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Story by Ekaterina Fomina for iStories.
In August 2022, a Russian soldier named Daniil Frolkin told journalists from the independent outlet iStories that one of his fellow servicemen had been found dead during the occupation of Andriivka, a village in Ukraine’s Kyiv region. After that interview was published, a Ukrainian man named Viktor Rybitsky contacted iStories. He told the journalists that his brother, Ivan, had killed the soldier as revenge after he attempted to rape Rybitsky’s wife. The following day, the occupying Russian soldiers killed Rybitsky, smashing his face with a shovel. Ivan Rybitsky was one of 14 Ukrainians who were killed during the occupation of Andriivka. iStories published a monologue by Rybitsky’s brother, who has done his best to find out what happened in the days leading up to Rybitsky’s death. Meduza is sharing the text in English.
‘I’m digging someone’s grave, but I don’t know whose’
On February 24, , I was at work in Kyiv. It was already too late to leave. My family was in Borodyanka, and my brother, Vanya, lived in Andriivka, just 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) away from them. And between them is the village of Nova Hreblya, where I have a house. During the occupation, my wife escaped there from Borodyanka. I wasn’t able to get there. Naturally, I was worried for my wife, my children, my father, and my brother. We lost touch when they started jamming phone signals.
I was monitoring all kinds of groups [on Viber and Facebook] during that time, trying to get information and determine whether they were alive or not. It was a scary experience. One day, I dreamed that I was digging someone’s grave, but I couldn’t tell whether it was my father’s or my brother’s. Then, just two days later, I learned from the groups that my brother Vanya had died.
‘An ordinary country boy’
We grew up in Borodyanka. Our childhood was like everyone’s: we went to school, started working, got married. Vanya finished school after the ninth grade, and he wasn’t admitted into the army for medical reasons. I had my family and he had his. I can’t say I was totally happy about the wife he chose. I said, “Stop — this won’t lead to anything good.” They kept going in circles: they would fight, then make up, then it would be, “I love her, I’ll never leave her.” The eternal love would go on and on. I made peace with it and didn’t interfere.
He mostly worked with furniture, reupholstering it, and he knew how to repair shoes. A real craftsman, with a magic touch. He knew how to talk to people, too. A heartfelt guy. Well, he had a temper, too. It’s like they say: if something set him off, he could turn on a dime. I would come visit sometimes and find him tipsy, cheerful, but still standing upright. An ordinary country boy. He and his wife would sit down together and drink a cup.
I’ve reconstructed what happened during the occupation based on what Vanya’s wife, Lyuba, has told me. First, the Russians came to inspect their home. Three of them, and they snooped all around. Then one day, a local resident, a mother named Masha Karmanova (Editor’s note: Other residents suspected her of having links to the Russian military), brought a Russian to my brother’s house. That was on March 14. He [the Russian soldier] started harassing Vanya’s wife. At first he asked, “Do you love me?” He slurred his words; he had probably been drinking. She told him, “No.” Then he was like, “Give it to me.” And she told him off.
He jumped on her and started to strangle her. And, naturally, he tried to rape her while he was choking her. My brother pulled him off and cried, “Stop that, that’s my wife!” She got away and ran to the neighbors’. There was an old woman there who she had been taking care of. She hid there for the night, and in the morning, my brother came over. He climbed in through the window and said, “I killed that guy who was harassing you.” [When she told me about it later on,] I asked her again: “What exactly did you hear? Did he use the word ‘killed?’ ‘Shot?’ Or something else?” She heard it all clearly. She said, “Yeah, he said he shot him.”
‘She’s trying to forget’
Rumors about Vanya killing [the Russian soldiers] started spreading through the village. People said they had seen Vanya running with a gun, specifically a Russian gun, through the village.
My aunt told me that Vanya managed to get to her place in the next village over, and that he wanted to go from there to Borodyanka, where our father was. My aunt and my cousin told him, “Vanya, don’t go, because death will find you. Stop risking it.” And he went back to the street where three people had been killed (Editor’s note: This is Sloboda Street, where three local residents were shot. One was shot by Russian soldier Daniil Frolkin, who later confessed to iStories.) That street goes through a field to our village.
The day after the soldier was killed, Masha Karmanova came to Vanya’s wife and told her that he [Vanya] had been killed.
