Ukraine’s Kharkiv moves classrooms underground so kids survive Russian attacks

By Joanna Kakissis, Claire Harbage, and Polina Lytvynova
Students leave the underground school built in a Kharkiv subway station to board a bus home.
Students leave the underground school built in a Kharkiv subway station to board a bus home.

KHARKIV, Ukraine — For 7-year-old Maksym Timchenko, school often feels like the safest place in his hometown, Ukraine’s second-largest city.

“It’s under the street,” he says, in a classroom built into a subway station some 32 feet below ground. “You can’t hear bad noises here,” he adds, then mimics the sound of an explosion.

The Russian border is just 20 miles away, and Russian forces shell Kharkiv nearly every day. The strikes have buried families in the rubble of their homes and destroyed hundreds of buildings, including schools second-graders like Maksym would be attending. Recently, strikes also hit the city’s power grid, leaving hundreds of thousands without electricity for days.

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So the city is taking the drastic step of moving classrooms for primary and secondary education underground. About 1,500 children, including Maksym, attend classes in five subway stations. Kharkiv is also building nine subterranean schools to accommodate up to 9,000 children from kindergarten to grade 11. The first one is set to be completed sometime this spring. With Russia’s war on Ukraine in its third year, and Russian troops on the offensive, it’s a realistic long-term solution for families who want to stay in Kharkiv, says Mayor Ihor Terekhov.

“Lives should not stop because of war,” he says. “Life should go on. And our main task is to help people feel secure and live their lives to their full extent.”

“We always have plans for survival”

The mayor works in a temporary office, one of many he uses for safety reasons, to avoid being targeted by Russian forces. He’s tired and tense. He can’t stop thinking about a family of five killed last month when a Russian drone hit a fuel depot, engulfing an entire street in flames. The youngest was a baby boy, 10 months old.

“Burnt alive, all of them,” he says, grimacing. “Absolutely awful.”

Terekhov became Kharkiv’s mayor in November 2021, just a few months before Russia’s full-scale invasion. Like many here, he grew up speaking Russian but now speaks mainly Ukrainian. He points out that municipal services have kept operating throughout the war.

“We always have plans for survival and recovery,” Terekhov says. “Always.”

Going underground turned out to be one way to keep city residents safe and connected. In the last two years, writer and musician Serhiy Zhadan has hosted concerts and poetry readings in an underground bunker. A Soviet-era bomb shelter under a university building has become a popular exhibition site. A couple of local entrepreneurs designed small subterranean apartments. And since the full-scale invasion, Kharkiv’s official Christmas tree has been erected inside a major subway platform.

Last year, when the city built classrooms into subway stations and announced the start of in-person classes there, Maksym’s mother rushed to sign him up. She says he was craving social interaction.

“He’s very friendly, very kind and very emotional,” she says. “He wants to hug everyone.”

“It’s my city”

Maksym’s family spent most of 2022 sheltering in western Ukraine. They returned to Kharkiv, in the country’s northeast, last year; he was thrilled to reunite with his grandparents.

Maksym, who has big brown eyes and a loud, joyous laugh, says he also missed being in Kharkiv, especially the park with his favorite merry-go-round and the big city fountains where he would splash in summer.

“It’s my city,” he says. “My cool city.”

He returned to a changed Kharkiv. The constant attacks meant he had limited time outside. He spent a lot of time at home playing Legos by himself. He initially attended school online, so he couldn’t make new friends. And though Maksym seemed carefree, his mother, Anna Timchenko, says he always sensed danger.

“He would shout ‘Mama, mama! The house is shaking!’” she says, describing her son’s reactions to explosions. “Another time, we were on the street, and he heard shelling, and he stood right next to me and said, ‘Mama, it’s a missile! Let’s be together!’”

Like most Ukrainians, Maksym is also familiar with the sound of the air-raid alert app on cellphones. He hears the ominous wail on his mom’s phone. He calls it “the danger sound.”

He always has the same fear: that a missile will fly somewhere nearby and explode.

And he knows what to do. He goes to the spare room — where his mom hangs laundry and he’s building a model toy tank — and drags a mattress wrapped in cartoon-car sheets into the hallway, the only place without windows in the apartment he shares with his parents and baby sister, Sonia. Then he huddles in the corner, hugging a plush toy dog named Vova and his mom.

“When the attacks are more frequent, he sleeps out here,” his mother says. “He feels safer that way.”

“You can see it in their eyes”

Maksym still attends some classes online. But twice a week, he puts on his best clothes, eats a fruit-and-yogurt parfait his mom makes for him and boards a bus to the subway station.

His teacher, Liudmyla Demchenko, often rides the bus with him and the other second-graders. She says sometimes the children are stressed until they reach the subway stop. She reminds them that there is no way a Russian bomb can hurt them down there.

“This relaxes them,” she says. “You can see it in their eyes.”

