'Grandpa, did you kill people?' Meduza reports from the ground in the Donbas, the war's current epicenter
On the evening of April 18, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced that Russia’s assault on the Donbas had begun. Several days later, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that Russia plans to “establish complete control over the Donbas.” Meduza special correspondent Lilia Yapparova traveled to Kramatorsk, Slavyansk, and other parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to get a better understanding of how the war’s pivotal battle is playing out — and how it looks through the eyes of Donbas residents.
‘There’s gonna be trouble’
As an ambulance speeds towards Kramatorsk, a pheasant darts out in front of it. Since nobody’s hunted the wild birds since the war began, they’ve multiplied and spread like wildfire through the whole Donbas region.
The ambulance has just picked up three injured Ukrainian soldiers from the front lines. One of them has his fist wrapped in bandages, blood already soaking through. The rest of the men’s bandages are still clean.
“Is everything alright back there? Is everyone — nobody has…?” stammers Alexey, the ambulance driver. Without taking his eyes off the road, he tries to shout back to the soldiers: “Does anyone want anesthetic? Don’t be shy, just say the word! Just 15 minutes left!”
Maria, the paramedic who’s currently squeezed in the front seat between the driver and I, turns around and sticks her head through a special window to the backseat. “Does it hurt?” she asks the bloody-handed soldier. He says nothing.
Maria and Alexey are not part of a professional medical unit. Previously a midwife in a Kramatorsk maternity ward, Maria had never worked as a paramedic before the war began, and Alexey, her husband, had never driven an ambulance. The couple decided to find a way to help after a Russian missile struck the Kramatorsk train station on April 8, killing 57 people.
“Things like administering painkillers and applying bandages are pretty basic for me. I can suture blood vessels, too. On April 9, we decided to start going to hospitals,” Maria told me. “We asked them to let us join the war effort: me as a medic and my husband as an orderly. But they said they didn’t have any vacancies.” Maria and Alexey were given the ambulance by the Life Saving Center, a nonprofit organization launched on the second day of Russia’s invasion that works to rescue injured soldiers both from the front and from occupied or surrounded cities.
The bloodstain on the soldier’s hand continues to grow. “He’s bleeding,” Maria says with concern. “This vehicle’s so slow,” says Alexey. He turns on the siren.
Soon, we turn off onto a winding road. “You’re going to get tossed around a little!” Alexey shouts to the patients in the back. “Hang on!”
Maria shrieks and squeezes her eyes shut. The car hits the pheasant that ran into the road. A minute passes before she takes her hands down from her face and whispers, “Alexey, it’s stuck in the radiator.”
We drive the next few miles with the pheasant in the radiator. “I’m not going to stop the car on account of a chicken,” Alexey says; soon, though, he softens and asks Maria, “Is it still hanging there?” “Yes, it’s dangling,” she says, wincing.
Sticking his head out the window, Alexey cries, “Wounded soldiers inside!” Ahead, perpendicular to the road, are a series of cement blocks. A man comes out from the checkpoint and motions for us to stop. Faintly smiling, he proceeds to examine the bird stuck in the vehicle’s radiator. Then, for some reason, he yanks on its variegated tail.
After that, the man starts interrogating Alexey about his passengers. “I have three wounded soldiers in here, dammit!” says Alexey, breaking into a shout. “Are you going to look at them or not?” “Alright, alright, go ahead,” says the man, his face getting more serious, and we continue on.
“Is everything alright with the guys [in the back]?” Alexey asks his wife. “We’ll be there in 10 minutes.” Up ahead, we reach a car that seems to be in no hurry to let us pass. The sound of the siren mixes with Alexey’s angry cries. “Come on, asshole! Move over, you piece of shit! Who the hell raised you?”
When we reach the exit to Kramatorsk, Alexey leaves the siren on. One of the soldiers, preparing to get out of the vehicle, puts on a camouflage bucket hat. The soldier with the blood-soaked bandages doesn’t change his expression.
When the ambulance finally gets to the emergency room of one of the hospitals in Kramatorsk, the soldier is immediately taken to the operating room. “I tried to pull his tourniquet tight,” says Konstantin, a soldier with a bandaged leg who managed to get out of the ambulance on his own, “but it doesn’t seem like it helped much.
