City under siege

Maksym Romanenko, a native of Kharkiv, a doctor, Ukrainian socialist, and editor of the Ukrainian democratic socialist organization Social Movement speaks out against two years of intensive Russian assault.

The city of Kharkiv is located 30 kilometres from the Russian-Ukrainian border. The city was one of the first to be attacked by the Russian army’s mechanized brigades on February 24, 2022. The city was able to resist the invader and remain Ukrainian, but the battle for Kharkiv region has not stopped to this day.

Prior to the full-scale invasion, Kharkiv was a densely populated city with almost 1.5 million inhabitants and a developed agglomeration. The city is an industrial centre of eastern Ukraine, a city of universities, a scientific centre of the Left Bank, and has a full set of Council of Europe awards.

Today, the city is under almost daily attacks by the Russian army, which destroys Kharkiv’s jobs and critical infrastructure, forces children to study in underground shelters and the subway, and constantly threatens them with death.

Currently, the city has introduced power outage schedules of 6-8 hours, but sometimes there are also emergency power outages, which prevents people from planning the simplest household tasks, such as cleaning the apartment, doing laundry, and cooking (if there is no gas stove).

Kharkiv survived the initial Russian invasion, but has continued to be a target, what is daily life like in Kharkiv?

The war has left a strong stamp on all areas of public life in Kharkiv, from the introduction of a curfew (from 23:00 to 5:00, when you cannot move around the city without a special pass) to completely free public transportation.

But life itself goes on as it always has. Children are born in the city, businesses operate, people visit various public places: bars, exhibitions, museums, sometimes forgetting that Russian troops are 30 kilometres away.

Has there been a growth in the role of civil society initiatives in the survival of Kharkiv?

If we take the growth of grassroots initiatives as a manifestation of civil society, then yes, this role has increased. Thanks to many international, in particular, European grant programs, media attention among both Ukrainian and international media, many cultural initiatives are emerging that develop the hidden potential of Kharkiv residents.

New artists, poets, painters, and musicians are emerging in the city. The attention of ordinary citizens to the political life of the city has increased significantly, and the anti-corruption struggle has grown.

Almost all trade unions help the army, first of all by collecting necessary ammunition for their comrades who serve in the Armed Forces.

Has education in schools, colleges and universities continued?  How has this been organised in the face of the attacks?

Since the introduction of quarantine measures against Covid in March-April 2020, almost all educational activities have been switched to distance learning. Nothing has changed since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of the Russian army. Thousands of children are forced to receive their education online: elementary, middle, and high school students, vocational and higher education students.

Recently, there have been changes in this regard in Kharkiv: a metro school has been operating in the city for several months and an underground school has just been opened that can accommodate up to 1000 students. The mayor of Kharkiv promises to create such safe schools in every district of the city.

What has been the impact of war on workers conditions in Kharkiv?

In the most terrible way. Many families in the Kharkiv region and the city itself lost their homes and were forced to move to relatives or municipal dormitories, other regions of the country, or emigrate abroad.

Due to the constant bombardment with ballistic missiles, high-explosive bombs, and drones, the city’s critical infrastructure has suffered enormous damage, which directly affects the number of jobs and working conditions. Many employers do not respect the labour code and the right of workers to take shelter in the face of the air threat that is heard almost daily in Kharkiv. There is a big ethical and moral problem.

For example, what about healthcare workers who work with people with limited mobility who cannot move to a safe place even if they want to? If doctors, nurses, and paramedics have to transport people to shelters every time, there will be no time for treatment.

Can you tell us about the role of public sector, medical and rescue workers in Kharkiv – there seems to be particularly savage practice by the Russians to target rescue workers with double strikes?

Indeed, a large proportion of all arrivals (bomb drops) are on public infrastructure buildings, such as schools, hospitals, municipal buildings, and educational institutions. Unfortunately, shelling of the same place to kill rescuers and medics is a routine occurrence.

Vladimir Solovyov, the Kremlin’s chief propogandist said that “Kharkiv should be wiped from the face of the earth”. What is the reaction amongst people to hearing such statements?

I do not follow the Kremlin’s media narratives and what they say, but what is happening to the city because of the shelling can really lead to the destruction of the city.

The vast majority of citizens hate Russia because it kills their families, destroys their jobs, and their plans for the future. Russia can only dream of a Russian Kharkiv, just like its “imperial greatness.” Kharkiv will never fall under Russian occupation. Only destroyed and without a population.

Kharkiv is associated with some of the most important figures of Ukrainian history, yet there was Russification in the city. Has there been a noticeable change in the perception of Kharkiv’s Ukrainian heritage?

There was no specific Russification in the Kharkiv region that did not occur in other Ukrainian cities of the Ukrainian SSR. Because the city was a scientific, industrial, and commercial centre, a large proportion of Ukrainians spoke Russian in the twentieth century. But Kharkiv has always been a city where many peoples lived together, including Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, Armenians, Belarusians, and Roma. Since 2014, there have been initiatives from the population itself to strengthen Ukrainianization. Ukrainianization became even more pronounced after the full-scale invasion. In my opinion, until 2022, about one in ten people in Kharkiv spoke Ukrainian in everyday life, and now it is one in four.

The first Ukrainian political party  – the Revolutionary Ukrainian Party – was founded in Kharkiv. Is there a Ukrainian left today in the city?

As of April 2024, there are almost no living representatives of the Social Movement. Many have left for other cities in Ukraine. There are also very few leftists in Kharkiv that I know of. Unfortunately, we have a very strong negative label that if a person is called a socialist or leftist, he or she is immediately pro-Russian. In recent years, there have been some changes in this image, and more and more people are calling themselves anti-authoritarians, activists, democrats, anarchists, and even socialists. The fashion for right-wing ideas is slowly decreasing due to the anti-social and anti-worker governmental actions. Therefore, I hope that the reconstruction of Kharkiv will be based on the support of workers, their safety, focusing on the environmental friendliness of all architectural projects, and on transparent and fair principles on the part of the city administration.

What can the western Labour Movement do to help you in the current situation?

Support those people who joined the army to defend their homes and loved ones. It is the transfer of air defence systems to Ukraine that can save the lives of Kharkiv residents and make them feel a little safer.

Russia is able to bomb us with various types of weapons for which the Ukrainian Armed Forces simply do not have enough shells to shoot down everything that comes at us. We lack air defence and radar systems the most. With the new air defence supplies, Kharkiv can become one of the most protected cities on the frontline. 

For those organizations that do not want to provide militarized assistance on principle, you can help critical infrastructure workers: doctors, electricians, factory workers, and public transport workers.

Maksym Romanenko was interviewed by Chris Ford.

Maksym Romanenko
Rescue squad appeal

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