You are currently viewing The war has become a daily routine: two conversations with the Kharkov underground journal

The war has become a daily routine: two conversations with the Kharkov underground journal

Can you tell me a bit about you organisation? is an online counter-information magazine based in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv (Kharkov), the country’s second largest city, about 40 kilometers from the Russian border.

What are you doing?

Our work is organized on a horizontal basis and we have three main projects. The first is about the war: we provide legal advice and publish information about raids that helps people in our city avoid being forcibly drafted into the Ukrainian army, also we observe and translate into English for our column on all the news about grassroots anti-war sabotage in Russia beyond the Ukrainian state units. The second direction is urbanistic: we monitor the preparations by local authorities for the post-war city restoration and discover their using it for personal purposes or in the interests of developers associated with them.

You spoke about three main projects. What is the third?

The third is material support for people in need. Almost immediately after a previous interview with us, since mid-September, regular Russian missile strikes began on Ukrainian civilian energy infrastructure facilities. Our city was no exception, having been subjected to them more than a dozen times. And if now blackouts usually do not exceed 3-4 hours a day, then in December blackouts often lasted 7-8 and even 12 hours. Of course, this dramatically increased the demand for humanitarian aid.

What kind of humanitarian aid is needed?

On the one hand, on December 1, the Kharkiv municipal authorities opened the distribution of free hot food in schools, and the state began to equip street “points of invincibility” where people can warm up and charge their gadgets for free. At the same time, so many people have lost their jobs due to business closures or have lost wages due to employers compensating for losses caused by blackouts from the workers’ pockets, that volunteer groups like ours still have a lot of work to do. This has to be done pretty carefully so as not to meet with a military patrol. Please join our main fundraising Mutual Aid Alert East Ukraine.

Since winter has entered its last week, it’s time to take some stock of it. We can say that we survived it much easier than expected. First of all, thanks to the abnormally warm weather: the temperature here did not fall below -10°C, and even then not very often. Secondly, the Ukrainian energy system was not destroyed completely, and the remaining energy networks managed to adapt to the new conditions. Finally, the consumption of electricity by the economy also fell sharply due to the shutdown of large industrial enterprises. If in the fall they even tried to start again after each blackout, now they seem to be completely stopped. Thanks to donations from our European comrades, we were able to set up a community heating point in our member’s private home on the relatively safe southern outskirts, and the need for it turned out to be less than it could have been.

When did you start your work?

In general, we have really been active since March 30, 2020 – as soon as there was a feeling in the air that this habitual status quo had finally cracked. The start of a global pandemic took us by surprise! It was unusual to stay at home all the time. At some of our comrade’s workplaces, the salary was cut by 20% and there was a fear of staff layoffs. But a couple of weeks after the start of quarantine, we started the development of our website and so began to talk about acute social problems and help people unite to directly help each other in the face of a crisis.

You said one focus is on journalistic work. What kind of information do you provide?

Recently, a number of materials have been published on our own resource that have become resonant in the city – for example, about how the mayor’s office makes PR for itself on the Master Plan for the post-war reconstruction of Kharkov from British architects, in reality applying exactly the opposite things. No less important was the presentation, exclusively covered by us, of several urban development horizontal collectives appeared last year to discuss how to make the city comfortable for everyone and have an active community after the war.

At the moment of founding, our reasoning went something like this: if at least 10% of the population of our city understands, for example, the public transport system better than the mayor and the city council do, then why do we need their administration? Something like that…

Do the people except your work?

Yes, even at the peak of the December blackouts, when views of all media dropped sharply, our magazine showed a positive trend. In that month, we overtook the municipal media by almost 25 thousand visits!

The journal soon became a place where the peaceful segment of social struggle and self-organisation could meet with the radical underground, and began to really live up to its name. We covered street events, workplace struggles, and urban development issues in our metropolis. And have also tried to restore historical memory on the revolutionary workers’ traditions.

Do you feel a political impact of your texts?

