From her bedroom window, Lisa Udovik, 26, can see the other side, where the Russians had retreated. Over the past few days, gunfire from Ukrainians shook her apartment as Ukrainian troops entered Kupiansk and the town became a battlefield. Russian tanks and armored vehicles still patrol the streets, but they are driven by Ukrainians, using the Russians’ own discarded weapons against them.
Udovik began to count the seconds between hearing the deafening cannon fire and the smoke billowing in the distance. The gap widened from Tuesday to Wednesday, from 9 seconds to 13 seconds.
“They were pushed back,” she said with a smile.
In September, the Oskir became a shield for the Russians. 9. As the Ukrainians approached, the invading troops crossed the bridge and blew it up behind them to slow Kyiv’s advance. Kupiansk was suddenly interrupted in the second half. The next morning, Lena Danilova, 55, stared bemusedly at Ukrainian vehicles driving down the town’s streets. A man next to her tugged at her sleeve and pointed to the different uniforms on the soldiers who were patrolling.
“Look, these are our boys,” he whispered to her. Danilova said she wiped away tears of joy.
“Finally,” she said. But then she had a morbid realization. Her two children were trapped on the other side of the river. A few days ago, they went to a school there. Now, the Russians are desperate to prevent Ukraine from advancing south into the occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
After Kupiansk was captured after only three days of fighting, the town at least survived Russian bombing. Now, people here are facing some of the horrors of war that other Ukrainians experienced a few months ago. Many said they waited and hoped for Ukraine’s liberation, but they didn’t expect this: the threat of Russian shelling, cities without electricity and access to essential medicines. This week, locals quickly packed their most important belongings and rushed out with volunteers, reminiscent of the first day of war.
Valya, 58, left her cat behind. The floor of her apartment is covered with bowls of water, and she leaves the keys to her friends to feed them.
For the past six months, Kupiansk has only had the Russian state TV channel, a Kremlin propaganda tool that keeps people from getting independent news about what’s going on in Ukraine. The Russian government has even banned the media from calling it a war, preferring to call it a “special military operation,” with information strictly controlled.
While evacuating with her mother, Udovik was asked if she was aware of atrocities committed by Russian soldiers against civilians in Bukha, including torture and killings — which had been major international news in April. Udovik shook his head.
“Butcha?” Udovic said. “I think I’ve heard a few things, but I’m not sure.” She said the Russian channels she sometimes watch turned to focus on the energy crisis Europe could face this winter, with Russian gas flows cut off.
People whispered about what happened during the occupation because they said a segment of the population sympathized with Moscow and that neighbors could notify neighbors if Russian soldiers returned. Udovik’s own family was torn apart. Her grandmother stopped talking to her after hanging a Russian flag outside her house.
On February 27, just three days after Russia launched an unprovoked all-out invasion, the mayor of Kupiansk, Gennady Matsegora, posted a video on Facebook acknowledging that he handed the city over to the Russian army. square. Matsegora is a member of Ukraine’s pro-Russian party.
“At 7:30 this morning, the commander of a Russian battalion called to propose negotiations,” he said. “If refused, the city will be hit with ‘all consequences’. I decided to participate in the talks to avoid casualties and damage to the city.”
Udovik, a self-confessed Ukrainian patriot, admitted that Matsegora would almost certainly be seen as a traitor. But her own mood was complicated.
“Certainly, for citizens, this decision may indeed save lives,” she said. “We’re not hearing these explosions right now. It was quiet at first, but we know that eventually, it’s going to start.”
The Russians used Kupiansk as the seat of their occupation government. A propaganda station called “Kharkiv-Z” – the letter “Z” has become a symbol of the Russian army – blared in local shops. Residents can only make calls to Russia. Even without formal annexation, the town was so integrated with Russia that Udovik even made relative visits from Vladivostok, a Russian city in the Far East close to the North Korean border. Authorities established in Moscow advertise that people can get Russian passports.
Danilova said she was forced to send her children to school even though she knew Russian classes would be taught. People are threatened that their parental rights may be revoked if they don’t. Others said they were concerned about the strict 8pm curfew because of rumors that it would disappear if anyone was caught outside last time.
The Russians used Kupiansk as a transportation hub, from which hundreds of tanks and armored personnel carriers were transported to the then front lines. Some of these same vehicles are back – spoils of war for the Ukrainian military using equipment left by the Russians when they retreated.
As the sound of artillery fire echoed across the town on Thursday, shells were barely audible crashing on the liberated river banks – a sign that the Russians’ ammunition depot may have been depleted after the Ukrainian attack and rapid withdrawal, forcing them to abandon or destroy it the most part of.
On their way into Kupiansk, the Ukrainians were transporting the pontoon, ready to cross the river and continue onward. Announcing that the town’s sign, painted white, red and blue – the colours of the Russian flag – was torn down and reduced to rubble.