The brightly painted classrooms in the subway station are decorated with colorful posters depicting traditional Ukrainian life, with cartoon boys and girls holding sheaves of wheat and bouquets of sunflowers. The children begin class by observing a minute of silence for those who have died defending Ukraine and singing the national anthem.

Maksym usually sits near his new best friend, Kseniia, a quietly confident girl who loves subway school as much as he does.

“She likes to draw, and she likes to share,” Maksym says. “She is a really good friend.”

In their windowless classroom illuminated by artificial light, they join their classmates in singing a song about spring and hope.

“We are trying to save them”

Kharkiv is now finishing construction of an entire underground school with a price tag of $1.5 million. It’s located under a lively neighborhood of high-rise apartments.

“We started building this last fall,” says Yevhen Pasenov, Kharkiv’s deputy director for housing and community services, as he walks along a snowy, muddy lot above the school site. “Hopefully by this September, children will be studying here.”

Engineers excavated deep into the ground — Pasenov won’t say how deep for security reasons — to create enough space to hold between 900 and 1,000 students from kindergarten to grade 11. He walks down a long flight of dusty steps and enters a vast hallway illuminated by generator-powered lights. On either side are dozens of rooms filled with workers installing electrical wires, adding insulation and wheelchair accessible ramps, and painting rooms. It smells like sawdust and burning metal.

Pasenov tries to talk over the noise, saying this has been a challenge to build in Kharkiv’s “current reality.”

“Did this even happen during World War II?” he says. “It’s a moment for the whole world to consider.”

He says his own daughter, a first-grader, attends in-person classes in the bomb-shelter basement of a private high school. He says she’s better off than first-graders “who don’t know what a school desk is, who have never met a teacher in person, who don’t know how to socialize.”

“Look, we aren’t moving our children underground for no reason,” he says. “We are trying to save them.”

Olha Velmozhna, who oversees the local administration in the neighborhood, is touring the building site with Pasenov. She points to a large room where workers are sanding wooden shelves.

“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 adds that each classroom will be painted a different, bright color. He is forcing a smile but then his mood starts to darken.

“Our biggest challenge is to preserve our city and not let Russia destroy it,” he says. “But it’s true that our children — they are losing a normal life, no matter what we do.”

“A personal choice with consequences”

Kharkiv wants to build eight more underground schools by 2026, a project that will cost $12 million. Terekhov, the mayor, says he’s trying to raise money through donations and working closely with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

The schools will serve only 9,000 students, a fraction of the roughly 65,000 school-age children in Kharkiv. (About a million people live in Kharkiv, half of the prewar total.) Maria Mezentseva, a member of Ukraine’s parliament from Kharkiv, says it is a start. She sees the city trying to accommodate families already in the city and those thinking of returning.

“I see many people coming home to Kharkiv,” she says, pointing out that restaurants and cafes are usually full, even if their windows are boarded up to prevent explosions from shattering them. “The roads are busy. Playgrounds are no longer empty.”

But she acknowledges that Kharkiv residents who return here also know coming home has its risks.

“It’s a personal choice with consequences,” she says.

In January, she lost close friends — a couple and their daughter — to Russian shelling.

“He served nearby in the army, and they wanted to be together,” she says. “It doesn’t mean that they cared less about their child because they stayed here. They just wanted to live as a family. Everyone should have that right.”

The danger sound

Back at the subway school, Maksym and his classmates are talking with child psychologists about what it’s like to go to class underground.

“I really love making friends,” he tells them, his voice giddy.

His teacher, Demchenko, says the students feel bonded enough to talk about more complicated subjects — fear, confusion, the dread they sometimes sense in their parents.

“They ask, when will the Russians stop bothering us?” she says. “They just want to take a walk in the woods or to swim in a lake. That’s impossible now.”

The school bell rings, marking the end of class. Demchenko leads the class up the long flight of stairs to the street — and sunlight. The children don’t linger outside. They’re led into a bus that takes them home.

On the bus, Maksym reads to his best friend, Kseniia, from a second-grade book about biology, which prompts a conversation about teeth and what jobs they will do when there is no war.

“I want to be a dentist, because teeth are important,” Maksym says.

“I want to run a pizzeria,” Kseniia adds, joking that teeth are also important to eat pizza. “But it will be outside, in the sun.”

“We can play there!” Maksym shrieks with excitement. “We will play outside all the time!”

The bus drops them off at the last stop. Maksym hugs Kseniia before they go their separate ways. He trundles home in the snow with his mom.

In his family’s apartment, he practices a song he learned in his online English class: “Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.”

“Can I sing it for you?” he asks.

He barely starts before an air raid siren interrupts him.

“The danger sound,” he says. He drags his toy-car mattress to the hallway and tells us to huddle.

NPR producer Hanna Palamarenko contributed to this report from Kyiv.
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