A couple of weeks ago, the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv (‘Kharkov’ in Russian) was rocked by an explosion at a pro-Ukrainian demonstration. Four people died as a result of the bomb, and while conspiracy theory seems to be part of the national culture in all former Soviet republics, this attack appeared to be directed against the pro-Western forces now governing Ukraine. Renewed fears about Kharkiv going the way of the ‘people’s republics’ of Donetsk and Lugansk are in the air again. Several weeks ago, this blog published a story about pro-Russian provocateurs agitating for a ‘Kharkov People’s Republic’ from outside Ukraine’s borders (See: Pro-Putin provocateur: Let’s have a ‘Kharkov People’s Republic’). The danger seems real.
Kharkiv is a Russian-speaking city and region, but it has thus far not gone the way of the Donbas in terms of separatism. Some outside observers may feel it is only a matter of time before pro-Russian subversion succeeds in toppling the local regional authorities. The mayor of the city of Kharkiv, Hennadiy Kernes, is seen by most as a holdover of the Yanukovych regime who is disloyal to Kyiv. But the governor – Ihor Baluta – was appointed by the post-Maidan authorities, and is possibly on shaky political ground.
As such, the political disposition of the local populace is critical to Kharkiv’s fate. Much as with the southeastern city of Mariupol, the question hangs over Kharkiv: are the majority of local residents a de facto fifth column, quietly awaiting the arrival of Russian tanks from across the border? How fiercely anti-Kyiv are the Kharkivans who resent Poroshenko and the Yatseniuk government? How committed and savvy are local Maidan-sympathetic activists? The following article from the Focus.ua website gives some sense of what locals are like, and does so with traces of irony and humor, describing the sincerity and bravery of young pro-democracy activists without glossing over their naivete or bravado. It is a subject worth pondering for anyone thinking about Moscow’s next military move in Ukraine, which could come after an extended pause, at a time when the rest of the world is preoccupied with another crisis.
27 February 2015 ~ Dmytro Sinyak
In response to the separatist underground’s attacks and provocations, Kharkiv has created another underground: Ukrainian
Four people were killed and nine wounded. Such were the consequences of the blast on February 22nd in Kharkiv during a peaceful rally to mark the anniversary of the Revolution of Dignity. This is the second attack this year on the city streets, and in both first and second, pro-Ukrainian activists were hurt. The purpose of the criminals is obvious: to intimidate Ukrainian patriots and discourage attendance at any pro-Ukrainian event. But the effect has been the opposite: pro-Ukrainian youth are organizing and preparing for a long fight with street terrorists – and with the Russian army.
A few days before the tragedy, we talked with representatives of the Kharkiv cell of the Right Sector. These guys were mentally prepared for whatever explosions and provocations were coming. Their bellicose statements sometimes contrasted with the peaceful atmosphere of Kharkiv’s streets and coffee houses. It seems as if the youth are just playing towards a war that does not exist. In fact, in peaceful Kharkiv, war is long overdue.
Right Sector activists
Zhnets [a nickname meaning ‘Reaper’ – Ed.] and Gina are a beautiful couple. He – with an ancient face, strong-willed chin and hard stare under harsh eyebrows; she – long-haired, high-cheeked, impulsive, and trying always to compete with her boyfriend. Sometimes she cuts him off. In these moments Zhnets winces, but I think he knows deep down that something about Gina is stronger than him. With her passion and vigor, she can succeed where his muscles and combat experience are powerless.
Their human qualities revealed themselves on January 19th, when near the Moscow District Court of Kharkiv an improvised radio-controlled device exploded. The victims of the explosion were fourteen people, including Zhnets and Gina. On that day the war began for them, and still goes on. The impression is that they are members of the pro-Ukrainian Kharkiv underground. And it’s not just an impression.
Before the interview, they set a condition: no names and photos only in balaclavas.
“You will leave, but we’ll still be living in this city,” explains Zhnets. Leaning on his stick, he first enters the cafe near the metro. Gina and I go after him. Behind us is one of the leaders of Kharkiv Right Sector, Alexey Lytvynov. He is short, broad-shouldered, gray-haired, dressed in camouflage and wearing sunglasses. Closing the door of the cafe, Alexey habitually throws out a glance out at the street over his glasses.
“Where can we talk so that no one bothers us?” Zhnets says, frightening the waitress who is dumbfounded at the sight of camouflage fatigues.
