Subterranean schools and secret opera performances are testament to the resilience of Ukraine’s battered second city

Catherine Philp

The Times

March 15, 2024


Just before 9am, the excited schoolchildren bid their parents goodbye and descend into the fluorescent light of the underground station.

Clutching brightly coloured school bags and soft toys, the six-year-olds crowd into administrative offices repurposed as classrooms. A train clatters into the platform, where a billboard exhorts would-be recruits to join Ukraine’s army and “write your name in history”.

This new school, buried deep under Kharkiv’s scarred and battered streets, is one of five carved from the existing metro system, allowing a fraction of children to return to class for the first time since the Russian invasion.

Another two, entirely brand new, underground schools are under construction, part of a subterranean parallel existence in Ukraine’s second-largest city, just 25 miles from the border. “We cannot just wait passively for the war to end,” Valeriy Shepel, a spokesman for the local education department, says. “We make things that are possible out of the impossible because we are in Kharkiv.”

The city was one of the first targets of the invading army when it crossed into Ukraine in February 2022. President Putin of Russia and his military planners believed the mostly Russian-speaking city would easily fall. When his forces were beaten back, they began a relentless campaign of shelling and missile fire, sending families fleeing or disappearing underground, living in Kharkiv’s sprawling subway system.

The city’s population shrank from 1.5 million to about 300,000 before a Ukrainian fightback saw Russian lines collapse, bringing exiles back to the city as life began to flourish again above ground. Any sense of safety, however, was shattered last December, as Russia renewed its attacks, launching missiles, drones and aircraft-dropped bombs at civilian targets.

Olha Putyatina, a prosecutor, had returned to her home with her husband Grigory and three young children during summer. “They came back again because they thought Kharkiv was safe again,” said Oleksandr, their neighbour on Kotelnia Street. “They had lived here all their lives.”

They brought their newborn, Pavlo, born away from home in Cherkasy, along with Oleksiy, seven, and Mykhailo, three. All five were burnt alive when Russian drones struck a fuel depot at the end of the street, turning it into “a river of fire” that engulfed 15 houses. Olha’s body was found in the bathroom, clutching the two younger children.

Kharkiv suffers twin handicaps. Its proximity to the Russian border means there is too little time — just 45 seconds, from an air alert alarm to a missile impact — either for residents to reach a shelter or for air defence to shoot the missile down.

Ukrainian forces, meanwhile, are hobbled in their efforts to strike back at the source of fire. Nato countries have prohibited them from using western-provided missiles to strike across the Russian border for fear of sparking a wider conflict between Moscow and the alliance.

Kharkiv has been left to fight with “one hand tied behind our backs”, as one Ukrainian military commander put it, using homegrown, improvised drone technology to strike across the border. “It is the maximum handicap we could possibly have,” Oleg Synehubov, the governor of Kharkiv’s military administration, says. “It’s great when our partners support us and tell us to stay strong, but not when they make it harder.” And so, in an effort to prevent a fresh exodus of its people, particularly its children, Kharkiv is moving life underground.

Elvira and Tatiana, both six, have never been to school. When Elvira hears the siren at home, several times every day, “I crawl and hide under my bed”. Tatiana runs for the comfort of her father’s arms. Both carry stuffed dogs known as “hibuk” (the Hebrew word for “hug”), which were designed to give comfort and stress relief to children under fire. “Outside they are in constant stress, and even the youngest ones realise that they are in a state of war,” Viktoria Fedianina, one of the classroom psychologists explains. “For a few hours they can forget that and learn.”

Ukrainian officials see the barrage against the city as part punitive, part an effort to wear down its resolve and break future resistance to another invasion. Ukrainian military planners are anticipating a major new Russian offensive to reoccupy lost territory in the Kharkiv province and, in time, to launch a renewed assault on the city itself. “Kharkiv is their priority, because Putin can’t forgive the fact that a Russian-speaking city didn’t want to become part of the Russian world,” General Ihor Romanenko, the former deputy chief of Ukraine’s general staff of the armed forces, said last month.

Kharkiv’s cultural resurgence began last year when families such as the Putyatinas returned, cafés and bars began reopening and a new defiance took hold of the city as it vowed to restore normal life.

But the renewed Russian attacks on the city have prevented state cultural institutions, such as the National Opera and Ballet, from resuming public performances, unable to guarantee the safety of their audiences. After two years of near silence, its performers are ready to strike up again, from a stage newly constructed in a concrete bunker deep below the imposing auditorium itself. “If Kharkiv is to live and breathe, it needs its cultural life back,” Ihor Touluzov, the theatre’s general director, explains. Members of the opera were deep in rehearsals for a “public rehearsal” of Carmen — in essence, a secret performance spread only by word of mouth, to circumvent the prohibition on official gatherings.

The rehearsal takes place in stops and starts: while the full-scale theatre offers one of Europe’s largest stages, this bunker substitute is small and cramped, requiring precise choreography to

prevent performers crashing into one another. “It does mean you have to be more creative,” Oleksander Zolotarenko, who plays Don José, laughs. “Underground opera is much better than no opera at all.”

At Kharkiv University, Vasyl Bilors, a criminologist turned military innovator, is battling against time to come up with technology to counter the Russian threat, including modified civilian drones and handmade searchlights that his squads of drone hunters take out with them at night to bring down Russian cross-border drones. The night the Putyatina family perished, Bilors’s drone hunters shot down some three dozen aimed at the city. “But it’s never enough,” he laments.


Catherine Philp is one of Britain’s most experienced foreign correspondents, having covered five continents in nearly 20 years at The Times. She has been based in overseas bureaus and reported on conflicts from Afghanistan to Colombia, winning several international press awards. She is judgmental about hummus and quite poor at looting the residences of fallen despots.