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Paisajes de guerra

Stéphane Michonneau
Carolina Rodríguez-López
Fernando Vela Cossío

I. — Presencias de la guerra

Kharkiv: Topographies of Twentieth-Century Violence

Karl Schlögel

Texte intégral

  • 1 Kharkiv: Visitors Guide, 2012.

1Kharkiv is Ukraine’s second-largest city after Kyiv, and one dares not imagine what would happen to it if it were drawn into the war that has already laid waste to Luhansk and Donetsk, cities that are a mere two hours away by train. In Kharkiv in the summer of 2014, rocket fire, house-to-house fighting, and ravaged infrastructure seem distant troubles. Travellers throng the square outside the railway station, and Sumska Street, the local Kurfürstendamm or Nevskiy Prospekt and artery connecting the old and new city centres, is clogged with traffic; the cafés that bear the same names as cafés all over the world are crowded in the evenings —many patrons stare into their tablet computers— and on the weekends the festively illuminated Gorky Park of Culture and Recreation, boasting the newest attractions from America, overflows with revellers old and young1. And yet Donetsk looked just like this before Russian-controlled irregulars brought the city under their control.

2In the spring of 2014, Kharkiv, too, saw attempts to topple the fragile balance. Interlopers from out of town tried to proclaim a «Kharkiv People’s Republic», but thousands of demonstrators chased them away. There were blockades and gun battles downtown, and the Russian flag briefly flew over the regional state administration building. Supporters of Maidan were chased down a «corridor of shame» and beaten up. Gennadiy Kernes, the city’s mayor, was severely injured in an attack whose perpetrators remain unidentified. More recently, pro-Ukrainian activists have toppled the Lenin monument in the city’s centre, a symbol of its Soviet past in whose shadow rebellious poets had smoked their first joints. In the past few months, it has served as the rallying point for pro-Russian protesters, many of them embittered pensioners whipped into a frenzy by propaganda. Taking Lenin down was as unimaginative an insult as it was needless, but that has not stopped activists in other cities from following Kharkiv’s example. Once again it looks like a city’s precarious equilibrium might be upset at any moment, transforming ordinary citizens into enemies ready to fire at each other. In May, on the day of the presidential elections, which took place for the most part in an atmosphere of tense calm, I chatted with someone about the strikingly relaxed mood in Kharkiv and about constructivism. The conversation took a strange turn when my interlocutor confided to me that, though he was a piano tuner by training, he was also a sharpshooter with several decorations and a tour of duty in Afghanistan under his belt; he was prepared to leave his first for his second job at a moment’s notice when the time came to face down the «Kiev junta». It does not take a great deal of imagination to envision what becomes of a city of a million and a half when piano tuners turn into snipers.

A major European city that is not even on our radar

  • 2 Shkodovskiy et alii, 2002.

3We know little about Kharkiv2. In 2012, FC Metalist Kharkiv’s stadium was one of the venues of the European football championship. Tens of thousands of fans, primarily from the Netherlands, flocked to the city «on the edge of Europe», and some lasting effects of this push toward Europeanization are palpable even today. Notice, for example, the Ukrainian-and-English street signs and the worldly service at the hotel reception, utterly un-Soviet in its friendliness. More recently, reporting about the downing of the Malaysian Airways plane —the recovered bodies of the victims were temporarily held in refrigerator wagons on the grounds of the Malyshev factory— reminded the world of Kharkiv’s existence. A major city like Kharkiv does not fall off the European radar just like that.

  • 3 Starovynniy Kharkiv u poshtovykh kartkakh, 2004.
  • 4 Staging the Ukranian Avant-Garde of the 1910s and 1920s, 2015.

4Kharkiv is not only a city of a million and a half; it is a centre of science and culture with over 130 000 students, an industrial heavyweight with a long tradition in mechanical engineering, and a first-order transportation hub. In the late tsarist era, the city was the empire’s eighth-largest, behind Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Warsaw, Odessa, Łódź, Riga, and Kyiv3. From 1919 until 1934, it was the formal capital of Ukraine and a Mecca of the European avant-garde4. Yet its annals also read as a digest of the tribulations and horrors that afflicted Ukraine in the twentieth century: Civil War, collectivization and Holodomor, Great Terror, German occupation and Holocaust.

  • 5 Kotelevskiy, Kotelevskiy, 2012.

5Arriving in Kharkiv, you know right away that you are in a city of the first rank5. If the South Korean-built high-speed train that travels between Kyiv and Kharkiv, the country’s first and second capitals, has not convinced you, the railway station and the square in front of it are unmistakably metropolitan: not, in this instance, a «cathedral of the nineteenth century», but a palace in the Stalinist Empire style, with an enormous dome, ceiling paintings glorifying the Great Patriotic War, a sweeping flight of stairs down to the square. The complex stands as a monument to Kharkiv’s post-war reconstruction. No expense was spared in the recent restoration of the model of Soviet constructivist architecture along the square’s northern edge, its gleaming white façade lined with Bauhaus-style ribbon windows. Across the square, occupying almost an entire block, is the building of the southern district railway administration from the 1890s, when the Russian Empire’s industrial development took off and Kharkiv became the central railway hub in the south. You need not go further than this square to encounter three distinct strata that will resurface throughout the city: the boomtown of the Russian fin-de-siècle, Soviet modernism on Ukrainian soil, the monumentalism of the late Stalin years. Yet everything thrums to the sound of a vibrant city of a million and a half that increasingly drapes itself —on posters, in shop windows, in the nocturnal illumination of its façades— in blue and yellow, the Ukrainian national colours.

