“Ukraine’s history has always been told through the lens of empire”

Revolution, Decolonization, and Disaster Capitalism in Kharkiv

15 'Networks of Solidarity'
Ukraine’s history has always been told through the lens of empire
Revolution, Decolonization, and Disaster Capitalism in Kharkiv
Dan Jonas-Roche

Kharkiv, Ukraine—a city of 1.4 million people located 30 kilometers from the Russian border—has been the site of revolutionary art and architecture, workers movements, avant garde literature, and international mutual aid networks for the past century. Ukraine’s capital from 1919-1934, Kharkiv’s location geopolitically has made it vulnerable to assault during periods of international conflict and power struggle. When Russia’s full-scale invasion began in February 2022—Kharkiv’s close proximity to the border and high concentration of population, universities, cultural institutions, and government buildings made it a target for artillery fire. In the days that followed, Kharkiv’s historic Freedom Square was carpet bombed while civilians were targeted en masse by shelling in residential areas.

“We are seeing many parallels in Kharkiv between now and the Second World War, when Nazi Germany shelled the city,” said Jenia Gubkina, an architect from Kharkiv and the coauthor of Soviet Modernism, Brutalism, Post-modernism: Buildings and Projects in Ukraine 1960–1990 (DOM publishers). “After World War Two, architects were faced with the same questions we face today. I’d like architects and politicians in Kharkiv to begin discussing how we should repair and rebuild,” Gubkina said in an interview for this article. This interview was conducted in March 2022, roughly a month after the full-scale invasion began.

This essay tries to tell the story of Kharkiv’s many lives since 1917 (albeit from a Westerner’s perspective with Jewish ancestral ties to the region). First, as an egalitarian haven for ethnic groups fleeing persecution from throughout Europe after the 1917 revolution. Second, as a post-war, international hub for students from non-aligned countries and socialist republics throughout the Global South. Third, as a city entrenched in foreign debt, neoliberalism, corruption, and military conflict following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Conclusively, the story of the present generation fighting for Kharkiv’s life, and the neocolonial actors that they are up against.

This text however is by no means an exhaustive history of the city, and for many in Ukraine, none of this information is new or novel. My sole purpose for writing this essay, at a time when its subject faces merciless attack by a fascist regime, is because I believe Kharkiv’s history is both a tragic as well as a beautiful one, whose story and achievements are underrepresented in the Global West. My goal is to shed light on the beautiful parts of Kharkiv’s history that colonialism, war, and fascism can so easily obscure in its destruction. For anyone interested in imagining decolonial, collective, egalitarian futures—the city of Kharkiv is, indeed, chock-full of them.  Maybe when the reconstruction of Kharkiv begins, whenever that may be, its architects can find inspiration from its collectivist past.

Utopian Kharkiv

In 1918, playwright Kalman Zingman wrote a Yiddish-language novella called In Edenia, a City of the Future set in post-revolutionary Kharkiv. Zingman’s utopia was a vision for a new, egalitarian haven for all built on scientific achievement and ethnic harmony in eastern Ukraine, described in separate translations by Jordan Finkin and Khane-Faygl Turtletaub.

Turtletaub’s translation was published in “Judaica Ukrainica” journal (vol. 6, 2017, edited by Serguisz Hirik and Börries Kuzmany). Later in 2014, Judaica Ukrainica also published a Ukrainian translation of Zingman’s novella (trans. by Tetiana Batanova with an introduction by Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern).

The novella is a projection forwards from the 1910s to the 1940s. In Zingman’s utopia, money is no longer needed. Every citizen has their material needs provided for. Ethnic communities from throughout eastern Europe and central Asia all live in complete harmony. Anti-semitism, nationalism, and racism are punishable offenses.

Kalman Zingman. “In the Future City of Edenia (Part 1).” In geveb, April 2019: Trans. Jordan Finkin. https://ingeveb.org/texts-and-translations/edenia-part-1.

In Edenia foretold a future Kharkiv where flying aerotrains connect buildings, and gargantuan geodesic domes regulate artificially controlled climates. Zingman even sets aside spaces in his Kharkiv utopia for memorials dedicated to Bolshevik artists and writers like El Lissitzky.

