Derzhprom building in Kharkiv

After All: Ukraine’s industrial capital made a new Stalingrad by invaders

Image credit: Dreamstime

Our columnist mourns the destruction of Kharkiv – his native Ukrainian city, which has fallen victim to the unjustified and unprovoked Russian aggression.

After a weak anaesthetic of fitful sleep, the nightmare returns every morning at the press of a DAB radio button. Something deep inside me resists, for it is probably better not to be aware of the dreadful reality that appeared entirely impossible only a couple weeks ago. But not knowing would mean guessing and wondering who else of my friends could have been killed, what other relic of my past had been bombed out of existence, what other blood-oozing morsels had been torn out of Ukraine’s tired heart? And of my own heart too.

“Kharkiv is no more,” an old friend muttered into her phone, having peeped one morning out of the basement where she had been hiding with her husband for over a week. And my exhausted brain immediately made a terrifying connection: “Kharkiv, no more – my birthplace, no more – my childhood, no more – myself, no more...” A shortcut to deep depression, caused by the sheer inability to change the tragic course of events.

I look at the words I’ve written, trying to convince myself that to write about Ukraine’s torment is my duty. By remembering, we bring back to life the people, the events and the buildings that are no more. It is like in Schrodinger’s Cat theory: for as long as we keep picturing them alive, they are not quite dead yet.

Rest assured that I am not trying to orchestrate this column – the very first piece of writing I was able to squeeze out of myself since the war began. In actual fact, I am not even writing it in the normal creative sense, but simply putting words on paper as they come.

To me, one of the biggest blows of the continuing Russian aggression was the capture by the invaders of the Ukrainian Physico-Technical Institute (UFTI), where my late father, Vladimir Alexandrovich – a particle physicist – worked as a senior research fellow for most of his life, from the early 1950s up to his untimely death in 1982.

The Institute, founded in October 1928 and with a small nuclear reactor of its own, where the nucleus was split for the first time in 1932 and type-II superconductivity was experimentally discovered, is located in the Kharkiv suburban village with the nice-sounding Ukrainian name of Piatykhatky (‘five huts’). As a child, I was a frequent visitor: for New Year dos, organised annually for the scientists’ kids, or simply to see my dad. It was there that I saw a giant first-generation computer, proudly demonstrated to me by my father on the New Year’s Eve of 1961 or 1962.

“Do ask the machine a question!” my father suggested with a smile.

Aged seven, the only thing I could think of was: “Can you ask the machine how much two plus two is?”

My dad typed that unsophisticated query on a piece of yellow perforated cardboard, which he inserted into the mechanical monster that occupied several large rooms, and pressed a green button. All hell broke loose: coloured lights started blinking as the ‘monster’ shook and vibrated violently while emitting loud guttural noises: rattling, squeaking and, as I thought then, about ready to explode. I covered my ears and closed my eyes.

The racket suddenly stopped, the lights went out – and the dinosaur of the PC epoch spat out a small piece of perforated paper. My dad picked it up from the floor and showed to me. There was just one pale number printed on it – ‘4’.

To say that I was stunned would be an understatement. I knew I was going to remember that moment for as long as I lived. And I was right, even if I didn’t realise then that the machine had made a mistake: in our abnormal world, where 60 years on Ukraine was to be invaded by Russia, two and two would make anything but four. But then, in 1961/62, it would have then been easier to believe the Earth was flat and rested on five (as in ‘two plus two’) giant turtles.

Among the world-famous scientists who worked at the Institute was Lev Davidovich Landau (1908-1968), ‘Dau’ to his colleagues, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics – a legendary figure who recently found himself in the middle not of the bloody and purposeless Russian invasion of Ukraine, but centre of the monumental DAU filming project by Russian director Ylya Khrzhanovsky. The bulk of filming took place at a specially engineered life-size model of the original UFTI campus on the grounds of the Kharkiv Dynamo stadium, next to which I used to live.

The film set included (but wasn’t limited to) a life-size replica of the whole of the 1930s-1960s Physico-Technical Institute campus, which included fully functioning technological and scientific equipment: transformers, energy generators, the very particle accelerator on which my father used to work (then the largest in Europe), first-generation TVs and computers, and so on.

As if the Russian filmmakers knew that the natural set had only a few years left to live before succumbing to the Russian bomb makers...  

The area of the Dynamo stadium has now been destroyed by the Russian bombs, alongside the very heart of my native city – the hub of Ukrainian science and industry: Freedom (formerly Dzerzhinsky) Square. A Russian Grad missile hit the Stalinist edifice of the former ‘obkom’ – the regional communist party committee, now the City Hall. My university nearby was also targeted, as well as the Unesco-listed Gosprom (‘State Industry’) building – the Constructivist masterpiece. Significantly, Gosprom came through World War Two intact, despite repeated attempts by the Nazis (the real German Nazis, not the Putin-invented Ukrainian ones) to blow it up. (After failing to do so, the Nazis kept animals in its towers.)

From what I have been told, Gosprom is still standing – towering above the ruins of Freedom Square, whose skyline these days echoes no music, apart perhaps from a Chopin march – just like the rest of my beautiful native city that has already earned itself the title of the ‘21st-century Stalingrad’.

I do try to believe, however, that in the long term – just like with my dad’s Institute – Kharkiv’s complete replica will be built. That replica will be much more beautiful than the ‘original’, mercilessly destroyed by the invaders.

It is only then that the world will return to normality and two plus two will be four again.

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