Daria Filippova for Vox

The war in Ukraine

How Russia’s invasion transformed one Ukrainian city

In Kharkiv, you hear the boom first. Later, the air-raid siren blares. The city is about 40 kilometers from the Russian border, and missiles can land faster than the warning sound. "No one actually pays attention to sirens in the city. When they hear the explosion — this is when people hide," said Viktor Shaida, a professor of electrical engineering at the National Technical University Kharkiv Polytechnic Institute.

Kharkiv’s location has shaped its identity as a geographical, historical, and linguistic borderland, absorbing, among others, Ukrainian, Russian imperial, and Soviet legacies. But the war in Ukraine is reshaping Kharkiv’s identity, again.

Its identity is transforming because everything has. Those changes are huge and overwhelming: death and destruction and displacement. They are also small and achingly specific. The neighborhood restaurant reduced its hours. The path on the way to an old school, once taken every morning, is now covered in craters. Sandbags are piled around the city’s famous Taras Shevchenko monument, to protect it from shelling.

“Kharkiv was tolerant, or sometimes indifferent, to strictly defined identification,” said Volodymyr Kravchenko, author of Kharkov/Kharkiv: A Borderland Capital. Many of its citizens speak Russian. Families and friends span both sides of the border. 

map of Ukraine, with Kharkiv highlighted on the eastern edge

Some shifts began in 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea and launched its proxy war in the Donbas, entangling Kharkiv in the conflict. Then came Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion last year. “Maybe for the first time in its history,” Kravchenko said, “Kharkiv and Kharkiv citizens, they are facing an exclusive challenge: They should decide what side they are on.”

Russian troops never controlled Kharkiv, a city of about 1.4 million before the war. But forces captured territory throughout the Kharkiv region. Russian tanks and troops lurked a car trip away, a full-scale war in the suburbs. “You’re here, at some hipster bar, and 20 minutes [from the city], tank shelling: how can it be?” said Serhii Prokopenko, a Kharkiv-based journalist and managing editor of Gwara Media.

Ukraine’s late-summer counteroffensive liberated much of the region, but Moscow relentlessly targeted Kharkiv with airstrikes for much of last year. Mayor Ihor Terekhov said more than 6,500 houses were damaged, and 500 multi-story residential buildings were so badly wrecked they cannot be restored. Around 80 hospitals and clinics were damaged. So were cultural institutions, museums, universities, subways, buses, cars, and garages. Some were targeted hits, others collateral damage.

“The core of the city of Kharkiv was severely damaged by the Russians,” Terekhov said.

Kharkiv is grappling with how much can be restored, what should be memorialized, and how much should be reinvented. The Russian names and Soviet architecture that defined the city are now a reminder of what tried to destroy it. Some sites are active crime scenes. Others are reopening; roofs repaired, windows replaced. Residents who left Kharkiv are wondering whether it can be home again. So are those who stayed. 

Vox, in collaboration with the data journalists at The Pudding, traced a route through Kharkiv, parts of which were heavily bombarded. It was an effort to document the before and after, not just of the physical space, but of how war has — and hasn't — transformed these places and the people tied to them. Read more about this project here.


Maxim Gorky Park for Culture and Recreation

Maxim Gorky Park for Culture and Recreation is open, but not completely. The rides do not work and many of the food facilities are closed. People are still a little bit scared to be out for a long time in the open air, especially with kids, said Andrii Shaptala, deputy director for international relations at Gorky Park.

But, little by little, life is coming back to Gorky Park. The weather is good, the flowers are in bloom, the swans are on the lake. “You know, people need to go somewhere and enjoy these nice days,” Shaptala said.

These spring days are different from last year’s, the first months of Russia's attack on Ukraine. Russian forces sent missiles and cluster bombs into neighborhoods for weeks. Even as Russia pulled back from other regions in the spring, the Kremlin’s campaign in the east and south of Ukraine kept Kharkiv a target through the summer. It put the city within close range of mortars and heavy artillery. In May, Gorky Park was struck, apparently by Soviet-made GRAD rockets launched from trucks. According to the park’s press secretary Andrii Kravchenko, Russian rockets hit the park more than 70 times, including twice by missile strikes, since the start of the war.

