This spring’s field trip to Kharkiv unearthed some dark sides of the city. These were shown to me by local writers after they heard about my new focus. Three memory sites, in particular, struck me as worth mentioning here.
The first is a building which now houses the Ministry of Internal Affairs for the Kharkiv region. This very central structure was always an integral part of the local landscape for me, until Serhiy Zhadan, back in Washington DC, told me to look for a memorial plaque on its side. This spring, together with Rostyslav Melnykiv, one of the authors of the article mentioned in my previous post, I headed out to find it. It wasn’t obvious, but there it was – on the side of the building facing Chernyshevskaya street.
The plaque, commemorating 3809 Polish offers and nearly 500 Polish citizens shot inside this building in 1940, says that The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) and its prison were located here in the Soviet era. The next time I saw my mother, a born-and-bred Kharkivite, I asked her what she knew about the former NKVD in the city centre.
She frowned. Then she told me about an older lady, now deceased, who was her close friend for many years. The lady lived in the centre (mom later showed me the street), and, together with other people of her generation, she remembered the Red Army’s retreat from Kharkiv during World War II. According to those witnesses, prisoners were burned in the NKDV during the retreat, and for days (or weeks) afterwards, the city smelled of burnt human flesh. That smell is what my mother’s friend remembered.
But there are no other memorial plaques on this building.
Unable to look at it in the same way ever again, I began crossing the street whenever I had to pass by. Several days later, I told Andrei Krasniashchikh of what I’ve heard. Andrei, a self-professed lover of Kharkiv, had co-authored “Kharkiv in the Mirror of World Literature” – a comprehensive collection of international literary quotes mentioning the city and its various nooks and crannies. In response to my story about the NKVD, he told me about the infamous Extraordinary State Commission of Kharkiv (Харьковская ЧК), headed by the sadistic Stepan Saenko. Saenko is mentioned in A.I. Solzhenitsin’s “Архипелаг ГУЛАГ” and A.N. Tolstoy’s “Хождение по мукам”. Even earlier, poet Velimir Khlebnikov described this murderer in his poem “Председатель чеки” (1921):
Тот город славился именем Саенки
Про него рассказывали, что он говорил,
Что из всех яблок он любит только глазные.
„И заказные”, — добавлял, улыбаясь в усы.
Дом чеки стоял на высоком утесе из глины,
На берегу глубокого оврага,
И задними окнами повернут к обрыву.
Оттуда не доносилось стонов.
Мертвых выбрасывали из окон в обрыв.
Several days later, together with Andrei and Yury Tsaplin, another co-author of the Kharkiv literature article (and a writer in his own right), we went to seek out this Cheka building. It is now a residential house located at Chaikovskaya 16, and it is, indeed, a dark-looking place. Not as dark these days, however, as it was in 1919. There are no memorial plaques here, either. Koshachy Yar (Cat’s Ravine), where bodies were tossed after torture and execution, is now merely a lowering of the city’s terrain.
The most recent (and therefore perhaps the most haunting) memory site, however, is the third one on my list.
… to be continued.
(Click for Part 2)