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‘This is the end, guys’ The deaths of two Berdyansk teenagers followed months of harassment by Russian forces. Occupation authorities refuse to return their bodies.

Source: Meduza

On June 24, two 16-year-olds, Tigran Ohannisian and Mykyta Khanhanov, were killed in the Russian-occupied Ukrainian city of Berdyansk. For months, occupation authorities had been harassing the teenagers, accusing them of being “pro-Ukrainian terrorists.” Shortly before his death, Tigran recorded a video that ends with the words “Glory to Ukraine.” The exact circumstances of the boys’ deaths are unclear; their families have not been allowed to see their bodies. This week, BBC’s Russian and Ukrainian services released an in-depth overview of what we know about the situation. Meduza summarizes their reporting.

Tigran Ohannisian and Mykyta Khanhanov were both born in 2006: Tigran in August and Mykyta on June 25. Both boys died the day before Mykyta’s 17th birthday.

Mykyta and Tigran were classmates and friends. According to relatives and teachers, Tigran was fascinated by history and planned to join the military like his uncle, Yurii Petrenko, who joined the Ukrainian Armed Forces in 2015 and who was his nephew’s hero.

Mykyta lived in Berdyansk with his parents, and Tigran lived with his mom, his stepdad, his two half-siblings, and his grandmother. Soon after Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the family left for Germany, because Russia’s occupation of Berdyansk made it impossible for Tigran’s sisters to travel to Kyiv for medical treatment, as had been their routine. Tigran’s relatives tried to convince him to come along, but he ultimately decided to stay in Berdyansk with his grandmother.

Tigran’s mother, Oksana Staroverova, told Ukrainian journalist Yanina Sokolova that in the initial days of the war, the then-15-year-old went to the military recruitment office and tried to enlist, but the army refused to take him. According to their relatives and teachers, neither Tigran nor Mykyta hid their pro-Ukrainian views. “They supported Ukraine. They took down the Russians’ signs and found all kinds of ways to defend their position, which made them inconvenient,” said one former teacher.

‘So you thought you’d be a partisan?’

On the night of September 30, pro-Russian security forces searched Tigran Ohannisian’s home, according to Anastasia Panteleyeva, a representative of the Media Initiative for Human Rights. It’s unclear what prompted the raid. A woman from a neighboring apartment told Ukrainska Pravda that about “40 people” showed up, including Russian soldiers, members of Chechen battalions, and plainclothes FSB agents.

According to Panteleyeva, the search lasted all night and ended with the occupation officials removing all appliances and “even groceries” from the apartment. They also physically hit Tigran’s grandmother. When Tigran tried to intervene, the officials hit him, too, before placing a bag over his head and taking him away to an unknown location, Panteleyeva said.

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Tigran was then held for several days in a police building in central Berdyansk, the BBC reported. He shared a cell with several adult civilians, none of whom had been charged with any crimes.

Tigran’s grandmother was not allowed to see her grandson during his imprisonment. It wasn’t until the third day of his imprisonment, when he came down with a fever, that Tigran’s captors let her deliver a package to him. On October 5, Tigran was allowed to leave under the condition that he report to the “prosecutor’s office” every day from then on. After his release, Tigran told his family that the Russians had tortured him with electric shocks and driven him out to a field and pretended to shoot him, asking, “So you thought you’d be a partisan?”

Russian troops also showed up at Mykyta Khanhanov’s home on September 30, but they didn’t find anybody home. Soon after Tigran’s release, however, they took Mykyta to the police station, interrogated him, and told him that he, too, would now be required to report to the “prosecutor’s office” daily.

From then on, both of the boys’ homes were searched regularly, though neither of them were charged with crimes for several months. Their relatives suspect that Mykyta and Tigran were regularly followed.

In December, according to Tigran’s mother, the teenagers were told to “confess” on camera that they had organized a “sabotage operation” on a railroad and were promised they would be released afterward. On December 16, the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti published a two-minute video of two young men in black clothing with blurred faces who were purportedly arrested in connection with a “sabotage attack.” Relatives and acquaintances recognized the suspects as Tigran and Mykyta.

“The perpetrators damaged the electrical equipment of the railway’s traffic coordination system and communication line. They also put a pillar on the track in order to cause the train to derail,” a “representative of one of the security agencies” told RIA Novosti. The article did not mention when the alleged crime occurred or that the suspects were minors.

