At a bar in a once-occupied Ukrainian village, dehumanizing messages on the walls were a stark reminder that the Kremlin wants to stamp out Ukraine and its culture.
By Thomas Gibbons-Neff
June 14, 2023
The New York Times
Sweeping out discarded Russian rations, shattered glass and broken furniture was a daunting task. In the four and a half months that Russian forces had occupied a village in eastern Ukraine, the troops had used the local bar as a small outpost, gutting it in the process.
The physical destruction of the watering hole of Velyka Komyshuvakha was only part of what the Russians left behind.
In the bar’s back room was a twisted blueprint of the minds of some of the rank-and-file who make up the backbone of the Russian military. The soldiers had turned every wall into a handwritten message board of phrases, rhymes and expletives.
“It doesn’t count as a war crime if you had fun,” one line said, a smiley face drawn beneath. And in a rhyme on the same wall: “With a happy smile I will burn foreign villages.”
The practice of defacing military positions and occupied homes with graffiti is not uncommon. During two decades of the United States’ muddled counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, portable toilets strewn across the constellation of bases were a focal point of wartime musings. Many scribbles focused on genitalia, specific military units, bad officers and the desire to go home.
Much of the writing in the bar in Velyka Komyshuvakha struck a decidedly different tone. The barely legible scrawls focused on dehumanizing Ukrainians, a grim staple of warfare, and reinforced that the Kremlin wants to stamp out Ukraine and its culture as part of its invasion.
“Behind us the house is burning — well let it burn — one more-one less,” one phrase on the wall said.
“It was awful,” said Svitlana Mazurenko, one of the 70 or so current residents of Velyka Komyshuvakha, which once had around 500 people before many fled. She had read the writings in September, days after the Russians retreated, and confronted the text again last month as she helped clean up the bar, known among locals simply as The Bar.
Other Russian or separatist units could also have rotated through, given battlefield turnover rates. But written complaints on the walls of not being withdrawn suggest that one detachment was stationed at the bar for a continuous amount of time.
The 2nd Guards is a famed unit in the Russian military and was beaten back around Kyiv, the capital, by Ukraine’s troops shortly after the invasion began in February 2022. They lost again around Velyka Komyshuvakha and the greater Kharkiv region as Ukrainian formations swept through in September. Now, they are in the east, near the town of Kreminna, military analysts said, bracing for a potential thrust as part of Ukraine’s long-awaited counteroffensive.
The writings on the interior suggested that these troops were not demoralized Russian soldiers under the impression they were there to “liberate” its people, a term commonly used in the war’s early days. These troops, at least the ones who wrote on the wall, seemed to be there to conquer.
“We need the world, preferably all of it,” one wall entry said. “Victory or death!” said another.
During the occupation, Ms. Mazurenko, 56, said that around four people stayed behind in Velyka Komyshuvakha, which is roughly 65 miles southeast of Kharkiv and bisected by a small river. Electricity has only just returned to some parts of the village.
Occupying an outpost at war in a foreign country, especially as part of an invading army, is a jarring, isolating experience. A soldier’s life is often relegated to boredom and moments of sheer terror.
In recent wars, American troops used terms like “waste,” “smoke” and “greased” to distance themselves from the act of killing, and relied on gallows humor as a coping mechanism. Racist slang, too, was common. The Taliban were “the muj.” The Iraqis were “hajjis.”
In the bar, jokes made their way to the walls. But much of the writings gravitated toward killing and destruction, using similarly dehumanizing language.
One soldier wrote, “God will help and we will help Ukrops meet him,” using an insult (literally, “dill” in Russian) to describe Ukrainians. “Mow the Ukrop,” read another line.
This type of language is frequently seen in propaganda and, in more recent wars, on social media. Rarely is evidence of it found so clearly as a battlefield artifact.
“We are innately biased against outsiders,” writes David Livingstone Smith in his book “Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others.” “This bias is seized upon and manipulated by indoctrination and propaganda to motivate men and women to slaughter one another.”
War tests all who participate in the violence. Some Ukrainians refer degradingly to Russians as “Orcs”. The international community has accused Russian troops of committing numerous atrocities, including war crimes and other brutal and inhumane acts, especially against civilians.
Last year, Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigations accused two Russian soldiers of the 2nd Guards, the same unit stationed at the bar, of firing their tank into a working hospital in the northeastern city of Trostyanets in the war’s early months.
“For all questions about Ukraine there are 2 answers: 1) It didn’t happen. 2) they deserved it. Both are correct,” said one line on the wall.
Based on the writings, the Russian soldiers’ company or platoon went by “Wind 12.” They also teased each other, as soldiers do, missed “ice cream and vodka” and seemed to hate or just tolerate their Russian bacon rations. The soldiers were also carrying ammo likely several years older than many of them.
Discarded 7.62 mm shell casings around the bar were stamped in 1988 and 1989 in the Klimovsk Specialized Ammunition Plant and the Novosibirsk Cartridge Plant in Russia.
The soldiers of Wind-12 also desperately wanted to go home.
“The winter is close, but withdrawal is not,” a soldier had scrawled. Another soldier, in an outlier piece of graffiti, called on his colleagues to stop stealing from civilians, a practice common on every front of the war. “Stop [expletive] stealing everything on your way,” he wrote.
Ms. Mazurenko said the Russians had lived in most houses nearby and stolen from them, ravaging them in the process. But they couldn’t steal from hers: It was destroyed by artillery before the Russians entered the village.
Natalia Yermak contributed reporting.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a Ukraine correspondent and a former Marine infantryman. @tmgneff