When War Hits Home: On the Ground in Kharkiv, Cincinnati’s Sister City

The Sister City Partnership started sending aid to Cincinnati’s friends in Kharkiv as soon as Russia invaded Ukraine. Now they wait, worry, and work to maintain as much connection as possible.

Editor’s Note: Learn how you can help Cincinnati’s sister city Kharkiv rebuild by visiting cincy-kharkiv.org.

Polina Tymoshenko has almost grown accustomed to the roar coming out of the north. Sometimes it sounds like a hungry stomach, she says, or a distant growling rumble like an approaching storm. But too often it’s like tonight.

Photographer Sasha Maslov’s grandmother once lived in this building in the Saltivka neighborhood of Kharkiv, Ukraine.

Photograph by Sasha Maslov

A cacophony of bone-jarring lethality roused Tymoshenko out of a fitful slumber. She, her husband, and six refugees she’d recently taken in bolted to their safe room as blinding flashes of white flame cancelled out the star-filled sky. They huddled be- hind two thick protective walls, unable to do anything but wait and pray. Fortune would either be with them, or they’d die in their night clothes.

This is life in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Cincinnati’s sister city. I hear about the situation first-hand in a Zoom call in late May with Tymoshenko and Volodymyr Bulba, just hours after the latest shelling. “All our lives here in Kharkiv can be divided before and after February 24,” says Bulba, a college professor with a resonant but soothing voice. “That date is when a new life began.”

February 24 will forever be Ukraine’s Day of Infamy, when Russian soldiers poured over the border in a brutal attempt to subjugate their neighbor and wipe out its emerging democracy. “Oh, yes,” says Tymoshenko. “That day everything fell apart. We lost our spiritual and our physical balance. Nothing is the same.”

Russian soldiers invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. In August, the conflict still rages on.

Photograph by Sasha Maslov

It’s been 20 years since Tymoshenko and Bulba walked the streets of Cincinnati. They visited our neighborhoods and suburbs, spent hours in our schools, admired our architecture, and enjoyed ice cream on Fountain Square. They were among several groups of Kharkivites who have visited the Queen City over the years since the sister city relationship was formed in 1989, and they remember the trip fondly, vividly recalling that their visit came as the United States was dealing with the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. They were here for only three weeks, but the friends here they made remain friends—and they’re now part of The Cause.

Bob Herring had felt the tension in the weeks leading up to the invasion. The former principal of Nativity School in Pleasant Ridge has been to Kharkiv five times and currently serves as president of the Cincinnati-Kharkiv Sister Cities Partnership. He has friends there, or he did. Some have fled, while some doggedly remain and help keep the city running. Some, he acknowledges with a shudder, he can’t say.

“I’m still in touch with my friend Tamara,” says Susan Neaman, the organization’s vice president. She speaks with a hesitant cadence that reflects her concern. “She’s still in Kharkiv, and what she says I have great trouble with.”

Tamara, who is in her 70s, sounds like all our grandmothers. Everything is fine. Don’t worry about me. The shops are open. We have food and water and electricity. We are safe. Neaman suspects Tamara, whom she hosted when Tamara visited Cincinnati, is shielding her from the truth.

“We don’t know if our conversations are being monitored, but I do know Tamara lives in a tiny Soviet-style apartment building in Kharkiv, and I mean tiny,” says Neaman. The Russians have either targeted civilian housing or simply fire off missiles randomly that have hit and destroyed hundreds of apartments. Neaman wonders if one of those apartment buildings is Tamara’s.

Polina Tymoshenko delivers household items purchased with Cincinnati donations across Kharkiv.

Photograph courtesy Polina Tymoshenko

“It’s like you are watching a horror movie,” Tymoshenko says on our Zoom call. “It’s impossible to imagine that all these horrors are happening to your city.” She has a jolly laugh and answers my questions at length through a translator. There’s no question she would be the life of any party, but war has hardened her resolve and exposed a defiant trait that keeps her focused.

Tymoshenko puts her 20 years of experience as a social worker into practice every day in Kharkiv. She darts from one bombed-out neighborhood to another delivering medical supplies, helping homeless families resettle or evacuate, and dispensing a sort of psychological triage to hundreds of anguished residents. She says she’ll carry stories of individual tragedies forever. Adding to her burden is constant concern for her son, who enlisted in the Ukrainian Army immediately after the invasion.

On the call, Tymoshenko sits to the side of a Ukrainian flag mounted on the wall. There are bold Cyrillic letters imprinted across the flag’s lower half that read, she says, “We are from Kharkiv. We are processing the invaders into fertilizer.”

Sister city partnerships were established during the Cold War when President Dwight Eisenhower envisioned a citizen-to-citizen exchange program to form economic, cultural, and personal bonds among the world’s peoples. It took 32 years and the leadership of then-Mayor Charlie Luken for Cincinnati to score its first partnership, twinning with Liuzou, China, and Gifu, Japan. Kharkiv joined a year later in 1989; back then it was a city in the old Soviet Union, and it was known as Kharkov. Today, Cincinnati has nine sister cities: Liuzou, Gifu, Kharkiv, Nancy (France), New Taipei City (Taiwan), Harare (Zimbabwe), Mysore (India), Amman (Jordan), and perhaps our most famous partner, Munich.

