How Ukrainians Saved Their Capital
When Russia attacked Kyiv, Ukrainians dropped everything to protect the city—and to ease one another’s suffering.
The New Yorker, May 2, 2022
The Hospitallers, a battalion of volunteer medics, aided civilians who were fleeing the intensifying combat in Irpin, a suburb northwest of Kyiv.
The original St. Michael’s Monastery, in the historic center of Kyiv, was commissioned around the year 1100 by a Christian prince, who dedicated it to the archangel and patron of soldiers after winning a war. The complex, which included a cathedral famous for its golden dome, was pillaged by the Mongols in 1240 and restored a few centuries later. In 1937, Communist authorities demolished it. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kyiv City Council had the buildings reconstructed. On March 1st, I accompanied my friend Anastasia Fomitchova to St. Michael’s. Uniformed men with Kalashnikovs patrolled the perimeter and guarded the gate. Anastasia approached a fence, through which we could see the cathedral. She bowed her head; when she lifted it, she was crying. I asked her what she had prayed for. “My country, my city, and my family,” she replied.
I’d met Anastasia several years ago in Paris, through my wife, when they had both belonged to an academic consortium sponsored by the European Research Council. Although Anastasia, a graduate student in political science, had spent most of her life in France, she was born in Kyiv and returned there regularly. When Russian forces launched multiple simultaneous offensives against Ukraine, on February 24th, I called Anastasia to ask after her relatives. One prong of the attack was advancing on the capital, and missiles had already started landing there. Anastasia was preparing to travel to Kyiv, and invited me to go with her.
Two days later, in Paris, at 7:30 A.M., I arrived outside a Métro station near the Place d’Italie, where people were loading boxes of food and other provisions into the luggage compartment of a commercial bus. I spotted Anastasia, wearing a backpack and smoking a cigarette. She told me that she’d been returning home on this bus, which was owned by a Ukrainian man and which departed every Sunday, for the past several years. The voyage took more than thirty hours but cost only eighty euros. Normally, the passengers were immigrants visiting friends and family; now they were mostly young men and women going back to fight.
In response to the Russian invasion, the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, had declared martial law and ordered a general mobilization, forbidding males between the ages of eighteen and sixty to leave the country. Ukrainians who were abroad, of course, could have chosen to remain so. But every seat on the bus was occupied. The man across the aisle from Anastasia and me, named Petro, was a thirty-three-year-old construction worker who had lived in France for eight years. He was bound for his home town, Ivano-Frankivsk, where Russian missiles had recently targeted the airport. He planned to spend one night with his parents, then report for duty.
As we traversed Luxembourg and Germany, the driver stopped at a gas station every four or five hours, to let us use the rest room and buy food; Petro neither ate nor slept, and his anxiety seemed to increase as we neared Ukraine. He had never fired a weapon. “I don’t know where they’re going to send me,” he told us midway through Poland, his hands trembling. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to me.” Embarrassed by the tears welling in his eyes, he explained, “Not everyone is ready for this.”
The Russian military, which was superior in numbers and firepower, was widely predicted to prevail. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians were already fleeing the country. The mood on the bus was sombre as the passengers reckoned with their decision to join a possibly doomed resistance.
Anastasia informed Petro that she, too, planned to participate in the war. Twenty-eight years old, petite, and blond, with a round, open face and a wide smile, she radiated youthful optimism and earnestness. When she told Petro, “I’m scared, too, but we need to fight,” he seemed reassured that such a person had made the same choice, and by her certainty that it was the right one.
We reached the Polish-Ukrainian border the following afternoon. Throngs of women, children, and elderly people waited to cross in the opposite direction, toting as many of their possessions as they could. The driver was unable to go to Kyiv and deposited us in Lviv, some three hundred and fifty miles to the west. Anastasia and I said goodbye to Petro and went to the railway station. Outside, hundreds of people had converged on stands and tents where young volunteers in neon safety vests served hot soup and tea. More displaced Ukrainians had packed into the main terminal, bundled in heavy coats, sleeping on benches or on the cold tile floor. Suitcases and strollers clogged the passageways. Most people were transiting to points west or south. The only train to Kyiv wasn’t scheduled to depart until midnight, and Anastasia went to buy some groceries for her father and stepmother. There were rumors of a run on the supermarkets in Kyiv, by residents anticipating a long Russian siege. I ducked into a shop to buy cigarettes, and when I came out Anastasia was speaking with two old men who were drinking beer and vodka. They’d just brought their wives and daughters to Lviv from the southern port city of Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, and were returning to sign up with the armed forces there. They were in high spirits and full of bravado.
In the weeks ahead, Russian forces would decimate Mariupol. The indiscriminate bombardment would raze much of the city and kill thousands of civilians. Other residents would starve to death. Corpses would contaminate streams, and stray dogs would feed off dead Ukrainians left to rot in the streets. “Slava Ukraini! ” one of the two old men shouted, a little drunkenly, as we wished them luck and parted ways. I didn’t take down their names, and I don’t know if they survived.
Our train arrived in Kyiv the next morning. We caught a taxi to an apartment that Anastasia had rented before the war for the month of March. It was on Andriyivsky Descent, a steep cobblestone road, lined with cafés, bars, and art galleries, near the Dnieper River. The hill, usually overrun with tourists and street musicians, was as deserted as the rest of the snow-dusted city. Many residents had taken refuge in subway stations, camping on the platforms and in the train cars. Almost everyone else was sheltering in their basements or locked in their homes. The torpid silence was punctuated by the slow whine of air-raid sirens—and by crows. Passing some trees taken over by a strident flock, Anastasia remarked, “I’ve never seen that before.” Her father’s place was within walking distance, and on our way there we encountered a small monument dedicated to the acclaimed Ukrainian baritone Vasyl Slipak.
Anastasia had known him. He had lived in Paris, where he’d performed at the Opéra Bastille and the Palais Garnier. He’d also led a parallel life, as a militant in his home country. In late 2013, President Viktor Yanukovych, ceding to Russian pressure, had scuttled an agreement to form closer ties with the European Union. Enormous protests, which grew into an uprising called the Revolution of Dignity, erupted across Ukraine. At Independence Square, in downtown Kyiv, tens of thousands of demonstrators erected barricades and violently clashed with security forces. By March of 2014, militarized police, often using live ammunition, had killed more than a hundred protesters. The Ukrainian parliament voted to remove Yanukovych, who fled to Russia. Vladimir Putin dismissed the revolution as a Western contrivance and promptly annexed Crimea, a strategic peninsula between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. His troops then entered the Donbas, a region in the southeast of Ukraine, in support of pro-Russian separatists who wanted to secede. Ukraine mounted a counter-offensive, and soon an entrenched front line circumscribed some six thousand square miles on the Russian border. Many young Ukrainians who were galvanized by the revolution, including Slipak, joined volunteer battalions that had originally formed at Independence Square. Over the next seven years, more than two dozen ceasefires were negotiated and violated. The result was few significant territorial gains or losses, and thousands of dead Ukrainians.
Anastasia had met Slipak through activist networks in France. The last time they saw each other, at a protest in Paris in June, 2016, she was on summer vacation from the Sorbonne and he was preparing to return to the Donbas. Two weeks later, a Russian sniper killed him. “His death changed my vision of the war,” Anastasia told me, at the monument on Andriyivsky Descent. “It became concrete, and I understood that I had to go there.” The following month, she accompanied a group carrying donated supplies—rations, power banks, generators—to military units on the front line. At one forward position, she met an ambulance driver who showed her videos of casualty evacuations that he had on his phone. “I was really impressed, and I felt I wasn’t doing enough,” Anastasia said. When she told the driver that she would like to become a medic but had no experience, he gave her the name of an organization that could train her: the Hospitallers.
In 2017, when Anastasia was twenty-three, she attended a one-week course with the Hospitallers at their base, in southern Ukraine. She began deploying to the Donbas for brief rotations when not at school. The inertia and slow-grinding toll of the conflict produced a specific kind of anguish. The first casualty that Anastasia evacuated was a soldier who had nearly severed his arm while trying to kill himself. Mines, mortars, and bullets had killed or wounded others. “Most of them are younger than me,” Anastasia wrote, in a journal entry. She worried that their deaths changed “absolutely nothing.”
