Kharkiv: frontline city on the brink

A few hours from the frontline, life continues as usual in the city of Kharkiv. A series of investigations into Russia-backed diversion groups reveal a city under strain. на русском языке

Anna Silayeva
17 August 2015

Here, in Kharkiv, the frontline isn’t far away, just a few hours drive. Routes into town are fortified with checkpoints. People in camouflage, military hardware, and reports on casualties from the ‘Anti-Terrorist Operation’ have become part of everyday life. News of explosions in the city no longer provoke panic or fear as the bombings are quickly forgotten in the daily barrage of information.

But in the past nine months, Kharkiv has been rocked by a series of bombings, with targets including Stena, a rock pub, in November 2014, and a rally near the Palace of Sport in February 2015.  

‘What do the people want?’

In spring 2014, during the fiercest pro-Russian demonstrations, there was much talk of ‘what the people want’, and those city residents who demonstrated their total allegiance to Russia wanted not so much to become a part of Ukraine’s northern neighbour, but rather to return to the Soviet Union. 

For many, the Soviet Union was a guarantor of a modest, but quiet existence: education, work, utilities and a pension, when flats were ‘given out’, when people were young, strong and full of hope.

In contrast to the Maidan in Kyiv, with its binary division between people and state, in Kharkiv, the opposing sides were EuroMaidan and AntiMaidan. A considerable number of Kharkiv residents did not see the revolution as a victory over corruption, dictatorship and petty tyranny of the authorities, but the victory of their ideological opponents over their will. They saw Ukraine’s few, shy steps towards European integration as an act of violence against their own way of living and thinking.


March 2014: Lenin monument on Freedom Square. (c) Igor Chekachkov / VisualRIAN.

Hence the city’s anger at the destruction of the monument to Lenin on Freedom Square, one of the most controversial moments of last year’s Leninopad, the toppling of Lenin statues all over Ukraine. It was not support for Lenin which aroused passions in most residents, but simply opposition to the treatment of his statue. It was an act of vandalism, hooliganism, violence itself.

‘They’re allowed, but we’re not? [Im mozhno, a nam net?]’. This became AntiMaidan’s constant refrain, as radical activists sought to justify why they beat up their defenceless opponents and occupied administration buildings. For them, the events in Kyiv justified acts of violence in kind.

Conservative Kharkiv’s reaction to news of mass disorder from the capital was well illustrated by the spiteful saying ‘Have you jumped enough?’ (Doskakalis’?), itself a response to the slogan of Maidan ‘If you don’t jump, you’re a Moskal’! (Khto ne skache – toi Moskal’)

Only the events in the Donbas—the ‘Anti-Terrorist Operation’ (ATO), which soon developed into a full-scale war—changed the city’s mood. People may have not supported the new government, but they had to value peace.

The Stena rock pub, 9 November 2015 

The explosion at Kharkiv's Stena rock pub, a small place with a regular crowd and regular gigs, aimed to kill. Prior to November, the main targets were the rail network and communications, military offices and factories. The people behind these attacks avoided human casualties, choosing to attack empty buildings and secondary facilities at night.

The limpet mine exploded in Stena on a Sunday evening, when the pub was full of people. Thirteen people were injured (plus the two owners), and the building was almost completely destroyed. The shockwave damaged a car parked behind the pub, and buildings on Rymarskaya street in the centre of town had their windows smashed. Stena is a basement pub, and, according to Mikhail Ozerov, who runs it, its two concrete columns supporting the roof probably saved their lives that night.


The Stena pub following the blast.

According to the investigators, the people behind the attack chose Stena because of the owners’ ‘active patriotic position’, such as their collecting money for refugees from the East and for the Ukrainian army.

Yet to call the pub ‘nationalist’ would be unfounded.  The bombers were possibly confused by its location: the pub, or what remains of it, sits opposite 18 Rymarskaya, a building that, for a long time, housed the local branch of Prosvita, as well as the nationalist organisation Patriots of Ukraine, whose leader Andriy Biletsky now commands the Azov battalion.

Kharkiv Partisans

Drawing on forensic evidence and information from Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU), the investigators announced their suspects almost immediately—the Kharkiv Partisans. Eight days after the explosion, the case was solved: nine people were arrested, and five people put on search lists on suspicion of organising this attack and two others. 

The SBU released a minute-long video showing one of the suspects, a woman with the callsign ‘Zed’, confessing on camera. The woman, her face blurred, described her co-operation with Russian security services, relying on a text which had clearly been prepared beforehand.

This confession was received with some scepticism, given that neither the SBU, nor the Prosecutor’s Office were yet to reveal any details of the case. Official documents only mentioned the group’s equipment, which ‘Zed’ received from her Russian ‘employers’ and found during a search in the suspect’s garage: grenades, anti-personnel mines, detonators, a grenade launcher, rifles and ammunition. 


July 2015: Kharkov's Kyiv district court.

