Architecture and Identity in an Urban Environment: The Case of Kharkiv

By
Nataliya Samozvanova and Yaroslav Pylynskyi

Contemporary Kharkiv faces the challenge of capitalizing on its rich legacy as a center of science, culture, commerce, and architecture to develop a viable, regional economy. To explore the history and identity of this city, the Kennan Kyiv Project held a conference on 28 November 2006 titled "Architecture and Identity in an Urban Environment: The Case of Kharkiv." The conference, chaired by Oleksandr Fisun, professor of political science, Kharkiv National University and former Regional Exchange Scholar, Kennan Institute, gathered over 20 scholars, many of whom are alumni of Kennan Institute programs.

In many ways, Kharkiv can be seen as the birthplace of the Ukrainian national idea. It was in the early 19th century that researchers at the local university first began to carry out the ethnographic research on the Ukrainian peasantry that laid the foundation for the national movement. Since that time, it has become a diverse and tolerant metropolis, a center of industry and finance, and for a brief period, the capital of Soviet Ukraine.

Oleksandr Buryak, professor and chair, Department of History of Architecture, Kharkiv Academy of Architecture, gave a historical overview of the city's development. Founded in the 17th century as a Russian military fortress, Kharkiv developed into the administrative, commercial, and cultural center of its region. It continued to grow in importance from the second half of the 18th century up until 1917. The most important period in the history of Kharkiv architecture, according to Buryak, followed the Revolution. A specific style developed in the 1920s and 1930s called "Kharkiv constructivism." Today, according to Buryak, the constructivist period in Kharkiv is associated with the Ukrainian revival of the 1920s.

Svitlana Rybalko, associate professor of design, Kharkiv Academy of Architecture, also discussed the legacy of constructivism, noting that the famous Derzhprom Building incorporated innovative construction methods in addition to its seminal design features. She noted that Kharkiv has more modernist buildings listed recognized by UNESCO than any other Eastern European city. The legacy of constructivism is also widely reflected in contemporary paintings, graphic design, statues, and even book publishing, she noted.

Economic growth in the city encouraged advancements in science and culture, according to Andriy Korneev, associate professor, Kharkiv Academy of Design and Arts. Situated on a major rail junction between the North and South of the Russian Empire, Kharkiv saw its industry boom between 1871 and 1899, when the number of industrial enterprises in the city jumped from 79 to 259.

Although the Soviets emphasized the proletarian nature of the city, Dmytro Chornyi, associate professor and chair, Department of Philosophy, Kharkiv National University, called the notion that Kharkiv was mainly an industrial city a myth. Citing population figures from 1909 that show students and sales clerks outnumbering industrial workers by nearly 3 to 1, Chornyi argued that by the beginning of the 20th century, Kharkiv had become a center of finance and commerce, hosting 17 banks with foreign capital, and maintaining extensive contact with the world outside of the Russian Empire.

Volodymyr Kravchenko, professor and chair, Department of Ukrainian Studies, Kharkiv National University, argued that the formation and development of the Ukrainian national idea was closely connected with Kharkiv University. Founded in 1804 on the initiative of prominent educator Vasyl Nazarovych Karazin, the university gave powerful impetus to the development of Kharkiv as a hub of science, education, and culture. Because Kharkiv was influenced by both Russian imperial and Ukrainian national ideas, but not dominated by either, it retained a strong local identity.

Olga Filippova, associate professor, Department of Sociology, Kharkiv National University and former Regional Exchange Scholar, Kennan Institute, supported this conclusion in her analysis of the hierarchy of identities of residents of the region. For Kharkivites, she said, the most important identification is local, then ethnic, then as citizen of Ukraine. She argued that a multicultural nation building project should replace the inadequate ethnic concept that has been used since independence.

Viktor Pasisnychenko, associate professor of sociology and political science, Kharkiv Pedagogical University and former Regional Exchange Scholar, Kennan Institute, followed by observing that Kharkiv and the Slobozhanshchyna region have always been known for interethnic tolerance. For example, Kharkiv was one of the few cities in the European territory of the Russian Empire in which anti-Jewish riots did not take place at the beginning of the 20th century. A more recent example of this tolerance is the relative peace with which post-Soviet immigrants have been integrated into the life of the city.

Scholars agreed that the primary economic engines in the city were—and continue to be—its industry, trade, and finance. Kharkiv, with its reconstructed pre-Revolutionary houses, tiled sidewalks, cafes, stores, theaters, museums, and academic institutions, has emerged as a truly European city, and will continue to play a crucial role in the formation of the Ukrainian nation.

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