In the summer of 2020, after a tour in the Donbas during the pandemic, she recommitted to her studies in France. “I thought I had put the war behind me,” she said. Now she planned to rejoin the Hospitallers. Her first priority, though, was to see her father and to persuade him and his wife to go abroad. As we left the monument to Slipak, we could hear the rumble of ordnance in the suburbs to the north. A forty-mile Russian column, composed of hundreds of tanks, armored vehicles, and approximately fifteen thousand troops, was bearing down on the capital. Most Western analysts believed that Kyiv would be rapidly encircled, blockaded, and subjected to devastating shelling. U.S. intelligence officials estimated that Russian forces could take the city within two or three days. The Ukrainian Ambassador to Germany later told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that Germany’s finance minister had rebuffed his appeals for aid and weapons, and had said to him, “You have only a few hours.”
The mayor of Kyiv would soon announce that half of the city’s three million residents had fled. The remaining population leaned toward the stubborn, the courageous, the hopeful, the deluded, and the poor. Anastasia’s father, Sergey, wasn’t poor. He answered the door in an elegant patterned robe, his rotund midsection straining at the sash. His cheeks flushed with drink, he jovially greeted his daughter as if she were home for the holidays. His demeanor soured after we sat down at the kitchen table and Anastasia began urging him and her stepmother, Irena, to abandon the city.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Sergey said.
Irena, who also wore a robe, assured Anastasia that they could protect themselves: they had an antique hunting rifle and three bullets. On a large television, a news anchor was talking about Putin. Irena shook her head. Like many Ukrainians, she and Sergey were stunned by the Russian President’s decision to invade. In a speech a few days before the incursion, Putin had offered various fanciful justifications: that “modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia” and should never have been recognized as a sovereign state; that the Revolution of Dignity was a “coup d’état” perpetrated wholly by “radical nationalists,” corrupt oligarchs, and neo-Nazis; that the Ukrainian military answered directly to NATO and had committed genocide in the Donbas; and that Ukraine intended to develop nuclear weapons. Irena said that she believed Putin was possessed.
We left the house, and Anastasia asked if we could stop by St. Michael’s, a few blocks away, so that she could pray. She was a devout believer. As soon as we’d arrived at her temporary apartment, she had removed from her backpack a small icon of the Virgin Mary and placed it on the windowsill.
The Orthodox Church of Ukraine vigorously opposed Russian interference in the country and had backed the Revolution of Dignity. St. Michael’s stood at the top of a hill that sloped down to Independence Square, and during the protests the monastery became a sanctuary from the mayhem. Priests and volunteer medics treated wounded protesters and served them food. The dead were brought there to be mourned by their friends. Now a memorial outside the cathedral honored the demonstrators killed during the uprising—and a wall of remembrance featured the photographs of thousands of soldiers and volunteers who had died in the Donbas. At the foot of the wall, flowers had been placed in upright artillery shells.
After Anastasia’s prayer at the fence, we returned to the apartment. She was frustrated with her father and stepmother, but accepted that their minds were made up. She texted one of the medics in the Hospitallers, to find out where they had mustered. The medic responded that they were in St. Michael’s.
The gate was opened for us the following morning. Inside the monastery, everything was in a state of frenetic metamorphosis. Men and women in combat fatigues hurried in all directions; priests in black robes unloaded boxes from trucks and vans; in a lecture hall where seminary students normally underwent theological instruction, a soldier provided basic firearms training to volunteers who had just received Kalashnikovs. Shouted commands rang through hallways adorned with oil paintings of church patriarchs from centuries past.
Anastasia found Yana Zinkevych, the leader of the Hospitallers, in a small office packed with people vying to speak with her. Twenty-six years old, Zinkevych was lavishly tattooed and had a pierced eyebrow and pink-and-blue hair. She was also in a wheelchair. This hadn’t been the case in 2014, when, as a recent high-school graduate, she’d abandoned her plans to become a doctor and joined a unit of volunteer fighters in the Donbas. “There was nobody to treat the wounded,” she later told me. “I understood I had to do something.” She began teaching herself tactical first aid and using it to help injured comrades. One night, while huddled in a bunker under heavy bombardment, a chaplain recounted to her the story of a medieval Catholic military order, the Knights Hospitaller. The next day, Zinkevych resolved to create her own battalion.
She started with six volunteers and a pickup truck; eventually, she acquired a Volkswagen van. Zinkevych led more than two hundred evacuations until, at the end of 2015, she was paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident. A few months later, she learned that she was pregnant. Against the expectations of her physicians, she gave birth, to a daughter, without complications. She went on to train hundreds of Hospitallers who treated thousands of casualties. In 2019, she ran for parliament and was elected as a representative of the European Solidarity Party.
Zinkevych sent Anastasia to an annex of the monastery where she was issued a combat uniform, body armor, gloves, long underwear, thermal socks, a headlamp, a pocketknife, and a sleeping bag. Helmets were not yet on hand. Anastasia went into a bathroom to change, and when she emerged—no longer a civilian, her folded bluejeans under her arm—she marvelled at the speed with which her world was transforming. “It doesn’t feel real,” she told me. “It’s like a dream, or a nightmare.”
Bandages, gauze, saline, syringes, litters, splints, and other medical equipment were piled on a set of stairs. Donated food—sacks of potatoes, jars of pickled vegetables, preserved meat, canned goods—crowded the corridors. The refectory had been converted into sleeping quarters, and dozens of mattresses covered the dining tables. In the kitchen, medics waited in line for bowls of borscht and kasha. I would get to know many of them: an economics professor, a dentist, a cellist, a cryptocurrency trader, a knife-fighting coach, a ballet dancer, numerous students, a filmmaker, a farmer, a therapist, several journalists. Fearing Russian reprisals, they all used code names. I found a free mattress across from Italia, a physician’s assistant and a single mother who had immigrated to Milan two decades ago. When the war started, she took a bus back to Kyiv, leaving behind her twenty-three-year-old daughter. “She supports my being here,” Italia said. Her daughter was now assisting Ukrainian refugees, whose numbers across Europe soon exceeded five million.
Kyiv did not fall. Withering Ukrainian artillery and intrepid ambushes stopped the Russian convoy. Anastasia and Italia were dispatched to a municipal police academy near the airport, where they trained officers in first aid and set up a medical-evacuation point. Reporters were forbidden there, but a Hospitaller I’d befriended—code-named August—invited me to accompany his ambulance to a northwestern suburb called Irpin, where residents were escaping the intensifying combat.
August, a twenty-four-year-old auditor in Kyiv, had long been fascinated by all things military. The HBO series “Band of Brothers,” in which his favorite character was the medic, Eugene Roe, had been especially inspiring. In 2017, August attended the same one-week course as Anastasia; he went on to spend most of his vacations in the Donbas, where he learned how to handle a rifle and fire mortars. He exuded the impatient craving for action typical of young soldiers not yet run down by the realities of war. The English words “FUCK DAY” were scrawled in Sharpie on a magazine in his ammo vest, which was also decorated with a purple ribbon that his former girlfriend, a Hospitaller named Anya, had given him for good luck. A patch on his flak jacket featured the Patagonia logo, altered to read “Donbasonia.”
There were five of us in the ambulance. Heading out of the city, we passed numerous checkpoints under construction. Volunteers shovelled dirt from the roadside into sandbags or felled pine trees with chain saws, stacking the logs behind tank traps that had been made by welding together I-beams. August stared out the window, gripping a Kalashnikov, tense and mesmerized. Another Hospitaller, Orest, sat on a stretcher, absorbed in reading “Little Dorrit,” the Charles Dickens novel, on a tablet. Orest was a thirty-six-year-old arborist, a father of five, and a passionate mountaineer. A week earlier, he told me, he’d been trekking near the Romanian border, far from cell-phone reception, when he picked up a signal on a high ridge and saw the news. He hiked for two days to the nearest village and caught a train back to the capital. He’d been planning to make an expedition to the Arctic, and had decided to buy a bolt-action rifle to protect himself from polar bears; in Kyiv, he bought an AR-15 instead.
“The expedition has been postponed,” Orest deadpanned.
