Little Russia: Moscow’s occupation of a Ukrainian town
Russian TV reports showed lavish celebrations of Russia’s V-Day celebrations on May 9 commemorating Soviet victory over Nazi Germany.
By MATHIAS BOLINGER
UNITED KINGDOM: Among the Ukrainian cities occupied by Russia, Kupyansk stood out. It was the first city to surrender without condition to Russian forces when they invaded in February 2022. The town’s mayor, Hennadiy Matsehora, told his fellow citizens that he had done so to “avoid human sacrifice and destruction of our infrastructure.” On pro-Russian Telegram channels, the seemingly non-violent power transfer was dubbed a symbol of Moscow’s intentions for Ukraine. Kupyansk was to become a bastion of Russian cultural and political revival — or so the messaging went.
But before Russia’s efforts to root out Ukrainian heritage could begin in earnest, Russian forces needed to deal with the resistance they met in the aftermath of the surrender; not a firefight led by partisans against the invader, but rather a demonstration of locals led by Mykola Masliy, a local opposition leader and veteran of the 2014 conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Masliy acted quickly. Within days of the invasion, he had attempted to organize armed resistance but failed to gather enough troops and equipment to counter the Russian advance. Down and out, Masliy turned to organizing a large demonstration, using local chat groups to spread the message, and in that, he succeeded.
By day six of Russia’s invasion, he managed to gather around 300 people on the city’s central square, in front of the town hall where the mayor had announced Kupyansk’s surrender. Masliy addressed the crowd, as seen in footage obtained by DW.
“They thought they would go on a drill, and instead, they had to come here. They are demotivated. They want to go home,” he said. But that wasn’t quite the case. The demonstrators weren’t met by soldiers looking to return home. Instead, Russian troops shot tear gas grenades into the protesting crowd, and in the confusion, Masliy disappeared. Protests tapered off, and with it, resistance was driven underground.
Svitlana, a clerk at a public office who requested anonymity for fear Russian forces would return, said her boss had instructed her and her colleagues to use Russian as their working language and that they would officially “work for Russia” from then on. When she threatened to quit her job, her boss threatened her: “It won’t go well for you.”
A few days later, she was arrested and brought to a basement, where she was interrogated and tortured. But Svitlana wasn’t the only one. Soon, the town’s detention facilities, including improvised cells in the basements of official buildings, were overcrowded.
Svitlana and other inmates recalled frequent beatings and electric shocks during interrogations. “When the occupiers entered a settlement, they first looked for buildings that could serve as their headquarters — and as detention facilities and torture chambers,” said Oleksandr Kobylev, a Kharkiv police officer currently investigating suspected Russian war crimes.
Besides Russia’s military presence in the city, its organizations and ideology became increasingly present in people’s lives. By May 2022, Russian efforts to dismantle Ukrainian cultural heritage and replace it with its own were in full swing. Russian TV reports showed lavish celebrations of Russia’s V-Day celebrations on May 9, a holiday commemorating Soviet victory over Nazi Germany and one of the most significant political dates in Putin’s Russia.