Even in the worst days of the war, the employees and crews still came in, Shaptala said. “When you see all those things that you put so much attention and effort into, and it is being destroyed, burned down, damaged — it’s very sad,” he said.

Gorky Park has been rebuilt before. The park, named for the Russian writer Maxim Gorky, was severely damaged during World War II. It fell into disrepair by the end of the 1980s. In 2011, the park underwent a massive renovation and reopened in August 2012.

The newer, more advanced Gorky Park was amazing, said Lubnan Sheykkh, a tech entrepreneur. He and his family used to go all the time, especially in summer. He took his son to skateboarding classes there. Sheykkh, who is originally from Bombay, India, described the city as his chosen home. He and his family are now in Athens. They fled Ukraine soon after Sheykkh’s son celebrated his birthday in a bomb shelter. 

Shaptala wants to see the park fully reopen in a year. “They keep rebuilding the amusement rides, which is not the first need, of course, during the war,” he said. “But if people do this, it means that there is hope.” 

Shaptala also hopes that all the park employees who left Kharkiv will return. “We will have a huge family reunion,” he said. The park always dedicates days to different holidays. It may invent another park holiday, just for this celebration.

When that celebration happens, it will not be Gorky Park anymore. City officials are renaming it because of the war. They will call it Kharkiv Central Park.


Петро Хабазня via Google Maps


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National Technical University Kharkiv Polytechnic Institute and Politekhnik Sports Complex

“Those bastards destroyed my favourite university gym in Kharkiv,” Denys Volokha, media director of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG), texted.

Volokha and the KHPG are documenting infrastructure damage, including potential human rights violations or war crimes across the Kharkiv region and elsewhere in Ukraine, in places like Mariupol. The Politekhnik Sports Complex at the National Technical University Kharkiv Polytechnic Institute is just one place, in an overwhelming list of them, damaged by Russian strikes. But for Volokha, the gym, well, that was personal.

“I studied there for four years, and this used to be my favorite place,” Volokha said. He is part of a community of climbers who used the climbing walls at the sports complex. They also hiked in the Kharkiv region, but they cannot do that anymore, either. Everything is mined.

There were climbers, but so many other athletes and teams used the sports complex. Around 3,500 students trained there every day, said university rector Yevgen Sokol. So did athletes participating in international sports competitions for things like wrestling and badminton. Olympic athletes, too. People went there to cheer on the school basketball team, run on the track, or swim in the pool. 

In June, at least one missile hit the sports complex. Oleksiy Yushko, the head of the university’s physical education department, also felt it was personal. “It’s not only a workplace, but this is my home,” he said. In the 1980s, he worked on the construction crew that built the complex. Then he became a professor there, and later, the head of the athletic department.

The sports complex is big enough that only half of it was destroyed, the other half damaged but salvageable. Other buildings across the university campus were also damaged by shrapnel and blast waves. Again, in August, a missile hit the Polytechnic campus. One woman, a security guard on duty, died

Similar scenes happened at universities across Kharkiv. The city is known as an education and university hub. Other campuses have also become Russian targets. All schools are, from higher education down to kindergarten. 

“They’re specifically targeting schools and other educational facilities because they believe that the Ukrainian army is headquartered in every single school and university,” said Volokha, of KHPG. Schools and universities have lots of space to house people, or to store weapons. Gyms and sports complexes also meet these criteria. Volokha said that some army units are, indeed, based in such facilities. “But it is stupid to believe that every single school or university is a military target,” Volokha said.

Mayor Terekhov estimated that 109 kindergartens and 110 schools have been destroyed — about half of the total kindergartens and schools in Kharkiv. Russia has claimed it does not target civilians, only places with military ties, though a robust body of evidence suggests otherwise. Still, it is one complicating factor in holding Russia accountable. If the Ukrainian army is using a school as a base, it becomes a legitimate military target. If the army is not, bombing a school is a potential war crime. (Kharkiv Polytechnic Institute does have a Military Institute for Tank Troops, but it is in a different location.)

