Our objective was to not die and we succeeded


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February 10, 2023

Our objective was to not die and we succeeded

  • Dispatches from Ukraine
  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • war

Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, is under constant threat from the Russian army. This is a story about how its inhabitants are learning to live under these conditions.

Photo: Kirilo Pelіvanov

For Hamlet Zinkovsky, urban space is like a grand studio. You come across his paintings almost everywhere you go. He placed them in inconspicuous places in the past, but now they are found right on the streets.

“I want people to see that there’s more to the city than just destruction,” Hamlet explains.

He pulls a brush along the gate of a building right next to the river. With each movement, you can more clearly make out a bench, a swing and a garbage can hidden under a—doubtless—lush tree.

It was scorching hot that day, so Hamlet, 35, pulled a T-shirt over his head. Until the very end, he does not reveal what slogan will accompany the work. It is an integral part of his art. Behind our backs is another Hamlet work: a blazing sun with the inscription: “From the sun I learn to not burn out.” It is dedicated to volunteers, often friends of the artist. It is an appeal not to give up, because—as he says—they must last until victory. There is a common belief among Ukrainians that this will be a long war, so you have to measure your energy. This is not the sprint expected in the early days of the invasion, but a marathon.

Only when the sun was going down did Hamlet write: “I have never lived so much.”

Themes of war and everyday life intertwine regularly in his works. They illustrate well the dilemmas of Kharkiv residents trapped between conflict and the desire to live as before.

The battalion artist

The return of 35-year-old Hamlet Zinkovsky to the city in May coincided with a moment of calm. On February 24, when Russia launched its full-scale invasion, Kharkiv, less than 40 km from the border, became one of the first targets of the attack. On the very first day, Russian tanks appeared on the city ring road. Fierce fighting took place on the access roads, and the outskirts of the metropolis became the front line. Rockets and bombs fell on the center, turning buildings, including historic ones, into ruins.

But in May, Kharkiv, where 1.5 million people lived until the war, fell silent—which the inhabitants had not experienced since the end of February. Rockets stopped raining on the city, and the Ukrainian army gradually pushed the Russians back towards the border, less than 40 kilometers from Kharkiv. The capture of several towns brought immediate results: rocket and artillery fire almost ceased. Peace seemed to be returning to Kharkiv. But not even a month had passed when the Russians recaptured several towns, and shelling became a part of everyday life again.

Hamlet joined one of the Khartia volunteer battalions, but was ordered not to fight, but to paint. To emphasize his affiliation, he usually wears a bulletproof vest with a Khartia patch on it. This is how you can find him in the cafes and pubs he frequents.

Along with the writer Serhiy Zhadan (who named the battalion), Hamlet is one of the most popular artists in Kharkiv. Even so, he doubted that anyone would need his art during an invasion. But he had to follow the commander’s orders.

Since February 24, he has painted over 20 works. They are even more well-liked than earlier pieces—not only by ordinary residents, but also by soldiers and policemen. While he was painting the blazing sun, a police car pulled up. For a moment he thought there would be trouble. Instead, he heard over the megaphone: “Hamlet, thank you for your work.”

As he paints “I’ve Never Lived So Much,” passers-by often come up to him. A man asks to take a photo with him; a woman hands over a phone with a video call—her friend, who is taking shelter in Lviv, wanted to see her favorite artist; a boy asks for a cigarette and wants to talk for a while, and the owner of a club suggests that they can postpone the start of a concert by an hour so that Hamlet can catch it.

The Russians just bully us

Many residents still have not returned to Kharkiv. There is no data, but you can see it with the naked eye—little traffic on the streets and few passers-by. Hamlet jokes that the demands of Kharkiv activists to create pedestrian areas in the city center have finally been implemented.

While Hamlet would like people to return to the city, he knows that would not be wise. A dozen or so hours before he began to paint the work on the gate near the club, he was awakened suddenly by an explosion. A rocket had landed on the campus of one of the universities. The last time he jumped out of bed like that was when a rocket had hit the regional administration building in March.

