A tale from under the shelling. Living through war in a Ukrainian community at the Russian border
The inhabitants of Krasnopillia have been living under continuous Russian artillery fire from across the border, just 15 km away, since April 2022.
Krasnopillia municipality, a rural community in the Sumy region of Ukraine, was under Russian occupation for just over a month in the spring of 2022. Most locals say that their experience was mild compared to what they read and see in the news from elsewhere in the country. The municipality has been back under Ukrainian control since the beginning of April. But the withdrawal of Russian troops and the arrival of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in the area have not brought peace and tranquillity to the area. The community has been living under continuous Russian shelling from across the border ever since and has been preparing for a harsh winter with possible electricity cuts and economic activity depressed in the area.
The return of the frontier
The distance from Krasnopillia to the Russian border is just over fifteen kilometres in a straight line. It is possible that the town itself was founded by the Muscovy state in the first half of the 17th Century. The site would have been in a no man’s land at the frontier between Muscovy itself, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and what is known as the Wild Fields — a large area of steppe, which constituted significant parts of modern day Ukraine. Krasnopillia and other towns in the area served as fortified trading posts and rest stations on the trading route from Ukraine to Muscovy.
By the end of the 17th century the town belonged to the Sumy Regiment – an administrative unit in the Ukrainian Cossack state known as the Hetmanate, and the majority of its population were Ukrainians. This time represents the peak of Krasnopillia’s significance, however the first half of the 18th century saw the newly established Russian Empire, with the help of Cossack troops, push the steppe nomads further south. The role of the fortified towns along the trade routes between Russian territory and the Cossack lands thus declined. Krasnopillia turned from a frontier outpost into a backwater, and today it is a typical provincial point in the northern part of the historical Slobozhanshchyna region.
During the Soviet period Krasnopillia became the centre of the Krasnopillia district – a subregional administrative unit in the Sumy region. Its status changed in 2021 when, as the result of decentralisation, most smaller districts in Ukraine were merged into larger units. Krasnopillia became the administrative centre of a newly created municipality which includes the town itself as well as 42 surrounding villages in the area.
The decentralisation reform was initiated very soon after the Maidan revolution brought in a new pro-European government and partly in a response to the new attempts of the regional elites to pressure the central authorities demanding more powers for themselves in exchange for them not siding with Russia.
The elegance of the decentralisation reform laid in the streaming additional powers and more importantly money to the very local level having redistributed those from the regional and district authorities. Prior to the reform up to 90% percent of the income tax paid by the local residents could have been transferred to the state budget and then redistribute back to the municipalities via the regional budget. The system was introduced in the 1990s under the conditions of the severe economic crisis caused by the collapse of the USSR. The decentralisation gave the significant chunk of the money back to the municipalities. The local budgets grew several times bigger almost overnight. But simple transfer of power and money was deemed not sufficient enough. Most municipalities especially in the rural areas were just too small. With only several hundred or thousand residents they could accumulate sufficient funds for bigger investments such as a new local road construction or street lighting repairs. So, the decentralisation also envisaged merging or amalgamation of the smaller municipalities into the new much bigger entities.
Some of the villages in the Krasnopillia municipality have only two or three dozen residents. Before the full-scale Russian invasion in February 2022 the municipality’s population was 16 thousand people scattered over 555 square kilometres. At present the most important employers in the area are the forestry and farms specialising in producing corn and sunflower seeds.
Krasnopillia has also its own home-grown celebrities. The town is known for its Nordic skiing school. The school has trained several top Ukrainian athletes including Olympic biathlon champions Valja and Vita Semerenko, whose family still lives in the town. The municipality’s Facebook profile cover photo collage proudly features the twin sisters wearing the uniform of the national Olympic team right at its centre.
Despite the change of the town status the current Krasnopillia leadership supported decentralisation. In fact, the current village council Secretary – an official overseeing the council’s logistics and office work – Iryna Yukhta as well as the mayor Yuriy Yatemchuk himself were first elected to the post in 2017 when as part of decentralisation transitional stage Krasnopillia was first merged with some villages in its area into a bigger municipality. The information stands in the municipality building feature booklets presenting the benefits of decentralisation for the locals.
