KHARKIV: People gather outside a cafe during a blackout following Russian attacks on a city's energy infrastructure in Kharkiv, on April 8, 2024. — AFP
KHARKIV: People gather outside a cafe during a blackout following Russian attacks on a city's energy infrastructure in Kharkiv, on April 8, 2024. — AFP

Kharkiv’s Gen Z strive for ‘normal life’ to spite Russia

KHARKIV: Kristina Shapovalova stood in a crowd outside a cafe, its storefront shining a rare light amid a blackout in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. Wearing trendy black-framed glasses, Shapovalova spoke about the mounting Russian attacks on the city with fatalism and defiance. “You have to accept that if you stand in the street, you might die,” the 25-year-old told AFP. “But we basically live as full a life as in London,” she added, house music pumping in the background.

Russian forces, just 40 kilometers (25 miles) away, have bombarded the northeastern city almost daily for the past two years. But many young people told AFP they had chosen to stay in Kharkiv to keep it alive as a sign of resistance against Moscow. The struggle to maintain a semblance of normal life demonstrates the motivations and hardships facing Ukrainians living in the shadow of Russian weapons. Last month a Russian strike caused a complete power outage in the city and there have been more since.

‘Like an alarm clock’

Shapovalova and her friend Polina Kaganovska took advantage of the cafe’s power before the city’s 11:00 pm curfew. “My friends and I try to get out of the house as much as possible because most of the time we have no light and no electricity,” said 23-year-old Kaganovska.

She said places like the cafe, equipped with generators, were vital. “You can charge your phone and spend time with friends — in the light of day or the light of lamps.” No one in the young crowd flinched at any of the three air sirens that rang out in less than an hour. “It doesn’t change anything. It’s just like an alarm clock,” said Shapovalova. Russia has escalated attacks on Kharkiv in recent weeks. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has urged allies to supply air defense systems for the city. It takes a rocket just 30 to 40 seconds to hit Kharkiv, the State Emergency Service told AFP. That means incoming projectiles can hit before the siren rings out, giving residents little chance of reaching a shelter.

‘Carry the culture’

More than two years into the war, many now ignore the warnings, despite official recommendations. “You have rockets flying by ... but cafes are full, we all have internet, we’re all connected,” said 34-year-old Oleg Khromov. Khromov co-founded the Protagonist bar, one of the first to reopen after the Russian invasion. On a weekday afternoon, the bar was packed with clients enjoying the sun shining through the floor-to-ceiling bay windows.

Many chatted, working on their laptops or taking internet calls in front of the cafe’s concrete beams. Khromov regretted that much of the cultural elite in the city — known as an intellectual bastion because of its writers and universities — had left for Kyiv or Europe. “The small numbers who decided to stay had to carry the city’s culture on their shoulders,” he said. Russia partially blockaded the city after it invaded in February 2022, but Ukrainian forces had prevailed by May 2022.

The battle turned Kharkiv into a symbol of resistance. “Kharkiv is a city of heroes that nevertheless continues to showcase its culture,” said theatre student Andriy Panchishko. The 24-year-old spoke from the basements of the Kharkiv State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre, where rehearsals and shows now take place. 

Panchishko was enjoying being back on stage after a year of distance learning. “I came but many students are afraid to go study in Kharkiv in person,” Panchishko said.

Maria Bella Beigel, who organizes events for young people at the regional center, said most of her friends were abroad. But she chose to come back to Kharkiv. “Yes our city is under shelling, but it’s important to stay here and keep our youth together,” the 19-year-old said. “You need motivation, you need that energy, and I see that as a mission,” she said. “It gives me energy to get up in the morning, even when there is shelling and a blackout.” — AFP

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