Fin-de-siècle Kharkiv

  • 6 Magocsi, 2010; Subtelny, 1988.
  • 7 Yacina, 2008.
  • 8 Rozenfel’d, 2013.

6The town was a late foundation6. The first settlers —Cossacks, farmers who had escaped serfdom— probably reached the area, then known as Slobodskaya Ukraina, or Free Ukraine, in 1653. Framed by the valleys of the Lopan and Kharkiv Rivers and watched over by the bell tower of Dormition Cathedral, University Hill, with the university buildings and the representative ensemble around Constitution Square, is the heart of the old town. As in most capitals of the empire’s governorates, the city’s later expansion proceeded based on a geometric plan with major streets radiating from the centre7. If you know about the terrible damage Kharkiv suffered first with the demolition of the central Cathedral of Saint Nicholas in the 1930s and then in World War II —when two thirds of the building stock were destroyed and the population, which had swelled to a million and a half before the war, shrunk to 190 000 by the time the city was liberated— you may be taken aback by how compact its architecture is. One reason is surely the solid quality of the structures that were erected in this major centre in the Russian Empire’s south since the mid-nineteenth century, most of them in the historicist style, including the headquarters of the Volga-Kama and Azov-Don Banks, hotels such as the Astoria, the Rossiya Insurance complex, the theatre, and the building that is now home to the philharmonic orchestra. Most of the stars on Saint Petersburg’s architectural scene at the time —Thon, Stackenschneider, Pretro, Veryovkin, Lidval— built something here. When the Revolution came to power, it inherited and renamed these edifices: the Noblemen’s Assembly became the All-Ukrainian Central Executive Committee building and, later, the Pioneers’ Palace, the Consistory was converted into a state archive, the city’s duma became its soviet. Strikingly large ensembles along commercial streets and in residential neighbourhoods have survived8.

  • 9 Hausmann, 2002.

7Walk along Darwin Street, for example, to study art-nouveau architecture in all the diverse variants that proliferated in Europe: English country cottage, German half-timber romanticism, Moorish Revival orientalism —and, interspersed between them like meteorite impact craters, buildings that display the distinctive clear lines of Soviet constructivism—. The Byzantine-inspired Annunciation Cathedral, the neo-Gothic brick structure of the Catholic church on Gogol Street, and the Choral Synagogue on Pushkin Street bear witness to the mix of ethnic and religious groups who lived together in Kharkiv. The city’s main street, the road toward Sumy (for a while it was named after Karl Liebknecht, and the square where it begins is still called Rosa Luxemburg Square), is an encyclopaedia of Kharkiv’s evolution. It witnessed each successive step in the emergence of a modern city: a horse tramway, electrification, and street lighting; the construction of the sewer system, arcades, and entertainment venues; the rise of luxurious apartment complexes featuring elevators and telephones9. Municipal parks are laid out; a hippodrome —which will later become the scene of mass political rallies— is built; a zoo is established. Indoor markets, schools, department stores, and hotels spring up. The names of Kharkiv’s major enterprises suggest the city’s international flair: the Novaya Bavariya brewery, George Borman’s confectionery (later renamed «October»), the Dietmar iron foundry (later «Mineworker’s Light»), Helfreich and Sade’s agricultural machinery factory. The old Kharkiv with its merchants, entrepreneurs, and bourgeois intelligentsia perished in the Revolution and the Civil War that swept through the city several times. Yet even after the occupation by German troops in 1918 and the conquest by the Red Army and Soviet power in 1919, Kharkiv remained the city of modernity, unlike Kyiv, which, with the Monastery of the Caves and Saint Sophia’s Cathedral, stood for the venerable tradition of the old Rus’ and the lands along the Dnepr River and the Hetmanate. A certain logic, and not just the calculus of power in faraway Moscow, suggested that Kharkiv should be the capital of Soviet Ukraine.

Capital, Red modernism, Red downtown

  • 10 Borys Kosarev: Modernist Kharkiv, 1915-1931, 2012.
  • 11 Ploticher, 2009.

