In a Kharkiv subway station, hatred for Putin on WWII anniversary

Madam Yakaterina Grigoriyevna eats ice cream as residents find shelter from shelling in a metro station in Kharkiv, on May 9, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

KHARKIV, Ukraine (REUTERS) - As President Vladimir Putin used a Victory Day speech to justify his war on Ukraine, Kateryna Grigoriyevna sat beyond the reach of Russian shells in a subway station she has called home for 10 weeks, cursing the Kremlin boss and savouring a rare treat.

"I am marking this day with this ice cream," said the 79-year-old retired bank manager, an impish smile creasing her face.

Ukraine, like Russia, commemorates the 1945 defeat of Nazi Germany on May 9 and honours the 27 million citizens of the former Soviet Union, including 8 million Ukrainians, who died in World War II.

But there the similarity ends.

"We hate Putin," Grigoriyevna said, glancing around Kharkiv's cavernous Oleksiyevska station platform where some 200 people cluster in tents and on thin mattresses on wooden pallets. "I would kill him myself if I could."

Russian forces battling to capture Ukraine's second largest city battered it for weeks with missile and artillery strikes, driving many residents away and others into the war-idled subway system, built to withstand nuclear attack.

"I didn't think this could ever happen to us," said Vira Mychailivna, a 90-year-old World War II survivor, burying tear-streaked cheeks in her palms as she sat on a mattress.

"This day was once a great celebration... Our grandsons and granddaughters will have to deal with this."

Her emotion attested to the intense anti-Moscow sentiment in Kharkiv, located just 85km south of the Russian city of Belgorod and where Russian has been the preferred language of most of the 1.4 million residents.

In Monday's speech on Moscow's Red Square, Putin condemned what he called threats to divide Russia, and repeated themes he has used to justify his Feb 24 invasion - that Nato and Ukraine endangered Russia's security.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video address that no one could "appropriate" the commemoration. "Very soon there will be two Victory Days in Ukraine. And someone won't have any. We won then. We will win now," he predicted.

"Everything he says is a lie"

Putin's backing in 2014 of separatists who seized swathes of eastern Donbas, the region south of Kharkiv, and his annexation of Crimea turned a majority of Ukrainians firmly against Moscow.

The invasion he refers to as a "special military's operation" has hardened the animus. Thousands have been killed, an estimated 10 million-plus displaced, and cities wrecked amid war crimes allegations that Russia denies.

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Shelling of Kharkiv city centre has been stilled by a Ukrainian counter-offensive, and outgoing fire echoes sporadically in streets blocked by checkpoints manned by police.

But fear of Russian shells has left the city largely deserted, most businesses closed and hundreds sheltering in the subway system, where they receive meals and medical care.

Maria Slisarenko, a 16-year-old high school student who has lived in at Oleksiyevska station since the first day of the war, said no one on the platform would spend money to access Putin's speech on their smartphones.

"Everything he says is a lie," said Slisarenko, who remained behind with two small dogs when her mother and sister fled the city.

Grigoriyevna and her daughter also are not ready to return home.

"We are just afraid," she said. The station is near her flat and also the small shop where she bought her ice cream cone for 20 hryvnia (S$0.90).

"Ice cream is very expensive for us," she said. "We can't eat it every day. Only for holidays and weekends." Above ground, gunfire rumbled in the distance.

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