All of this has interrupted university life. Kharkiv Polytechnic Institute switched to remote learning, and there are fewer foreign students enrolled. Yet, there is also a sense of renewed purpose: These institutions and their graduates will be the ones to rebuild Kharkiv, maybe all of Ukraine. 

The sports complex is slowly rebuilding the parts it can, too. In the summer after the strike, volunteers cleaned up the garbage and debris, sorting bricks to salvage those that could be used in the rebuilding of the sports facility. 

Some of his climbing teammates went, but Volokha could not. “I did not want to see it and cry at the place of my youth,” he said. 

“I know how it looks,” he added. “It’s not necessary to visit it.”


Андрей Аватарский via Google Maps


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Parallel 50 Business Center

Bogdan Kozhushko opened his first escape room in Kharkiv in 2014 — you know, those places where everyone gets in a space together and solves a puzzle to make their way out. He opened a bunch more over the years, but the one with the best technology, the one with the best riddles, was in the Parallel 50 building, an office space in the center of Kharkiv. 

In February and early March, the neighborhood, which includes the Kharkiv Regional Administration building, was pummeled by a Russian air barrage. The blocks in the area were covered in ash and debris and burnt-up cars.

Parallel 50’s windows were blown out. The stomach of the tower was ripped open, insides spilling out.

Kozhushko’s escape room was in the basement, so he thought the business would be okay. Then came the mold. “Because there was no electricity and no people, the humidity was too high and all my equipment was ruined,” he said. Some of the equipment was looted, too. He suspects — though he doesn’t know for sure — that it might have been the military, cannibalizing parts. 

But Serhii Dymenko, a software engineer from Kharkiv, immediately knew what the destruction of Parallel 50 meant. He was watching the war unfold from Portugal, where he had been vacationing when Russia invaded. His apartment in Kharkiv is less than 100 meters from the Parallel 50 building. When he saw images of it, he understood: “[My] house is ruined, probably all my personal belongings are in the trash,” he said. “There is no sense to go back because there is nothing to save.” The only thing he has from his previous life is the suitcase he brought with him on his trip.

Kozhushko, too, is no longer in Kharkiv. He lived about seven kilometers outside Kharkiv, closer to the Russian border. He says Kremlin forces occupied this area for 62 days. From his balcony, he saw the war start with what looked like a firework. When you see something like that, he said, “I cannot think about my business or how much money I lost, you think only about your family.” Kozhushko fled with his family to the Netherlands.

Still, Kozhushko is determined to try to keep his businesses in Ukraine. There aren’t a lot of jobs; people need money. But it’s not easy. He is relocating some of his escape room businesses to western Ukraine, at least for now. “But part of my business I stay in Kharkiv because I believe in this ferroconcrete city, my native city,” he said. “Ferroconcrete” is Kharkiv’s nickname, a reference to the Soviet-era steel and concrete architecture. Now, it has come to symbolize the resilience and strength of the city. 

Dymenko, though, does not see a way back to Kharkiv. The only reason to return, maybe, is to join the army. His friends might also be a reason, but even then, he’s not sure. 

“Everything I love, maybe 90 percent, is gone. And even those 10 percent which survived — the people have changed during this year. If I visit the same place, even see my old mates, even from kindergarten, I’m not sure we will be able to communicate,” he said. 

“Even those small pieces that are not erased are lost for me.”


Google Street View


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The Kharkiv State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre

Ihor Tuluzov knows it sounds a little weird, especially for a person who studied physics. But he believes the Kharkiv State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre has its own Phantom of the Opera. “I feel this energy of the building,” he said. “I remember during the hard times, how quiet it was — scarily quiet in the building.” 

The spirit may be what helped protect the building during the Russian bombardment, he thinks. The Opera House was not directly struck, but it has many windows. Glass stands little chance when a city is under siege, phantom or not.

Tuluzov, the acting general director, estimates around 60 percent — 6,000 square meters of glass — of the opera’s windows and glass doors were destroyed. Wooden boards line the spaces where the windows once were.

