Ukraine’s second largest city lives in limbo. Its warped reality is fertile ground for conflict and art.
I was recently in Kharkiv for a conference on how to build dialogue in times of conflict. It seemed the right sort of place to have this conversation.
During the revolution and subsequent war in Ukraine, Kharkiv — the country’s second largest city just 40 kilometers from the Russian border — saw violent clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian groups. Today Kharkiv is a bellweather for whether Ukraine can remain united and reform after the revolution, or whether Putin can use it to stir trouble and destroy the country from inside.
At the conference, I bumped into Irina Red, a local psychologist. I first met her last summer, on a previous visit to Kharkiv, when she told me that the usual principles of psychology no longer applied here.
«Our job is to bring our patients back to reality. But how can you do that when there is no common reality? When Russia might invade at any moment and you don’t know what the next day will bring?»
In 2014, on Freedom Square, pro-Russians, boosted by large numbers of actual Russians bussed in from across the border, beat and kicked pro-Ukrainian factions, surrounded them, forced them down on their knees and made them crawl down what they called the «corridor of shame» across the square. The pro-Ukrainians responded by pulling down the Lenin statue.
Bombs were planted at pro-Ukrainian bars and four people died when a bomb exploded at a pro-Ukrainian march in February 2015. The country’s secret services brought people in for a «chat» if they so much as spoke in favor of Putin annexing the region.
Now the main complaint from local activists on the pro-democracy side of the pro-Ukrainian camp relates to the absence of unbiased media outlets: Every political sub-group lives in its own little online world.
I asked Red whether, six months on and with the immediate threat of Russian invasion removed, anything had improved. Things had gotten worse, she told me.
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The situation can be summed up by the career of the town’s most powerful figure, Gennady «Gepa» Kernes. A petty gangster and gambling cheat turned tycoon turned politician, Kernes first opposed the revolution in Kiev, then fled to Russia, and returned, recast as a Ukrainian patriot. He was shot in the back, then reelected as mayor (everyone nurtures their own conspiracy theory about who is behind the shooting).
His first act as mayor had been to undermine the controversial new «de-communization laws» from the post-revolutionary government in Kiev. Parts of these laws were criticized as potentially authoritarian by the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe. The laws directed local authorities to change place names that invoked Soviet political and military leaders — the idea was to forge a clear road ahead and break with the Soviet past.
Instead, Kernes had renamed areas with the same names, claiming they were now named after people who happened to have the same names as Soviet leaders but were actually someone else: “Dzerzhinsk” named after the brother of the founder of the Soviet secret police; “Frunze” after the son of the Soviet General.
The absurdity that surrounded the discussion of place names reflected the sense that both everything and nothing had changed in Kharkiv since the revolution. The pro-democracy activists at the conference were angry Kernes had been reelected.
But the most painful part of this story is that only 35 percent of the town turned out to vote — Kernes won by bringing in the state and factory employees directly dependent on his munificence. The activists railed against Soviet passivity and cynicism, yet let men like Kernes return to power with such ease.
«No one can tell — have we had a revolution or no? What are the new rules?» said Red. «As a psychologist I’m meant to help my patients heal their inner contradictions. But the only way you can survive here is to be contradictory.»
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Lydia Starodubtseva, a film-maker and professor of media and communications at Kharkiv National University, told me she saw Kharkiv’s current conflict as the latest expression of something much older.
«This has always been a city of wanderers,» Starodubtseva said. «In the 17th century it was peopled by Russian soldiers, Western Ukrainian peasants in search of a better life and vagabonds on the run from the law.»
Attempts to create a status quo in Kharkiv tend to fail. The tsars banned Ukrainian books and education — but Kharkiv’s university became a hotbed of Ukrainian romantic nationalism. The Soviets then tried to co-opt Ukrainian nationalism and made Kharkiv the capital of Soviet Ukraine from 1917 to 1935 (in fact — from 1919 to 1934 — ed.n.). They championed a generation of communist-nationalist avant-garde intellectuals who envisioned Kharkiv as the capital of a proletarian civilization but quickly disobeyed the party and were executed in the 1920s. These intellectuals are now held up as heroes to the anti-Soviet Ukrainian diaspora in the West.
During the enforced famine Stalin used to crush Ukrainian peasants, the «holodomor», of the 1930s, the Kharkiv region was one of the worst hit. My grandmother, who came from the city, recalled skeletal children dying in the roads just outside of town. But when the famine was used as a symbol of a new Ukrainian patriotism after 1991, Kharkiv reacted coldly.
Partly because decades of Soviet propaganda denied the famine. But part of the reason, as relatives of famine survivors told me, was that the memory of «holodomor» had become politicized, and took on a new meaning. Centuries of abuse made people resistant to a government that attempted to impose a particular story on them. «You can’t force a single narrative on this city,» said Starodubtseva. «This is a city of disparate, avant-garde movements, little cults».
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Kharkiv’s talent for the avant-garde was already evident in the art and writings of 19th-century romantics and early 20th-century modernists. More recently, it has produced one radical genius after another: photographers Boris Mikhailov and Sergey Bratkov, with their close focus on the everyday underclass; Eduard Limonov, the radical Russian novelist, the equivalent of Houellebecq in France, who went on to become a neo-fascist revolutionary and is now a Putin lover; Serhiy Zhadan, the poet and novelist who became one of Ukraine’s most successful literary exports but is destined to a more limited fame in his home town because he insists on writing in Ukrainian.