8Evidence of what Kharkiv was in the period that followed —between 1919 and 1934— is still abundant in the cityscape today10. In retrospect, it is easy to see why it was once a pilgrimage destination for many who sought an intimation of the world of tomorrow. Notorious champions of the Soviet Union such as Henri Barbusse and Theodore Dreiser came to visit, as did politicians including Édouard Herriot and Edvard Beneš, who claimed to have seen no sign of the terrible famine afflicting Ukraine. The city also attracted artists, architects, engineers, physicists, and, later, emigrants from European countries threatened by Hitler’s designs. For one decade, Kharkiv became the powerhouse of an increasingly confident Ukrainian modernism spearheaded by figures —Aleksandra Ekster, the Burlyuk brothers— that still occupy a prominent place in the annals of the inter- and transnational «Soviet avant-garde». For one decade, Kharkiv was the crucible of a grand experiment in which social revolution and post-imperial emancipation were manifestly wedded to each other in a flourishing of Ukrainian culture11. A young Ukrainian writer, Serhiy Zhadan, found nothing in it beyond the «medieval sun city», a «Red downtown», «Valhalla’s entrance hall», but in reality the buildings of the «New Kharkiv» and «Red modernism» were linchpins in the European debate over architecture and urban design, expressions of the vigorous effort to build a rational world, imposing gestures that remind one of New York’s Rockefeller Center —which they predate by a decade—. The «Red modernism» on display in Kharkiv includes not only the splendid general post office next to the railway station (A. Mordvinov, 1927), but also the spectacular rail union hall (A. Dmitriev, 1929), social centres and libraries, factory canteens, public pools, and stadiums (Metalist, 1929), the Gigant student hall, the central telephone office on Ivanov Street, and of course the new factories designed to rival those built by Henry Ford in America. For mile upon mile the factory complexes of the farm tractor and turbine plants stretch out along today’s Moskovskiy Prospekt; on the other side of the highway lie the working-class housing developments of the «New Kharkiv» as well as schools, swimming baths, and athletic facilities. To stand outside these plain yet aesthetically compelling structures today is to sense some of the fascination they exerted on the contemporaries —and the provocation to the «ancient and holy Russia» they embodied—. Not for nothing did Sergey Eisenstein set his movie Bezhin Meadow, a story of collectivization, the peasantry’s resistance and how it was crushed, before Kharkiv’s constructivist gleaming-white architecture and an armada of tractors fresh off the assembly line. At the entrance to the factory’s administrative building, a statue commemorates Sergo Ordzhonikidze (1886-1937), the manager of Stalin’s industrialization programme (with other monuments to Soviet grandees, it will be removed in April 2015); memorial plaques laud Red directors and Best Workers. One assures us that «the heroic deeds of the workers of the tractor plant, which was built by their hands in 1930-1931, will live forever». Another is dedicated to the eternal memory of the plant’s workers who fell in the Great Patriotic War. The inventory of models produced at the factory reads like an abridged sketch of the history of industrialization and motorization in the Soviet Union. The plaques on both sides of the main gate list the major dates: the first tractor, dubbed SKhTZ-15/30, equipped with a 30-horsepower engine, left the assembly line on October 1, 1931. In 1941, the plant was evacuated to Rubtsovsk at the foot of the Altai Mountains, where production resumed in August 1942 as the complex in Kharkiv lay in ruins. Reconstruction began in November 1943, and only a year later the first post-war tractor was delivered. The transition to a market economy after 1991 left its mark as well —in the shift from production for kolkhozes to the needs of family operations and small farms—.

  • 12 Kevorkyan, 2007.

9But the heart of the New Kharkiv happens to be the square where, in the fall of 2014, Lenin was toppled off his pedestal: the erstwhile Dzerzhinskiy Square, now Freedom Square, one of the largest urban plazas in the world12. To get an impression of the ensemble as a whole, you should survey it from above, from a bird’s-eye perspective. At the western end, nine large buildings are grouped around a semicircular piazza: the six blocks of the Gosprom or State Industry Building, the National University, and the Military College. The competition was announced in 1925, and the winning design by the Leningrad-based architects S. Serafimov, S. Kravets, and M. Felger was realized within three years. The reinforced-concrete-and-glass buildings of the Gosprom complex were intended to house all ministries of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic, with thousands of offices, two conference halls seating audiences of 1 000 and 250, respectively, a large technical library, a radio station, restaurants, a cafeteria, and a post and telegraph office. Aligned with axes radiating outward from the square’s centre, the flat-roofed blocks of varying height —the tallest sections rise to twelve storeys— are interconnected by enclosed bridges at the third, fifth, and seventh floors. All stairwells, offices, and corridors have natural light thanks to a total of 170 000 square meters of glazing. The ensemble suffered heavy damage during the war, but the reinforced-concrete structure survived intact, and renovations —the area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002— are currently under way. A small museum tells the story of the Gosprom’s construction and the urban planners’ vision for the «New Kharkiv». If the director happens to be there when you visit, you may even be invited to use the functioning original elevator and touch the historic brass handles and heavy window frames. You can imagine how traffic coursed through the «canyons» between the blocks toward the square. A little further down, another set of high-rises was rebuilt after the war in altered form, their massive earth-coloured volumes a bow to the Stalinist Empire style. So was the elongated structure of the Hotel International, now Hotel Kharkov, which garnered a gold medal at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair; next door, the Stalinist Empire style is on full display in the headquarters of the project and construction organizations from the 1950s. The square’s eastern end is marked by the monumental building of the oblast administration with its façade graced by fourteen Corinthian columns, which replaced a constructivist masterpiece completed in 1932 and destroyed by the Germans. Photographs of that earlier building from the occupation period show hangings being carried out above its portal. Further south lies the rambling municipal park with the monument to Taras Shevchenko —the meeting spot of the Maidan supporters— and numerous pavilions and cafés. The unceasing brisk traffic of students and other pedestrians leaving and entering the University metro station beneath the square softens the impression of overwhelming monumentality. As the urban planning of the 1920s would have it, the area behind the Gosprom complex is taken up by a tony residential neighbourhood built for the nomenklatura, grouped, in keeping with Stalinist social engineering, by professional categories —chemists, workers of the word, senior managers in the tobacco industry, etc.—.

Travelling to Kharkiv with Lev Kopelev

  • 13 Kopelev, 1980.

