NOTE: this post was written and posted before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Kharkiv has suffered badly in the war. For a time it was under Russian control and even though now liberated it has been relentlessly targeted with airstrikes. The city’s mayor has said that more than 6,500 houses were damaged, and 500 multi-story residential buildings were so badly wrecked they cannot be restored. Clearly it is not the same place I visited ten years ago but I’m leaving this post as a record of what it once was and a tribute to its people who have endured so much.
When Newcastle United reached the last 32 of the Europa League in 2013 we held our breath to see what team we would be drawn against, dreaming of a February trip to warmer climes, maybe Italy, Spain or Portugal. Instead we got Metalist Kharkiv, a team we had never heard of, in the eastern depths of chilly Ukraine. Would we go? You bet we would!
So we booked flights and hotel, applied for match tickets, and then started to do some research into where we were headed. I learned that we would be in Ukraine’s second largest city, a major industrial centre (Metalist took their name from the metal-workers who founded the club); but one not without history and attractions for the visitor, including some stunning churches.
A goalless draw in the home leg meant that everything was to play for in the away game. We didn’t expect to go through the round, but we knew we had a chance. So match-night saw us wrapped up against the cold and heading for the stadium in good spirits. Newcastle fans are always in good spirits away from home, even after a defeat!
In the end a 1-0 win, thanks to a Shola Ameobi penalty, was enough to see us through, and a good trip became an excellent one!
In addition to the football match and plenty of socialising with fellow fans, we did, as we always did on such trips, make time for some sightseeing over our couple of days in the city. In this post I will focus on the very centre of the city, in and around Freedom Square.
So what’s that about Lenin?
It is sometimes mistakenly said that the impressive and autocratic statues of Lenin that were a feature of every major city in the Soviet Union were all pulled down, in 1991 or soon after, when the Union was dissolved. Not so. Many remained, especially in Russia, Belarus and here in Ukraine.
The one in Kharkiv, which dominated Freedom Square, was erected in 1964. At the time of our visit it was the largest standing statue in Ukraine.
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin stood on a red-granite pedestal carved with patriotic revolutionary scenes from where he gestured towards the former Communist headquarters, now Kharkiv Oblast Administration. Although as one local irreverently pointed out to us, he seemed rather to be pointing the way to the public conveniences!
We didn’t know it at the time, but we were among the last visitors to Kharkiv to see this statue. On 28 September 2014 it was toppled and destroyed.
After much debate over the following years it was determined firstly that current Ukrainian law would not permit its replacement; secondly that a controversial huge monument, topped by an angel with an Orthodox cross, would take its place in the square; and finally that there should be a fountain on the spot where Lenin once stood. The fountain was opened on 23 August 2020.
Freedom Square (sometimes also translated as Liberty Square) is clearly one of the prides of the city, not least because of its size. Wikipedia says that it is the eighth largest city square in Europe and lists it as 31st in the world (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_city_squares_by_size). According to the same source it is approximately 690-750 metres long and 96-125 metres wide.
It was developed during the late 1920s and early 1930s during a period of growth for the city. It has a somewhat unusual shape, with a long rectangular section that runs westward from Sumskaya Street, and a rounded area at its western end.
There are a number of classic 1930s buildings around the square. These include the building of the Kharkiv Regional State Administration on the eastern side (on Sumskaya Street) and the old Kharkiv Hotel on the north. The south side of the square is edged by Shevchenko Park.
This is the focal point for collective activity in the city, whether celebration (a large Christmas tree is erected here each year) or protest. It was also the venue for the Fan Zone during the Euro 2012 Football Championships. But when we visited it seemed vast and almost empty.
To the south of Ploshchad’ Svobody lies Shevchenko Park, a popular spot for locals to stroll and relax. The park was established in 1804-1805 by Vasiliy Karazin, the founder of Kharkiv University, and thus predates Freedom Square to the north although they seem to belong together.
It wasn’t the weather for enjoying the park’s botanical gardens or cafés, but there are a couple of monuments here that drew us for rather different reasons.
