The Soviet-era apartment blocks in Saltivka once housed a half-million people, one of the largest neighbourhoods in Europe. Now perhaps only dozens remain. Some of the buildings are blackened, while others are crumbling slab by slab.
“This is my home,” says the 37-year-old Lazar, who is shirtless in the soaring summer heat, revealing a machine gun tattoo on his right arm. He proclaims he’s ready to fight the Russians, but his only weapons are kitchen knives.
A broken guitar hangs on the wall of his apartment. Lazar, a musician, dreams of holding a defiant concert in Saltivka’s echoing, cat-roamed streets. In better days, he played for crowds in the plazas of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, which is showing signs of rebounding from the war — even though it’s only a short distance from the border with Russia.
Saltivka, by comparison, is almost dead. Past a final subway station dedicated to heroes, all activity sputters out. Shops are closed and apartment blocks gape with broken windows. In one, a table-sized chunk of concrete twists slowly on a shred of rebar, waiting to fall.
Tall grass overtakes abandoned playgrounds scattered with fallen and ripened cherries. Soldiers’ trenches are bare. In a few apartments now ripped open, laundry still hangs on the line.
From time to time, a car crunches along the debris. It might bring movers trying to salvage some furniture or volunteers bringing assistance.
Outside Lazar’s building, people have assembled a modest kitchen with a mounted bell to ring when the day’s food arrives. Near the teapot on a wood stove, ammunition boxes now hold bread slowly going stale.
Some electricity has returned but running water has not. Lazar ducks into a basement where water still gurgles for bathing. Two middle-aged women emerge from the darkness, looking fresh, and walk away.
Life without options
But life is less an adventure for those with no options. Pavel Govoryhov, 84, sits in the entrance of a building now as fragile as himself. He has two canes at hand. For four months, he lived in the basement before moving back into his apartment. He tenses at sudden noises. Just speaking about his struggles brings him to tears.
“My children don’t help me,” he says. “Why do I need such a life?”
In time, he knows, winter will return to the unheated apartment blocks without mercy.
The Russians could do the same. More than 600 civilians have been killed in the Kharkiv region north of Donetsk since the invasion, some in Saltiva. Ukrainian authorities have alleged that the Russians used banned cluster bombs.
Communities around the edges of Kharkiv are still in uncertain hands, reportedly part of Moscow’s strategy to keep Ukrainian troops so distracted that they cannot be sent to places like Donetsk where the Russians are chewing away at entire cities.
“You don’t wish this on anyone,” says Bogdan Netsov, 14, who lives with his family in an apartment with curtains drawn.
In another Saltivka building, a scrawled sign in the stairway warns potential occupiers that “if you come in, you’ll get killed”.
This is where Viktor Shevchenko still calls home, even as he needs the light of his cellphone to see through its gloom in the daylight hours.
“This is me speaking for the whole world,” he says, unshaven and fortified by tea. “We will push Russia away. Because we are patriots, and we live on our land.”
Dishes lie smashed in his destroyed kitchen. A religious symbol from his Orthodox faith is scorched. A clock on the wall, like the neighbourhood around him, has stopped working.
Shevchenko reaches for the clock and winds it.
“It runs,” he says, with a touch of pride. “It runs.”
On unsteady legs, he returns to the silence of Saltivka, the ticking clock in his hands.