‘They Didn’t Understand Anything, but Just Spoiled People’s Lives’
How Russian invaders unleashed violence on small-town residents
This article is based on interviews and research by the Reckoning Project, a multinational group of journalists and researchers collecting evidence of war crimes in Ukraine.
On the night of February 24, 2022, the sound of missiles jolted Viktor Marunyak awake. He saw flashes in the sky and billowing black smoke; then he got dressed and went to work. Marunyak is the mayor of Stara Zburjivka, a village just across the Dnipro River from Kherson, and he headed immediately to an emergency meeting with leaders of other nearby villages to discuss their options. They quickly realized that they were already too late to connect with the Ukrainian army. Their region was cut off. They were occupied.
Occupied. Marunyak had been expecting the war to break out, but he had no sense of what a Russian occupation of his village might mean. Like his colleagues, Marunyak is an elected official—genuinely elected, since 2006, under Ukrainian laws giving real power to local governments, not appointed following a falsified plebiscite, as a similar official might have been in the Soviet era or might be in modern Russia. That meant that when the occupation began, he felt an enormous responsibility to stay in Stara Zburjivka and help his constituents cope with a cascade of emergencies. “Already, within a few days, there were families lacking food,” he recalls. “There was no bread or flour, so I was trying to buy grain from the farmers … Many residents began contributing the food they could share, and so we created a fund, providing assistance on demand.”
Similar plans were made to locate and distribute medications. Because the Ukrainian police had ceased to function, citizens formed nighttime security patrols staffed with local volunteers. Marunyak prepared to negotiate with whoever the Russians sent to Stara Zburjivka. “I told people not to be afraid, saying, when the Russians would come, I’ll be the first to talk to them.”
He was. And he paid a horrific price for it.
The Russian soldiers who arrived in Kherson—like the Russian soldiers who occupied Bucha and Irpin, the Kharkiv region, Zaporizhzhya, or anywhere else in Ukraine—were not prepared to meet people like Marunyak. To the extent that the invaders had any understanding of where they were and what they were meant to be doing (some, initially, had none), they believed that they were entering Russian territory ruled by an insecure and unpopular Ukrainian elite. Their actions suggested that their immediate goal was to decapitate that elite: arrest them, deport them, kill them. They did not expect this to be difficult.
Their theory of occupation was not new. Soviet soldiers entering the territory of eastern Poland or the Baltic states during World War II also arrived with lists of the types of people they wanted to arrest. In May 1941, Stalin himself provided such a list for occupied Poland. To the Soviet dictator, anyone linked to the Polish state—police, army officers, leaders of political parties, civil servants, their families—was a “counter-revolutionary,” a “kulak,” a “bourgeois,” or, to put it more simply, an enemy to be eliminated.
Russia made similar lists before invading Ukraine a year ago, some of which have become known. Ukraine’s president, prime minister, and other leaders featured on them, as did well-known journalists and activists. But Russian soldiers were not prepared to encounter widespread resistance, and they certainly did not expect to find loyal, conscientious, popularly elected small-town and village mayors.
Perhaps that explains why Marunyak, age 60, was punished with such horrific cruelty after the Russians arrested him on March 21. Along with a few other local men, the Stara Zburjivka mayor was kept blindfolded and handcuffed for three days. Russian soldiers beat him. They gave him nothing to eat and little to drink. One time he was stripped naked and forced to stay in the cold for several hours. A gun was held to his head, and he was threatened with drowning. He was told that his wife and daughters would also be captured. Once, he said, the soldiers choked him until he lost consciousness. They kept demanding to know where he kept his weapons. Because Marunyak fit into no category that the Russians could recognize—perhaps even because his local patriotism and his civic-mindedness seemed strange to them—they decided he must be a secret member of a Ukrainian “sabotage group.” He was not. He had no weapons and no military skills.
