It was a real pleasure to finally visit Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, albeit at a weekend glance. Since this January it has finally become possible to fly there low-cost from Budapest, thus bringing a new wave of travel and tourism to this region east of the country, as there is much on offer.
I have been to Ukraine many times. This though was my first venture near the Russia-Ukraine war zone and I confess to feeling a bit nervous. In the event, all went well despite there being no real end in sight to the conflict and it could escalate at any time.
Although Kharkiv, pronounced “Harkiv”, and the rest of Ukraine is generally safe, I was still relatively prepared for any eventuality. This undercurrent reminded me of my visit last year to South Korea, another country in a similar situation with an enemy at the gate. Frozen or non-frozen conflicts alike, both countries remain on high alert at all times.
But then it occurred to me, would I be “safer” or better off in present-day Paris or Brussels? There are also “troubles,” albeit different ones, with episodic attacks at the heart of the EU too.
On a lighter note, this two-hour twice-a-week flight from Budapest to Kharkiv was a defiant sell-out. It then became clear, demand to serve a new-found destination and connect it with the rest of Europe is reassuringly high, regardless of conflict. With this in mind, solace was finally found as I stepped onto the aircraft. After all, I had received an invitation to go there and wanted to see this through.
Kharkiv, as far from Budapest as London, is an aspiring industrial city. It’s a center for scientific research and IT. The city is dotted with much irregular, sky-scraping 20th-century architecture. Yet with its Karazin University, its history and culture, the city is also home to many outstanding artists and academics.
Although February was still early days in the season for general sight-seeing tourism, Kharkiv in the snow and days before spring is as equally appealing as elsewhere in Europe.
At present this city is better known for its student life and industry rather than as a tourist destination. From a tourist perspective, Kharkiv, once the capital of Ukraine, may not be in the same league as Lviv, not that it matters. But with its fleet of thousands of students, with some from abroad, and with new industrial enterprises coming in, these impressive cosmopolitan factors make Kharkiv relatively comparable to even Cambridge, the UK.
US entrepreneur Bill Gates, also linked to Cambridge through his scholarship program, chose Kharkiv as his base to launch the Ukrainian version of Windows.
Kharkiv was one of the hosts of the UEFA Euro 2012 soccer tournament, and this also did much for the city, bringing in supporters from abroad. The corresponding development of roads and general infrastructure resulted in new-found tourist gains. The list of positives goes on, as Kharkiv with its population of 1.5 million has an educational and industrial life with a very promising future.
To begin with, it’s easy to find the main attractions, such as the renowned Blahovishchenskyi Annunciation Cathedral and the Ploshcha Svobody/Freedom Square. These leading representations of the city are within pleasant walking distance of each other. There are sufficient signs in English in public places and these served me well in tackling the Metro, which is a step-back-in-time venture in itself. Should Soviet cubism and tokenish artworks be of interest, then you will be glad to have made your way along the darkish passageways and wait for trains under the twinkly chandeliers there.
When one arrives at the central Maidan Konstytutsii Metro station, which connects the blue and red lines, this leads directly up to the Old Town. From this point onwards it’s easy to orientate oneself to museums, shops, restaurants, theatres, parks and so forth.
When finally up the outdoor steps, one of the first sightings one is likely to see is the commendable history museum. This is conveniently situated in a pedestrian zone that binds the main Konstytutsii and Sumska streets together and is a good reference point for finding everything else. It was remarkable to visit the history museum, which really touches on the oppressive 20th century, then to walk the streets immediately afterward, for Kharkiv has come far from the bygone Soviet era in a very short space of time.
A little further on from these pleasing surroundings is an affecting and most apparent Slava Ukraini independence monument.
Join the gatherings whilst there and pose for a selfie. When fulfilled, make your way beyond the all-important and imposing yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flag-waving Slavic goddess for some quiet reflection at the beguiling gold-tipped tops of the Pokrovskyi Holy Shroud Monastery and its immediate area.
When accomplished, head towards the elegant Neoclassical Uspenskyi Assumption Cathedral with its protruding 90-meter-tall tower and take a look inside. Looking out westwards of the city from this peak, over the River Lopan, is the standout and unmistakable neo-Byzantine Blahovishchenskyi Annunciation Cathedral. Its 80-meter-high bell tower is also clearly seen from afar.
The cathedral dates originally to 1650. It was finally rebuilt between 1889 and 1901 with approximately 7 million bricks providing space up to 4000 people. The distinctive horizontal layering of earthenware red and cream-white pastel colors, and the charcoal-colored dome tops, make this a must-see, a defining symbol of the city.