10We know a great deal about the Kharkiv of those years because, as the capital, it naturally attracted many members of the country’s political, scientific, and cultural elite. Exploring it, we encounter master builders such as the engineer Pavel Rottert, who will go on to direct the construction of the Moscow Metro, and the natural scientists who work at the Ukrainian Institute of Physics and Technology under the direction of the prodigy and enfant terrible Lev Landau to construct the world’s first nuclear reactor. We meet the engineers of the Kharkiv Tractor Plant, including Mikhail Koshkin, chief designer of the legendary T-34 tank (he lives on Krasin Street), and Aleksey Beketov, the spiritus rector of the Kharkiv school of architecture, whose work still defines the look of entire streets. A memorial plaque on a villa on Pushkin Street is dedicated to the great Ukrainian filmmaker Oleksandr Dovzhenko. Kharkiv figures prominently in the memoirs of a descendant of the Bosses, a Baltic German family of industrialists. And, of particular interest to Germans: Lev Kopelev, the Russian-Ukrainian-Jewish writer, who was born in Kyiv in 1912 and died in Germany in 1997, spent his formative teenage years in Kharkiv. We can entrust ourselves to the recollections he published under the title The Education of a True Believer, use them as an itinerary, to gain access to Ukraine’s first capital13. «Ukraine», Kopelev writes in his memoirs,

is the country of my childhood and youth. I spoke Ukrainian with my nanny Khima; she told folk tales, nursery rhymes. Sang. It was she and Mama who sang those songs which will always be inside me. The boys with whom I became friends, played and fought in the villages where Father worked spoke Ukrainian. And my father himself spoke Ukrainian with his friends and comrades —other agronomists—. At school and in the university I studied the Ukrainian language and literature. I learned to love forever the mighty poetry of Taras Shevchenko, the poetry and prose of Ivan Franko, Lesya Ukrainka, the books of Panas Kulish, Mikhail Kotsyubinskiy. And I felt at home in the more recent Ukrainian literature. Close to me and necessary for me were the wise and sad dramas of Mikola Kulish, the verses of Pavlo Tichina, Mikola Zerov, Maksim Rilskiy, Volodimir Sosyura, the poetic prose of Mikola Khvilevoi, Yury Yanovskiy. Up to 1935 I never missed a new production of Les Kurbas in the Berezil (March) Theater, I took pleasure in every new film of Oleksandr Dovzhenko.

11Being bilingual was, to him, a natural fact of life:

Some of my students spoke in Ukrainian, others had come from Russia, but the majority made themselves understood in that mixture of Ukrainian and Russian heard in the outlying towns, which you could consider a dialect of one or the other language, whichever you wished.

12Kharkiv was also where the young Petro Hrihorenko (in Russian, Pyotr Grigorenko), who would become a general of the Red Army and, in the 1960s, one of the Soviet Union’s most prominent dissidents, began his career; he graduated from the city’s Polytechnic Institute. The engineer Viktor Kravchenko, whose escape to the West triggered the «Kravchenko affair» in France, a scandal that rocked the country’s scene of intellectual members of the Communist Party and its sympathizers, has left us a detailed narrative of his life as a student in Kharkiv, where he resided in the «Gigant» student hall. Last but not least, the author of one of the earliest and most important eyewitness accounts of the Stalinist purges, published in 1951 under the title The Accused, the Austrian physicist Alexander Weissberg-Cybulski, a friend of Arthur Koestler’s, had moved to Kharkiv in 1931 to work at the world-famous Ukrainian Institute of Physics and Technology and got caught up in Stalin’s dragnet. He was freed after Albert Einstein and Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie intervened with the dictator —only to be extradited to Nazi Germany in 1939 (he jumped off the train in Poland and joined the underground)—. Kharkiv also left traces in the work of Vasily Grossman, whose novel Everything Flows —about collectivization and the Holodomor— likely would not have been written had the author not lived in the city as a student. With so many and prominent lives intersecting here, we realize Kharkiv is not as distant from our own world as we may have thought at first. Their recollections guide us to 78 Chernyshevska St., where Lev Kopelev and his family lived in apartment no. 3 after arriving from Kyiv. A scholar rummaging through the university’s archive recently came across the protocol from the hearings before his enrolment. We can accompany the young Kopelev to the Komintern locomotive factory, where he was in charge of the plant’s internal newspaper and radio station; or to the opera, where the literary celebrities of his time, such as Mayakovskiy, appeared on the stage; or to the Gosprom building, where he got to know virtually the entire leadership of the Ukrainian Communist Party in person when he interviewed them for his factory gazette. Kopelev met Mykola Skrypnyk, the head of the Ukrainian Communist Party during the «Ukrainian Renaissance» of the 1920s, before he put a bullet in his head in 1934 after he and his ilk were denounced as «bourgeois nationalists». He was also introduced to Pavel Postyshev, who executed Stalin’s policies in Ukraine only to fall victim to the purges himself in 1939. And Kopelev, who wrote his first poems in the Ukrainian language, met the major Ukrainian poets of the 1920s who were later killed during the Great Terror. His memories of Kharkiv can teach us much about the difficulties of a multiple identity as well as the potential implicit in it —Ukrainian, Russian, Jewish: not so unusual in a city that, though the majority of its population speaks Russian, crosses effortlessly between languages and cultures—.

13To the young Kopelev, the Kharkiv of the 1920s and early 1930s was the door to another world and a new era:

Kharkov is the capital. You can tell right away. There are so many people that there aren’t enough sidewalks for them, they have to walk in the street. I’ve never seen so many automobiles before, both cars and trucks. In Kiev you see them come by one at a time, but here there are probably just as many as there are horses and buggies.

14He sketches a topography still identifiable to the visitor today:

In Kharkov they already have new houses. We ride by a big red building called «The Arcade» and a gray one —the editorial offices of the newspaper Communist—. A statue of a worker with a hammer stands high up on the roof. An old fellow we meet tells us they have started building a real skyscraper.

