KHARKIV, Ukraine — The House of Actors theater was packed on Saturday night in Kharkiv, a Ukrainian city just 33 miles from the Russian border. The crowd spent the evening laughing at stand-up comedy from the Saxalin-UA troupe, who performed in Russian here in the heart of the country’s supposedly pro-Russia east. Most of the bits were the usual jokes about men and women and relationships, but politics arrived for the final act: On the smoke-covered stage, performers stretched out the Ukrainian flag and silently mouthed the words of an obscene popular chant about Vladimir Putin, comparing him to male genitalia. The audience exploded in applause and whistles. SaXalin-UA is popular among locals here, and performs nearly every night to packed houses, delivering the audience a much-needed break from continually feeling stressed out about “Russia coming.”
It was a scene in the heart of east Ukraine that might come as a nightmarish surprise for the Kremlin’s ideologists, whose job is to win over this part of the country to Moscow’s side. After eight years of conflict, the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine does not want anything to do with Putin-backed separatism. Kharvkiv, a city that’s home to 69 universities with more than a dozen independent theater companies, great museums, and talented designer schools wants to keep its international airport, independent media, banks, and foreign tourists. On the other side of the so called “dividing line,” just 200 miles away, Ukraine’s breakaway cities of Luhansk and Donetsk have lost most of these basic signs of a thriving and free society.
Putin said in April, 2014, soon after the annexation of Crimea, that it was “necessary to defend the interests of Russian speakers in Ukraine.” People here in Kharkiv would disagree. The war has destroyed millions of lives in the densely populated region, divided families and breaking friendships, but there is one area where the violence has succeeded: galvanizing much of the population against Russian aggression. “We have two veteran artists at our theater, who are in their 90s. They say that they loved Russia as their motherland until the first shot of separatists at Ukrainian citizens,” the director of Saxalin-UA, Evgeny Safonov, tells Rolling Stone. “Today, when the Russian army is on our border threatening another invasion, Putin should understand that he has lost the most important people. He lost us, Russian speaking Ukrainians.”
Outside the old theater, the threat of a full-scale conflict hangs over Kharkiv like a sword. A training-run blast of the city’s air-raid warning siren had boomed through the streets on Wednesday morning, rattling the nerves of the roughly 1.5 million residents. Nobody seemed to know where the bomb shelters were located. “The sound of the siren reminds of us of movies about WWII, when people were hungry, cold, and did not know what the future might bring,” Svitlana Glushko, an IT specialist, tells me.
Kharkiv is the tall and charismatic Safonov’s hometown, and the 38-year-old is prepared to help fight for it. “All of us, including the two 90-year-old actors we have at this theater, loved Russia, but after the first gun shot at our people in 2014, these old men were thinking of where to get bullets for our soldiers,” he says. “Now, this Russian-speaking city is ready to defend itself.”
Safonov says the theater company is called Sakhalin after the name of a Siberian island that was once home to Joseph Stalin’s Gulag. “At least one-third of prisoners of the Gulag on Sakhalin island were Ukrainians,” Safonov says. “We joke: Putin’s taken over our Crimea, so we’ve taken over his Sakhalin island.” Safonov is determined to use his art and comedy to protest Kremlin aggression: “We stage drama plays by dissident Soviet authors, like Sergei Dovlatov, and modern playwrights; we mock Russia’s prison mentality; we travel around the towns on the front lines and perform for our soldiers.”
The humiliating chant the troupe mouthed about Putin originated among football fans in Kharkiv in March 2014, just a few days after Russia officially annexed Crimea. Such public disrespect must upset Russian sympathizers. Kharkiv is such a pivotal place in the region that the Kremlin-approved political strategist and philosopher Aleksander Dugin calls it “Novorossia,” or “New Russia.” At the peak of pro-European revolution, on Feb. 21, 2014, Kremlin ally President Victor Yanukovych fled Kyiv and headed straight to Kharkiv, where he expected to find strong support. But backing for his pro-Russian agenda failed to materialize. The regional governor, Mikhail Dobkin, picked Yanukovych up at the airport that evening. The following morning, a majority of the members of Parliament in Kyiv agreed that Yanukovych had abandoned the post of president, and voted him out. His family and security guards boarded a helicopter and fled to Crimea.
Since then, political figures with ties to Russia have failed to gain traction in Kharkiv, despite its historic ties to Moscow. Dobkin, though a critic of the 2014 pro-Western uprising in Kyiv, is still popular. He won 27.6 percent of the vote at the mayoral election last year. The name of another Kharkiv-born politician friendly to Putin, 45-year-old Yevgeny Murayev, was mentioned in a report by the British government on Saturday as the potential leader of a Russia-planned state coup. British intelligence suggested that “Murayev was being considered as a potential candidate” for a Russian-installed government. However, this may be a tough sell: Polls show that Murayev only has about one-percent support nationally in Ukraine.
