Kharkiv Region: Industrial Capacity and Native Culture That Survived Brutal Suppression

This land witnessed both flourishing Ukrainian culture, which it was the heart of, and the attempts to squash it.

Kharkiv region (Ukr. oblast) is the birthplace of the industry that was later destroyed by rocket missiles. It is the land that lies on one of the main routes of the Russian Federation’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Through thick and thin, the region with its capital city stands unconquered, resisting the daily enemy attacks, defending both the state border and its own identity as a student, research, and cultural center.


Photography of Global Significance

The fate of the Kharkiv School of Photography can be used as reference material regarding that of the rest of Ukrainian art, with young and talented artists experimenting boldly and evolving, and the authorities trying to ban them altogether. However, true talent will always succeed.

The Kharkiv School of Photography emerged in 1971 based at a regional photo club. After some brainstorming, the young artists came up with a so-called “hit theory.” To put it in a nutshell, each picture has to hit the onlooker like a ton of bricks. It took only two years for the photo club to be closed because those photo experiments were considered “too daring’ for the totalitarian regime. The like-minded artists, however, kept in touch and continued to push the limits in photography. The exhibitions they were trying to hold were often closed on the very next day, and the artists only got real recognition in the times of Ukraine’s independence.

That recognition, however, wasn’t limited to only Ukraine: Borys Mykhailov, Serhii Bratkov, and other graduates of the Kharkiv School of Photography are now celebrated as true geniuses of world photography, with their works being exhibited by the most prestigious galleries all over the globe.

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Metropolis with Feeling

Present-day Kharkiv is a large industrial city. While people settled in the area since time immemorial, Kharkiv’s continuous history dates back to the 17th century, to a Cossack regiment that was deployed there. Over the years, that initial settlement gradually expanded, and by the early 20th century as many as 250,000 residents called it home.

In 1917, during the Ukrainians’ struggle for their independent state on the ruins of the Russian Empire, the Kharkiv Duma (this is what the local parliament was called) voted in favor of merging with the Ukrainian National Republic, however, the city almost immediately was attacked and occupied by the Bolsheviks. It took the citizens over 70 years to get another chance to vote for Ukraine’s independence, which they did: in 1991, almost 90% of the region’s population voted in favor of the Act of Declaration of Independence of Ukraine.

Kharkiv’s resolve on the matter was tested time and again, still, its citizens stood their ground, unwavering. In 2014, during the Revolution of Dignity, rallies of many thousands were held in support of the unity of the State and European values. In 2022, several weeks before the full-scale invasion, the citizens held a Unity March, with its mottos being that under no circumstances would the city surrender, and that the citizens would defend their freedom.

Kharkiv is one of Ukraine’s largest and most developed cities. Its powerful industry is coupled with high-quality education, as Kharkiv boasts both dozens of large manufacturers and 60 universities where over 150,000 students, both national and international, are educated. There’s a railway station, an airport, trolleybuses, trams, and a subway with its lines stretching along almost 40 km [~25 mi] and doubling as bomb shelters since the full-scale invasion began, due to frequent bombings of the city.

Besides, the city is a powerful hub for culture and IT. Let us mention that it is in Kharkiv where Serhii Zhadan, one of the main poets and writers in present-day Ukraine and a regular on the shortlist of the Nobel Prize in Literature, resides and works. Speaking of the Nobel Prize, Kharkiv already has its fair share of winners of the Nobel (read more on that below).

The most telling thing about Kharkiv is, perhaps, the fact that in 2010, the city became the first Ukrainian municipality to ever be awarded the Europe Prize. Awarded annually by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the Prize is meant to reward municipalities that are particularly active in promoting the European ideal.

The PACE elaborated that “As a major cultural, scientific, educational and industrial centre of Ukraine, Kharkiv has developed a very dense network of international contacts […] A large number of delegations meet every year, thus offering the possibility to co-operate as well with East European as with West European countries. International events like the Kharkiv civic festival, the international junior football tournament and the competitive ballroom dancing festival attract every year numerous participants from the twin-towns.”

The Executed Renaissance

Over the first decade and a half of the Soviet rule, the USSR somewhat eased the pressure traditionally imposed upon the Ukrainian culture by Ukraine’s easterlings. Ukraine responded by producing an entire generation of exceptionally talented writers, philosophers, musicians, and artists. Those were the personalities defined by their bold thinking and their faith in their ideals. While most of them never aimed for politics, their very desire for freedom marked them as enemies of the totalitarian system. That generation of artists is now known as the Executed Renaissance.

Already in the early 1930s Ukrainian cultural luminaries were being persecuted, arrested, and executed. The list of the victims of the Terror includes writers

Mykola Kulish

Mykola Khvylovyi

Mykhailo Semenko

Valerian Pidmohylnyi

Valerian Polishchuk

Marko Voronyi

Yevhen Pluzhnyk

Mykola Zerov

stage actor Les Kurbas

Boychukists (the artists following the Boychukism cultural and artistic style), and many others.

They were executed, died in concentration camps, or were drawn to suicide. Others were forced to flee the country or broken psychologically and were molded into minstrels of the regime.