15Compared to Kharkiv, Kyiv now feels sluggish and backward. «After Kharkov, the capital, after conversations with Mark about the prospects for the country and the world revolution, Kiev seemed a quiet backwater, and all the school and troop doings seemed petty, childish». He starts learning Esperanto, then the idiom of universal human brotherhood, though under Stalin it will be condemned as the language of the foreign enemy and espionage. He is entranced by the flourishing polyglot literary life in clubs and associations called «Youth», «The Plough», «New Generation», and «Avant-Garde». The city of the New Economic Policy —a tumultuous, if short-lived, renaissance of trade and capitalist entrepreneurialism— had comedy shows, cabarets, casinos named Chemin de Fer or Seventeen and Four, dandies wearing Chekhovian pince-nez, Henri-Quatre beards, and velvet gaiters —characters from the world of yesterday—.

NEP —it was the private stores and shops stocked far more abundantly and decorated far more colorfully than the drab Central Workers Co-ops—. Dolled-up men and women in restaurants with orchestras blaring through the night. Casinos with spinning roulette wheels and croupiers shouting: «The bets are down!» Brightly painted girls in short skirts slowly strolling the streets at night approaching single men, or laughing shrilly from the phaetons of their cabs.

16The young Kopelev also observes one of the earliest show trials, against the «Union for the Freedom of Ukraine» which was held at the opera house in 1930, and as a Trotskiy sympathizer, he spends ten days inside the Kholodnaya Gora prison, which figures in other memoirs as well:

The prison was a four-storey brick building. Inside, narrow iron galleries along the walls led to the cells; in the corners were platforms on which the guards stood. Steep iron stairs ran from storey to storey. Wire mesh nets hung between the levels. The glass roof above reminded one of the big department stores. The walls in the rectangular cells were painted green near the floor and white above, three cots to a cell. High above was a single window, but without blinds. Across, beyond the wall, we saw the wing housing the career criminals and heard them singing songs all day and sometimes even at night.

17In the winter of 1929-1930, Kopelev works at the Osnova rail depot near Kharkiv, where one of his colleagues is a German communist emigrant from Berlin; they will meet again years later, when Willi Husemann, a precision mechanic by training, guards the entrance to the building of the Central Committee of the East German Socialist Unity Party.

Ukrainian topographies of violence

  • 14 Weissberg-Cybulski, 1951.

18More than anything else, however, the early Soviet Kharkiv remembered by contemporaries —Kopelev, Hrihorenko, Kravchenko, Weissberg-Cybulski— is a scene of monstrous violence: the trials against the «bourgeois specialists» and «parasites» that marked the end of the New Economic Policy; collectivization (some of our witnesses were involved in its forcible implementation in the countryside); the mass deaths of peasants during the Holodomor they observed with their own eyes; the increasingly blind fury of the witch hunt against «Ukrainian nationalists»; and finally, the Great Terror. With the right kind of information at your disposal, you can take a tour across Kharkiv’s topography of violence. All it takes is wide and careful reading, city maps, a taxicab, and plenty of time. A villa on Darwin Street that is now the House of Architects was the Cheka headquarters during the Civil War. The people’s commissar Valery Mezhlauk, who was executed after a show trial in Moscow in 1937, resided on Olminskiy Street. The palatial building with the ProCreditBank branch on the square where six streets meet was the centre of the secret police’s operations. 6 Artyom St. was where Kopelev’s cousin Mark lived before his arrest. The building on the corner of Chernyshevska and Radnarkomivska Streets now used by the Ukrainian Ministry of the Interior was the seat of the NKVD. Behind the construction site fence in the courtyard was the inner prison, whose inmates were killed before the Germans captured the city on October 25, 1941. A plaque on the façade recalls the fate of more than 3 000 Polish officers, Andrzej Wajda’s father among them, who were brought to Kharkiv in the spring of 1940, slaughtered, and hastily buried in mass graves on the edge of town by Bil’horodske Highway, a thoroughfare lined with boarding-houses, villas, and comfortable hotels; a joint Ukrainian-Polish memorial at the site notes their names, occupations, and dates of birth and death. We know quite a bit about the prison in which the young Kopelev was held for a few days, where up to 12 000 detainees were jammed together at the time. Weissberg-Cybulski shared a cell with hundreds of prisoners representing more than a dozen different nationalities —there were few Russians or Ukrainians, but all the minorities living in Kharkiv were represented: Poles, Jews, Germans, Armenians, Georgians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Finns, Assyrians, Chinese, Greeks, Turks, Macedonians, Bulgarians, Koreans, Hungarians, Tatars, Bashkirs, Belorussians— and not one of them knew the reason for his arrest. «The Kholodnaya Gora prison sat on the edge of town», Weissberg-Cybulski writes in his memoirs14.

In the past, I had driven by it on my daily way to the laboratory station. At the time, you could espy half-naked prisoners clinging to the bars of their windows. They looked barely human, and I often shuddered to see them […] The building dated back to tsarist times. At first the car transporting the prisoners was admitted through an iron gate. We stepped off and walked to a second wall, in which a small door opened as we arrived. The guard examined our papers and signalled us to go on. My escort walked me to unit no. 2, a four-storey building on a T-shaped plan. Lined up along the stem of the T were fifty solitary cells on four storeys. The crossbar consisted of twelve large group cells. I was assigned to a single cell, no. 37, I believe. Actually, it had been a single cell in the tsarist era. Now it slept three. The cell measured four by two meters. There were iron cots (two along one wall, one across the room) that could be folded up. At night, when they were folded down, there was a 30-cm clearance between them. I was alone in my cell.

19In the evenings, girls and boys sat outside the neighbourhood’s residential buildings; some played the harmonica or danced. «From our cells we could overhear their music». You can see the massive whitewashed building with its window blinds, which dates from the era of Catherine the Great, from up close; it is still used as a prison.

  • 15 Reid, 2000.
  • 16 Hrihorenko, 1982.

