‘This is our land and I’ve no other option than to fight for it’: The bar manager, the IT expert and the army of Ukrainian mums readying to go to war with Putin
Maksym Bilyk is a young man who thinks carefully before speaking, works with computers and has never fired a gun in his life after avoiding national service in the military due to a stomach ulcer.
But the 26-year-old, who lives in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, responds instantly when I ask how he might act if there is an invasion of his country by the huge numbers of Russian tanks and troops massing over the border less than 30 miles away.
‘I would take up arms and go to the battlefield without slightest hesitation,’ he said. ‘No one wants to fight but if there is aggression against us, we must fight back.’
Bilyk admitted being scared living so close to the border. ‘The idea of taking up firearms and going into a battle is unsettling. I want to live in peace. But this is our land. We have nowhere else to go. So there is no other option but to fight for it.’
Such conversations feel incongruous in a cafe filled with people chatting over coffee, eating cakes or tapping away at computer screens in a bustling city centre. As we talked, skaters slid by on an ice rink in the snow-covered city centre square where a huge statue of Lenin – the biggest in Ukraine – stood until it was toppled eight years ago.
That statue was at the centre of clashes after pro-democracy protests sprung up in Ukraine. Kremlin stooges stormed official buildings and burned flags – but they were defeated, unlike in two eastern cities now under Russian control.
But now, Ukraine’s second city is living in fear of a fresh assault as diplomatic efforts try to prevent Vladimir Putin from invading – an illegal move that would unleash chilling new conflict with Kharkiv among possible targets.
Serafim Sabaronsky, 28, bar manager pictured with his most essential belongings packed for survival
Indeed, yesterday, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said Russia may try to occupy Kharkiv and that it would be the start of a ‘large-scale war’.
Once, the massive city square was named after the founder of the Soviet secret police. But when Ukraine shook off the shackles of Communism three decades ago, it was renamed Freedom Square.
Bilyk told me how this democratic ideal inspired him as a teenager to join the 2014 protests. ‘The first ones were against the government but they became about freedom,’ he said. ‘When I saw people with foreign flags on our land, it was unacceptable.’
Born shortly after the Soviet Union’s collapse, he regards freedom as ‘the most important value in life’. Yet now it is being threatened by Putin, a former KGB operative, seeking to rebuild the Russian empire and stifle democracy.
Countless people are wondering what to do in the event of an attack. Some are stocking up on food or contemplating flight – but others are preparing to confront one of the world’s most powerful combat machines.
They range from idealists such as Bilyk to battle-hardened veterans of the eight-year conflict that has dragged on in eastern Ukraine. It was stirred up by Putin in response to the protests next door to Russia, leading to two breakaway republics, about 14,000 deaths and two million displaced people. One Kharkiv city councillor told me he was planning to move his wife and two sons to Lithuania if Russia invades, then head to the frontlines with a rifle for which he has a hunting permit.
‘If I buy a sniper rifle, it must be for hunting. But what you hunt, well, that’s another question,’ said Oleg Abramychev, 35, an events organiser.
It is impossible to predict events in war, especially in an area such as this with such deep commercial, cultural, family, historic and linguistic ties to Russia and which straddles the border.
Abramychev personifies the complexities of this region: born in Siberia on the other side of Russia, he moved to Ukraine with his parents as a boy and yet now feels passionately Ukrainian.
Though he admits feeling scared, he speaks of ‘svoboda’ (freedom) before talking about the right of nations to determine their own course.
For his part, Putin egregiously describes Ukraine as an artificial country wrested from Moscow’s control by its enemies and feels it should be part of a ‘New Russia’ – a vision stretching from Kharkiv in the east to the Crimea in the south (which he illegally seized in 2014).
Yet despite the hostile build-up of troops, Putin denies any plans to invade and says he wants the West to stop supporting Ukraine’s armed forces and withdraw a pledge to accept Ukraine as a Nato member.
This is a Russian-speaking region – yet even one man who described himself as Russian and admires Putin told me that Kharkiv must remain Ukrainian.
Another Russian emigre said she hated the way citizens such as herself were being used by an aggressive Putin while he also claims to be protecting them.
Most analysts believe the Ukrainian armed forces are little match for Putin’s formidable firepower, although Kiev’s military has been strengthened in recent years by battlefield experience, better training and boosted supplies.
‘Putin will not get it all his own way,’ said Glen Grant, a defence expert and British Army veteran who advises the Ukrainian government. ‘This is now a serious army filled with people willing to put their lives on the line.’
Meanwhile, the American government has said it will back armed resistance. ‘If Russia invades, this will be all-out war since a lot of people will never give in,’ said Grant. ‘The retaliation will be personal and unpredictable – and Putin will not be expecting it.’