To prevent the Russians from penetrating Kyiv, the Ukrainians had destroyed the main bridge over the fast-moving Irpin River. Several buildings on the south side of the river had been hit by Russian shells, which had also killed some fleeing civilians. To the north, explosions sounded and smoke filled the sky above another nearby suburb, Bucha. Russian forces had stalled there, and waves of residents were now arriving—abandoning their vehicles at the edge of the caved-in bridge, clambering down a high embankment, and crossing the icy currents on a treacherous walkway composed of pallets and scrap lumber. Passenger buses idled, ready to bring displaced Ukrainians to downtown Kyiv. People advanced single file, lugging bags and suitcases; some hugged dogs, cats, or babies to their chests. Elderly men and women with canes and walkers staggered haltingly over the rickety planks.
Many geriatric, ill, and injured civilians could not navigate the walkway at all. August, Orest, and several other Hospitallers began carrying them across on litters and spine boards. For the next six hours, the Hospitallers went back and forth across the rapids, delivering dozens of people to ambulances, for transport to hospitals in Kyiv. Exhausted-looking Ukrainian soldiers returning from the front also used the crossing. At one point, a group of them arrived conducting a prisoner whose head was covered in a black hood. His hands were bound in front of him and his shirt was stained with blood.
The rage and desperation of the people at the bridge suggested harrowing experiences. “I want him to die!” a limping babushka in a floral head scarf cried as August helped her down the embankment. She meant Putin. “He’s a fascist! He’s a bastard! He’s not even a bastard—he’s an animal!” Another woman, who’d left her house in a sweatsuit and slippers, with nothing but a purse, told August, “They’re by the forest. If you need to bomb our houses, do it. Just kill them.”
Most of the civilians were women. A lot of the men from Irpin and Bucha had stayed behind, to look after pets, to protect their homes, to assist neighbors, or simply from a sense of duty. In the afternoon, a pair of male municipal workers brought their families in a car; a young girl with a pink Tinker Bell knapsack carried a stuffed My Little Pony unicorn under her arm. The two men ushered their wives and children to the end of the bridge. “Listen to your mother,” one said while hugging and kissing his kids. “Be good to your mother.” The other man was walking away, hiding his tears, unable to say goodbye. Suddenly, he stopped and called out, “Lova!” His adolescent son turned, and the man hurried back to embrace him.
Late in the day, a van arrived with two old women, one of whom refused to get out. “You have to come,” her friend yelled at her. “Maybe we won’t see each other again! Just come. Come!”
“I want to go home.”
“Now that we’ve landed, it’s safe to talk to the person next to you.”
“Please, get out of the car,” a Hospitaller told her.
“Don’t try to convince me,” she replied. “I don’t want to go anywhere but home.”
When the Hospitallers asked whether anyone else was living in her house, she said that she was alone.
“You know who will be in your house?” August said. “The Russians, that’s who. What will you do then?”
The woman was unmoved: “I’m eighty-two years old. I hope you live as long as me.”
Her friend was already gone. More vehicles were pulling up. “Bring her back,” August told the driver. “We have other people to help.”
The van turned again toward the rising smoke plumes.
Most Ukrainians who signed up during the first days of the general mobilization were assigned to the Territorial Defense Forces, a kind of national reserve. It was soon at capacity and turning people away. A middle-aged physiotherapist at St. Michael’s told me that he had waited all night in the lobby of a conscription office before being sent home. He joined the Hospitallers instead. Others banded together in ad-hoc collectives, assembling Molotov cocktails, sewing camouflage nets, building fortifications, and preparing and delivering food. One day in Kyiv, I met a young bar manager who belonged to a network of about two hundred former restaurant workers—cooks, waiters, baristas—who made thousands of meals a day for Army units and for civilians marooned in their homes. The military lacked sufficient body armor, and as the war dragged on the bar manager began paying a metal fabricator, using his personal savings, to cut steel-plate inserts for bulletproof vests.
Some troops were also in urgent need of basic medical equipment. At St. Michael’s, Anastasia spent hours assembling individual first-aid kits for infantry units: pouches containing pressure bandages, tourniquets, trauma shears, emergency blankets, hemostatic gauze, and chest-wound seals. These products had been either sent by European donors or purchased by the Hospitallers. More ambulances were acquired similarly, their stencilled lettering indicating their provenance: “ambulanza,” “ambulancia,” “ambulans.”
Anya, the ex-girlfriend of August’s who had given him the lucky ribbon, was in charge of fund-raising. She’d been studying the violin at the Kyiv Conservatory when the Revolution of Dignity started; a policeman had broken her hand at Independence Square. “I’d spent my whole life, since I was four years old, playing all day,” she told me. The injury had put an end to her musical career. A year later, she’d volunteered to fight in the Donbas.
To raise money, Anya marshalled her contacts in the Ukrainian diaspora and solicited contributions on social media. One day, after helping to acquire five thousand tourniquets from a Swiss manufacturer, she told me, “There are no more tourniquets in Switzerland!”
As the fighting continued on the outskirts of the capital, the Hospitallers set about establishing several “stabilization points.” At these forward positions, wounded soldiers and civilians could receive initial treatment—mainly hemorrhage control and intravenous therapy—before being evacuated to primary-care facilities in Kyiv. In the first week of March, I went with August and Orest to the edge of a neighborhood called Horenka, where the Hospitallers were scouting out a location for a new stabilization point. Horenka, which bordered Bucha to the east, was the scene of fierce Russian shelling—on our way, as we passed Ukrainian tanks and armored vehicles, a mortar exploded on the road ahead of us, rocking the ambulance and obliging us to turn back for a while. It was dark when we finally reached our destination, and bright trails streaked across the night sky. Rockets launched by the Ukrainians flashed in the woods. We linked up with a Territorial Defense unit that had occupied an abandoned children’s sanatorium. The volunteers did not look particularly impressive—they were older, and some of them were out of shape—but they told me that they had been preparing for this moment for seven years.
The men belonged to a “civilian sniper club” that had formed in 2015. In anticipation of an expansion of the war in the Donbas, they had gathered on weekends to practice marksmanship, outdoor skills, combat medicine, and even “tactical alpinism.” (A sudden urban assault might require them to rappel from their apartment buildings.) They did not know one another’s names—or any other identifying details. When I expressed surprise at this, an ungainly man in a black turtleneck replied, “It’s easy for me, because I come from the gamer society.”
I recognized these men. Of course, the difference between them and their American analogues—preppers, survivalists, militia members—was that the dreaded scenario they had envisaged was not a lurid fantasy. As the gamer in the turtleneck told me, “We woke up on February 24th and said, ‘O.K., it’s here. It’s happening.’ ”
There were some similar types in the Hospitallers. When we got back to St. Michael’s, a new arrival, with a goatee, wire-framed glasses, and short-cropped hair, was unpacking a vast trove of tactical apparel—some of it still shrink-wrapped and marked with price tags—onto a mattress next to mine. He was from Kyiv but lived in Alberta and was code-named Canada. After doing a tour in the Donbas, in 2016, he’d realized: “It can happen anywhere.” He had a business salvaging and reselling used winter tires, but he devoted much of his time and money to his “project.” In Alberta, he had a dozen guns, a thousand rounds of ammunition, plastic containers stocked with food, and a beloved “patrol truck”—an S.U.V. that he had customized with a sixteen-thousand-pound winch, roll bars, and a rifle rack. He was saving up for portable solar panels; when things fell apart, he planned to strike out for the wilderness with his wife and live off the land.
Had we met in North America, I likely would have seen Canada’s world view as paranoid and apocalyptic. In Ukraine, though, it was harder to dismiss: many analysts were speculating that Russia might deploy a nuclear weapon. Russian soldiers had attacked a nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, causing a fire. Some of the forces targeting Kyiv had entered the country through the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, churning up contaminated soil and digging trenches in a lethally radioactive forest.
Canada’s wife was also Ukrainian. Her parents and brother lived in Mariupol, which had no electricity, heat, or water, and was running out of food. The day after I met Canada, Russian aircraft bombed a maternity hospital in the city. His in-laws weren’t answering their phones.