Days into his detention, Marunyak was briefly able to see his wife, Kateryna Ohar, before he was transferred to Kherson. The soldiers told Ohar she would not see her husband for 20 years. He was then sent right into another torture chamber, where a different set of Russian soldiers tied wires to his thumbs. In this form of torture, wires are connected to a victim’s fingers, toes, or sometimes genitals. Electric shocks are then delivered using the battery of a field telephone—according to one witness, soldiers described it as “making a call to Putin.” The practice of electrocuting prisoners was used during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and in Russia’s Chechen wars, and it is now in use again throughout occupied Ukraine. But even when Marunyak was tortured and interrogated, he noticed that his captors never wrote anything down. Their questioning was sloppy; he could not work out what they actually wanted to learn. Possibly nothing. Eventually, after days of captivity with next to no food, he was freed, with nine broken ribs and pneumonia. He escaped the occupied zone.
Over the past 10 months, the Reckoning Project has deployed more than a dozen journalists and field researchers to record detailed testimonies of victims of and witnesses to atrocities in areas of Ukraine that are or were under Russian occupation. Lawyers and analysts then seek to verify these accounts, with the goal of providing evidence that will be admissible in future court proceedings. The organization has found that Marunyak’s experience was not unusual. Oleh Yakhniyenko, the mayor of Mylove, another village in the Kherson region, was detained twice. Olena Peleshok, the mayor of Zeleny Pod, was imprisoned for more than two months. Mykhailo Burak, the mayor of Bekhtery village, was detained and tortured. In the formerly occupied territory of Kharkiv alone, police investigators have evidence of 25 torture chambers. The Ukrainian government believes that mayors, deputy mayors, and other local leaders from a majority of the Kherson region’s 49 municipalities were arrested or kidnapped. Some have simply disappeared.
Many of their stories share not only gruesome details but also an atmosphere of unreality. Ukrainian captives were told that the Ukrainian state had discriminated against them for speaking Russian; now they were “free,” the invaders insisted. But when Russian-speaking mayors and other elected officials flatly explained that no one in Ukraine had harmed them for using their native language, or that Russian was widely spoken in the region, the soldiers didn’t have any response. Dmytro Vasyliev, the secretary of the city council of occupied Nova Kakhovka, recalled that his Russian was more fluent and more grammatical than the Russian of the soldier interrogating him. The soldier was a Kalmyk, one of Russia’s minority groups; Vasyliev had been born in Moscow. He considered himself a Ukrainian of ethnic Russian extraction, which confused them: “They couldn’t comprehend why I, Russian by ethnic origin, did not want to cooperate with them,” Vasyliev recalled. “I said, ‘How can I look into the eyes of my son, my colleagues, if I become a traitor?’ They just didn’t get it.” Since his interview with the Reckoning Project, Vasyliev has died.
But even as they inflicted pain on the most civic-minded Ukrainians, even as they assaulted local leaders, Russian soldiers seemed not to know how to replace them. Unlike their Soviet Communist forebears, who could at least name the ideology that had driven them into Poland, or Estonia, or Romania, the modern Russian army seems to have no coherent theory of government or administration, no concrete plans to run the region, even no clear idea of the meaning of Russkiy mir, the “Russian world” that some of President Vladimir Putin’s ideologues extol.
Russian forces do find collaborators to replace elected officials, but many appear to be completely random, unqualified people, with no discernible ideology or previous links to Russia. In some places the invaders have displayed Soviet symbols or flags, perhaps hoping that these older ideas will create some sympathy for Russia among the conquered Ukrainians. But mostly they’ve offered nothing: no explanation, no improvements to life, not even a competent administration. They do immense damage, but they don’t seem to know why.
After the mayors, town councilors, and other elected officials, the Ukrainians who disturb the occupiers most are volunteers: people who run charities, people who run civic organizations, people who spontaneously rush to help others. Perhaps they seem suspicious to Russian officials because their own country crushes spontaneity, independent associations, and grassroots movements. The Reckoning Project interviewed a man from Skadovsk, a part of Kherson province still under Russian control, whom we will call Volunteer A. (He requested anonymity because he fears for his family’s safety.) He had been a member of one of the neighborhood-watch groups that stepped in to replace the police, and had worked at a humanitarian-aid distribution center. After his father was arrested in April 2022, a few weeks into the occupation, Volunteer A went to find him—and was detained as well.
