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The Capital Number Two


The city of Kharkiv is about four hundred years old. In spite of its venerable age and industrial might it always took a back seat to Kyiv, enjoying only a short spell as the capital in the 1920s and early 30s.Andriy PYROHIV, an inveterate traveler, takes a look at Kharkiv, its past and present.


Photos by Halyna Ivashchenko


About 360 years ago, a Ukrainian Cossack named Kharyton, better known as Kharko, founded a settlement at the edge of what had been historically known as Dyke Pole — the Wild Fields, the plains where nomads roamed and dangers lurked.

He hardly suspected that his settlement would grow into a major city. Kharkiv, that allegedly took its name from that Cossack, boasts the first university in Ukraine, the biggest square in Europe, and arguably the most elegant Orthodox church.

Kharkiv is an unusual place — unusual in many respects. You can make your own discoveries if you take a long walk along the central streets, if you watch the people in the streets, if you look at the gigantic Derzhprom office buildings designed in the Constructivist style (Le Corbusier himself would have been greatly impressed by it if he had seen it; just to remind the reader — Le Corbusier was a Swiss-born French architect and writer who designed numerous functional concrete buildings and high-rise residential complexes), or if you pay a visit to the Pokrovsky Cathedral. If you happen to be a believer, you will worship there. If you are a connoisseur of architecture, you will surely appreciate the play of light inside that church and its architectural perfection.


Capital and churches

Kharkiv was raised to the status of the capital of Ukraine by the victorious Bolsheviks — the first attempt to do so during the Civil War was not quite successful, but at the end of 1919 the second try succeeded and Kharkiv gloried in being the capital until 1934, when the capital was moved back to Kyiv. It would take a separate article to explain such erratic behavior of the Soviet leadership — so let us simply say that there were reasons for this capital-shifting business, both irrational and rational.

During its short-lived period of being capital, Kharkiv was turned into a major scientific and cultural center of Ukraine — the Bolsheviks must be given credit for that.

And what is more surprising — the militantly atheistic soviets spared most of the architectural landmarks which Kharkiv had at the moment when the Bolsheviks grabbed power not only in Russia but in Ukraine as well. Incidentally, Kyiv was not so lucky — the list of landmarks vandalized and destroyed by the “most progressive regime” in the world is pretty long indeed.

Probably the earliest surviving architectural landmark is the Pokrovksy Cathedral that belonged to the Pokrovsky Monastery. It was built in 1689 within the walls of the fortress into which the early settlement had morphed. The cathedral is a fine example of what is called Ukrainian Baroque. Architecturally, it is an eclectic creation — but a very impressive one.

Another prominent — prominent both in the metaphorical and literal sense of the word — architectural landmark is the five-domed Uspensky (Assumption) Cathedral that dates from 1777. It took only six years to build and decorate it — construction of churches of such a size often took decades, if not centuries. In the 1930s, the Uspensky Cathedral was turned into a concert hall.

The Blahovishchensky (Glad-News Annunciation) Cathedral (1888) and the Choral Synagogue (1914) are landmarks worth having a look at — if you are religious, you are surely welcome to come in and worship.

The Blahovishchensky Cathedral is a place full of decorative splendor — marble, murals, icons and relics combine to awe both the curious and the faithful.


Education and literature

It was in 1726 that a school was founded in Kharkiv which was destined to become the first fully-fledged educational establishment of higher learning in Ukraine (Kyiv had a school, Kyiv Mohyla Academy, which had been founded earlier, but Kharkiv’s school was the first to acquire the full status of a higher educational establishment).

The Kharkiv school was called “kolehium”, with the faculty made up of the best teachers. Among those who taught at the Kharkiv kolehium was the Ukrainian itinerant philosopher Hryhory Skovoroda who deserves to be called “a towering cultural figure” of the eighteenth century in Ukraine. In 1805, Kharkiv celebrated the opening of a university, the first one in Ukraine. This university was instrumental in forming the core of Kharkiv intelligentsia. The fact that among the professors were many of those who came from Western Europe provided a significant cultural boost — the students imbibed the traditions of independent thinking and learnt things in various fields of knowledge which were not taught anywhere else in Ukraine or Russia.