The investigation lasted six months, and the case was sent to court in mid-June. The pre-trial hearing took place on 13 July. Marina Kovtun, the single person accused, sat behind bars on the bench. Information available about Kovtun is limited: 48, born in Russia, Kovtun lives in Kharkiv, and works as a seamstress. 

As Yury Danilchenko, Kharkiv’s regional prosecutor, told me, Kovtun’s accomplices were exchanged for Ukrainian soldiers taken prisoner by separatist forces. Danilchenko stated, however, that none of Kovtun’s accomplices planted the device; that person, it seems, managed to escape to Russia shortly after the explosion. 

When I asked Danilchenko why Kovtun wasn’t put on a prisoner exchange list, he told me that she had been on the list, but she had been removed—she has blood on her hands. 

Procedural violations

These legal proceedings haven’t provoked much in the way of public outrage. There are five victims (out of 17), reporters from three news agencies, and a few neutral observers, law students in this small district courtroom. Marina Kovtun insists that the proceedings should not be filmed. On discovering that they will be, hides her face from the cameras. 

Prior to the start of proceedings, Kovtun refused to answer questions on what she’s charged with: ‘You understand, I have a daughter. She’s a student. I don’t want everyone to find out…’ Kovtun’s solicitor, Evgeny Nadolya, also didn’t want to comment on the case, or his defence strategy: ‘The only thing she [Kovtun] asked me to pass on is a message for her family: everything is fine, she’s alive and well.’ 


Marina Kovtun at Kharkiv's Kyiv district court.

After the judge opened proceedings, Nadolya’s first appeal was to demand the criminal indictment be returned to the prosecutor’s office, referring to procedural violations. For instance, though the indictment was sent to the investigation prison by post, Kovtun claims she has not yet received it—her lawyer and the prosecutor were absent when it was delivered.

The indictment has since been returned. According to Danilchenko, judges in Ukraine are now particularly attentive when it comes to procedural details.

‘I have to fill in the gaps when people speak to me’

Meanwhile, Gennady Shmorivoz, 21, turns his head to the left, towards the conversation between the judge and the accused. Shmorivoz is an economics student, and, following the explosion, he has lost the hearing in his right ear. He spent 17 days in intensive care, and has burns on 40% of his body.

‘The doctors say that my skin will take another year to restore itself. My hearing, of course, won’t come back. I’m already used to it, almost… But I can hardly hear the judge. When I talk to someone face-to-face, it’s fine, but otherwise it’s hard. I have to fill in the gaps when people speak to me.’ 

Shmorivoz’s body is covered with small pieces of debris—wood, metal and concrete. His doctors decided not to remove this debris surgically, it would have been too painful. Part of the debris can be removed, but some of it will stay forever.


Investigators at the Stena bomb site, November 2014.

Shmorivoz looks at Marina Kovtun in disbelief. He says that he doesn’t feel any hostility towards her personally. ‘I’d be more interested in seeing the person who planted the bomb in the pub. I don’t know her [Kovtun]. But I’ve got something against that person [who planted the bomb]. It was very unpleasant. He even clapped his hands, saying that Nikita and I were making some good jokes at one another’s expense.’ Nikita is Nikita Soloshenko, a friend of Gennady’s who met him at the pub. The bomber left the explosive directly under the lads’ feet. According to the investigation, that person is ‘Dmitry L’, Kovtun’s accomplice.

On 9 November, Kovtun brought the limpet mine to Dmitry at a pre-arranged time and place (Kharkiv Opera and Ballet Theatre), and activated it. Dmitry was then supposed to take it to the pub and ‘forget’ it there. The day after the bomb went off, Dmitry entered Russia. 

The investigators state that, following her arrest, Marina Kovtun has ‘co-operated’, giving evidence on how she was an active participant in Kharkiv AntiMaidan and pro-Russia demonstrations in spring 2014, how she was recruited by Russian security services, how she travelled several times to Russia for special training. 

At the start, Kovtun travelled to Belgorod, then later to Moscow, where she more or less agreed to set up a group as part of a terrorist network called the Kharkiv Partisans. Finally, she went to Tambov, where she learnt diversion tactics. Kovtun, however, has not admitted her guilt, and with time has denied her previous evidence.

Kovtun is accused of infringing Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and immunity, committing a pre-meditated group crime, diversion, terrorist acts, creation of a terrorist group, and illegal possession of a firearm. Court proceedings are due to start on 20 August.

Palace of Sport, 22 February 2015

The investigation into February’s bombing on Marshal Zhukov Avenue, just behind Kharkiv’s Palace of Sport, is already half-way to sentencing. Ukrainian security services arrested suspects four days after the explosion. 

Earlier in 2015, Kharkiv held a commemoration meeting devoted to the Congress of South-Eastern Regions of Ukraine, which took place a year previously in the city’s Palace of Sport. Back in 2014, the congress was due to host President Viktor Yanukovych, delegates spoke of the country possibly splitting apart, or perhaps a few regions declaring independence.