The situation in Mariupol was uniquely grim, but the Russians were targeting civilian areas and infrastructure across Ukraine, most notably in Kharkiv, three hundred miles to the east of Kyiv. On March 16th, I went there with a few photographers. Shelling had laid waste to several square blocks downtown. Offices, shops, restaurants, cafés, university buildings, and an iconic pub named after Ernest Hemingway were in ruins, some encased in ice from broken pipes. An enormous crater yawned outside the regional administrative headquarters, a six-story monolith that had partially withstood the blast. A second missile had destroyed a kitchen in the basement, killing several women. The top of a skull lay nearby. Firefighters with shovels were still digging through the rubble, searching for bodies. A Territorial Defense soldier, code-named I.T., said that twenty-four corpses had already been retrieved. I.T., who had been inside the building during the strike, told me, “I should be dead.” He’d worked as a computer engineer in Kharkiv before the war, and he shared Anastasia’s astonishment at the sudden onset of havoc. “Two weeks ago, I was arguing with my wife, telling her I was bored with my life,” he recalled, with rueful irony. Looking around at the collapsed buildings, the charred husks of vehicles, and the mountains of wreckage, he seemed unable to process it all. “I feel like I’m in a video game,” he said.
An hour later, a market a few miles east of us was shelled. I went there and found firefighters hosing down a burning complex of outdoor stalls. Nothing that might have been mistaken as a military target was anywhere in sight. I was filming the damage when another mortar landed, a short distance away from me. The blast and shrapnel wounded a woman who, bleeding from her abdomen, was quickly loaded into an ambulance. Such “double-tap” strikes had been common in Syria, where Russia and the Assad regime had systematically targeted first responders to demoralize the population and terrorize it into submission.
The same strategy was clearly being employed in Ukraine. That day, the Russians also bombed a theatre in Mariupol where civilians were sheltering. “CHILDREN” had been painted in Russian, in huge white letters, over the parking lot. Hundreds reportedly died. The next afternoon, in Kharkiv, one of Eastern Europe’s biggest markets was shelled. Thousands of people had worked there before the war. A raging inferno consumed the complex, and tar-black smoke darkened the sky.
The following morning, I was eating breakfast in the lobby of our hotel when a huge explosion shook the building. Its glass façade warped in and out as we all jumped from our chairs. The target had been a government academy for civil-service employees. It wasn’t far, and we arrived there at the same time as a team of rescuers. A whole section of the institution had been reduced to smashed slabs of concrete, bent I-beams, and twisted rebar. A dead man lay next to the building. Another man, caked with dust, was climbing out of a ground-floor window.
Nearby, a firefighter, in a white helmet and flame-retardant coveralls, heard shouts emanating from a narrow crevice. “Can you hear me?” he yelled. “Do you have air to breathe?” Another rescuer pointed a few feet away. “He’s somewhere down here!”
A Territorial Defense soldier who belonged to the same unit as the trapped man managed to reach him on his cell phone. He’d been brushing his teeth, in a bathroom below street level, when the building came down. The soldier gave his phone to the firefighter, who asked the trapped man, “What’s your name? Are you standing or sitting?” He then instructed him, “Go to a load-bearing wall, an exterior wall. Sit next to it and pull your knees to your chest.”
“Why, Jameson! Does this mean that Musk character will own all of my quips and retorts?”
“We have to lift the debris piece by piece,” someone announced. Climbing on top of the rubble, the rescuers took turns with sledgehammers and power saws. A crane was sent for. No sooner had it arrived than a soldier yelled at us to vacate the area—another attack was expected. Everyone started running. Firefighters, searching for cover, struggled to kick down the locked door of a building across the street; a man with a crowbar tried and failed to pry it open. The second strike never came, and eventually the rescuers resumed their work, using the crane to pull away furniture-size chunks of concrete. It was getting late, and we decided to head back toward Kyiv.
On our way, we stopped in a small town whose secondary school had been levelled by a Russian air strike the previous morning. In the yard, a group of teachers surveyed the wreckage. “I heard a plane, and then an explosion,” Yaroslava, an English teacher who’d once been a student at the school, told me. She said that there were no Ukrainian soldiers in the vicinity. Some of the teachers were sifting through a demolished classroom. “We’re saving what we can,” Yaroslava said.
I later learned that the man trapped beneath the government academy had been successfully extracted. A Hospitaller from Kharkiv knew him, and showed me a video on his phone of the man walking away from the rubble, eight hours after being buried alive. In the clip, blood splotches his face and jacket. Someone asks him how he’s feeling. “Better than ever,” he answers. “But I could use a cigarette.”
When I rejoined the Hospitallers at St. Michael’s Monastery, on March 20th, their fleet of ambulances had grown from four to more than a dozen. Each vehicle had been spray-painted dark green, and black tape covered their tail-lights. Anastasia was heading to a stabilization point in an abandoned maternity hospital a few blocks from the sanatorium where I’d met the civilian snipers. The fighting had dramatically escalated across the northern suburbs. The medics being relieved by Anastasia’s team had just treated twenty-two soldiers wounded by shelling. All had survived.
The other four Hospitallers in Anastasia’s ambulance were old friends who ran an N.G.O. called the Veteran Hub. One of them, a former military psychologist code-named Artem, had co-founded the organization, in 2018, to provide counselling and employment assistance for veterans of the Donbas. Mamont, the ambulance’s rifleman, had met Artem while seeking help himself, after a Russian mortar left him with a brain injury and a disabled right hand. (He could still shoot with his left.) For years, the vast majority of Ukrainians had been insulated from the conflict with Russia in the east; much of Artem and Mamont’s work had focussed on helping veterans re-integrate into a society from which they’d come to feel estranged. That would no longer be necessary. Artem, foreseeing a nationwide mental-health crisis, told me, “We’re going to have a lot to do when this is over.” The Veteran Hub had already opened a psychological-support hotline, available for traumatized civilians and relatives of soldiers.
Outside the maternity hospital, there was a statue of a stork, a bundled baby dangling from its beak. An artillery shell had lodged in the pavement; shrapnel had pocked the hospital’s walls and shattered its windows. The ranking Hospitaller was a fifty-two-year-old neurosurgeon code-named Yuzik. A grenade in the Donbas had given him a limp. He walked with a cane and wore a lanyard from which dangled a wooden crucifix and a miniature handgun. Yuzik showed us an examination room that he’d converted into an emergency first-aid station. In a lobby lined with photographs of infants, heart-shaped balloons were still filled with helium; on February 26th, when the Russians first shelled Horenka, six women had given birth in the basement.
During the three days that we stayed at the maternity hospital, the Ukrainians mounted a strenuous counter-offensive across the northern suburbs. Armored vehicles raced up and down the street, and Ukrainian artillery thundered until dawn; in response, Russian ordnance pounded our immediate surroundings. One Russian rocket tore through the tiled roof of a house adjacent to the hospital. Others whistled overhead or crashed into the ground close enough to send even Mamont running down the stairs.
Most civilians had left the area, but not all. The first patients that Anastasia’s team received were adult siblings, a brother and sister, whose house had been hit. The sister had been sheltering in the cellar with her mother, and had suffered only minor injuries; her husband had been in the yard, and was killed. Her brother, who’d also been outside, was bleeding profusely from multiple shrapnel wounds. He cried in agony as Yuzik applied pressure bandages to both of his legs, and another medic gave him an I.V. with the opioid tramadol.
The sister sat on an examination table, waving off the medics who approached her. “I’m O.K.,” she said. “Don’t worry about me.”
“What about Grandma?” Yuzik asked.
“She’s fine—she was with me in the basement. My husband was killed instantly. If I’d been with him, I’d be dead, too.” She recounted all of this with the uncanny detachment of someone in shock. Her husband’s body was buried under debris. “I couldn’t move him,” she said. As Yuzik wrapped a roll of gauze around her ankle, her principal emotion seemed to be embarrassment at people fussing over her.
“You’re very tan,” Yuzik said, trying to distract her.
The woman laughed. “I like the sun,” she told him.
Anastasia helped load the siblings into the ambulance and accompanied them to the hospital. While she was monitoring the brother’s vital signs, she later told me, he became agitated, moaning and writhing. The sister patiently soothed him. “She was so calm,” Anastasia said.
That night, an eighty-four-year-old woman was delivered to the stabilization point with shrapnel wounds to her groin and abdomen. She did not cry out. When a medic commented on her grit, the woman said that she had also survived the Second World War.
The eighty-four-year-old had been injured in a strike on the local fire station, which was across the street from her house, a few blocks from our position. I visited the next morning. The station was still smoking, and the ground was gouged with craters. Vasyl Oksak, the fire chief, watched his men spray water on the collapsed walls and roof. He seemed to accept the attack with placid resignation. The Russians had destroyed almost every public building in his jurisdiction, he said. A few days earlier, the children’s sanatorium where I’d stayed with August and Orest had been hit.
