Frozen Fountains and Soviet Scenes in a Kharkiv Winter

Early in fall, I spent a day in Kharkiv for a conference. The day in question was overcast and gray, though there wasn’t snow on the ground yet. Daylight savings time had just ended, and I wasn’t used to darkness descending at 3:30 pm. All day I was at Karazin University, next to a ninth-floor window with a great view of the Dherzpom, an imposing monolith that was the first skyscraper in the USSR, built during the brief period, just after the Bolshevik Revolution, when Kharkiv was the capital of Ukraine.

Dherzpom, Kharkiv
the Dherzpom

I went around in a haze that day, feeling like I was immersed in a modernist Soviet dreamworld. I was not prepared for that part of the city: the Dherzpom, Karazin University (built in a similar style), and the enormous brick Freedom Square now stripped of its Lenin statue after the Revolution of Dignity in 2014. It’s hard to describe the feeling of this place on a cold, gray fall day. The gray bricks of the square were just a few shades darker than the sky, and the tall off-white skyscrapers were a few shades lighter. Perhaps it was this palette, or maybe it was the palpable police presence on the square, or maybe it was just my mood–but wow, after a decade of traveling around eastern Europe, I have never felt so much like I had stepped into the Soviet Union.

Sumska Street, Kharkiv
Les Kurbas’s theatre on Sumska street in a snowstorm, 2018

Stroll down Sumska Street, the main drag connection Freedom Square with the old downtown, and you’ll go through Shevchenko Park, which is anchored by an amazing modernist sculpture of Shevchenko surrounded by his characters, from 1935. You’ll pass some lovely cafes, a Japanese restaurant I haven’t tried, and then you’ll hit the Kharkiv State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre, which is across from the Mirror Stream fountain and a lovely Orthodox church.

Monument to Taras Shevchenko, Kharkiv
Monument to Taras Shevchenko

The Opera theatre is a wild example of brutalist architecture, though the front of the building, with an overhang designed to make people walking in feel small, is tempered by advertisements. Head to the side of the building to take in the full impact. Let’s just say it’s not a building that communicates the lightness, joy, or imagination of art. This is the architecture of power and domination. What really boggles the mind is that this building was completed the year the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine became independent–1991.

Opera Theatre, Kharkiv
The Opera House
Kharkiv frozen fountain
The Mirror Stream…frozen and still switched on.

The contrast with the park, church, and fountain across the street is pretty intense, even though, when I visited in December, the fountain had frozen into something like an ice Christmas Tree. And yes, it was still on–water was burbling out of the top.

Pro-tip for anyone visiting Kharkiv: Hotel 19, on Sumska street just next to the Opera Theatre, is a steal. I haven’t seen a room that costs more than $50/night. I know that’s not cheap for Kharkiv, but if you’re used to western-style comforts, you’ll get them here, and it’s a 10 minute walk from a metro station that’s on the same line as the main train station. AND: there is an amazing free breakfast in the restaurant next door. This is no crap American buffet, but a cooked-to-order feast of two courses. With latte art and avo toast. And there’s hair conditioner in the rooms (only place I’ve seen this in Ukraine)!

Thanks to all the great Eastern Europe travel blogs (like this one) for making me feel like I’m not alone in being interested in these places, and for providing great advice. Concrete and Kitsch is a great example and his account of visiting the Dzherpom is classic!