‘I was born here and I’ll die here’: liberated Ukrainians tell of life under occupation

Ukrainian recapture of Shevchenkove, Kharkiv region, reveals method of Russian takeover

Until last week, a portrait of Vladimir Putin hung on the wall of the mayor’s office in the town of Shevchenkove. There was a Russian flag. Around a cabinet table, a pro-Kremlin “leader”, Andrey Strezhko, held meetings with colleagues. There was a lot to discuss. One topic: a referendum on joining Russia. Another: a new autumn curriculum for Shevchenkove’s two schools, minus anything Ukrainian.

Strezhko’s ambitious plans were never realised. On 8 September, Ukraine’s armed forces launched a surprise counteroffensive. They swiftly recaptured a swathe of territory in the north-eastern Kharkiv region, including Shevchenkove. Most residents greeted the soldiers with hugs and kisses. Strezhko disappeared. He is believed to have fled across the Russian border, along with other collaborators.

Shevchenkove’s acting military administrator, Andrii Konashavych, pointed to the chair where the pseudo-mayor had sat in the council building. On the wall was a portrait of Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s national poet who gives his name to the town. What happened to the Putin photo? “We tore it up,” Konashavych said. Why was there no picture of President Zelenskiy? “Presidents come and go. Shevchenko is eternal,” he replied.

Andrii Konashavych, Ukraine’s acting military administrator, in Shevchenkove.
Andrii Konashavych, the acting military administrator in Shevchenkove. Photograph: Daniel Carde/The Guardian

Konashavych described Strezhko as someone who made no secret of his pro-Moscow views. The Russians rolled into Shevchenkove – population 7,000 – on 25 February, at the beginning of the invasion. Strezhko got the job after ripping down a Ukrainian trident and stamping on it with his foot. A memorial to Ukrainian soldiers who in 2014 fought against Russia in Donetsk was also demolished.

The Russians promised residents they would stay in the town for ever. They also told them – falsely – the city of Kharkiv had fallen. Over time, their presence became low-key. A couple of young soldiers patrolled the park, sometimes sleeping drunkenly on its benches. Over six months of occupation, troops were rotated in and out. They came from across Russia, including distant Siberia and Buryatia, locals said.

A propaganda newspaper was given out along with humanitarian supplies labelled as aid from Moscow. There were pro-Kremlin Telegram channels and a radio station, Kharkiv-Z, named after the letter that came to symbolise Putin’s Ukraine takeover. It was difficult to gauge what constituted support for occupation. A small minority actively collaborated. Others merely tried to survive.

The location where a plaque displaying a Ukrainian trident was torn down during the Russian occupation in Shevchenkove.
The location where a plaque displaying a Ukrainian trident was torn down during the Russian occupation of Shevchenkove. Photograph: Daniel Carde/The Guardian

Not far from the town’s Shevchenko bust, two pensioners held a heated discussion over the quality of food donated by Russia. One, Luda, said the tin of preserved beef she had accepted was “tasty”. Anatoly Sukhomlyn, a retired 72-year-old train driver, vehemently disagreed. “It was disgusting, swimming in fat,” he said. The difference of opinion appeared to indicate closet political sympathies.

Sukhomlyn said the Russians checked all residents for Ukrainian patriotic tattoos, and came round twice to inspect his garage. If owners were away, they broke down the doors. They also examined computers and flash drives. Putin’s FSB spy agency arrested several people, he said. Those detained were interrogated in Kupiansk, the regional centre 35km away, now the scene of fierce fighting.


Twelve days ago, Sukhomlyn said he saw a Russian soldier in the street wearing civilian clothes. He had thrown away his weapon in panic and was carrying his possessions in a knapsack. The soldier squeezed into a civilian car with six others and raced off in a northerly direction. Hours later, the pensioner cheered liberating Ukrainian servicemen. “This is my country. I was born here and will die here,” he said.

The retreating occupiers took a few prisoners with them. One was a local historian, Andrii Bulyaga. He was arrested two weeks ago with several others when he went to take a photograph of a burning oil refinery. “They put a sack on his head and took him away,” his son Misha said. “There are rumours he is being held somewhere in the Donetsk region. But we don’t know.”

