The full-scale invasion began for me at 5:30 a.m. on Thursday Feb 24, 2022, when I received a message on my phone, telling me there was massive gunfire and explosions near the border. With no troops or weapons to defend ourselves, our town was utterly defenceless. Engaging in a battle against an overwhelming Russian military force would have been futile. We wanted to do something so we blocked the road leading to the town by cutting down trees, just before the enemy arrived.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to obstruct the second road, so by 11:00 a.m. that day, Russian troops had already entered the town. The military columns were formidable; we couldn’t have imagined that such a massive horde would invade Trostyanets. The force consisted of over a hundred units of equipment, including tanks, armored personnel carriers, and cars. They seemed to be on parade, sitting atop their armored vehicles. In fact, the entire command of the Western Military District of the Russian Federation, along with their most elite units, had been sent to Ukraine. The local council offices had been transformed into a command post for General Gadzhi Magomedov.
During the first two weeks, the Russians must have felt great. They continued to send numerous columns filled with ammunition into the city. Elite divisions such as the Kantemir Division, 1st Tank Army, 4th Tank Division, 47th Tank Division, and the 112th Brigade were among their most advanced and powerful units, racing from the east towards Kyiv, with Trostyanets astride a crucial route. The Russians aimed to break through Trostyanets in Poltava Oblast to reach the Kharkiv-Kyiv highway near Pyryatin. If they had done this, it would have been difficult for Kyiv to defend itself. From the very beginning, the Russians were forcefully pressuring me to collaborate with them.
Openly refusing would have been a significant risk, so we decided that my deputies and I should relocate to other position. As the mayor of the city, I organized a partisan movement among our volunteers. In Lebedyn, located 40 kilometers from Trostyanets, the 81st Amphibious Assault Brigade and intelligence units worked together, collecting valuable information about the locations of Russian military units and their positions during the night. This information was then passed to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Quadcopters flew over Trostyanets, capturing photographs of the Russian positions. After the initial strikes on Trostyanets, their renowned General Gazhi Magomedov was killed.
In the square near the railway station, the Russians stationed an artillery division and four multi-barreled rocket systems systems. Every day, they inflicted significant destruction and damage to the city of Okhtyrka, where Ukrainian divisions were located. The Russian command ordered snipers to wait for me on top of my house and in the council building in case I showed up. However, close associates advised me against doing so, as there was a full contingent of soldiers lying in ambush. Meanwhile, collaborators who worked with the occupation forces, provided information about pro-European individuals in the town. To this day, we have been unable to find any trace of Roman Tutov, who had taken part in the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) – we still don’t know if he was killed or taken to captivity.
In anticipation of the arrival of Ukrainian forces in Trostyanets, the Russians dug up the entire central square and created anti-tank ditches. But as soon as it became apparent that Ukrainian forces were encircling them, they fled the town, stealing whatever they could including computers, equipment, food, and clothing. On March 25, 2022 the last Russians finally fled.
The Russians had established a torture chamber, beneath our railway station, where they brought anyone, they deemed suspicious, subjecting them to brutal killings and torture. In a conversation intercepted by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), an unnamed Russian soldier spoke to his mother about his actions:
Mother: What are you doing? Why?
Soldier: I want to kill more “Khohlov”
Mother: But how do you kill them?
Soldier: Oh, it’s easy. We turn them into a “rose,” which means cutting off their fingers, toes, and sometimes even their genitals, watching them bleed or die. Sometimes we take their blood for our soldiers.
Mother: Aren’t you afraid?
Soldier: Well, it was a bit awkward at first, but after killing 20 people, I can come home and do the “rose” to Dad if he misbehaves.
This was an official conversation recorded by the SBU documenting the atrocities committed in Trostyanets. To this day, we are still unable to locate eleven citizens who were likely kidnapped. In total, 47 people were killed in Trostyanets. Some may have died due to artillery attacks, others were torn apart by mines, and some were killed by snipers. There were executions carried out right on the street. They had blocked the approach to the cemetery, so some bodies stayed in apartments, flats, or garages for weeks. I was told about a case where relatives placed a dead body on a sledge and had to beg for burial, as it had lain in the flat for almost a week, and was witnessed by kids. In the city council’s garage, a boy from Boromlya was found, tortured and lay with his hands tied.
A Russian soldier’s diary and its revelations
A Russian soldier lost his diary, which detailed all the crimes committed by the Russian army in the town. On one of the pages, I discovered a drawing of our railway station, with a note written beside it: “Occupants.” All these fairy tales about “liberation” are just empty words. I believe, they were well aware of their actions and intentions. Russian narratives about “fascism and neo-Nazism” or “Russia coming to set you free” were all lies they wanted the world to believe. In reality, they acknowledged themselves as occupiers and recognized their own fascist actions, it all was written by the soldier himself.
“It has been 11 days since we arrived in the city. Everything looks terrible here, we as fascists have destroyed everything, looted shops, and people are afraid of us. On the second day, we listened to the ‘Khokhlyatskoye’ radio. They called us occupiers,” – the soldier wrote in his diary. “It’s around 8:00 p.m. I managed to bring my wife two bags and a blender. I wanted to bring her more, but there is nothing left. We have already stolen everything,” the memoir states on its pages.
