Kharkiv’s activists in Ukraine

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Kharkiv’s activists in Ukraine

Without activists, the war might be very different for Ukraine, writes Jen Stout.


Kharkiv’s musicians came together in a secret underground studio for a fundraising gig, to help the city’s defences. JEN STOUT

Kharkiv is just over 30 kilometres from Russia in northeast Ukraine. Russia has shelled Kharkiv since the first hours of the invasion. Whole streets are destroyed, in ruins. Whole residential districts are burnt out.

But deep in a secret bunker under the city, Kharkiv’s best musicians and writers livestream a concert from their studio. The atmosphere is lively and happy, with a strong feeling of solidarity and purpose. This gig is just one small part of the work to crowdfund for the army.

Oleg and his teenage son Maksim are enjoying the show. Oleg, in normal times, is a judge. Now he’s a volunteer in the civil defence. On their army clothes, they both wear a patch. It reads ‘MRIYA’ and has a picture of a big white plane: their Kyiv battalion is named in honour of the world’s biggest cargo plane. The Russian army destroyed it in late February 2022. In Ukrainian mriya means ‘dream’. It is about Ukraine’s dream of freedom, Oleg says.

The patches are attractive and colourful. The patches for the Kharkiv’s battalion show the wonderful 1920s ‘Derzhprom’ building. It escaped with just broken windows when rockets hit the central square on 1 March.

A thin, quiet young man says with pride that he designed this patch. He is responsible for many of the most popular pro-Ukraine posters and patches. ‘This is my part in the war,’ he says, ‘my battleground’.

In another part of the city, the volunteer work continues with great speed. A trendy cafe is a centre for aid, each room is full of sacks of rice and sugar. There are piles of babies’ nappies up to the ceiling and there are always volunteers and cars coming and going. The big problem is fuel, as it is all over Ukraine. Bombs destroy fuel depots and supplies can’t get in.

Ivanna Skyba-Yakubova is in her thirties. Like many people of her age, she has been helping the army and humanitarian efforts since Russia annexed Crimea and the war began in 2014. But now this is her life. I meet her at Kharkiv’s main fire station, a beautiful 1980s building full of Soviet wall art and marble. It’s a big day. They are finally delivering the newest equipment needed to find survivors under rubble. Rescuers have been trying to work without this equipment for two and a half months, while Ivanna and her friends tried hard to find it.

Through their charity, Kharkiv With You, they found a supplier of the equipment. It is arriving this rainy morning from the US, via Finland, and costs more than $10,000. Is it right that these very tired volunteers are doing the work of finding the equipment for the emergency services and the army and not the state?

‘No state in the world could be ready for the problems we’re facing now,’ Ivanna says. ‘Of course, there are things we still need – our job is to find them. We are the state, too.’

People like Ivanna have been building this big network of activists since the Maidan revolution in 2014. Without the activists, this war might be very different.


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)