Despite its location in Ukraine’s eastern borderlands a mere stone’s throw away from Russia, Kharkiv has consistently played a central role in the Ukrainian nation-building experience. For centuries during the Cossack and tsarist eras, the city served as a hub of Ukrainian intellectual and cultural life. Kharkiv was briefly the capital of Soviet Ukraine in the 1920s to the early 1930s, a period that witnessed first the resurgence and then the destruction of Ukrainian cultural self-assertiveness.
More recently, Kharkiv resisted Kremlin attempts in the spring of 2014 to claim the city for the so-called “Russkiy Mir” or “Russian World”, thus avoiding the fate of other major east Ukrainian cities and saving Ukraine from the catastrophe of partition. This heritage places Kharkiv at the very heart of Ukraine’s national story and makes a mockery of efforts to divide the country neatly into pro-European west and pro-Russian east.
Historically speaking, Kharkiv is a relatively new city by both Ukrainian and European standards. Traces of ancient settlements dating back to the second millennium BC are evident in the vicinity of today’s city, but until relatedly recently the region remained largely characterized by wild steppe. From the beginning of the seventeenth century onwards, Muscovy gradually began to extend control over what is now the Kharkiv region, creating a defensive frontier line against the Tatars to the south. The region attracted Ukrainian Cossack settlers and refugees from conflict-ridden areas within Ukraine’s Hetman state on the nearby right bank of the Dnipro River. These communities often formed themselves into villages of freemen, the so-called “slobody”, from which the region’s traditional name “Slobidska Ukraine” arose.
The first major Cossack settlement on the site of today’s Kharkiv dates from the middle of the seventeenth century. By 1655, it had attracted about 2,000 inhabitants. As Muscovy gained in imperial importance under Tsar Peter the Great and his successors, the town remained the capital of the Kharkiv regiment, the principal administrative and Cossack military unit in Slobidska Ukraine. Russia eventually abolished the Cossack regimental system in 1765 as St. Petersburg sought to consolidate its imperial grip on Ukraine, leaving Kharkiv to become a regional capital of the tsarist empire. The region’s Ukrainian Cossack nobility was absorbed into the Russian governing class while the ordinary Cossacks found themselves reduced from free peasants to the status of serfs.
Cradle of Ukrainian Identity
The early nineteenth century saw the foundation of Kharkiv University and the beginnings of the city’s reputation as a center of academic excellence. This stimulated the development of learning and cultural life in Kharkiv. Rather unexpectedly for the Russian authorities, it would also play a crucial role in the emergence of a modern Ukrainian national consciousness. Despite the considerable constraints imposed by the Russian imperial authorities on the development of a separate and distinct Ukrainian national identity, Kharkiv in the early 1800s became the driving force behind a Ukrainian cultural awakening. Kharkiv is where many of the most pioneering Ukrainian scholarly and linguistic works appeared along with the first periodicals, newspapers, journals, and almanacs in the Ukrainian language.
Famous Ukrainian cultural figures associated with the city during this period include the writer Hryhorii Kvitka-Osnovianenko, composer Petro Hulak Artemovsky, literary scholar Izamail Sreznevsky, poets Mykhailo Petrenko and Amrosiy Metlynsky, and other members of the Kharkiv Romantic School. One of them, the historian Mykola Kostomarov, became the ideologue of the first modern Ukrainian political organization, the Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius, founded in Kyiv in the mid-1840s. He went on to suffer arrest, imprisonment and exile along with Ukraine’s national bard Taras Shevchenko.
The arts also thrived alongside literature. The first professional Ukrainian theatre appeared in Kharkiv in 1789 and the development of Ukrainian theatre is still closely associated with the city. Throughout the nineteenth century, Kharkiv had a vibrant art school whose representatives displayed a distinct interest in Ukrainian themes. These Kharkiv artists included Serhii Vasylkivsky (famous for his Cossack paintings), and the renowned impressionists Mykhailo Tkachenko and Mykhailo Berkos. Kharkiv was also the birthplace of Ukrainian cinema in the 1890s, which began with the short documentaries of Alfred Fedetsky.
Capital of Bolshevik Ukraine
At the dawn of the tumultuous twentieth century, Kharkiv was an increasingly industrialized and Russified city that was home to a growing socialist movement, but it also retained its prominent Ukrainian dimension. Kharkiv’s Ukrainian intelligentsia engaged in all manner of patriotic activity exemplified by scholars and literary figures such as Dmyto Bahaliy, Dmytro Yavornytsky, Pavlo Hrabovsky and Borys Hrinchenko, the compiler of the first Ukrainian dictionary. In 1900, Kharkiv lawyer Mykola Mikhnovsky became the first person to issue a political program for the creation of an independent Ukraine. This led to the founding of the Revolutionary Ukrainian Party, the first political party to appear in Russian-ruled Ukraine.
