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A weekend in Kharkiv: Beach, ping-pong, poetry jams, Russian bombs

2 weeks ago 15

KHARKIV, Ukraine — The beaming bride and groom posed in the street, kissing as cars wove around them.

No air raid sirens blared, but the backdrop was still war: boarded-up city hall to one side, a shop advertising the drones Ukrainian troops fly on the front lines to another.

When thousands of Russian forces poured into northeast Ukraine last month, it wasn’t clear whether the Kharkiv region could avoid reoccupation, or whether the country’s second-largest city — just 18 miles from the Russian border — would be safe for a wedding.

Rearmed with fresh supplies of weapons, and newly empowered by President Biden to strike targets on Russian soil, Ukraine’s military stalled the Russian ground assault. The relentless bombing, however, continues.

Fearing such attacks, at least 20 friends and relatives declined to attend the Friday afternoon wedding. Karima, 23, and Serhiy Kovalenko, 25, went ahead anyway. Serhiy — a contract soldier — is fighting on the southern front and had just 10 days off.

Despite the constant threat — Kharkiv is relishing the rituals of early summer. Seeking joy, residents say, is its own form of resistance against Russia. A Washington Post reporting team spent the weekend watching as the city and its people embraced life.

Friday afternoon — Music, not blasts

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In a windowless room on the second floor of the Kharkiv Opera House, Armen Kaloyan jumped up from his seat again and again, to correct his actors as they ran lines for “A Zaporozhian Beyond the Danube,” premiering Sunday in the theater.

Outside, air alerts blared and explosions sounded in the distance. Inside, Kaloyan rushed upstairs to the main stage to observe a ballet rehearsal.

That stage, protected by a thick fireproof curtain, has been closed since 2022. The basement theater, which opened this spring, allowed performances to resume.

“Kharkiv is going to stand,” Kaloyan said. “We’re unbreakable. We’re going to fight with what we are good at.”

An hour later, as Russia launched glide bombs on Ukrainian troops north of the city, dozens of people sat in the windowless basement theater as the singers — dressed in tuxedos and gowns — gave a Friday afternoon concert.

The Kharkiv Opera House opened a basement theater this spring allowing for music and dance performances even while fighting continues just north of the city. (Video: Serhiy Morgunov, Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Veronika Koval, 45, belted out an aria from the opera “Samson and Delilah” — her voice almost too big for the small room.

“It’s impossible to constantly listen to ‘boom, boom,’” Koval said afterward. “We also need to listen to music.”

Friday evening — Rites of passage

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In a bomb shelter, high school seniors — gold sashes slung across their chests — took selfies before their graduation. Inside, phones flashed with air raid alerts as students and teachers performed dance routines.

“We are the graduates of Kharkiv, the hero city!” the teenagers shouted from the underground stage. Parents cheered. Balloons sailed through the air.

Many students attended all of high school online — first because of the pandemic, then Russia’s invasion.

But for one night, in a brightly lit basement, they left that all behind.

A short drive away, a small crowd gathered to hear local band Alcohol Ukulele play a street show. The ukulele player, Anton Derbilov was missing. He was killed on the front line last year.

Students and soldiers came out for music and dancing to celebrate peaceful moments despite the ongoing war around them. (Video: Serhiy Morgunov, Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

The crowd swayed to the music, singing along. Among them was Derbilov’s widow, Kateryna, his daughter Oksana and several soldiers fresh from the nearby front line. Derbilov’s best friend, Oleksandr, 35, who fought alongside him for nearly a year, was also there, while on a short break from his unit’s position north of the city. Like most active-duty soldiers interviewed for the story, he spoke on the condition his last name not be used in accordance with military protocol.

“This is precisely what I’m fighting for,” he said. “For these peaceful moments.”

Soon after, the air raid alarm started again.

Saturday morning — War routines

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At 7 a.m., in a nearly empty park in Kharkiv, Serhii Preskornyk, 34, finished his daily run and dove into a freezing cold pool.

It was his 2,688th day running without a break. In the early days of the war, “every run was a risk,” he said. “And, in principle, this is still the case now.”

His own apartment has been badly damaged twice — first by an S-300 missile in January, then by a glide bomb last month.

Before the war, he used running to raise money for environmental causes. Now he donates all the proceeds to the military.

By midmorning, Pavlo Makov, 65, was sitting with a cup of coffee in the Yermilov Center in Kharkiv, an art gallery that now doubles as a bomb shelter. Makov is one of Ukraine’s most famous contemporary artists. He slept in the gallery at the start of the war, and now the space exhibits some of his signature works.

Although he tried to work from elsewhere in Europe during the war, he returned. To live away from home is “not life, it’s existence … which is not very interesting,” he said.

To avoid falling victim to Russian strikes, he applied protective film to his apartment and studio windows. “I don’t want to please them by my death,” he said.

Saturday afternoon — Quiet, then boom

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Kharkiv’s Maxim Gorky Central Park — which has been hit 70 times since 2022 — was nearly silent early Saturday afternoon. The park’s many amusement rides and sculptures are pockmarked from shrapnel.

Despite the few visitors, Mariia Zuieva, 58, still comes to work each day to clean the bathroom and feed the fish living in a tank inside. She takes sedatives to stay calm. Her son, who joined the military in 2022, is at home recovering after losing his leg in the battle for Bakhmut. “People are probably still afraid that there were a lot of hits in May, so that’s why it’s not so busy,” she said.