“Toss me my gun,” says the third soldier, Yevgeny, to Alexey. He’s unable to fix the belt sliding off his shoulder; he’s got his comrades’ helmets and unloading vests in one hand and the bloodsoaked bandage on the other.
After hopping on one leg to a nearby bench, Konstantin refuses to go into the hospital before having a smoke. He tightens the tourniquet on his thigh.
“My knee is starting to bleed,” he says, looking down at his leg, but he waves away offers to help. “I’m 17 hops away [from the hospital] — why would I use a gurney? They injected me with ceftriaxone and two painkillers [on the battlefield]. Then I ran another kilometer or two with the tourniquet [to the ambulance]. I want to live!”
Konstantin and Yevgeny’s detachment, one of the units of the 81st Airmobile Brigade — came under fire by high-caliber Russian artillery. “We were standing in the direction of [the city of] Izyum, and we got a command to relocate to another fortification,” said Konstantin. “So we went. And apparently it didn’t take them long to figure us out: as soon as we got there, their artillery began working on us.”
The soldiers were near a village outside the city of Sviatohirsk when they came under fire. “There’s gonna be trouble there today,” Yevgeny tells me. “There are no trenches there, so there’s nowhere to hide. They’re firing on them right now — and mowing them down. And they brought fucking loads of us [Ukrainian soldiers] in there.”
Maria, the volunteer paramedic, returns from the hospital building carrying somebody’s gun; weapons are banned in the operating room. A minute later, the ambulance is headed back to the front. An armored car with a large red cross — a Ukrainian military ambulance — is headed there, too. “There’s a line today, bitch,” says Alexey. “And it looks like there’s gonna be a lot of work tomorrow.”
The conflict’s epicenter has moved from the outskirts of Kyiv to the Donbas. The outcome of the entire war now likely depends on what happens here, where Ukrainian soldiers have been hardened by eight years of fighting.
‘Might makes right’
The four-hour shift in the ambulance helps distract Alexey and Maria at least a little bit from thinking about their son, who’s fighting in the war himself, as well as their eight-year-old grandson, Pasha, who fled the country with his mother.
On February 13, Alexey and Maria took their grandson on a trip outside the city for the last time; the three of them went to a rabbit sale, then went ice skating (in their regular shoes) on a stream. The next time they saw him, the war had already begun; Pasha was so afraid of the shelling that he couldn’t sleep in bed alone. It was the first time he’d heard these sounds; the last time there was fighting here, in 2014, he was only 11 months old.
But Pasha’s fear of military aircraft began before Russia’s recent invasion. Maria vividly remembers the day two Aprils ago when the then-six-year-old heard a Ukrainian military helicopter flying over (there’s a military air base in Kramatorsk). “Is it coming to kill us?” asked Pasha, looking up at the sky.
“I said, ‘Who told you anything like that? That’s one of ours! They’re coming to protect us!’” said Maria. “‘Granny [on his mom’s side] told me!’” was his answer.
Maria and Alexey’s son and Pasha’s mother divorced when Pasha was three years old. Soon, the two families began to argue about how to raise Pasha, what to feed him, and even what martial art he should learn — Alexey wanted him to do boxing, but they sent him to judo. “That’s a sport for girls,” Alexey says gruffly. “And Putin.”
The most serious point of disagreement was who to support in the war — Ukraine or Russia.
“I always raised my grandson in the Cossack spirit: I had him cutting down vines with a plastic sword. Usually, you’re supposed to cry out, ‘Chop the vine!’ when you’re coaching someone to use a sword, but I would cry out, ‘Chop the Russkie!’” says Alexey, smiling, before making sure I know he’s serious: “That’s really how I taught him! He would stand in front of a willow tree and practice his chop.”
In 2017, though, Pasha started spending more and more time with his mother, whose family lives in Russia. “He changed before our eyes,” said Maria. “When he came to stay with us, we’d explain [how we saw things],” she told me. “And they would portray things their way. Pasha would talk with us, hear us out, and take note — but he’d still end up back in that environment, where he spent more time.”