During the subsequent interrogation, Volunteer A was asked about other local activists and about his connection to the Ukrainian security services (none) and the CIA (even less), as well as (ludicrously) George Soros’s Open Society Foundations. Like the Soviet officials who treated Boy Scout troops in occupied central Europe like members of a conspiracy, the Russians seemed incredulous that he was just a local volunteer, working with other local volunteers; their questions made it seem as if they had never heard of such a thing. He recalled being beaten simultaneously by four different men, struck by a baseball bat, tormented with electric shocks, and hit with a hammer in an effort to get him to admit he was part of a larger conspiracy. At least one of his ribs was broken. After the interrogation, he was told to make a video confession and to sign a statement declaring that he would not spread “fake news” about the Russian occupation. After a subsequent detention, he too escaped the region.
In another town in the Kherson region also still under occupation, Volunteer B, as we’ll call him (he also fears for his family), had a similar experience. Before Russian forces detained him, he had been running a makeshift pharmacy that collected medical-supply donations. He was interrogated and beaten and, like Volunteer A, asked repeatedly about the true purpose of his charitable work. Who was organizing it? Again, the Russian soldiers seemed unable to believe that no secret group was behind it, that ordinary people were spontaneously contributing to this common project, that information about it simply spread by word of mouth, on social media and on the radio, and not as the result of some dark plot. He was asked to jot down a description of how his group worked: “The way it worked,” he recalled writing, “was that people brought what they had and got what they needed. Provided that we have it.” The Russians kept pressing for more details of the nonexistent conspiracy. Then they confiscated the painkillers he had accumulated, which had been destined for cancer patients.
This man, who was also forced to leave his region, now believes that the interrogators’ real problem was that they feared volunteers were outside their control: “It really pisses [the Russians] off, annoys them,” he said, that anyone can be independent of the state and of the political system—any political system. This helps explain why the list of arrested and tortured volunteers is so long, and why their testimonies are so similar across the various zones of occupation. Ruslan Mashkov, a Ukrainian Red Cross volunteer, was detained by Russian soldiers north of Kyiv in March and interrogated. A woman in the Kherson region who had helped sort humanitarian-aid packages told an interviewer that she had been arrested, given electrical shocks, robbed of her money, and beaten. (She asked not to be identified by name.) Nakhmet Ismailov, another Kherson resident who had organized charity concerts and benefits before the war, was also tortured with electric shocks. Anyone who conducts any independent activity—anyone who engages with civil society or who might be described as a social entrepreneur—is at risk in an occupation zone run by men who may have never encountered a genuine charity or a genuine volunteer organization before at all.
The invaders’ nihilism is particularly notable in their incoherent approach to the Ukrainian educational system. In theory, schools and universities are the focus of careful Russian thought and planning, just as they were once the focus of careful Soviet thought and planning. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the Red Army, in an utterly devastated occupied East Germany, took time away from food provision and road reconstruction to issue an edict banning private kindergartens and to set up curriculum-training sessions for new preschool teachers.
In the spring of 2022, Russian occupiers did signal their interest in transforming Ukrainian schools. In Melitopol, which is still occupied, the Russian military abducted a handful of school principals as well as the head of the local department of education, although later the principals were released. In Kakhovka, Viktor Pendalchuk, the director of School No. 1, was detained and interrogated for two weeks before escaping to Ukrainian-held territory.
Still, a large number of schools in occupied areas at first remained closed, or else operated online, as they had done during the early phases of the coronavirus pandemic. The occupiers pressured some educators to return. In one case investigated by the Reckoning Project, witnesses described a geography, math, and computer-science teacher—we are withholding his name because his village in the Kherson region is still occupied—whose home was visited by Russian soldiers in late June; they handcuffed his 18-year-old son, perhaps because he planned to go to university to study Ukrainian history. They put a bag over the teen’s head and then dragged him away. The teacher received a message, via an interlocutor, telling him that his son was alive, was being fed, and would be returned home if the teacher returned to his job. The teacher complied. The son did come back, and described being interrogated, threatened at gunpoint, and tortured with electric shocks.