I watched the interview with that guy Frolkin. He said his fellow serviceman, Chiryasov, was killed while drunk. He’s surprised at who did it. The video shows photos of Chiryasov, and I showed them to Vanya’s wife. She said yes, that’s him. I asked whether his name is Sasha. She confirmed. And there wasn’t anybody else named Sasha in their home. I tried to get more information out of her, but it’s hard; it’s painful for her. She doesn’t like thinking about the fact that someone wanted to rape her. She’s just trying to forget it.
I’m still trying to understand why they killed him. Most likely, the logic was something like this: Vanya was the last person left in the building [where they would get together to drink alcohol], and he was full of hatred… For him, an occupier isn’t a human being.
I don’t know how Vanya ended up there. He’s not an idiot. He feared the Russians from the very start of the occupation. I don’t think he could have gone to drink with them for no reason; it’s possible they forced him to go. They were worried that locals might poison them, because there were cases when their food had been laced, so they may have taken him to test whether their alcohol was poisoned. The Russians got drunk. Outside of the building where Vanya’s body was found, there was still a car, a station wagon. And the Russians drank so much that they just tossed their weapons in the unlocked vehicle, and you could just take them.
Vanya may have held a grudge and wanted revenge [against the soldier]. He would get very jealous; he really loved his wife. [The soldier] had strangled her in front of him and tried to rape her. Maybe the conflict had another element, too — not just jealousy, but allegations that he gave information about the Russians’ positions. Maybe there were stories going around about the Russians killing his neighbors. That could have gotten to him, of course; it could have sent him over the edge, and he really could have picked up his weapon and fired.
There weren’t many witnesses; I haven’t been able to reconstruct the entire chain of events. There’s Karmanova, who it’s not possible to contact. [Though] she might even know how the conflict unfolded, how Vanya was killed. Some say she was jailed by the SBU [Ukrainian Security Service] for collaborationism, while others say she went abroad and her children were taken away. In other words, there are a lot of different rumors. We’ve gone to see her parents, who stayed in the village. They won’t say anything specific; they try to say as little about their daughter as possible.
‘His face was virtually gone’
When local residents found my brother’s body, they immediately buried him in a garden. He lay there in the ground for a week, and then, when the Russians left the village, the police came to exhume him. His wife, Lyuba, says it scared her to see him, and she turned away immediately: he had virtually no face, only sludge. Everything was covered in blood. But she could recognize him by his body and his clothing.
He stayed in the morgue for another two weeks. I begged the police, “Guys, it’s hurting my heart, let’s just bury him already.” They apologized; there were so many corpses that they hadn’t been able to process and identify all of them. They were drowning in corpses.
At the morgue, they said that my brother’s face had been split open, and that there weren’t any gunshot wounds. An open traumatic brain injury. I can just imagine a soldier with an intrenching tool or an ax that could be used to hit somebody to death.
To be honest, when they gave us permission to bury Vanya, I didn’t risk looking at him. It was already the 40th day, and he was wrapped in two bags. Looking at him would mean having dreams of my brother with a hacked-up face for the rest of my life. I couldn’t do it.
I ended up having to dig the hole myself, because after the occupation, it was hard to find anyone — there weren’t any funeral companies working. I have horrific memories from that, of course.
‘I want to know the killer’s face’
I’ve been a churchgoer since I was young. I’m not the kind of person who believes you have to respond to a murder with another murder. I can hate somebody without wishing him death.
These people came to kill Ukrainians, and they’ll remain unpunished even in their own countries. That’s unjust. I’ve even started looking up at the sky and saying, “God, why has this happened?” Some people can kill others and continue living peacefully; they can speak with a smile about how they committed murder, while others end up buried under the ruins, shot in the back of the head. I know I’m not the only person who’s lost someone, that I’m not the only person who’s in pain. Sooner or later, somebody’s going to have to answer for this. It’s not right for us to stay silent about what they’ve done.
There’s nothing to be achieved here. Justice? [Maybe if] the person who killed Vanya goes to prison, because however you look at it, it’s still murder. Or at least if he confessed his guilt. I think it would be easier for me if I just knew the circumstances of his death. I tried to find a way to contact that guy Frolkin on Odnoklassniki so I could learn some more details about my brother’s murder. He responded at first, but then he closed the window.
It’s important for me to know the killer’s face. Just to know. The war isn’t over yet, and Russia is still aggressively terrorizing Ukraine. There are concerns that [the occupation] could happen again. And who knows? Maybe the same guys will come here with the same missions, the same malicious motives. And maybe it would be better to stay quiet about everything that’s happened, because if they return, they might try to get revenge.
Why am I talking about all this? I want society to know my brother as someone who got revenge against an occupier for his wife. I want to rehabilitate him posthumously.
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