Tank factory workers decry war that pits Ukrainian against Ukrainian

by @SabraAyres February 27, 2015 5:00PM ET

Many at Kharkiv's factory, now supplying tanks for the Ukrainian army, have worked there through multiple conflicts

Ukraine Crisis
A tank is lifted from the assembly line at the Malyshev Tank Factory, Feb. 11, 2015 Kharkiv, Ukraine.
Brendan Hoffman for Al Jazeera America

KHARKIV, Ukraine — There was a time when the enormous Malyshev factory churned out thousands of the Soviet Union’s prized T-34 tanks. The tank’s legendary armor is believed to have played a pivotal role in the defeat of the Nazis in World War II.

Today the factory’s main focus is to supply new and rehabilitated tanks to the Ukrainian army, which has been engaged in a brutal war with Russian-backed rebels in the east since April. To even the most hardened veterans of this 120-year-old factory, a war in which Ukrainians fight each other on Ukrainian soil is difficult to fully come to terms with.

“I have worked here since 1958 and remember when we were put on high alert because of the missiles in Cuba,” said Vladislav Grigorovych, 74, referring to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. He still works in the factory’s tank engine department despite being well past retirement age. “But this war … I can’t understand this war. We were all one country once. We were all like brothers. Now we are fighting each other.”

With the conflict’s front line about 150 miles south of Kharkiv, Malyshev workers like Grigorovych find themselves in a challenging position. For decades, the massive factory has been a source of pride for Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine. At its height during the Soviet era, the factory employed as many as 60,000 people out of a population of 1.5 million. Now some 5,000 people work at the factory.

“We’re honored to work here,” he said, pointing to his son, Serhei, 50, and his grandson, Oleksandr, 28. They all began working at Malyshev when they were teenagers.

Three generations at work: From left, Serhei Grigorovych, 50, his son Oleksandr Grigorovych 26, and his father Vladislav Grigorovych, 74, at the Malyshev Tank Factory.
Brendan Hoffman for Al Jazeera America

But Kharkiv’s position has been fragile in the tense conflict, which has pitted Ukrainians against Ukrainians.

Kharkiv is a majority-Russian-speaking eastern Ukrainian city. Since the Euromaidan protests kicked off a nationwide political crisis in November 2013, there have been several attempts by pro-Russian groups to take over Kharkiv’s regional government buildings. Clashes between pro-Kiev and pro-Russian protesters ended in at least two deaths last March.

Perhaps more alarming, there has been a series of explosions in Kharkiv in the past several months. On Feb. 22 a blast at a memorial rally for the Maidan anniversary killed three people and injured a dozen more in central Kharkiv.

The explosions have worried many Kharkiv residents and raised worries that the rebels will try to push north for more territory in an attempt to create what they call Novorossiya, or New Russia. While there are plenty of Kharkiv locals who sympathize with a more Russian-oriented policy for Ukraine, no one wants war to reach the city. The Ukrainian conflict has already claimed more than 5,600 lives and displaced more than 1 million people, according to the United Nations.

At Malyshev, security has always been tight because of the factory’s role in the defense industry. As the crisis grinds on in Ukraine, workers are frequently reminded to stay alert.

“Let’s just say that any armed, uninvited guests will not be welcomed here with flowers,” said Pavlo Miroshenichenko, the press secretary of the factory, referring to last spring when armed men stormed the regional council building and hoisted a Russian flag at the top.

In July a train carrying the remains of the victims of downed Flight MH17 was sent to the factory’s vast grounds. Stretching across 1 million square meters, Malyshev was one of the only places in Ukraine large enough to accommodate the forensic workers and the more than 200 body bags. When a group of Dutch inspectors arrived at the site, a box of explosives was found near the entrance, Miroshenichenko said. No one was hurt.

A monument incorporating a circa World War II T-34 tank, stands on the grounds of the factory.
Brendan Hoffman for Al Jazeera America

Established in 1895 as the Kharkiv Locomotive Factory, Malyshev has changed names at least four times since and expanded production lines. During the German occupation of parts of Soviet Ukraine, the factory’s tank production was transferred to Russia’s Ural region, where it continued to make the T-34. The factory returned to Kharkiv in the late 1940s. Josef Stalin gave the enterprise its current name in honor of Vyacheslav Malyshev, a prominent Soviet industrialist who is buried with other prominent communists in the walls of the Kremlin in Moscow.

When newly independent Ukraine inherited Malyshev after the breakup of the Soviet Union, workers didn’t pay much attention to the change in ownership, Miroshenichenko said. Staff was reduced to 5,000, and those who remained were happy to remain employed.

Today the factory is owned by Ukraine’s state arms industry, UkrOboronProm, a conglomerate of more than 130 defense-related companies. In addition to tanks and armored personnel carriers, Malyshev builds diesel train engines and agricultural machinery, though it is best known for its tanks.

The grounds of the factory.
Brendan Hoffman for Al Jazeera America
Though it once employed 60,000 people, the factory reduced its staff to a trim 5,000 employees after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Brendan Hoffman for Al Jazeera America

The huge facility consists of dozens of Soviet-era buildings, making it seem like a mini-city tucked into a forested area in the southeast of Kharkiv. It even has a metro station named after it.

These days, a patriotic mood permeates the work being done in the factory, said Alexander Lukirych, the deputy director for production, as he walked around the tank repair unit’s warehouse.

The factory also makes a modernized Oplot tank, which is popular with clients in the Middle East and Asia. UkrOboronProm declined to give details about Malyshev’s production numbers and sales, citing security concerns.

“The Russians like to make fun of Ukrainians and say we’re a bunch of ‘dills’ who don’t know how to make anything of worth,” Lukirych said, using a derogatory term for Ukrainians used by the Russian-backed rebels. “But even Russians will admit that Ukrainians know how to make the best tanks.”

He oversees production in a building as long as a football field. Tanks are transported from one end to the other by an electronic steel-cable pulley system, which lifts the 40-ton tanks overhead and slowly glides them 100 yards before lowering them.

The tank assembly line.
Brendan Hoffman for Al Jazeera America
Tanks in need of repair are parked outside the factory.
Brendan Hoffman for Al Jazeera America

Since the war started, Malyshev has received 50 damaged Bulat tanks from the front. Thirty have been repaired and sent back to the forces, and employees continue to ready the remaining ones for battle. Though Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has signed on to a Feb. 15 cease-fire deal with the rebels, no one believes the fighting will stop anytime soon.

“Nobody likes war, but we need to finish this conflict with Russia as soon as possible,” Lukirych said.

Over the sounds of banging metal and drilling echoing through the cavernous building, Svitlana explained why she was proud to work at the factory.

“Everyone must do their part to defend our nation, and this is my role,” she said as she climbed down from a Bulat tank being readied for the front. She declined to giver her last name because she didn’t want to jeopardize the safety of her relatives living in rebel-held areas.

“Of course we are worried about what could happen next in the war,” said Miroshenichenko. “But as the saying goes, ‘If you want peace, prepare for war.’”