On August 24, 2021, Pasha came to stay with Maria and Alexey and celebrate Ukrainian Independence Day with them. Pasha’s dad, a graduate of a military university, was participating in the ceremonial parade in Kyiv. “Pasha, we’re going to watch the parade,” Maria told Pasha back then. “And he goes, ‘That’s bad! I won’t watch it, I don’t want to!’ They had him thinking that way even back then. But when I turned on the TV and said, ‘Your dad’s about to go by,’ he still sat and watched. Then he asked, ‘Where’s dad?’ Because all of them look the same when they’re in formation.”
Alexey is a former investigator who currently works as a lawyer. He previously served in the ATO [the Donbas war] “to try to extinguish that seething hatred however I could.” He left the service after he had a concussion that led to a stroke. In August 2019, he brought his grandson to an armored vehicle exhibit that’s held every year by the 81st Brigade of the Ukrainian Air Assault Forces, whose base is about a half hour away from the city. Here’s how Alexey recalled the event:
The kids climbed [on the tanks], and my grandson got behind the gun, too. And he asked me the question right there, from behind a machine gun: “Grandpa, did you serve?” Yes, I served. “And did you kill people? Soldiers are killers.” And I told him, “No, I didn’t kill — I eliminated the enemy. Killing is something different. That’s a criminal offense.” I explained the difference: if your opponent is fighting back, it’s okay to neutralize him.”
In Alexey’s view, after the conflict in eastern Ukraine began, “the world was divided into people without a country, on the one hand, and patriots, on the other.” “It turned out that for a lot of people, Ukraine didn’t mean a thing,” said Maria. “Almost 90% of my colleagues [in the perinatal center] wanted [to join] Russia. ‘I don’t want to leave here, but I want “here” to be Russia,’ they would say.”
It didn’t seem to occur to Maria’s colleagues that for their wish to come true, Kramatorsk would have to become a combat zone, she says. In the summer of 2014, the city was captured for several weeks by troops from the self-proclaimed DNR.
Neither eight years of war in the Donbas nor the recent atrocities committed by Russian forces near Kyiv have had any effect on the political views of a significant portion of Kramatorsk residents. “At least 10 percent still support Russia. They think that as long as they write ‘I’m Russian,’ the shells won’t hit them,” said Alexey. “One of our neighbors thinks Bucha was staged,” said Maria. “Another one promised us that when Russia takes over, Alexey and I will be sent to Solovki. Both of her daughters live in Moscow.”
According to Alexey, the “10 percent” (there’s currently no official data on how many Kramatorsk residents support Russia) have bought into the idea of Russia as a country with a strong economy and strong army. “Might makes right,” he said, summing up their beliefs.
Kramatorsk really does have a larger share of Russia supporters than many other parts of Ukraine.
Every day, Kramatorsk police detain people suspected of collaborating with the Russian army and turn them in to Ukraine’s intelligence services. “Of course, not all Russia sympathizers are saboteurs,” Anton Malyusky, a former police officer who now works for the city’s executive committee, told me. “Some people are just, shall we say, useful idiots who are susceptible to Russian propaganda and who leak information about our army’s positions. Some people do it out of stupidity, some do it intentionally. And some do it for money.”
In 2014, Russia had even more support in the city, according to Malyusky. “It was just crazy — somewhere between 60 and 70 percent. To the point that when they [troops from the self-proclaimed DNR] came to the city, they were greeted with a red carpet,” he said. “And I’m not even talking about the really old people, I mean people from 30-60. The children of people who supported Russia grew up to be pro-Russian, too.”
Over the decades, the region was targeted by Russian propaganda, according to Malyusky. “It was primarily through television. A lot of people had satellite dishes that they used to watch Russian channels their whole lives, never even trying to connect to the Ukrainian ones,” he said. “And there’s no way to drown out a satellite! Satellite dishes aren’t banned. It was years, decades. And it happened so gradually that nobody noticed it. But by 2014, it had become quite intense.”
