Within three weeks of the invasion, Russian forces had hit dozens of historic buildings in Kharkiv, an eastern Ukrainian city recognized at home and abroad for its rich mix of architectural heritage, including grand formal buildings and Soviet modernist structures.
Strikes on the city, many of which were carried out by Russian military plans, sent shock waves through Ukraine and prompted hundreds of thousands of terrified Kharkivians to flee. In early March the city’s railway station – another architectural treasure – was packed with people trying to board trains going west.
Some of those who remained have attempted to catalog the destruction, compiling a list of as many as 68 buildings of architectural significance, of which Unesco has confirmed 27 have been damaged or destroyed. The Guardian visited more than a dozen on the list.
The destruction of historic buildings is considered a war crime by the international criminal court. Though Kharkiv has been one of the worst-affected cities, the Ukrainian culture ministry stated on 23 April that it had recorded 240 crimes against the country’s cultural heritage. In late March, local authorities across Ukraine sandbagged monuments to protect them in the event of an attack.
Kharkiv’s architecture reflects the city’s regional significance over centuries. There are traditional cottages, art nouveau, neo-classical and Renaissance-style grand buildings, and 19th-century two-storey brick houses from when the city was a home for Cossacks and then a hub of the Tsarist Russian empire’s industrialization. From the 20th century its Soviet boulevards, cooperative apartment buildings, and the experimental district for workers of the Kharkiv tractor factory – built when Kharkiv was the Soviet capital of Ukraine – are internationally recognized.
Russian forces continue to frequently bomb and kill civilians in the city, located less than 20 miles from the Russian border, but the plane attacks have ceased. The northern and eastern parts of the city remain the worst affected, while the city center is now relatively free from the shelling.
Some of Kharkiv’s inhabitants supported an attempt by Russian proxies to take control of the city in 2014 when the war in eastern Ukraine began, but the numbers of Russian loyalists were not sufficient to change the city’s political course. One of the witnesses to a missile attack on the Kharkiv regional administration, in the city centre, exclaimed in a video I have filmed: “For those of you who were waiting for ‘Russian world’ to come here, this what you wanted, yeah? Well, we warned you.”
The building was a grand Soviet edifice from 1954. Russian missiles also destroyed the Stalinist-era regional headquarters of the Ukrainian intelligence services and the neo-classical Kharkiv court of appeal.
Almost an entire length of Myronosytska Street in the city center was taken out by the strikes. Pictures of the aftermath are reminiscent of the blitz in London.
Aside from the state bodies, gems of architectural significance that posed no political or military significance were hit. Local architects say they believe this was because Russian forces want to carry out a terror campaign to scare the population into fleeing or giving in.
In the east of the city, the tractor factory district – a series of 1929 apartment buildings and accompanying facilities to house the workers of the largest tractor factory in Ukraine – was hit by artillery shells several times and a cluster bomb that killed at least 10 people and injured 42 three weeks ago.
Kateryna Kublytska, a Kharkiv architect and restorationist who lives in one of the old workers’ apartment blocks, said that when the district was built it closely followed Soviet socialist ideas. For example, the workers’ apartments did not have kitchens, in the hope of removing the pressure on women to provide meals, so the whole community ate in communal canteens.
Similarly, residents had access to nursery facilities that would take babies at several weeks old. The nursery buildings had ramps instead of stairs to make it easier to push prams up and down the floors. But the socialist ideals only went so far. The factory managers lived in a bigger apartment block with their own kitchens, and the apartments came with a room for their officially employed housekeeper.
There were plans to connect all the apartment buildings with suspended tunnels so that residents could drop their children at nursery or the purpose-built school and eat their meals without having to put on their coats and boots during Ukraine’s long, snowy winters. Sundecks were proposed for the tops of the buildings so that residents could increase their intake of vitamin D. But when the Soviet capital moved to Kyiv in 1934, Kublytska said, the plans were forgotten.
Kublytska said the damage to Kharkiv had hurt her deeply. The British architect Norman Foster recently announced he had drafted a manifesto to rebuild the city, but Kublytska said this had riled many Kharkiv architects. The head of the Kharkiv School of Architecture referred to the plans as “intellectual colonisation”.
She said they were happy to invite architects and specialists from all over the world but work should be led by people who knew the city and involved extensive discussions with residents.
“Right now we live in a new reality – one that we are only starting to grasp,” Kublytska said. “We live right next to the border and could be bombed for several years to come. We need to understand how many people will come back and what they will need when they do.”
Kublytska and her circle of Kharkiv architects are nevertheless starting to lay down the foundations for what they hope will be a new era for the city’s buildings. She said people were starting to value buildings because they now knew what it was like to lose them.
“When everything was left to fall by the wayside in the 1990s, people had this strong desire to build brand new things, which often didn’t have much thought behind them,” said Kublytska, adding that older buildings around the city had been neglected or part-renovated without thought to their original character.
Kublytska pointed to the tarmac around the tractor factory apartments covering the original cobblestone roads and redbrick paths that weaved between the greenery and parks.
“What we want – me and my milieu – is to get Kharkivians to value what we already have. To value authenticity and restore our cultural code. This is our collective history.”