Prior to the 1917 uprising, the socialist movement in Kharkiv faced violent suppression by ultra-nationalist groups firmly backed by the local police and funded by the Russian tsarist government. In opposition, the Kharkiv Locomotive Factory was described as “a citadel of revolutionary movement” against the Tsar, employing over 6,000 militant workers.

A.Baltin. “Kharkov organization R. S.-D. R.P. Bolshevkis at the time of the war." In Летопись Революции, 1923.

After the successful 1917 uprising, Bolsheviks transferred Ukraine’s capital from Kyiv to Kharkiv, around the same time Russia’s capital was transferred from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Shortly after the transferral, an outburst of utopian, egalitarian, futurist visions for Kharkiv ensued by young artists, imagining the city as a haven for all peoples fleeing persecution from European bourgeois society, the Tsar, and the impending rise of fascism. In Edenia is indeed a byproduct of this fervor, excitement, and optimism.

In the post-revolutionary period, Kharkiv would become the site of radical new forms of architecture and art, as well as novel government services for the working class. Kharkiv’s Vasyl Yermilov (1894-1968) was twenty-three years old at the time of the 1917 revolution. Very quickly, Yermilov assumed a multitude of roles as an artist, academic, and architect shaping Ukraine’s future. Yermilov’s Monument to Three Revolutions was built in the constructivist style, honoring those who fought and died in the revolutions of 1825, 1905, and 1917; completed in 1925. Later, Yermilov would design books for Listroy: an avant-garde literary art journal based in Kharkiv. Listroy however would be just one of several magazines run by young revolutionaries in the city. Throughout the 1920s, several avant-garde literary groups and journals emerged in Kharkiv, e.g. the literary group Avangard led by Valeriian Polishchuk, the literary group Aspanfut led by Mykhail Semenko (this group was originally created in Kyiv and shortly moved to Kharkiv), and the journal Nova Generatsiia; each capturing the revolution’s optimism in their prose.

The Palace of Culture for Railway Workers by Aleksandr Dmitriev was built between 1927-1932 (and badly damaged on August 20, 2022 by Russian artillery fire). Kharkiv’s Freedom Square was designed as an entire modernist ensemble by Sergei Serafimov in 1928. The Palace of Industry (Derzhprom) overlooking Freedom Square was the first Soviet skyscraper, standing as the second tallest building in Europe at that time, and is the last remaining vestige of the Square’s constructivist buildings. In 1931, the Roentgen Institute was established in Kharkiv, a “specialist treatment facility which designed and made x-ray apparatus for the whole country.” In total, the Roentgen Institute would treat 98,000 cancer cases, employing a team of 87 research workers, 20 professors, surgeons, physicians, and gynecologists; in a country that just two decades earlier was vastly deprived of modern medical treatment available for the toiling proletariat.

Barbara Khwaja. “Health reform in Revolutionary Russia.” In Socialist Health Association, May 2017.

Between 1930-1934, Ukrainian architect Pavlo Alyoshyn designed “New Kharkiv”, or KhTZ. In parallel to another avant-garde project for workers housing in Ukraine called “Great Zaporizhzhia”, KhTZ was designed as a settlement of the Kharkiv Tractor Plant, and was expected to be adopted as a model for standardized housing in the Soviet Union’s first five year plan.

Volodymyr Rybachok. “‘New Kharkiv’ and ‘Great Zaporizhhia’ Projects as Representation of the Urban Planning Searches During the Period of Industrialization.” In Intermarum History Policy Culture, January 2020.

Fundamental to Alyoshyn’s mission was the belief in creating a “new world,” building a “just” society for all and infusing the district with intellectual and artistic life, said Jenia Gubkina, who wrote her P.h.D. dissertation on KhTZ. “Alyoshyn and other avant garde architects had witnessed the atrocities committed by the Russian Tsar in the 1905 workers uprisings,” she said. “Foundational to his thinking was the innate dignity of every person, and creating buildings and spaces that reflected that".

Kalman Zingman’s Yiddish novella set in Kharkiv should be understood in this backdrop, where extreme violence and despair coincided with revolutionary optimism in the future. Zingman’s story follows a man named Zalman Kindishman who visits his friend Yugendboym in the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UPR) in the year 1940. Contrary to Zingman’s vision for the future, the UPR would be short-lived, lasting between 1917-1921. In this brief time however, the UPR would become a real life experiment in radical new ways of living, becoming the first modern state to have a Ministry for Jewish Affairs, and Yiddish as a state-recognized language.

