Some people are waiting at the entrance, but no one seems to be in a rush. Others are sitting in the park, enjoying the sunset. Calm music is playing through the loudspeakers, stressing the peaceful atmosphere at the railway station of the former Ukrainian capital. If these are the first impressions while arriving in Kharkiv, you easily forget for a moment that not far from this city tanks are rolling and bombs are exploding. There is one question that many people in this city have in mind these days.Would the war in Donetsk Oblast spread to Kharkiv?
As a city that lies close to the Russian border, it does not surprise to see some soldiers every now and then. But even as a traveller you realize quite fast that such a wide presence of vigilant troops is not usual in Kharkiv. There was fear in the air. The locals only reinforced this impression that has been amplified by local media all the more. "On television they continuously report about the possibility that the war will spread to Kharkiv", a taxi driver in Kharkiv stated. "We only want peace", several locals in Kharkiv stressed when asked about their stance regarding the tensions between Russia and Ukraine. With respect to the question whether Crimea belongs to Russia or Ukraine, a newly-married woman in the Moskvich Bar decided not to comment at all. Especially in Kharkiv this is a sensitive subject, especially for a newly-married woman in Kharkiv.
It did not take long until I realized that I was no longer in the Russian Federation. The blue and yellow flag is ubiquitous. The
new government seems to put much effort in strenghtening the national consciousness of the people. Irrespective of that it is not difficult to guess that many people here identify themselves as
Ukrainian. However, it also did not take long until I realized that I still had not arrived in Kiev, where Vitali Klitschko, a former professional boxer who - much in favour to Western
governments - became the political face of the opposition in Ukraine, remains popular to this day. Here in Kharkiv, while Klitschko was holding a speech, people threw eggs at him. If travellers
only communicate with English speaking people in Kharkiv, it should not surprise anyone that conclusions regarding the ideological views of the people in Kharkiv can be very misleading, as most
people speak no English, and Russian-speaking people constitute the majority. One can only imagine what would have happened, if the new self-proclaimed Ukrainian government at that time had
succesfully abolished Russian as an official language in Ukraine.
Since many pro-Russian people and many proud Ukrainians live here, the potential for arising conflicts may seem relatively high. Nevertheless the pro-Russian people's strife for secession, or their strife to become a part of Russia respectively, is not as strong as it is the case with the Crimean people, even if the majority of the people in Kharkiv wished to be able to have this right of self-determination. Unlike in Crimea, where people feel safe now, the inhabitants of Kharkiv would probably have to pay a high price. The situation in Kharkiv differs from the situation in Crimea significantly. While the Crimean people see the escalation in Eastern Ukraine as a proof for having made the right choice, many pro-Russian people in Kharkiv look at what is happening in Eastern Ukraine and fear to suffer a similar fate, if they insist on independence or even more autonomy.
It was here in Kharkiv, when in 2010 a treaty was signed between Ukraine and the Russian Federation that would play an important role regarding the developments in Crimea in 2014. The Kharkiv treaty guarantees a discount for Ukraine with respect to Russian natural gas supply. In exchange, the Ukrainian government accepted the perpetual presence of Russian troops in Crimea. It was one of many details that remained unmentioned in most Western media outlets, leading to a distorted view regarding the developments in Ukraine.
The winter is coming. Ukraine has not been able to pay its debts to the Russian Federation and now has to deal with a considerable lack of gas supply. One local stated that, as a consequence, in many Ukrainian universities, classes are now taking place every day, including saturdays and sundays. Therefore, the students will have no classes the whole winter, a measure to compensate for the lack of gas. As the most renowned Ukrainian city with respect to science and education, this trend affects Kharkiv in particular.
It was time to reach the Russian-Ukrainian border. A bus driver refused to take me there, because the reason for me doing so
seemed too suspicious to him. Plan B: An expensive taxi ride takes me and a woman who needs to get to Belgorod, to the Russian-Ukrainian border. "You do know that there is a war going on here in
Ukraine, right?", the curious woman asked me. "Yes, but in Donetsk Oblast", I replied. On the one hand, travellers who come to Kharkiv in these times must seem suspicious to the locals here. On
the other hand, many of them must feel some kind of relief when travellers are around, hoping that normality is about to return back again in this city.
Once we arrived, I walked up to the soldier and explained to him the problem that I was confronted with on my way to Ukraine. He started checking the passport. He would spot the exit stamp from September 10th, the day when I officially left Russia. Then he would search for the Ukrainian entry stamp in vain. The soldier was thinking for a while. "This is not normal", he then said, before I explained my situation in more detail. After making sure that nobody else can hear us, he told me that he would have to take quite a risk for me. It was not hard to guess that he was up to something. "You want money", I interrupted. He stressed that such a situation is very unusual. Surprisingly, the young soldier was quite understandable once I mentioned the expensive taxi ride. He then refused to take any "extra fees" and made sure that I am no longer staying in Ukraine illegally. At least I thought that I was no longer staying in Ukraine illegally. For now it was only important that I kept my word towards the soldiers that I met in the train on my way from Dnipropetrovsk to Simferopol. Soon it was time to reach Kiev.
Back at the train station. Another look at the environment. And one more look at the sky, where birds are flying in V-formation,
in perfect accordance with the peaceful atmosphere here. Meanwhile, troops are forming further east.