Keep calm and carry on: Ukraine’s Kharkiv holds tight under Russian fire

Residents say they won’t be cowed by latest offensive as life continues as usual.

Tulips in Kharkiv
Kharkiv's residents say they are carrying on with normal life, despite news of a renewed military assault by Russia [Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska/Al Jazeera]

As news of Russia’s spring offensive in Kharkiv started to spread through Kharkiv on Friday, Ukraine’s second biggest city did not descend into panic. No caravans of cars with people evacuating have been seen; the conversations in Kharkiv’s cafes are the only sign of concern about the heavy fighting going on north of the city.

Yevgen Shapoval, the head of the military administration of the Vil’khuvatka community in Kharkiv’s Kupiansk district, passed through the city on Friday on the way back to his village, which is next to the border with Russia. The situation there has been more tense.

“Some people are panicking, but not like the occupiers would like them to. Yes, explosions are heard close up and the situation is not easy. It is difficult especially psychologically,” Shapoval says.

The Russian army has reportedly concentrated about 50,000 troops just across the border, likely in an effort to extend the front towards the south and to create a buffer zone that Russian President Vladimir Putin promised earlier this year as a means of halting Ukrainian attacks on Russian border regions.

But Shapoval does not believe that the Russian army will achieve much with its planned offensive. “We must be consistent and believe in Ukraine’s defence forces. So even if they try to do something, to attack, they will get the response they deserve,” he tells Al Jazeera by telephone.

“Yes – some local tactical movements and even some larger-scale offensive operations are possible. But as for Kharkiv, I don’t believe it can be captured.”

Kharkiv, a traditionally Russian-speaking city close to the border, had strong economic and cultural ties with Russia for decades until the start of the war. It has also been a vibrant economic and educational hub as well as the capital of Ukraine’s heavy and defence industries. Its importance for Russia has thus been both symbolic and strategic.

Russia failed to capture Kharkiv in its 2022 offensive, but it did manage to make life for residents hard to bear. In all, since the beginning of the war, Russia has destroyed about 44,000 buildings and pieces of infrastructure in the city.

Tulips in Kharkiv
Tulips bloomed in front of Kharkiv’s city administration building on Freedom Square in April, bringing some normality to the war-torn city [Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska/Al Jazeera]

Towards the end of last year, Russia intensified its attacks against Kharkiv and the surrounding region, targeting in particular its energy infrastructure as well as roads and residential areas, which experienced daily bombings with an array of weapons including long-range glide bombs, drones and ballistic missiles.

“Russia did not advance so it applied a new tactic of particularly fierce shelling, including in the historic centre of the city. The goal is to destroy the territory, put psychological pressure on people, and terminate all work and life,” Yevgen Ivanov, deputy head of the Kharkiv Regional Military Administration, told Al Jazeera in April.

“The tactic is not logical. It focuses on making the territory unliveable.”

With this new Russian offensive has come more intensified fighting northwest of Kharkiv. But it is unclear what the strategy is likely to be.

“A direct attack on Kharkiv is quite unlikely because it is a big city,” says Jakub Palowski, a military expert and deputy editor in chief of website. “Ukraine currently has a mobilised army and, in the absence of a surprise, the defence of such a city would be quite effective.”

It is hard to tell what Russia wants to achieve in the Kharkiv region, he adds. “It might be the opening of a new full-scale front, similar to the Donbas region; actions that would aim at capturing a limited area and accumulating Ukrainian troops in one place, so that they cannot be used elsewhere; or creating conditions for further offensives.”

‘The dance floor is a safe space’

Meanwhile, Kharkiv keeps calm and carries on. Tulips planted in April in front of the city’s administration building on Freedom Square are in full bloom and the city’s cultural and social life continues uninterrupted.

Local museums host exhibitions. Schools took to operating underground in metro stations and one has recently been constructed underground. Life goes on.

According to official data, Kharkiv has lost some 700,000 residents since the war began, but those who stayed behind say they care about the city and want to keep investing in its development, said Anton Nazarko, a 37-year-old singer, entrepreneur and activist.

Anton Nazarko
Anton Nazarko, a local activist and entrepreneur, wants to promote Kharkiv as a city of culture, not war [Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska/Al Jazeera]

Together with a group of friends, who came together to form the “Some People” collective, Nazarko opened a sneaker store where customers can get their shoes styled and decorated and a small music venue for friends to chill out at. Its first location was destroyed in a Russian strike, but the new one in the city centre has so far remained intact.

As he walks through Kharkiv’s modernist streets, Nazarko says he takes pride in his city. He wants to invest in its culture, develop the arts scene and make Kharkiv famous for its creative industry, not just for war.

Crucially, he wants to promote the arts in the Ukrainian language, a departure from Kharkiv’s Soviet and post-Soviet past, dominated by the Russian language.

His most recent undertaking is the Center of New Culture, a place where Ukrainian art, he hopes, will flourish. Located in a former factory, the vast venue hosts a bar and a large dance floor and will also act as a location for art exhibitions, theatre, a co-working and workshop space, a small cinema, a bookshop and a music studio.

“We want people to stay in and to return to Kharkiv. We also want to reach out to young people who have been resettled here from the occupied areas of Donbas,” Nazarko says. “We organise independent theatre performances, concerts and raves for up to 300 people. But only during the day, because the curfew starts at 11pm.”

Nazarko’s group made sure that partying in their venue would be safe. The dance floor in the Centre of New Culture also functions as a bunker.

“There is a saying in rave culture that ‘the dance floor is a safe space’. With us it takes on a literal meaning,” he says.

Nazarko tries not to think about the upcoming Russian offensive. Just like other residents of Kharkiv, he has adapted to living with war. He has not even considered leaving the city and he will not do so, he says, unless Russia occupies the city.

“Maybe our events’ schedule will slightly change depending on the situation,” Nazarko says. “But we will continue to support our people”.

Source: Al Jazeera