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Kharkiv Diary
View of Kharkiv's Assumption Cathedral, 19th century

Kharkiv Diary

A twenty-three-year-old art history student records how Russia’s war descended on his hometown.

Yakov S.

It is 5:30 in the morning on February 24, and war has broken out in my city and country. I wake up to a phone call from my friend. His voice is convulsive; he is shouting. The war has started, he says. We’re leaving. You have to leave, too. Run.

My first thought: Where are my parents? I rush out of my house to look for them.

The war actually started around 2:00 in the morning. My parents, when I find them, believe everything will be fine. They live in the highest area of the city; you can watch almost everything from their windows. For months, I’ve been able to see the sadness, fear, and despair washing over us. But now the war has arrived. Its terror has hit our hometown of Kharkiv.

I am a Jew—by nationality, as we used to think of it under the Soviets. We still have my grandmother’s wedding veil from her marriage near Poltava at the end of the 19th century. But my great-grandmother was a Cossack who spoke Ukrainian. I was not a Ukrainian patriot; I never understood people who would shout, “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!” I thought they were just trying to sell the country to Europe and America. But I was a local patriot—of Kharkiv. And I feel that patriotism starting to wash over me.

As I read the news, I get more and more worried. The attack is coming from all sides—the separatist-controlled territory of Donbas, the pro-Putin Belarus, the previously Russian-seized Crimea. There are air strikes on all the regional centers. People are starting to rush toward Poland by car and train. Borders are closing. Some have managed to flee, but many don’t have time. Others have decided to join the fight. Some are hiding. Panic is spreading

Friends and relatives gather at our house. Around 11:00 a.m. we walk to the bomb shelter in the city center. The country is surrounded by war.

The government confidently says we are repelling the invaders. We will fight. I didn’t think such valor and will existed in the world any longer. I thought the real heroes were gone decades ago, the heroes of the Second World War posthumously awarded medals for defending the country from the Germans.

As in 1941, without a declaration of war, the fascists are attacking our country. And the most terrible thing, what breaks the heart, is that we are attacked by those who fought with us. Who have always been with us, our brothers, our people. The southeast of Ukraine has always been filled with our brothers, yes, brothers; we have always been one people with the Russians. And now they are rapidly and confidently bombing our city.

They start with strategic objects. They are getting closer to the city. Our military is giving a strong rebuff to the Russians. The Armed Forces of Ukraine are working, our tanks are coming. I’ve always been merciful. Now there is no mercy in me. They came to kill us. On Russian television they say that we attacked them! It brings tears to our children and anger to our military.

Today is February 26, day three in the bomb shelter. I have anger, hatred. They came to kill and they will be killed. To quote the classic, “Whoever comes to us with the sword, from the sword they will leave.” Because of the bombing every day, there is no way to get out. We just go outside for a cigarette break, or just to breathe outside air. And the most important thing is to watch the news, to find out from loved ones whether they are alive and healthy.

Our grandparents are old; they refuse to come to the bomb shelter. Many Kharkiv residents hide in basements. One’s heart doesn’t slow down, not for a single minute. We get out of here just to find out the news and check on loved ones. Sitting here with only thoughts, I wish I could go out and not hear the bad news.

As the war began, I called my ex-girlfriend, saying whatever had happened to us, whatever happens next, I still love you. I ask her to take care of herself.

The regional administration building is now the military headquarters. Sometimes you want to believe that it’s just a dream. My St. Petersburg relative says the same thing. He says that all the people there are terrified. They are Russian intellectuals; they have different opinions, like many Russian stars who are shocked by Putin’s war against his own people.

Tell us, modern Hitler, what wrong have we done to you? What kind of Nazis are you talking about here in Ukraine? There’s nothing like that here. We defend our country; we love every citizen of our country. Be damned. I hate you. I hate everyone who comes to us with war. I pray to God to save my family, our country. I believe in the mothers of those soldiers whom this devil sends to die in our country. I hope these mothers will have their say about these military men who fought alongside ours in Afghanistan.

I believe in those people who are ready to go to the squares of Russia to say no to war. They come out into the squares of Europe and America. And they say “no to war.” And those who now burn Russian passports.

