A man salvages a refrigerator in this badly damaged high-rise housing estate in Kharkiv's Saltivka neighborhood.

A man salvages a refrigerator in this badly damaged high-rise housing estate in Kharkiv's Saltivka neighborhood.

Foto: Maxim Dondyuk / DER SPIEGEL

Caught Between War and Peace The Russians Are Gone, But Normal Life Has Yet to Return to Kharkiv

The Ukrainians managed to stop the Russian advance on Kharkiv. The city's mayor is now dreaming of hosting the Eurovision Song Contest, but the Donbas is nearby and Kharkiv is within range of enemy artillery. A report from a city that is torn apart and far from normal.
By Christian Esch in Kharkiv and Maxim Dondyuk (Photos)

Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently traveled through his war-torn country for the first time. For three months, the president had remained in Kyiv with, at most, occasional visits to the surrounding countryside. On Sunday, he arrived in Kharkiv, in the northeast of the country. The president inspected columns of burned-out Russian vehicles, destroyed apartment blocks and government buildings. He handed out medals to soldiers.

DER SPIEGEL 23/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 23/2022 (June 4th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

It was an obvious choice to do the first trip to Kharkiv. It is Ukraine's second-largest city and, like Kyiv, Kharkiv was able to repel its attackers. But while the war already seems far away in the capital city, Kharkiv has not yet been able to return to everyday life. The enemy is far too close. In the neighboring Donbas, the Ukrainian army is surrendering terrain to the Russians and, according to Zelenskyy, losing 100 soldiers every day. There is no room for illusions in Kharkiv.

On a gray afternoon, a man lies in front of the August 23 metro station, his eyes turned lifelessly to the sky. His right hand is torn off. A trail of blood stretches to the next store entrance, spread by the rain. A second body lies in the entrance to the station. Downstairs, on the mezzanine, anxious passengers wait, asking when they can go outside. Three injured people are being treated. A Russian shell struck right in front of the station. The Kharkiv metro had only resumed operations two days earlier.

Larisa Palyok, 59, is attending to a wounded police officer. He is a station guard, and she knows hime, since she, too, has spent a lot of time here. Since the beginning of the war, Kharkiv's subway has served as an air-raid shelter for the entire city. Palyok volunteers with the children, plays with them and gives them reiki massages, her hobby. The other day, a girl asked: "Are the Russians really anything like us?" Palyok answered: "Of course they are."

Larisa Palyok, 59, provides care for children in the August 23 metro station. She hasn't left Kharkiv since the start of the war.

Larisa Palyok, 59, provides care for children in the August 23 metro station. She hasn't left Kharkiv since the start of the war.

Foto: Maxim Dondyuk / DER SPIEGEL

For Palyok and other Kharkiv residents, the reopening of the subway seemed like a symbolic act, signaling to the city that the worst has passed. That life is returning to normal up above and the metro is turning from a place of refuge back to a means of transportation. With the withdrawal of the Russian troops to the north, shelling had decreased. Recently, Palyok had been giving massages to five children each day instead of 10. Suddenly, though, the reopening is seeming premature. Nine people were killed and 19 injured in Kharkiv that day.

But the metro is running. Ihor Terekhov is the man who decided to put it back into operation. The mayor of Kharkiv is a gently smiling man with white hair, some call him "Earl Grey." If "we stop mass transit, the economy dies," he says. "The people have to be able to get to work." He's not speaking from his office – for safety reasons, he has moved the interview underground, to a control room of another metro station. On the monitors, you can see trains coming and going; a child's drawing of a peace dove hangs on the wall.

Foto: Felipe Dana / AP / dpa / IMAGO/Ken Cedeno / IMAGO/UPI Photo

Terekhov says that shelling by heavy artillery from the Russian-occupied territories in the north of the Kharkiv district targeted the August 23 station. Even if Putin's troops have been forced to retreat back behind the border, he says, their guns will continue be able to reach the city. They can fire their projectiles at a distance of more than 40 kilometers (25 miles).

What were the Russian troops targeting? "There are no military targets on the metro, except for a memorial to soldiers who fought in World War II," Terekhov says. "The Russians just don't like the fact that our city is coming back to life. They feel annoyed."

The mayor wants to revive the city, the Russians would like the opposite and the people of Kharkiv don't know what to do. Terekhov says that a third of the 1.5 million inhabitants left the city when the Russians approached, but 100,000 have since returned. "There are already traffic jams entering the city." The mayor sounds proud.