According to GRU documents published in 2020, setting up pro-Russian TV and radio broadcasting in occupied territories is part of Russia’s military doctrine. Kramatorsk residents encountered this in 2014 and again in 2022.
“When there was intense fighting [that damaged the TV tower] on Karachun Mountain [near Slavyansk], the Ukrainian networks were shut off and they started connecting the Russian ones,” said Maria. “And now, apparently, whenever they conquer a new area, they immediately set up a tower and send out the TV signal. My husband and I were driving to the Dnipro recently and turned on the radio — and all we could get was the Russian stuff. We couldn’t get Ukrainian until we entered the Dnipropetrovsk region.
Since her daughter-in-law and her grandson crossed the Ukrainian border, Maria and Alexey have been haunted by the thought that the family might eventually choose to seek safety not in Europe, like most refugees, but in Russia. “I already told my daughter-in-law that they need to understand: they wouldn’t be allowed back here,” said Maria. “They simply wouldn’t be allowed in. And we wouldn’t get to see our grandson anymore.”
‘We’ll see whether I keep on living’
Out of the 250 thousand people who lived in Kramatorsk before the war, only about a fifth are left. You can easily spend a whole evening outside of the city’s train station without seeing a single person.
On April 8, the station was hit by a missile strike. That was about 10 days before the Russian army began its assault on the Donbas; the platform was packed full of people waiting for the first of several planned evacuation trains.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that Russian soldiers did not conduct a missile strike on Kramatorsk, and that Ukraine’s 19th Missile Brigade is responsible for the attack. According to the Russian authorities, the 19th Brigade had a Tochka-U missile system, which was used in the attack, in their arsenal.
However, analysts from the Conflict Intelligence Team have said that Russia has Tochka-U systems as well — and, moreover, that the 47th Missile Brigade, which is stationed near Donetsk, has them. The strike itself was sustained on the side facing Shakhtarsk, which is under the control of the unrecognized Donbas republics. Images from Shakhtarsk that were taken on April 8, the day of the attack, appear to show a missile launch.
On March 5, Tochka-U missile launchers were spotted in Belarus; it was from there that they entered Ukraine. Amnesty International has also provided evidence that Russia used Tochka-U tactical missiles when it hit a hospital in Vuhledar on February 24.
Volunteers Yelena Sementsova and Roman Sementsov, who helped people board the evacuation trains, realized in early March that many people would be unable to leave Kramatorsk without their help.
“There were several thousand of them standing in the station — pregnant women; people with babies; people with animals or large bags — and these strong, healthy, athletic men would come through,” Yelena explained. “And whoever was stronger would push through. And that meant the strongest were the ones who managed to evacuate.” The volunteers decided to organize people into lines, with pregnant women and families with small children boarding first.
On the morning of April 8, Yelena and Roman were getting ready to help people board the train to Uzhhorod, a city in the Zakarpatska region. Half an hour before the train station employees arrived, Yelena went to get a drink of water from their car. Roman stayed in the building.
“I was just about to open the door of our minivan, when suddenly: boom, boom, boom,” said Yelena. I didn’t even know it was possible to feel so much fear. [Before that,] I wasn’t even afraid of death. If you blow up, you blow up. But when that shell hit, it did scare me. I just put my head in my hands and said, ‘God, help me! God, help me! God, help me!’”
The attack on the train station used cluster munitions, warheads that break apart in the air, releasing dozens of smaller submunitions. When Yelena finally got out of the car, she saw a “mess of people.” She began searching for her husband. “I knew he was in the train station,” she said, “and I was certain he was alive.”
Yelena saw a blackened skeleton being pulled out of a car parked at the station. She saw a woman’s body lying next to a decapitated child. She saw people’s organs lying on the ground: “Kidneys, a liver. Now I know how thick a skull is. I’d never seen anything like that.”
Time seemed to stop. Eventually, the cars right outside the building stopped burning, Yelena recalled. The victims’ bodies were laid out on a tarp and taken away.
“I ran up to the tarp to have a look,” she said. “There were bodies and then there were just piles of who-knows-what. And every time I saw a new bodies, I felt relieved that it wasn’t him.”