20The most important lead, however, will take you out into the countryside, to the Ukrainian villages, the scene of collectivization, which brought clashes resembling a civil war, the deportation of hundreds of thousands of peasant families, and the death from starvation of between 3.5 and 5 million people15. Out where the road leading to the Ukrainian-Russian border, which is a mere 38 kilometres away, intersects with the beltway, near the village of Rus’ka Lozova, a monument to the victims sits on an artificial hill. It was installed after a years-long bitter controversy that divided the city into two camps: should the Holodomor be described as similar to the Holocaust, a genocide of the Ukrainian people deliberately engineered in Moscow, or as «collateral damage» in the grand experiment of agricultural collectivization, which upended the lives of Russian farmers and Kazakh nomads as well? The subject was taboo for decades, but by now a wide range of sources have been published in critical editions and the scholarship is extensive. Looking back on the tragedy, Petro Hrihorenko remembered16:

I for my part was perfectly able to perceive what was going on. In the summer of 1930, the Party sent us Komsomol members at the Polytechnic Institute in Kharkiv out into the country to «help» with the harvest. And that short preparatory meeting before we would go out into the field should have told me everything I needed to know about the real menace to my people. I merely needed to listen to the brief Stanislav Kosior, the general secretary of the Ukrainian Party, gave us.

21Hrihorenko spent time in the countryside on several occasions —his father was an agronomist— so he was aware of the developments there. He saw desolate villages in which not a soul lived anymore, railway stations black with half-naked people wandering about, utterly emaciated children besieging the wagons.

The scene was the same at every station in Ukraine, and the throngs of the hungry grew larger the further south we came. After that trip I was no longer surprised by anything I now saw in Borisovka. The village streets lay deserted. The few people I encountered passed me without responding to my greeting —unheard-of in a Ukrainian village—. My father was at home. He had difficulty standing up: due to malnourishment, he was showing the first symptoms of oedema —swellings of the body and limbs—. There was absolutely nothing edible left in the house beyond a small pumpkin, and this was in the middle of December.

  • 17 Ammende, 1935.

22In Muss Russland hungern? (1935), a German observer, Ewald Ammende, summarized the reports of travellers returning from the famine area, which were long thought to be anti-Soviet propaganda17:

The streets of the former Ukrainian capital were strewn with the bodies of farmers who had died of starvation; they had arrived on earlier trains hoping to beg for something in the city but had been so feeble that they had fallen over dead. In the industrial towns of the Donets Basin, too, the hungry farmers laid siege to the apartments of comparatively well-off technicians and engineers from morning to night.

  • 18 Ibid.

23A German economic specialist who managed to obtain permission to travel throughout the Soviet Union as late as 1933 offered this account18:

The train having pulled into the station, you step off and enter the hall. It is clean and there is no one to be seen except the railway officers and the G.P.U. operatives. But when you go outside, the entire square in front of the station is covered with corpses. Terrifying skeletons lie in the dirt on the pavement. Some still stir, the others are motionless. When you step closer to the latter, you realize that they are already dead. All victims of hunger. They fled the hunger in the villages, but in the city they succumbed to it.

  • 19 Ibid.

24Another report notes19:

Corpses in the streets! That was beyond my ability to absorb. At first I wouldn’t believe my eyes. Children pulled themselves together, gathering whatever strength they had left to scour the street for something edible. Yet they were so weak and exhausted that they fell down and remained where they lay. The poor children were the most powerful impression […] In Kharkiv I saw a boy who was nothing but skin and bones lying in the middle of the street. A second boy sat by a pile of garbage from which he pulled eggshells. Children trudged along the streets in hordes, looking for edible refuse, for leftover food or fruits. They perished along the way like wild animals […] When the spectre of hunger hovered over the villages, the parents led their children out into the city, where they deserted them, hoping that someone there would take pity on the poor little ones.

25Kopelev writes about his work in the village: «Naturally, I berated all kulaks and their ilk, cursing them and threatening them with the contempt of the people, the hatred and the punishing sword of the proletariat, which would strike all those who, maliciously or out of sheer ignorance, hid crops». He goes on to depict the situation in Kharkiv:

Friends who visited me as I lay ill —in 1933— told me that the railway stations were crammed with farmers. Entire families with elderly parents and children were trying to get on trains, no matter the destination, to escape the hunger. Many crept around the streets and begged. At night, special cars collected the bodies at the stations, beneath bridges, in doorways and driveways. These trucks, covered with linen tarpaulins, drove around in the late hours of the night, when no one left their home. Other cars collected the homeless; the sick and utterly exhausted were taken to hospitals. The city’s clinics were all filled to overflowing, as were the morgues. Children who had lost their parents were taken to orphanages. Adults who had some strength left were simply transported out of the city and left to their fate.

26Driving through depopulated villages, he observes:

Skinny nags drag two sledges along the street. Three men plod along beside them. They have wrapped course cloths or women’s headscarves over their fur caps in the manner of bashlyks. Belts made out of twisted rags hold their dirty brownish caftans tightly closed. The men, their legs thickly wrapped in bags, slowly put one foot before the other. One sledge is loaded with two longish bast sacks covered with bast mats and sackcloth. The other is empty. When a house’s windows are smashed or boarded up, they pass without stopping. Other houses have undamaged windows, but the doors are open, swaying in the wind. No one lives here anymore.

27The great writer Vasily Grossman, who studied chemistry in Kharkiv between 1932 and 1934, drew on similar experiences for his novel Everything Flows.