There were those who acted even worse. Knowing that the Ukrainian Armed Forces would not harm civilians, the Russians forcibly entered people’s apartments with sledgehammers and hammers, knocking down doors. If someone was inside, they would simply say, “You have two hours to leave. We will live here.”
During the “green corridors” we had arranged, the Russians confiscated phones and any other evidence of war crimes. We do not have specific information about the whereabouts of the soldier who wrote the diary, but the picture he painted are clear.
The destroyed town
Before the retreat, another war crime was committed. Near the outskirts of our city, we had a beautiful and renovated local community hospital. It is worth mentioning that before the war, a significant amount of money was invested in modern equipment, innovative diagnostics, and refurbishment. Prior to that notorious day, the perpetrators had checked the building to ensure no Ukrainian soldiers were inside.
On March 22, 2022, Russian forces brought two tanks onto the street and proceeded to fire a total of 38 rounds at the hospital walls and an adjacent building. At that time, there were approximately fifteen people receiving treatment in the hospital, along with 12 staff members who were caring for them, as many others had either left or fled. During the shelling, a woman was in the midst of giving birth to twins. In the basement, amidst the tank fire, medics bravely attempted to provide medical aid to those in need, but it was horrifying. The tanks persistently fired upon the building in an attempt to completely destroy it.
This showed they had a complete disregard for human values and the barbarity of the perpetrators, as they callously destroyed a vital institution of European medicine. Although the building did not burn down completely, the facade sustained significant damage.
After March 15, 2022, aware that the liberation of the town was drawing closer, we began establishing humanitarian depots. The first depot was set up in Poltava, followed by one in Gadyach , in the Poltava region. These depots were intended to store and distribute essential supplies such as food, clothing, medicine, and hygiene items. The partisans and local community also extended their support to our soldiers who were stationed in the forests near Trostyanets, providing them with mats, food, and body armor. The entire community worked tirelessly around the clock, engaging in various activities, with the shared goal of bringing victory and liberating our town from captivity. Finally, on March 26, our efforts paid off, and we successfully returned to Trostyanets.
They knew what they were doing
On entering the town, we were met with a scene of complete devastation. Almost 90% of small and medium-sized businesses had been looted: shops, wholesale stores, stalls, and markets. Anything that couldn’t be taken was either damaged, burned, or broken. Administrative buildings had their windows and doors completely smashed, with computers, furniture, air conditioners, and video cameras shot at. Even vehicles and ambulances in the city were not spared. I had been the mayor for 18 years, and it was heartbreaking to witness what had happened to our town in just a month. It resembled a dump, with mountains of garbage stuffed into offices where the occupiers slept and used as toilets.
To sleep on the floor, they brought mattresses or simply used piles of rags. They cut out the backs of chairs and placed them in corners to serve as makeshift dining areas and toilets. Their behavior was savage, leaving feces right in the offices. The stench upon our return after our reoccupation was unbearable. It took us months to clean it all up.
In Trosyanets, there is a famous chocolate factory, which they used as a shelter. There everything had been looted and left in a mess. Also, they wrote: “We made a little mess here, but your Americans will help you clean up.” This statement highlights that the war is not only waged by Putin, but by the entire Russian Federation and its people who harbor a deep hatred towards Ukrainians. I want to shed light on their war crimes and show the true nature of Russians.
If you look at the map of Ukraine, cities like Mariupol, Melitopol, Chuguy, Trostyanets, Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Irpin, and Bucha were role models and leaders in implementing reform. It wasn’t just about how harshly they behaved in these places; they also served as examples for the rest of Ukraine in terms of development. We participated in seminars, conferences, shared our experiences, and welcomed delegations from other cities. Trostyanets was known for innovation, technology, and democratic governance.
During an international conference in The Hague, I gave a speech, and an artist in the audience sketched drawings of each speaker. When it came to Trostyanets, the drawing depicted a Russian tank, a soldier, and the question above him: “Where will I shoot?”.
In front of him were a school, a liquor store, and a library. The caption on top read: “The price of democracy in Trostyanets.”
The level of destruction in the Sumy region was particularly severe, and difficult to find an object that wasn’t damaged. The estimated cost of reconstructing buildings alone, excluding equipment and transportation, will be around $110 million. Considering the population of 28,000, the extent of damage caused by the Russian occupation is substantial for a community of our size. Nevertheless, we did not give up and are rallying together to restore the town with our bare hands.
During the initial days of the city’s restoration, only a few dozen people remained in the city council, working every day to organize humanitarian aid and support. On the second day after the liberation, humanitarian aid arrived and was distributed to the community. People were crying when they received simple pasta. The siege of the town prevented the delivery of food, and they looted everything. As the mayor, it is now my responsibility not only to ensure my town is restored but also to ensure that the rest of the civilized world understands what the “Russian world” had brought upon us.
All administrative buildings were destroyed except for one — the courthouse. I think subconsciously, the occupiers seemed to have a deep fear of this branch of government, as it serves as a symbol of punishment in Russia. Somewhere in their minds, there was a signal telling them: “You cannot touch this.” Despite the city being destroyed, only the courthouse remained untouched. Russian Federation is a police country, and those who dissent from the Kremlin’s opinion will face immediate punishment, so this I believe this can be the only explanation.