Krasnopillia council has 25 members. As in most of the rural municipalities the council members are the people who run the business and public services in the area in their day-to-day work owners or the managers of the biggest local farms, the forestry, the local hospital and appointed public office holders. So, in a way the decentralisation in Ukraine just confirmed the status of the local citizens who had the most influence on the local affairs anyway. What has changed is the amount of money the council can dispose of without the control or consent from the regional authorities
Donetsk oblast native Viacheslav Tymoshenko came to the Krasnopillia area in 2013, just several months before Russia made its first attempt to annex the whole of Ukraine’s Donbas region. An agronomist by training, he was invited to modernise and run a local farm, which he has been doing ever since. His family moved to the Krasnopillia area for good in the summer of 2014. Now Tymoshenko runs a local farm owned by the Rodyna company. The farm grows sunflower, corn and lucerne. The sunflower and corn are more profitable but are very exhausting for the soil. Lucerne, which belongs to the legume family, helps to regenerate the soil after the taxing crops have been grown on the plot. After being sown, lucerne can be cultivated for up to five or six years. The crop is harvested two or three times during the growing season and is then processed into a hay rich in protein and used for feeding dairy cattle.
Tymoshenko describes in detail the benefits of lucerne on the way from Krasnopillia to his farm in the village of Porozok, right on the Russian border. While driving, Tymoshenko from time to time points to the side of the road, commenting on the area’s recent history. Here is where a Russian armoured vehicle was shot by our forces. Do you see, there is still a wreck over there. I remember the day it happened I was going back to Porozok from Mezenivka. I didn’t believe it when someone told me the news until I passed the wreck in my car and saw it still smoking. Seeing it I just turned around and fled the spot. With the vehicle just shot there could still be Russian soldiers hiding in the vicinity and I was driving an old Niva car which wasn’t protected from any gunshots at all.
He also tells a local anecdote about Russian logistics. Apparently, on the third or fourth day of the invasion Russian soldiers came to the Mezenivka village shop, attached a rope to the shop’s door and pulled it off with an armoured vehicle, after which they took all the food inside. It would seem that they came to Ukraine with no food provisions of their own and were already hungry in a day or so.
When passing through Slavhorod on the way to Porozok, Tymoshenko points to the village church, school, community centre and the outpatient clinic, all of which were damaged in a Russian raid in July 2022. Two Russian military helicopters came from across the border and shot at the local community buildings causing significant damage. Tymoshenko and his family miraculously survived the raid. Tymoshenko was driving through the village with his wife, daughter and mother-in-law when the raid began. One of the shells landed a few dozen metres from his car, and the family had to leave the car and hide in a ditch at the roadside.
Tymoshenko then continues his wartime tales by talking about local residents. “The Porozok village is just at the border with Russia and some three kilometres inside Russian territory there is a village named Poroz. The two villages are historically connected and many people have relations on the other side of the border. When the Russian troops came I was worried that the locals in Porozok would support them. It took only two or three days for the Porozok residents, who are mostly ethnic Russians unlike the residents of the other villages in the area, to speak about the invaders with real hatred, Tymoshenko says.
When we finally arrive at the farm it becomes clear very quickly how proud Tymoshenko is of his farm and its fleet of agricultural machinery. He demonstrates several John Deere and New Holland tractors and various items of machinery – seeders and cultivators – used with them. Each unit of machinery costs several hundred thousand dollars and most were bought on credit and have already been paid off. It would seem that the farm was doing rather well up until 2022. Tymoshenko explains in a lot of detail how the American and Dutch equipment the farm owns is more productive and less damaging for the soil compared to its remaining Belarussian equipment.
