Welcome To Kharkiv, The Most Complicated Place In Ukraine

In Eastern Ukraine, near the Russian border, the scene - and sentiments - and not exactly like those in Kiev.

Feb. 23 protests in Kharkiv's Freedom Square
Feb. 23 protests in Kharkiv's Freedom Square
Claire Gatinois

KHARKIV — Late last week, Gennady Kernes, the mayor of Ukraine’s northeastern city of Kharkiv, was set to flee towards Russia like a criminal on the run.

But by Sunday, he had changed his mind, and was striding across the city’s Freedom Square with the puffed-up pride of a liberator. It’s 4:30 p.m. when this former close friend of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych speaks to the crowd gathered in front of Lenin’s statue to protect it from the “fascists” who want to topple it. He also has words for the pro-Maidan “revolutionaries” waiting just a few meters away.

Acclaimed by one side and booed by the other, he arouses hope from some and disgust from the others. To those who shout, “Kernes, your place is in jail,” the others answer, “Kernes, Kernes what must we do? Kernes, give us weapons.” The songs celebrating the memory of Soviet army heroes clash in the open air with the sounds of those singing “Glory to Ukraine!”

With his megaphone, the mayor pleads for dialogue. But his efforts are in vain. Even if he dropped Yanukovych and tossed him onto the garbage heap of history, the demonstrators won’t forget his past. Only by emphasizing his search for a peaceful alternative does he manage to avoid clashes between the two groups.

At 5 p.m., regional governor Mikhail Dobkin, who also tried to escape, joins him. But he doesn’t show quite as much courage, speaking only to those gathered around the statue of the late Bolshevik leader before leaving promptly in a black four-wheel-drive protected by two bodyguards.

The Ukrainian government has fallen, and Yanukovych has disappeared. But in Kharkiv, the battle is only just beginning. The people of this industrial, Russian-speaking city have until now looked passively at what was happening in Kiev. The ousting of the president changed everything. Here, people don’t speak about liberation but instead of a coup d’etat, and protesters are seen as “vandals” who are threatening peace.

“Yanukovych is a traitor,” says an angry Alexei Exarov. “He left without protecting us from them.”

Exarov, a fiftysomething dentist, is standing by Lenin’s statue and sharing his fears for his wife and daughter. If the “extremists” should win the battle of Kharkiv, he says he will leave and go to Russia. “I was born here, and I grew up in the Soviet Union,” he says before characterizing Russia as “a great country.”

As a matter of fact, the border isn’t far away at all. And the city economy thrives on its product exports to Russia. “What Maidan wants is to turn our country into the European Union’s slave,” declares a leaflet handed out near the statue. “They’ll close down our factories and eliminate our industry. They’ll break off all our ties with Russia and Belarus,”

“Europe already has everything,” says Kharkiv resident Maria Artouravna. “They don’t need us.”

Even as Kiev and the West seem to back Maidan, Kharkiv pledges to resist. Alla Alexandrovskaya, a former mayoral candidate and former communist Parliament member, raises the topic of separatism, and allowing the eastern part of the country to remain attached to Russia. This political veteran and trained engineer believes Yanukovych’s ouster is unconstitutional, and she now leads the anti-Maidan movement.

She attended an impromptu congress on Saturday in Kharkiv with other representatives of pro-Russian regions, during which the specter of a divided country was raised. It was characterized as a possible “federalization” that would give each region more autonomy over their own future.

The idea of a “physical split” doesn’t please the communist Alexandrovskaya, but she seems to believe that the country is already deeply divided. “I am a Ukrainian, but if you ask me which is my mother tongue, I can’t decide between Russian and Ukrainian.”

Volodimir Kristilin, co-organizer of the city’s Maidan movement, calls Kharkiv the “most complicated place in Ukraine.” He denounces what he calls “brainwashing” from local politicians and media outlets, which he says have been pro-Russian.

“We need to de-Sovietize people here,” Kristilin says.

While the anti- and pro-Maidan groups were sizing each other up amid shifting power, Channel 7 was showing a documentary on camping and ostriches, interrupted by brief news broadcasts showing the mayor as a calm and collected mediator trying to tame excited protesters.

Propaganda? “To each his own point of view,” answers one of the channel’s directors.

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