When we sit down at a table in the corner, I again gaze at the couple. Between them are subtle similarities – the kind that happen in people living together for a long time. But these two met as recently as September 21st last year, after the Peace March. Then, ultras [soccer fans – Ed.] clashed with a small group of separatists who had gathered once again to proclaim a “Kharkov People’s Republic.” Self-Defense, to which Zhnets belongs, separated the fighters. Gina stumbled on the fight with a friend.
“At the academy where I study, in March last year all the students were warned that if anyone was seen on the Euromaidan, they would be immediately expelled,” Gina begins vigorously, almost happily. “One of the teachers told us about the horrors of the Right Sector, which was going to come from western Ukraine to cut up all the Russians. I then called my mother in Kherson and, sobbing, asked her to be careful.
“Easy, easy,” commands Zhnets in the tone of an instructor, with the cold-blooded upbringing of a prospective sniper.
Gina pauses for a moment, then begins to twitter again:
“I have two friends – one a vatnik, the other a patriot – and they were arguing about politics at all the parties. I listened to their disputes and gradually became politically literate. And when, after the Peace March, I saw the separatists, something in me clicked. I told a friend: ‘Stay here, and I will go with an ultra to chase separatists.’ Do not think that I am a weak woman. I worked six years in kickboxing and Thai boxing. And I am candidate for Master Equestrian. I fear nothing!”
“This is just bad,” Zhnets interjects, critically. “I initially refused to take her into our ranks. She’s crazy! All the time asking for trouble. And we’re not kidding around here – it’s possible to run onto the knife. When they brought down [the] Lenin [statue], I was all nerves. I only just managed to retreat to the police, away from a man who had lunged at me with a chain in his hand.”
“With a chain?” I ask. “He could have crippled…”
“Only if I he’d known how,” Zhnets grins. “That fool didn’t know how – waving it awkwardly, with a flourish, and it was easy to dive under his hand and inflict pain. And the cops – imagine this – stepped back twenty meters from him, let him have the chain, and let go of him. And here she comes! She says she wants to join the Right Sector. I hotly refused. I said I didn’t take girls into my unit. So she went into the TSO – the Defense Promotion Association…”
For Gina, time in the TSO hasn’t been a free gift. After the People’s Chamber [an ad hoc, local self-government body designed to resolve local problems – Ed.] on November 16th, she’d already taught everyone to disassemble and assemble a Kalashnikov rifle. Right Sector was responsible for the protection of the event then, and they met again with Zhnets. Gina argued with one of the Right Sector commanders about the tactical and technical characteristics of the Kalashnikov assault rifle, but she put a condition on it: if I win, you induct me. So Right Sector added another fighter.
Zhnets did not join the Right Sector right away either. When the separatist unrest started in Kharkov, he – a medical student at Kharkiv National University – joined the local Self-Defense. Zhnets barely survived during the storming of the regional administration building, when about 200 pro-Ukrainian Kharkivans beat back 4,000 Russians and local separatists. According to Alexey Lytvynov, the massacre began after the city’s mayor, Hennadiy Kernes, extending his hand toward the Kharkiv Regional Administration Building, said several times to the feverish crowd: “We will not go there!” He thus provoked the attack on the regional administration.
“In March and April, it was very restless in Kharkiv,” says Zhnets. “Gopniks with bats often waited for Self-Defense activists in the courts. [A ‘gopnik’ is a representative of a sub-culture of the ex-USSR who is characterized by squatting, behaving aggressively, imitating criminals, drunkenness, and wearing Adidas tracksuits and dress shoes. Ed]. I was occupied until March at “Oplot” [‘Bulwark,’ is an organization that opposed the Euromaidan and tried to protect the statue of Lenin from being pulled down in Kharkiv, but it is also the name of the advanced, T-84 tank, produced in Kharkiv – Ed.], and when its founder, Yevgeni Zhilin, told the Maidan activists that he would break bones, I wrote him a letter: “Start with me!” Zhilin knows good PR, but not how to fight. That’s why he didn’t go to fight in the Donbas, but shouted that he would kill us. He sent kids to their deaths, but he himself is doing business in Moscow…”
Zhnets’ voice is reaching a boil, and his cheeks are getting red.
The waitress comes to take an order, and the boys fall silent. Zhnets looks at Gina. And I remember his words: “I don’t take little girls into the unit.” Little boys often say such things during childhood games. But now the game guys are absolutely not for kids. A month ago, Gina was left with 22 stitches, and Zhnets – more than 30.
