‘No panic… no one is running away.’ Residents of Kharkiv defy threat of Russia’s advancing forces

By Andrew Carey and Daria Tarasova-Markina, CNN

CNN visited Kharkiv, in northeastern Ukraine, on May 10-11, 2024, to speak to people about the war. The visit coincided with a major Russian push across the border.

Kharkiv, Ukraine CNN  — 

Thirty miles to the north, Russian forces are invading again. But in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, life cracks on.

Upstairs at the Che champagne bar on Sumska Street, girlfriends arrive in twos and threes, dressed to impress. They take photos of each other, backlit in pink and gold, and framed by floor-to-ceiling shelves of Moët & Chandon.

“We are all 1654,” it says on the wall and on the sugar sachets, a reference to the year the city was founded. The last two years have been among the toughest.

Just across the street from Che is the regional government headquarters. On March 1, 2022 – the sixth day of Russia’s war – CCTV caught the moment it was struck by two missiles.

Today, the windows are boarded up, but the exterior is in surprisingly good order. A huge poster hangs over the front bearing words all Ukrainians know.

Keep fighting — you are sure to win!

God helps you in your fight!

For fame and freedom march with you,

And right is on your side!

When we meet businessman and philanthropist, Yuriy Sapronov, outside a café after lunch, he has just been updated about the battlefield situation by soldiers along the border.

The news is not good. Russians have pushed through in two areas in a four-battalion effort. Sapronov reckons the aim is to draw Ukrainian forces away from positions defending Chasiv Yar in the Donbas region to the southeast.

He draws a map on the paper place-setting in front of him explaining how far Russia needs to advance to get its artillery in range to hit the city. He’s confident they won’t succeed because Ukraine has moved combat-hardened brigades to defend those positions.

Not that it will stop Russia sending S-300 missiles and guided aerial bombs towards Kharkiv. The fastest of them will make impact within a minute of being launched, so close is the city to Russia.

“Everyday genocide,” says Sapronov.

The businessman was born in Kaliningrad, now a part of Russia, then a part of the Soviet Union, more than 60 years ago. His father was in the Soviet air force and when the time came for him to step into the reserves, he was told he could move his family to almost any location he wanted.

He chose Kharkiv for its universities, to give Yuriy and his sister a good place to study.

Sapronov himself became a businessman after abandoning his job as a chemistry teacher in the chaos of the Soviet Union’s demise. He traded in metals, oil and computers, before later moving into construction.

This monument is dedicated to children killed during the war. The sign reads: "They were killed by Russia."

“Money was just lying at my feet back then,” he says.

It is very different now. His businesses have ceased. Instead, he raises money for the army, and chips in himself. Anything from drones to generators, from motor vehicles to power banks. Local brigades tell him what they need; he pays for some of it and secures financing for the rest.

We ask Sapronov why he is still here. As a man older than fighting age, he could leave the country, or at least move to a quieter part of Ukraine. But his mind was clear from the very beginning, he says. His wife asked him the day after the war began what they were going to do. He told her they were staying put.

“In my passport it is written that I am Russian by nationality. But I am not Russian, I am Ukrainian,” Sapronov says.

Hotel manager Olha Sokolenko

Olha Sokolenko, director of Kharkiv Palace Hotel, was in the hotel at the moment of the strike. She says she hopes the hotel will re-open one day.

Olha Sokolenko is not a Kharkiv native either.

The hotel manager came to the city from Kyiv 15 years ago.

On December 30 last year, she was leading her team at the Kharkiv Palace Hotel, getting ready for a New Year’s Eve party the next day. At 7 p.m., a Russian missile crashed into the building’s fitness center on the 11th floor, exploding three floors down.

She shows us a massive hole left by the missile as it passed through a bedroom floor.

Fifteen rooms were occupied at the time of the attack, all on lower floors for safety. About 20 staff were on duty. Remarkably, no one was killed and only one person was injured and needed treatment.

Olha herself was among the most fortunate. She was right there on the 11th floor when the missile struck, but on the other side of the building.

“It seems my work on this earth isn’t done,” she says wryly, when we suggest she must feel very lucky.

The memory will never leave her, though, especially the sound of the missile strike. “Terrible, like a very strong lightning strike,” she recalls.

