East v. West

03.13.14

Is Kharkiv Ukraine’s Next Tipping Point?

Kharkiv, the old Soviet capital of Ukraine, is torn between its pro-Russia past and the new masters in Kiev—and it be will one of the major bellwethers for the country’s united or divided future.

“I want to smash the television for its fascist propaganda,” shouted the speaker at a pro-Russian rally in Ukraine’s eastern stronghold of Kharkiv last weekend. In response, the boisterous crowd waved red flags emblazoned with the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union and cried, “Kharkiv, wake up.”  With the largest Lenin statue in Ukraine forming the backdrop to this ‘anti-fascist’ demonstration, the protestors were energized by the glories of the Soviet past. The next speaker exhorted the crowd to storm the headquarters of the regional government down the road, which was being protected by a phalanx of riot police.

The gathering, however—which was heavy on pensioners— didn’t seem inclined for now to repeat the previous Saturday’s storming of the building, which saw dozens injured in fierce clashes before the government regained the upper hand.

Most natives speak Russian as their first language, and are more in thrall to Russian culture than Ukrainian. Pushkin, not Shevchenko, is their poet of choice.

“I’m here to support family values, and not engage in violent acts,” declared Arsen Sargasyan, a Kharkiv native with Armenian roots. “In Europe and the United States, children are taught that homosexuality is normal. I don’t want to bring up my kids in a perverted society like that.”

It was to Kharkiv that former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych first fled after abandoning his palatial estate in Kiev on Feb 22. The local government was strongly supportive of the fugitive president and vocal in its criticism of the Maidan. He was hailed there as a hero by the city’s elite, even after the bloody massacre on Kiev’s Independence Square had revulsed the world.

Ukraine’s second-largest city, and its first Soviet capital, is a world away from the pro-European revolutionary fervor of Kiev. Most natives speak Russian as their first language, and are more in thrall to Russian culture than Ukrainian. Pushkin, not Shevchenko, is their poet of choice. With the Russian border just 30 miles away, the big neighbor casts a long shadow over this industrial city. Lenin still towers over the main square, whose streets are dotted with posters advertising upcoming gigs by Russian pop stars and theaters. Kharkiv was the first city in Ukraine to embrace Communism, and was the first capital of Soviet Ukraine between the wars. The city is also famous for the Malyshev Tractor Factory, which built many of the Soviet Union’s iconic tanks, including the Cold War’s T-80 series. The residents’ memories of the Soviet Union are also a lot rosier than those from Western Ukraine, who were forcibly annexed after the Second World War.

When some pro-European activists tried to take down the statue of Lenin, the city’s taxi drivers scuttled their efforts by surrounding the monument in defense. The Lenin statue has now become the focal point of protests for Russia, and against the ‘fascists’ in Kiev.

Ukraine’s future as a unified state depends on bellwether cities like Kharkiv, where residents are split between pro-European and pro-Russian camps. 

The city’s political elite, however, were firmly pro-Yanukovych until recently. Both the city’s Mayor and Governor were caught with their pants down, literally, when the revolution succeeded. Their first response was to flee the city and head to Russia for a few days. However, on their return, Gennady Kernes, the city’s mayor—who was instrumental in organizing anti-Maidan protests—did a remarkable about-face and pledged his loyalty to the new government in Kiev. He claimed that he was a ‘prisoner’ of the Yanukovych system, and had no choice in his actions. The region’s popular governor Mikhail Dobkin, meanwhile, announced his candidacy for president in the upcoming elections. The new rulers in Kiev, however, don’t seem in a forgiving mood. Dobkin, was arrested Monday on charges of ‘inciting separatism’ in a dramatic move that has sent shock waves through the region. Kernes has also been called in for questioning.

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Pro-Russian demonstrators take part in a rally in front of a statue of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin in central Kharkiv on March 8, 2014. (Reuters)

While the new government has a right to clamp down on separatist sentiments to preserve the country’s unity, its heavyhanded tactics risk alienating many on the sidelines. Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s most prominent oligarch, expressed shock at Dobkin’s arrest and has warned the government against ‘inflaming’ the situation in the East further. Though a good majority of residents of Kharkiv are in favor of the new government, and remaining within Ukraine, they’re very prickly about interference from Kiev.

“We don’t want nationalists from the Right Sector telling us what to do,” said a local businessman, with mutual friends in Kiev. “We have our own way of doing things in Kharkiv, and we want to keep it that way.”

It was a sentiment shared by many in this ‘bridge’ city between Russia and Ukraine.

Though a good majority of residents of Kharkiv are in favor of the new government, and remaining within Ukraine, they’re very prickly about interference from Kiev.

“Even though we love Ukraine, we don’t have to agree with everything said on the Maidan,” declared another Kharkiv resident.

With its wide boulevards and grand buildings funneling into narrow, balcony-lined streets, Kharkiv feels like a European version of a provincial Russian city. Rollerbladers careen down its immaculate sidewalks while couples stroll leisurely past. Gorki Park, the city’s Central Park, has been cleaned up and remodeled in the past few years, and is now the pride of Kharkiv natives. It had a festive air last Sunday as residents flooded into the spotlessly clean park to soak up the first rays of spring. With its ‘French’ gardens, children’s playground, and clean public toilets, the park feels more European than any of Kiev’s garbage-strewn public spaces.

The vibe in the city is more Mediterranean than Russian. It’s that laid-back culture that sets the city within the European sphere of influence, and apart from a nationalistic Russia.

At a local poker club catty corner from the Lenin statue, players were dismissive of the pro-Russia protestors.

“In Russia, they wouldn’t be able to stand on the square and speak their minds,” noted a player. “They’d be thrown in jail for such provocations.”

“Why are some people so keen to unite with Russia?” another said. “Poker is illegal there.” He shook his head and added, “We should be demonstrating to unite with America. Or better even, Las Vegas.”

It was clear after an hour at the Hold ‘Em tables that there were no separatists in the poker rooms at least. They were all card-carrying Ukrainians, who were somewhat suspicious of Russia. Instead, they were concerned about events in the Crimea, and worried about a friend who had recently bought a summer house there.

Despite its Russian-speaking natives, Kharkiv still feels very much like Ukraine. It was a major center of Ukrainian culture within the Russian empire, and has always been part of this country. It is unlikely that this ‘revolution’ in Kiev will sever a centuries-old bond.

However, it’s also important that the new government doesn’t alienate its residents with a ‘witchhunt’ or a heavy-handed imposition of Western Ukrainian values. That would certainly end up inflaming sentiments against the capital, and increase support for more autonomy within Ukraine. With Russia just next door, and Putin intent on carving out what he can from a weak Ukraine, the results might be all too predictable. The next critical few months will determine whether cities like Kharkiv—and its troubled neighbor Donetsk—can become comfortable again inside the mould of the new Ukraine.