbarity. As he said, these senior officers “were so brainwashed by television they thought Ukrainians needed to be liberated”. This shows how many Russians fell for their President’s propaganda, believing their leader’s lies and lapping up the idea that supposedly oppressed people in eastern Ukraine would greet their arrival of their forces with delight.
The hostility to Russia and sense of national identity strengthened after Putin’s last attempt to seize Kharkiv in 2014, when this war started in Crimea and the Donbas. Yet to most Ukrainians, the idea of full-scale attack seemed crazy, as I heard often in Kharkiv when visiting before the war. Many officials were unprepared, confronted with unprecedented challenges when attacked. The hospitals saw almost half their staff flee while struggling with chronic drug shortfalls. The regional administration – its office blown apart by a cruise missile – had to grapple with issues such as feeding residents, keeping communications intact and sourcing body bags.
Many top Ukrainian figures have told me they expected Putin only to attack Donbas rather than invade their nation from three sides. This makes their response against the world’s second-largest army so far all the more impressive, even if the Kremlin tactics and logistics have been risible and Western support firmer than expected. Ukraine saved its capital, forced Russia back from Kharkiv, frustrated the enemy in Donbas and even managed to stymie the attack on Mariupol – just 12 miles from the border – for almost three months despite the port’s near-total destruction.
Thanks to Putin and the atrocities of his troops, I heard only hatred for Russia now in this city that has such deep cultural, commercial and historic ties with Moscow. This was Ukraine’s first Soviet capital, developed around a massive square with imposing brutalist buildings rather than the traditional European style flowing from a central market and church that is more typical in western Ukraine. Many residents traditionally spoke Russian. There are about 300 streets in Kharkiv still named after Russian people and places. Yet now the statues are falling: first Georgy Zhukov, their military leader in the Second World War, then last week a statue of Alexandr Nevsky, 13th-century father of modern Russia, was pulled down.
Who knows how this horror story will end? Putin has not just strengthened Nato and united democracies, however, but solidified the spirit of Ukrainian nationhood, forged in the spilled blood and destroyed homes of citizens forced to fight an existential threat from a fascist dictator seeking to crush their society. The depth of hatred is potentially dangerous, even if understandable against a regime that even bombs fun fairs.
Yet it is all too easy to see Putin as some kind of uniquely evil maniac when he stands at apex of a grotesque edifice built on theft and repression, fuelled by distorted history and made all the more lethal by modern technology. “We must wait and hope for him to die but I’m not even sure that will help,” said Pavlo, who fears the war on his city is not over. “It is their whole system. If not him, it will be someone else.”