The Kharkiv State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre was completed in 1991, a project that took 20 years, so it became a bit of a joke among Kharkiv’s residents. When it did open, Tuluzov said, the theater emphasized innovation, and saw itself as progressive both in what it performs and in how it produces these performances. It experiments with music, lighting, and set design. The opera put on a performance of Swan Lake a few years ago where dancers performed on water.

There will be no more performances of Swan Lake, at least for now. "We don't use the works of Russian composers," Tuluzov said. "Now we have to replace our repertoire, and that's quite a challenge." Still, he thinks the decision is quite natural, when Russia is bombarding the city, and anything Russian causes this resentment and resistance from people. Instead, he hopes they will feature more ballets and operas of Ukrainian musical heritage.

The theater was already starting to do that, before the invasion. In October 2021, Oleksandra Saienko produced the opera Vyshyvanyi, King of Ukraine. It tells the story of Archduke Wilhelm Franz von Habsburg-Lothringen, who is known in Ukraine as “Vasyl Vyshyvanyi.” During World War I, the archduke was assigned to a military unit whose ranks were filled with Ukrainians. From there, he fell in love with Ukrainian culture, traveling, writing poems, and advocating for Ukraine’s political interests — specifically, its independence from the Soviet Union. In 1947, he was abducted by the Soviet secret service and eventually sentenced to 25 years in a gulag, though he died before serving his term. In Ukraine, he has been rediscovered and elevated again as a national hero, a narrative made for this particular moment.

The opera ran for two days, a full house each night. The performance was ambitious: all the performers, elaborate costumes, a symphony orchestra. It featured electronic music. It was also, Saienko said, cultural diplomacy: a way to tell Ukraine, and the rest of the world, its history.

Now, in the middle of war, this mission is even more explicit. Many of the theater’s employees and performers fled; many are now based near Bratislava and are touring Europe. They want the Kharkiv opera, and the city, known throughout the continent. The mission also feels existential: Culture is a part of identity, Saienko said. “That’s why [the Russians] destroy cultural institutions, educational institutions, religious institutions, because these are fundamental things,” she said. “It’s not only infrastructure. But also these mental things are very important for a nation.”

Touring in Europe is one of the only ways the theater can continue its work. Right now, it needs permission to put on any events that might bring together large crowds in one space. If Russia launches a strike, it could happen before any air alert, leaving no time to take cover.

There was one exception on March 26. The Kharkiv State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre hosted a concert to commemorate the International Day of Theater. It was a sold-out show. “We were lucky,” Tuluzov said. “There were no air-raid sirens during that time.”


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City Square

Constitution Square

Ilyess El Kortbi, a 26-year-old climate activist with Fridays for Future, participated in a strike every Friday, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends. They often protested in Constitution Square, Kharkiv’s central square.

It was a good location, a lot of young people passing by. It also had a monument to Nike, the goddess of victory. They said the statue gave them hope — and it looked good in the pictures they took of their solo strikes. 

On February 23, El Kortbi was on a sleeper train, headed from Kharkiv to Kyiv, to attend a “cool conference,” as an acquaintance described it. At about 7 am, they woke up as they entered Kyiv Central Station. “Everybody in the train was silent until I got an answer from some of them: The war had started,” El Kortbi said. Some contacts in Europe encouraged them to continue onward, where they could continue their activism, and they did.

El Kortbi still feels some guilt about being on that train, which saved them but not their friends. They have friends, including those who also used to take Fridays for Future actions, in Kharkiv. One is not responding and is believed by the family to be dead. Two others they know for sure are dead. “The most devoted people, and the most courageous — some of them are no longer having the future,” they said.

El Kortbi is now in Berlin, having fled a war financed by fossil fuels.


Google Street View


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Korolenko State Scientific Library

Natalia Petrenko, the director of the Korolenko State Scientific Library, knew what to do in war. She worked in Donetsk in 2014. “I already knew what happens when aggressors [are] coming to you,” she said.

At Korolenko, in Kharkiv, in 2022, the first step was to turn off the heating system; also, the air conditioning and ventilation in the book storage room. The city was under bombardment. All it took was one burst pipe to endanger Korolenko’s book collection. 