“I personally know Murayev. He is that type of a nut case who believes in all sorts of conspiracy, in Americans managing Ukraine, and so on,” a popular television host at Ukraine-24, Yevgeny Kiselev, tells Rolling Stone. “British intelligence might have recorded Murayev’s conversations with Russian spies, which basically characterizes GRU or SVR today: They speak with whomever wants to deal with them. There are very few people left in Ukraine who will.”
Kharkiv still remembers the separatist violence of 2014 and 2015. Thousands of Putin supporters demonstrated before City Hall. Buses with Russian license plates arrived in the city, filled with what Ukrainians call tetushki, or paid thugs, with red banners that read “Russian spring.” The rebels set fires in the street, then took over the administration building on April 7, 2014. They raised a Russian flag along with rebel flags and proclaimed Kharkiv the People’s Republic of Kharkiv. But Kharkiv’s Russian spring did not last longer than two days. Ukrainian riot police took the building back in vicious battles that left dozens of people wounded. A few days later, an unknown attacker shot the city’s mayor, Hennadiy Kernes, in the back. (Kernes was confined to a wheelchair until he died in December 2020.)
In the years since, a fatalism has descended on the city. “The war has not stopped for eight years, people are used to it,” the journalist Natalia Kurdiukova tells me. But there’s also a grim resolve. “Yesterday’s brother is now an enemy outside the door,” the lyrics of a popular song called “Grad, Bastards, Buks, Bitches,” by Kharkiv composer Boris Sevastyanov, goes. “We didn’t want to be NATO/God could see we didn’t/ But with your Russian spring, you taught us a lesson/Ukraine is united, as never before.”
For nationalists on the Russian side, the success of the “Russian Spring” movement is a quasi-religious one and tied to fervent belief in the Orthodox Church and traditionalism above science and liberal values, says the father of the Russian Spring in Ukraine, Alexander Dugin. “Western civilization is dead, we should throw away the entire West’s racism, we are people of Asia, of Eurasia, we should stop heading towards European culture,” he told me in 2017.
The ultraconservative Dugin, 60, told me he sees Steve Bannon as his “ideological ally.” For him, this is a spiritual crusade. He spoke to me about his vision of the new “Russian World,” destined to rise and challenge Washington and undermine the already weak liberal European governments and the pro-Western Kyiv. “Russia should never try on the standards of the Western world,” he told me. “All its ideologies are totalitarian, cruel, materialistic, and immoral.”
Dugin admitted on radio Komsomol Pravda recently that NATO cannot meet “Putin’s tough conditions,” so 2022 is going to be a scary year. “The current situation will lead to inevitable explosion, collapse, 2022 is the year of solving the Ukrainian conflict most probably through a war,” he said. Last week, Dugin called for invading Ukraine in an article about the rebirth of Russian identity, saying that Moscow, in negotiating with the West, “should insist that the entire eastern Ukraine be passed to Novorossia and that the new state should be immediately included into the East Slavic Union together with Russia and Belarus.”
There is a big public information tent about the Russian invasion set up on in Freedom Square in Kharkiv. It’s decorated with a worn gallery of wounded soldiers’ photos and banners with anti-Putin and anti-Russian-spring slogans. The tent has been here since 2014, when thousands of people brought food, medicine, clothes, cell phones, and binoculars for the Ukrainian army. “Thanks to Putin’s aggression, we now have a well-equipped army with the newest weapons supplied here from Canada and the U.K.,” the tent’s coordinator, Alexander Taran, tells me.
As with almost everyone on the Ukrainian side I talk to, Taran hopes there will be no more violence. He has five cousins in Russia; family ties on either side of the front line are common in the region. “I don’t think Putin will invade,” he says with some optimism, but it sounds as if he’s trying to convince himself. “Western diplomats should stop him with sanctions.”
Ukraine’s leadership is preparing for the worst. President Volodymyr Zelenky says that Kharkiv is Russia’s primary target. “They will say that they are protecting the Russian-speaking population,” Zelensky said last week. “After the occupation and the annexation of Crimea, we understand that this is feasible and may happen. But I don’t know what they are going to do because these are big cities. Kharkiv has over one million citizens. It’s not going to be just an occupation; it’s going to be the beginning of a large-scale war.”
Everybody agrees that a battle in the streets with the 1.5 million people in Kharkiv would be too much even for 100,000 Russian soldiers. “In case of the war, Kharkiv will turn into a bloodbath,” a local deputy, Dmityry Bulakh, told journalists on Friday.
Shivering in a freezing wind, dozens of people lined up this past weekend in the city center near the monument to poet and writer Taras Shevchenko, known as the father of the Ukrainian nation. “Russia will never leave us alone,” one of the participants, an elderly woman, says. “We need to be strong together, unite.” Saturday was the national Day of Unity in Ukraine. The participants stretched their traditional embroidered towels, connecting the ends in one bright colorful line. The towel, or rushnyk, was the ancient mythical symbol of protection and happiness. “Glory to Ukraine!” the crowd chanted. “Stop Putin!”