BY BLAIR A. RUBLE
Sasha Anisimova, a 30-year-old graphic designer from Kharkiv, did not believe there would be a war. Focused on her daily life and her artistic endeavors, she ignored her boyfriend’s pleas to prepare for a quick getaway until time ran out. Hearing Russian bombs hit her town on the morning of February 24, Anisimova hastily retreated to seek refuge in western Ukraine. Once safe, she could think of nothing but returning to her beloved hometown.
Kharkiv, like many “second cities” around the world, is more vibrant than beautiful. Such cities can generate intense attachment in those who are drawn to city life with an edge. Second-city residents often have a distinct chip on their shoulders as they realize that their achievements are not receiving the recognition accorded to their contemporaries in capitals and other “first cities”. The more Russian bombs and rockets rained down on Kharkiv, the more residents realized how much they loved their city, and none more so than the 600,000 residents who, like Anisimova, were forced to flee west.
Anisimova was eager to return home, and did so as soon as the Ukrainian fighters pushed back the Russian line. She returned to a city devastated by relentless shelling and riddled with landmines. Much of the city lay in ruins despite the heroic efforts of local firefighters to save as many buildings as possible, as well as city workers who rushed to repair water pipes even as the bombs fell, and the municipal authorities who have relentlessly focused on urban sanitation.
Once back home, Anisimova took a photo of her bedroom and posted it to Instagram, along with dozens of other photos of destroyed buildings and broken souls. Always curious about the life lived behind the facade of the city, she began to draw cartoon characters of ordinary people going about their daily business against the backdrop of ruins. She drew herself sitting at a desk working, neighbors taking showers and cooking dinner, customers enjoying coffee outside a destroyed cafe.
One drawing showed the interior of a subway car temporarily housing those who had escaped the surface bombardment with its delightful superimposed cartoon characters, as if they were simply going to the next stop. Anisimova’s sketches reveal mundane lives shattered by war, ghosts of a mundane existence that are no longer possible. Humanity anchored in its visions offers hope that such an ordinary existence may yet return.
Anisimova immediately garnered a following on Instagram; one that multiplied by tens of thousands and caught the attention of European newsrooms and editors of vogue magazine. She started selling t-shirts and other merchandise online featuring her art to raise money for charities operating in Ukraine. A European publisher approached her to compile her images into a book.
Internationally renowned street artist Hamlet Zinkovsky is another young (35) artist from Kharkiv who, like Anisimova, could not stay away from her hometown. Abroad, when fighting broke out, Zinkovsky returned to Kharkiv and reported to a local military battalion defending the city. When he asked what he could do to help, Battalion Commander Hartiya gave him a bulletproof vest and sent him out into the streets to paint. His orders were to enliven the streets with his work, and he did so, spending his days creating his black-and-white street murals on barricaded buildings and half-destroyed walls and in bombed-out halls. The city has become his canvas on which he reconstructs his hometown image by image.
Artists such as Anisimova and Zinkovsky are joined by writers including local poet Ivan Senin and acclaimed novelist Serhiy Zhadan to turn their talents to redeeming their hometown. Despite being a predominantly Russian-speaking city, Kharkiv has long nurtured visions of cultural autonomy and political independence from Ukraine. The effort dates back to university professors and intellectuals in the early 19th century who helped create a literary Ukrainian language.
The more Kharkiv artists and writers practiced artistic sovereignty, the more the Russian state in its various incarnations fought back, often brutally. Anisimova and Zinkovsky, two children of post-independence Ukraine, grew up in a world where political sovereignty had been won. For them, the cultural autonomy to pursue their creative instincts is a given, and they will not give it up willingly.
Secondary cities such as Kharkiv are often known for a savage toughness that comes from a boldly utilitarian economic focus outside the national superiority of political capitals. However, a vibrant artistic and cultural life still coexists with commerce and industry. It is the art that lasts.
Creators such as Anisimova and Zinkovsky can reveal more about Kharkiv’s ultimate fate than the strategic illusions of distant national politicians.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.