Korolenko has a rare and fragile collection of more than 7.2 million texts in more than 240 languages. The library contains handwritten books from the 14th century, and different ancient Ukrainian objects. 

The Korolenko State Scientific Library never took a direct hit, but multiple explosions near the complex damaged it little by little, until it was a lot. On the first day of the war, library employees slept in the library, an impromptu vigil because public transportation had been repurposed as a bomb shelter. On March 2, bombardments began near the mayor’s office, close to the library, and because of that blast wave, the library sustained its first damage. Then more damage on March 9, and again on March 16. Shrapnel tore away at the roof. The book storage room lost all its windows. The heating system broke because of the blast waves. The stained-glass chandelier in the atrium shattered. The ceiling crumbled. 

“You feel angry that you cannot do anything personally to stop this. And you want to say, ‘Stop, please,’” Petrenko said. After that, though: “You just do whatever you can to secure your book collection.”

She cannot say which books, or how, or where they are now. Those collections, artifacts of Ukraine’s history, are at risk as long as the war is ongoing. 


Ivan Ponomarenko via Google Maps


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Nikolsky Mall

About a year after the Nikolsky Mall opened in 2021, it had to reopen again. 

Then, it was a shiny new supermall, with the biggest multiplex in the city, a bowling alley, food court, and big-name stores. In early March, during Russia’s bombardment of the city, the mall was hit.

Nataliya Zubar is the chair of Maidan Monitoring Information Center, an organization that is currently tracking war damages. She lives nearby, and the mall’s destruction disrupted the everyday things: where to shop for groceries or grab a coffee, or meet people. 

In June of last year, it started reopening, although you could notice the differences. Stores for lots of international brands never reopened. H&M is the one Zubar notices the most. It is quite sensitive for her, as she had a habit of shopping there. 

Maybe the most noticeable difference about this reopening is the disruptions from air-raid alarms or bombing threats. Once they sound, all the customers have to drop their shopping and go downstairs to the bomb shelter. Where they wait, and wait, and decide whether to finish their shopping or just give up. 

Zubar often goes to the restaurants or cafes located in the basement of the mall. She doesn’t get to see any of the city, but she also can relax. “I don’t need to interrupt any eating at the restaurant and go to the bomb shelter,” Zubar said. “I’m already in the bomb shelter.”


Михаил Проценко via Google Maps


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Kharkiv Supermarket

Overnight, in early June, a Russian missile hit a supermarket on the outskirts of Kharkiv. No one was hurt, but the missile smashed the facade of the building, damaged the ceiling in between floors, and destroyed food and household goods and other products. Olga Grigorova, the supermarket's marketing director, said Russian media had instead reported that a tank factory had been destroyed.

The supermarket reopened two weeks after the shelling, though customers had to shop through temporary entrances. By August, crews completed the renovation on the main entrance. In the process, the grocery store chain — there are three, including the one hit by the missile — decided to reinvent itself, too. Instead of “Vostorg,” a Russian word that means “delight,” it became “Kharkiv.” 

The name change followed a bigger one: The Kharkiv City Council renamed the entire street where this grocery store is located. One of the city’s main thoroughfares, Moskovskyi Avenue — Moscow Avenue — is now Heroiv Kharkova Avenue.


Google Street View


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constitution square KHARKIV RIVER NEMYSHLYA RIVER Shevchenko City Garden

24 km
14.9 mi.

Vox and The Pudding wanted to explore how Russia’s invasion affected everyday places, especially spaces around which we build community. We hoped to explore the long-tail effects of this war, even after interest (as measured by Google Trends data) changes or fades. And as part of this project, we also wanted to help readers see what it might look like if the landmarks in the heart of their city or town were suddenly damaged, or transformed.

Using the Google Places API data, we found the geographic center for each of these US cities and then randomly selected a matching institution within a 30-mile radius. It’s not a perfect metric for any city, which means you may know of, say, a bigger theater or a more famous park that, to you, defines your hometown. But the goal is to offer a reference point, a small window to help readers gauge the scale of the war, and how unavoidable and ever-present it is for those experiencing it.


Cincinnati, OH

"Downtown" is a match to Kharkiv’s "city square."