In Depth Society, 13/10/2017

Kharkiv is neither First nor Second City

The third Paper Bridge meeting of German and Ukrainian writers took place in Kharkiv. Historian Guido Hausmann and political journalist Jutta Sommerbauer were among the speakers.

The main quotes of both speakers are given below.

Guido Hausmann, professor of history at the University of Regensburg

Research interest in Kharkiv

I have started exploring Kharkiv history due to very little collated documentation about this city. Of course, we have books published in Ukrainian and Russian, some archives. However, we know so much more about Kyiv, Lviv, and Odesa. Many Germans and Western Europeans visit these cities when traveling to Ukraine. They may visit Kharkiv only if they want to get an impression about all parts of the country.


Regarding the features of Kharkiv development

I’ve found such a saying: “Kharkiv is neither first nor second city.” There is no easy way to describe it without making comparisons with other cities, primarily with Kyiv. Kharkiv is a fascinating city that is hardly characterized in terms of the history. For me, the reason is that Kharkiv did not have its own golden age. There were Middle Ages for Kyiv and the 19th century for Odessa. However, this period was not defined in Kharkiv.

Regarding Stalin’s era and its influence on the city’s culture

We can talk about the death of culture in Kharkiv in the 1930s. According to George Bosse who lived in Kharkiv then, the leading newspapers were delivered to the city with a 24 hours delay. The local newspaper reported only on harvesting, industrial successes and published interviews with workers and peasants. It said nothing about foreign news. This is the general picture of cultural life in those times.

On post-Soviet Kharkiv

After 1991, Kharkivites did not make a firm decision with a clear sense of direction. The fact that Kharkiv became border city with Russia after the collapse of the USSR played a very significant role. At Kuchma’s times (Leonid Kuchma is the second president of Ukraine — KhO), there were attempts to develop strong ties with Russia. As a result, Kharkiv became sort of a city of peoples’ friendship.

Jutta Sommerbauer, Die Presse Austrian daily newspaper editor

About the war in Kharkiv

At first glance, the talk about the war in Kharkiv is an overstatement. The city is located 200 kilometers from the frontline. You can’t see military equipment or hear explosions. Nevertheless, if you walk around the city and look more closely, you would see internally displaced persons and people in military uniform. In the squares, they raise money for the army. The Lenin’s monument no longer stands on Freedom Square though, which is the triumph of the Revolution of Dignity. However, three years ago, the city was also in danger as there were clashes between supporters and opponents of Maidan.

Regarding losing interest in the conflict in the east by German media

In the German-speaking countries, you can hardly find reports on Crimea and Donbas. However, humanitarian services are more interested in them. According to a sense of demand for the media, the conflict has fallen to the regional level. It has not become less intense but, according to the journalists’ point of view, it could be overshadowed.

About the gray zone

Donbas was called both a black hole and a blank spot. I consider the metaphor of the gray zone is more suitable. The gray zone is the region situated between belligerents but being under no one’s control. It is about five kilometers in width and lies all along the frontline. This is the territory of ruined houses and streets without electric lighting, empty villages in which only a couple of elderly people might live. Its daily life is filled with a sense of abandonment, uncertainty, people’s misunderstanding which side of the conflict they belong to. There are no heroes in the gray zone; there are only people who are patiently waiting.

On the conflict’s importance for the warring parties

Even people with guns sometimes don’t know who they are fighting against. Who is their enemy today? Some say that they are fighting against Russians and Chechens, others mention Polish, Lithuanians, and Nazis. Of course, both answers are distortions of reality, in both cases, Ukrainian citizens are fighting. And when you talk to them, they wonder how things are on the other side. After several years of war, I am no longer sure what Donbas and Ukrainian officials want. Someone would like to “amputate” Donbass. Others offer to “treat” it. But what is Donbas sick with and how to “treat” it?

On the impact of war on the individual

For many people who were involved in this conflict, there is no turning back. The war totally changes young people. I became friends with Julia from Donetsk who is 15. Before the war, she was going to become a hairdresser. Shocked by the shelling and spending many days in the basement, she intended to join the separatists’ army, like many of her teen-friends. Now, when the situation has somewhat calmed down, Julia is planning to work for the Rescue Service. And there are many such examples.

Disclaimer: Kharkiv Observer keeps the original words of speakers though does not necessarily agree with Jutta  Sommerbauer perception of the Russian war in Donbas.

Text: Natalia Ivanova

Photo: Nakipelo