On Monday, investigators were busy trying to track down residents accused of treason. So far, they had arrested three people. More than 100 policemen in the region defected, deputy prosecutor Roman Yerokhin said. Those who committed serious crimes against the state could expect long custodial sentences, under article 111 of Ukraine’s criminal code, he said.

Pads placed on crates for Russian troops to sleep on are visible in rooms at the prosecutor’s office building in Shevchenkove,
A room where Russian military police slept at the Shevchenkove prosecutor’s office. Photograph: Daniel Carde/The Guardian

Yerokhin showed off a room next to his office where Russian military police had lived. They left behind mattresses and a sleeping bag; his staff had dumped green Russian ration packs and an army jacket in a courtyard bin. Yerokhin said he had originally worked as a prosecutor in Luhansk, now the capital of the self-proclaimed republic in Luhansk. He left in 2014, when Russia and its proxies took over.

In the boarded-up conscription office down the road, a sign read: “Mined. Do not enter.” Ammunition crates had been stacked outside and fashioned into a makeshift control barrier. Yerokhin entered the building through a back gate and descended down brick steps into a cool basement. Visible in the gloom were a suite of white metal cages, welded together by Russian guards and installed during occupation.

Deputy prosecutor Roman Yerokhin at his desk in the Shevchenkove prosecutor’s office.
Deputy prosecutor Roman Yerokhin at his desk in the Shevchenkove prosecutor’s office. Photograph: Daniel Carde/The Guardian

There were narrow wooden benches, toilet buckets and water bottles. A tiny punishment cell contained a chair, with no space to lie down. The occupiers rigged up a surveillance camera, dangling from the roof, and had put an Orthodox icon on the wall. “Russians treat people like beasts. We think they locked up their own deserters here,” Yerokhin said, adding: “There may have been Ukrainian prisoners.”

The Kremlin, it seemed, was determined to impose its own harsh rules and punishments on territories it occupied. Similar chambers have been found in other newly liberated cities including Izium, the site of a mass grave with 443 bodies. Survivors have described how their interrogators tortured them using a military field telephone connected to a crocodile clip, or beat them with wooden sticks.


Over the weekend, refugees from Kupiansk arrived in buses in Shevchenkove’s central square. They queued outside its police station to register. Officials checked their documents against a list of wanted collaborators. The town had been doubly fortunate. It was quickly occupied and is now just out of the range of Russian guns, which are set up at a new position on the east bank of the Oskil River.

The road to the frontline passes fields and verges littered with destroyed Russian military equipment. It included a T-80 tank, whacked by a missile. A depression showed where the tank’s gun had gouged the earth at the moment of impact. There were burned-out infantry fighting vehicles and a trashed orange-painted Lada car marked with a Z. The letter had also been daubed on several bus-stops.

A destroyed Russian amphibious infantry fighting vehicle lays in ruin along a road between Kupiansk and Shevchenkove.
A destroyed Russian amphibious infantry fighting vehicle lays in ruin along a road between Kupiansk and Shevchenkove. Photograph: Daniel Carde/The Guardian

On the outskirts of Kupiansk, occupying soldiers had repainted the regional sign in Russian colours. They had also removed the soft sign – “ь” – which distinguishes Ukrainian from Russian spelling. Ukrainian soldiers had repainted the sign in blue and yellow. The 2ft-high soft sign letter was propped next to a checkpoint and a sandbagged fighting pit. Across the road, someone had abandoned a pair of Russian army boots.

Konashavych said he was confident Ukraine’s armed forces would grab back further territory from Russia, including the Donbas, made up of the neighbouring Luhansk and Donetsk provinces.

“Our military is quite successful. Of course we will keep going,” he said. Konashavych said his small town had witnessed invasion and liberation in just a few extraordinary months. “It’s like cinema,” he added.

  • Invasion by Luke Harding (Guardian Faber, £20). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.


Luke Harding and Isobel Koshiw in Shevchenkove

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