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Kharkiv and the Weight of History

May 06, 2024

Libby Hoffenberg

The city of Kharkiv is Ukraine's second largest city after Kyiv, and it sits just 40 kilometers from the Russian border.
Like borderlands everywhere, multiple influences have shaped Kharkiv's identity. Kharkiv’s location means that the city is a confluence of multiple historical, linguistic, and cultural influences in a single geography, shaped and reshaped by Ukranian, Russian imperial, and Soviet legacies, as well as diasporic peoples from all over the world. 

Kharkiv is located 40 kilometers from the Russian border in Ukraine's east.
The war in Ukraine is reshaping Kharkiv's identity, again. 

It is estimated that nearly 1/4 of Kharkiv has been destroyed.

From the outside, we ask: how is it possible that there is this kind of war in Europe, today?

As Yana Kosinova-Zhukovska writes in her story, "Kharkiv = Aleppo?": "Unpunished evil always comes back." Soviet totalitarianism and imperialism remain in the memories of Ukrainians, but it does not remain only there. As this horrific war has shown, these legacies are active in the present.
"Once I was watching Russian aircraft destroy Aleppo, now I am watching Russian missiles and bombs destroy my Kharkiv. Because unpunished evil always comes back."
Yana Kosinova-Zhukovska
On January 26, 2024 the Kharkiv City Council renamed Pushkinska street to Hryhorii Skovoroda street in response to a Russian bombing of Kharkiv on January 23 that caused nine casualties, including a four-year-old child.
A statue of Russian poet Pushkin in Kyiv, covered in graffiti demanding its demolition, testifies to the contested legacies of Russian influence. Since the start of the war, dozens of monuments to Pushkin have been dismantled.
Regardless of where we are, we are shaped by history. But in some places, this history comes to a point.
The story of Kharkiv is unfolding from the past into a future yet to be determined. Kharkiv sits at the boundary between Russia and Europe, a boundary that raises existential questions left unanswered by ongoing conflict over identity and influence.
The Czech writer Milan Kundera writes about the plight of the "small countries" of Central and Eastern Europe: they "longed to be a condensed version of Europe itself in all its cultural variety, a small arch-European Europe, a reduced model of Europe made up of nations conceived according to one rule: the greatest variety within the smallest space. How could Central Europe not be horrified facing a Russia founded on the opposite principle: the smallest variety within the greatest space?”
Kharkiv has been, in many ways, a model of this rule: the greatest variety within the smallest space. Now the Russian invasion threatens to eliminate differences in favor of unification under one way of life: the smallest variety within the greatest space.
As Kharkiv comes under perpetual attack, what is at stake is not only the right for a city and country to defend itself. What is at stake, as Rodri Lewis wrote in an article on Kundera's relevance today, published in Prospect shortly before Kundera's death in 2023, is "the freedom of individuals, particularly those in the nations that were constrained to exist within the eastern bloc, to express and enjoy and endure the perplexities of the human condition."
In Odessa in 2022, a monument to Duc de Richelieu, a governor of the city in the early 19th century, was surrounded by sandbags to protect it from Russian artillery and airstrikes.
“The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long that nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was... The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting"
Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
Brave Action stories on Kharkiv

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YOUNG VOICES 
IN TIME OF WAR
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