“People keep asking me what the Russians want to tell us with these attacks. Absolutely nothing, I think. They just bully us so that we don’t feel safe and so that people are afraid to return,” says Hamlet.

Many of those who did not leave the city or returned quickly did not want to remain passive in the face of war. Everyone did what they could. Someone joined the ranks of the territorial defense or regular army, while another joined the ranks of volunteers who help the military and civilians by providing whatever is needed. That is why Hamlet believes that wartime Kharkiv is a city of saints.

The headquarters in the cafe

Bohdan Sinyavsky, a 28-year-old theater actor, has been in the city the whole time. He was born and grew up in Donbas, from where he went to study in Kharkiv. These areas were occupied by the Russians and separatists during the war that broke out in 2014. As a result, at least 13,000 people have died.

The number of victims after February 24 is unknown. The UN had managed to confirm 5,327 civilian casualties up to July 31. However, the organization emphasizes that the real number is likely to be significantly higher. According to the Ukrainian authorities, more than 20,000 people died in Mariupol alone. There is no reliable information on military or combatant casualties.

On February 24, Bohdan and his wife Miriam went to their friends’ cafe. Its owners were leaving and offered him the keys. The premises had extensive underground rooms, where there was a bakery and a board game store.

The couple stayed in Kharkiv because of family, in particular a grandfather who had not yet recovered from COVID. Transporting him and the rest of the family in the first hours of wartime chaos would be quite a challenge. Besides, Bohdan did not want to leave Kharkiv as long as there was no threat that the Russians might take the city.

More people, including former employees, flocked to the cafe. It quickly became an aid center. Fresh bread and various sweets were baked in the bakery, then distributed, along with food products and medicines coming from all over Ukraine—as well as from abroad. This spontaneous aid group began to expand. There soon existed a network of people ready to obtain necessities for those in need, prepare them for distribution and deliver them to a specific address.

Work for food

Bohdan Sinyavsky emphasizes that without the bakery, the group would probably not have been established.

“In the first two weeks it was difficult to arrange things with anyone. You would call your friends who were in town a few hours ago, and now one is on the train, the other in a car, and the third at the draft board. People made a hundred decisions an hour and committed to the one that they happened to make last,” he admits.

Being in one basement made it easier to organize. Those who decided to stay could act and make plans on the fly. Volunteers worked for food. Of what they received, they left a modest portion for themselves. At first, Bohdan was ashamed that he was using help himself.

“I finally realized that if I was hungry, I wouldn’t be able to help. Besides, I don’t have a source of income, so I’m also in need,” says Bohdan.

No one thought about money for over a month. Usually, the shops were closed, and basically only expensive products remained in those that were operating, because the cheap ones sold out right away. Hardly anyone could afford the sturgeon or aged hams lying on the shelves.

In April, a group of volunteers together with Bohdan moved their activities to another place, where an efficient organization was already being established. They worked until curfew every day then locked themselves in the basement, where they spent the rest of the day and, exhausted by life in constant danger, found solace in alcohol.

A city unfit for life

At that time, people gradually returned to Kharkiv because the situation was calming down. It was no longer completely empty; sometimes there were even small traffic jams, traffic lights were turned on in some places, and the police pursued those who broke the law, although for more than two months motorists drove without heeding any rules. This was the peak of the fuel crisis, so it is not known what was in the tanks of numerous cars driving to and fro. Cafés, restaurants and more shops opened timidly, their shelves filled with goods. Virtually everyone returned home from cellars, because after weeks spent on sleeping pads, nothing has a power of attraction like your own bed.

Finally, Bohdan and his wife left the cafe and went home. The cafe itself opened in the first days of August, despite a few people still sheltering downstairs.

“Our objective was to not die, and we succeeded,” says Bohdan. “With time, you get used to war and after two months of living under fire, you want to go out somewhere for a beer, take a walk or just buy an ice cream.”

