Kharkiv*, Ukraine’s second largest city, is located in the eastern part of the country, only 25 miles from the Russian border. Although Kharkiv has had less of a presence in international headlines than Donetsk and Kiev, it has had its own unique experience in the crisis that has engulfed Eastern Ukraine. The city has nearly 1.5 million people and is in a region with a high ratio of ethnic Russians. Additionally, Kharkiv is also known to be a center for scholarly thought – it has over a dozen institutions of higher education, making it a city full of young people. So how did Kharkiv get involved in the current political conflict that has engulfed the Donbass?
Tensions first made international headlines when, in February 2014, a group of Pro-Ukrainians activists attempted to topple a Lenin statue in Kharkiv’s Freedom Square. Soon after, pro-Russia supporters surrounded the statue, to ensure it stayed intact. From there, the tensions escalated. By the beginning of March, those in favor of Russian rule in Kharkiv had entered the Regional State Administration building and hoisted a Russian flag, replacing the Ukrainian flag. In mid-March, the situation hit a new level when two activists were killed during gunfire exchange between the two sides.
Tensions continued to rise as spring wore on, with protesters regularly clashing as the RSA building returned to Ukrainian control. By the end of April, even the mayor of Kharkiv was a victim of violence, having been shot in the back (after an emergency operation, he recovered and remains Kharkiv’s mayor today).
The summer of 2014 was more of the same for Kharkiv – violent confrontations between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian activists, sometimes made up of only a few hundred participants and other times reaching the thousands. As summer turned into fall, pro-Ukrainian activists were finally successful in removing the largest Lenin statue in Ukraine – the one that originally ignited clashes seven months earlier. See below for the Reuters video capturing this historic moment.
Just as the region seemed to reach a general consensus on where it stood in the battle for influence, the violence escalated. Beginning in September, Kharkiv and other regions in Eastern Ukraine faced a series of bombings, leading to unrest and fear. The bombings continued into the new year, the most violent of which occurred during a pro-Ukraine march with approximately 500 attendees in February 2015. On February 22nd, a bomb exploded and killed two police officers and injured more than a dozen others. Eventually, two more died as a result of injuries from the blast. Although there are attempts for peace, the unrest continues. Bombs are still going off, the most recent occurring on April 21st.
The Kharkiv Partisans, a pro-Russia faction, were blamed for the February blast, as well as subsequent violence. Although they never claimed to have set the bomb off, the group has not shied away from controversy since the February incident. TIME recently interviewed the Kharkiv Partisans’ spokesperson, a man named Filipp Ekozyants. Ekozyants told TIME “Our goal is to liberate the people of Kharkov…and we will fight until the current authorities are weak enough to allow this.” In light of the Kharkiv Partisans actions, as well as others who have instigated and/or committed violence, all public events celebrating the May 9th holiday (Victory Day) in Kharkiv have been banned in fear of terrorism. Much like other parts of Ukraine, violence in Kharkiv is shredding the fabric of its society, one layer at a time.
So what is next for Ukraine’s second largest city? Kharkiv will likely continue to be a bastion of tense clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian activists. Keep in mind that it has always been a city torn between two interests; after all, it was named the original capital of the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic under the Soviet Union. In addition to a long history of mixed international relations, the city is close to the Russian border, leaving it vulnerable to the Kremlin’s interests. As the conflict enters its second summer, expect to see further violence and strong rhetoric on both sides continue to emerge from Kharkiv.
*You may sometimes see Kharkiv referred to as Kharkov in the media, the Russian pronunciation of the city.