Residents near Russian border are grateful to be spared major violence, but anxious about instability and civil war.
By Dovid Margolin
Kharkov, Ukraine – The early-morning Kiev-Kharkov intercity express train glides into Kharkov’s central railroad station, entering a city a world away from the one it left behind just five hours earlier.
These days, Kiev is covered with pro-Ukrainian slogans and signs, the yellow and blue of Ukraine’s flag popping out at everywhere. “Unified Homeland; Glory to Ukraine” one reads. In an area on the outskirts of Kiev, young volunteers paint rusting street guards yellow and blue, while also walking among cars in the street with a box hoping to collect money from drivers to offset the cost of the paint.
Kharkov is noticeably different. Sitting as it does only 40 kilometers away from the Russian border to the east, it is almost completely absent of patriotic signs, hinting at the vast difference of opinion between Ukraine’s two largest cities. An intellectual city known for its universities, Kharkov was once the Soviet capital of Ukraine – Kiev having been deemed at the time “too Ukrainian” to remain of such importance during an era of increased Ukrainian nationalism in the 1920s.
“You can never know here,” explains the city’s chief rabbi and head Chabad emissary Rabbi Moshe Moskovitz, as a local Jewish businessman who has just put on tefillin walks out of his office. “It’s split 50-50. Some people here want to look towards Europe, others towards Russia.”
The situation in Kharkov – even more than in the rest of the country – remains unstable, with each new day unveiling its own circumstances. Possibly in response to the city’s perceived lack of Ukrainian patriotism and openness to Russia, Sunday saw a gathering of about 8,000 pro-Ukrainian protesters in central Kharkov. At the end of the protest, the crowd marched towards Freedom Square’s 20-meter-high statue of Bolshevik Revolution leader Vladimir Lenin; once there, protesters wearing masks and Ukrainian colors began sawing at the massive monument’s feet. Although pro-Russians vigorously defended the statue from attack in February, on Sunday evening, after hours of work that went unimpeded by police, Lenin came tumbling down.
“It’s a miracle that what happened in Donetsk and Lugansk hasn’t happened here,” acknowledges Moskovitz. “When the Maidan [Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the central square of Kiev that was the site of pro-Europe protests] was attacked in Kiev and our mayor left the city, it was a very serious time. All of that could have easily led to a situation similar to the one in Donetsk.”
In those early days of the conflict before anyone could have predicted the war that continues to devastate the east, a Kharkov People’s Republic was declared in the city and a Russian flag hoisted over its city hall in March. When Mayor Gennady Kernes – formerly a political ally of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych – returned to the city and soon declared himself to be for a united Ukraine, quiet was restored. By the time he was shot and nearly killed at the end of April while out on a morning run, clear measures had been instituted to block Russian protesters from being brought into the city from just over the border. Direct flights between Moscow and Kharkov were suspended at that time and have yet to resume.
“That first week, right after Shabbos, someone called my house frantically, saying that protesters were marching towards the synagogue,” says Moskovitz’s wife, Miriam, who together with her husband arrived in Kharkov in the middle of 1990, just before the disintegration of the Soviet Union. “No one knew what was happening, so I called up the shul and told my husband to make sure everyone stays inside while the group passes.”
The throng ended up turning onto another street, and the panic that it engendered has since faded. Today, most Jewish community members spoken to say they continue holding their breath, attributing Kharkov’s current peaceful status only to Divine providence.
“Kharkov is a special city,” says Alexander Kaganovsky, editor-in-chief of Geulah magazine and the president of the Kharkov Jewish Community for almost 20 years. “Kharkov is a city that did not have even one anti-Jewish pogrom in its history, so maybe that has helped. There is no other logical explanation.”
The Specter of War
Although thankful that pro-Russian separatist activity was unable to take hold long enough to plunge their city into turmoil, Kharkov natives – Kharkovchiani, as they’re known – have, notwithstanding Sunday’s events, not been gripped with the same patriotic Ukrainian fervor as those in cities such as Kiev and Dnepropetrovsk, as the lack of various nationalist signs attests to.
Some are for a Ukrainian pivot towards Europe, while others continue to support close ties with Russia, for both financial and historical reasons. The difference of opinion, says Rabbi Moskovitz, reveals itself within the Jewish community in Kharkov as well.
While many businesspeople want closer ties with Europe, a significant number feel that given the state of its economy and infrastructure, Russia is simply the more realistic trading partner for Ukraine. Additionally, there are those who wish to align with Russia for ideological reasons and who fear Ukrainian nationalism.
Nevertheless, one thing people are trying to avoid is actual war. When Russian troops began mobilizing on the Russian side of the eastern border in March, a heavy buildup was detected in nearby Belgorad, just a 75-minute drive away from Kharkov. Having since witnessed events unfold in Donetsk and Lugansk, and what is regarded by most, including NATO, as an open Russian invasion in the direction of Mariupol further south, fear of invading Russian troops has risen distinctly.