There is no opportunity for paid work. Theaters are closed, as are the advertising agencies where Bohdan worked to supplement his actor’s salary. Like many Ukrainians, he was left without a source of income.

At the end of July, the National Bank of Ukraine updated its forecasts for 2022. Unemployment is to amount not to 9.1 percent, as previously assumed, but to 28.9 percent, despite the fact that over 6 million Ukrainians have left the country. For this reason, the help that Bohdan provides free of charge is still needed. Without it, many residents of Kharkiv and the surrounding area will be in an even more difficult situation. That is why the volunteer is still looking for a way out of the dilemma of how to support others, but at the same time not be dependent on help.

Kharkiv returns to life under these conditions, which—as Bohdan says—are not ready to support it, and will not be as long as inhabitants catch themselves thinking that at any moment a rocket may fall on their heads.

Returning to one of my homes

Around the same time as Hamlet, 27-year-old Ekaterina Pereverzeva returned to Kharkiv. She was born in Russia, but moved to Donetsk as a child. She was forced to leave due to the outbreak of war in Donbas. She ended up in Kharkiv and immediately fell in love with the city. As she puts it, Kharkiv became everything to her. Two years ago, she adopted Era, a dog with white hair and pointy ears, from a shelter. This gave her a sense of stability and the conviction that another war would not take everything away from her.

On February 24, Ekaterina immediately left for Chernivtsi in the western part of the country. But she couldn’t find a place there because everything reminded her of Kharkiv, even the taxi app that kept suggesting that she return to her home address.

When the war died down in Kharkiv in May, she collected her belongings and returned home with her dog. The app finally suggested the address she was actually going to. She remembers Era entering the house. She walked around the apartment, sniffed and examined her surroundings. She lay on one bed for a while, then on another. She recognized the place, but it took her some time to understand where she really was. Finally, Era dashed around the apartment, tail wagging. Ekaterina felt the same way.

“Everything was in its place for the first time in eight years because I finally managed to return home, although not to Donetsk,” she admits.

Ekaterina Pereverzeva is a co-founder of lyuk, a website focusing on culture, and a photographer. For the first time since the invasion, she was able to take pictures again. She documented the effects of war on the city.

“Kharkiv is like a man with wounds all over his body. You look at him and you feel pain, but you are glad that he survived,” she states.

She was convinced that she would never leave Kharkiv again.

Why did I leave?

A few weeks later, the idyll was interrupted. The Russians again approached the city. Kharkiv was regularly shelled, although not as intensely. First every day after 11 pm, then at 4 am. Ekaterina set her alarm clock for 3:55 so she wouldn’t be awakened by an explosion. She heard the sirens and waited in bed for the sounds of explosions. Some were so close that the house shook. In the end, the schedule became ineffective and the shelling happened at all hours. She couldn’t prepare for it. Everyone in the area wakes up from an explosion and they are often haunted by anxious thoughts, which do not let them fall asleep. This is mentally and physically exhausting, because it’s hard to ignore rackets of this caliber.

Ekaterina was in an awful mood again: she was anxious and could hardly get out of bed. Era also reacted badly to the roar of artillery. She didn’t want to go outside. She braced herself before entering the staircase. Once, when Ekaterina finally managed to lead her out, artillery cannonades rang out momentarily. Era dashed into the building. Ekaterina blamed herself for subjecting her dog to stress by deciding to stay in the city. After two months, she once again decided to leave Kharkiv. She moved to Kyiv, where her partner lives.

“I hardly talk about this period because sometimes I feel ashamed. If others are able to stay, why did I leave? Am I a coward? I felt that I betrayed them,” admits Ekaterina.

A friend reassured her that feeling bad and not coping in such a situation is not wrong. Rather, getting used to it is a departure from the norm.

However, Ekaterina hopes that since she managed to return home once, she will be able to do it again. She will once again enjoy the city that has become everything to her.

This text was originally published in Polish in Tygodnik Powszechny.

Translated from Polish by Lukasz ChelminskiThis piece is part of the DS collection: Dispatches from Ukraine.


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