Liberated from the Russians A Visit to Trostyanets After the End of the Occupation
Two men slowly walk toward each other in the frigid wind, before recognizing each other and embracing in tears. "You’re alive!?" More and more men and women are beginning to emerge and wander through their own city as though it was completely foreign to them. Some are weeping as they view the destruction – the half-demolished buildings and burned-out factories. Others are crying in relief – relief that they have survived. That they are once again able to meet up with friends and family members from other parts of the city.
For the first time in a month, people were once again able to emerge last Sunday from their homes and basements in Trostyanets, finally able to believe that the nightmare had actually come to an end. The Russian troops had suddenly withdrawn on the last remaining passable road toward Russia on Friday afternoon – after having marched into this spa town of 20,000 residents in eastern Ukraine and occupied it on the very first day of the war. All telephones in town went dead, as did the cellular network, and walking through town had become a potentially deadly undertaking. Many simply waited at home, huddled in the candlelight as their rations slowly disappeared, not knowing what was happening in the rest of the country – or even just a couple hundred meters down the road.
A destroyed bus near the Trostyanets train stationFoto: Pavel Dorogoy / DER SPIEGEL
Only on Saturday, when the Ukrainian army rolled in with their tanks, snipers riding in Kia compacts and uniformed soldiers on foot, did the first residents begin emerging from their homes, relates Rastislav, a good-humored soldier who is now standing watch at the ruins of the small police headquarters. Almost in passing, he mentions the sudden historic importance of Trostyanets – as the first city that was first completely occupied by Russian troops over the course of several weeks before then being liberated by the Ukrainian army.
The Russians are also withdrawing from other cities in Ukraine, such as Irpin, the embattled town on the outskirts of Kyiv. But most of the settlements are completely destroyed fields of smoking rubble that the Russians never managed to bring completely under their control.
Ukrainian soldiers in TrostyanetsFoto: Pavel Dorogoy / DER SPIEGEL
Trostyanets, though, is now emerging from four weeks of Russian occupation, and it provides a look at how the aimless Russian invaders rapidly transformed into a murderous horde – one which increasingly, in the face of Ukrainian counterattacks, took out its fear and anger on the civilian population.
"Come on up," says Rastislav at the police station, "but it stinks." The Russians used the place as accommodations, piling up file cabinets in front of the windows for protection. Before withdrawing, they defecated in the offices and auditorium on the first floor – room by room. The slightly dried-out piles are everywhere on the floor and chairs.
A Dead Body in the Courtyard
Down below, in the automobile shop in the courtyard, the body of a civilian lies next to the inspection pit. Another soldier says that he had lifted the corpse out of the pit "and first wiped off the feces." A pile had also been left on the dead body.
Destroyed Russian trucks near the regional administration building in Trostyanets.Foto: Pavel Dorogoy / DER SPIEGEL
Nobody knows who the dead man is, and it won’t be easy to identify him. The face is in tatters, likely from a gunshot. Now, he is lying next to the pit, provisionally wrapped in a wool blanket. It’s not a Russian soldier, says Rastislav. "They took all their bodies from here with them." The occupiers, Rastislav says, made a practice of apprehending men at random, looking through their phones for photos of tanks and Russian positions and forcing them to undress in the search for tattoos that could indicate that they were part of the Ukrainian military. They would then shoot anyone they thought might be an enemy.
The police station in the city, destroyed and befouled by the Russians.Foto: Pavel Dorogoy / DER SPIEGEL
The Russian occupation of Trostyanets was not part of the plan. The expectation had been that they would rapidly continue onwards into Kyiv. But then, the Ukrainians blew up a large bridge south of the city and the Russians turned around and occupied Trostyanets. Until that point, the town had been something of a tourist destination with a famous botanical garden and a neo-Gothic "Round Court" from 1749 that is used as an open-air theater. The town is also home to a chocolate factory and a chocolate museum, situated in an old manor house where Tchaikovsky composed his overture "The Storm" in 1864.
"Mom, the War Has Started!"
The more recent storm began for Vladimir and Vera – he, a former assistant professor for agricultural studies and she, the head bookkeeper for the chocolate factory – at 5:30 a.m. on Feb. 24 with a call from their daughter in Kyiv. "Mom, the war has started!" At the time, it was still dark and calm in Trostyanets, which is just 30 kilometers from the Russian border. The two walked to the chocolate factory to grab the digital key for all the accounts and to pick up the stamps and the most important documents out of Vera’s safe. Then, Vladimir hid his valuable diving equipment in the well at their home.