In the spring, the Kharkiv City Council presented a so-called volunteer initiative to restore the city, headed not by an architect or urban planner but by a clothing designer affiliated with City Council – obviously, to rob the budget under this cover by the officials – but after we published the exposure of who is this jabrone and what is known about his part, he backed out of this project. Because if the restoration is organized by a person who has nothing to do with this by profession, but is close to the authorities, it’s obvious that this is a fictitious project of the authorities themselves. Kharkiv municipality is very corrupt even by Ukrainian standards, so just to list all the schemes how they rob the budget would require a separate interview.

Before the start of regular missile attacks on the energy infrastructure, we hoped that the war would end a little more, at least for our region, so we were preparing an offline volunteer campaign to restore the wounded neighbourhoods. But there is no end to the war on the horizon, so instead of these plans, we began to control what the city authorities are doing under the pretext of post-war rebuilding of the city or its adaptation to wartime conditions. We are glad that we are not alone in this field and that we have someone to provide media support, but most of all Kharkov workers now, of course, are concerned about the issues of everyday survival, and not the conceptual problems of their environment.

How is life in this state of emergency?
How is politics in this state of emergency (are you till able to follow your ideas, to act according to your politics)?

Since the summer of last year, spontaneous anarchism has noticeably increased among the masses – many already believe that the choice between two right-wing Latin American dictatorships is not a choice. This has significantly increased the popularity of our website – news about military and police brutality is now easily gaining thousands and thousands of views.

This is important because at the same time, street protests in such conditions are impossible. For example, several rallies of sailors took place in Odessa in the fall, demanding that they be allowed to leave the country to work on foreign ships.

What did happen after the protests?

They ended with the fact that the protesting men were given subpoenas to the military commissariat (enlistment center), and a criminal case was opened against the female leader of the Ukrainian Sailors Union on suspicion of smuggling them with purchased documents (probably because she is not liable for military service). But a huge amount of bail was quickly raised, so she left the pre-trial detention center a week later.

What political tendencies are there in the group?

Our editorial policy is generally social anarchist, nevertheless we don’t have any exams in ideology and theory as during admission to a Marxist party. We are ready to cooperate with different persons and initiatives, if they are not controlled by politicians or bureaucratic structures, if they support horizontal direct action from below and want to be useful to the local community, despite the threat of possible persecution.

Did the war change your policies and political tactics?

In principle, there are two main points of view within the team: the first is that all efforts should be devoted to counteracting the authoritarian policies of the states that are at war on our land. The other is that we should try not to pay attention to this and instead engage in the fight against insolent employers, city land grabbing and other things from peacetime as if nothing had happened. In our news feed, you can see such and such materials.

What do you think about the Zelensky government?

We live in a military dictatorial regime, similar to Russia in the 2000s, but rapidly approaching the current one, therefore, in such conditions, the only real ways of social resistance remain mutual information and evasion or boycott (this is not only about mobilization, but also, for example, about companies that do not pay wages using the wartime conditions. The conscripts are now more and more behaving like street guerrillas: they saw a military patrol with subpoenas – they crossed to the other side of the road, lay down behind the curb, crawled under parked cars and left by the yards. It is sad that the whole city, where now there is about a million people, is afraid of several hundred camouflaged “postmen”, but until the Russian army turns its bayonets against own power, radical social struggle in Ukraine is practically suicidal. And everyone understands this.

Do you have international support?

We have actually been working for a year thanks to the help of foreign comrades. Let me not list specific names, especially since this list is very large. It is easier to say who does not support us: those who want the workers to continue to be the obedient expendables of the owners instead of taking their lives into their own hands.

Many leftists in Europe represent unconditional pacifism and would rather sacrifice Ukraine than support the war. What can you say to them?

We can tell them that pacifism is not an alternative to war, because it does not question the existing order, the contradictions of which lead to such slaughters. Of course, anarchists cannot support the strengthening of the Ukrainian army, like any other one. But rather than wasting time on protests against the supply of weapons, it would be 100 times more useful to help Russian deserters and political prisoners (of course, if these leftists are really against the war, not bashfully pro-Kremlin). Only the formation of horizontal solidarity beyond the borders can give rise to new relationships in society!