Yelena found her husband at the very end: “When they’d almost finished gathering everyone up — all of the injured and all of the dead.”
“At first, I only saw his feet,” she said. “In his sneakers. I recognized his jeans — that’s as much as you could see under the tarp. But I didn’t believe it. I ran up to get a look at his head. The Emergency Services workers ran after me, trying to grab me and pull me back; shouting, ‘Don’t look! Don’t look!’ But I was quicker. And I managed to lift the tarp.
One of the survivors at the train station that day was a 12-year-old girl. When she came to, she immediately started talking about an “old volunteer,” referring to Roman, her relatives later told Yelena. “‘The old volunteer shielded me — and his head was blown off,’” she’d reportedly said. “It's going to be hard for her to live with that. I feel for her,” said Yelena.
It took three more days for Yelena to accept that her husband was really dead. “I sat there waiting for him to come for two days. I thought he would come home any moment — that I’d made a mistake. My ears perked up at every rustle. I know there are all kinds of families, that all families are different, but we really loved each other a lot. We couldn’t imagine living without each other. Now we’ll see whether we were right about that. We’ll see whether I keep on living. Because I don’t see the point."
Yelena, still wanting to evacuate children to Dnipro, decided to drive them herself. From there, she went to Dresden. “You know, in the past, if I saw roadkill in the road, I couldn’t even look in its direction — it would scare me so bad I wouldn’t be able to sleep that night,” she says. “And now I’m totally indifferent. I’ve seen people who’d been torn apart. Crushed animals have no effect on me anymore.”
“And so I keep thinking, how terrible,” says Yelena. “I’m worried my heart is hardening.”
Since the war began, volunteers like Yelena have helped about 100 thousand Ukrainians evacuate from Kramatorsk by train, according to Anton Malyusky, who serves on the city’s executive committee, told Meduza.
‘Evil always wins when its opponent doesn’t show up’
At the entrance to the apartment building currently housing soldiers from the Kulchitsky Battalion, a volunteer formation of the Ukrainian National Guard, weapons lie on the ground. In the doorway, some soldiers are chopping wood. Others are playing with a puppy in the apartment.
In April, on the Battalion’s official Facebook page, reports appeared that five of its soldiers had died. “First, we were at the checkpoint. Now we’ve retreated and are holding the second line of defense. We cover the UAF [Ukrainian Armed Forces],” Stanislav, a member of the battalion, tells Meduza. “If I’d have known, I might have gone into the UAF. I’d be more useful there.”
After launching his “special military operation,” Vladimir Putin announced that its goal was to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, and that the Russian army was going into Ukraine to fight “neo-Nazi formations.” In 2014, many of the Kulchitsky Battalion’s members were far-right activists who had taken part in the Maidan Revolution. But Stanislav, who was one of the first to enlist, doesn’t seem to be a radical at all. A former Russian literature student, he now describes himself as a “liberal nationalist.”
“So the Russian line is that all Russians love Ukraine, and Ukrainians are just keeping them from loving it the way it should be, which is without Ukrainians?” said Stanislav. “If you consider the fact that I’m Ukrainian aggression against Russia, then what does that make you?”
The apartment where the fighters are currently staying is well-stocked with books. “Everything here is very old and toes the Soviet party line: ‘Political Economy’ by Eugène Pottier, ‘Soviet Sculpture Art,’” says Stanislav, examining the titles. Then he pulls one out. “Here’s a good one: ‘The Little Things in Life’ by Saltykov-Shchedrin. I also saw a great translation of ‘The Knight in the Panther's Skin’ by Shota Rustaveli.”
Stanislav has been a member of the Battalion since 2014. He told me how literature has shaped his understanding of the war:
At that time, I was reading ‘Ninety-Three,’ [Viktor] Hugo’s novel about the French Revolution. In France, it turns out, there was a gray zone, kind of like the Donbas — a region in Vendée where they didn’t pay taxes for centuries and survived mostly on smuggling and poaching. And they also said, ‘We’re not French — we’re Vendean! Who cares what happens in Paris. Let them revolt their future away.” But when the ‘Maidan’ in Paris was victorious, they immediately called for England to send in its troops. So the battalions from the National Guard in Paris were sent to Vendée to fight the separatists. And when I read that, I thought, man, that’s exactly the same! And when people started wanting to create ‘people’s republics’ not just in the Donbas but also in Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporozhye, and Odessa, that made me really angry.