Ibid, 1

It’s worth noting here that sixteen years before Zingman’s story was published, the founder of political zionism Theodor Herzl wrote of a very different future for Jews fleeing persecution in Europe, that Zingman’s narrative was, dialectically speaking, arguably a counter-utopia against. Herzl published a pamphlet in 1902 called Altneuland, or An Old New World, describing a ‘new Jewish state’ in Palestine with the not-yet-built city of Tel Aviv as its spiritual home, to be constructed on top of the ancient Palestinian city of Jaffa. Herzl’s personal story follows two European Jewish colonizers that leave aristocratic Prussia to found a new settlement in the “sparsely populated”, “destitute”, and “backwards” country of Palestine.

The ‘Pale of Settlement’ is a term that refers to the zone along the Russian border created by Catherine the Great in the 1700s for mostly Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews to settle in present day Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, and Romania. For more information about the Pale of Settlment’s history, readers may refer to David Fishman’s ‘Russia's First Modern Jews: The Jews of Shklov (1994).’

Today, Herzl is recognized as, “the spiritual father of the Jewish state” and was among the earliest proponents for the state of Israel on Palestinean land, while utopian writers such as Zingman—who advocated not for a zionist ethnostate instead vying for a classless, multiracial, multicultural haven available to all in the Pale of Settlement—are far less known. Herzl’s heterotopia was codified in 2004 when UNESCO recognized Tel Aviv as a world heritage site—describing the city in its literature as “The White City”—after a century of articles by critics like Michael Levin and Nitza Szmuk were written that each fostered a narrative that Tel Aviv had been built by architects from the Bauhaus; while the future that Zingman imagined for eastern European Jews fell violently by the wayside.

In White City Black City: Architecture and War in Tel Aviv and Jaffa (MIT Press), Sharon Rotbard wages an intellectual tour-de-force disrobing Tel Aviv as a Bauhaus-inspired European city in the desert, as so many colonial architectural scholars have described it, telling Tel Aviv’s story from a critical perspective and how its construction came at the ancient Palestinian city of Jaffa’s expense.

In comparison to the real arc of history that followed, Zingman’s novella imagines a very different future than what actually ensued for eastern European Jews indeed. One year after Zingman’s story was released, records show that approximately 30,000 Ukrainian Jews were murdered during the Jewish pogroms of 1919. The murderers came from a wide array of opposing parties: mostly local insurgents who declared their loyalty to the Russian tsar (a.k.a ‘the Whites’) as well as reactionary factions in the UPR that were not controlled by the republic’s authorities.

Since the 1910s, ultra reactionary ideologues of the Russian White Army had fostered the “Judeo-Communism” conspiracy theory which seeped into far-right wing groups in Poland in the 1920s and later Ukraine before World War Two.

Later in the 1930s and 1940s, far-right wing groups under the leadership of Stepan Bandera would claim as many as 100,000 Jewish lives.

The statistics can be found in “The Prayer for the Government” by Henry Abramson.

An estimated 70 percent of Ukraine’s Jewish population would be killed or displaced by 1944, with 1.5 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, along with hundreds-of-thousands of communists, homosexuals, uncooperative Slavs, and Romani. Babyn Yar in Kyiv is the most documented of the massacres, taking place between September 29-30, 1941 where 33,771 Jews were executed and placed in a mass grave.

Ibid, 2.

In December 1941, the Ukrainian bilingual poet Olha Anstei wrote the first work of poetry about the genocide, titled ‘Babyn Yar.’ Later, the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko—who once walked out on Salvador Dalí at a Paris cafe after calling him a fascist—described the massacre, as well as long-lingering Russian antisemitism, in a 1961 poem called Baby Yar.

Vladimir Paperny. “Architecture in the Age of Stalin: Culture Two.” Page 255-256.

