Kharkiv, Ukraine — “The last few months have divided friends and families,” says Olga Filippova, a 47-year-old social scientist and long time Kharkiv resident, “I can’t even talk to my relative [who lives in Russia] about politics, because she would rather believe the news than me. We’ve agreed to only talk about family, but that usually only lasts three days.” Olga considers herself pro-Ukrainian, which to her means that she supports Ukrainian unity and closer ties with the European Union as opposed to Russia. She supported the Maidan protests, at least at the beginning when, she says, they were clearly pro-European and anti-corruption. Maidan stopped representing her, and Kharkiv, she says, when radical nationalist groups, particularly Right Sector, became more prominent and violent. “Still,” she says, “Ukraine’s future is with Europe.”
Kharkiv is eastern Ukraine’s largest city. With its many theaters and universities, it is known as an academic and cultural center. In recent weeks, pro-Russian demonstrations have become more frequent on the city’s main Freedom Square. On April 28, Kharkiv’s mayor Gennady Kernes was shot in an apparent assassination attempt. Kernes is recovering but remains in critical condition, while his assailants remain unknown. The attack on Kernes left Kharkiv residents shaken and panicked. Despite Kernes’s alleged criminal connections, many in Kharkiv, says Olga, believed that he could keep growing tensions under control, even if they did not support him politically. His absence has left Kharkiv vulnerable.
About 200-300 pro-Russian anti-Maidan demonstrators gathered on Freedom Square on Sunday, May 4, at noon. The demonstrators, a mix of old and young, were waving “Kharkov Republic” flags with the Russian “Kharkov” instead of the Ukrainian “Kharkiv.” Chants of “Rossiya! Rossiya!” and “Odessa we are with you! Slovyansk we are with you! Donetsk we are with you!” rolled across the crowd. When asked, the activists said they were local Kharkovites (Kharkovchany) who were protesting against the “Kiev junta,” the term used to describe the Ukrainian central government, “that is killing its own people” – a reference to the clash between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces in Odessa that left 42 dead and many more injured on May 2.
The activists on Kharkiv’s square are pro-Russian, which means that they support closer economic ties with Russia, federalism, and greater autonomy for the eastern regions. The activists do not recognize the legitimacy of Kiev’s government or the May 25 presidential elections.
In December, Kharkiv saw some of the largest Euromaidan demonstrations in eastern Ukraine. Today, this is no longer the case, and pro-Ukrainian voices of middle class Kharkiv residents, like Olga, are rarely heard. Most Kharkiv residents are not out on the square; they are staying at home, likely hoping that war does not come to their town. Just a few steps from the square, life goes on as usual: the cafés are still lively despite increasing prices and children are playing in the nearby park. But underneath the calmness of everyday life, people are taking sides. As tensions continue to build, the division – pro-Russian or pro-Ukrainian – is hardening.