After his training, the Battalion sent Stanislav to eastern Ukraine; that was how he first saw Slavyansk, Uglegorsk, and other towns in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. “There are all kinds of people here, all kinds,” he said. “In one village in Luhansk we went to in 2015, everyone had been a prisoner, down to a man. ‘If you haven’t served, you’re not a man.’ There was also an actual serial killer when we were there. There’s a war around us, they’re shooting at us from their tanks, and he’s stabbing women and burying them. They caught him and handed him over to the Luhansk cops.” (Meduza was unable to find any information about this case in open sources.)
“We saw all kinds of things in Bakhmut [in the Donetsk region], too,” says Stanislav. “One time, I went to buy something from a store. With my gun on me. And it happened to be July 6, 2015 — the anniversary of the city’s liberation [from DNR forces]. The people in line started talking about celebrating, and then some girl goes, ‘What liberation? Who were we liberated from? We still have people walking around with machine guns!’” How do you explain that if the city hadn’t been liberated, there would be someone much worse than me with a gun? She’d rather it be me, I can tell you that much.”
As they eat lunch, the Battalion’s fighters discuss the latest hearsay: in a building nearby, a Russian soldier was allegedly found chopped to death with an ax. Nobody knows whether it was done by local residents or by his fellow soldiers. “We found Raskolnikov,” says Stanislav.
The Russian army — all the way up its chain of command — is like something straight out of Dostoevsky, Stanislav tells me. “They’d probably be glad to come up with something other than this ‘large-scale offensive on the Donbas,’” he says, “but Russians always do this kind of thing, then get chased into a corner, and then start to say, ‘Oh, you’ve caught us — now there’s nothing left we can do.’ It’s pure Dostoevsky — all of his characters are like that. They do something evil, then people start to dislike them, and then they start with the, ‘Oh, the only reason I’m bad is because I’m not loved!’ But you’re the one who was evil first!”
Stanislav’s favorite authors are “self-deprecating and don’t take themselves too seriously.” He names three Russians: Sergei Dovlatov, Venedikt Yerofeyev, and Boris Grebenshchikov. He stopped seeing the rest of Russian literature as a useful moral reference point long before the invasion.
“Your [Russian] classic literature doesn’t have positive characters — there’s no struggle against evil,” he tells me. “Evil always wins — because its opponent never shows up. I can only think of one character who fought against it: Kovalenko, the teacher from Chekhov’s ‘The Man in the Case.’ Remember, the one who kicks Belikov? The irony is that the only Chekhov character who fights against evil is a Ukrainian.”
The characters who fill Russia’s classic literature live in a state of “constant, draining terror,” says Stanislav. “That’s what’s happening right now. I look on the Internet, on Russian sites, at comments on YouTube, and a bunch of supposedly good, decent people are writing, ‘Well, what are we supposed to do? What can we do?’ Just like you couldn’t do anything before. All they can do is suffer for the truth — they can go to jail like Navalny, or be killed like Nemtsov, or light themselves on fire, like [journalist Irina] Slavina. In the extreme cases. But they’ll never actively fight.”
'It was impossible to believe this could happen again'
The main sign above the yellow kiosk I’m standing at in Slovyansk claims “socially elite varieties of bread” are sold there. According to a smaller sign, the kiosk sells SIM cards from the brand “lifecell.” In reality, it sells eggs.
As she locked up the stall on April 21, Nina Vasilyevna left nine trays of 30 eggs each inside. The next morning, when she came to work, Vasilyevna found that her kiosk had been hit by a shell in the night; all the windows were shattered. Nonetheless, only 15 eggs were damaged.
“How is that possible?” she says, smiling in amazement. “I guess I’d have to ask them [the Russian army]. The kiosk is covered in holes. I’ve been picking up pieces from the ground since this morning.”