“Whatever the Russians want to do, they’ll do,” says one community member standing in the synagogue’s parking lot, echoing a commonly heard sentiment within the country. “If they’d like, they can be here within the day.”
Subtle Signs of Unrest
The fact that an actual war with exchanges of heavy artillery and rocket fire is taking place in the east of the country is for the most part unfelt in other parts of Ukraine. While almost everyone has considered what they would do if the violence ever reaches them, life continues as normal in Kiev, Kharkov and Dnepropetrovsk.
Visible signs of war are the draft notices that young, eligible Ukrainian men have begun receiving – notices that are commonly ignored by the drafted, especially by those living in the eastern part of the country where the future is so uncertain; road blocks set up on highways that require drivers to stop, be questioned or have their vehicles searched; and traces of European inspectors. Over the weekend, a large group of Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe officials was observed in Kharkov, the OSCE staff identifying themselves as monitoring officers headquartered in Lugansk.
The greater – at times, almost invisible – sign of war, however, are the refugees. Hundreds of thousands have fled the war-torn east, among them some 18,000 Jews. Refugees can today be found almost everywhere in the country, Kharkov among them. Some choose Kharkov because they had relatives there, or it was the first place they could go; others arrived because it has an Israeli consulate, where they could begin the application process to Israel.
“Sometimes, we’ll get a call from the local shaliach in that city to tell us that someone’s coming and asking if we could help somehow; other times, they’ll just walk into shul looking for a place to sleep or at least eat,” reports Miriam Moskovitz. “Until just recently, we had 15 people living in the yeshivah building on Chebotarskaya Street.”
Yehoshua Sagirov, a refugee from Donetsk, arrived in Kharkov with his family six weeks ago. An unassuming man who worked as a broker in Donetsk, the 28-year-old now lives with his wife, newborn daughter, in-laws, mother, grandmother, sister and aunt in a small apartment lent to him by a friend. Also sharing the space is his nephew Misha, whose mother returned to Donetsk, despite the danger, to try and keep her job.
Sagirov, born and bred in Donetsk, says that for the last month he worked from home rather than going into the office. “I would go out during the day, but at night, it’s better not to go anywhere at all,” he says, referring to marauders that have appeared in the anarchy of the situation.
He had another problem. His wife was pregnant, and he worried how they would safely get to a hospital, especially at night. In the end, she did give birth at night, and while at first he was told by some that his daughter would become a citizen of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), she was, in fact, registered as a Ukrainian citizen by the hospital in Donetsk.
Six days later – after the couple received support from the city’s rabbi and Chabad emissary, Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski – they hired a bus and left the city immediately.
“It should take only four hours to Kharkov, and it took us around seven because you can’t take any of the main roads, so you have to go around,” he says. “Even just leaving is dangerous; the DPR soldiers could easily have grabbed me and demanded I fight for them. Not much you can answer back to them because they can just shoot you up a bit, too.”
Sagirov says as difficult as it was to leave home, the older generation now with him needed to be sat down and convinced to join them.
For the time being, Sagirov is staying put in Kharkov, with no immediate plans to move to Israel or return to Donetsk. “We’ll see what tomorrow brings. I think for me to return to Donetsk there needs to be no war, quiet, and it needs to be Ukraine. I won’t go back if it’s DPR territory, and I think most of the young people will return in that case. But I really don’t know when we’re going back; I have no prognosis for the future.”
‘We Just Prayed’
Not long after Sagirov left synagogue following morning prayers recently, Irina, 49, from Lugansk, arrived for a women’s pre-Rosh Hashanah challah-baking class. She fled Lugansk on Aug. 3 in a convoy of cars with white flags – towels, actually – tied to the rear bumper to show that they were peaceful.
“A lot of people want our region to be Russia,” Irina says. “Probably half want to live in Ukraine. Some people thought the same thing would happen in our region as happened in Crimea – a referendum and that’s it. I personally may not like certain things about Ukraine, but I don’t want Russia. But after a month of living in a basement under shelling, I’m ready to live anywhere.”
Her home in Lugansk sits a few kilometers away from the airport, the sight of intense fighting. She says that both sides are using heavy munitions, and that she and her family can tell which side did the shooting by the direction from where it came. She also revealed her newfound skill of being able to recognize grads from mortars by sound.
Irina remembers the events that led to their decision to leave: “A grad rocket fell on a neighbor’s two-floor home, and the top floor burst into flames. Mobile phones were still working, so we called the fire department, and they came and put it out. A few weeks later, the same thing happened, but this time we had no phones to call anyone, and four houses were turned to ash. By that time, we had already been living in our basement without electricity for a month.”
Joining a convoy that was leaving Lugansk, Irina says the drive took hours longer than usual because they went along side roads. “We heard shooting all around, and I didn’t see anything to the right or left, only the car in front of me. We just prayed.”
Wiping tears from her eyes, Irina unfolds her wallet and pulls out a Tefilat HaDerech [“Prayer for Travel”] card, featuring a photo of each of the Chabad Rebbes.
“I had this with me because I thought it would help,” she murmurs. “It seems like it did.”