Fellowship of the Ring
I ask the kids to tell me about the terrorist attack on January 19th. The question did not arise in time – Zhnets and Gina have attacked their salad with fierce appetites. In their stead, sipping coffee, the serious Alexey Lytvynov recalls the story of the Kharkiv Euromaidan activist Misha Sokolov. This story is a kind of prelude – an explosive device in front of the courthouse detonated at the very moment when a regular session had just concluded in the case of pro-Ukrainian activists.
So, to Mikhail Sokolov. From the first days he was on the Kyiv Maidan, taking part in the events on Instytutska and Hrushevskoho, pulling the wounded from the fire. In the summer he went to fight in the volunteer “Azov” Regiment, consisting mainly of citizens of Kharkiv. He returned home in October, participatory and full of desire to protect Kharkiv from Russian saboteurs. Perhaps because of this, or maybe just because of the peculiarities of the front syndrome, not allowing a soldier to give up arms in times of danger, he carried with him in a backpack a trophy in the form of a disassembled Kalashnikov rifle and a grenade. In the elections to the parliament, Misha was an observer from one of the parties. He came with that same backpack to his polling station, attracting the attention of the police on duty. That is how Misha found himself behind bars – for illegal possession of weapons.
Of course, no one expected him to get a pat on the head for that. Still, many hoped for a relatively light sentence for a person who had defended his homeland. This was especially true given that Misha had demonstrated positive qualities from his place of service. The lawyer asked that he be released on bail pending trial, but the judge remained adamant. By the way, the odious Kharkiv separatist Ignat Kromskoy – nicknamed Topaz – was twice released from custody and tried twice to go to Russia.
Mikhail Sokolov did not simply await trial in the pre-trial detention center. He was put in a cell with the separatists, so that he would remember the experience for a long time to come. At the first hearing, the prosecutor asked that Sokolov be sent to a penal colony for four years. That was when the Kharkiv activists sounded the alarm.
“Neither the courts nor the police in Kharkiv offer any hope,” Lytvynov notes grimly. “One of our meetings was ‘protected’ by a lieutenant-colonel, whom I still remembered from the previous year. Once, in front of my eyes, he discreetly handed a knife to a titushko [‘Titushki’ were mercenaries who supported the Ukrainian police during the administration of Viktor Yanukovych, often posing as street hooligans to fight against those protesting state and government policy. The name derives from the surname of one of these paid hooligans, Vadym Titushko. – Ed.]. We have a very large rear fifth column – about 10,000 pro-Russian policemen.”
Alexey talks about the Russian secret service agents in the city, about provocateurs, about how former members of the Party of Regions had won election to the Verkhovna Rada from all (!) the majoritarian districts in Kharkiv region,. And the thought suddenly flashed through my mind of how his warrior image did not match his former, peaceful profession – railcar mechanical engineer. In spring, Alexey’s sentence was reduced. After leaving the hospital following a beating at the regional administration headquarters, he didn’t look for a job in the civilian world. Now he is waiting for the order to establish a reserve battalion of the Ukrainian Volunteer Corps “Right Sector,” to defend the city by force of arms in the event of military aggression.
“From here to Mordor is forty kilometers, which is a two-hour march of armored vehicles,” interjects Zhnets, looking up from his plate, and for a moment I feel like a hero from The Lord of the Rings. “But it’s not easy for these orcs to take the city. Under the streets and squares there is an old network of catacombs, and you can go behind the enemy’s lines when he least expects it. Houses in many areas are such that one can easily jump from one roof to another.”
Zhnets leans toward me.
“If that army of darkness finds itself here, Donetsk Airport will seem like paradise to it,” he says in the tone of the King in the Fellowship of the Ring.
No one is arguing, and a tense silence hangs in the air. Drumming his fingers on the table, Alexey Lytvynov gazes at us over dark glasses. I suddenly notice on his finger a large silver ring with a trident in a black circle. I ask if this is really a special mark of “a member of the Right Sector line.”
“Ah, what are you talking about?” Alex shrugs. “This ring is for advertisement. A local jeweler makes these, and we’re helping him to sell them. The money goes to help soldiers volunteering in the ATO [Anti-Terrorist Operation].
