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Sumy: The gates of Europe 30 kilometres from the Russian border

In February 2022, my city, which is not very much known internationally, became a hero when the forces of the newly-formed territorial defence stopped the troops of the famous Russian Kantemirov Division.

November 15, 2022 - Maryna Looijen-Nosachenko - Articles and Commentary

An aerial view of Sumy, Ukraine. Photo: Ronedya / Shutterstock

Sumy is a city in northeastern Ukraine with a pre-war population of 250,000 people. This city has been known for its slow life and friendly people. Its history goes back to the 17th century when Cossacks established the first settlements (slobodas) in this region.

Since then, the spirit of free people has never left this land despite being under the Russian Empire and later Soviet rule. This land was always a place where every farmer was also a warrior. Sumy citizens were active during the Revolution on Granite in 1990, the Orange Revolution in 2004, and the Revolution of Dignity (EuroMaidan) in 2013/2014. This small city on the border of the aggressor nation seems to be the gate to Europe.

The view towards Voskresenska street. Photo: Maryna Looijen

In 2014 when the Russian Federation annexed Crimea and invaded Donbas, there were Russian-led attempts in Sumy to create a so-called Sumy People’s Republic. Despite the work of pro-Russian agents and long years of promoting pro-Kremlin propaganda from some local deputies, the plan ultimately failed. It was impossible to hold any kind of pro-Russian rally in Sumy like the ones organised in Kharkiv, Donetsk, Luhansk or other cities.

As a matter of fact, it was quite the opposite. In the spring of 2014, 600 men from Sumy and 3,000 people from the Sumy region were mobilised to protect the state border of Ukraine in Donbas. Later with the continuation of the anti-terrorist operation, thousands of men and women joined the army. Sumy citizens sacrificed their lives and health, protecting the sovereignty of Ukraine. How could Russian officials imagine there is no difference between Ukraine and Russia and that Sumy would actually welcome Russian soldiers with flowers?

What happened on the morning of February 24th 2022, when Russian tanks crossed the border into the Sumy region and started the chaotic shelling of cities and villages? Thousands of men and women of different ages immediately signed up for the territorial defence to protect the city or started volunteering for the Ukrainian army. There were battles between the Sumy forces and Russian occupiers from the first days of the full-scale Russian invasion.

The defenders of Sumy were so effective that the Russian soldiers feared facing them again. In one of the intercepted phone calls published by the Ukraine’s security service in the middle of March, a Russian soldier complained to his mother that he was scared of going to Sumy because no Russian soldier had ever returned from there. People in Sumy started to call their territorial defence forces “NATO” because it successfully fought the so-called “world’s second-largest army”.

I spoke with Oleksandr, a soldier with the territorial defence unit, (for his safety, his true identity is kept secret) about his experience of the first days of the invasion of Sumy and the situation at the border now.

Source: Private

Source: Private

Were you aware of the possibility of a Russian invasion in Sumy before February 24th?

OLEKSANDR: I realised that a new wave of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was brewing, but I did not think that they would come from so many directions at once. We believed that everything would begin with attempts to defeat our troops in Donbas, and only then would they try to occupy other regions.

How did you face the full-scale invasion?

I remember the first days of the invasion very well because I recorded them in detail in my diary. At 00:38 on February 24th, I received a message from a Russian acquaintance. He asked if we had packed our things and if a bomb shelter was nearby. After a week of increasing tensions – this was the final straw. Around six in the morning, I was awoken by a phone call from my friend who said the war had started. I looked out the window and saw three flares. After I helped my family to leave the city, I met my friends and together we joined the 150th Battalion of the Sumy Territorial Defence. Together we completed tasks inside and outside the city.

Did you have any previous military training?

I haven’t had any previous military training except participation in military-historical re-enactments and a school course on defence of the motherland (a Soviet-style school subject). I acquired military skills on the go in a short time during combat encounters and completing tasks.

Describe the soldiers who joined the defence of the city with you.

The age category was diverse: from 18-year-olds to pensioners – a full display of the city’s population. The majority were people of working professions: workers of plants, factories, service stations, entrepreneurs, and construction workers. From February 26-28, I saw women who also joined the city’s defence. They made Molotov cocktails, cooked food and organised the life of the fighters.

You took part in the battle near Sumy Military Academy. Can you describe how it was?

We arrived there at the end of February 24. Everything around us was on fire. We periodically heard gunfire from machine guns and BMPs (infantry fighting vehicles). In the morning, we took up a position near the concrete wall. We saw a lot of broken glass, destroyed enemy equipment and several bodies of dead Russians. BMP commanders often shouted “contact!” and immediately, our armoured vehicles started firing at the enemy. We heard constant shooting and explosions in the background.

