War-scarred towns in eastern Ukraine dread return of ‘Russian world’

Mykhailo Kuprikov, director of the Kramatorsk vocational college in eastern Ukraine, stands beside a memorial plaque to Yevhen Pahulich (19), a former student killed fighting Russian-led separatists in 2015. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

Thousands of young faces have whirled through the entrance hall of Kramatorsk’s School Number 12 in eastern Ukraine, from nervous first days to proud graduation ceremonies and bittersweet farewells, but one is frozen forever in summer 2014.

Stepan Chubenko (16) was taken captive by pro-Moscow militiamen in nearby Donetsk in July 2014, accused of belonging to a Ukrainian nationalist group, and shot dead. His body was exhumed three months later and returned for burial to Kramatorsk, where the school he attended now bears his name.

His mother’s Russian citizenship allowed her to travel safely to Donetsk and find out that separatists had detained her son because he had a ribbon of Ukraine’s blue-and-yellow flag on his rucksack and a football scarf from western Ukraine among his belongings – enough for them to mark him out as a pro-Kyiv extremist.

“Because of Stepan there is a particular atmosphere here,” says head teacher Olena Mironenko, standing beneath a photograph of Chubenko that greets visitors to School No 12 and a banner in the national colours that reads: “Heroes never die”.

“This was a boy who died for Ukraine,” she says of Chubenko, who is remembered by his family as a strong supporter of the 2014 Maidan revolution that turned the country towards the West. “So we are very patriotic here.”

Russia’s current build-up of more than 100,000 troops close to Ukraine has raised fears of a new attack on the country, nearly eight years after the Kremlin annexed Crimea and created a separatist army that seized swathes of the eastern Donbas region in fighting that has now killed 14,000 people.

Separatist control

Kramatorsk and neighbouring towns were under separatist control for about 10 weeks before being retaken by Ukrainian forces in July 2014, and locals remember it as a time of chaos and fear.

“I just couldn’t believe what was happening to my hometown. It was like something from a film,” recalls Mironenko (42).

School head Olena Mironenko in Kramatorsk stands by a photo of former pupil Stepan Chubenko (16) who was shot dead in 2014 by pro-Russian separatists. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

“People took shelter in the basement of the building where I live and there was a sniper on the roof. It was particularly scary at night and during the final battle for the city. Coming into work was tough, you just didn’t know if and where there would be shooting and where it was safest to be,” she says.

“Thankfully it all ended, and we hope so much that it’s all in the past and nothing like that can ever happen again.”

Beside the entrance to Kramatorsk’s main vocational college hangs a memorial plaque for Yevhen Pahulich, who became a paratrooper after graduating. In January 2015, aged 19, he was killed – one of three former students to die in the war.

“He was a really good lad who studied to be an engineering modeller – but he always wanted to be a paratrooper,” says college director Mykhailo Kuprikov.

“After graduating he got work at a local factory but then joined the army. When we unveiled the memorial plaque his mother didn’t come, because it was too hard for her. She said she never wanted him to join up,” he recalls.

“I don’t want to talk politics. I want to concentrate on giving young people here a good future. So let’s hope Kramatorsk and Ukraine will be fine and that no one else gets killed. Everything else we can take care of ourselves.”

Fomenting unrest

After the Maidan revolution prompted Ukraine’s then Kremlin-backed leaders to flee to Russia in February 2014, Moscow used troops without insignia on their uniforms to occupy Crimea and began fomenting unrest in Donbas.

Moscow sent operatives, arms and cash into a region where the local elite was close to ousted president Viktor Yanukovich and his allies, and many people were hostile to a revolution that Russia’s leaders and state media portrayed as a western-backed coup by “fascists” bent on persecuting Russian speakers in Ukraine.

Soon gangs of masked gunmen, some of whom appeared to have military training, were rallying local opponents of the revolution and seizing official buildings across Donbas, blocking major roads and setting up checkpoints in regional centres Donetsk and Luhansk and smaller cities such as Kramatorsk, Slovyansk and Horlivka.

Supporters of the campaign welcomed the creation of the so-called people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, claimed they were liberating “Novorossiya” (New Russia) – a name used in tsarist days for parts of eastern and southern Ukraine – and hailed the flowering of the “Russian spring” and expansion of the “Russian world”.

“I remember it as being frightening. Just a nightmare,” says Kostya, a computer programmer in Slovyansk, which like Kramatorsk was seized by militia in mid-April 2014 and retaken by government forces on July 5th that year.

“You could be stopped on the street or at a roadblock by these gunmen and they could just take you away and keep you in a basement. There was no law – they were the law. They gave a gun to whoever wanted one – kids, criminals, drunks and drug addicts. People disappeared and were never seen again.


In June 2014, four men were abducted by gunmen after a service at a local Pentecostal church. Ruvim and Albert Pavenko were sons of the pastor; Volodymyr Velychko was a father of eight and Viktor Bradarskiy a father of three.

Their bodies were uncovered close to a children’s hospital on a sweltering day in late July, three weeks after Ukraine retook Slovyansk.

“The bulldozer pawed the ground for hours, as if afraid of what might appear if it dug too deeply,” The Irish Times reported. “Then, as a streak of pink showed through the dirt and the hot air turned acrid, the suspicions of local people and investigators were confirmed.”

Their suspected killers, like the three men accused of murdering Chubenko, are believed to be living freely in Russia, Russian-occupied Crimea, or militia-held Donbas.

At a volunteer centre in Kramatorsk, Tatyana Miroshnichenko plays a video clip on her phone of Horlivka, her hometown 95km to the south, which is still controlled by the Moscow-led separatists.

“This is early 2015, when the Russian army came in. They were clearly professionals. This is my Horlivka, on Lenin Avenue,” she says, as young men in uniform, perched on an armoured personnel carrier, shout out greetings to the Siberian cities of Chita and Ulan Ude, 6,000km east of Ukraine.

Nadezhda Kalinchenkova (left) and Tatyana Miroshnichenko, volunteers in Kramatorsk who make camouflage nets, clothing and other items for Ukrainian troops fighting Russian-led separatists in nearby areas of the Donbas region. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

“I came here with my husband and eight children . . . and now we’ve all grown up,” she says.

“We are citizens of Ukraine and we will fight. And we know who we’ll be fighting. We know they won’t come today or tomorrow, but we know that sometime they’ll attack. And we know what it will be like, and we know their mentality. And we will fight.”


Rights group say both sides of the conflict are responsible for abductions and torture, but a swathe of Donbas was reintegrated to government control in 2015 without any major reprisals – undermining Russian president Vladimir Putin’s claim that Kyiv is conducting “genocide” in the region, and that its full return to Ukraine would “be Srebrenica”, the town where Serbs massacred 8,000 Bosniaks in 1995.

“When Kramatorsk was liberated on July 5th, 2014, the next day we were out painting Ukrainian flags over the top of all the Russian flags on buildings and lampposts,” recalls Nadezhda Kalinchenkova, who with Miroshnichenko and about 30 other volunteers makes camouflage nets, socks, flags and other items for soldiers at the front.

“It’s not about western and eastern Ukraine – that’s nonsense, this is one country. Whatever roots we have, wherever our ancestors were from, we are all citizens of Ukraine,” she says.

“This is a Ukrainian city, and we realise more clearly now that we are all Ukrainians. Thank you to Putin for making us more united!”