Zhnets eats his salad and returns to the interrupted topic – the story of the Maidan activist Sokolov:
The Ukrainian underground is preparing for serious resistance to saboteurs and Russian troops
“The judge has postponed the meeting because supposedly the chancellery is already closed, and it’s impossible to get a stamp. Although when the Euromaidan activists tried in January last year, the closed chancellery did not hesitate and handed out sentences at two, three o’clock in the morning. But there was nothing to do: we yelled ‘Shame!’ and went to the exit. As we were walking along the path from the court, we came face to face with two dozen policemen, who had somehow suddenly decided to leave the small crossroads where they’d always hung out. We shouted at them: ‘Glory to Ukraine!’ As usual, they didn’t respond. When we got to this intersection, there was an explosion…”
As a medic, Zhnets immediately realized he had a contusion. His ears whistled, he was dizzy, and nausea was rising in his throat. This had already happened to him at the Kharkiv Euromaidan, when a stun grenade exploded near him. Zhnets couldn’t feel his legs, and when he looked at them, he saw bloodstains slowly spreading out on his army pants. With the straps of his trousers, Zhnets bound his bloody, unresponsive limbs as best he could and began to wait for help. A splinter had punctured an artery in Gina’s arm, and blood flowed in rivulets, but she remained conscious.
“One of our female activists, nicknamed Gaika (‘Nut’), who had repeatedly traveled to the ATO, saved my life,” says Gina. “She squeezed my hand with her fingers so hard that the bleeding almost stopped. This was how we waited for an ambulance.”
Gina shouted at the stunned policemen, of which only three (!) rushed to help the victims. She screamed at the confused doctors, many of whom had never seen people wounded by shrapnel. The hospital removed three fragments from Gina’s body, and she miraculously managed to avoid having her hand amputated. Nine fragments were stuck in Zhnets’ knees, arms and back. Most of them were sharpened nuts.
On the operating table, Zhnets sang the Ukrainian national anthem: in the middle of the operation, the anesthetic ceased to work, and the new doses of anesthesia only caused hallucinations. He thought he was being tortured by separatists.
“This explosion didn’t scare us, but angered us,” Zhnets sums up, his cheeks again becoming flushed. “What most angers us is that innocent people suffered.”
The most serious injuries were sustained by the daughter of the defendant, who has a badly damaged leg, and her boyfriend, into whose lung had been penetrated by a sharpened nut. Another defendant, Sasha, lost a kidney from the explosion. He is still in the hospital.
Who organized the attack on January 19th is unknown. A spokesman for the Prosecutor of Kharkiv region, Vita Dubovyk, whom I met the next day, answered all my questions the same way: investigation of this crime is being actively conducted, but she refused to report any further details, saying they were – “investigative secrets.” The head of the charitable fund “Sister of Mercy,” Yasmin Chagovets, says that 50,000 hryvnias for the treatment of victims had been gathered in just two days. Hundreds of townspeople sometimes brought her very small sums or replenished her [debit] card. Kharkiv has shown that it knows how to be grateful. However, this is not to idealize the situation in the city: Kharkiv is still different.
Two days before our conversation, I met with another Kharkivan. Another – in a special sense. The more or less successful business coach Vladislav Lozovoy was born and raised in the city of Lozova in Kharkiv region, graduated from the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and the Interregional Academy of Personnel Management. Ukrainian by birth, he somehow feels like a Russian man, and I’m sure that the majority in Kharkiv are like him. In one of his posts on his personal blog last year, Vladislav asserted that “the Kyiv government is doing everything to make armed conflict break out.” The first point in the extensive list of arguments was: “Informational pressure is escalating about a military conflict with Russia, which, in fact, does not exist.”
We drank tea in a small cafe in the city center. To the songs of Serduchka [Verka Serduchka is a Ukrainian drag queen, comedian and pop singer whose real name is Andriy Mykhailovych Danylko. – Ed.], Vladislav gave his own version of world conspiracy:
“The US consumes half the resources of the globe, emitting 40% of the pollution on the planet,” he says, glancing out the window at a passing vehicle with advertising for Coca-Cola. “Therefore, some supranational puppeteer entities that control the world now want to lower the United States to the level of an ordinary power. To do this, they help Russia, China and the Arab world, and in response the US organizes a network of destabilizing wars and revolutions. They’re trying to pull Russia into these wars, so that they can then set the whole world on her. The elites in the United States understand that if you do not break-up Russia now, global leadership will pass to her. Of course, this gives rise to local leaders for whom these wars are beneficial. In the case of Ukraine, it’s Poroshenko, Akhmetov, Kolomoisky and many others. They’re actually fighting in the Donbas with the hands of thousands of defrauded people.”