Kharkiv’s location on the Russian border made it bear the brunt of fascist aggression until the Red Army took control of Ukraine in the spring of 1943. By the time of the Red Army’s arrival, 70 percent of the city’s buildings were destroyed (although this number is contested by scholars). The Kharkiv Choral Synagogue, the second largest synagogue in Europe at that time, built just three decades earlier in 1913, miraculously survived Nazi occupation. It’s estimated that 15,000 Jews were killed by Germans in a ravine outside of Kharkiv called Drobystky Yar.  (Russian missiles struck the Babyn Yar historic site on March 2 and badly damaged the Drobytsky Yar memorial site on March 26.) From Kharkiv’s total wartime population of 700,000 people—historians note that 120,000 became slave workers in Germany; 30,000 were executed; and 80,000 starved to death during the war. The forest outside Kharkiv was—alongside the Katyn Forest near Smoleńsk—the main site of the 1940 Katyn massacre, in which 22,000 Polish military officers and intelligentsia were executed by the NKVD (the Soviet secret police) by order of Lavrentiy Beria. Thousands of Kharkivites and Ukrainian intelligentsia were executed by the NKVD between 1936-1938 and buried in Kharkiv’s forest as well.

Michał Murawski. “The Palace Complex: A Stalinist Skyscraper, Capitalist Warsaw, and a City Transfixed.” University of Indiana Press. March 2019. Page 31.

By the end of the 1940s, Kharkiv’s bustling avant-garde atmosphere and drive from the roaring twenties had, indeed, fizzled after two decades of carnage, bloodshed, and famine took its toll.

Internationalist Kharkiv

From 1948-1953, Kharkiv’s chief architect Alexander Kasionov from the planning institute Dipromisto led the city’s reconstruction process. After the war, Kasionov’s goal was to return to early socialist ideals from the 1930s exemplified by Pavlo Alyoshyn’s work at KhTZ. Don’t build new buildings, build greenery was the chief slogan Kasionov used when presenting his plan to the city. “Kasionov felt that emptiness was the greatest privilege of the socialist state,” said Jenia Gubkina. “The school of thought he came from had grown out of the 1905 protests when the workers were slaughtered by the Tsarist regime and the local police. For Kasionov, creating an equal city where every person had equal access to sunshine and greenery was paramount. These things were foundational to leftist urbanism. For him, architecture was about the innate dignity in every individual.”

In the reconstruction period, Kharkiv had a drastic housing shortage. Many of its citizens lived in wartime barracks or communal apartments in badly damaged old buildings. Meanwhile, planners in Moscow made orders to rebuild the city in the socialist realist style while letting social infrastructure fall by the wayside. “Stalin’s planners pasted new facades on the city’s buildings after the war without making much real investment in social infrastructure,” Gubkina stated. “This was endemic of the entire socialist realist style, and is comparable to what happened in Ukraine in the 1990s, when postmodern kitsch became the preferred style of corrupt politicians,” she said.

In the war, most of the buildings that faced Kharkiv’s Freedom Square, completed in 1928 by S. Serafimov, had been badly damaged. Architects from Moscow applied a socialist realist facade onto the damaged buildings, while the constructivist towers facing the Square today remained intact. “Freedom Square’s reconstruction was endemic of how the city was repaired in general,” Gubkina stated. “So much investment went to facade reconstruction, but not housing. Most buildings in Kharkiv today that look Stalinist were actually built in the 1920s or 30s. Facade reconstruction was part of a propaganda effort for the Soviet Union to say ‘We rebuilt this city’,” she elaborated.

Unlike many other cities under reconstruction in the Soviet Union after the war, Kharkiv’s chief architect Kasionov was actually from the city that he was rebuilding. “This is important to note,” said Gubkina. “For decades, Kharkiv’s planners and architects went to Moscow and were then sent to other cities around the Soviet Union. It was even architects from Kharkiv that designed Moscow’s metro system, from the chief architect to the young designers underneath him,” she said. “This extraction of our professionals is common in most empires. Kharkiv however had its own style and way of thinking for a long time. Dating back to the city’s early Jewish and Crimean Tatar architects all the way to Abram Miletsky and Aleksandr Ginsberg, our architects have always embedded personal narratives about our city and peoples within the style of the time, almost like a form of early critical regionalism before that was a recognized style. There has always been a chain of tragedies that halted Kharkiv’s growth. Our architects brought that trauma with them into the modernist period".