Kharkiv is Ukraine’s second largest city but shares similar traits with Cincinnati. It’s home to a large public university and Freedom Square, a gigantic downtown plaza that would dwarf Fountain Square. We buy our fresh produce at Findlay Market while Kharkivites shop at Tsentralniy Market. There are several major hospitals and an impressive music hall. We have Washington Park; Kharkiv citizens stroll the leafy gardens of Shevchenko Park. North of the city, Maxim Gorky Central Park might remind you of mash-up of Mt. Airy Forest and Coney Island. Like Cincinnati, two rivers flow through Kharkiv (the Lopan and the Udy), although they’re more like the Licking than the mighty Ohio.

Photograph by Sasha Maslov

“There was an energy there, especially among the young people,” Neaman says of her four trips to Kharkiv. “There was a sense of pride and mission that was palpable. They were very optimistic about the future.” Left unsaid, but written all over her face, is that memory now sullied by bombs and bullets.

Nearly every block of our sister city and its surrounding villages has been punished by artillery, rockets, mortar barrages, and bombs dropped from the sky. Freedom Square is a cratered moonscape, while their music hall, opera house, museums, and government building lie in ruins. Apartment buildings, their facades peeled away, expose the ruin of thousands of lives. The air raid siren has become almost background noise since the invasion began. Even after the Ukrainian Army pushed the Russians back to their border in May, the invaders continued to pour death into the city. Shelling picked up again in June.

It’s easy to see why Kharkiv is still in danger. The city lies just 25 miles south of the Russian border, about as close as the Monroe Outlets are from downtown Cincinnati. When the war began, Kharkiv absorbed an artillery shellacking as Russian soldiers drove across the frontier. Ukrainian defenders dug in at the top of the highway loop that circles the city and halted the Russian advance.

“Think of it this way,” says Herring. “If you lived in Fairfield, Hamilton, West Chester, or Loveland, you were in occupied territory. The front line was I-275.” But no one was spared artillery fire, especially when the Russians were able to move their big guns forward as the infantry advanced. Even Kharkiv’s southern suburbs, like Merefa, where Tymoshenko lives, were shelled. If the war were here, that would put Florence and CVG airport under the guns.

Herring thinks back a few years to happier times when a group of fresh-faced young men from Kharkiv wanted to start a baseball team. “They did this on their own,” he says. “They wanted to play the great American pastime in a country where there were only soccer fields and no balls, bats, or gloves.” The men appealed to Cincinnati for help, and it came.

Kharkiv’s baseball team poses with a Cincinnati Reds flag and the flag of Ukraine.

Photograph courtesy Bob Herring

The Sister City Partnership contacted the Reds, Knothole Baseball, and the Cincinnati Recreation Commission to obtain equipment and then began considering a program that would bring these men to Cincinnati to watch and play baseball at all levels—professional, college, high school, and Knothole. Unfortunately, Herring laments, the trip fell through when the U.S. government denied the men visas, worrying they might not return to their homes. Still, they were able to organize a game in Gorky Park, and the mayor of Kharkiv came to watch.

“The Sister City Summer Classic is still my dream when this is over,” says Herring. “A team from Kharkiv comes here one year, and a team from Cincinnati goes to Kharkiv the next.”

He and I look at the photos of the smiling boys in American baseball gear and wonder: They are all of military age. What horrors have they experienced? What’s happened to their homes and families? Are they even alive?

Photograph by Sasha Maslov

It is kids who are central to the heart of Herring’s passion for Kharkiv. In the early 1990s, a delegation from Kharkiv that included the vice principal from Kharkiv School No. 3 visited Cincinnati and spent three days at Nativity, where Herring had created a global education program. “Yuri Golb was the vice principal from Kharkiv, and he visited every classroom during those three days,” Herring recalls. “We developed a real friendship and began talking about an exchange program.”

Herring wasn’t involved in the Sister Cities program at the time, but he was hooked after the visit and soon found himself in Kharkiv, staying in the home of School No. 3 teacher Iryna Bakumenko, who went on to become president of Kharkiv’s sister city program. Iryna has fled to England, and Herring wonders if the exchange program will ever be revived.

The outbreak of hostilities also ended, at least temporarily, a potential exchange program among Cincinnati’s and Kharkiv’s suburbs. Herring says he hopes Denys Tkackov will eventually be able to come to Cincinnati to continue his government-to-government outreach with some of our suburbs. He was scheduled to visit in early March to study how some of our jurisdictions share costs and responsibilities such as fire protection. Tkackov and his family have now fled to France.

