IT might be the second largest city in an independent Ukraine, but when you're walking around Kharkiv, it's easy to imagine you've slipped back in time and returned to the days of the old Soviet Union. Either that, or you've driven 50-or-so miles to the north and headed over the border into Russia.
While Kiev has leant towards the west as it has carved out a distinct post-Communist identity, Kharkiv appears reluctant to throw off its links to the past.
Whether it's the huge statue of Lenin that towers over Ploshcha Svobody – at 750m long, reputedly the second biggest square in the world behind Tiananmen Square in Beijing – the Russian language that is still widely spoken on the streets or the brutalist monumentalism that remains the architectural norm, this is a city torn between two masters.
Loading article content
Even the city's name is open to debate – 'Kharkiv' if you're speaking Ukrainian; the much more commonly used 'Kharkov' in the Russian tongue.
However it is described, it is an integral part of Ukraine, home to the scientific and engineering community that continues to exert significant political influence and a key hub for the heavy industry that dominates the economy of the eastern half of the country.
Yet its historical relationship with Russia makes it more readily identify with the nation to the north rather than its Ukrainian neighbours to the south and west.
It was a prized part of the Russian Empire in the 1700s and the first city in Ukraine to acknowledge and accept Soviet rule in 1917. It was the capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic for a large number of years before Stalin switched his focus to Kiev, and was obliterated during the Second World War as the Germans twice seized control, only for the Russians to eventually wrest it back.
Seventy per cent of the city was destroyed, and Kharkiv was the most populous Soviet city to fall into German hands. As a result, while there are monuments in the city depicting Ukrainian freedom fighters, there are more honouring the Soviet forces who died attempting to liberate Kharkiv.
Stalin took a keen interest in the post-war rebuilding of Kharkiv, and that probably explains why much of the city resembles large Russian cities rather than other parts of Ukraine.
The Soviet defence industry was based in Kharkiv in the 1960s and 70s, and so while much of Ukraine stagnated during the Cold War, this was a city that did rather well for itself. Hence, perhaps, the reluctance to draw a line under the past and move on.
While driving from the airport, I asked my taxi driver whether he felt Ukrainian or Russian. He said both. He was proud to be part of an independent Ukraine, and would support Ukraine over Russia on the football field. But if pushed to choose between closer ties with Europe or a stronger bond with Russia, he said he would favour the latter every time. Having visited Kiev and Dnipro in the past, I'm pretty sure the answer would not have been the same there.
THE taxi driver chat proved a rather rare conversation as English is not very widely spoken here at all. Everyone speaks Ukrainian and Russian, and the second language taught in schools is German rather than English.
Very few signs are displayed in English, transforming something like a routine trip on the Metro into a magical mystery tour.
Nowadays, you tend to assume that wherever you are in the world, English is a universal tongue. Every now and then, it's good to be reminded that it isn't.
IT snowed intermittently all day yesterday, and further flurries are predicted throughout this evening's game.
In England, that would be enough to bring everything grinding to a halt. Here, people get on with things with no discernible disruption.
With no direct flights to Kharkiv from any English airport, I had to change in Moscow on the way out. The temperate at Sheremeteyevo Airport was minus nine, and the snow was piled three or four feet high at the side of the runway.
Had it been Heathrow, we would never have taken off. The Moscow approach? A five-minute delay for a bit of extra de-icing and then crack on.
More Newcastle Utd News