28The city’s territory is marked by violence; every one of the mass graves —now often surrounded by disused cemeteries, parks, or industrial compounds— stands for an epoch in the history of calamitous experience. Even the monument to the «liquidators» who received lethal doses of radiation in Chernobyl and the conspicuously desecrated grave of members of the post-1945 Ukrainian Insurgent Army in a municipal park —the area, formerly a Jewish cemetery, was converted into the Komsomol park and recently renamed Memorial Park— are links in this unending chain of violence.

  • 20 Zhurzhenko, 2011.

29The question of how the city commemorates these dead was the central point of contention in the so-called «memory war» that broke out during Perestroika and continues to be fought today. Which dead, which victims should be remembered? Which streets and squares should be «purged» of their Soviet patron saints, and which names should be kept in place? Which public holidays from the Soviet era should be retained, and which new memorial days and public celebrations should the independent Ukraine introduce? As Tatyana Zhurzhenko has shown, the fight over names in the public space has been about more than unearthing historical facts that were kept secret for so long: both parties —primarily, the pro- and anti-Maidan activists— have implicitly sought to harness the past in their struggle to define the terms of the political debate and assert their influence20.

The Germans in Kharkiv

  • 21 Friedrich, unpublished.

30As though the Holodomor and the Great Terror had not been enough, Kharkiv within a few years came under German occupation. The austere memorial to the city’s defenders and the Red Army soldiers who died in battle, also on Bil’horodske Highway, brings the Soviet War Memorial in Berlin-Treptow to mind. The city was in German hands from October 25, 1941, until August 23, 1943. The topography of German-occupied Kharkiv, too, is documented in considerable detail21. The municipal museum has a German-made city map from 1942 —it is marked «for official use only»— and pictures of Soviet citizens thrown from balconies or hanged in the entrances to banks and hotels, but also group shots of German infantrymen in front of the Gosprom complex and a «Café München». The Gestapo operated from a modern brick building at 100 Sumska St., across the street from a noble family’s home that now houses a «wedding palace».

  • 22 Ehrenburg, Grossman, 2003.

31The Germans lost no time: in November 1941, the city’s remaining Jews were herded together in a ghetto on the grounds of the tractor plant and exposed to death from cold and hunger. In The Black Book of Russian Jewry, Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman compiled as the Red Army liberated Eastern Europe, Maria Sokol wrote22:

It is difficult to describe the scene: fifteen thousand people, maybe more, walking down Old Moscow Street toward the Tractor factory. Many were dragging various things along with them. Among them were the sick and even paralytics, who were carried in the arms of others. The road from Old Moscow Street to the Tractor factory was strewn with the bodies of children, the old, and the sick.

32When they left the hell of the camp, it was for the Drobytskiy Yar ravine, a few kilometres further out of town, now on the highway to Chuhuyiv, where a monument and a memorial site inform the visitor about the murder of the city’s Jewish citizens. A rust-brown menorah rises from a field of stones and red sand. The plaque reads «Hic locus ubi mortui docent vivos» («This is a place where the dead teach the living»). The landscape is peaceful. The wind sweeps through the meadows, the smell of acacias hangs in the air, as everywhere in Ukraine in spring. The inscription on one of the steles marking the path to the site recalls the more than 16 000 Jews of Kharkiv who were killed by the Germans —«old people, children, and women, because they were Jews»; the other reads «We bow in memory of the victims of fascism»—. The memorial proper, a tall arch all in white, bears the words «Thou Shalt Not Kill» in several languages. The names of the victims are recorded in a crypt-like room underneath. To learn more about the life of Kharkiv’s Jewry before the war and extermination, visit the Holocaust Museum in the city centre, at 28 Petrovskiy St. Launched as a private initiative by Larisa Volovik in the early 1990s but now supported by the municipal authorities, the museum presents an interior from a Jewish home, pictures of victims as well as individuals who saved and assisted Jews, anti-Semitic posters produced by the German occupiers and their Russian and Ukrainian collaborators, ordinances and salvaged relics such as spoons, buttons, shell casings, shoes, medicine vials, and flacons. There is a spectator’s ticket to the first war crimes trial held, on December 15-18, 1943, four months after the city’s liberation, at the opera house on Rymarska Street, now home to the Kharkiv Philharmonic Society, and a copy of the trial protocol, «Procès de Kharkov». Newsreel footage shows the defendants and witnesses as well as the correspondents Ilya Ehrenburg, Konstantin Simonov, and Aleksey Tolstoy. The defendants —several Germans and the Russian Mikhail Bulanov, who had driven the gas van— were found guilty and hanged before the eyes of 40 000 citizens on Blagovishchenskiy Maidan in the city centre.

The «fifth Kharkiv»: the sound of the new city

  • 23 Zhurzhenko, 2015.