In 1930, 259 Ukrainian writers were being published, and after 1938, only 36 of them were left. 192 of those “disappeared” writers were persecuted, 16 went missing, and 8 committed suicide. While most of them were rehabilitated in the late 1950s, the ban on their works in the USSR remained. Moscow went above and beyond to make the Ukrainians ignorant of the very existence of a unique generation of their artists.

The House of Doom

It is the fate of the residents of the Slovo (lit. Word) residential complex in Kharkiv that became the most telling episode in the history of the Executed Renaissance. That 66-apartment residential complex had been built in the late 1920s, intended specifically for literary artists. Just a few years later, the residential building that was supposed to be a creativity hub, was turned into the house of doom.

By 1938, residents of 40 apartments were purged. Black vans were coming for them day and night, snatching the crème de la crème of Ukrainian culture, just to smite them into oblivion. Some of those artists simply disappeared, while others later re-emerged in concentration camps, often in Sandarmokh.

Over the course of just 9 days between October 27 and November 4, 1937, 1,111 people were executed in the Sandarmokh tract in Russian Karelia, with Ukrainian writers, artists, and thinkers being among those unfortunate. It was Captain Mykhailo Matvieiev who took on the job of executing people that were totally innocent. In 1937, the said Captain was awarded “for zeal against counter-revolution” and presented with a valuable gift, a radiogramophone and a set of vinyl records.

As for the Slovo, the residential complex survived until this day, although nowadays, literary artists and their descendants are in very short supply among its residents. That, however, wasn’t a reason enough for Russia to leave the building alone, so in 2022 the complex, along with the rest of Kharkiv, was repeatedly shelled by the Russian troops.

Under Attack: The People, the Culture, the Industry

Kharkiv region is one of Ukraine’s most powerful industrial regions, manufacturing heavy machinery and generators and operating large enterprises in the chemical, power production, fuel, and food industries.

Turboatom turbines became the heart of power plants in more than 45 countries all over Europe, Asia, the US, and Africa. Kharkiv Tractor Plant, which used to manufacture several thousand articles of heavy machinery annually, had an entire city district named after the enterprise. JSC Hartron is the world’s leading manufacturer of control systems in energy, transport, and spacecraft and missile control; over 1,000 spacecrafts equipped with devices engineered by Hartron have already been placed into orbit.

Nevertheless, now many of those enterprises were forced to grind to a standstill. While the data on the industrial facilities damaged in the war is not disclosed, there is no doubt that Russian missiles were aimed at those facilities from day one, in an attempt to destroy Ukraine’s industrial power, however peaceful those industries may be.

Besides, it’s not just industries that the invaders target. Northern Saltivka, a residential district in Kharkiv, became a horrid symbol of the full-scale invasion. Home to tens of thousands of people before the full-fledged war, it boasted five schools, eight kindergartens, and two outpatient clinics. However, the closest proximity to the Russian border became the root of their misfortune. After months of shell bombing, one can hardly find a single undamaged building in the entire district, and the residents were forced out of their homes — along with tens of thousands of others, as most of the Kharkiv region suffered military occupation in the early days of the invasion.

The culture, too, took the blow. On a hill in the city of Izium, there were ancient Polovtsian Stone Women, the millennia-old stone sculptures. Of the nine stone figures, seven were damaged due to Russian bombings, with one of them being destroyed completely. Also in Izium, at least 1,000 civilians were killed during a six-month-long occupation, with 80% of infrastructure laying in rubbles.

It was only in September 2022 that the counteroffensive by the Armed Forces of Ukraine drove the Russians out of most of the region.

A Louvre-in-the-Making Village

While the population of Parkhomivka, a village in the Kharkiv region, is only several thousand strong, their collection of world masterpieces counts several pieces per capita.

It all began in the mid-20th century, when the local school, a generic one, appointed Panas Luniov for the position of history teacher. To help his pupils understand history better, he offered them to create their own local history museum. Later, when their exhibition of household items, embroidery, and paintings by local artists got some limelight, he proposed the idea of approaching famous artists and large museums with a request for them to factor into creating a real art museum in Parkhomivka.

The Union of Kharkiv Artists was the first to come forward by offering the schoolchildren 50 of their works in 1955. Everyone liked the idea so much that more people came from all sides gifting art pieces, both their own and created by other artists.

Today, Parkhomivka museum boasts an art collection of over 7,500 pieces, including paintings, graphics, and applied arts created by, in particular, Pablo Picasso, Camille Pissarro, Rembrandt’s favorite student Ferdinand Bol, Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Aivazovskyi, Illiaa Repin, Wassyl Kandinskyi, and Mykola Rerikh. Moreover, to this day the Museum is still to a great extent run by the local schoolkids.

The collection also includes a piece by Kazymyr Malevych, the art revolutionary from Kyiv. Noteworthy, his personal history is indeed linked with this small village in the Kharkiv region: in 1890, the future artist’s father got a job at a local sugar mill and refinery, and the Malevych family did spend some time in Parkhomivka. The workers’ dormitory where they lived can still be found in the village.

