In March 2022, as the Russian army closed in, one sleepy farming town in southern Ukraine sprang into action.

By Roger Boyes

July 14, 2023

The Times


Britain is about to be invaded, enemy forces are within hours of your small town. What do you do? Fight or flight? Put your trust in the mayor who can’t even sort out the potholes? Ring London and get put on hold?  Or build a resistance cell?

Scores of communities in Ukraine chose the latter course when the Russian army swept in last year, and contributed to the remarkable fight back that has lasted for more than 500 days. We should be learning from their experience.

A Small, Stubborn Town tells the story of the sleepy farming town of Voznesensk in southern Ukraine, which found itself in the path of the Russian offensive. Suddenly it had become strategically important, close to the confluence of two rivers — the Southern Buh and the smaller but spookily named Dead Water River — and on the road to Odesa. Take that port and the Russians would have control of the Black Sea coastline, rendering Ukraine a landlocked country.

The tale of the first weeks of the invasion in March last year is told elegantly and briskly by the sure-footed BBC reporter Andrew Harding, who spent months interviewing the locals and reconstructing events. The result is a deceptively simple narrative that explains a great deal about the dynamics of this war and many others. The mayor of Voznesensk, Yevhenii Velychko, was woken early one morning to be told that the Russians had just crossed the border. He drove to his office and was joined by his deputy, Andrii, an IT expert. Together they rang their counterparts in neighbouring towns to find out more. Within the hour, the police chief, the hospital director and the head of the local defence forces were in the room.

The only man with serious military experience, nicknamed Ghost, explained how the Russians were likely to enter the neighbourhood. But did they have hours or days to prepare? A security cordon was set up around the town hall. “They needed sandbags,” Harding writes, “ and concrete barriers, and volunteers and rotas, and bunkers and secure communications, and food for the soldiers and soldiers, and an early warning system — a network of spies in the surrounding villages — and Molotov cocktails, and more guns and a lot more ammunition.”

Chiefly, they needed a plan. There was an unspoken choice: to lock up the houses, hide in basements and hope that the Russians would just drive through — or to fight. But even the younger ones in the town had a memory of the Russian style of warfare in Grozny and Syria: they were as likely to set whole streets on fire. A week later, Harding writes, some of the home guard volunteers were reconsidering their choices. An officer deserted, so did a town councillor.

A few guarding the old water pumping station slipped away. The closer the Russians, the greater the arguments for ducking out of the chaos.

Who was left in the front line of Voznesensk’s defence? A version of Dad’s Army. “A shabby parade of pot bellies, grey beards, baseball caps, trainers and tracksuits,” Harding writes. “The youngest of them is 18, the oldest are pensioners. Most of them have never held a gun before.” They have dug in, been given Kalashnikovs, a box of 20 grenades and are supposed to stop an armoured column in its tracks, stop the tanks heading south.

In the mayor’s new office, a renovated cellar, it was full steam ahead. The town’s schools had to be closed, evacuation trains had to be organised to take the locals to western Ukraine, a civil defence unit had set up checkpoints, bunkers were built on roadsides, kids helped fill sandbags, local restaurants set up food banks, welders turned out dozens of steel tank traps, farmers brought in truckloads of earth to make the shallow stretches of the Dead Water River unfordable for the Russians. There was still little contact with the central government. The invasion was coming across too many fronts. Those mucking in were preparing for a fight, sure enough, but they were also hoping that some miracle would spare their town.

That miracle didn’t happen but there was nonetheless a great cheer in the mayor’s command centre when it was announced that a battalion of the 80th Airborne Assault Brigade was on its way. The commander, whose soldiers had been fighting the Russians since 2014, set up his HQ in the town’s elegant bookshop and came straight to the point with the mayor. Outside Voznesensk the countryside was flat and open, the roads straight: good tank terrain, but the 80th had no armour. The only way to slow down the Russians was to lure them into Voznesensk for an ambush.

The mayor raised his hand. “What about the civilians here? What about the buildings?” But there was going to be no escape from the war for his town. The mayor had wanted a plan and he had been handed it by the commander. The Russians would be funnelled through the town, across the river, Dead Water bridge would be blown up and Ukrainian artillery and rocket launchers would hit the Russian troops.

Harding’s sharp observations about war punctuate this chaos. Ghost hears the crack of a Ukrainian sniper’s bullet passing overhead, even as he and his men take 20-minute naps on frosty ground. Each man slips into instantaneous sleep. The momentum of battle shifts, the Russians start to pull out of a district — “dozens of their abandoned armoured vehicles litter the main road, supplies spilling out of them like the guts of gored animals”. Confidence suddenly surges. It is not marked by a whistle blown or a siren, just something that suddenly happens in urban battle. After a few days of skirmishes, the Russians are in full flight. The Ukrainians hit a Russian helicopter that is being used to evacuate the wounded. “We treat wolves like wolves,” a Ukrainian soldier tells Harding. “And now, our blood is up.”

There isn’t much poetry in this war. But as Harding says, there is heart, and he claims Svetlana Martsynovska is its soul. The book starts with Svetlana, an arthritic grandmother, who has come out of her cottage to swear at Russian soldiers as they smash through her vegetable garden, knocking down her favourite pear tree with their tanks. An armoured personnel carrier flattens

her outside toilet. They threaten to shoot her dog. Then they shove an AK47 into her stomach and demand her mobile phone, which joins a pile of phones waiting to be crushed in front of a tank so that it can’t be used to spy on the invasion.

Svetlana grew up in the Soviet Union, apprenticed to a slaughterhouse, official title “butcher, de-boner, 4th category”, slicing her way through two tons of meat a day, her hands tough as leather. She is Harding’s “soul” because, having grown up on Soviet terrain, she calls out “Ours!” (“Nashi!” in Russian) when she spots a lone Ukrainian fighter jet racing towards Russian lines. In the complex ambiguity of Ukraine she has made her choice. She argues with her brother, who, working in Russia, has swallowed the Putin line. She wins the argument and is, in the intimate reporting of A Small, Stubborn Town, the very model of stubbornness, defiance and resistance.


Roger Boyes is a British journalist and author. He is the diplomatic editor for the London Times newspaper. He also has a column in the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel entitled ‘My Berlin’. Boyes entered journalism as a Reuters correspondent in Moscow (1976–1977), joining the Financial Times as an Eastern Europe specialist in 1978 and was the Bonn correspondent of the FT from 1979 to 1981. He then switched to The Times and became the newspaper’s Eastern Europe correspondent based in Warsaw where he covered the Solidarity revolution and the imposition of martial law. Since then, he has been posted to Rome as a Southern Europe correspondent (1987–89), Bonn and Berlin correspondent 1993- 2010.