Shortly after I returned to the stabilization point, a group of soldiers pulled up in a civilian S.U.V. One of them had been wounded by artillery. While the Hospitallers treated the casualty, a soldier named Roman Shulyar told me that they all belonged to a Territorial Defense unit deployed in the neighborhood. Shulyar was a mergers-and-acquisitions attorney whose life, until three weeks earlier, had revolved around negotiating corporate contracts. “We’re not professional soldiers, but we are holding our position,” he said. A second patient from the unit was a plumber in his fifties who had begun experiencing heart palpitations and extreme hypertension during the bombardment. As the medics gave the plumber oxygen and treated his wounded comrade—a retired police officer—Shulyar told me, “Not one of us has quit. No one has run away.” In a later phone call, he said, “Once you’ve had that feeling of being a soldier in wartime, you want to repeat it. You want to be useful to your country.”
The Hospitallers I’d met also seemed to be animated by this impulse. However, the groups with which some of them had previously been affiliated had faced criticism, both in Ukraine and abroad. In the Donbas, Mamont had served with the Azov Battalion, and one night at the maternity hospital Yuzik, the neurosurgeon, showed me a tattoo on his chest: a medical cross below the words “RIGHT SECTOR,” in Ukrainian. The Azov Battalion and Right Sector had emerged out of the Revolution of Dignity, from protesters who had spearheaded confrontations with the police at Independence Square. Both organizations had gone on to fight in the east. Some hard-line types, including white supremacists, were drawn to their bellicosity and jingoism; others gravitated to them less because of any ideological affinity than because they were inspired by the groups’ discipline and bravery. After the revolution, the Ukrainian armed forces were in a state of disarray, enfeebled by years of corruption and neglect. For people such as Mamont—as well as Yana Zinkevych, the founder of the Hospitallers, who briefly joined a Right Sector unit when she went to the Donbas after high school—volunteer militias offered an appealing alternative.
The invocation of “nationalist” as a derogatory term with fascistic connotations baffled many Ukrainians, who argued that their nation’s history had been defined by the Russian denial of its right to exist. Whereas American and European nationalism typically implied internal persecution of others—vilifying marginalized segments of the domestic population—Yuzik and Mamont’s foremost concern was resisting an external and vastly more powerful aggressor. Much of the Azov Battalion, including Mamont’s former platoon, was currently defending Mariupol against a Russian onslaught that threatened to annihilate it. One of Mamont’s friends had been killed there; the friend’s father had died while volunteering in Kharkiv. Mamont was exasperated by non-Ukrainians still confused about who the tyrants were.
There was no question that leaders of the Azov Battalion and Right Sector championed a chauvinistic, illiberal ethos. Some had openly espoused anti-Semitism, homophobia, and racism. In 2010, the first Azov commander, Andriy Biletsky, declared his desire to “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade,” and in 2015 the founder of Right Sector, Dmytro Yarosh, said that a gay-pride parade in Kyiv “spat on the graves of those who died and defended Ukraine.” Over all, however, such views were more marginal in Ukraine than in Russia—or, for that matter, in the U.S. Yarosh ran for President, in 2014, but received less than one per cent of the vote. In 2019, Right Sector and veterans of the Azov Battalion allied with other far-right groups to field parliamentary candidates and failed to win a single seat. That year, Volodymyr Zelensky, a Russian-speaking Jew whose great-grandparents had died in the Holocaust, was elected President in a landslide.
The director of the maternity hospital where we were staying, Valery Zukin, was also Jewish. Zukin had urged Yuzik and the Hospitallers to make use of his facility. When he visited the site one day, he told me that he was from Donetsk, a major city in the Donbas. His family, along with many Jews, had fled Donetsk in 2014, after Russian-backed separatists took control of it. “The level of anti-Semitism had become unbelievable,” he said. When I mentioned depictions of anti-Russian fighters as neo-Nazis, Zukin replied, “It’s very big bullshit.”
Putin had fixated on the Azov Battalion as an excuse for his pitiless assault on Mariupol, where the group was based. Ever since the Revolution of Dignity, though, Russian propagandists had generated a steady feed of disinformation for those inclined to rationalize Russian belligerence and malign Ukrainian self-defense. During my second week in Kyiv, I visited a tall apartment building that had been struck by two Russian rockets. As tenants and neighbors watched firefighters put out the flames, I spoke with one of the onlookers, Oleksii Prokopov, who was renting a room in a university dormitory next door. Prokopov was from the Donbas city of Luhansk, which, like Donetsk, was governed by pro-Russian separatists. Though he’d left Luhansk in 2014, his brother had stayed. “I don’t communicate with him anymore,” he said. “He’s been watching Russian TV for eight years, and now he believes whatever Russia says.” Sounding more saddened than resentful, Prokopov added, “If you watch these programs every day, then, yes, you will believe.”
His parents, Russians from the Kuban region, near Crimea, had moved across the border to Luhansk after their wedding. They had both died before the Revolution of Dignity, but, Prokopov told me, his mother had recently visited him in a dream. “When I saw her, I was so happy,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Mom, come and sit with me.’ ” Before they had a chance to talk, Prokopov was jolted awake by an explosion somewhere in Kyiv. He opened his eyes to the sound of air-raid sirens. Still, he said, “I continued to speak with her. I was crying. I said, ‘Mom, this is your motherland. How is it possible they are doing this to us?’ ”
Prokopov had also been sleeping during the attack on the apartment tower. He’d woken to window shards falling on his face. Rushing outside, he’d found an elderly woman, half dressed and barefoot, escaping the burning building. As he recounted this, with the same unsettling urgency he had conveyed while describing his interrupted dream, I began to suspect how the two events might be connected.
When I asked Prokopov how he thought his mother would have seen the current crisis—from his perspective or from his brother’s—he avoided answering directly. “She was a good woman,” he said. “She loved art and poetry. She taught me poems about the Second World War—about the Russian heroes and Russian women who took up arms against the German fascists.” He stared wide-eyed at the smoke and flames, as if to reassure himself that it was not a dream. “Now the war is here,” he said. “But it’s not the German fascists. It’s the Russian fascists.”
“We’ve been fighting all day, but we were hungry, so we came.”
The Ukrainian counter-offensive that took place while Anastasia and I were at the maternity hospital marked a pivotal turn in the battle of Kyiv. As destructive as the Russian shelling was, there had been more outgoing artillery than incoming. NATO member states, spurred by the unexpected resilience of Ukraine’s resistance, had begun shipping huge numbers of arms to the country. By mid-March, the U.S. was allocating billions of dollars for anti-aircraft and anti-tank systems, radar equipment, helicopters, drones, grenade launchers, artillery rounds, and other matériel. Later, additional aid packages would include such heavy weapons as howitzers, the long-range cannons that U.S. marines had used to level Raqqa, in northern Syria.
The Ukrainian troops, which NATO advisers had been training throughout the conflict in the Donbas, employed this arsenal with exceptional proficiency—and not just in Kyiv. A broader shift was also under way. At the end of March, Russian forces retreated from Trostyanets, a city in the northeast which they had occupied for a month. I visited a few days later. A landscaped public square was now a muddy wasteland littered with obliterated Russian tanks and armored vehicles. Amid the wreckage, a Second World War memorial, featuring a life-size Soviet tank, still sat atop a hulking plinth. A plaque embossed with a hammer and sickle commemorated the Soviet battalion that had captured the nearby train station, severing a German supply line.
According to a group of soldiers I later met in Trostyanets, the Ukrainian Army had all but encircled the city, leaving the Russian forces with only one road out and two choices: “Go or die.” The soldiers estimated that about a hundred and fifty vehicles had departed. When I asked whether the withdrawal had been negotiated, they said that such matters were above their pay grade. However, one soldier remarked, “Apparently, there was a deal. Otherwise, we would never have let them leave like that.”
In the square, two Ukrainian Railways employees were painting over the “Z” markings on a flatbed that belonged to the city’s train station. (The letter, originally used as an identifying marker for Russian convoys, now symbolized support for the invasion in general, and could be seen on T-shirts, billboards, and bumper stickers throughout Russia.) The station was across the square; on my way there, I encountered a middle-aged man walking his bicycle through the mud. He wanted to check on his daughter’s house, which, he’d heard, had been destroyed. The man’s name was Oleksandr, and he told me that, toward the end of the occupation, Russian soldiers had taken refuge in a basement underneath the station. We decided to have a look together.