Tymoshenko managed to hide his machinery and was not stolen by Russian forces, unlike in many places in Ukraine. “Having experienced contact with the Russian forces in Donbas in 2014 I knew we had to prepare ourselves. At 8 o’clock in the morning on February 24 I had a quick meeting with the farm office staff and told them to get ready. Put tape on the window glass so it is not shattered into small pieces due to explosion shock waves and and so it doesn’t kill anyone. I also told them to make sure they have a stock of non-perishable food and water and other necessities in their vegetable cellars” he says.
Having remained intact during the occupation, the farm machinery is now stationed on the ground at a distance of only 2 kilometres from the Russian border. The farm risks millions in losses from the Russian shelling every day, but Tymoshenko says they cannot keep the machines anywhere else for the moment as they are being used in the fields every day.
When Tymoshenko points to the east to show the location of the Russian border he draws attention to black spots on the green lucerne field some hundred metres from the machinery. This is where Russian shells landed the day before I came to visit. The farm workers had filled in the impact craters just a few hours earlier. Tymoshenko explains that following shelling the farmers usually deal with the results themselves, not troubling to call in the sappers. Big craters in the ground usually indicate that the projectile has exploded and is no longer dangerous.
The farm’s biggest Russian induced losses from one attack so far came in mid-August. On that day the Russians shelled the farm for three hours using different types of munition and as a result completely destroyed one farm warehouse and damaged two others. The destroyed warehouse caught fire as the result of the explosions, destroying 300 tons of lucerne hay.
“We don’t have any military targets on the farm, so the only reason for them to do that was to spread panic and maybe conduct artillery training using real-life targets” Tymoshenko says.
Miraculously the second warehouse did not catch fire as a result of the shelling and thus its stock of hay has survived. However, due to the damages to the warehouse roof, part of the hay has lost its premium class quality. Being exposed to the sunlight, the outer bales of hay become pale and yellowish in colour instead of green. This hay will not be accepted by Middle Eastern customers, says Tymoshenko. It will be sold within Ukraine for significantly less.
Rodyna has had to find alternative transport routes for its exports, as the normal route via Odessa was not open in 2022, due to the Russian blockade of Ukraine’s maritime trade. The hay which has survived damage and can still be shipped to customers in the Middle East is now going a different way. “The hay is now being transported by cargo trains to Poland and then travels to our customers in the Middle East by sea from Gdansk”. Luckily the demand for Rodyna’s product remains high and the farm will be able sell all the hay which meets the standards.
Transporting the hay by railway has required some additional training for the farm’s personnel. A bale of hay is 75 centimetres and the railway containers are 235 centimetres wide. Three bales can thus be placed in the container side by side. However, the extra margin is only 10 centimetres wide and space is precious. So, the operator working the forklift needs to be very precise in their work.
On my visit to Krasnopillia I am accompanied by Oleksandr Motsny, editor-in-chief of the local newspaper Peremoha (Victory). The paper was officially founded on 23 February 1932 and the staff had been preparing to celebrate its 90th anniversary on Saturday, 26 February 2022. To mark our meeting Motsny presents me with a Peremoha anniversary mug. The souvenir was supposed to be given away at the celebrations which have now been postponed until after the war.
Peremoha is a formerly publicly owned newspaper which went independent in 2017. Parliament adopted legislation which provided for the privatisation of publicly owned media and Peremoha staff went ahead right away, becoming the collective owners of the newspaper despite the initial unwillingness of the district authorities to let the newspaper go private. Now the newspaper is owned in equal share by five members of its staff, one of whom deals with the organisation’s accounting and administrative issues.
The newspaper concentrates on very local news and its principal source of income is subscription fees of
400 UAH (10 USD) annually per subscriber. The newspaper is printed in Vinnytsia, a city over six hundred kilometres from Krasnopillia, and delivered to the town weekly. The cost of printing and delivering one issue of eight pages is 4000 UAH – about 100 USD.