Trostyanets Mayor Yuri Bova: "The Russians were looking for me and wanted to kill me."Foto: Pavel Dorogoy / DER SPIEGEL
Nothing happened until noon, when Mayor Yuri Bova spoke to the crowd that had gathered in front of City Hall. "They are coming," he said, according to Vladimir’s recollections. "In 20 minutes, the first Russian troops will be here. What do we have?" They had five or six police officers with Kalashnikovs and a couple of pistols. To fight against a six-kilometer-long armada of tanks, multiple rocket launchers, armored personnel carriers and self-propelled artillery that had been moving into Ukraine since the early morning.
It was a spur of the moment decision: "Those who want to fight should immediately jump into their cars and withdraw into the forest and the surrounding villages." The others were told to go home, remain quiet and photograph Russian positions. Mayor Bova also went into the forest, a decision for which some have criticized him. "The Russians were looking for me and wanted to kill me," he now says, following the liberation. "What else should I have done?"
He didn’t have time to talk longer. He spent all of Sunday and Monday in the concert hall of the Tchaikovsky Music School for Children registering volunteers for the Territorial Defense Forces, who now want to join the fight. "We didn’t have time before the invasion," he says.
Volunteers registering for the Territorial Defense Forces in the concert hall of a music school.Foto: Pavel Dorogoy / DER SPIEGEL
In the first days of the occupation one month ago, things remained largely quiet in the town. Telephones still worked, as did the internet. Working from home, Vera was able to transfer the salaries of the factory’s 800 workers and send additional sums of money abroad. The factory belongs to the American snack giant Mondelez International, an extremely modern facility for the production of Oreo cookies and Tuc crackers. The company’s regional head, responsible for Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Russia is headquartered in Moscow.
"Was That the Plan?"
When factory managers in Trostyanets tried to tell the regional head in Moscow that Russian troops were in the process of destroying the production site, he initially refused to believe it. Until company executives in the United States cut off all communication.
A residential building in Trostyanets, destroyed in the warFoto: Pavel Dorogoy / DER SPIEGEL
Between 300 and 600 Russian troops occupied the police headquarters, the train station and the airstrip for small aircraft. They then set up their quarters and erected barricades. Soon, though, they began running out of the rations they had brought along – and Ukrainian drones began attacking their positions. In early March, the Russians cut off the telephone network and electricity, which meant that the pump for drinking water ceased functioning as well. A cold snap led to temperatures plunging to minus 19 degrees Celsius. It became rather uncomfortable in the town, for both the occupied and the occupiers. But the Russians had control.
Small groups of Russian soldiers began shooting their way into supermarkets and stores, taking supplies, stealing the televisions from an electronics store and destroying cash registers and cash machines. The destruction can still be seen several weeks later. "They even plundered the second-hand clothing store," scoffs a resident who returned after the town was liberated. "Was that the plan? Invade the place to make off with used clothing? We would have been happy to just send it to them."
Residents of Trostyanets next to a car that was destroyed in the fightingFoto: Pavel Dorogoy / DER SPIEGEL
Russian controls of the population grew increasingly brutal as time passed. Those found to be carrying smartphones would lose them – in the best-case scenario. Young men were taken to the interrogation center the Russians set up at the train station and beaten. One young man – who insists that he learned the coordinates of a Russian position in the city completely by accident through a Telegram group – presumably only escaped death because his mother came and begged for his life on her knees. And because a soldier from the Caucasus felt sorry for her.
Those who were still on the street after 3 p.m. were at risk of being shot dead. A fate that befell a cyclist and a man who was running to the hospital because his wife had gone into premature labor. A 60-year-old veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan named Alexander Vilinsky was also shot dead because he refused to be driven out of his home by Russian troops.
Shot Through the Heart
The 31-year-old rail worker Sasha, who really was keeping an eye on Russian positions for the Ukrainian army, was also killed. When he didn’t immediately stop on March 12 following warning shots from a machine gun, a sniper shot him through the heart.
Valentin visiting the grave of his son Sasha, who was shot dead by Russian troops.Foto: Pavel Dorogoy / DER SPIEGEL
His family found Sasha’s body the next day lying next to an electric box on a sidewalk. Nobody had been allowed to move it, says his father Valentin. And nobody could call him, the father, because the telephones no longer worked.
On that same day, March 12, a number of residents were able to evacuate the town following difficult negotiations with the Russians. Sasha’s wife and five-year-old child were among those who left. Sasha’s father says they are currently somewhere in the Czech Republic and still haven’t learned of Sasha’s death. The little one, though, says Valentin, seems to have had a premonition: "Daddy’s not coming back," he said just before leaving. Sasha and his wife had promised him that "after the war, you’re going to get a sister or a brother," says Valentin.