It was freezing and our improvised positions were not equipped for such weather conditions, so we found old Christmas trees and other things from the trash bins to lie down on. The battle was intense and difficult but afterwards the Russians were convinced that Sumy defenders would stand for their city.

Sumy Military Academy after the fight with the Russian invaders. Photo: Cenzor.net

What do you think is the purpose of shelling the border area by the Russians now after they have left the region?

The main purpose of the shelling, in my opinion, is the desire to create the appearance of a threat in this direction to prevent the transfer of our troops to other priority areas of the front.

How likely is it, in your opinion, that the enemy will invade the Sumy region again?

I consider a repeated attack on Sumy unlikely at the moment because things are not so smooth for them in the south and east of Ukraine. But war can change quickly. It should also not be forgotten that the Russians behaved unconventionally and even irrationally from the very beginning of this full-scale aggression, so it is impossible to be entirely sure that they will not unleash an unexpected attack somewhere in our region.

Another important part of Ukrainian society are the volunteers who create reliable aid to the defenders.

I questioned the head of the local volunteer initiative Sumlinni (Ukr. Сумлінні, Conscientious), Valeria Sirobaba about her work.

The photo is from Valeria’s private archive

What were you doing before the full-scale invasion?

VALERIA: I taught people information literacy in the Don’t Become a Vegetable initiative. In addition, I studied medicine at Sumy State University and was in charge of the patriotic scout camp Kolovrat.

When, how and why did you start helping the military and civilians?

I started volunteering on February 25th. On the first day, I adapted to the new reality, and the next day I was already sorting boxes with aid at the city’s Central Humanitarian Headquarters. After a few days, I realised that Ukraine would soon run out of tourniquets and first-aid kits, so I started organising deliveries of tactical medicine equipment from abroad. I have assisted the military, emergency services, hospitals and paramedics in the city and region with clothes, medicine, medical devices, drones, cars, baby food, and hygiene products.

What are the needs of the military you are currently working on?

The unit I work with consists of Sumy soldiers and serves in actual “hell”: they were in Bucha, Izium, Kharkiv region and now they are in the Kherson region. “There are two things we will never say ‘no’ to,” they joke, “Money and cars.” Funds are needed to purchase special equipment that an ordinary civilian cannot buy, and cars in war are in constant need. I’m currently searching for a car, tactical winter clothes, and funds for treating the wounded.

This photo is from Valeria’s private archive

How do you think Sumy will look in the future?

Sumy is a comfortable green city. It’s so beautiful that my only dream is that Sumy will always remain in Ukraine. I want the Ukrainian language to be heard everywhere here and Sumy soldiers and volunteers to always be remembered. It is thanks to them that we can sleep peacefully and live everyday life.

In the first two months of the full-scale invasion, all the residents of Sumy faced problems with transport, lack of food, medicine, and gasoline, but now the logistics are coordinated. The city now lives an ordinary life, despite the martial law and constant blackouts. Several times a day, the citizens hear the air-raid siren as the enemy continues to shells the region.

The border between the Sumy region and the aggressor state is more than 560 kilometers long. Therefore, all neighbouring communities are in daily danger. Many people, especially children and parents, have fled their homes, but the residents who stayed are ready for everything.

Journalists from the Sumy local magazine Tsukr (lit. Sugar, Ukr. Цукр.) have visited the villages at the border. One of the residents shared his thoughts:

“When we hear something (artillery or mortal fire) incoming, we don’t run away but sit outside, I tell you honestly. So if it’s (shelling) going to happen, let it be because nothing more terrible than death can happen to us.”

The photo from Operational-Tactical Group Sumy

Shortly after Vladimir Putin announced the mobilisation in Russia, it was soon rumoured that the newly mobilised Russian soldiers were located near the Sumy border region. But Dmytro Zhyvytskyi, the head of Sumy Oblast Military Administration, assures on his Telegram channel that for now, there is no danger of a second invasion for the Sumy region, and the border region is much more well-protected in comparison to February 24th.

Evening in the city, Teatralna square Photo: Nadia Hyral

Despite continuous anxiety at the border, risks of artillery strikes, attacks on infrastructure, high inflation and the danger of the coldest winter ever, Sumy residents open schools, new businesses, and organise cultural events. The brave people of Sumy protect the gates of Europe.

Maryna Looijen-Nosachenko is a media and information literacy expert, civil activist.

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. 

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