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Trudy Rubin: How the great Ukrainian city of Kharkiv stands up to the Russians — and how you can help

A Ukrainian expert climbs the stairs of the damaged building of a clinical medical laboratory following a Russian rocket strike in the second largest Ukrainian city of Kharkiv on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Sergey Bobok/AFP/Getty Images/TNS
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KHARKIV, Ukraine — If you wonder why the United States should keep supporting Ukraine, let me describe my recent visit to Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city and long the cultural and academic capital of the country.

In May, Ukrainian soldiers drove the Russian military back from the city, which is only 25 miles from the Russian border. Yet the Russians still shell Kharkiv and its suburbs nightly (and sometimes by day) from across the border. They specifically target civilian infrastructure: hospitals, schools, universities, apartment towers, and municipal buildings, driving half the population of 1.5 million out of the city.

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When I checked into my small hotel in the city center, the manager told me: "If you hear booms at night, just ignore them. But if the hotel shakes, go to the shelter." This is the norm.

Kharkiv looks eyeless, every store and office building boarded up, at least on the lower stories. The broad center city boulevards are almost empty — except for the occasional trolley car — and pedestrians are scarce.

Yet the city, once known for its lovely parks and riverside walkway, its universities, museums, theaters, writers, and cafes full of students, refuses to die.


Vladimir Putin's brutal effort to destroy Kharkiv is a warning to Europe and to America: The Russian dictator's thirst for territorial conquest must be stopped — before it expands beyond Ukraine.

People who stay in Kharkiv are ferociously loyal to the city and determined to defend it. Strangers talk to each other as if they are part of a special society, and hugging frequently replaces handshakes.

Most locals are doing some kind of volunteer work, like packaging food and clothing for bombed-out residents or raising funds to help wounded soldiers. Although most businesses are closed, local merchants are already brainstorming on how to rehouse tens of thousands of citizens whose dwellings were destroyed by the Russians — if and when this conflict ends.

But those who must keep the city — and its education system — running have to face brutal new challenges daily.

"Today is a hard day because we have seen Russian strikes on people who are going to work," I was told by the exhausted mayor of Kharkiv, Ihor Terekhov. "They strike exactly when people are getting on and off the trains."

We met in an Italian restaurant because all of the municipal buildings are damaged and this was one of the few eateries that remains open. Terekhov's face was gray under gray hair and gray stubble. "Every morning I go to work to see what has been ruined," he sighed.

On this particular morning, everyone was talking about the father whose 13-year-old son was killed by a strike just as they left their high-rise apartment building in the Saltivka suburb. Video had gone viral of the father refusing to let emergency workers take his son's body as he prayed beside it for two hours, begging the boy to return.

The mayor was proud that city services were working, including trash collection and (now free) public transport. He had hoped the shelling would have stopped by now and businesses could reopen, providing jobs and desperately needed income for residents.


Putin had other ideas.

The Russian dictator claimed he invaded Ukraine to protect its Russian speakers against Ukrainian "Nazis." Yet, as Terekhov pointed out, "Ninety-five percent of Kharkiv residents are Russian speakers." That includes most of the Ukrainian soldiers fighting on the front lines.

He added: "Every fourth citizen of Kharkiv has relatives in Russia. But speaking Russian does not mean we are less Ukrainian.

"The Russians came to steal our land and everything we have."

Furious that Kharkiv didn't welcome his soldiers, Putin is destroying the city he claimed he wanted to save. There are signs Russia may be planning a new offensive against Kharkiv.

"Fifty-three of our medical institutions have suffered from missile hits," Terekhov said, "including the biggest maternity hospital. Thirteen universities are in difficult conditions, and 109 out of 200 schools are hit or damaged."

I visited one leafy residential neighborhood where a Russian missile had pulverized a high school. Ironically, as former student Bogdan Balaka pointed out to me, the direct strike hit the classrooms where Russian language and literature were taught.

Russia's deliberate effort to wreck the educational system in Kharkiv is particularly vile because of the city's place as a historic hub of both Russian and Ukrainian culture.


Over at the imposing Karazin Kharkiv National University, which many consider the best in the country, the rector, Tetyana Kaganovska, is convinced that "Putin's main aim is to ruin the educational future of the country."

The windows of the main administration building, where I met her, are mostly boarded up. The halls of this boxy, Russian-style high rise are empty, but the student journalists eagerly trailing after me in their black Kharkiv U. T-shirts resemble their U.S. counterparts.

A little over a year ago, the elegant, steely-eyed Kaganovska became the first woman to head the university since its founding in 1804, during the Russian empire. She now has the overwhelming task of preserving it during wartime. Russian missiles have already destroyed the physics building along with the economics and business school.

Kaganovska is counting on the resilience of young people. And I saw small signs of that in Kharkiv. One evening, at the LF Music Club, about 150 screaming fans squeezed into a tiny theater to hear the electronic band Legenda Folium. Serhiy Zhadan, a famed writer and musician who is one of Ukraine's most admired cultural figures, was in the audience.

So the mayor and the rector won't quit: Kaganovska is trying to figure out how to woo back the foreign students who fled and retain top faculty, as well as 15,000 or more Ukrainian students — via distance learning. "One of our main tasks is to live through the night with the shelling," she says. "We understand we must do our job."

The West must also do its job when it comes to Kharkiv. The city, like the entire country, is struggling to push back a Russian dictator willing to wreck what he can't control — and ready to move beyond Ukraine if he is permitted to do so.

With their fierce civilian and military resistance, Ukrainians have proved Putin can be contained, so long as Western allies provide them with far more long-range weapons.

Beyond military aid, Terekhov and Kaganovska are looking for direct relationships between Kharkiv hospitals and universities and their counterparts in the United States. "Exchanging lectures with U.S. universities would be terrific," says the rector. Any takers in Philadelphia or Pennsylvania for a frontline city that refuses to be cowed by Putin's crimes?

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the The Philadelphia Inquirer . Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at trubin@phillynews.com .

©2022 The Philadelphia Inquirer, LLC.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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