I believe in our victory. God bless our soldiers. From the news and stories of loved ones, the war is going on throughout the border regions, as well as air strikes throughout the country. Air strikes are under way in all districts of Kharkiv. The modern Hitler says that we are saving Ukraine, we do not touch residential areas; but these creatures shoot at all residential areas. They go to our homes, to the roads. Rockets stick out of the asphalt.

Thousands of Russian soldiers are dying, more than died in the two Chechen wars. I feel sorry for these young guys who are dying. But they came to kill; in the end we will kill them.

We sit in the bomb shelter. We believe in the end of the war, in our victory. I’m waiting for the moment when I can get into private bakeries to help bake bread for our military and prepare their meals. I hope to replenish my bank account soon to transfer money to those in need. My work has stopped. I do not earn anything now.

I am twenty-three years old. Since the age of sixteen, I have been engaged with Russian art. I write about our pre-revolutionary artists. Today, I have become a little disgusted by the very word “Russian.” I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Now I think about one thing: life and health, loved ones and our soldiers.

A peaceful sky is overhead. I am reminded of Shevchenko’s words in Ukrainian: “Utni, father, gray eagle! Let me cry. Let me see my Ukraine one more time!” The troops are very close to our city, they are close to our capital—Kyiv, hold on. I believe in our president. I see that he is not running away, as Putin would have him run away. I believe in our citizens and our soldiers, true heroes. I believe in the guy who sacrificed his life; so that the Russian troops would not go further, he blew up a bridge.

I believe in God. I believe in the people who died in these first three days, who will complain to God for us. I remember a child wounded in Yugoslavia, a small wounded child with a torn stomach: “I will soon meet with God, I will complain to him about you, I will tell him everything.”

I am proud to say, “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!”

Now, with all the isolation of Russia by the international community and the help of weapons provided to our country, I believe we will survive.

Incredible events are sweeping our city. On March 1, the bombing of Kharkiv’s center began. Air strikes hit the administration building for the Kharkiv region, a beautiful structure in the style of the Stalinist empire. Then, other hits on pre-revolutionary buildings and on the city council, an old building that even Hitler left alone.

On March 1, we are at home. Almost all of us have health problems. Fear and stress hit not only our souls but our ears. Shock waves shatter the windows, shuddering after the air strikes.

On March 2, Russian fascist troops and fighters bomb the city. They are trying to destroy the infrastructure, but they are also bombing residential areas. They are demolishing houses, smashing apartments. My friends and loved ones run out of their homes. Their apartments turn to ashes. People’s bodies turn to earth.

It’s tears; it’s pain, incredible pain. No one would think that they could destroy Kharkiv, a cultural city, a city of students and scientists, the city where Repin was born, where Landau lived. If the war ends, can we forgive the Russians for it? No, we can’t. You can’t forgive. This is a genocide of the Ukrainian population, like the Holocaust during World War II. It is now genocide.

On the night of March 3 we are in a bomb shelter, me and my brothers, walking through the tunnel to the nearby subway station. For many days we have been helping people. We carry medicines and food to our citizens.

There are not enough medicines.

On March 4, we make the decision to leave the city early in the morning. Part of our family goes with us; some remain. My father stays; I can’t persuade him. A sick grandfather remains as well. I can hardly bear it.

They don’t want to go. They want to stay where their ancestors are buried. Souls hurt. Our decision to leave the city is due to the fact that the city is already badly destroyed. Hope here is lost. It was clear to everyone from the very beginning that the Russian army was much larger and stronger than ours, but we believed in the help of our allies. And today? Sanctions? Do we need sanctions? Or do we need our lives?

We need peace, not dying children, mothers, and valiant soldiers. Our people have inadvertently entered the game of large nations, but we just want to live.

On March 4, we drive through central regions of the country. We leave the city as expatriates once left the country in 1917. They knew they were going forever. When they said goodbye, they left pieces of their souls here.

We still hope that one day we can return, and together we will restore our city. I do not know how you can help; prayer and words are the best help now.

We’re moving west. You can write something based on the events I’ve described. You can cross out any personal snippets. You can leave my name, as you wish. It is all written with tears. Do you think there is a chance for me to fly to America as a refugee?

I won’t know where to live. Can I get citizenship? Peace to your home and family.

Yakov S., from Kharkiv, is currently sheltering in Lviv with medical conditions.

Image: U.S. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ppmsc.03790. Author and copyright unknown. Public Domain,