Several locomotives on the tracks had been blown up, and the platform was covered with mortar shells and wooden ammunition boxes. I turned on my phone’s light and followed Oleksandr down a flight of stairs, into a dank network of rooms cluttered with Russian uniforms, boots, and ration packs. Socks were draped over pipes, playing cards lay on tables, and a shocking number of empty vodka, wine, and whiskey bottles were scattered everywhere. I was taken aback by the evidence of heavy communal drinking—this was the fourth war I had covered and the first time I’d ever seen that—but many residents later told me that one of the first things the Russians did in Trostyanets was plunder its supermarkets for booze.
Oleksandr seemed less aghast at the alcohol than at the presence of Bibles and icons. In a room filled with bandages, bags of saline, and bloody mattresses, he picked up a New Testament and marvelled, “Look at that! It’s horrible! How could they be religious?”
In a narrow corridor outside the room, more than a dozen letters and cards from Russian schoolchildren were taped to the wall. A nine-year-old named Olya had signed a colorful drawing of a bright sun smiling down on two tanks with flowers protruding from their cannons. “For Peace” and “Victory for Russia” were scrawled in the sky, beside a red Soviet flag. “Dear soldier!” another note read. “I really hope that you will be strong and able to defend us, and that the world will be sunny and happy.” In early March, in the Russian city of Kazan, a hospice for terminally ill children had released a picture of its patients standing with their parents and staff in a “Z” formation in the snow. The messages and illustrations in the rooms beneath the train station were nearly identical to one another—obviously copied from a template—and what most disturbed me was not that children had been so cynically exploited but that adults had derived genuine comfort from this rote compliance.
Perhaps it was wrong to think of them as adults. All over Trostyanets, people were emerging from their homes and basements, and everyone I spoke to noted how young the occupiers had seemed. At a cultural center where volunteers were distributing sugar, eggs, diapers, and other basic provisions, residents huddled around power cords connected to diesel generators, charging their phones and reading the news for the first time in weeks. They described the Russian soldiers mainly as volatile looters. When the troops left the city, their vehicles were filled with TVs, carpets, electronics, appliances, and other stolen goods.
The mayor, Yuriy Bova, wanted to show me the city hall. “What was the point of this?” he asked, gesturing at overturned filing cabinets and smashed computers. Menstrual pads were glued to a door below graffiti that read “Slava Rossii!!! ”
Across town, Bova took me to a confectionery plant that had manufactured products for Oreo, Milka, and Nabisco. The Russians who had been stationed there appeared to have subsisted largely on the warehouse stock: discarded chocolate-bar wrappers and cookie boxes were as ubiquitous as expended ammunition casings. Dozens of crates of unused rockets were still stacked near the factory’s assembly line. All the offices had been ransacked. In a conference room whose windows were barricaded with jumbo tins of candy, Russian soldiers had left several messages, in marker, on a white projector screen.
“We are just following orders. Sorry.”
“We don’t need this war.”
“We were sent, please forgive us.”
“Brothers! We love you!”
A few days later, the Russian forces north of Kyiv also retreated. I returned to the capital to see whether they, too, had left anything behind.
Ivana-Franka Street was a quaint dirt lane on the eastern edge of Bucha, across the Irpin River from the maternity hospital where the Hospitallers had been stationed. During the monthlong Russian occupation, the street, which was close to various Ukrainian-held neighborhoods, had become a front line, and now burnt-out Russian tanks and trucks listed among the remains of splintered houses and overturned or pancaked vehicles. The few people who were around wandered amid the debris with dazed expressions, resembling the survivors of a natural catastrophe.
At the end of Ivana-Franka Street, an elderly woman in a down coat and a shawl beckoned to me. I followed her up a steep berm to a set of railroad tracks. They ran parallel to an open culvert where, at the bottom, two male bodies were tangled together, half buried under weeds and trash that had collected during recent rains. The woman said that the victims were brothers, adding, “Everybody loved them. We don’t know why they were killed.”
The brothers, Yuri and Victor, had been in their sixties and had lived in adjacent houses. Locals had referred to them as Uncle Yuri and Uncle Victor. While Bucha was occupied, Yuri had worn a white cloth around his sleeve, to signal neutrality, and baked bread for hungry neighbors. Both men had been shot in the head. Empty beer bottles lay in the grass.
“Him I don’t know,” the woman said, pointing at a form slumped on the roadside. The man was overweight and middle-aged, dressed in civilian clothes, with receding gray hair and a neatly trimmed white beard. So much blood had seeped from the bullet hole in his temple that a patch of crimson earth extended past his feet.
A Ukrainian soldier approached me to say that he’d found another victim. I followed him into the basement of a yellow house, where a rail-thin teen-ager was crumpled on the floor. Blood had leaked from his mouth and nose. The soldier crouched and felt under his skull. “He was shot in the back of the head,” he said.
Outside a small two-story home, Russian soldiers had constructed a makeshift checkpoint from pallets, cinder blocks, and empty ammunition boxes. In the back yard, three more men had been executed. One, shot through the ear, lay on his back against a fence. Another, beside a woodpile, wore a sheepskin-and-leather jacket that was speckled with unmelted snow. He, too, was on his back; a T-shirt covered his face. The third man was prone. Half of his head had been blown off, and his brain had spilled into the dirt.
I hadn’t been there long when two women in their mid-thirties appeared in the yard. There was something immediately incongruous about them. Unlike everyone else in Bucha, they were clean. Their clothes were unrumpled and stylish, their white sneakers immaculate; they wore makeup and jewelry. A police officer accompanied them. One of the women, in a polka-dot sweater and black jeans, crouched beside the man with the T-shirt on his face. Her name was Iryna Havryliuk, and the man was her husband. The corpse by the fence was her brother.
Later, Havryliuk told me that, when Russian troops descended on Bucha, she, her mother, and her brother’s son had fled to Kyiv. The soldiers were shooting at any moving cars, so the family ran for two miles, amid deafening exchanges between tanks and artillery, until they arrived in Irpin, which the Ukrainians still controlled. Someone there gave them a ride to the destroyed bridge, where they joined the mass of displaced civilians whom August and Orest had helped traverse the river. A bus on the far bank took them to the railway station in Kyiv, and they caught a train to Zakarpattia, in western Ukraine, where they were put up by friends.
Havryliuk’s husband, Sergey, a forty-seven-year-old private security guard, had remained in Bucha, refusing to abandon their two dogs and six cats. Her brother, Roman, stayed with him. After the Russians sabotaged Bucha’s power plant and began confiscating people’s phones, Havryliuk lost contact with the two. She had learned only yesterday that they were dead.
Havryliuk confirmed Sergey and Roman’s identities, and the officer took photographs. Then Havryliuk lifted the T-shirt over Sergey’s face. His mouth was ajar. A bullet had pierced his right eye, leaving a gaping hole.
“Maybe it’s not a good idea to do that,” the officer said.
Havryliuk returned the shirt.
The other woman was her best friend, Olena Halaka. As they left the back yard, Havryliuk told Halaka, “My hands are trembling.” Her tone was calm, almost subdued, much like that of the woman at the maternity hospital who’d said, “My husband was killed instantly.” Following a path to the front door, which had been left open, Havryliuk stopped at a wheelbarrow and raised her palm to her brow. The wheelbarrow contained one of her dogs, a pit bull named Valik, also shot dead.
She and Halaka continued inside; seeing a bloodstain on the floor, Havryliuk said, “This is where they shot Valik.” She went into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator, entered the pantry, and rummaged through cupboards and cabinets. It was not clear what she was looking for. Russian forces were said to have rigged some houses with booby traps, and Halaka, a member of the Kyiv Police, was worried about explosives. “Stop fucking running around, you’re scaring me,” she told Havryliuk.
Havryliuk wasn’t listening. In the living room, she began removing dresses and shirts from an armoire and placing them in a plastic bag. Recognizing her friend’s need to apply herself to a practical task, Halaka set aside her security concerns and helped her.
“Do you want Sergey’s clothes?” she asked.
“Let me think,” Havryliuk said. Then: “Yes, take them.”