“And what about Crimea?” I interrupt. “Did they force Putin to grab it?”
“Yes,” answers Vladislav, not at all embarrassed. “If he had not, it would simply have been taken away.”
The more absurd the theory, the harder it is to mount a counter-argument. For some time I have lost the gift of speech, and this gives Vladislav confidence:
“Here, judge for yourself: Putin had no army, and everyone in Russia was crying about how poor and miserable she was, then all of a sudden out of nowhere a powerful modern army appeared. Who is Putin? As of now, still no one knows why Yeltsin made him his successor. Up until Putin appeared, the US was milking the whole world, and now it is faced with the fact that someone does not want to be milked. Have you ever wondered why?”
“And we have, and we have, and we have a little party!” Serduchka fills in.
“What would you do if tomorrow the Russians or DNR-ovites [rebels of the separatist ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ or ‘DNR’ in eastern Ukraine – Ed.] took Kharkiv and declared it Novorossiya?” I ask directly.
“Same as before,” Vladislav responds calmly. “After all, my life will not change at all on the basis of which the flag hangs over the regional administration. The fact that Ukrainian TV tells of the horrors of life in the Donbas and Crimea – this is far from the truth. In addition, I believe that I’ve been living in occupied territory a long time. Whether the Ukrainian authorities will lead me in their own way, or the Russians, or even if the Novorossiyans force their way upon me – no difference!”
“What is your homeland?”
“I consider my homeland to be the Soviet Union and could take a gun in my hands only if some enemy of non-Slavic origin decided to break the boundaries of the Soviet Union,” Vladislav kills me with his answer. “And this is an extreme step, because victory in 1945 did not solve the problem of the spread of fascism in the world.
“And Ukraine has not yet perished if we’re walking like that!” sings the unappeased Serduchka.
We say goodbye, but not as enemies. Vladislav will certainly not be waging war for his theory of global conspiracy.
Signs of destiny
When I tell the guys about Vladislav, Zhnets frowns.
“Many in Kharkiv really don’t care what flag flies over the regional administration,” he says. “The main thing for them is to be paid their pensions and salaries. I call these people ‘corrupt skins’ to their faces. But because they are neither fish nor fowl, and they don’t even come to their own parties to talk about war. At separatist rallies last spring, many people were imported from Belgorod. All of Kharkiv rolled with laughter when 600 people stormed the Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet, shouting: ‘Gepa, come out!’ They thought it was the mayor’s office. But at our last meeting – ‘I am Volnovakha’ – the day before the explosion, there were twelve thousand. Man.
We’re paying the tab. We’re leaving. Already getting dressed, Gina is recognized:
“Thanks to that explosion, our parents met one another. They even came together to the Chamber, and his dad was the first to open the door.
Gina nods in the direction of Zhnets, and says the name and patronymic of his father.
“Honey, how many times do I have to repeat: no names,” Zhnets instructs.
“I was very afraid that my dad would be against me being in the Right Sector,” Gina continues. “But he listened to my exploits and suddenly said: ‘We ought to buy you a bulletproof vest.’”
The story of Misha Sokolov also had a happy ending: he received three years’ probation.
As I’m saying goodbye, I give the students an idle question: where are you going after you receive your diplomas? (Both are in their final year.)
“What do you mean, ‘where’? To war!” says Zhnets, surprised at my question. “To the Ukrainian Volunteer Corps ‘Right Sector’ – to Yarosh.”
“And will you go?” I Ask Gina.
“Of course. I won’t let him go alone.”
A few days later, a new explosion thundered. Gina was wounded again when a splinter hit her in the shin. The girl’s life, thank God, is not in danger. Kharkiv Euromaidan activist Ihor Tolmachev died in the arms of Zhnets, who as a doctor tried to render first aid.
Immediately after the tragedy, the SBU declared the highest level of anti-terrorism preparedness, having detained four suspects in hot pursuit. Prompt action to find the perpetrators continues. But Zhnets and Gina do not really believe that the Security Service and the Interior Ministry can save the city. Zhnets, Gina, Alexey and thousands like them are determined to defend their Kharkiv – as pathos-laden as it may sound, to defend it to the last drop of blood.
Photos: Getty Images, Ukrinform, Dmitry Bruise