It was only a few hours afterwards that rescuers recovered her phone, covered in dust but still working. There was a load of missed calls, not just from friends and family, but from people all over the world – one-time guests at the hotel, checking she was OK.

Russians hit the building, she says, because they claimed there were important decisions being taken by people inside. In fact, Olha says, there were only civilians in the building – mostly journalists and people preparing to celebrate New Year with their families.

“This hotel has been my life’s work,” she says.

“Peace will come, and guests will return to Kharkiv.”

FC Metalist Kharkiv

Matviy Kolotay, an academy player at FC Metalist Kharkiv, watches the first team play a match after Saturday training.

Matviy Kolotay is 15 years old and his favorite player is Cristiano Ronaldo.

It is an opinion widely held among the boys of the academy of FC Metalist Kharkiv, who have piled into a small room after Saturday training to watch the first team in action against Hirnyk Sport.

Matviy has been with the club since 2021 but he amazes us when he explains that while he lives in Kharkiv, his family lives in Kremenchuk, about 140 miles (225 kilometers) away in the safer center of the country.

“My parents are worried for me, but the main thing is that I am playing football,” he says.

The war is not something he likes to talk about.

“Me-ta-list! Me-ta-list!” the boys roar.

They are led by Mikhaylo Galushko, one of the coaches.

Every club needs a man like him. Someone to get the chant going, a man who claps his hands together with such force you can feel the audio peaking inside your head.

FC Metalist play their games in Uzhhorod, the farthest point you can get from Kharkiv without leaving Ukraine. It takes more than a day to get there on the train.

The boys shout at the screen like football supporters everywhere, appealing every dodgy decision by the referee.

“Even in this difficult time, the children come here, and we give them the attention they deserve. Thanks to sport, thanks to our attention, they are distracted [from the war] and forget about everything that is going on,” Galushko says.

It is no easy task. An air raid siren the day before had lasted the entire day and all training was canceled.

If the alarms go off halfway through a session, the boys are taken to the bomb shelter. The banter resumes the moment they are inside.

“All conversations are turned into jokes, so the boys are not afraid.”

We tell Galushko that one of the CNN team supports English football club Everton.

“Ah, you remember, the match?” he says, referring to a UEFA Cup tie between the teams in 2007.

“We let you win!”

Had he at any point thought of leaving Ukraine in the last two years?

“We never went anywhere. When the war started, my younger son was at a tournament in Poltava. While everyone was leaving Kharkiv, he was coming back to Kharkiv on an empty train,” Galushko says.

“My family is all in Kharkiv. Two children, both play football. I do not want to go anywhere. This is my homeland.”

Kharkiv’s mayor

Kharkiv's mayor, Ihor Terekhov, was elected just a few months before the Ukraine war broke out.

The city’s mayor Ihor Terekhov speaks slowly and quietly, pausing to allow his translator to render carefully his Ukrainian into English, sentence by sentence.

The war started just a few months after he was elected mayor at the end of 2021.

We are talking just a few hours after Russia began its latest offensive, immediately to the north.

What President Volodymyr Zelensky would later that day call a new wave of counteroffensive actions comes after months of increased Russian air strikes on the city. By the end of March, they had knocked out the entire region’s power generating capacity, as well as all its electricity substations.

Street lights are now completely switched off and there are rolling blackouts from one neighborhood to another. The underground rail network is still running, one train every 20 minutes. Pre-war, they ran every two to three minutes. Still, it works.

For the mayor of Kharkiv, one message matters more than any other: the people of his city are staying put. Russia will not drive them out.

“As we can see [today], the Russian aggressors have intensified their actions on the border in several directions [..] But, despite everything, you can see the city is alive, that no one is running away,” Terekhov says, through his translator.

“This is the main thing. There is no panic.”

Most people though will tell you the city has lost people in recent months. Not like the first few months of the war, when the population shrunk from about 1.5 million to 300,000, before many returned as Ukraine’s fortunes improved later in the year. But some families are now choosing to move to safety again as the Russian threat re-emerges.

Even so, the mayor shakes his head when we ask him if numbers have declined since the start of the year. “No,” he says, before correcting himself.

“There was a slight decrease. A few people have left. A few others have returned.”