Over a kilometer further westwards is the main Kharkiv-Pasazhirskyi train station. After consuming a much-needed traditional Kvas drink within the lavishly decorated station confines. I returned to Maidan Konstytutsii, started again and continued the tour.
When facing southwards, the Konstytutsii promenade leads to an impressive ensemble of mainly 20th-century buildings, including the Administration office, a charming puppet theatre, a vintage and delectable cake shop and various banks. This busy high street finally ends at the distinct but nondescript Stalin Apartment tower, built in 1954 and adorned with a distinct star on its spire, thus resembling a mini imitation of the Palace of Culture and Science Tower in central Warsaw.
At this point, walk back to central base again and head directly northwards to Sumska Street, taking in theatreland, art museums, and antique and souvenir shops before arriving at the St. Zhon Myronosyts Temple, which faces directly to the M. Lysenko Kharkiv National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre.
Beyond this point is the delightful Taras Shevchenko City Garden. The main park entrance has a large and most elaborate statue dedicated to this legend of 1814-1861, the Ukrainian equivalent to Shakespeare and writer of many literary masterpieces. The monument incorporates a number of working people, often characters from his various stories.
A spacious park then awaits, decorated with various statuettes commemorating prominent Kharkivites. Unfortunately, February was too early to observe the fountains in full flow or any blooms but seeing this park in its winter glory was just as spectacular.
This finally leads to the vast 11-hectares Ploshcha Svobody, or Freedom Square, the third-largest city square in Europe and 750 meters long. It drew international attention in 2014 when the Lenin statue that once stood prominently finally fell. In 2008, the band Queen and singer Paul Rogers played to an estimated 350,000 people in this immediate area.
Surrounding are irregular and rhetorical structures, such as the iconic and colossal Derzhprom State Industry Office Building, built from 1925-1928 and, at 63 meters high, famed as being the first Soviet skyscraper. This unique but asymmetrical landmark is now a UNESCO heritage site.
Then follows the Karazin University and its numerous departments, the Pioneers Palace youth center and a tourist bureau. Other main features on the main Sumska Street are the Kharkiv State Administration, the Universytet (University Metro Station) and a “tributes and honors” site dedicated to those killed, injured, affected by the ongoing war with Russia.
For art enthusiasts, I highly recommend visiting the Fine Arts Museum, which hosts a splendor of vintage romantic paintings by locally renowned 19th-century artist Ilya Repin, Serhiy Vasylkivskyi and others. Both these painters had the remarkable ability to render high-precision portrayals and anything relating to traditional and touching folklore themes.
Finally, for a real change of scenery seek out the easy-to-find Gorky Park, dubbed by the locals as their Disneyland. It makes a great day out for children and families in this spacious, forested parkland. The ferris wheel is 55 meters high and guarantees the best view of the surrounding area.
My visit was eloquently rounded off when I saw “Carmen” performed at the theatre. The next day the number 115 “marshrutka” bus delivered me to the airport. I was back in my neighborhood and at the desk before I knew it.
I really enjoyed my visit to Kharkiv. The hospitality was splendid and I genuinely felt I was one-of-them when we all got beyond the ABC of English and Ukrainian stereotypes and any truisms. But next time, I want to see the “clear azure blue skies” and “endless, sweeping sunflower fields” as depicted so often in Ukrainian culture.
Kharkiv is a lively place; some say it’s under-rated, I don’t think this matters too much. It depends on what one’s expectations are. There is as much academia and cultural life in this city as in overrated Oxbridge and elsewhere.
Although it’s a place on edge, life continues as before. Kharkiv provided all my needs and I was safe. The gregarious Kharkivites, with a Russian-speaking majority, are proud of this city and welcoming to outsiders. I genuinely sensed local people don’t want conflict. Everyone I met rejects Putin-ism and wants to move on.
But Kharkiv, like the rest of Ukraine, has a tarnished history as well as a troubled present. Although situated between the world’s superpowers, the country’s fate will ultimately shape global stability. If Ukraine succeeds, the West succeeds. If Ukraine falls, Europe falls. As of now, it’s clear, despite international sanctions, that defiant and relentless Russia, with six years of continuous warfare, will stop at nothing to fulfill its ambitions over this region and elsewhere.
As for one danger that came to attention, beware of the rapid, robust heavy metallic doors leading to and from the metro. It’s clear that the locals are used to them and get by in relative ease, but not me. These doors really pack a punch if not paying attention. I got hit many times! I shall be more prepared when it comes to my return.
Text and Photo: Alexander Stemp
Final note: I have done much travel writing relating to Ukraine. To find out more look under the ‘Alexander Stemp’ file at Budapest Times.