The city administration is trying to celebrate the return to everyday life with freshly planted flowerbeds and cleanly swept streets. Terekhov had planned to turn the fountain at Liberty Square back on over the weekend, but changed his mind after the artillery attack. He is afraid that too many people might show up. "The Russians could fire at the crowd. Their tactic is to sow panic."

And so Kharkiv is stuck in a state that Kyiv has already left behind. The supermarkets are open, the cafés closed. Government buildings lie in ruin, but pansies have been planted. Anyone taking photos is considered suspicious. In the evening, the city is deserted. At night, the occasional artillery fire shatters the silence.

The war has raged worst in the north, in the Saltivka neighborhood. Russian artillery has slit open the skyscrapers, exposing the insides like dollhouses. The Ukrainian military stands in the courtyards, hidden from the enemy view. "Do not photograph, do not post on the internet," reads a cardboard sign dangling from the gun barrel of a tank. The few people in the northern part of Saltivka are in the process of removing their most valuable possessions from their homes, including washing machines, refrigerators and icons.

This car was crushed by a tank on the outskirts of Kharkiv.

This car was crushed by a tank on the outskirts of Kharkiv.

Foto: Maxim Dondyuk / DER SPIEGEL

It is a week before Zelenskyy's visit to Saltivka, and a close associate of the president is standing with the mayor to survey the damage. Kyrylo Tymoshenko, 33, is wearing a black sweatshirt emblazoned with the words: "I'm Ukrainian." Tymoshenko used to be a sports journalist, TV producer and PR consultant before Zelenskyy brought him in as the deputy chief of staff of the Presidential Office. Before the war, he had been responsible for Zelenskyy's "Big Construction" project, a gigantic, billion-dollar investment program to build roads, bridges and other infrastructure throughout the country. Critics said it was overpriced, but its successes are undeniable.

Tymoshenko is now responsible for reconstruction. What do you do when entire streets of a high-rise district with 300,000 inhabitants are destroyed? Plans for new buildings already exist, Tymoshenko explains in the car; displaced or bombed-out people need to be housed. "Most of the buildings in Saltivka have to be demolished, we could build the replacements by the New Year. But we don't want to build something that will then get bombed again." It is possible to prepare land for construction and dig pits for the foundations. "But building can't proceed until the military says that the situation allows for it."

Kyrylo Tymoshenko (center), 33, is deputy chief of Volodymyr Zelenskyy's Presidential Office. Here, he visits the village of Mala Rohan, with Oblast Governor Oleh Synehubov (right). Tymoshenko is responsible for reconstruction in the regions.

Kyrylo Tymoshenko (center), 33, is deputy chief of Volodymyr Zelenskyy's Presidential Office. Here, he visits the village of Mala Rohan, with Oblast Governor Oleh Synehubov (right). Tymoshenko is responsible for reconstruction in the regions.

Foto: Maxim Dondyuk / DER SPIEGEL

The same applies to the bridges destroyed by Russian missiles or Ukrainian blasts. "We fill in a temporary crossing in three, five or seven days," Tymoshenko says, "but there are few real new buildings."

But even the military doesn't know when major reconstruction efforts can commence. "The danger for Kharkiv is far from over," says an officer who played a leading role in defending the city and its surroundings. "If the Russians have made progress in the Donbas, then they will continue the war elsewhere."

It is the sober insight of a man who speaks proudly of his own troops and contemptuously of the enemy. He calls the Russians "an army of posers." He says they planned to surround Kharkiv and then advance toward the Dnipro, heading south. "They thought we were going to be like a wall in front of them. But we were smarter." Although outnumbered, he says, the defenders succeeded in compensating with mobile groups and disorienting attacks from the flanks and behind the lines. The officer says the heaviest fighting took place in and around Mala Rohan, a village located to the east of Kharkiv. "We captured 200 Russians there."

The road to Mala Rohan passes Ukrainian army roadblocks. The war has left plenty of traces in the village. A crashed Russian helicopter, shot-up tanks, destroyed Russian positions, the smell of decomposition lingering over them. Russian rocket launchers fired at the outskirts of Kharkiv from here. The bodies of Russian soldiers are still being discovered in Mala Rohan, where they have been lying since the end of March. The locals buried one in a bomb crater, and an excavator is now lifting his body out. A brown bundle hangs from the excavator shovel. "Now the ghost is gone," says a neighbor.