After the collapse of the Russian empire in 1917, Ukrainian activists in Kharkiv attempted to link up with the Central Rada in Kyiv and combine efforts to establish an independent Ukrainian state. This statehood bid was ultimately to prove unsuccessful. In December 1917, the Bolsheviks took control of Kharkiv and the city became a focus of early Soviet efforts to reassert Moscow’s authority over Ukraine. The subsequent struggle between Ukrainian, Bolshevik and White forces continued until the early 1920s when the Bolsheviks finally emerged victorious. In a snub to the independence ambitions of Kyiv, they declared Kharkiv the capital of Soviet Ukraine.
Rise and Fall of a Ukrainian Renaissance
Before his death in 1923, Lenin realized that in order to consolidate Soviet rule over the non-Russian territories of the empire, it was necessary to reach a temporary accommodation with the large non-Russian populations that now found themselves under Communist rule. This led to the relatively liberal New Economic Policy (NEP) and a more conciliatory approach towards the national languages and cultures of the non-Russians designed as a means of soft Sovietization. This policy of “indigenization” or “Ukrainization” was to have a particularly profound impact on the newly anointed capital of Soviet Ukraine.
With the official switch to the use of Ukrainian in education and public life, a new Ukrainian cultural renaissance took hold. A dynamic Ukrainian intellectual community soon emerged with Kharkiv at its center, bringing with it a veritable explosion of creativity and sparking unprecedented public debate. In the literary and theatrical spheres, the writer Valerian Pidmohilny, the theatre director Les Kurbas, and the playwright Mykhailo Kulish spearheaded efforts to create a modern Ukrainian urban culture.
Interestingly, it was in this eastern Ukrainian city that Ukraine’s historical links with Europe and the country’s European cultural orientation now entered the cultural mainstream. One of the leading Ukrainian communist writers of the time Mykola Khvylovy advanced the cultural slogan “Away from Moscow.” Meanwhile, senior local communist officials such as Mykola Skrypnyk and Oleksandr Shumsky along with economist Mykhailo Volobuyev and Marxist historian Matviy Yavorsky all tested the practical limits of Soviet Ukraine’s proclaimed “sovereign” and “equal” status for Ukraine within the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
The national assertiveness released by official support for Ukrainization eventually drew the ire and concern of Stalin and the central authorities in Moscow. When they abandoned NEP in favor of immediate industrialization and collectivization in the late 1920s, they also reversed their nationalities policy. While subduing the peasantry, they began purging Ukraine’s non-Russian elites. In 1930, one of the first major Stalinist show trials took place in Kharkiv. The case of the so-called Union for the Liberation of Ukraine targeted those who had supported attempts to establish an independent Ukrainian state in 1917-20. During the following years, the purges carried out against the Ukrainian political, cultural and religious elite amounted to the decapitation of the Ukrainian nation. These efforts took place in parallel with a Soviet campaign to crush the Ukrainian peasantry. Millions of Ukrainians starved to death during the deliberately engineered Holodomor famine of 1932-33, a crime now widely recognized as an act of genocide by the Soviet authorities against the Ukrainian nation.
In 1933, in a desperate act of protest against the ruthless liquidation of Ukraine’s modern renaissance and the genocide of its people, Skrypnyk and Khvylovy both committed suicide. One year later, the Communist authorities in Moscow decided to move the capital of Soviet Ukraine from Kharkiv to Kyiv. This was widely interpreted as the complete repudiation of Ukraine’s experiment with national communism.
Rejecting a Russian Reunion
Opportunities to reaffirm Kharkiv’s Ukrainian heritage were severely limited for the remainder of the Soviet era. Instead, the city became an increasingly Russified metropolis, serving as one of the great industrial and academic capitals of the entire Soviet empire. Nevertheless, when Gorbachev relaxed political controls in the late 1980s, Kharkiv not only supported democratization but also embraced the resurgent Ukrainian independence movement. In the Ukrainian national referendum held in December 1991, an overwhelming 86.3% of Kharkiv voters supported Ukraine’s declaration of independence.
The most recent challenge to Kharkiv’s Ukrainian credentials came during the tumultuous months of late 2013 and early 2014 when political unrest in Kyiv unseated a pro-Kremlin government and sparked Russian military intervention. Despite the pro-Russian stance adopted by key Kharkiv officials during the Euromaidan Revolution, the city withstood a serious test of its loyalties when an attempted takeover by pro-Russian forces in March and April 2014 fell flat. This rejection of the Kremlin’s clarion call was to prove decisive in derailing Putin’s dreams of a new Ukrainian empire. It also underlined Kharkiv’s historic status as a bastion of Ukraine’s statehood aspirations.
Today the city remains a highly cosmopolitan and predominantly Russian-speaking place with strong ties to the tsarist and Soviet epochs. A vast metropolis of over one and a half million people, it defies definition in simplistic black and white terms. Nevertheless, the events of 2014 served as a timely reminder that Kharkiv has always occupied a central role in Ukraine’s nation-building narrative and will continue to do so.
About the author: Bohdan Nahaylo is a British-Ukrainian journalist, historian and veteran Ukraine watcher