An underground tram had been planned for Kharkiv in the early 1930s when it was still Ukraine’s capital. After the capital was relocated back to Kyiv, the plan to build a mass-transit system in Kharkiv was shelved. Until the 1960s, central committees in Moscow forbade any city that wasn’t a capital from having its own metro system. This was overturned in 1965 when Viktor Antonov, Kharkiv’s chief master planner, convinced Moscow to build Kharkiv a subway. “He proved to the central committee that depriving Kharkiv, a city of 2 million, of a public transit system was discrimination against the proletariat,” said Gubkina. “Kharkiv was a linear city where many workers would travel over 2 hours by trolleybuses to get to work. In 1965, Antonov returned to Kharkiv with the funding to build Kharkiv’s subway. Planning shortly followed and the first station opened in 1975.”

Throughout this reconstruction period, over twenty project institutes and several universities were established in Kharkiv. At that time, according to Gubkina, every second person you’d run into on the subway was either an architect or an engineer, which explains Kharkiv’s colloquial nickname: “the city of architects.” In the decades after Nazi Germany’s invasion, Kharkiv’s robust education system would attract students from socialist republics and non-aligned countries around the world, making the city a microcosm of the world’s peoples.

“The entire planet was in Kharkiv, literally,” said Luis Santana in an interview for this article, a civil engineer from the Dominican Republic who studied at the Kharkiv State University of Engineering and Architecture from 1982-1988. “Jordan, Libya, Ethiopia, Yemen, Egypt, Algeria, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, South America, Central America, Vietnam, China, Mexico, Cuba, lots of Cubans!, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Uganda, Angola, Congo. Over one-hundred countries were there, just nobody from the US. The experience was incomparable,” he enthusiastically continued.

“Kharkiv was like New York in those days,” said Jenia Gubkina. “We had students from literally every country on earth, dressing in their own unique fashion and styles. They brought that pluralism and life into our streets and into our classrooms. It was an amazing time, maybe the most diverse and warm place in the Soviet Union,” she continued. “My grandmother was the chief director at a university in charge of the international exchange program. Every Friday for dinner, she would invite international students over to her home. I was a child then, and remember meeting people from every country on earth in her dining room.”

The author of Architecture in Global Socialism, historian Łukasz Stanek studies educational exchanges between eastern European socialist republics and foreign countries in the Cold War. In an essay for Africa is a Country titled From Kampala to Soviet Kyiv—and back, Stanek interviews Dr. Stephen Mukiibi, a professor and architect in Uganda who studied in Kyiv in the 1970s. In the article, Stanek writes that “in the wake of decolonization,” many foreign leaders leveraged Cold War rivalries by negotiating scholarship programs for young people to study in the Soviet Union, among other modernization and development causes.

Łukasz Stanek. “From Kampala to Soviet Kyiv—and back. A Conversation with Stephen Mukiibi, Łukasz Stanek, Oleksandr Anisimov.” In Africa Is A Country, 2022.

Upon graduation, many students either stayed in the Soviet Union for work or returned home to become leaders and professors in their respective job sectors.  From the 1950s to 1980s, Kharkiv was an epicenter of this international activity, becoming a multicultural cross-section of the world’s people as the city was rebuilt.

Upon completing a masters in civil engineering, Luis Santana worked at Kharkiv’s Dykanivka wastewater treatment plant, but left the country in 1989 shortly before the Ukraine SSR collapsed. Now in his fifties living with his family in Boston, Luis remembers vividly his time in Kharkiv. “Three of my seven siblings from the Dominican Republic, myself included, received free education from the Soviet Union. My brother and I studied in Kharkiv and my older sister went to Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow,” Luis said. “I moved to Ukraine the year [Leonid] Brezhnev died, and I remember people crying for him on the street. In the following years, two hardliners took over: Andropov from the KGB and Chernenko, and Ukrainians grew frustrated with the government as things got more oppressive under their rule. The country had its problems and was lacking in many things—I don’t approve of communism mind you—but in so many regards Ukraine was light years ahead of the US and how its people were cared for and educated. I remember visiting my sister in New York City in the 1980s, and being appalled by what I saw, and how people were treated. The inequality and racism I’ve seen in the US since moving here, I didn’t see in Ukraine. Political propaganda in the west obscured how advanced the country was. From the taxi driver to the person who cleaned your sheets, I could talk to Ukrainians about any author imaginable. They were addicted to reading, so Ukraine is where my reading addiction comes from as well,” he continued.