All of Vokzalnaya Street, where the kiosk sits, is covered in a mix of land and shattered glass. In one apartment building, a explosion blew out all of the windows — but somehow missed a bouquet of tulips that’s still sitting on the windowsill. In the courtyard, a cherry blossom has been destroyed. “We woke up to glass falling everywhere,” says a resident named Natalia. “We woke up and sat up from the surprise. No idea what’s going on. Then there’s a knock at the door, and someone screams from the stairs, ‘Get out! They punctured a gas pipeline!’”
She and her husband went to their building’s basement and stayed there until six in the morning. At sunrise, some volunteers brought some plastic sheets to cover the windows and help warm up the building, which was now mostly windowless. Natalia shows me around her apartment without taking her hands out of her coat pockets. Gusts of wind periodically burst into the empty rooms and inflate the lace curtains. If you close the door to the hallway it gets a little warmer.
“See how the wind comes through?” she says. “We were trying not to think about everything that was happening — we pushed it away. We hoped it wouldn’t be like in 2014 [when DNR forces took over the city] — that a shell can’t hit the same spot twice. That they wouldn’t get this far. That it was somewhere else. Somehow, it was impossible to believe that it could happen again.”
* * *
Half an hour away from Slavyansk is the Sviatohirsk Cave Monastery. The basements there are currently sheltering refugees from Izyum, which has been occupied by Russian forces since March 24.
The monastery itself has been shelled, too. Part of the metal roof has fallen off of the domes. The entrance to the church shop is reinforced with furniture. At the main entrance, there’s a completely burnt out car.
Lyubov, a refugee, lives underneath the monastery with about 100 other people. “It was so nice to live in the hotel for people on pilgrimages!” she tells me. “All of the conveniences. But then there was an airstrike. The monks had all their pickling jars laid out in the basement — not even with vegetables inside yet, just empty. We cleared it out and moved our mattresses down there.”
The Russian army has destroyed Izyum almost completely, but Lyubov is ready to return to the city already. Her husband is still there — it’s been two weeks since she’s heard from him. “They’re still shelling there, but I want to go home. I really want to,” she tells Meduza. “I don’t know what I should be afraid of. If someone told me right now, ‘Go, you’ll make it there,’ I would go. We might have to live in the basement, but we’ll rebuild.”
Lyubov gets frustrated when she hears about the difficulties holding up negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. “Just stop shooting. They need to come to an agreement sooner,” she says. “Crimea was already Russian, even before this. What, should we let them bomb all of Ukraine because of Crimea? Think about it: Izyum has been wiped from the face of the earth. And that’s just a small town. Crimea… we’d survive without it.”
'Of course she hears the shelling. She just doesn't think it's Putin'
On April 21, the first sunny day after a lot of rainy ones, gunfire broke out near Lyman in the Donetsk region. According to local residents, the same thing is now happening throughout the entire district.
The soldiers charged with guarding the checkpoint on the city’s outskirts are prohibited from going any further — towards the Luhansk region — because it’s so close to the front line. The car I’m in is already turning right, towards Seversk (an hour and a half’s drive from Luhansk), when we hear three artillery strikes. Usually, they sound like thunder in the distance; this time they sound like cannonfire.
A few minutes later, the car enters a wall of white smoke at full speed. The air smells distinctly of fire. The curb on this section of the highway is burning, probably because of the shelling we heard earlier. Another fire burns under a memorial sign dedicated to seven Ukrainian soldiers who they died here in 2014, near the village of Zakotnoye, while fighting against the armed forces of the self-proclaimed DNR.
Still, we cross over the border between the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, taking the car through an overgrown meadow. The checkpoint here is empty; the road directly behind it is blocked by rusty anti-tank obstacles.
The first real village we reach in the Luhansk region is Zolotarivka. There’s a two-story building on a hillside; out front, chickens graze. On a rope hung up in the yard, laundry hangs up to dry — all of it striped and polka-dotted.
Today is April 21, Holy Thursday, and the building’s residents are returning home from church with lit candles. Last time — in 2014 — the war also began in spring, they recall, but “the roof was fixed by September.”