The local residents believe that it was in their village that Kazymyr’s passion for art first arose: as a teen, he observed the locals decorating their houses and heat stoves with painted patterns, and later recalled in his journals how fascinated he used to be by that process. Therefore, Parkhomivka is not merely a location where works of world art are stored — the picturesque village left its impression on an artist who transformed the world of art.

Another renowned artist is a native of the Kharkiv region. Ilya Repin comes from an old Cossack family, which left an impression on his works. The titles of his pieces speak for themselves: “Zaporozhian colonel,” “Zaporozhets,” “Ivan Sirko,” “Cossack in the steppe,” “Hetman’s meeting,” or “A Bandurist Cossack with his boy armorbearer”. Repin’s most famous masterpiece, however, is known as “Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks,” which is based on the legend about a sarcastic message that the Cossacks allegedly sent to the ruler of the Ottoman Empire. Despite Repin’s obvious love for his homeland, Russians have been trying to appropriate his talent for the past 150 years, calling him a Russian artist — even though Illia Repin’s dying wish was to produce a painting named “Hopak,” to honor the famous Ukrainian dance, a dream he didn’t live to fulfill.

Fortunately, museums all over the globe are increasingly editing the captions to the works of artists once appropriated by Russia, reinstating their true origins.

A Great Many of Nobel Prize Winners

What can a numerous student body and industrial power have in common? Why, the advanced science, of course! Kharkiv region boasts considerable achievements in this field.

For instance, it is here at the local Ukrainian Physical-Technical Institute (UFTI) that a lithium atom was split in 1932, with the team of scientists working on the project being the first in the USSR and second in the world to succeed in that. Back then, Lev Landau, a renowned physicist who ended up winning a Nobel Prize in 1962, worked at the facility. However, he was neither the only nor the first Nobel Prize winner with ties to Kharkiv.

In 1895, a famous microbiologist and immunologist Iliia Mechnykov was born in the village of Ivanivka-Panasivka. In 1908, he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for recognition of his work on immunity. Semen (aka Simon) Kuznets, who received the 1971 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, is an alumnus of the Kharkiv Institute of Commerce.

To this day, scientific breakthroughs are made in Kharkiv, with one of those breakthroughs occurring in the very same UFTI building where an atom was split almost a century ago. This time, the scientists developed a special technique allowing them to obtain, for the first time in history, photographs of unprecedented clarity and quality, depicting… well, an atom.

A Grandeur Set in Stone

In Kharkiv, one can see grandeur whatever they chose to lay their eyes upon: in Freedom Square, for instance, one of the largest squares in the world, or in an unusual building situated there.

A hundred years ago, they decided to erect a building in Kharkiv that would become a visual symbol of industrial power. Every day, up to 5,000 workers worked tirelessly in three shifts, to build the world’s largest Constructivist structure as quickly as possible. They succeeded, and in just three years, in 1928, the grand Derzhprom (the State Industry Building) stood in what is now the center of Kharkiv.

Consisting of three H-shaped buildings fused together, the structure varies in height between 6 to 11 floors. The bridges hanging over the radial passages at a height of 3, 5, and 6 floors became the highlights of the site. Those 26 m [~85 ft] passages are long enough for not one, but two streets to be built below, between the three buildings of the complex.

Noteworthy, the construction workers employed on the project were mostly of Ukrainian origin. Vladimir Mayakovsky, a Soviet poet, was so impressed by the fact that those working on the Derzhprom complex only spoke Ukrainian and couldn’t understand the questions he asked in Russian, that he even wrote a poem about it. We, however, don’t feel like quoting that poem, as in it the poet used a derogatory name for Ukrainians — which was quite typical for the so-called classics of Russian literature.

In 2017, the Derzhprom complex made it to the UNESCO tentative list. While we are yet to see the site on the main list, even one look at this grandiose structure is enough to see that that listing is well-deserved.

You Name It, They Have It

Kharkiv is one of the largest metropolises in Eastern Europe with a population of one and a half million people. A city like this calls for grandeur in about everything. Well, Barabashovo is on the top-15 largest markets in the entire world. Over 16,000 retail outlets and several dozen cafes and restaurants occupy a total area of 75 hectares [~185 acres] — twice the size of the Vatican!

Here, one can find about anything, be it clothes, footwear, accessories, home goods, construction and repair tools, children’s toys and adult gadgets, fabrics and accessories, bicycle goods, cars — you name it, they have it. However, in 2022, the legendary market suffered a serious blow from the Russian army. Barabashovo was repeatedly bombed and survived several substantial fires.

This notwithstanding, the market is still in operation: really, what in the world can defeat something so grand as the endless rows of shopping stalls at Barabashovo?

From the earliest days of the full-scale invasion, the Kharkiv region suffered terrible blows, and part of the region was occupied.

Cities and towns under occupation endured unfathomable terror until most of them were liberated in September during a counteroffensive by the Armed Forces of Ukraine. This is quite a precise reflection of the entire culture of the region: for years it had been suffering from persecution and oppression, yet no opportunity for growth was wasted. Today we are witnessing the final battle for this liberty-loving culture, the battle that Ukraine is sure to win.

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Last updated 24.02.2023

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