“I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my friends and classmates from Kharkiv. This war is tragic,” Luis said gloomily as we wrapped up our phone conversation, the tone in his voice noticeably shifting from nostalgic to embittered. “I often tell people that I am 33 percent Dominican, 33 percent Ukrainian, and 33% American. I lived in Ukraine in my most formative years, practically as a child, so the country and its people who took me in have become a part of me.”

Kharkiv today

After almost a year of vicious Russian attacks, many people are affording themselves the space to think about the country’s reconstruction. As Ukrainian forces slowly reclaim territory, some architects are looking towards the future with both optimism and unease. Aleksandr Shevchenko is an architect with the group Re-Start Ukraine that is actively trying to organize disparate governmental agencies and NGOs towards a holistic reconstruction planning process that’s informed by public input and the needs of local communities. “When we talk about reconstruction, we need to be thinking about how to defend our cities ten years from now when it's very likely this will happen again,” Shevchenko stated.

Today, many activists claim that renegotiating Ukraine’s foreign debt to the World Bank, IMF, and the United States is paramount in its recovery. Like many of its former Soviet bloc counterparts in need of quick cash, Ukraine joined the World Bank in 1992. Throughout the 1990s, the Ukrainian government borrowed a series of loans from the IMF and the World Bank, creating a total external debt of $129 billion USD as of 2022 (78.8% of its total GDP). These foreign loans contained several asterisks. Contingent upon them were “specific policies designed to foster a ‘better business environment’ and cut back the residual welfare state,” according to Alexander Kravchuk.

Alexander Kravchuk. “To Help Ukraine, Cancel its Foreign Debt.” In Jacobin, March 2022.

Kravhcuk, an editor for Ukraine’s Commons journal with a P.h.D. in economics, notes that the private sector in Ukraine that’s controlled how foreign investment was spent after the 1990s has been much more interested in “commodity industries” and the “financial sector”, instead of bread-and-butter needs like roads, healthcare, mass-transit, plumbing and agriculture. He says that Ukraine’s, “Chaotic borrowing and antisocial debt conditionality was a result of total oligarchization: unwilling to fight the wealthy, the state rulers kept getting deeper in debt.

Ibid, 15.

Learning from Ecuador in 2008, activists in Ukraine have been calling for the country’s debt cancellation for the past decade, arguing that the need to do so has only become more pronounced after Russia’s invasion.

Eric Toussaint. “Ecuador: Resistance against the policies imposed by the World Bank, the IMF and other creditors between 2007 and 2011.” For the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt, April 2021.

Ukraine is presently classified by the World Bank as a “medium-intensity country,” even after Russian shelling began in February. If the World Bank elevates Ukraine to an “in conflict country”, it would be eligible for more flexible financing and debt waivers. Despite Ukraine’s state of war, foreign banks still use loans as trojan horses for slashing away at its residual welfare state, such as a $1.2 billion loan from the European Commission in February.

Ibid, 16.

Even after the shelling and obliteration of Mariupol, and cities and villages around the country, Ukraine is preposterously still labeled a medium-intensity country by the World Bank.

Along with bullets, missiles, sexual violence, and nuclear warfare, Kharkiv faces down the more banal threats of predatory loans and disaster capitalism. Like in the aftermath of Hurricane María when Puerto Rico became overrun by hedge fund managers and big tech moguls, Kharkiv faces future uncertainty as parasitic real estate developers see dollar signs in the city’s rubble and ashes. “Most people in Kharkiv lived in panel housing built by the state. Now that the socialist state is gone, and Ukraine’s government is occupied by mostly neoliberal corrupt actors, who is going to rebuild that housing?” asked Jenia Gubkina. “Will it be affordable housing? Will everyone be able to live in Kharkiv that has been displaced and whose houses have been destroyed?” she asks.

