Kharkiv: When even the war took a back seat (First published on 21.1.2022)

It has been almost a year since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Just a few months before the attack, the prospect of the invasion was a surreal notion for residents of the city of a million people 40 kilometers from the Russian border.


As a major troop base 40 kilometers from the Russian border, the presence of military is a daily sight.

In Eastern Europe, smaller celebrations, much less the big ones, are never without glamor and pomp. In Kharkov, a city of two million inhabitants just 40 kilometers from the Russian border, New Year and Christmas were no different. After a devastating Corona wave, people here celebrated the New Year – which in the Orthodox calendar comes before Christmas on January 7.

The two boulevards Pushkinsskaya and Sumska, several kilometers long, form the city center with huge plastic Christmas trees, cafes, clubs and snow-covered parks. Both are packed with people despite the freezing temperatures.

Pushkinskaya Avenue Gorky Park Charkiw

Gorky Park on Pushkinskaya Avenue.

Freedom Square-Ukraine-Kharkiv

Internationales Silvester in Charkiw.

On New Year’s Eve, there are more students from Bangladesh, India and Nigeria than Ukrainians on them. After all, in addition to being the Ukrainian center of heavy industry, Kharkov is also an international student city. Young Ukrainian women also stroll through the streets in thick fur coats, the kind that in this country are almost only known from older ladies going to the opera. Christmas classics are blaring from the loudspeakers on every corner, and the songs are playing on a continuous loop in the restaurants and cafés.

New Year's Eve Christmas Kharkiv Freedom Square

Christmas market on Kharkiv’s Freedom Square.

On Freedom Square, the largest parade ground for troops in the former Soviet Union, people crowded between a small amusement park, mulled wine stands and shawarma on December 31. In 2014, there had still been riots here between pro-Russian demonstrators and Ukrainian nationalists. But although a significant majority of the population speaks Russian, they could not be mobilized for independence as in the neighboring regions of Lugansk and Donetsk. Instead, a manageable force stormed a Kharkiv theater believing it to be a government building. Today, a small gallery and a displayed missile that struck here during the conflict in eastern Ukraine still bear witness to the conflict. Otherwise, the city has always been spared from unrest in recent years.

Commemoration at Freedom Square of the war that has been raging in neighboring Donetsk since 2014.

Gedenken am Freiheitsplatz an den Krieg, der seit 2014 im Angrenzenden Donezk herrscht.

But the city itself was also the target of missile attacks.

But the city itself was also the target of missile attacks.

Kontraste prägen das Stadtbild

Die poppige bunte Weihnachtsdekoration, die in allen Farben leuchtet, bildet einen krassen Gegensatz zu den oft tristen Straßen, oftmals klaffen hinter den Fassaden alte und baufällige Hinterhöfe aus den Eingangstoren hervor.

Contrasts between modern and old characterize the cityscape.

Contrasts between modern and old characterize the cityscape.

Only the modern branches of various restaurant and café chains shine out among the clunky buildings of the communist era, even at times outside the festive season. Temperatures are below freezing at night, and alternating with the thaw during midday, they often turn the streets and sidewalks into ankle-deep ponds of ice water and mirror-smooth ice slopes. In some places, store employees take care of ice removal with an ice pick, but this is far from helping across the board.

Again, a COVID wave rolled through the country from November to December, killing up to 700 people a day. But the government did not respond with a lockdown, and while in Austria the population was sent to bed at 10 p.m. on New Year’s Day, here even department stores stayed open late over the holidays. COVID measures, where they exist, are perceived as a recommendation for action. Only McDonalds consistently checks vaccination certificates. Neither the train personnel in the intercity trains nor security guards in the department stores care about compliance with a mask requirement or the control of rules.


The Nikolski shopping center in the heart of the megacity.

Nikolski, a four-story shopping temple with an international cinema, is bustling with people even on Orthodox Christmas Eve on January 6 and 7. In long clusters between Nike and Adidas stores. The entrance foyer is dominated by a shiny DS7 Crossback from the French luxury car manufacturer DS. In addition to the I-Phone as a status symbol, the Chinese smartphone manufacturer has long since discovered the Ukrainian market with its high-tech devices and is running large-scale advertising campaigns – at half the price, these are more affordable for many people here than the competing products from the West. In general, there is not much on offer here apart from fashion and technology.

Frau Müller-Soldat Schweik-Ukraine-Charkiw

At Frau Müller’s the guest is welcomed by the good soldier Schweik.

A life without Corona and geopolitics

Despite Ukraine’s rapprochement with the West and the European Union, not much of its blessings have arrived out here yet. Nevertheless, many locals are proud to present foreign visitors with Starbucks-like coffee shops, such as Aroma Kava, or numerous hamburger and sushi joints. While the immigrants who give the cachet of authenticity to food elsewhere are absent, instead young Ukrainians (often postgraduates) step in and try to recreate a suitable atmosphere – all too often you realize that you are only at the beginning of professionalization in the service sector. Still others prefer to mimic alternative and subversive lifestyles and don’t even try to get it right. Like Alex, who is in his element as a bartender in a subversive rock bar. The bar has made it a go-to spot for the few Westerners in town, who mingle here with Ukrainians who want to hear about developments outside the country. On Christmas Eve, he was able to attract a Ukrainian band to play in the dimly lit pub with its hidden smoking lounge.

Neither here nor anywhere else in the streets is anyone expressing concern about the 100,000 Russian soldiers standing just 40 kilometers away on the border and making the international press spin. Not even COVID, which encounters a particularly weak health care system here, where doctors earn just $300 a month, seems to be a special event for Ukrainians. It’s more like the icy weather, which can only be braved but not influenced. Hardly anyone likes to talk about it; instead, people indulge in consumption and the upcoming festivities with stoic calm, although under the surface you can feel the feeling of insecurity gnawing at people, of not being able to plan for the future.


Water supply. Water from the tap of the industrial city of Kharkiv is one of the poorest quality. Instead, tankers deliver drinking water so that the residents do not have to rely solely on expensive water from the supermarket.


Numerous residents from former Soviet republics can be found at the Christmas market on Freedom Square.

Charkiw Palace Hotel-Terminator

The Terminator’s jacket is found in Kharkiv’s Palace Hotel.

Meinl Cafe in Charkiw, Urkaine

Meinl Cafe in Kharkiv. Viennese cafe culture 2,000 kilometers away from Vienna.


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