Café Snidanishna

A large Hyundai generator sits just inside the door of Café Snidanishna, which lies about a mile north from the city center.

It is off when we arrive because the power in the city is switched on. Co-owner Borys Lomako explains they only really need it to keep the lights and the coffee machine working. The oven is wood fired.

Traditional Ukrainian crafts are given prominence at Café Snidanishna alongside the cuisine. This jug is from the Poltava region.

It is a gem of a place. We order chicken liver pate, served with red berries, and freshly made bread, toasted.

Along with two friends, both fellow entrepreneurs, he opened the café three months ago. Revenues from some of their other interests, predominantly a confectionery business, help to support it.

“It’s not really a business model, it’s primarily about keeping my life in Kharkiv. To send signals both to Kharkiv residents who stay here that life goes on, and signals to those outside of Kharkiv that Kharkiv is a Ukrainian city and people live here.”

Lomako explains that he and his partners traveled across the country to collect local recipes and techniques. There is gombovtsi on the menu – a sweet dough from the Carpathian Mountains in Ukraine’s far southwest. And kachina kasha – porridge made from rolled millets dipped in egg and flour, from the Naddniprianshchyna region, along the Dnipro River. Preparing the dish is time-consuming, Lomako says, and that is the point. It takes time. It is hard work.

“Even just choosing to eat Ukrainian food means that we are choosing Ukraine,” he says.

He articulates the existential threat most Ukrainians feel about Russia’s invasion, the certainty that Russians want to wipe out their history and their culture. When we are talking, a little after 9 a.m., Kharkiv is already on its third air raid siren of the day, and the cross-border offensive is into its second day and making progress.

“As I see it, this is a choice of life. Every day we can choose death or life. And choosing to eat, choosing to go to restaurants, choosing to cook for people is a choice to live, not to die. Yes, this is resistance for me, it is creative resistance.”

Dmytro Gurov’s destroyed printing house

Gurov stands in the remains of the printing house.

Walking through the burned-out wreckage of Dmytro Gurov’s 5,000-square-meter printing business is an almost overwhelming experience.

Twisted metal girders and air vents, plaster and ceiling tiles gone, all windows blown out. Everywhere, remnants of the puzzles, children’s card games, books and magazines that once rolled out of machines here. Cutting machines, printing machines, laminating machines.

A million bits of torn paper.

All covered in dust.

And the taste of the blast and the fire that followed are still clear on the tongue, almost two months on.

The weapon that did all this was originally designed to sink ships. It flew low around the city, evading air defenders, before ending its flight right here, killing five and wounding 20.

We ask Gurov if he is angry over what has become of the business he started back in 2007. It would feel like a reasonable response.

“It is not going to help. There is no time to sit around crying and blaming someone for something. The question here is: what do we do next? If we are going to recover, then how?”

Government assistance should bring in about $200,000, but the cost of the strike runs into millions, he says.

In fact, rebuilding began immediately. Employees came in the next day offering to work for nothing. Some machines could be salvaged and the first of those cleaned up and moved to another workspace were working again within a month.

“Like a phoenix,” Gurov says.

Kharkiv theater goes underground

This theater in Kharkiv is one of several city institutions forced underground by the war.

A small theatre audience watches as the female character on the roof says she is ready to jump.

But the man, a stranger, isn’t so sure. “Just look down there, it’s a right mess, there is rubbish everywhere,” he says ironically.

The Kharkiv State Theater should be playing in front of 900 people. Now the actors perform in a basement club with just enough space for six rows of audience. Since the start of the year, it has become one of several city institutions forced underground by the war. Schools, too, are slowly going subterranean.

Big productions with large casts are impossible in such a small space, director Oksana Stetsenko says. But at least they no longer need to pause the play and exit the playhouse whenever the sirens go off.

“We have to adjust, adapt, but still do our job. We must do our job,”Stetsenko says.

She chose the play, “Suicide of Loneliness,” by Ukrainian playwright Neda Nezhdana, because it is about people making choices.

“We are all individuals.”

She is thinking of the soldiers, too.

“There are individuals at the front. They are not a biomass. An individual makes his or her own choice, thinks, draws conclusions, and says to himself or herself: I want beautiful things, I want eternal things, I want peace, I want well-being for my family, for my children.”

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