The graduates of the university promoted the development of businesses, sciences and the arts. Architects with university training made sure their ideas were implemented. Kharkiv was transformed from a town of wooden architecture into the city of stone and brick, of street cars, electricity and gas. In many of these advances Kharkiv was ahead of all other cities of the Russian empire. In the twentieth century three of the Kharkiv University graduates became Nobel Prize winners — Ivan Mechnikov (chemistry, author of the table of chemical elements), Lev Landau (physicist) and Simon Kuznets (economics).

It was in Kharkiv that a literary school developed, one of the first of its kind in Ukraine. Its founder was the writer Hryhory Kvitka-Osnovyanenko who was honored in the twentieth century by having one of the streets named after him. He did not become a world classic but contributed a lot to the development of Ukrainian literature. The Ukrainian classic of music, Mykola Lysenko, was launched into his musical career from Kharkiv.

In the early twenties, a number of literati formed a literary movement which did deserve to be called “Ukrainian renaissance” (Mykola Khvylyovy, Les Kurbas, Mykola Kulish, to name just a couple of them) — but in the early nineteen-thirties most of these authors were pronounced “decadent modernists”, arrested, accused of being “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalists” and of plotting the overthrow of the soviet regime — and executed. Some who were not, were put into concentration camps. These representatives of the Ukrainian renaissance were later called “the generation that was shot.”


Architectural music

Even if your knowledge of architectural styles is not too profound, you can hardly miss the grandeur and versatility of many architectural landmarks in Kharkiv. Taking a stroll through the streets of Kharkiv is like listening to a symphony being performed in stone.

The Second World War, to a large extent, spared Kharkiv even though the city changed hands two times and was the focal point of much fierce fighting.

A more architecturally perceptive eye will notice buildings that belong to various stages in the development of architecture in the twentieth century, and several buildings surely deserve being put on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites.

Unfortunately, there are multiplying signs of inescapable progress which may eventually obliterate some of Kharkiv’s architectural uniqueness by introducing modern window frames which look the same the world over; high-rises, all covered in glass, are indistinguishable one from the other, no matter which part of the world you are visiting.

There are a couple of dozens of buildings in Kharkiv which excellently represent the style known as “Ukrainian Modern”, a variation of Art Nouveau.

One of such buildings is known as Ivan Boyko’s. It was built in 1911. Its interiors were decorated by prominent painters, and some of these interior decorations have survived.

The Art School, also of 1911, is arguably the best known building in Kharkiv in the Ukrainian Modern style. Its towers, its exterior decorative elements and its majolica create a powerful presence in the street where it is situated.

The central square of Kharkiv, Ploshcha Svobody, occupies a territory of 12 hectares and is in fact the biggest square in Europe.

No wonder it was chosen as the venue for the gig of the British rock band Queen in 2008. The immense Derzhprom office building served as an impressive backdrop for the show. The Derzhprom building is incontestably the most impressive building in the Ukrainian Constructivist style. It was built in 1928 to demonstrate the enormity and power of the state-run industries.

The Nazi Germans, who occupied the city during WWII for two years, tried to blow the building up when they were being forced out of the city by the advancing Red Army, but the attempt failed. The state-run industries seemed indestructible.

The list of architectural landmarks to be seen in Kharkiv is pretty long, but it is not so much individual buildings that create a very special appearance of Kharkiv but their monolithic, collective presence.

Take a slow walk, take a good look, and listen to the music of architecture.




Gigantic Derzhprom offices is a fine example of the Constructivist architectural style.


The river that flows through Kharkiv shares the name with the city itself.


Euro 2012 Championship three group-stage matches will be played at this Kharkiv stadium which is the home ground of the local football club Metalist.


Kharkiv’s central railroad terminal.


The Blahovishchensky Cathedral is a place full of decorative splendor — marble, murals, icons and relics combine to awe both the curious and the faithful.


Five-domed Uspensky (Assumption) Cathedral is a prominent architectural landmark that dates from 1777.


Monument to Taras Shevchenko, a prominent Ukrainian poet and thinker.


The Dzerkalny strumin (Crystal-clear Stream) fountain that doubles as a gazebo is one of the emblems of Kharkiv.


The Blahovishchensky Cathedral is a landmark worth having a look at even if you are not a religious person.






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