It was 4 a.m. on invasion Thursday when Bulba awakened to a loud buzzing noise as a nearby explosion rattled his house. Rockets likely launched from nearby Belgorod, Russia, were flying overhead, and the black sky was alight. His children and others who live nearby ran to his home, which has a basement. “Everyone brought their pillows,” Bulba remembers, “and the little ones all thought it was a big game. The women were crying, of course, but the kids, at least the young ones, were excited.”

He would see that same juxtaposition of fear and excitement days later as he passed out medical supplies and words of encouragement to women and children huddled underground in Kharkiv’s subway tunnels. Those supplies have a direct connection to Cincinnati. “I get very emotional when I talk about it,” Bulba says softly. The lighting is muted on our Zoom call, but he’s clearly fighting back tears. “Literally, just a few hours after the tragedy began, my friends in Cincinnati contacted us and asked what they could do to help. I realized they cared and we weren’t alone.”

Bulba is a man with connections and, like Tymoshenko, a whirlwind of action. Within days of the war starting, he helped create the School of Courage, a volunteer organization dedicated to helping thousands of displaced Kharkivites with the delivery of products essential to life. Tymoshenko, a former student of his, is one of many courageous drivers. Food, bottled water, medicines, and personal hygiene products were at the top of Bulba’s wish list, and when he forwarded those needs to his Cincinnati connections, Herring, Neaman, and the rest of the Sister City Partnership got to work.

Volodymyr Bulba

Photograph by Olga Fedchenko

A three-week-long web-based and word-of-mouth fund-raiser in late March and early April netted $100,000, all of it from individual donations. The Cincinnati group wire-transferred the funds to the Red Cross Kharkiv, which purchased supplies that the School of Courage helped to deliver.

That was closely followed by a separate effort from the Procter & Gamble Alumni Group that raised nearly $300,000 over Easter weekend from its expansive membership. Kathleen Dillon Carroll, a marketing expert and P&G alumna, credits John and Frances Pepper for jump-starting the P&G effort by providing $50,000 in matching funds. Those funds were earmarked for the charity Mission to Ukraine and used to purchase a variety of desperately needed medical and personal supplies, as well as power generators to keep the hospitals running.

Music students at Walnut Hills High School hurriedly organized a benefit concert, and Northern Kentucky University sponsored an event featuring two world-renowned Ukrainian pianists, both NKU graduates. Cincinnati Chefs for Ukraine hosted a massive pierogi party at the OTR StillHouse.

Bulba holds up a piece of paper printed with the Cincinnati-Kharkiv sister city logo. “This is the heart of Ukraine and the symbol of the helping hand of Cincinnati,” he says. “Your funds have helped so many people with medicines. We have been able also to purchase generators, rescue equipment, and tools to help us clear the rubble in our streets. We would never have imagined this could happen.”

It’s been months since the Russian invasion began, and yet the brutality of war continues. Cincinnati was all in from the beginning. The questions now are: What’s next? Where will home be?

“We have reached out to the Biden administration and let them know that Cincinnati would be proud to provide a home for Ukrainian refugees,” says Mayor Aftab Pureval. “It’s out of our hands for now, but we’ve been working with Catholic Charities to be ready.” The U.S. has committed to accepting up to 100,000 displaced Ukrainians.

Neaman hopes to be among the first in line. She’s housed three sets of Kharkivites in the past and desperately wants to bring her friend, Viktoria Marinuk, and her 13-year-old daughter, Irina, to Cincinnati for resettlement. Viktoria, who taught English to young adults in Kharkiv before the war, fled to Slovakia, where she now works with mental health professionals tending to traumatized Ukrainian refugees. Getting Viktoria and Irina here will involve a lot of paperwork, vetting, and approval by the American Embassy in Bratislava and a pledge by Neaman to financially support them once here. It will likely be a slow process.

Many of Cincinnati’s sister city friends have, in fact, fled the war zone. Most are women and children—males between 18 and 60, with some exceptions, can’t leave—and they’ve relocated to England, France, Germany, Poland, and other European nations where they’re trying to rebuild their lives. Some, like Tymoshenko and Bulba, remain in immediate peril, doing what they can to keep themselves, their families, and their neighbors alive. Others have stayed in-country but moved to central or western Ukraine, out of the reach of Russia’s guns.

Photograph by Sasha Maslov

“Will they come back to Kharkiv? Can they come back and, if they do, to what?” Herring asks rhetorically. If they do, he hopes the Sister City Partnership will be there to help rebuild. What Kharkiv will need and when is unknown and, assuming the city remains Ukrainian territory, the job of rebuilding will require a lot more than what Cincinnati alone can provide.

Cincinnati’s sister city leadership team clearly has the contacts in Kharkiv. They have a love for the city and its people and, most importantly, their trust. Cincinnati, says Herring, has strong companies with skilled people and vital equipment that can make a difference. Maybe when the dust clears and the enemy has been expelled, they can help bring Kharkiv back to life.

“It was a beautiful city, and it’s been ruined,” Herring laments. “I know it’s not possible now, but I am dreaming about what we can do to help them rebuild.”

“It’ll be a while,” Neaman says sadly. Herring gives a quick nod. He knows.

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