Empty shoeboxes were heaped in a pile. “They stole my shoes,” Havryliuk said. Her lingerie, perfume, and jewelry were also missing. Finding a box of chocolates that she’d stashed away for a special occasion, she gave it to Halaka. “Here, for your kids,” she said.
Halaka eyed the box. “Do you think it’s poisoned?”
The two women climbed a staircase to the bedroom, surprising a small bird that had become trapped inside. It fluttered wildly, banging into the walls and hopping across the floor. Halaka opened a window, and, for several dreamlike seconds, Havryliuk chased the bird around until it flew away. She then lowered herself to her knees and withdrew an old leather-bound book from underneath the bed. It was a collection of poetry by the nineteenth-century writer Taras Shevchenko. Widely considered the progenitor of modern Ukrainian literature, Shevchenko had contributed as much as anyone to the development of a Ukrainian national identity, distinct from Russia’s. “My Testament,” one of the poems in the book, had become a kind of anthem for protesters during the Revolution of Dignity. It begins, “When I am dead, bury me / In my beloved Ukraine.”
“What’s this?” Halaka asked, holding up a zippered pouch.
“Ah,” Havryliuk said. “His coins.”
She was smiling. She opened the pouch to reveal a cache of foreign currency that people had given Sergey from their travels to Cyprus, Singapore, the U.S., Indonesia. He’d been a collector. A dozen miniature beach chairs were arranged on a shelf, and Havryliuk explained that it was an installation Sergey had made for his defunct cell phones, each of which had occupied a chair. The Russians had taken the phones.
As Havryliuk gathered items from other rooms, a woman in a long coat and glasses stopped by to express her condolences. She’d been in Bucha for the length of the occupation and looked frail and underfed. Havryliuk filled her arms with whatever she could find—soap, shampoo, beauty products, clothes.
“What size are you?” she asked, foisting on the woman three pairs of shoes that had been left behind.
The woman demurred. “What about you?”
“We’re moving to Zakarpattia.”
“You’re not coming back?”
“Not anytime soon.”
“Are you going to cremate Sergey and Roman?”
“I don’t know.” Noticing a pencil jar on its side, Havryliuk stood it upright.
A while later, a neighbor named Nadejda Cherednichenko arrived. Her vest and hooded sweatshirt were tattered, her hands cut and blistered, her nails filled with dirt. After embracing Havryliuk, she told her that her son, a twenty-seven-year-old electrician named Volodymyr, had been detained in early March. After three weeks, Cherednichenko had approached two Russian soldiers patrolling outside of her house. She recalled to Havryliuk, “I said to them, ‘I’m asking you as a mother. Is my son alive?’ ” One of the soldiers had responded, “You don’t have a son anymore.”
A neighbor had taken Cherednichenko to a basement where Volodymyr had been shot through the ear. All five fingers on his left hand had been wrenched backward.
“She’s still getting ready.”
Havryliuk listened in silence as Cherednichenko recounted all this, occasionally nodding. Although she had no words for her friend, her own loss seemed to have made her someone in whom Cherednichenko could confide. Cherednichenko later showed me her garden, where she had buried Volodymyr. It is traditional for Ukrainians to leave some of the deceased’s preferred food on a grave, but during the occupation the residents of Bucha barely had enough sustenance to survive. Volodymyr had loved caffeine, and Cherednichenko had found a small packet of instant coffee to place on the otherwise unmarked mound of dirt.
After Cherednichenko left, Havryliuk went into the front yard. The fence had been knocked over, and when she moved some of the lumber she found her other dog crushed underneath.
Havryliuk put her face into her hands. Her shoulders quaked. For the first time since returning home, she allowed herself to weep.
Down the road from Havryliuk’s place, charred corpses lay beside a garbage pile. Locals said that Russians in a tank had dumped them and lit them on fire. (Later, police would tape off the scene and place yellow markers identifying six victims.) One appeared to be a woman, another a child—though they were so severely mutilated that it was hard to say for sure. Orphaned cats and dogs sniffed around the burned and severed legs and torsos.
Such atrocities were not limited to Ivana-Franka Street. According to the chief regional prosecutor, more than six hundred bodies were found in the district. Researchers with Human Rights Watch reported “extensive evidence of summary executions, other unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, and torture.” At least one man was decapitated. The office of the attorney general released photographs of men who had been bound and executed in “a torture chamber” in the basement of a children’s sanatorium. Lyudmyla Denisova, Ukraine’s human-rights commissioner, told the BBC that two dozen women and girls, between the ages of fourteen and twenty-four, “were systematically raped” while being held captive in another Bucha basement. Nine had become pregnant. A Times contributor photographed the corpse of a woman shot in the head in a potato cellar, naked apart from a fur coat.
When the Russians first invaded Bucha, a team of volunteers risked their lives collecting bodies and delivering them to the local morgue. After ten days, with the morgue at capacity and lacking refrigeration, residents dug a mass grave behind a local Orthodox church. As corpses piled up, a tractor covered them with earth. When the first grave was full, a second was excavated, and then a third. I visited the church the day after I met Iryna Havryliuk. Bulky black bags were still heaped in the third pit, and limbs protruded from the mud. The priest, Father Andrii Halavin, was in the nave, repairing windows shattered by projectiles. “It’s not just here,” he told me. “People are buried all over Bucha.”
He wanted to show me a park. On the way, we passed a street where Ukrainian drones had wiped out a convoy from the first Russian unit to enter the neighborhood. The turrets, engines, cannons, and tracks of dismembered tanks were strewn across a four-hundred-yard stretch of road. The destruction was extraordinary. Several residents told me that the conduct of later waves of Russian soldiers had been much worse, perhaps out of vengeance for the first.
A van next to the park was riddled with bullet holes. The Russian word for “children” had been painted on its hood. White sheets hung from its side mirrors. “They were trying to leave,” Father Halavin said of the passengers. He didn’t know their identities; nor had whoever buried them. The only marker on a plot of fresh soil in the grass was a license plate that had been removed from the van’s rear bumper.
Curiously, the park was littered with horse manure. Father Halavin explained that a stable had been bombed. The horses that survived had run wild through the suburb, crazed by the incessant shelling. When I asked where they were now, Halavin shrugged.
Whatever had happened to the horses, stray pets were everywhere, each attesting to an absent master. On a small street across the tracks from Ivana-Franka, an old woman lay face down in her doorway; a trembling dog stood at her shoulder, barking over and over. When I opened a can of tuna, the dog ravenously devoured it. I went inside and found a second woman, also elderly, lying dead on the kitchen floor. Neighbors later told me that they had been sisters, both in their seventies. Their names were Nina and Lyudmyla. In the only bedroom, two narrow mattresses were pushed together and covered by a single blanket. Their little house teemed with hardcover books. Russian translations of French classics filled half a dozen shelves: Voltaire, Camus, Maupassant. In a stack on an armoire, I noticed the same collection of Shevchenko’s poetry that Iryna Havryliuk had retrieved from under her and Sergey’s bed.
I thought of the old woman on the bridge who’d refused to cross the Irpin River. It wasn’t clear how Nina and Lyudmyla had died—but the outcome seemed inevitable. A Russian tank had plowed through the yard across the street. A sniper had occupied the attic of a house next door. Amid such brute lethality, what chance did the sisters have?
Another elderly woman, who lived alone in Bucha, had recounted begging for her life when Russian soldiers burst into her house one day. “I never would have imagined that, at seventy, I would have to get on my knees before a nineteen-year-old bastard,” she’d told me. Echoing the residents of Trostyanets, she and others described the occupiers less as fearsome, battle-hardened butchers than as capriciously homicidal youth. At a high school not far from Ivana-Franka Street, crushed beer cans surrounded former artillery positions. The principal’s office had been trashed. A Russian soldier had used a rubber stamp to painstakingly imprint the outline of a phallus on the wall.
Anastasia, Artem, and Mamont had been stationed at a stabilization point near Irpin. One day, after the Russian retreat, Anastasia went with Yuzik, the neurosurgeon with the cane and the miniature-handgun necklace, to distribute food, water, and medicine in Bucha. They met an elderly woman who had been wounded in a blast several days earlier. Shrapnel had cut a large gash in her arm. “We had to argue with her to let us dress it,” Anastasia said. “She kept saying that we shouldn’t waste our time.”