By autumn, the occupiers had intensified their efforts to Russify the schools, causing a lot of distress among Ukrainian teachers who feared being accused of collaboration by their own compatriots if they showed up at work. But the process remained haphazard, differing from place to place. In at least one town in the Zaporizhzhya region, the Reckoning Project believes, all Ukrainian-language books were removed from schools, including children’s books; elsewhere, only upper-level Ukrainian books, on law and history, were removed. In one Zaporizhzhyan village, still under occupation, soldiers have forced schools to open by threatening to take children from their parents if they do not show up. Elsewhere, low attendance has been tolerated.
Residents of some areas have said that the occupiers imposed a Russian-language curriculum, but many of the lessons were poorly designed. In one school district, just four textbooks were assigned—on the Russian language, Russian history, math, and natural science—and all others were discarded. Asked what she had been doing in school during the time Kherson was occupied, a 14-year-old named Oleksandra recalled that students spent their time looking at their phones.
Higher education suffers from the same erratic policies. Russian soldiers physically occupied Kherson State University, Kherson State Maritime Academy, and Kherson State Agrarian and Economic University, but managed to hold only a small number of classes. In June, while the city was still occupied, the Russians announced that Dmytro Kruhly, one of the teachers at the Kherson State Maritime Academy, would become rector. Everyone else was fired. Kruhly, who previously taught classes about “global maritime distress and safety systems,” announced that the new task of the university was to build a shipyard, but few steps were taken in that direction. After the liberation of Kherson, Kruhly disappeared from the city, probably retreating with the Russians.
Substantial evidence suggests that Moscow had bigger plans for Ukrainian schools but the soldiers on the ground could not implement them. In Vovchansk, a small frontline town in the Kharkiv region, freed in September after six months of occupation, the Reckoning Project obtained a copy of a five-year education plan for schools in the city. The document runs to 140 pages of bureaucratic language, which appears to have been mostly copied and pasted from the educational plans given to schools in Russia, as if no special thought went into the needs of schools in newly occupied territories. It calls, for example, for an annual “Day of Solidarity in the Fight Against Terrorism” to commemorate the infamous 2004 attack on a school in Beslan, in Russia’s North Ossetia region; for lessons about the Nazi blockade of Leningrad in World War II; and for a course on the “basics of the spiritual-moral culture of the peoples of Russia.” The entire document contains only two lines about Vovchansk itself—about visits to the town’s “institutions of culture” and production sites.
Regardless of Moscow’s intentions, the Russians actually carrying out the occupation didn’t really seem to care what happened to the schools. There was no policy equivalent to the systematic Soviet imposition of Marxist language and history on central Europe in the 1940s, not even an equivalent to the imposition of a pro-Russian regime in Chechnya during the second Chechen War. In one occupied town in the Zaporizhzhya region, teachers were ordered to organize celebrations of May 9—the day Russia marks the anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany. But the occupying authorities didn’t seem to mind whether attendance was high, or whether anyone learned anything about the war, or whether the celebrations were even real. “A couple of kids will be enough,” they were told. The ritual was for show. The point was to tell Moscow that it had happened, not to teach any real lessons about World War II.
In truth, each region of Ukraine does have its own history and traditions, and some of them are eerily relevant. In 1787, four years after Russia defeated the Ottoman empire and annexed the territory of what is now southern Ukraine and Crimea, the Russian empress Catherine the Great visited the region. The trip was organized by Grigory Potemkin, who was once her lover and remained her favorite minister, and it is from this journey that we have inherited the expression Potemkin village. According to the legend, Potemkin built facades along Catherine’s route and populated them with actors in costumes, pulling them down at the end of every day and putting them up again at the next village, so that the czarina would see only happy peasants and prosperous homes.