The war and its accompanying exodus of locals and reduction of incomes on the ground have decreased the number of newspaper subscribers by half to 1,500 people. Motsny states that the most loyal readers are the local people who have been subscribers since the 1970s or 1980s. Of course, the cost of running the newspaper has gone up this year as paper and transportation costs have gone up.
The first issue of Peremoha after the Russian retreat from the area was published on 22 April. Instead of 12 pages with some in colour the issue only had 4 pages in black and white. The majority of the content discussed the experience of the occupation and commemorated the locals killed in action on different fronts of the war.
Since it became independent, Peremoha has had to move out of its previous premises and is now renting two rooms in the offices of a local agricultural firm. Motsny says the newspaper was not published for two months in 2022 – during the Russian occupation and for some time after that. “We restarted publication as soon as the postal service resumed operation”.
A stray-looking cat is sleeping on one of the chairs in the newspaper’s office. The cat’s name is Senia and he is the newspaper’s mascot. Senia has his own mind, Motsny says — he went away for some weeks in the summer and returned to the office only recently, evidently having decided that with winter approaching it was time to come back inside.
Motsny says his career in the press was almost accidental. He joined the field in 1995 when a reorganisation of the local tax office led to him losing his job, as he was the youngest. Having recently married, and with his wife expecting a child, he didn’t dare to come home and tell her the family didn’t have a source of income anymore. So on the way home from the tax office he stepped into the newspaper’s offices and begged them to take him in. He stayed for over 25 years and eventually reached the position of editor-in-chief, when the newspaper was privatised by its staff. “The previous head editor just decided he was too old and was not fit to run an independent newspaper. So, at the very last moment before privatisation he decided to retire and I took over”.
Motsny, who is the only male among his colleagues, says he takes it upon himself to visit villages across the municipality if there are some events to be covered by the press, as the situation on the ground is still unsafe.
Not only Russian shelling poses a threat. On August 19 a local council member and farm owner Ivan Deyneka was killed when the truck he was driving ran over a land mine on the roadside close to Slavhorod. The mine itself could have been sitting in that spot unnoticed from the time the Russians were occupying the area or it could have been planted there by a subversive group after the Russian retreat.
Motsny says most of the programs supporting the Ukrainian press are dedicated to helping displaced journalists. For those staying in the war-affected areas there seems to be not much help available. Having sent several applications to the National Media Trade Union of Ukraine, Peremoha finally got one flak jacket and one helmet in October. The trade union itself has received protective equipment from international organisations including UNESCO.
Slavhorod, like Krasnopillia, is one of the former Cossack forts in the area. Now its population is under seven hundred residents. Located right on the border with Russia, the village spent just over a month in the spring of 2022 under Russian occupation and has faced constant shelling and regular attacks from across the border ever since the Russian troops withdrew.
Inna Kononenko is the starosta, or elected village chief, of Slavhorod. She and Motsny tell me that many villages in Krasnopillia were virtually untouched during most of the occupation. The Russians moved along main roads, attempting to reach Sumy and move on Kyiv. Occupying troops were stationed for just over two weeks in Slavhorod. During that period, they searched the homes of residents and managed to confiscate all the guns the locals owned. The Russians initially demanded that Kononenko hand over a list of gun owners in the villages. She says she called a member of the hunting community and suggested they give up their weapons voluntarily. “They knew quite a lot about the village. They knew the names of all the local shops, they knew I had a little daughter. It would seem someone with local knowledge had been assisting them” says Kononenko. She says she doesn’t know who the collaborators were, but she hopes the intelligence services will be able to identify them.
Locals enjoy good relations with the Ukrainian military
Having spent over a month under occupation and having since been targeted by regular shelling from across the border, the locals in Krasnopillia are very grateful to the army stationed in the municipality and try to be helpful.
“When the Ukrainian army arrived in the village I felt such relief, because I understood that no one [from the enemy side] will enter the village anymore. Of course, we cannot be sure that subversive groups from the Russian side will not try to cross the border, but we know that the army will protect the village” says Kononenko.