Taras Shevchenko monument
I have noted elsewhere my fascination with brutalist architecture and sculpture; and this monument to Ukraine’s national poet is a wonderful example. The large bronze statue, 5.5 metres tall, stands on a round pedestal of natural silicate giving an overall height to the monument of 16.5 metres. The work of Soviet sculptor Matvey Manizer and Soviet architect Joseph Langbard, it was erected in 1935 and unveiled in a great ceremony in March of that year.
The main statue is surrounded by 16 smaller statues made of bronze depicting characters drawn from the history of Ukraine and the works of Shevchenko. The figures include a collective farmer, a Red Army man, a miner and a peasant woman. The latter, according to one website I read, represents ‘the working people in the fight for their rights and freedoms’.
It seems that touching the foot of one of his characters, ‘Dying Gaydamak’, is considered to bring luck, as the big toe is polished and gleaming. And clearly Shevchenko is revered by local people as someone had left flowers (probably a wedding bouquet) at his feet.
Taras Shevchenko, poet and artist, might be said to be Ukraine’s equivalent of England’s Shakespeare. He was born into a peasant family and was orphaned by the age of eleven. After some difficult years when, among other things, he worked as a servant and as a shepherd, his artistic talent was recognised, and he got a place to study at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg.
But it is for his poetry that he is probably best known and most respected. Many of his works were inspired by the difficult conditions under which poor Ukrainians were forced to live. Shevchenko never forgot his humble roots and associated himself with the fight against the Empire. He was arrested in 1847 and imprisoned for writing works considered to be inflammatory. He was exiled, forbidden to write or paint. Pardoned in 1857 he planned to buy land in Ukraine and live there but was ordered to return to St Petersburg. His health suffered as a result of his exile and he died young, aged just 47, seven days before the Emancipation of Serfs was announced.
Understandably, his works and his life as a revolutionary poet are still revered by Ukrainians; and his impact on Ukrainian literature and culture is immense – as is this monument to him.
Monument to football
If the Ukrainians’ reverence for Taras Shevchenko is akin to worship, so too arguably is a football fan’s passion for the game. So it is perhaps fitting that not far from the monument to the national poet is this monument to football. When we saw it we assumed that it was a very recent addition, owing its presence here to Kharkiv’s role as a host city for the Euro 2012 Championships. But it is just a little older than that, having been set up by FC Metalist in 2001. And as we were here to watch Newcastle play that team, nothing could be more appropriate than a few fun photos in this spot!
The bronze ball is half a metre in diameter and weighs over two tons. It was unveiled by the Ukrainian player Oleg Blokhin, who played for Dynamo Kiev (I don’t know why a Metalist player wasn’t chosen!) and was a gift from the club to the fans. It was restored in 2012 for the championships, with a new granite pedestal and wiring for night-time illuminations. Apparently even before the monument was placed here this was a popular spot for local fans to gather, to read newspaper reports of matches and discuss the game. If you want to meet any fellow football fans it could be a good spot to try.
The 50th Parallel
Another sight to look out for on the eastern fringes of Shevchenko Park is this marker line for the 50th Parallel. It is claimed that Kharkiv is the largest of all the cities situated on this parallel worldwide; others include Krakow, Prague and Mainz. The parallel passes through 12 countries, among which are the Czech Republic, Poland, Mongolia, Canada, Belgium, Great Britain, China and Russia. The bronze globe set in the ground shows the distance from Kharkiv to some major cities, and local people believe that stepping on it will bring you luck. Well, Chris and Pete did step on it and Newcastle won the match, so maybe there is something in that?!
FC Metalist Kharkiv, like the statue of Lenin, is no more. The club ceased operations in 2016 due to insolvency. The club’s owner, businessman Serhiy Kurchenko left Ukraine in February 2014, following the 2014 revolution in the eastern part of the country and his current whereabouts are unknown.
As for Newcastle United, our days of regularly competing in Europe seem to be over, for the time being at least, but maybe that is a story for another day…
I visited Kharkiv in 2013