Historians doubt that this elaborate piece of theater really happened, but Potemkin’s connection to the region was real: He was buried in a crypt in Kherson, and before the Russians evacuated the city they removed his bones. And the Potemkin-village legend persists because it reflects a phenomenon we recognize: the courtier who creates a false reality to please the distant monarch. For Ukrainians who have lived under Russian occupation, the Potemkin story helps explain what they have experienced. Marunyak, the mayor of Stara Zburjivka, put it like this: “I am following their activities. They are all done for a camera shot in Russia. Even people who live in the occupation don’t believe it is for real. It’s like a huge Potemkin village. It can’t function. They try to glue it together, but it doesn’t work.”
The Potemkin story might also begin to explain the horrific violence that ordinary Russians have inflicted on ordinary Ukrainians. Over and over again, victims told the Reckoning Project that this extreme behavior came from nowhere. There was no provocation. Nothing that Ukrainians have done to Russians either in the distant past or in recent memory could explain the beatings, the electric shocks, the detention centers, the torture chambers in garages and basements, the utter disregard for Ukrainian life. Only the Russians’ frustration with their own incapacity—their inability to make the Ukrainians obey them; indeed, their inability to understand Ukraine at all—might offer a clue. They were told to transform the schools, but they do not know how. They were told to find secret Ukrainian organizations, but instead they found small-town mayors and local volunteers. On the one hand, they have to send a report back to Moscow, proving that they are in control. On the other hand, they are angry because they exercise so little control.
This incomprehension also fits into an older tradition. The Ukrainian writer Volodymyr Vynnychenko wrote a letter in 1928 to the Russian writer Maxim Gorky, who had dismissed the Ukrainian language as a mere dialect. Ukraine, Vynnychenko told him, was real, whether or not Gorky wanted it to be real. “You can think that the Dnipro River flows into the Moscow River,” he said. But “the Dnipro will not flow into the Moscow River” just because you think so. Wishing Ukraine away will not make Ukraine go away. Rewriting history will not alter the historical memories of millions of people. Russia can try to alter the geography of the region, but that will not alter the geography of the region, no matter how many bodies are beaten or electric shocks are delivered.
The modern Russian occupation also belongs to the equally old, equally ugly traditions of Russian imperialism and Soviet genocide. Moscow wants to obliterate Ukraine as a separate country, and Ukrainian as a distinct identity. The occupiers thought that task would be easy, because, like Putin, they assumed that the Ukrainian state and Ukrainian society are weak. But they are not. That clash between assumption and reality has also forced the occupiers to broaden their use of violence. Wayne Jordash, a British barrister who documents Russian war crimes in Ukraine, argued in a Reckoning Project interview that the extraordinary number of detention centers in occupied Ukraine represent the Russian army’s attempt to fulfill its original plan, which was “to capture and kill all the leaders” of Ukraine. But as the occupation dragged on, “the idea of leaders got bigger. It was originally ‘Zelensky and the government,’ and it quite quickly, inevitably, became ‘local leaders,’ which includes everyone from military to civil servants to journalists, to teachers—anybody who had a connection with the Ukrainian state.”
Failure and incompetence lead to violence; violence creates more resistance; and resistance, so hard for the invaders to comprehend, creates wider, broader, ever more random destruction, pain, and suffering. This is the logic of genocide, and it is unfolding right now, in our time, in the occupied Ukrainian territories that have not yet been liberated, in the towns where Russian soldiers still arrest people arbitrarily on the street, in the villages where the Ukrainian state cannot yet count the torture chambers, let alone shut them down.
Stara Zburjivka itself remains under occupation, although Marunyak, its devoted mayor, now lives in exile in Latvia. From there he tries to keep in touch with his former constituents, to help if he can, to advise or to listen, to keep together the threads of a society that the Russians are cruelly, haphazardly unraveling. “They didn’t understand anything,” Marunyak says now, “but just spoiled people’s lives.” They discovered a world different from the one they knew. And so they smashed it up, hit back at it, and are still trying to destroy it forever.
Oleh Baturin, Natalia Bimbirayte, and Natalia Kurdiukova contributed reporting.