The locals are vigilant and try to be in constant communication with the army. On the second day in the community, when I am not longer accompanied by local officials, vigilant locals report me to the army patrol. The soldiers arrived and checked my credentials, scrolled through photos on my camera and called the police to check my background. After a check in the local police station I was free to go having learned my lesson.
The locals are also very keen to show their appreciation for the Ukrainian army units stationed in the area. Kononenko and Motsny joke about the chances of improving birth rates in the area while the army units are stationed here. Kononenko says that the products on offer in the local shops has improved since so many new paying customers have come to the area. And Tymoshenko ponders the future army presence in the area. “I say, if the army needs to take over a strip of land of say 5 or 10 kilometres along the border with Russia for their operation, they should do it. We want the army here for as long as it is needed. And we can farm on the rest of the land.”
Living alongside the military has had even more positive outcomes. Oleksandr Motsny, editor-in-chief of Peremoha, laughs and tells me that after Ukrainian army units moved into the community “even older ladies began dyeing their hair and paying attention to their looks”.
Outlook for the future
Motsny and his colleagues at Peremoha expect things to get better when the war is over. Inna Kononenko believes most people will come back. Living in one’s own home is the best thing people can have she believes. Tymoshenko thinks a lot will depend on the situation with civilian infrastructure. The trouble with the electricity cuts in rural areas such as Krasnopillia is access to remote villages. If electricity supplies are cut in the middle of winter, conditions here will be very hard.
At present most of the villages in the community seem almost deserted. Up to one third of the community members have moved either to Western Ukraine or abroad. Kononenko tells me that some village residents have gone as far as Ireland.
Due to the proximity to the border with Russia and the constant shelling, schooling can only be done online. Kononenko says most of the 517 students the Slavhorod school had before the invasion are now attending classes from far away – the west of Ukraine or other European countries.
All the locals in Krasnopillia area are sure of one thing. It will be decades before they can have any sort of relations with people on the Russian side of the border. The locals call the Russian troops “orcs” as in many places in Ukraine, or alternatively Nimtsi (literally Germans) — a reference to WWII, when the word for Germans became synonymous with the occupying army.
“We have a woman here in the village, a Russian citizen who came here to visit her sister just before the February 24. She is originally from here but has been living in Russia for a very long time and is a Russian passport holder. And she’s been keeping very quiet about her Russian passport for over 6 months because she was afraid of what people would say to her. She only came to me to ask what she could do now given the situation. She doesn’t want to go back to Russia and she needs to do something about her status here” Kononenko says.
“We should just demolish [the Russian city of] Belgorod, especially that airport that the Russians use for the military planes that come across the border to shoot at us” Kononenko says. She describes one recent episode of shelling in the area: “On Friday the 2nd of September we came to work at 9 as usual, and within a few hours there was one of the heaviest episodes of shelling we had experienced in months”. The day after our meeting the area was under heavy attack again and the locals had to spend several hours in their vegetable cellars. After a short break in August, the Russians have intensified their attacks on the area. Krasnopillia and nearby villages are being shelled several times per week. In addition, drones carrying explosives are being used more and more widely, having killed a local woman in mid-October.
Kateryna Pryshchepa is a Ukrainian journalist and a frequent contributor to New Eastern Europe.
This article is published in the framework of the “Bohdan Osadchuk Media Platform for Journalists from Ukraine” co-financed by the Polish-American Freedom Foundation as part of the "Support Ukraine” Program implemented by the Education for Democracy Foundation and the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation. Texts published as part of this project are available free of charge under open access Creative Commons license. Republishing is allowed under the CC license, however requires attribution and crediting the author and source.
This article is published in the framework of the “Bohdan Osadchuk Media Platform for Journalists from Ukraine” co-financed by the Polish-American Freedom Foundation as part of the "Support Ukraine” Program implemented by the Education for Democracy Foundation and the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation.
Texts published as part of this project are available free of charge under open access Creative Commons license. Republishing is allowed under the CC license, however requires attribution and crediting the author and source.