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A Regional Perspective
(Re-) Locating Kharkiv: Exploring Perceptions of Belonging during Maidan and the Donbas Insurrection
In east Ukraine, the city of Kharkiv has always occupied a special position. Kharkiv prides itself on its history as the first capital of Soviet Ukraine and although the city, unlike the surrounding region, is largely Russian-speaking, it has well-documented Ukrainian roots. However, Kharkiv as a city of education, technology and trade is also an attractor for people from neighbouring regions in Ukraine, as well as from across the border in Russian Belgorod and beyond.
During the evolution of Euromaidan in Kyiv, the anti-government protests in east Ukraine and the phase of military violence in Donbas, Kharkiv alternated between the centre of attention and the periphery. Large manifestations of activism and protest and dramatic events, such as a series of seizures of the regional administration building and the April shooting of the city’s mayor, resulted in relative continuity in local power relations. The Donbas war made the region the headquarters of the anti-terrorist operation (ATO) and the largest recipient of internally displaced persons (IDP).
Kharkiv often seems to lay claim to something particular, making it different from its presumed context, whichever this may be. The quest to frame Kharkiv’s identity has been approached by scholars in a variety of ways. The continuing preoccupation with the topic indicates that the answer is not a simple one. Is it perhaps like Kharkiv scholar Musiezdov asserts that “we cannot state a stable identity of Kharkiv”?
If that is the case, have perceptions of the city’s identity changed since the start of Euromaidan? Is Kharkiv, in the eyes of its inhabitants, a different place than it was one year ago? Or have events perhaps brought new clarity to existing notions of what constitutes Kharkiv’s identity?
This research, in addition to literature and local news review, included local observations and interviews with scholars in Kharkiv and Kyiv, leaders of the local Maidan movement, administration and activists in Kharkiv and Donetsk oblasts.
The history of Kharkiv from its beginnings around 1654 is often divided into periods, each with its distinct development. They all contributed their share to images of Kharkiv, persisting to this day.
Populated initially by Cossacks and fugitive peasants in the mid-17th c., the town’s rule by Moscow was for decades mostly nominal. Personal names in annals testify to a mainly Ukrainian population, ruled according to Cossack custom and exempt from taxes in exchange for protection. Known then as Slobids’ka Ukraina (‘free Ukrainian land’), it retained this name as a Russian administrative unit up until the early 19th c. Kharkiv became at once a free land and a borderland.
In 1805, Kharkiv university was founded as part of St Petersburg imperial planning. The event would give rise to the strong image today of Kharkiv as a city of learning and research. The existing image of Kharkiv as a centre of trade was complemented with the arrival of the railway in the 1860s with one of industrial production – but it also linked the town firmer to imperial Russia.
After the October revolution, the Bolsheviks turned Kharkiv into the first capital of Soviet Ukraine (1919-34). Grand construction projects and a strong boost of the academic and industrial images are associated with this era. But the period is problematic in independent Ukraine, due to the city’s role in the war against the Ukrainian People’s Republic. Kharkiv the First Capital is therefore perhaps less a Ukrainian than a Soviet image of a city which was by then largely Russian-speaking.
City and region
Kharkiv oblast (administrative unit) is usually associated with an “eastern” or “south-eastern” macro-region within Ukraine. But the city has also developed an identity distinct from its hinterland, influenced by its urban history as well as by its location in a wider sense. Kharkiv’s international atmosphere, evoked by its many students and cultural minorities, combines with the traditional Slobids’ka Ukraina to create the notion of a city independent from its surroundings.
The Ukrainian–Russian border is not physically demarcated, but the border is, in the words of researcher Tatiana Zhurzhenko, “invested with special symbolic meaning. It is the lack of clear boundaries which makes Ukrainian identity formation a problem”. The border is also a very concrete feature of the intensive trade flows between Kharkiv and Russia.
The city’s present socio-economic identity is a compound of competing images. A city of academics, workers, traders or culture are all valid descriptions, but most Kharkivites, influenced by their own belonging, are likely to have a preference for one of these images. Kharkiv is also a geographically segregated city, confirmed by Kharkivites’ own attitudes towards the city’s different districts. Kharkivites are on average politically inactive, at least when it comes to voting. This has been the case since at least the early 1990s and the city has lower turnout than the surrounding region.
Kharkiv is a majority Russian-speaking city, while Kharkiv oblast’ is a majority Ukrainian-speaking region (54% Ukrainian, 44% Russian, including the city). Language has been the focus of many attempts to define the identity of Kharkiv and its inhabitants, but it is far from obvious if or how Russian-speaking urban Kharkiv implies it is a “Russian” city. In some views, building on a combination of the free land and borderland images, any national definition of Kharkiv even runs contrary to the city’s identity.
History unfolding: Autumn 2013 – Autumn 2014
The setting in which Kharkiv exists has changed dramatically since the start of Maidan, both in a political and geopolitical sense. The centralised power structure of Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of Regions (PoR), in which Kharkiv city and oblast were mostly loyal components, was abruptly dissolved in February 2014 after mass demonstrations, mirrored on a smaller scale in Kharkiv. Anti-Maidan protests which started in Kharkiv and other eastern cities triggered events that would within months lead to the establishment of new de facto borders within Ukraine in Kharkiv’s immediate neighbourhood. Still in April, only 38% of Kharkivites considered a civil war in Ukraine possible, the lowest figure in the south-eastern region. But the violence and polarisation in Donbas is having effects on Kharkiv, for whose politically inactive population even remaining “indifferent” is taking on a new meaning.
