‘Another Stalingrad’: Attack on Kharkiv breaks ties that once held two countries together

Nadezhda Gurkalenko once looked at Russia with a mixture of envy and admiration. Now, she says, “I realize I’m an idiot.”

She is a native of Kharkiv, the city that bore the brunt of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, endured non-stop shelling discharged into residential areas and caused dozens of deaths and injuries.

The shelling destroyed local government buildings, schools and a maternity hospital. But it also destroyed something more invisible – the respect and even affection that millions of people in eastern Ukraine once had for Russia.

That empathy is ingrained in the culture of the region. Kharkiv is only 50 kilometers from Russia. Many people there speak Russian, have close relatives across the border, and identify more closely with Russian than with Ukrainian culture. For them, the past week has brought a terrible reckoning.

“I am Russian, I love and am proud of Russia and everything Russian,” said Larisa Frantsuzova, poet and writer from Kharkiv, in a message sent from the city. Now, a week after the invasion, she adds: “I have no love left.”

Invasion of Russia motivated in part by the ideology of “Russky Mir” (“Russian World”), the idea that Moscow should wield influence wherever Russian is spoken – including in Ukraine. For many, including Vladimir Putin, who said that Ukrainians and Russians are essentially “one people”Ukraine is an inviolable part of this world.

Mikhail Dobkin, former mayor of Kharkiv, photo in 2014
Mikhail Dobkin, the former mayor of Kharkiv, wrote on Facebook: ‘Much of what I believed in fell overnight. . . only burned ‘after the invasion began © Yuriy Maksimov / EPA

The platform underpins Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and spurred a separatist uprising in the eastern Donbas region that same year. It is an ideology that has enjoyed some support in the eastern regions of Ukraine. No more.

“Even today’s most heavily dyed Ukraino-wool gowns support Kyiv,” said Alexei, a surgeon in Kharkiv, contacted by phone. “How could it be otherwise that the Russians have turned this city into another Stalingrad?”

Across Ukraine, Russian soldiers expecting to be greeted as liberators had a rude awakening. Reception has turned hostile even where Russian speakers predominate, such as the southeast: a video from the southern city of Melitopol was published on social media on Wednesday. shows crowds of local residents holding Ukrainian flags and confronting Russian troops, shouting “Go home,” “Putin is an asshole,” and “Melitopol is a Ukrainian.”

Even politicians from the old “Party of Regions”, a pro-Russian outfit that once dominated politics in eastern Ukraine, are changing their tune. Among them was Mikhail Dobkin, the former mayor of Kharkiv, who was investigated in 2014 for his alleged support of Donbas separatists. “Much of what I believed in fell overnight. . . just burned out,” he wrote on Facebook after the invasion began. “May this war be damned.”

Oleksiy Plotnikov, a former MP for the Party of Regions, asked: “How can anyone in this country support the idea of ​​’Russian World’ after they start bombing our cities. “The vaccine that Ukraine just received from the Russian World is even more powerful than Pfizer and Moderna.”

Gurkalenko, a manicurist, said she has long viewed Russia with envy: Putin is a “strong and rational” leader who has been in power for more than 20 years while Ukraine was rocked by government crises are almost constant. “They have stability, we don’t,” she added.

Now, she saw things completely differently. “I am rethinking all my values,” she said, by phone from a bomb shelter in Kharkiv.

Her change of opinion has alienated her from her mother, who lives in Moscow and receives news of the war from Russian state TV channels.

“She said – just be patient and wait, it’s just a small ‘special surgery’,” Gurkalenko said. I don’t know what’s going on here.”

Friendships are also broken. Olga Sitkovska, 34, another resident of Kharkiv who has now fled the city, exchanged angry messages this week with a Russian friend she met while on vacation in Turkey in 2016. She started sending me propaganda videos, saying: ‘You see, in Russians in Ukraine are suffering and Putin has to help,’ said Sitkovska, a local TV presenter.

“I said, ‘I’m in a bomb shelter, why are you sending me these’?”

She said she didn’t want to cut off contact with her friend, but added: “I feel a lack of understanding, a lack of trust. It makes me sad and angry.”

Traffic between Kharkiv and neighboring Russian cities gradually decreased after 2014. But family ties and friendships have never been completely severed. That will change now.

Frantuzova said she was heartbroken. “Our grandfathers, Russians and Ukrainians, fought side by side in the second world war. . . Thank God they didn’t live to see this day,” she added.

Additional reporting by John Reed in Lviv

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