When Dmitri Zhuikov talks about the war in his homeland, a tremor creeps into his voice. Then the images of Kharkiv rise in his mind, where the 39-year-old spent his childhood. The laughter of friends and schoolmates, the pictures of the places where they hung out as teenagers, the park bench where Dmitri kissed a girl for the first time: All of this comes to mind when he thinks of Kharkiv. Zhuikov’s hometown in the far east of Ukraine was the second largest metropolis in the country until the Russian invasion. A good 1.5 million people live here, just 40 kilometers from the Russian border.
Kharkiv: “a symbol for the suffering of the people”
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on a visit to Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, with Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba next to her
In Kharkiv, one of the invaders’ first targets, the extent of the destruction is particularly great. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock was also able to see this for herself. During a surprise visit in early January, she called Kharkiv a “symbol of the absolute madness of the Russian war of aggression and the suffering of the people.” At the same time, Kharkiv stands for the courage of the Ukrainians to resist Russian aggression, said Baerbock amidst bombed-out houses.
Russian troops had besieged, bombed and fired at the city of millions for months, Russian soldiers had advanced to the outskirts of the city and hundreds of civilians died. But in the end, the Ukrainian military was able to liberate the region. That was last fall.
“A heavy defeat for the Russians,” says Dmitri Zhuikov, “since then the city can no longer be reached by their artillery, a step forward.” However, there is still a risk of strategic bombers and medium-range missiles.
Entire neighborhoods were shot to pieces
According to Zhuikov, many people left Kharkiv. The ruins remained: badly damaged buildings spread across the entire city area. The residential areas on the north-eastern outskirts of the city, where the Russians had tried to advance, were particularly hard hit. “They completely shot up entire suburbs,” says Zhuikov. Heavy destruction also in the city center: the town hall, the building of the Kharkiv regional administration, university facilities – many public buildings were badly hit.
Broken panes of glass, collapsed roofs, completely burned-out houses – Mayor Ihor Terekhov counted around 3,500 damaged houses by July last year, around 500 of which could no longer be repaired. “At least 150,000 people have lost the roof over their heads,” says Zhuikov. Listed Art Nouveau buildings were hit, as was a brand-new shopping center in the city center, an indoor swimming pool, a huge power plant, and the university’s sports complex and stadium, where Zhuikov played football as a young boy.
Concern about family and friends
Born in Kharkiv in 1983 as the son of an architect, Dmitri Zhuikov followed in his mother’s footsteps at an early age. He studied construction and architecture at the Technical University and then worked as an architect. He met his wife from Mariupol, also an architect. They went to Dessau together in 2012 and completed their master’s degree in the Bauhaus city. The couple stayed in Germany and now have two small children. Dmitri Zhuikov works for an architecture office in Munich. He still feels closely connected to his homeland. “Even though my family is safe here, many of my acquaintances, friends and relatives are still in eastern Ukraine,” he says, “and I am suffering with them.”
Norman Foster’s master plan
In December, it was the British star architect Norman Foster who drew the world’s attention to Kharkiv. Foster presented Mayor Terekhov with a master plan for reconstruction. It is based on five pilot projects: “Cultural Heritage Project” to create a new architectural landmark in the city center, “River Project” to transform a six-kilometer green strip between the Kharkiv and Nemyshlya rivers for pedestrians and cyclists.
Star architect Sir Norman Foster (right) presented his master plan for the reconstruction in Kharkiv
For the “industrial project,” Foster, who developed his master plan together with a group of Ukrainian architects, wants to convert a coal-fired power plant into a center for clean energy and food. A “Science” pilot project aims to attract technology companies, research firms and start-ups to the eastern Ukrainian city. Finally, Foster’s “housing project” aims to make existing buildings more modern and energy-efficient.
When he thinks about rebuilding his hometown, Dmitri Zhuikov’s fingers are itching. He would like to be part of it, to help plan and build. Above all, he sees great opportunities: “Reconstruction could bring about the energy transition in Kharkiv,” believes the Munich-based architect. Many buildings were hardly insulated even before the war. “The need is huge.” He also knows that what is not in the planning will not be implemented. “And it can get really cold in Kharkiv,” said Zhuikov.
During the war, he says, many people would have networked more closely, would have learned to help each other, to be more offensive and committed to their interests. Zhuikov is convinced that Kharkiv will benefit from this, “because citizen participation is important for reconstruction.”
But before it can get going, peace must first return. At present, many buildings are still being repaired and the critical infrastructure of district heating, electricity and water networks is being restored. “We Ukrainians are good at improvising,” says Zhuikov. External help, as promised by German Foreign Minister Baerbock, is well invested. “The war is a tragedy for Ukraine, but with great opportunities,” says Dmitri Zhuikov. “I hope they will be used.”