The slogans associated with the Maidan movement included two main elements; the desire to live in a rules-based society, where the leaders are held accountable, and a will to rid Ukraine of forced external dependence. The elite, headed by Yanukovych and in Kharkiv by Governor Dobkin and Mayor Kernes, was seen by the pro-Maidan forces both as symbols and real obstacles for improving either aspect.
The problem for the Kharkiv Euromaidan is that it was only partly successful. In fact, it is easy to argue that it failed. The delayed implementation of the EU Association Agreement denied Ukraine an unambiguous European orientation, leaving Kharkiv without prospects of demarcating its border (in literal and symbolic sense) for the time being. The PoR was discredited, but its most prominent representatives in Kharkiv were not. Dobkin was dismissed as governor and initially charged with separatism, but returned to campaign in the 2014 presidential and parliamentary elections. Kharkiv was seen as a crucial stronghold for the new, largely PoR-based Opposition Bloc. The role of the city administration in the Anti-Maidan protests was unclear. Although Mayor Kernes lost some influence in competition with new governor Ihor Baluta, his formal powers in the city were intact.
Kharkiv saw some of the largest protests in Ukraine against the Euromaidan movement and the Yatsenyuk government. A demonstration on 1 March, announced days before as a “defence of Kharkiv” by Kernes, saw thousands attending, but ended with the occupation of the Oblast State Administration (ODA). The “Kharkiv People’s Republic” (KhNR), proclaimed on 7 April 2014 by occupiers of the ODA, however, failed to materialise. In a poll conducted in Kharkiv oblast on 8-16 April, 10% of respondents claimed to support the capture of administrative buildings, 73% were against.
It seems that the initial wave of pro-Russian protests in Kharkiv died down rather abruptly. Interviews revealed more than one possible explanation. One is that the bulk of the protests were orchestrated by actors with connections to the local administration, using connections across the border. Another explanation is given by Evgeniy Zhilin, founder of the Kharkiv fight club Oplot, who claims that unlike in Donetsk, where his organisation was important in fuelling protests, there were not enough inclined and skilled individuals (“detonators”) in Kharkiv to start the “violent phase”. However, even if the Kharkiv Anti-Maidan was used by local administration and foreign forces, some of its supporters were also genuinely part of the new political activation. In the same April poll, 16% supported that Kharkiv secede and join Russia with 66% against.
A vivid indication of the post-Maidan power relations in Kharkiv occurred on 28 September, when the Lenin statue on Freedom Square, the largest in Ukraine, was pulled down after a pro-unity protest. Governor Baluta signed a decree to remove the statue, but the next day, a defiant Kernes promised to restore the monument. Within days, a cross was placed on the remaining pedestal. The explanation, confirmed by interviewees, that this was the work of pro-unity activists to “neutralise” the monument, since pro-Communist and orthodox believers essentially belong to the same group of potential pro-Russian supporters. Kharkiv’s Soviet identity seemed to be successfully incorporated into an eclectic pro-Russian narrative.
In connection with the Euromaidan protests and the Donbas war, the use of symbols of Ukrainian identity became more overt. This includes use of the Ukrainian language in public, but is also visible in the number of national flags in the streets. The issue of language preference and policy played a role in developments, but did not become decisive. Media reporting changed after the removal of Yanukovych and Dobkin. When the city authorities began officially promoting a pro-unity position, these outlets seem to have broadened their scope of reporting.
An important aspect of the war in east Ukraine is that the image of Kharkiv as a frontier city was reinforced in two concrete ways. The Russian border, some 40 kilometres to the north, became more difficult to cross and simultaneously a source of insecurity and infiltration. For this reason, the Kharkiv Euromaidan always perceived stakes as higher than in Kyiv, as the threat of a direct Russian intervention seemed real. In addition, with the proclamation of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, parts of the neighbouring oblasts became foreign land with well-guarded, if fluctuating, borders. This notion was only strengthened first by the location of the ATO headquarters in the town of Izium in Kharkiv oblast, then by a large influx of IDPs into Kharkiv. These developments lent Kharkiv a new, unexpected side to its identity; “the capital of volunteering. It wasn’t our dream, but… it’s only geography”, in the words of one interviewee.
Change in the making
Kharkiv has often been described as a “borderland” or alternatively as a “mediator” between Ukraine and Russia, while being essentially Ukrainian. An effect of the past year’s events is that this border, in the minds of inhabitants, has turned into a frontier. Another development, testified in interviews and by the previously unseen levels of political and social activism, is that parts of the population have become politically active. Additionally, a more overt display of pro-Ukrainian symbols is a sign of changing public acceptance of “Ukrainianness”. However, it is also clear that there are diverging opinions, at the time of writing less openly on display. What is evident is that the space for a city “independent of its surroundings”, a city without national definition, has narrowed.
Importantly, the answer to the question posed here is at the time of writing still developing, influenced by actors in and outside Kharkiv. The perceived identity of Kharkiv within the polarised framework of the conflict in Ukraine is now of interest far beyond the city and its region. Not least for Kharkivites themselves, the question is much more than an academic one.
Henrik Hallgren is Chairman and co-founder of the Stockholm- and Berlin-based think tank Eurasia Forum, providing analytical reporting, journalistic commentary and onsite project management in the post-Soviet countries. Through assignments for governments, universities, NGOs and private sector, he maintains an extensive network of expertise in Ukraine and throughout the region. Combining analytical elements with practical project work is a goal in all activities.