Among the 900,000 army reservists is one middle-aged IT worker in Kharkiv who keeps his gun and combat gear beside his office desk, ready for action within five minutes. Ukraine’s military is also hastily creating 150 battalions with 130,000 people in an upgraded Territorial Defence System. For this is a society with a recent tradition of civilians coming to the aid of their nation when under attack from the bully next door.
In 2014, the Ukrainian armed forces, corroded by corruption, struggled against the pro-Russian insurgents until reinforced by volunteer groups.
Among them was graphic designer Jenni Shpak, 47, a mother of two. She grew up in the Soviet Union, remembers the deprivations of those dark days and supported pro-democracy protests to protect her children’s future.
‘I remember the poverty, the lack of food, the lies,’ she said. ‘For me, the protests were all about taking us as far away as possible from our Communist past, which did such terrible things to Ukraine that it brings tears to my eyes when I think of them.’
Her determination to support the fight against Putin and his Ukrainian cronies led to divorce from her pro-Russian husband. ‘He said you must choose me or the war,’ said Shpak.
She helped the fighters by taking food and clothing to the frontline, then assisting public relations efforts to combat the onslaught of Russian propaganda along the border areas – something seen again in recent weeks. Now remarried, to a fellow volunteer, Shpak is preparing to return to the battlefield. ‘I want to protect my land and fight for Ukraine,’ she said.
Non-government bodies such as the Ukrainian Legion provide basic training for those wanting to fight – and claim to have seen a sharp rise in the number of civilians wanting to learn military and first aid skills on one-month courses.
‘The training is adequate for someone who’s never seen a weapon or held one,’ said Alexander Gorbatenko, head of the Kharkiv office. ‘People come knowing nothing but at the end they can move as a group, can shoot, provide first aid and defend themselves in case of military escalation.’
Among those to have done a military training course is Marina Polyakova, a housewife in her late-fifties. ‘I have a backpack with all the necessities packed. My flak jacket is ready. I’ll join the resistance and will do whatever is needed,’ she said.
Polyakova, who runs a charity helping families of dead soldiers, is tired of living afraid in Russia’s shadow after seeing the ‘horror’ of her city nearly taken over by Putin’s troops in 2014 and her son badly beaten during the protests.
She says the deaths of so many Ukrainians at the hands of the Russians in their eight-year war ‘must not be in vain,’ adding: ‘I want Ukraine to be a just, democratic country.’
After Britain last week sent anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, she looked up online how to use one. ‘There is no sense in running,’ she said. ‘If we run, the war will follow, so we need to stop the enemy and stop this war.’
Polyakova says many others in Kharkiv feel the same way. Who knows if she is right, let alone precisely what Putin is planning?
Abramychev, the local politician, thinks that, at most, 10 per cent of people might join a revolt against Russian invasion.
Yet Artem Litovchenko, a sociologist at Karazin Kharkiv University, believes any resistance would be minor given the region’s traditional sympathies and ties. ‘If it happens, the majority will simply wait to see how it ends,’ he said.
Another man – a fan of nationalistic Russian hip-hop music – insisted talk of war is over-hyped. He told me their problems lay with hopeless politicians in Kiev responsible for all their economic struggles as the cost of living rises and Ukraine’s currency falls.
Yet it seems the mood against Russia has solidified to some extent over the past eight years, with a poll last month suggesting that a quarter of people in this region traditionally sympathetic to Russia might take up arms if invaded.
Among them is Serafim Sabaronsky, 28, a bar manager from a town near Kharkiv who, like so many I met, has mixed Russian-Ukrainian parentage but no doubts over his allegiance. ‘I see myself as Ukrainian, so that is my motherland.’
He told me of two neighbours, a father and son, who were killed in the previous conflict and whose bodies are buried in the town’s graveyard. Like others, he said he wants to live what he calls a normal, ‘boring’ European life without ‘people pointing a gun at us and telling us what to do.’ Before I left his house, Sabaronsky showed me the backpack he was preparing to use to live ‘off grid’ when he joins an insurgency. It contains a cooking stove, first aid kit, sharp knife, sleeping bag, torch, wet weather matches and sleeping bag.
Others, too, accept they might soon need to flee their homes.
‘I have poor eyesight, no physical qualifications, no fighting qualifications and I’ve never held a gun so I fear I’d be perfect cannon fodder,’ one musician told me ruefully.
Amid intense discussions over the future, a refugee from the Donbas region shared on social media her tips for surviving sudden flight, such as storing key documents online, packing medicines and memorising important phone numbers.
‘If you have a small child, put a note in their pocket with your phone number,’ she wrote.
What sad advice for residents of this city famed for its culture and stunning architecture – living again under the disturbing shadow of war and wondering if they might soon be fighting, fleeing for their lives or forced into Putin’s cruel dictatorship.
- Additional reporting by Kate Baklitskaya
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