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Why Kharkiv, a city known for its poets, has become a key battleground in Ukraine

A Ukrainian armored personnel carrier drives down a street in downtown Kharkiv on Feb. 27. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

KHARKIV, Ukraine — For Ukrainians, Kharkiv is a city known for poetry, art, trade, industry, scientific discovery — and now as a linchpin in the fight for Ukraine’s future.

A mere 25 miles from Russia, Ukraine’s second-largest city has faced some of the fiercest battles since Russian troops, tanks and warplanes pushed across the border Thursday. In the fog of war, there is no official casualty count for Kharkiv, where playgrounds and apartment buildings have been hit.

Russian forces briefly took control Sunday of the city of 1.5 million people, only to be expelled by Ukrainian fighters hours later in what has been an unexpectedly strong show of resistance marking the initial phase of Russia’s invasion.

But Moscow is unlikely to abandon its assault on Kharkiv, a predominantly Russian-speaking city that has become central to Russia’s advance beyond the east, especially as it faces setbacks in taking the capital, Kyiv.

“The Russian military campaign was based on the proposition that they could make quick gains and that they wouldn’t face strong resistance,” said Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at CNA, a Virginia-based nonprofit research and analysis organization.

Instead, “it’s the eastern part of Ukraine that’s really holding it compared to the other parts.” He called Kharkiv “the anchor” still holding the eastern front.

As Russian bombardments here intensify, Kharkiv could be a sign of the next, even bloodier stage in the war after Russia’s hopes for a swift victory were dashed, Kofman said.

“Ukrainian forces have put a pretty strong fight … but the worst is yet to come,” he said. “Russian forces haven’t [yet] tried to take Kharkiv, not seriously.”

Video shows what is left of a destroyed convoy of Russian military vehicles following intense street fighting on Feb. 27 in Ukraine's second largest city. (Video: Newsflare)

More ground troops combined with heavier bombardments of the city “could prove absolutely devastating” to civilians and infrastructure, he said.

Kharkiv was long considered a likely target in the lead-up to Russia’s invasion as Moscow amassed forces in a staging area in Belgorod, just 90 minutes northeast of the city. In setting its sights on Kharkiv, the Kremlin may have believed it would face less resistance because of the city’s predominantly Russian-speaking population, which it assumed to be more sympathetic to Moscow. Many in Kharkiv have family or do business just across the border.

“The people in the city of Kharkiv only have one issue with the Russian army: ‘What took you so long?’” Olga Skabeyeva, a Russian state television host, said last week.

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Instead, over the last four days in Kharkiv, Ukrainians have rallied together under the shared threat of air raids.

“You are killed by Russians, whether you want it or not,” Serhiy Zhadan, one of Ukraine’s most famous poets, wrote Sunday from his hometown of Kharkiv in a Facebook post thanking those who helped the city’s fighters. “Probably you don’t want, I think.”

Ukrainian forces initially kept Russian fighters to the city’s outside ring, with several social media photos and videos showing destroyed Russian military hardware in Kharkiv’s suburbs. On Saturday night and Sunday morning, heavy Russian shelling — primarily from multiple-launch rocket systems — bombarded northeastern parts of the city. On Sunday, Russian military vehicles rolled into Kharkiv.

By the afternoon, after hours of firefights, the city was back in Ukrainian hands, at least for now. The “Z” that Russia put on its military vehicles to prevent friendly fire had unintentionally made the columns more noticeable to Kharkiv residents: On Telegram channels, they posted the locations of troops they saw entering the city for Ukraine’s military and the Territorial Defense Forces.

The Washington Post's Isabelle Khurshudyan is in Kharkiv, Ukraine where shelling could be heard near the city on Feb. 25. (Video: Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

On Saturday afternoon, hours before the city faced its strongest push into the city yet, hundreds of people came to Kharkiv’s Territorial Defense headquarters to volunteer for the civilian reserve force and to grab a gun to fight off the Russian advance.

Viktor Trubchanov, an activist and member of the local Territorial Defense unit, estimated that the group has at least 700 members.

“No one expected so many people to volunteer, and unfortunately we weren’t properly prepared for that,” Trubchanov said. “The commander has now found enough uniforms, weapons, backup and all that’s needed.”

Kharkiv could have gone differently.

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Eight years ago when protesters ousted Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in favor of a European-leaning government, the disgraced leader first fled east from Kyiv to Kharkiv before traveling onward to Russia. Later in 2014, as Russian-backed separatists seized control of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, one group briefly took control of Kharkiv City Hall, declaring it the Kharkiv People’s Republic.

At a rally in Kharkiv in 2015 commemorating one year since Yanukovych’s ouster, a bomb exploded, killing two people. It was one in a string of explosions to rock the city in those turbulent post-revolution months with an insurgency on Kharkiv’s doorstep. Ukrainian officials said Russia was behind the attack on the rally.

But the movement for insurgency fizzled. Eight years of war between the separatists and Ukraine’s government forces just a few hours southeast of Kharkiv changed sentiment here back closer to the Ukrainian side.

Kharkiv’s history, and its sources of splits and strength, run even deeper.

Kharkiv was founded in 1654, and the city’s university life became a center of the Ukrainian national movement in the 1820s, said Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale University.

Kharkiv later was chosen as the new Soviet republic of Ukraine’s first capital from 1920 to 1934.

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In the 1920s “it was the world center for Ukrainian culture,” Snyder said. Soviet leaders initially supported the city’s development of art and literature, only for this “generation of Ukrainian makers of culture” to die during the purges of the 1930s, he said.

Further death loomed during Ukraine’s Great Famine of 1932 to 1933, a man-made calamity known as the Holodomor, caused by Soviet agriculture and redistribution policies. Kharkiv became “the city where peasants went to die” as the starving gathered in the city to beg for money, according to Snyder.

During World War II, as in many Soviet cities, local authorities in Kharkiv collaborated with German Nazis. From December 1941 to January 1942, thousands of Jews in Kharkiv were shot to death or gassed to death in vans.

Reminders of these painful histories are visible in the buildings dotting Kharkiv’s streets, from aristocratic manors to Stalinist neoclassical structures, cathedrals, monuments to poets, and modern-era cultural centers.

On Sunday, with residents hunkered down in bunkers and the underground subway, roads were empty. An eerie, uncertain quiet once more prevailed.

Berger contributed from Washington.

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