The man who killed Sasha, Valentin says, spoke Russian with a Ukrainian accent and was actually from not far away. He even muttered a curt apology to Valentin, who was able to bury his son in the cemetery, which had also been forbidden during the Russian occupation. Others who were killed were put to rest in the yard behind their homes in makeshift graves without coffins. They were simply wrapped in sheets or tarps after being hit by anti-tank weapons or shrapnel from one side or the other.
A protective bunker in TrostyanetsFoto: Pavel Dorogoy / DER SPIEGEL
Another resident spoke of his 80-year-old mother, who died on March 21. "I had to lay her out in the garage," he says. There was no burial in the cemetery, no church service and no mourners. He says he hammered together a coffin at home and buried his mother in the yard. He asks that his name not be used for this article since he works at the chocolate factory and executives in the U.S. asked employees not to speak to the press.
Clueless Russian Soldiers
He says he continued going to the factory for several days after the Russians showed up and spoke with soldiers at the site. "They didn’t even know why they were here." The didn’t know anything about how the invasion was going, he says, and asked him: "Have we already made it to Kyiv? Is Zelenskyy still alive?” referring to the Ukrainian president. He says he told them that they weren’t going to like his answer: "Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odessa still belong to us! Zelenskyy is alive!" They cursed and walked off, he says.
Based on the accents of the Russian troops and the rare times when one of them shared personal information, it is possible to guess roughly where they were from. Residents say that at least a third appeared to have been militiamen from South Ossetia, the small strip of land in Georgia that Russia de facto annexed in 2008. A number of the Russian fighters also came from the Russian-occupied "people’s republics" in eastern Ukraine, say locals, along with extremely poor soldiers from the southeastern Siberian region of Buryatia. Some of them, residents say, were "kontraktniki," or contract soldiers, but many of them had only signed up four months ago.
A Ukrainian soldier in TrostyanetsFoto: Pavel Dorogoy / DER SPIEGEL
They say none of them had an answer for why they were in Trostyanets and where they were heading next. "Orders," was the most they would say.
Slowly but surely, the Ukrainian army began tightening the circle around Trostyanets and moving into the villages in the surrounding forests. In late March, a Ukrainian drone and artillery attack struck the Russian position at the train station, destroying three tanks and a gun emplacement. The Russians responded by firing at the surrounding buildings, leaving a scene that looks a lot like old photos of Stalingrad from World War II.
Like a bitter historical irony, the center of the destroyed square is still dominated by a relatively unscathed World War II monument – a green-painted T34 tank of the kind used by the Soviets. It was put there to commemorate the liberation of the city from the Germans in 1943. The square is called 40th Army Square, but the sign has now been torn down and is lying in the burned-out wreck of a Russian tank.
The monument to the 1943 liberation of Trostyanets from the Germans – a Soviet T-43 tank on 40th Army SquareFoto: Pavel Dorogoy / DER SPIEGEL
Out of fear, or vengeance, the Russians began shooting at buildings at random for no obvious reason, even targeting the hospital. Ludmilla, who works in the hospital administration, recalls "the tank that came rolling up the street. I looked out the window and saw it suddenly pivot its cannon in our direction. Then, it fired. At us." The shells blew huge holes in the top floor of the hospital, though most patients had been moved to the cellar by then.
A Pathetic Column of Vehicles
Why exactly the remaining Russian troops packed up and left Trostyanets last Friday remains unclear. Was there an order? Did they just flee the city due to mounting exhaustion and dwindling supplies of munitions? Before they left, the Russians mined the chocolate museum. They had already mined the botanical garden and its Nymph Grotto dating from 1809. At the train station and other locations, they left behind graffiti reading "Zelenskyy is a fag," the same phrase sprayed on a number of walls, or "For the honor of Russia." Or simply a heart next to the word "Russia." From Russia with Love. Trostyanets now looks as though it was descended upon by a horde of teenagers armed with spray cans and tanks.
A Russian vehicle with the army symbol "V" sprayed on the frontFoto: Pavel Dorogoy / DER SPIEGEL
Vladimir, the former assistant professor of agriculture, watched them leaving on Friday from his living room window. He counted the vehicles as they left: "Twelve tanks, 20 armored personnel carriers, three large howitzers, one multiple rocket launcher and 30 trucks. Behind them were 20 cars stolen from civilians with a red 'Z' painted on them, many of them with fully packed luggage racks on the roof." It was still a long column of vehicles, but nothing compared to the convoy that had arrived during the initial invasion.
"At the very back was a tank," Vladimir recalls. "Its cannon turned backward at the city. That was when I realized that they really were leaving."