Shortly after, massive explosions rocked the city. A glide bomb landed smack in the middle of a busy street, burning all the cars waiting at a traffic light just a few yards away and destroying much of the building on the corner. A man’s body lay just outside. A woman’s lay near the main bus station across the street. Officials later said that two locations were bombed, killing three people and wounding more than 50, including children.

Volodymyr Pryshchepa, 46, jiggled his key in the back door of his furniture shop. Two hours earlier, he and his wife, Olena, 45, had closed early for lunch — probably saving their lives. The front of their shop was blown off in the blast. Almost everything inside the store, which had opened just days earlier, was destroyed.

Nearby, Kharkiv’s governor and mayor watched solemnly as workers sifted through the rubble searching for survivors. A rescue dog clambered through the collapsed building. Blood stained the sidewalks. Morgue workers wrapped a mutilated body in a foil blanket, placed it in a white bag and carried it into their van.

“Unfortunately this is a scene we’ve seen many times,” Gov. Oleh Syniehubov said. “It’s not correct to get used to this.”

An air alert siren blasted while Kharkiv residents went about daily routines: exercising at the park or clearing out buildings destroyed by Russia airstrikes. (Video: Serhiy Morgunov, Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

But Kharkiv residents have.

Blocks away, cafes and restaurant served drinks on patios. At the park where Preskornyk ran that morning, families gathered around a small pond to fish.

Saturday evening — No canceled plans

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Nataliia Fisun, 40, was on her way to the city with her son, Danylo, 11, when they heard the blasts. Her mother, Iryna, 68, rents fishing rods in the park and they hoped to meet her for the evening.

Fisun called and asked her what to do. “I told them to come,” Iryna said. The place was packed — no one else seemed to be canceling their plans. “It’s very loud here, we got used to it,” she said. “Even kids were not scared.”

Later that night — at a bar just a seven-minute drive from the afternoon blast site — more than 100 young people gathered outside, drinking Ukrainian cherry wine.

Andrii, 29, a new naval recruit, was among them — on a short break from training. “Everyone’s got the right to have a rest from what’s going on,” he said.

Sunday morning — Preserving rituals

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A group of regulars gathered around table tennis tables under the shade of leafy trees, gossiping as they ran back and forth after the balls.

Pavlo, 80, lives nearby and has played nearly every day since he was 15. Several Russian strikes on the park near his house, including one that destroyed two table tennis tables, haven’t deterred him. He asked that his last name not be used, though, for security reasons.

When sirens blared early Sunday morning, he didn’t blink. Two years ago, the sounds of blasts made his chest compress, he said. Now, “we just stopped feeling fear.”

At a nearby church, parishioners gathered to celebrate the Feast of Trinity. Yevhen Kulyk, 33, was there with his wife Taisiia, 27, and their children.

They are displaced from Vovchansk, a town north of Kharkiv that Russia tried to seize last month. Despite the constant threat of glide bombs, Yevhen still farms nearby.

Attending church “brings us together,” Taisiia said. “Like when people say, ‘Kharkivians, hold on.’ What should we hold on to? I believe we should hold on to our faith because it's something that can't be taken from us.”

Sunday afternoon — Beach, then bombs

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The cool morning gave way to sticky afternoon heat. Seeking relief, dozens of locals headed to a popular lakeside beach in the city’s Saltivka neighborhood, which was heavily bombed in 2022.

Albina Nekhaieva, 28, who is six months pregnant, was there with her dad, Oleksii Toysa, 48. The day before, he was at a traffic light when a glide bomb landed nearby. He was unharmed and rushed to the scene. “People were covered with blood. … I heard kids screaming,” he said. “This is insanity.”

He worries for his daughter, but she is determined to give birth in the city where she lives. “Kharkiv is my home,” she said. “I don’t want to leave.”

Two hours later, more glide bombs hit. One destroyed two private homes, another struck a school. The shock waves knocked out all the windows in a neighboring apartment building. One person was killed and a dozen wounded.

Valerii Volkov, 54, was just returning home from a stroll when the first blast hit. He ran into his building and the next explosion sent the heavy metal door slamming into his forehead.

Upstairs, on the eighth floor, Dasha Smirnova, 26, and her husband, Ihor, 31, sheltered in the hallway as their windows shattered.

They planned to sleep at a friend’s house that night, then maybe move out of Kharkiv for a while. “Kharkiv is the best city in the world. I want to live here all my life,” she said. “But you can see it’s really difficult.”

Sunday evening — Powering on

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On a warm evening Ivan Senin, 30, performed poetry at a concert in Kharkiv, Ukraine, to raise money for the military. (Video: Serhiy Morgunov, Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

An hour later, Ivan Senin, 30, took the stage in a small performance hall in Kharkiv just a 12-minute drive away. The poetry jam and concert was planned to raise money for the military — then nearly canceled when the afternoon attacks knocked power out across the city.

Just after the strikes, Senin said, he passed by the central park on his way to the jam. “It looked peaceful,” he said.

“It’s not normal,” he added. But neither is life in Kharkiv. Instead, it “is some kind of surrealism.”

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