The home of Lydia Sysoyeva, 67, in Chuhuiv was damaged on several occasions. She lives next to a Donets River railway bridge that was destroyed in the war. Sysoyeva still sleeps in her potato cellar to this day.

The home of Lydia Sysoyeva, 67, in Chuhuiv was damaged on several occasions. She lives next to a Donets River railway bridge that was destroyed in the war. Sysoyeva still sleeps in her potato cellar to this day.

Foto: Maxim Dondyuk / DER SPIEGEL

Not all traces of violence are as visible. A young woman told Human Rights Watch that she was raped by a Russian soldier in the village school that served as a shelter. After the liberation, Ukrainian fighters allegedly mistreated Russian prisoners. A YouTube video shows them shooting three men in the legs. A security guard gives a tour of the dairy farm where this reportedly happened, though there is little doubt that the recording originated here. There are still cartridges lying in front of the wall. It is, though, unclear who fired the shots. Not the regular troops, the officer says. The far-right volunteer unit Kraken, which fought in Mala Rohan, has also distanced itself. "We weren't there at all," says member Evgeniy Shkirkov, combat name "Viking."

What is clear is that the hatred of the Russian invaders is so great that few have a problem with the abuses. "What happened there doesn't interest me," says District Chief Volodymyr Ussov. There is just as little sympathy for collaborators – actual or perceived. One man allegedly told the Russians which villagers had fought in the Donbas. Several residents claim that the traitor died after the liberation during interrogation by the Ukrainian SBU secret service. The official reason given was a heart attack, they say. In the neighboring village of Vilykhivka, the SBU arrested the secretary of the local council.

The destroyed bridge over the Donets River in Chuhuiv. A makeshift crossing has since been erected for local residents.

The destroyed bridge over the Donets River in Chuhuiv. A makeshift crossing has since been erected for local residents.

Foto: Maxim Dondyuk / DER SPIEGEL

Behind Mala Rohan, even further east of Kharkiv, lies the small city of Chuhuiv. At its feet winds the Seversky Donets, the river that provided the name for the neighboring Donbas. East of the Donets begins the part of the Kharkiv region that is still in Russian hands and through which Russia's supplies for the offensive in the Donbas run. The garrison town of Chuhuiv, founded by Ivan the Terrible, has become an outpost in the war.

On Feb. 23, the day before the Russian attack, the Chuhuiv City Council held a meeting. They discussed plans for the future, says Mayor Halyna Minaeva: the inauguration of the new sports center, the children's home, tourism.

The next morning, rockets struck the city. There were injuries, one child died. The Russians were targeting the military airport. The Aviator neighborhood was destroyed, as were 59 private homes, a factory, the sports center and the bridges over the Donets. In one sense, the small town still got off relatively lightly: Unlike Mala Rohan, Chuhuiv was spared the occupation. Any confidence in the future, though, was destroyed.

The new IT center on a former factory site may be on the brink of closure. What programmer would move to a frontline city? It currently serves as a shelter for 90 people with its air-raid bunker. For three months, they have persevered in the humid basement air – women, children and a few cats leashed to chairs, waiting for peace. Stretched-out bed sheets replace walls. A kettle of food is steaming in the courtyard. "Fortunately, conditions here are quite decent, there is enough grub," says Olha Bon­darenko, 73, in semi-darkness. The people in the basement are waiting for better times. But when will they come?

Lydia Sysoyeva has remained in her home, near the bombed railroad bridge. She has gathered up shrapnel from Russian artillery next to the pergola vines. Blast waves twice damaged her home, and her husband is deaf to this day. She has spent nights with him in the cellar since the beginning of the war. The night before, she dared to make up the bed for the first time. But she couldn't fall asleep. In the end, she climbed back down into the cellar.

Some stores are open again in downtown Chuhuiv, the streets seem busier than in Kharkiv. But appearances are deceptive. Mayor Minaeva would love to show and explain her city to her Russian neighbors: "Look at what your country has done to us. You have destroyed our lives. We had plans, after all."

Minaeva's colleague Terekhov also has plans for Kharkiv. He wants to submit a bid for his city to host the Eurovision Song Contest in 2023. "We have the largest square in Europe," he says. "If everything goes well on the front, we will have excellent chances."

It's a big "if."