Yanukovych had already been overthrown, and, on that day, he was in Kharkiv, making his way out of the country. Though Yanukovych gave an interview to a local TV station in secret, he made no public appearances, and the Congress of the South and East ended in rhetoric.

At the time, two large demonstrations, separated by an (unconvincing) police cordon, were being held by supporters of Euro- and AntiMaidan in front of the palace. The previous night had been a decisive one for the revolution. The Verkhovna Rada had voted to remove Yanukovych and the heads of the power ministries, opting for emergency presidential elections and bringing the 2004 constitution back into force. 

It seemed like this was the final victory, and a record number of Kharkiv residents came out to support EuroMaidan. The crowd walked into the centre of town, made its first attempt to take the Lenin monument down and occupied the empty regional state administration building. The Border Service confirmed that Governor Mikhail Dobkin and Mayor Gennady Kernes had both left Ukraine for Russia. Many supporters of the opposition went to Central Hospital No.5 to visit the recently released Yulia Tymoshenko.

The Heavenly Hundred 

A year on from these events, several hundred Kharkiv residents gathered at the Palace of Sport. The proceedings were widely advertised. 

A small meeting was held, where people had the opportunity to pay their respects to the heroes of the Heavenly Hundred [those killed during Maidan], letting off balloons with portraits of Yanukovych, Putin, Dobkin and Kernes into the air. (The latter two returned to Kharkiv a day after they fled as if nothing had happened.) According to the organisers’ plans, the participants were meant to repeat the route they had taken a year previous. 

Just as the march began, an explosive device planted on the side of Zhukov Avenue went off, killing four people and injuring nine. The bomb, according to the investigation, was a MON-100, an anti-personnel mine.


February 2015: Marshal Zhukov Avenue.

A few days later, the SBU detained three suspects—Vladimir Dvornikov, 36, a former Berkut officer, Viktor Tetyutsky, 32, and Sergei Bashlykov, 28. All three men are local residents and members of Oplot, and had taken part in violence against Maidan activists in Kyiv. The prosecutor’s final accusation stated that Vladimir Dvornikov had accepted an invitation to co-operate from Russian security services. Dvornikov, it seems, had been promised $10,000 for organising the bombing; and he would choose the target himself. Offering $1,000 for their assistance, Dvornikov subsequently contacted Tetyutsky and Bashlykov. 

After Dvornikov agreed the plan with his Russian contacts, the equipment was left in the village of Zatishye, 10km from Dvornikov’s home. They planted the device the night before, and activated it from a distance with a mobile phone. 

As a result, Igor Tolmachov, 53, a Maidan activist, and Vadim Rybalchenko, 37, a police colonel, both died at the scene. Rybalchenko, from the Pervomaisky district, was sent to Kharkiv to keep public order. A day later, Daniil Didyk, 15, died in intensive care. Twelve hours later, Nikolai Melnichuk, 17, a first-year university student, also died. Nine people were wounded, including fighters from the Kharkiv-1 volunteer battalion.

The prosecution emphasises that their ideology – however radical – was not the prime motive in these crimes. It was the money.

Just as in the case of Kovtun, the SBU quickly released a video of Dvornikov’s confession. According to the video, Dvornikov carried out reconnaissance work for several months, following troop and hardware movements. Only in February did he receive the bombing assignment. 

Speaking in court, the prosecutor made reference to mitigating circumstances: the three suspects’ ‘active co-operation with the investigation’ in the form of evidence of contacts, movements. In court, however, all three refuted their former evidence and declared themselves not guilty. Thus, the prosecution still has to prove the accused’s guilt, using material evidence and witness testimony. 

The prosecution emphasises the selfish motive in these crimes, money, rather than the men’s ideological position, however radical it may be. ‘I’m not convinced that these people are moved by their convictions,’ says Yuri Danilchenko. ‘I believe that these people decided to commit crimes for money, they wouldn’t have done it otherwise.’

Frontline city

Kharkiv makes as if it’s living its normal life: in the evening, the streets are lit, the fountains work, the parks and cafes are full of people. 

Refusing to recognise that a war is going on in the country, the city’s residents try not to make eye contact with the people in camouflage. They look past the billboards with patriotic slogans, requests to help the army and volunteers, calls for vigilance (‘Report separatist activity to the SBU!’). 

At the same time, the volunteer movement in the city is coping with tens of thousands of refugees from the ATO, who need material and psychological support. They need clothes, housing and work, medical attention and school places for their children. 

In the past year, the volunteers have come to earn the trust of Kharkiv residents, outpacing state institutions (regional and central), the police and courts, even the church. And in the upcoming elections, due to take place on 25 October, participation in the volunteer movement is likely to score political points for several members of the campaign.

All images (apart from where indicated) courtesy of Anna Silayeva.

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