Even after the “confession” was released, the boys were not charged with any crimes. They continued to report to the “prosecutor’s office and were interrogated multiple times, according to the BBC. In January 2023, Tigran’s family came from Germany to get him. After undergoing “filtration” in occupied Donetsk, they were allowed to cross the border into the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. But traffic police stopped their car in Taganrog, according to Tigran’s mother.

The entire family was ultimately sent back to Berdyansk. Tigran’s stepfather, his mother, and Tigran himself were “locked in cells” in a conscription office for a day before being released on their own recognizance. Tigran’s mother and stepfather then spent several days going to various local investigators, demanding their departure ban be revoked. The occupation authorities eventually gave the entire family permission to leave except for Tigran.

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In May, Tigran and Mykyta were officially charged with “sabotage.” According to case documents, the teenagers, “being ardent opponents of Russian state policy,” conspired to support the Ukrainian military and damaged railroad tracks in order to cut off supplies to Russian troops. The prosecution claims that the boys caused 27,000 rubles (about $294) worth of damage. According to Tigran’s mother and the family’s lawyer, Andrii Yakovliev, however, the railway line where the “sabotage” allegedly occurred has long been out of service.

The Berdyansk occupation authorities assigned the teenagers lawyers who, according to Tigran’s family, urged the boys to cooperate with investigators and plead guilty. Tigran’s and Mykyta’s families were unable to find independent lawyers.

A final message

On June 24, several hours before the teenagers were killed, an investigator showed up at Tigran’s house. The two had a long one-on-one conversation, though exactly what they discussed is unknown. That evening, Tigran and Mykyta went out, telling their families that they wanted to find a place to celebrate Mykyta’s birthday.

At about 7:00 p.m., local social media pages began reporting that gunfire had been heard near Lieutenant Schmidt Park and the city’s port. An hour later, occupation official Vladimir Rogov reported the same thing.

Shortly after that, Rogov announced that “two pro-Ukrainian terrorists” had been “eliminated.” According to him, at about 7:00 p.m., “two militants opened fire from machine guns” near the city’s embankment. “As a result of the concerted and rapid actions of law enforcement, the terrorists were blocked and destroyed,” Rogov said on Telegram, adding that one of the “terrorists” was “Tigran Ohannisian, who was previously detained for anti-Russian activity.”

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The Ukrainian media, according to the BBC, immediately realized that the second victim was likely Mykyta Khanhanov. “Reports on this varied: some outlets wrote that Tigran and Mykyta killed a police officer and a civilian before their deaths, while others said the teenagers killed a Russian soldier and a police collaborator. This version was later repeated by [Ukrainian] Human Rights Commissioner Dmytro Lubinets,” the service said.

That same evening, multiple Ukrainian news outlets circulated a video that they said was recorded by Tigran shortly before his death. In the clip, the 16-year-old sits on the floor of what appears to be an abandoned building, holding a machine gun. Traces of blood are visible on his hands.

“Definitely two,” he says in response to a question from somebody offscreen. “Okay, this is the end, guys. Farewell! Glory to Ukraine!”

Exactly when and where the video was filmed is unclear. According to Berdyansk residents who spoke the the BBC and Ukrainska Pravda, the clip may have been taken in an abandoned consumer services center near the city’s Lieutenant Schmidt Park.

The Ukrainian press has referred to the boys as “partisans,” and multiple people, including Tigran’s uncle, have called for them to be posthumously named Heroes of Ukraine. Viktoria Halitsina, the head of Beryansk’s city military administration, vowed that after the city is liberated, the boys’ school will be renamed in their honor.

Other recordings

Soon after Tigran and Mykyta’s deaths, several other messages that were ostensibly recorded by Tigran in the final hours of his life surfaced online. “Hi, brother. We killed several Russkies,” he says in a clip that appeared to be recorded in the same abandoned building.

In a separate audio message, a voice that resembles Tigran’s is heard saying, “I have my gun here, I’m bleeding, I’ve been injured. How can I put it? Basically, I’m about to die, and my buddy’s going to die, too. [Editor’s note: At this point in the message, Tigran uses a Nazi slogan, according to the BBC.] Glory to the white race. Send these messages to my parents and tell them that I love them.”