In Colonial Debts, Rocío Zambrana uses the phrase ‘disaster capitalism’ to describe the phenomenon after a war or natural disaster when capitalists use the opportunity to rake in immense profits with virtually zero government oversight, or participatory democratic input from local communities. ‘Disaster capitalism’ perfectly describes what is happening today in Kharkiv, as the city council has been operating behind closed doors with London-based architect Norman Foster on a mysterious master plan, literally while Russian aircraft flies over the city, which one Ukrainian observer described as “nauseating, parasitic and inconceivable.

La redazione di Domus. “Norman Foster to coordinate the reconstruction of Kharkiv in Ukraine.” In Domus, April 2022.

According to Norman Foster’s Instagram, Foster & Partner’s reconstruction plan is already “50 percent complete,” leaving many Kharkivites feeling left out, confused and frustrated. “A master plan takes two to five years,” stated Gubkina. “How the hell do they already have a master plan? Did they start this process before February? What did they know that we didn’t?”

Foster’s behavior repeats the same hyper masculine tendencies we saw in the twentieth century, when promethean figures like Le Corbusier looked at Algeria and saw a blank canvas, says Gubkina. A self-described “fourth generation Kharkovite,” who grew up in Pavlo Alyoshyn’s KhTZ, whose “ancestors are in the city’s cemeteries,” Gubkina stated she is deeply offended by the city’s present reconstruction planning. “After the war and trauma Ukrainians have dealt with, to see the city give over the keys to Norman Foster without any competition or input from the people, it’s just insulting,” stated Gubkina. “If Foster had won a competition that was voted upon democratically, I’d be one of the first people to help him. But this competition never happened, and no architects in Kharkiv that I’m aware of have even gotten a phone call.”

Kharkiv’s future

Indeed, somewhere in a London office, a drawing set, or perhaps just a PowerPoint deck even, exists that will tell people from Kharkiv: “how and where they should live,” stated Gubkina. “This is of course a common postcolonial pattern, where an imperial power claims that they know what’s best for us,” she continued. “Foster continuously claims that he has the ‘knowledge’ necessary for us to rebuild. Knowledge seems to be his favorite word these days. Who the hell is he to tell us how we should rebuild and live?”

The same struggles architects faced in the city after the Second World War are being faced down today.  And moreover, “The world’s professors continue to observe Ukraine through the frame of Moscow, through the frame of empire and imperialism,” Gubkina continued. “They ignore data, facts, and knowledge. Even more, Ukraine’s architectural history has always been told by Russian historians, and these are the texts that are read in the West about us.  This meant that Ukrainian constructivism has always been built into Soviet Russian constructivism, or even worse, as just part of the Russian avant-garde. Even the existence of Ukrainian constructivism was generally denied!” she elaborated. “Now Westerners like Foster are trying to explain to us our history, which is also problematic.”

In her book about Soviet modernism, brutalism, and postmodernism in Ukraine, Gubkina actively fights against this notion, affirming that Ukraine’s architectural history is indeed its own. Architecture aside, the longstanding conception that Ukraine is merely an appendage of Russia has had not just cultural, but lethal consequences. This pattern, of describing Ukraine as a “small colony” of the Russian empire, perfectly fits Putin’s narrative he used to justify his invasion, stated Gubkina. “In Putin’s speech when he told Ukrainians that, ‘you have no history, you have nothing to fight for, don’t confuse us with the facts that try to destroy the well established idea of Soviet heritage,’ this is all part of his myth he uses to justify bloodshed,” she stated. “We should take a microphone and tell our story from our perspective,” Gubkina continued. “I think the best method of dealing with the postcolonial past is by creating the microphone for us to be heard, to make our voice loud about our story from our perspective,” she stated. “We don’t need mentorship. We need partnership, between people all on the same level without types of hierarchy and segregation, or where someone is telling us about our story and our feelings.”

Perhaps in the city’s reconstruction process—as it bunkers down in preparation for an uncertain future—Kharkiv can become a cacophony of international mutual aid like it was in the 1960s, and a citadel of revolutionary antifascist creativity like the roaring 1920s. In the short term, perhaps the IMF and World Bank can do Kharkiv a desperately needed service by canceling Ukraine’s foreign debts.

I’d like to give special thanks to Jenia Gubkina, Serhiy Hirik, Luis Santana, and Michał Murawski for their generous help with this article, and ofcourse the team at InForma.