On April 6th, another Hospitaller called me to say that he was en route to the church in Bucha with the mass graves. “I can’t say why,” he told me. I was already in the area and got to the church a few minutes before several ambulances and vans arrived. One of the priests from St. Michael’s was there. His name was Ivan Sydor, and at the monastery I had interviewed him about the night of December 11, 2013—three weeks after President Viktor Yanukovych, acquiescing to Russia, had cancelled the E.U. agreement. Father Sydor had been a seminary student at the time. At around 1 A.M., he began receiving panicked calls. Hundreds of security forces had stormed the protesters encamped at Independence Square. Until then, the demonstrations had largely been tolerated. Now the government had resolved to quash them.
“They were asking me to ring the bells,” Father Sydor had recalled. The tower at St. Michael’s contained dozens of cast-bronze bells linked to a keyboard of wooden batons—a carillon—and Father Sydor served as the bell ringer. Typically, the carillon was played for brief interludes in advance of morning services and prayers. But there was also a form of bell ringing called nabat, which heralded grave danger and was extremely rare. The last known instance of nabat at St. Michael’s had been in 1240, when the Mongols laid siege to Kyiv.
After securing approval from the abbot, Father Sydor and five other priests-in-training had climbed the tower and taken turns pounding the batons of the carillon with their fists. They did not stop until 5 A.M. Then they descended the tower and walked down the hill to Independence Square. The protesters were still there; the battered security forces were leaving.
“We had won,” he told me.
In Bucha, Father Sydor stood beside an older man with a long graying beard, a black clerical robe, and a tall cylindrical headdress. I recognized him as Metropolitan Epiphanius, the head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Photographs of Epiphanius, often with foreign dignitaries, were hung throughout St. Michael’s, and I’d seen him address a group of journalists in the cathedral. When a reporter had asked whether he had a message for Putin, Epiphanius had said, “I don’t want to address this person—he’s the Antichrist. When you see our destroyed cities, you realize that only the Devil is capable of such things, or someone in league with the Devil.”
While Father Halavin greeted Sydor and Epiphanius, a medic helped Yana Zinkevych, the leader of the Hospitallers, into her wheelchair. Everyone then proceeded to the pit. Standing at the edge, the three clergymen intoned a dirge, in a low, melodious chant. Walking the length of the trench, Epiphanius sprinkled holy water, from a silver basin, over the heaped-up corpses.
It was a private ceremony, and only a handful of medics attended. August—the “Band of Brothers” fan—was among them. A month earlier, I’d run into August at St. Michael’s while he was putting on his ammo vest and flak jacket. Grinning broadly and emanating excitement, he’d told me, “I’m going to the war!” That person was no more. He looked sombre and exhausted. Older, too.
“How are you?” I said, when the ritual had ended.
“Angry,” August answered.
He and Orest, the arborist, had spent the past two weeks fifty miles east of Kyiv, in Nova Basan—another town from which Russian forces had withdrawn. Civilians had been executed there, too: “They were just left in the street. Many old people—grandmothers and grandfathers.” When the Russians left Nova Basan, August said, they took several young girls with them. He had met with their families, who had no idea what had happened to them or if they were alive.
As if in consolation, he took out his phone and showed me a photograph of himself standing over a dead soldier. “Good Russian,” August said. But the joke failed to amuse even him, and he quickly put the phone away.
Hundreds of bodies were collected in Bucha and brought to the local cemetery. From there, they were to be transported to Kyiv, where medical professionals would attempt to identify them, using DNA samples.
The day before the ceremony, I’d gone back to Ivana-Franka Street. The burnt corpses were gone. All that remained was a patch of scorched earth.
A white van was parked outside Iryna Havryliuk’s house. On the dusty rear doors, someone had used his finger to write “200”—a military code for fatalities, which I had learned from the Hospitallers (“300” signified injuries). The van belonged to the team that had collected bodies throughout the occupation, bringing them first to the morgue and then to the church. The volunteers were all large, sturdy men who looked accustomed to heavy lifting. One of them, Sergey Matiuk, had been a professional soccer player in Ukraine. He had a shaved head and broad shoulders; a pin attached to his colorful windbreaker was emblazoned with the Bucha town crest above the words “I LOVE MY CITY,” in Ukrainian. He estimated that he and his colleagues had picked up about three hundred corpses, at least a hundred of which had had their hands tied behind their backs. “A lot of them were tortured,” he said.
One of the volunteers had known Iryna Havryliuk’s husband, and as he and Matiuk bent over to lift Sergey’s body the volunteer said, “They even took his gold tooth.”
Matiuk, focussed on the task at hand, said, “Let’s go.”
Havryliuk was at the house, but she avoided the back yard. While the volunteers carried body bags to the van, one at a time, she roamed the property, searching for her missing cats. At one point, she froze and looked down at her hands.
“Everything is dirty,” she muttered.
The van was half filled with other bodies, and Matiuk had to climb into the back in order to haul Sergey and Roman onto the pile. Then they proceeded to the yellow house, and carried the teen-ager out of the basement. From there, they brought their cargo to the local cemetery.
I stopped by the cemetery the following afternoon. Dozens of bagged corpses were laid out in rows and stacked in piles beside a brick shed that Matiuk and his team used as their office. Matiuk was wearing the same colorful windbreaker and pin. An antique knife with a jewel-embedded handle was sheathed on his hip; he’d found it at an abandoned Russian checkpoint and had kept it as a trophy. He said that the bodies were to be transported to Kyiv, where medical professionals would attempt to identify them, using DNA samples. In the coming days, more than a hundred and ten corpses would be exhumed from behind the church.
“I’m very tired,” Matiuk said. “We haven’t slept.”
“Since the Russians left?”
“Since they came.”
I asked what he planned to do after the war, and Matiuk said that he’d accepted a job with the cemetery, as a gravedigger.
“My place is here,” he said.
Anastasia completed her rotation with Artem and Mamont the next day, April 7th, and I met her at the apartment she had rented on Andriyivsky Descent. We walked down the cobblestone road, past the monument to the opera singer Vasyl Slipak, and continued to the banks of the Dnieper. Restaurants, shops, and cafés were reopening. The afternoon was warm and sunny—the first good weather since I’d arrived in Ukraine—and several joggers passed us on the quay. An island in the river had a sand beach, and Anastasia smiled as she recalled concerts that she’d attended there. “In the summer, it’s amazing here,” she said.
Anastasia told me that, according to Yuzik, the Hospitallers would soon be sent east. The Russians, having given up on Kyiv—at least for now—were shifting their focus to the Donbas. Their stated objective was to seize the entirety of the region and then push southwest to the Black Sea, thus creating a land bridge to Crimea. Mariupol, which stood in the way of that projected corridor, was already shattered; the last Ukrainian holdouts, including members of the Azov Battalion, were taking refuge, with their families, in the tunnels beneath a steel plant, which the Russians would soon blockade.
The second phase of the war would involve more heavy weaponry and ordnance than the first—as well as increasingly willful cruelty. In mid-April, Putin awarded an honorary title to the unit thought to be responsible for the depravity in Bucha, in recognition of its “heroism and valor.” The day after Anastasia and I walked to the Dnieper, Russian cluster munitions struck a railway station in Kramatorsk, where hundreds of civilians, mostly women and kids, were awaiting trains out of the Donbas. More than fifty were killed.
On the quay, when I asked Anastasia if she would go east, she said, “I have to think about it. There is a high chance of being killed.” She was returning to Paris for a week or two. She had an academic article to write, and wanted to pursue various ideas for advocacy and fund-raising. In the past month, she had sometimes struggled to readapt to the military culture, routine, and mind-set of the Hospitallers. She’d been one of the few medics who had refused to carry a Kalashnikov. In contrast to August, Yuzik, and Mamont, Anastasia was not fascinated by war or temperamentally suited to it. Like many Ukrainians, she had simply declined to run from it.
After going to Paris, Anastasia went back to Ukraine. When we last spoke, she was visiting her family in Kyiv. The Hospitallers were moving out of St. Michael’s. She planned to join them in the east. ♦
Published in the print edition of the May 9, 2022, issue, with the headline “The Wound-Dressers.”
More on Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine
- An artist captures the fight for airspace over Kyiv.
- The conflict is a colonial war.
- Is the Russian military a paper tiger?
- The case for placing an immediate energy embargo on Russia.
- Why do so many Russians say they support the war?