The border between Ukraine and Russia begins at Kharkiv’s railway station. “To the border crossing,” shout the shared-route taxi drivers, “To Belgorod” – the nearest city to the border in the Russian side.
Few in Kharkiv would call it by its proper Ukrainian name. It is more common to hear the Russian pronunciation here: “Kharkov.” The second largest city in Ukraine, home to some 1.5 million people, is an important business, academic, and industrial center.
But the stamp of the Soviet era still defines Kharkiv’s character. Monumental public buildings in the constructivist style, built during the Stalin era, surround Freedom Square. The square’s statue of Lenin was only removed in the fall of 2014 — after the Maidan revolution, Russia’s takeover of the Crimean Peninsula, and the beginning of the war in the neighboring Luhansk and Donetsk provinces.
Kharkiv remembers the days of Soviet glory and oppression well. The city supplied tanks and tractors for the entire U.S.S.R., and it’s where scientists first split the nucleus of an atom. Many were later arrested and executed.
“In 2014, our province turned sharply from the crossroads of the world into Europe’s frontier,” says Eduard Rubin, owner of a high-tech firm and a former province council member. “Until then, we had normal relations with Russia and we were a major intersection between east and west and between north and south.”
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Rublin says that “the roads from Moscow, the Caucasus and Crimea to Europe, and from Europe to China, ran through Kharkiv. When the war began, it all changed.” The regional economy suffered greatly, says Rubin, who supports the pro-European tack Kyiv has taken during the past eight years.
“People from Belgorod would come here to shop, play at the casino, and celebrate weddings,” adds Stanislav Baru, an event producer. “You could see lines of Russian cars by the night clubs.”
Only 70 cars per day
Even today, at the Hoptivka border crossing with Russia, some 40 kilometers north of the city, one can see a convoy of trucks several kilometers long. “After all, we do not trade with Russia. It is an aggressive country,” a cleaning worker idling by the border crossing remarks with typical sarcasm.
'Changes here are always so vast, that it’s hard to predict the future'
Marina Grynivskaya, who works for the human rights organization “Pravo Na Zakhist” (“The right to protection”) is on shift there to locate citizens in need of bureaucratic or legal aid. She says Russia allows only 70 cars per day to enter its territory, which explains the long line. Over the past day, 2,276 people passed through the crossing in both directions, she adds.
The Belgorod-Kharkiv axis connecting Ukraine to Russia is not what it once was, but it is certainly not shut down. Even when the temperature is minus 2 degrees Celsius, which the brisk wind and snow only makes worse, hundreds of men, women, and children come to both sides of the border each day. They come in cars, shared-route taxis, and buses, equipped with backpacks, bags, and sacks, crossing the border at a jog. Irina, from Kharkiv, is escorting her son Artyom, who has arrived for a rare visit along with her grandson, back to Russia.
Artyom lives in Krasnodar, in the Caucasus. He went there in 2013 to study cooking, then stayed, got married, and settled down. “The level of restaurants here in Ukraine is still low,” he says. “There, it’s European-class. Michelin. For the time being, I have no intention of coming back. I’m a chef. I have a job there. I make a good living. I don’t watch TV, so the situation doesn’t affect me at all.”
Yet most people I met at the border crossing are not residents of Russia. Most of them live in the “People’s Republic of Donetsk,” a separatist entity created on one third of the Ukrainian province of the same name, with the support and encouragement of Russia. The border crossing between the “republic” and Ukranian-held territory is open only once a week, so most people prefer to make a detour of some 1,000 kilometers, through the Russian area around Rostov, to reach Kharkiv – a trip of less than 300 kilometers, as the crow flies.
“We rode a bus for an entire day and night through all of Russia,” a traveler named Tatyana tells me. She crossed the border with her husband and intends to board a train at Kharki that will bring her to Kyiv, where her children live. “Imagine this journey,” she says. “I’m with a broken hip, my husband has a heart condition. We can’t sell the house. Nobody will take it even for a thousand hryvnas. That’s why we’re there.”
The couple lives in the small town of Shaktarsk near Donetsk, formerly a miners’ town, like many in the region. “The ones left there are the ones who can’t move anywhere else,” Tatyana explains. “What’s happening there is frightening, There are no words. Only tears. Do people deserve such a life? Before, the mines still worked, somehow. Now, everything is dying. There is no work. Where will with the youngsters go? No one’s waiting for them, neither in Russia nor in Ukraine.”
Visiting their children is not the only reason many older people go wandering between known and unknown border points. Many continue to receive Ukrainian pensions, on top of the pensions paid by the separatist authorities – something that draws much criticism in Ukrainian society. “They pay something there, if you can call it pay,” Tatyana said of the Donetsk Republic pension. “But I don’t get anything else from anywhere. Only here [in Ukraine] am I eligible for a disability pension.”
“That’s where I was born, where I lived, where I worked, where I was baptized,” says Vladimir, who lives in Makiivka, near Donetsk, and came to Ukraine to visit his son and granddaughter and pick up some cash. “Why should I move here? If I come here, what will I do? Become homeless? I’ve already built a home there. I have a vegetable garden. I dig, grow my vegetables, and live my life.”
Vladimir’s words betray hurt feelings. To him, the reason for the breakaway of the separatist provinces happened in the first place was that Kyiv wouldn’t listen to the voices coming from the eastern provinces. “We didn’t want to be pro-Russian or pro-Western. We wanted to be autonomous,” he complains. He says that he now has no right to vote in Ukraine.
Marina Grynivskaya, the human rights activist monitoring the border, explains that residents of the separatist republics who move to Ukraine receive the right to vote the moment they register at a Ukrainian address. Nevertheless, Vladimir insists: “I want to live in Ukraine, but Ukraine does not accept me. Why do I have to move anywhere? I live in Ukraine. I worked for Ukraine all my life. Why should I move from Ukraine to Ukraine?”
Olesya, a 17 year-old student studying in Kharkiv and living in Donetsk, sees things differently. “I study at the Kharkiv Art and Design Academy,” she tells me. “My father passed away three years ago and my mother lives in Donetsk. There is no art-related university there. Meanwhile, as long as I’m a student, I see my future in Ukraine. And then we’ll see where life leads me. Changes here are so always so vast, that it’s hard to predict the future.”