“They bombarded us for twelve days,” says Galina, a Zolotarivka native. “Then we lived without windows or doors. It sure caused damage, but it passed quickly. Now, though, the war’s been going on for two months. It’ll be 60 days on Sunday.”
The “rumbling” began at the very start of the invasion, on February 24, according to Nina Skakun, a local pensioner. “At first, it was a bit further away. Now it seems like they’re right over there,” she says, nodding down the hill. Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, where the Ukrainian army is mounting its defense as LNR and DNR forces try to break through, are only about half an hour away.
“Today, it seemed like they were firing from planes that were right above us,” says Valery, Nina’s husband. “And then we heard explosions from over there, beyond the horizon, where Severodonetsk is.”
“I was in the store — the rumbling was so terrible!” says Nina. “And it flew right past us. You were in the car — did you hear the roar? It either flew to Rubizhne or to Lysychansk.” (About 80 percent of the Luhansk region is currently under Russian control, according to regional Governor Serhiy Haidai.
Until he retired, Valery worked as an electrician at a local railroad junction; he and Nina “learned” all of the local basements back in 2014. “I walk around with this contraption,” says Valery, gesturing at his walker, “and there’s nowhere for us to escape to. Not to mention that you can’t even get out right now because everything’s blocked. Putin’s promised to raze Lysychansk, Popasna, and Sievierodonetsk to the ground.”
Valery starts to tell me about how the building’s windows were blown out and had to be boarded up, but he’s interrupted by Valentina, who lives next door. “What windows? Those were blown out a long time ago!” she yells to me, before addressing Valery and Nina: “Don’t sit out there and spew nonsense!”
“We’re not, Valya,” Nina says quietly, clearly caught off guard. “Valery, did you hear me lie? I didn’t say a single false word.”
Valentina continues lecturing her neighbors as she sweeps the walkway in front of the building; her piercing voice is clearly audible, even from far away. “Better to get up and help sweep than to spread gossip!” she says, agitated. “Who’s shelling at you? What lies are you spreading? Sitting there, spreading gossip.”
The rumbling of artillery strikes in the distance almost never subsides in Zolotarivka. I ask Valentina if she really doesn’t hear it. “No, I don’t — I guess I’m deaf!” she cuts back.
“Poor, hungry Valery and Nina, getting shot at,” she says before disappearing back inside.
The chickens, spooked by the shouting, have all run behind the building. “Valentina is Russian herself, from Voronezh. That’s probably why she gets so angry,” says Valery. “Although she’s lived here for a long time.”
“She’s a Putin supporter,” Nina explains. “There are a lot of them here. There’s no way she doesn’t hear the shelling, of course, but she doesn’t think it’s Putin who’s doing it. She thinks it’s our [Ukrainians’] fault that the war started.”
A lot of people from Zolotarivka used to go to the Russian town of Urengoy for work, the couple tells me; Valentina worked in Moscow for years. “She was a dishwasher in a restaurant until 2016: she cleaned, served, and cooked,” says Valery. “After the war, she lost that job; evidently, she just couldn’t deal with it all. So she came back here. And there’s not any decent work here. Maybe that’s why she’s upset that Russia’s closed to her now.”
“I don’t know how they can do it [support Russia in the war],” says Nina. “I just don’t know. But we have a lot of people who aren’t patriots.”
“A lot of people have Internet, and they might also pick up Russian TV channels,” says Valery. “And that puts them in a different reality. They think we’re Banderites. That we’re fascists. That we have military bases and chemical labs here.”
Then another one of their neighbors comes outside, a pensioner named Vilena. She tells me she was born in 1938. “I’m ready for anything — and I’ve already been through one [war],” she says. “And in 2014, half of our village was destroyed. I lived here then and I’ll keep living here. If Russian soldiers invade, what are they going to do, shoot me?”
Suddenly, a terrible rumble fills the sky; it sounds like a missile launcher. I lift up my head. Vilena starts silently crying. We say goodbye. On our way to the car, I hear Valentina shouting at her neighbors again. “Life was good here, and it’s still good now!” she says. “If you don’t like it here, leave!”
Translation by Sam Breazeale