On an evening walk through the heart of downtown Kharkiv, a city once home to 1.4 million people, you can tilt your head back and see every star in the sky. The street lights and twinkle lights that hang over the main city streets have been extinguished for months.
Glow from the windows of apartments is absent too. So many people have fled, and for those who remain, plywood, plastic or sheet metal cover most windows, replacing the glass that was shattered by one of the thousands of Russian bombs that fell on the city.
In February, Russian soldiers tried to infiltrate the streets of Kharkiv, but were forced to withdraw. Then, for months, Russian forces continued an artillery assault on the city from the positions they held to the north and east. It wasn’t until the last days of summer that Ukrainian forces pushed Russian soldiers back enough to take Ukraine’s second-largest city out of artillery range, making the city safer than it has been since Feb. 24.
That safety is a relative one, though, as Kharkiv remains a target for frequent attacks from missiles and drones.
What remains in the wake of this trauma is a mix of beauty and destruction that highlights the community’s capacity for resilience that is best explained by the people who have chosen to stay.
Listen to the documentary ‘Shadow of a once great city’ from The Current:
Staying for those in need: Olga and Diana
It’s the simple things Diana Galilova, 22, says she misses the most.
“I go to McDonald’s when I’m sad,” she said with a bit of a chuckle, “and now I am sad and I cannot go to McDonald’s!” The fast-food chain closed operations in Ukraine after the Russian invasion. While stores have begun reopening in the western parts of the country, there’s no move yet to resume operations in Kharkiv.
Galilova spends her days driving to the eastern front line of the war to retrieve animals from towns recently liberated by Ukrainian forces as part of her work with Animal Rescue Kharkiv.
“Soldiers brought us animals in the beginning of the war and continue to now,” colleague Olga Ilunina, 24, explained. “But now we go with the soldiers also.”
The pair say that at the beginning of 2022, when the potential for a Russian invasion mounted, the employees of the local animal shelter made a pact with one another that, no matter what, they would stay.
“Diana has parents in Israel. I have a brother in Canada,” Ilunina said. “But we made this choice before the war that if it were to happen, we would all stay, because [these animals] need our help. It was our collective decision.”
Galilova slipped through the crack of an open door into a small shack in central Kharkiv, carrying with her a bowl of dry cat food. She shook it and a chorus of meows filled the room. There are about 160 cats and 25 dogs at this one small location. Another 140 dogs are at other locations across the city. The main shelter was bombed and destroyed this summer, forcing the organization to come up with alternatives.
Erasing reminders of trauma: Bogdan and Vitali
In early October, an overnight attack rocked central Kharkiv. But as the sun was still rising the next day, clean-up crews were already hard at work removing any trace of the attack.
Remediation crews threw sopping wet personal items out of an apartment window, drenched after fire crews doused flames there. Meanwhile, city staff chipped out the undamaged bricks from a crater left in the entrance of a nearby park. They began filling in the hole, starting with the remnants of the S-300 Russian missile.
“We have this joke we tell amongst city workers,” said Bogdan Dalyna, manager of one of the construction teams working for the City of Kharkiv. “If journalists don’t arrive inside of half an hour after a shelling, there will be nothing to take photos or video of because everything will be cleaned up.”
Kharkiv’s parks, even now, are immaculate. Flowers planted in Shevchenko Public Garden are planted in beds that bear the words of the country’s motto “Slava Ukraini” — Glory to Ukraine.
“From a resident’s perspective, how the city functions almost didn’t change, especially municipal services. Everything keeps working how it’s supposed to. We still have [electricity] and running water,” Dalyna said.
“The fact is if things look good, if things keep working how they should, people continue to trust the authorities and they are left feeling like everything is all right. Of course, the city has changed, but not as much as it could have.”
He said this work is important to people’s spirits. “They understand that they are not forgotten, this city is not forgotten, and they want to continue living here.”
Still, the tasks ahead are monumental. The plywood plastering the windows of formerly fantastic art nouveau-style buildings leave the impression that the city’s better days are long gone.
Vitali, the head of a private construction crew putting up plywood on the city’s main drag, who only gave his first name, says his company is still getting 50 to 70 calls every day between residential and commercial customers.
“There were eight bombs just last night,” he said. “So the phone keeps ringing.”
Refusing to leave: Natalia and Natasha
“Beautiful apple,” Natalia Zolotarenko said with a big smile across her face. The crisp sound of her teeth cracking the peel of the crab apple marked a moment of pride and comfort.
Zolotarenko was showing off the grounds where she lives. Surrounding her are buildings that have holes in them from rockets; one is fully sheared in half. She points to her building, where four floors have collapsed on the right side. But just below those, and to the left, her apartment still has electricity, so she’s never left.
“This is our home. I could never live anywhere else. I’ve been living here in this building for 33 years. I wouldn’t even live in another area of the city,” Zolotarenko said.
This is the northern neighbourhood of Kharkiv called Saltivka. Once home to 400,000 people, it was the hardest-hit part of the city. Thousands fled to the metro stations for safety.
Despite all the community has been through, the grounds are still well maintained and construction crews are at work here as well. The last six weeks have been quieter, Zolotarenko says — a nice reprieve.
But not all residents of Kharkiv have been able or willing to stay in their homes and face the near-nightly shudders of the ground as missiles find new targets of destruction.
Underground, a different kind of rebuilding is happening for residents who continue to live in the safe network of metro tunnels.
At the Heroiv Pratsi metro station (Heroes of Labour in English), mattresses are laid out down a staircase, propped up with different supports to keep them level. Down the hallway, bunk beds have been moved in with blankets strung up as makeshift room dividers to try and provide some semblance of privacy between the roughly 100 people that are still living here.
“In the beginning, it was very hard. Nobody had anything. There was no place to sit or to lie down,” said Natasha Grama. “Now we are more or less settled. It’s not as scary or cold anymore.”
Grama has become an unofficial dorm mother of sorts, watching over the people who remain here. She helps distribute goods, tries to smooth out disputes that arise, and assists with cooking for the six children who still call this home. While she might not be physically rebuilding the city, Grama is rebuilding a sense of community in a city that has been through so much.
“We are a family, and we have all the same qualities of a family. We also have quarrels. I try to make peace between everyone, calm everyone down and remind everyone first of all why we are here,” she said.
“No one ever gets to choose their neighbours or their family. That’s why we have to get along.”
Of the people here, Grama says some are simply too afraid to live above ground and can’t afford to move elsewhere. Others have had their homes destroyed or damaged to the extent they can’t live there anymore. Most would never consider leaving Kharkiv — whether they could or not, she says.
“I can’t speak for everyone but I’ll speak for myself. From the first day of this war, I have worked for my people and for the benefit of all Ukrainians. I value having this opportunity. If we were to leave, what would happen then? A city dies without its people.”
Words and photography by: Sarah Lawrynuik | Edited by: Lisa Johnson | Digital Producer: Althea Manasan | Senior Digital Producer: Brandie Weikle | Local production support: Serhii Hriekov