Puppets and poetry go underground in besieged city of Kharkiv

Puppeteers Anton Andriushchenko and Oleksandra Shlykova perform in a metro station serving as a bomb shelter in Kharkiv. PHOTO: AFP

KHARKIV, UKRAINE (AFP) - In a subterranean metro station serving as a bomb shelter in eastern Ukraine, two flamboyant puppeteers act out a tabletop fairytale for a gaggle of spellbound children.

With a cast of caricature dolls including a mustachioed king and a herd of pigs, Ms Oleksandra Shlykova and Mr Anton Andriushchenko tell the story of how "Princesses are different", entrancing the kids and their parents.

They are also distracting them from the near constant bombardments raining down on the city of Kharkiv above them, as Russia escalates its offensive in eastern Ukraine.

Using a mobile phone sound system, the pair elicit giggles and gasps from their audience perched on steps lined with cardboard - an auditorium improvised to prevent the cold and damp seeping into their bones.

"A live performance is always an emotion that is here and now," said Ms Shlykova, 47, after concluding the show with a flourished bow and inviting the children to play with the puppets.

"We exchange emotions and it lifts our spirits. It's hard to describe it, you have to feel it."

Deep underground, the metro stations of Kharkiv are now home to residents of the eastern metropolis fearful of the battle raging above.

Since pulling back from its northern offensive to capture the capital of Kyiv, the Kremlin has scaled up attacks on Ukraine's eastern flank, including Kharkiv just 21km from the Russian border.

On Friday (April 15), shelling of residential areas of the city killed 10 people. On Saturday, a strike claimed two more lives.

The walkways of the metro stations are now lined with bedding and mounds of belongings. The stationary carriages have been divided into makeshift homes.

Toiletries line the train windows and inhabitants pry open the sliding doors to access their spaces. The main walkway smells of the soup being ladled out to those living here.

"When you watch this performance, you remember the stories and you alter the way you see the world," said Ms Oksana, 37, who brought her two daughters to the show.

They are living in a underground shelter nearby, and came over to this one to escape the grim tale unfolding above.

"Truth and humour gives you a boost and makes you happy," said Ms Oksana, who declined to give a surname.

Deep underground, the metro stations of Kharkiv are now home to residents of the eastern metropolis fearful of the battle raging above. PHOTO: REUTERS

Across town, a poetry performance takes place in a white brickwork bunker down some narrow stairs past a ramshackle workshop.

The shelter is also packed with improvised beds.

Mr Serhiy Zhadan reads out verse overlaid with melodica music in a purple neon-lit soundproofed chamber. A small crowd follows the reading, in which Mr Zhadan holds forth a surreal lyrical monologue detailing an assortment of animals.

Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan performing in the bomb shelter on April 16, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

He describes the poem as a "brutal lullaby" based on a satire of a children's book. It is laced with profanity, a far cry from the family-friendly staging in the metro underground. Nevertheless, its objectives are similar.

"A person cannot live only with war," said Mr Zhadan - a literary celebrity in poetry-obsessed Ukraine.

"It is very important for them to hear a word, to be able to sing along, to be able to express a certain emotion."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.