Talking about horizontal solidarity. Are you ready to work with people from Belarus and Russia if they find against the state?

These people are really taking a huge risk to stop this carnage, and that is enough to be grateful to them. With the exception of not numerous far-rights, we support them regardless of whether they have internationalist position or pro-Ukrainian illusions. We are not FSB or KGB investigators to go into such details very deeply!

What is the state of Ukraine doing right in the fight with Russia?

The question is not correct by definition. The state does everything only in the interests of itself and the ruling class, the existence of which is no longer good in itself. Why should anarchists give them advice on how they should properly defend what they have stolen from the people?

Do you work with the regular army?

At the beginning of the war, one of our members was indeed engaged in volunteering to help Ukrainian soldiers, and this allowed him to establish many contacts in the military circles, but things did not go any further. Therefore, we are now mainly addressing to those who do not want to serve in any army. Whoever has something to defend in this country – let them fight for their property themselves, but do not keep the rest locked in a cage. All the same, there is no benefit from unmotivated people in military service.

A typical working day morning in Kharkov: all exits from the metro station near the machine-building plant Turboatom are blocked in anticipation of clients for summons

At numerous roadblocks, this is also done every day

What is the situation of the working class in the war?

If Ukraine before the war was the country with the most miserable wages in Europe, then last year the situation worsened even more. At least half of the economy in our city and at least a third of the country’s economy has been destroyed, jobs have been lost, and leaving the country for men from 18 to 60 years is prohibited. Therefore, they can be exploited for two or three, since they have no other options in civilian life, and protests are impossible. Summoning raids are carried out every day throughout the city, but many do not show up on them, so they often began to be issued at enterprises, or simply by force to take passers-by into the car and take them to a medical examination, followed by waiting for a call to the training center (for failure to appear for sending to the military unit, in contrast to the failure to appear at the medical examination, is threatened not with an administrative fine, but with a prison term). Because of this, the bosses were afraid that they would lose a lot of specialists, so last Friday the government expanded the list of enterprises that have the right to exempt 50% of their employees from mobilization. It is logical to assume that as a price for being included in this list, workers will have to endure even worse working conditions. The fact that losses from blackouts due to Russian bombing are compensated by staff and customers, we have already said at the beginning.

How do you feel about the historical anarchist movement in Ukraine (e.g. Makhnoshina)?

Together with several of our acquaintances from outside anarchist movement, we are constantly engaged in the study and publication of materials about the rich libertarian past of Kharkov. This is not only the Makhnovshchina, whose command council, by the way, was elected near Izyum in the south of our region. In the center of our city there was even Anarchy Street, now called Darwin Street, where at that time were located the anarchist headquarters in the expropriated mansions. Luckily, this street was not hit by shelling, so a colorful photo tour of it is still actual!

Is this a tradition still relevant in the current movement?

Anarchists played an important role in the local events of late 1917 and the subsequent revolutionary transformations, when Kharkov became the first capital of Soviet Ukraine. But now this is not very relevant, because if at the beginning of the 20th century Ukraine was a country of workers and peasants, now it is primarily a country of pensioners, bureaucracy and various law enforcement bodies. Like Russia, by the way, with the exception of the Caucasus and some Asian regions. At the same time, among the remaining workers and intelligentsia on both sides of the front, the nationalist frenzy is already much less than last year. That‘s why it is now impossible in Ukraine for the emergence a third force that would wage an armed struggle against both states. Although, due to the outflow of the most economically active elements to the front, they still don’t have enough boldness to think about a new world, we need to prepare for a possible revolutionary situation if the war drags on for a few more years. Therefore, if in France a few years ago the slogan “Fuck 68 – fight now” was popular, for us is now relevant “Fuck 1917 – fight now!”

Dead area of Saltovka (the eastern city district devastated by Russian carpet rocket bombing last year) on a winter night

Also our letter two weeks ago to comrades from the Czech group Make Tatoo Not War whose benefit action helped us and our community to survive the winter during the constant power and heating outages. We tell how we disposed of their donations and how the spring Kharkiv lives now:

“Good evening!

