Kharkiv is now frequently under fire, as air defences are focussed on Kyiv. Photo: Jen Stout

Jen Stout’s diary: Fear and trembling in Kharkiv

For a long while, Ukraine’s second city felt relatively secure. Now, the latest round of Russian attacks are testing the nerves of its citizens
May 1, 2024

A vast city in blackout is, for a moment, beautiful. The starry sky is so bright, so surreal above the grand, dimmed buildings of central Kharkiv. Tiny beams of light nod on the paths through Shevchenko Gardens, as residents make their way home by torchlight.

But then the air raid sirens begin again, one after the other, wailing to an appalling crescendo. My stomach lurches. The darkness has become unnerving.

There is nothing romantic about a city that’s cut off—no light, no internet connection, no GPS. Life becomes difficult. If the hospitals lose power, if sewage systems collapse, if supply lines are blocked, it would quickly become unbearable. Everyone would leave.

Kharkiv is not at that point yet. But the rumours are swirling, the air attacks are more frequent, and even the most committed Kharkivite is thinking, quietly, about contingency plans. About evacuation routes.

Russia restarted its bombing campaign against Ukrainian civil infrastructure on 22nd March, and since then has completely destroyed the energy generation capacity of the Kharkiv region. I heard it hard at work on this on 11th April, when a 5am siren was followed almost immediately by massive explosions. The rooster in the garden next door faltered and fell silent. I watched the sky, which was just beginning to lighten with the dawn, turn orange in the distance: multiple missiles striking one power plant. There is no air defence left to speak of in Kharkiv. Ukraine doesn’t have enough systems or missiles. Protecting Kyiv is the priority. 

So sinister things “fly” into Kharkiv, to use the local euphemism, almost daily. Alongside the missiles, there are Shahed drones and, in recent weeks, a horrifying new threat: gliding bombs. Back in the deadly days of March 2022, Kharkiv was frequently hit with aerial bombs dropped by planes. Whole blocks of the beautiful historic centre were reduced to rubble. But then the planes backed off—it was too risky for them to fly. 

Now, though, Russia has devised a method of sending these bombs long distances by adding little wings. They do enormous damage, their blast radius felt much further away than shells or missiles. This is real terror, being used against civilians.

Moscow sent one such “winged bomb” into Kharkiv on my second morning there. I was talking to a friend on her balcony, far enough away to ignore the blasts. Another friend, though, was closer to the strike. She felt the blast wave; felt sick for hours afterwards, as if with a strange concussion. When we talked later she looked scared and I haven’t seen her scared before, even when we drove to the frontlines in Donbas together. 

In the beginning, she said, they pretended they weren’t afraid. Or perhaps, the intensity of that time meant the adrenalin didn’t wear off. But now, with the blackouts, with no internet, you can’t check on each other, so you sit in the darkness alone. It is exhausting, it is impossible to plan and it is grinding people down. And that, no doubt, is the point.

Russian propagandists, including their dear leader, have talked openly about making a “sanitary zone” of this region, to “prevent” the Ukrainian drone attacks on Russian border cities and increasingly on strategic targets deep within the country. A sanitary zone is one cleared of people. One where life cannot be lived. Whether they achieve that through bombing the place to rubble or through another attempt at a ground invasion from the north, no one knows; on Telegram and YouTube, misinformation and fear are taking over. When the internet’s on, that is. “It’s a bad time for visiting Kharkiv. It is being demolished like Mariupol,” a friend writes, when I ask if I can see him.


It is particularly cruel that Kharkiv should suffer like this, after two years of such resilience. “Hold on, unbreakable ones”, the local Telegram news channel posts one evening, under a photo of the starry sky and darkened windows. In the worst days of the full-scale invasion, when the city was half-encircled by Russian forces and subjected to artillery barrages day and night, the population shrank to around 300,000. But so many have returned. More than a million are in Kharkiv now. I understand their decision. It was quiet for a long period. It seemed safe enough, and certainly preferable to refugee life. They came back in droves, with their kids and dogs and cats, and the city bustled. But now this. It feels like a vicious game of cat and mouse, designed to drive all of Kharkiv mad. 

At the same time, the city’s parks overflow with people admiring the cherry blossom. Municipal workers tend bright rows of tulips. The metro runs, even if the trains are few and far between, and the bars and cafés serve hipsters their elaborate salads and craft beer, the atmosphere only slightly marred by the whiff of diesel generators. It is impossible, almost, to imagine all this normality being destroyed. And so my friends are staying on—with the same determination they had in 2022, but a good deal less of that dizzying hope.