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As Russian troops advance, Kharkiv residents are determined to stay in the city

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Biden administration announced 500 new sanctions against the Russian arms industry and other targets, including individuals responsible for the incarceration of the late Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, who died under mysterious circumstances last week. The move comes as the world prepares to mark two years since Russia launched its full-scale war on Ukraine. Since the start of the war, millions of Ukrainians have been displaced from their homes. But in Ukraine's second-largest city, many are determined to stay. NPR's Joanna Kakissis has this report from Kharkiv.

MAKSYM TIMCHENKO: I am Maksym. (Non-English language spoken).

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JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Maksym Timchenko is 7 years old. He's got big, brown eyes, and he's almost always laughing.

MAKSYM: (Laughter).

KAKISSIS: He lives in a high-rise in Kharkiv with his parents and baby sister. And to understand Maksym, you need to know two things. He loves his hometown, and he loves school. He's been learning English.

MAKSYM: (Singing) Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes. And eyes and ears and mouth and...

KAKISSIS: As Maksym sings to us, he's interrupted.

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MAKSYM: (Singing) Head...

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR RAID SIREN BLARING)

ANNA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: It's a sound he's very familiar with.

AUTOMATED VOICE: Attention - air raid alert. Proceed to the nearest shelter.

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MAKSYM: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "That's an air raid sound," he says, "and it's scary. What if the missile flies somewhere nearby and then explodes?"

MAKSYM: (Imitating explosion).

KAKISSIS: Maksym says he hears explosions and air raid sirens all the time in Kharkiv, and he knows what to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR HANDLE CLICKING)

MAKSYM: (Non-English language spoken).

ANNA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: He drags out a fluffy mattress from the spare room into the hallway, which has no windows, and he crouches there, hugging a plush toy dog and his mother, Anna.

ANNA: (Through interpreter) When the attacks are more frequent, he sleeps out here. He feels safer that way.

KAKISSIS: Thousands of school-aged children like Maksym live in Kharkiv, a city about 20 miles west of the Russian border.

(CROSSTALK)

KAKISSIS: Ukrainian schools are regularly hit by Russian missiles. So last year, the city of Kharkiv opened classrooms in part of the subway system, which doubles as a bomb shelter. Maksym attends those classes twice a week. His mother says he looks forward to them.

ANNA: (Through interpreter) He's very friendly, very kind and very emotional. He wants to hug everyone. He just loves it.

KAKISSIS: The subway classes have proved so successful that Kharkiv made a radical choice - to build entire subterranean schools.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION EQUIPMENT RUNNING)

KAKISSIS: In a leafy neighborhood of apartment buildings, construction is nearly complete on one of those schools. It will house classes from kindergarten to 11th grade.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

KAKISSIS: Yevhen Pasenov is Kharkiv's deputy director for housing and communal services. He guides us down dusty, unfinished steps. He doesn't tell us how far down for security reasons.

YEVHEN PASENOV: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: "It took about six months to design this school," he says, "and we started construction last September. It will hold up to 900 students."

(SOUNDBITE OF SAW BUZZING)

KAKISSIS: Downstairs is a long corridor that seems to stretch on and on. On either side are dozens of classrooms. Kharkiv's mayor wants to open the school this spring, so the workers here are really busy. Some install lights, insulation and wheelchair-accessible ramps. Others sand and drill.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRILL DRILLING)

KAKISSIS: Olha Velmozhna is a local city administrator. She points to a large room.

OLHA VELMOZHNA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: "We plan to have a place with beds there, where the young children can take naps," she says. "And each room will have a play area."

PASENOV: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: And Pasenov adds that each classroom will be painted a different, bright color. He forces a smile, and then his face starts to darken.

PASENOV: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: "Our biggest challenge is to preserve our city and not let Russia destroy it," he says. "But our children - they are losing a normal life."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Kharkiv's mayor is Ihor Terekhov. He wants to build eight more underground schools in the city. He's trying to raise money. Each school will cost more than a million dollars. We meet the mayor in a temporary office. He keeps moving around for security reasons - to avoid being targeted by Russian strikes.

IHOR TEREKHOV: (Through interpreter) Obviously, it's not a sign that life is good if we're building schools underground. As you can see, the Russians constantly shell us. Just the other day, an entire family was burned alive. An entire neighborhood was destroyed.

KAKISSIS: About a million people live in Kharkiv. That's half of the pre-war population. Roughly 65,000 school-aged children are also here. Terekhov says the underground schools can accommodate only about 9,000.

TEREKHOV: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: Meanwhile, he says, the city is also planning to build an underground theater. Others have already gone underground, like Serhiy Zhadan, a poet, novelist and musician giving a concert here in his bunker.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAKISSIS: A Soviet-era bomb shelter under the university has also become a popular exhibition site, and a couple of local entrepreneurs drew up plans for small underground apartments.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK PASSING)

KAKISSIS: Plenty still happens in Kharkiv above ground, of course. Cars are on the road. Vegetable markets are busy. Restaurants and cafes are full, even if their windows are boarded up.

MARIA MEZENTSEVA: Like, you can't find a place, even during the week, in a cafe. Like, we can look around, and there would be lots of people, so people are coming back.

KAKISSIS: Maria Mezentseva is a member of parliament from Kharkiv. She spends her time off in her hometown, delivering humanitarian aid.

MEZENTSEVA: Like, we can't accept the idea that we can give up. So the longer it goes, the more people get tired, of course.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Singing in non-English language).

KAKISSIS: Back at the subway school, Maksym and his classmates sing a song about spring and hope. He sits with Ksenia, a classmate who is now his best friend. Their teacher, Lyudmyla Demchenko, says the children, too, are tired of this war.

LYUDMYLA DEMCHENKO: (Through interpreter) They ask, when will the Russians stop bothering us? The children just want to take a walk in the woods or to swim in a lake. That's impossible now.

KAKISSIS: But, she says, they also like being home, in their city. Teaching them underground is a way to keep them safe.

DEMCHENKO: (Through interpreter) Kharkiv is known as the center of education, so this is not a defeat. It's a way to continue something that should be continued. Only if we stop will it be a defeat.

MAKSYM: (Reading in non-English language).

KAKISSIS: Class ends, and Maksym and Ksenia take the bus home together. He reads aloud to her from a book about biology.

MAKSYM: (Reading in non-English language).

KAKISSIS: And when Maksym's back home, he's ready for the next air raid siren.

MAKSYM: (Singing) Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes.

KAKISSIS: But as he waits, he decides to sing his favorite song.

MAKSYM: (Singing) Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes.

KAKISSIS: Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Kharkiv, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joanna Kakissis
Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.