To sum up the season in the most general terms, the Ukrainian energy system was not completely destroyed and the remaining energy networks were able to adapt to the new conditions. Electricity consumption in the economical system also fell sharply due to the shutdown of large industrial enterprises. If in the autumn they had tried to restart after each outage, now it seems that they have stopped completely. So it turns out that the need for a communal shelter not as big as we thought. Nevertheless, your kind support helped us incredibly, and we tried to spend all the funds as economically as possible, so that part of them would remain for other areas of activity.

It’s so symbolic that we are doing this report on the day when Kharkov was again plunged into a total blackout. At 2-3 o’clock last night, 11 cruise missiles hit the city’s civilian infrastructure again, for the first time in more than a month. And only a couple of hours ago, the light slowly began to return. Fortunately, spring has already come into its own – today it was +12°C – so no one really felt the lack of heating.

As for the heating point. In fact, this is just a large entrance hall in a private house, capable of accommodating from about 30 to 50 people maximum, however since nature turned out to be favorable to us this winter, there was always a lot of free space and people usually came only for a few hours. It so happened historically that only one of our members lives in a private house, and the marginal southern district of Osnova, in which the private sector is located, has a rich revolutionary past. Exactly 105 years ago, at the end of 1918, when Kharkov was occupied by the Kaiser troops, the Bolshevik and anarchist underground was based there. On New Year’s Eve 1919, they raised an armed workers’ uprising and took control of the city, knocking out Ukrainian nationalists from it (they were left without the support of the Germans, who wanted to quickly go home and elected a soldiers’ council, which took a friendly position towards the rebels). Almost immediately after that, the anarchist militia was dispersed by the Bolsheviks, but that’s another story, which is the subject of our big article in Russian. As in those days, Osnova is still the site of a railway depot, where the working conditions are just as terrible as they were during the First World War (in the best case, the salary is 12,000 UAH per month, you have to live on the road in a trailer and to eat useless porridge, working for 12 hours, you will never get time off, gloves will be issued two times a month, though according to labor protection standards they must be every day; if you work in Kharkov, the salary will be no more than 7500 UAH and for this money you will beat with a sledgehammer and a crowbar all day. It was all the more interesting to have a deeper conversation with the locals who came to warm up.

It wasn’t an easy task, because it’s the same district with Osnova Lake (former Komsomol Lake) where the infamous concrete checkpoint. The cops and military regularly stop shuttle buses and hand out summonses to conscripts, sometimes simply take men away with them. If someone had told them that there is an anarchist social center in the area, the consequences for us can only be guessed at, but they would hardly have been pleasant. Therefore, we tried to talk with focus on news and events in other countries.

However, a funny thing happened once. One of our participants living in other district came to visit and, sitting in the hallway along with people who had come to warm up, accidentally told a comrade that an article for Assembly is almost finished. An unfamiliar guy of 30-35 years old heard this and opened his mouth in surprise: “Really for Assembly? Wooow…!” Happily, he managed to explain that anyone can send material there via the contact form, and for this it’s not necessary to be part of a team. It’s one thing to deliver goods to people on the other side of the city and dissolve in its wilds, but just to give out our base to everyone – it would be too risky…

It’s worth noting that even in not so ancient times – in the second half of the 1990s – the police were afraid to enter this neighbourhood, they were simply beaten there. Of course, now everything is completely different: the average age of the population is about 50 years, if not more; there are several schools, no other educational facilities. But even in the less depressed areas of Kharkiv, people now largely survive on humanitarian aid, foreign remittances, and petty spontaneous trade. Therefore, we cannot talk about the class struggle in the city yet. Despite the fact that with the reduction of blackouts in February, manufacturing and the service sector began to gradually revive, even half of the pre-war level of the economy is impossible to speak of – too many enterprises have been destroyed or evacuated.

The only significant winter event with our participation was the presentation, exclusively covered by us, of several urban development horizontal initiatives appeared in Kharkov last year to discuss how to make the city comfortable for everyone, less commercially oriented and have an active community after the war. See in Ukrainian.

That’s all for now. Thank you very much once more for all!”

9th of March, 2023

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