33The Ukrainian sociologist and journalist Tatyana Zhurzhenko, building on the ideas of George Shevelov, a famous linguist and native son of the city who taught at Harvard and Columbia, has spoken of the «fifth Kharkiv23». The first Kharkiv, in Shevelov’s portrayal of the city’s history, was the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century settlement of Cossacks; the second Kharkiv, the nineteenth-century capital of a governorate of the Russian Empire; the third Kharkiv, the city of Ukrainian modernism in the 1920s, which perished in Stalin’s terror. The fourth Kharkiv, to Shevelov’s mind, was the city reborn after the German occupation and the ravages of war, a city that had no recollection of its brief golden age. Has the time come for the «fifth Kharkiv» for a return into the circle of great European cities? Zhurzhenko lays out Kharkiv’s situation today: located near the border to Russia, it has become a city on the edge, a frontier town. The frontline is a mere 40 kilometres away. Before the war, people drove half an hour to visit relatives on the other side; the people of Belgorod used to come in the evenings to see a movie. That is all in the past. The buses that connect Kharkiv to Moscow are often held up for two or three hours at the border. Passengers shuttling between Belgorod and Kharkiv have to disembark —bus service terminates at the border— and cross the no man’s land on foot. In the spring of 2015, both sides started digging trenches and building guard posts. Driving down into the city on the highway coming from the north, you are welcomed by a demonstrative forest of blue-and-yellow flags that signals to visitors from Russia: this is Kharkiv, a Ukrainian city, even though it is just a hop and a skip beyond your border. The simmering war interferes with the rhythm of life in the city: more than 130 000 refugees and displaced persons are registered in the city, and estimates of unregistered newcomers are much higher. The railway station with the monumental dome above the central hall, which used to be black with people, lies deserted now that no trains take Muscovites to Crimea and other southern destinations. The waiting room with its enormous fresco from the 1950s showing Kharkiv as a city of skyscrapers has been converted into a help centre for new arrivals from the occupied areas around Luhansk and Donetsk. The refugees, who often carry nothing more than their documents and a few prized possessions, receive vital information, medical and psychological attention, and addresses for an initial place to stay. One representative each from the labour office, the Ministry of Temporarily Occupied Territories and Internally Displaced Persons, and the volunteer organization are seated at tables on which brochures are laid out, and the centre has access to databases designed to help refugees make the first steps in their new hometown —most of them will not be able to return to the occupied territories—. The city’s hospitals absorb the wounded; the helicopters coming straight from the frontlines can be heard flying across the city. Walking through the neighbourhoods, you repeatedly see groups of people clustering outside public offices who hope to complete the bureaucratic procedures necessary for their integration into a new environment. Most of the work, usually invisible to the eyes of visiting foreigners, is apparently done by volunteers. Life in the city feels bafflingly normal in some ways, but the war is everywhere: in the newspapers and television newscasts, in the advertisements and appeals for donations, in the collection box on the counter at the hotel reception giving guests an opportunity to make a contribution in support of those affected by the turmoil. The city takes care of the fighters as well as it can, living in tense expectation that new developments might rapidly create challenges which would throw even stronger cities off balance.

  • 24 Zhadan, 2016.

34Germans have been able to travel freely to Ukraine for several years; they do not even need a visa. Nothing stops them from exploring this great and, in many ways, strange country, yet few have availed themselves of the new freedom. Everything is convenient, there is no bureaucratic red tape, and affordable and friendly accommodations are easily found anywhere. Younger visitors can take the buses operated by Eurolines, which take them to the country’s remotest corners. A country awaits discovery that is unlike anything most Europeans have seen, with a history that can be hard to grasp even for experts and that needs to be told afresh. Ukraine is a Europe in miniature, boasting extraordinary linguistic and cultural diversity and beautiful cities and landscapes. Outside Ukraine, however, there is a tendency to discuss such cultural wealth as the source of an alleged risk of disintegration rather than an asset. Ukrainians, the young generation in particular, have crisscrossed Europe looking for work or education, and so getting around on English or German is easy enough. There is something for everyone: cities and towns are eager to strike up partnerships with their peers in the West —Kharkiv is already twinned with Bologna, Cincinnati, Nuremberg, and Rishon LeZion, among others— and the tourism and agriculture sectors need investors, who have good reason to distrust the talk of a «failing state» and study the economic potential for themselves. Architecture aficionados who have seen it all —from New York’s Rockefeller Center to Zaha Hadid’s National Museum of the Arts of the 21st Century in Rome— but always lacked the time or energy to tour the monuments of Red modernism should finally come to see the Gosprom complex. Technical relief agencies and other humanitarian organizations will find an infinite supply of worthwhile missions in a country that has had to deal with Russian «aid convoys». A city like Kharkiv is the right place for young adults who are tired of the Berlin club scene and want to do something different with their lives for a change. At its well over a dozen universities and other institutions of higher education, they will meet people of their own age with whom they share at least one language and who know something about the gravity of the situation the rest of Europe has been slow to catch on to. Ryanair and EasyJet might render a historic service to the continent and expand its horizon by adding Kharkiv and cities like it to their list of destinations at long last. To get yourself in a Kharkiv kind of mood, read Serhiy Zhadan’s novel Voroshilovgrad (unfortunately, his Anarchy in the UKR still awaits translation into English)24. His writing vibrates with the sound of the new Kharkiv, a city that knows only too well what is at stake, aware that everything might be lost from one moment to the next.


1 Kharkiv: Visitors Guide, 2012.

2 Shkodovskiy et alii, 2002.

3 Starovynniy Kharkiv u poshtovykh kartkakh, 2004.

4 Staging the Ukranian Avant-Garde of the 1910s and 1920s, 2015.

5 Kotelevskiy, Kotelevskiy, 2012.

6 Magocsi, 2010; Subtelny, 1988.

7 Yacina, 2008.

8 Rozenfel’d, 2013.

9 Hausmann, 2002.

10 Borys Kosarev: Modernist Kharkiv, 1915-1931, 2012.

11 Ploticher, 2009.

12 Kevorkyan, 2007.

13 Kopelev, 1980.

14 Weissberg-Cybulski, 1951.

15 Reid, 2000.

16 Hrihorenko, 1982.

17 Ammende, 1935.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20 Zhurzhenko, 2011.

21 Friedrich, unpublished.

22 Ehrenburg, Grossman, 2003.

23 Zhurzhenko, 2015.

24 Zhadan, 2016.


European University Viadrina (Frankfurt/Oder)

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