The town’s art and design school, one of the original homes of the theory of constructivism, remains a wonder. When I visited over the summer some of its alumni were featured in an exhibition dedicated the effects of the information war. One of the pieces had already been taken down, and was laid out on the ground: a circular, pond-sized pendant of many black and white fragments, a broken collage of hands, miners’ heads and doves’ wings, eyes and roses and runes. The artist was Roman Minin and he happened to be at the gallery that day. He was dressed in the hipster art student uniform, with black-rimmed glasses and jeans, and had just showed his work at an exhibit at the Courtauld Institute in London.
«This work is called ‘A Reward for Silence,’» said Minin. «In this information war only silence could have saved us. But no one stops and stays silent. We’re told to hate someone and we do.»
“We are all caught in mental traps, media pushing us like fish into nets, all our behavior pre-determined, when only silence could have saved us. Silence and amnesia…»
The more he repeated how much we need silence, the louder and faster he spoke.
«I’m afraid to say too much. They say Kharkiv is being sold off secretly to global companies,» he said. «It’s obvious even to a babushka that there’s a geopolitical game above our world. They’ve had a plan for the last 20 years. You can only be stupid if you think things happen coincidentally.»
Minin seemed to be channeling the themes he explored in his own art: Minds assaulted by misinformation to the point where critical thinking breaks down into rumor, conspiracy and myth.
Without a coherent present Kharkiv takes refuge in mystical nostalgias. TV shows and websites are dedicated to dreamy reminiscing of the past. There’s a lotus-eating aspect to the city. In the evenings the streets glow in a gentle, Turner-like golden color, the sun glinting along the two rivers that give the city it’s bifurcated structure (as if its own topography defied a single narrative too).
In his writings, the poet Zhadan compares the city to Mesopotamia, with its Tigris and Euphrates. As I walked between cozy courtyards and Stalinist gothic skyscrapers, gargantuan, stately avenues and low, narrow rows of 19th-century mansions, I suddenly found myself in old Moscow, the spirit of which has long ceased to exist in the building-boomed-to-death Russian capital.
These glimpses of a lost, perfect Sovietica inspired Ilya Khrzhanovsky, a guru-like Russian film director, to travel to Kharkiv in 2008 and shoot historical scenes for his bio-pic on the Nobel-winning quantum physicist Lev Landau, one of three Nobel prize winners — as locals will never tire of telling you — produced by Kharkiv’s universities.
What was meant to be a relatively short shoot changed when Khrzhanovsky’s art designer started to build a bigger set for Landau’s servants in a disused football stadium (in fact — on a place of the outdoor swimming pool of sportcomplex «Dinamo» — ed.n.)
Khrzhanovsky asked the actors to live on set for greater realism — and started to enjoy the experiment. He extended the set and built a recreation of Landau’s Kharkiv laboratory, the street where he lived, and the offices of a defunct Soviet newspaper.
The project became an experiment in recreating the Soviet Union. You were only admitted on the set if you were dressed in Soviet era clothes. At the entrance, extras dressed as KGB guards took away your money and mobile phone. Loudspeakers blasted Soviet era propaganda. A newspaper produced Soviet news. There was a Soviet hairdresser and a Soviet cafeteria. Real scientists performed real experiments on real animals.
When Khrzhanovsky wanted to cause some trouble, he would have one actor report on another to the re-created secret services. The KGB would make arrests. Local politicians like Kernes would appear in episodic scenes. The filming went on for three years (the editing, in London, has been going on for four). Those who took part in the project in Kharkiv told me it immersed them in an odd state where you couldn’t tell the difference between the present, your day dreams and the past.
«Dau», as the project is called, is usually considered to be a testament to Khrzhanovsky’s demiurgical obsession, the story of a film director who doesn’t want to complete his film, because it would spell the end of him playing God. But after spending time in Kharkiv I began to sense that the real demiurge here is the city itself. Its unstructured, seductive nostalgia must have cast its spell Khrzhanovsky.
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Crossing Freedom Square towards evening on the way back to the conference the fog was heavy and I could barely make out the other side of the square. It’s the second largest in Europe, a vast lake of a space with Soviet Neo-Classical government buildings on two sides, the constructivist tarantula of “DerzhProm” at one end and a park that at night looks more like a dark wood on the other. The square seems to fall away into blackness.
«The square is so big that for most of the protests both pro-Ukrainians and pro-Russians could keep to their own side without them ever clashing», Starodubtseva told me.
In some ways the active pro-Russians and the active pro-Ukrainians can also be seen as two avant-garde sects in this city of dreamy passivity. What is striking is not the violence the city has suffered but how little of it there was — most of it having been engineered from outside.
In reaction to the bomb that killed four pro-Ukrainians in February 2015 most of the town simply shrugged. Someone, somewhere, was trying to stir their city into becoming Sarajevo, to push it into a civil war that would cause Putin to have to invade and save it from chaos. They failed.
Kharkiv is not so much a place of bipolar dividing lines and “simmering historical resentment” as a do-as-you-please, disinterested mess of mini-movements.
Which leaves Kharkiv with a series of paradoxes. The population’s political passivity and disinterest in real change that so infuriates pro-democracy activists also means it’s hard to stir up strife: Post-Soviet cynicism saved Kharkiv from Russia. But the fractured nature of life in Kharkhiv also means a unified push for reforms is also impossible. In this world men like Kernes, who can change without ever changing, flourish.
As I sat through the conference I remembered the artist Roman Minin, and how he showed me a new series of works he was working on. He called them «transfomers»: monumental creatures made out of soldered foam that were part flying spirit, part robot, part local gamblers and vagabonds.
They were meant to be archetypes of a city whose essence is instability. Minin made a transformer to represent Kernes, with a Russian roulette wheel in his stomach. When I had left him, Minin was blow-torching more «transformers» in the yard behind Freedom Square.