Kharkiv: a city on the frontline of anti-imperialist struggle

by Colin Turbett

As I write this, just a few weeks after my visit to Kharkiv, the city is again under serious direct attack by Russian ground forces backed by air strikes and ground-launched missiles. This was not unexpected, but nonetheless leaves me shocked and sad on a basic human level.

I had been planning to go to Kharkiv for some time with the hope of meeting trade union colleagues and seeing how welfare services are coping. I did not realise that mine was the first such visit to this area from the UK, and the result was a very busy schedule and meetings with people at all levels. This was greatly facilitated by a friend in Kharkiv who I knew prior to the full-scale invasion, and trade union contacts in the two principal trade union umbrella organisations: the FPU (Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine) and KVPU (Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine).

The Ukraine Solidarity Campaign (USC) have been successfully building solidarity with left and trade union activists in Ukraine. This has been bolstered over the past year through the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign Scotland (USCS). Arguments are now being won and the “abstract peace” — but effectively pro-Putin — appeal of some on the left across the UK is being eroded.

In Kharkiv I met trade union officials and activists in a number of workplaces, in both private and public sectors. Their activities have been curtailed by the martial law decrees announced early in the war, but this is generally accepted. Whilst they have been able to negotiate financial and conditions of service improvements in a few sectors, their main emphasis is on supporting members affected by the war — the dependants of serving soldiers and those who have had to flee their homes, sometimes with only what they were standing up in.

Many workplaces in Kharkiv have been destroyed; that includes the sports academy where the regional president of the KVPU, Igor Prihodko, works (pictured above). Just two weeks before my visit, several targeted missiles had destroyed one building and gravely damaged the others — pointless militarily and nothing less than an act of terror, like others that seem designed to demoralise the population of the city.

The building’s students left when the Russians appeared at the start of the war and, as with most education in Kharkiv, including all the universities, students are being taught online, or underground. Trade unions are also educating their members about the type of society they want to emerge from the war — they are aware of the neoliberal threat, as well as the need to end the corruption that has featured in Ukraine since the fall of the USSR.

Pictured: Colin (right) with Ivanna Khrapko, FPU youth secretary (left), in her office.

I also met a number of inspiring community activists — what journalist and regular Kharkiv reporter, Jen Stout, describes as the beating heart of the city. With few resources they help support the region’s 120,000+ refugees (a figure that will have risen greatly in the last few days) and more vulnerable communities.

Street Culture supply donated clothes, toiletries and food, including taking it out to a village on the frontline of active fighting to the south of the region. With funds raised through the crowdfunder that preceded my trip, I took two volunteers shopping and we spent £300 on items that were desperately needed.

Spectrum Kharkiv, whose representative Vasily Malikov I met with, support Kharkiv’s LGBTQ+ community — difficult at a time when individual rights have been marginalised as a consequence of the war. I was able to link them with UNISON Scotland’s LGBT+ committee and a lasting relationship will hopefully follow.

Kharkiv was nearly taken in the February to April period of 2022, but the Russian forces, told they would be greeted by the Russian-speaking majority as liberators, were met with fierce resistance and thrown back to their border.

I visited the village of Prudyanka, a few kilometres from Russia, with my friend Valentina Kudinova, whose father lived there until recently.

Pictured: The Soviet war memorial in Prudyanka. (Photo: Colin Turbett)

Once a thriving dormitory community of 2,000, the damage and destruction in the fighting have reduced Prudyanka to 200 people trying to rebuild their homes and lives — many too old and vulnerable to move. Lying about their gardens were the cases of the Grad missiles launched indiscriminately by the Russians. Valentina’s cousin Natasha was a teacher in the village school, still lying in ruins and now teaching her scattered pupils online from a flat in Kharkiv, her home being uninhabitable.

The residents of the village, like many others I met, have family over the border and just could not understand the reasons why the invaders came to destroy their lives in the name of freeing them from Nazis. In the centre of the village lies a Soviet war memorial with the names of dozens of men and women from the village who died fighting whilst serving with the Red Army in the Second World War. A shell that landed nearby had damaged the motherland statue that stood there — taking out a slice of stone where the heart might have been.

Walking about Kharkiv you could imagine yourself in any European city. People are shopping, children play together in the parks, and municipal workers keep the streets spotlessly clean. Within seconds though, reality hits you — the damaged and burned-out buildings everywhere, the constant wail of air raid sirens, the power cuts and accompanying hum of generators, and the all-too-regular explosions.

Talk to people and they are full of humour, grace and gratitude for your interest in their lives. They all exude fear for the future and ask for our solidarity and help — principally arms for their defenders, and aid to help them get back on their feet after the victory. Everyone believes in that because, I was told, it was all they could hold onto.

Few speak the language or share the symbols we traditionally associate with anti-imperialism, a consequence of the legacy of Soviet-era oppression, but they are in the frontline of the struggle we too believe in, and as such are our allies and friends.

  • Colin Turbett will speak further about his visit to Kharkiv in a webinar hosted by Common Weal on Wednesday 22nd May, 7pm-8.30pm. You can register for tickets on Eventbrite.


Colin Turbett is a UNISON activist, author, former member of the Scottish Socialist Party and internationalist.

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