Tigran’s and Mykyta’s relatives and lawyers have said that they never heard either of the boys express right-wing views. Additionally, Tigran is half-Armenian, which makes his statement seem even more unlikely. The Ohannisian family’s lawyer has said that the audio quality of the Nazi slogan and the phrase about the “white race” differs from that of the rest of the message and that the recording should be examined for possible tampering.

Ukrainian far-right figure Yevhen Karas claimed after the teenagers’ deaths that they had ties to Ukrainian far-right groups. According to him, the boys sympathized with the far-right organization Tradition and Order and worked with Karas’s own movement, Foundation of the Future. He also published photos of the boys holding knives.

In addition, journalists from the BBC found an Instagram profile with Mykyta’s name and photo that features far-right symbolism and includes the description, “Nationalist, sexist, racist, homophobe, and simply Mykyta.”

The journalists found no other evidence that suggested the teenagers were affiliated with far-right organizations.

Many unknowns

To this day, there’s no reliable information about what exactly happened in Berdyansk on June 24, according to the BBC. It’s difficult to communicate with the families of the victims. After the shooting, Tigran’s grandmother and Mykyta’s parents were detained by the occupation authorities for an entire day. Friends and acquaintances of the boys have declined to comment in order to avoid endangering those who remain in the occupied territories. Ukrainian officials are unable to access Berdyansk, and the Russian authorities have released at least two contradictory versions of what happened to Tigran and Mykyta.

On June 29, the Russian Investigative Committee’s office in the occupied territory of the Zaporizhzhia region reported that a new criminal case had been opened against the 16-year-olds, this time for “murder with hooligan motives,” weapons theft, and the attempted assassination of a law enforcement officer.

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According to the Russian investigators, on June 24, Tigran and Mykyta attacked a police officer with a “sharp object” and took away his “service weapon” in the center of Berdyansk. Allegedly, they then hid on the third floor of one of the abandoned buildings after injuring three people and killing one more along the way. “The minors refused to surrender and drop their weapons, which resulted in their elimination,” reads the statement.

On July 2, the Arabic-language edition of the Russian propaganda outlet RT released a story claiming that Tigran had killed Mykyta and then shot himself. The article alleges that Ukrainian intelligence agents met Tigran through an online game and recruited him to carry out “terrorist attacks.” (The BBC noted that occupied Berdyansk has poor Internet service, and that sometimes there’s no connection at all.)

The RT Arabic story also included one more message that appears to have been recorded by Tigran in the abandoned building. In it, he shows his gun and talks about his plan to kill himself. “Tigran injured a law enforcement officer and killed a civilian. He then shot his companion and himself,” reads the article.

Ukrainian sources have reported that the Russian FSB organized the boys’ murder. This version of events has been advanced, among others, by the Berdyansk Partisan Army, which wrote on Telegram: “It’s simple. The Russian monsters gave the guys a choice: either they die in a basement or they pick up their arms and go shoot. Consciously aware of how events would unfold from that point.”

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The Ukrainian organization Media Initiative for Human Rights reported that the boys were killed by sniper fire. Ukraine’s Human Rights Commissioner Dmytro Lubinets referred to their deaths as the “extrajudicial execution of two Ukrainian teenagers.” At the same time, he noted that there are different theories as to what exactly occurred, ranging from the boys dying during a shootout with occupation forces to “some sort of staged incident” intended to hide the fact that the teenagers died in a prison cell.

The Zaporizhzhia branch of the Ukrainian Security Service told Ukrainska Pravda that a criminal case on the violation of the laws and customs of war has been opened in connection with the boys’ deaths.

According to the lawyer representing Tigran’s family, Russian occupation authorities are doing everything they can to hide what really happened on June 24. “They don’t want the entire world to become convinced that they didn’t even try to detain the boys rather than killing them. If this were a police operation, we would have seen broken arms and legs. But from the nature of the injuries, we can see that the gunshot wounds were incompatible with survival; it will be obvious when everyone sees the bodies,” said Yakovliev, the family’s lawyer.

The boys’ families, however, have yet to receive their bodies. According to local authorities, the funerals were originally slated to take place on June 29, but the morgue refused to hand over the teenagers’ bodies to their relatives, a friend of one of the families told the BBC. According to him, the morgue building is under heavy military guard. On June 30, human rights advocates reported that pro-Russian investigators had sent the boys’ bodies to Melitopol to be examined.

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