The blitz deoccupation of Kharkiv region allowed the police to document Russian war crimes that had been committed in almost every village. Their analysis gives an idea of how the aggressor power acts on occupied lands after the sham pseudo-referendum, which it uses to cover the seizure of new territory.
From 6 to 14 September, about 8,500 square kilometers were liberated in Kharkiv region, including 388 settlements with a population of 150,000. The police said that a network of 18 torture chambers, set up by the Russian occupiers, was discovered in the liberated towns.
Testimonies collected by the investigators show that during the “interrogations” of detainees, Russians, FSB operatives in particular, often employ electric shockers. Militants with the Russian proxy formations, the so-called “DPR” and “LPR,” also participate in the illegal arrests. This once again reminds us that the territory occupied by Russia immediately becomes a training ground for war criminals.
There have been frequent cases of murder, robbery, abduction, rape, as well as intimidation of local residents. All those who show their loyalty to Ukraine are targeted by Russian terror under occupation. In addition to civic activists, Russia’s special services also hunt down former military and law enforcement operatives who were not combatants, as well as their families.
On the eve of the full-scale invasion, the Foreign Policy publication, citing data from American intelligence agencies, reported that the Russians had drawn up a formalized list, which included, among others, Ukrainian journalists and activists whom the Kremlin wanted to put into custody or execute after capturing Ukraine. Consequently, acts of terror were an integral part of the occupation agenda even before Russian missiles targeted Ukrainian cities.
This is similar to the NKVD strategy employed during the war for Ukrainian lands a century ago. At that time, the Bolsheviks formally declared “red terror” in the country, taking representatives of the enemy strata among the population as hostages in the territory occupied by the Red Army.
In Kharkiv region, abductions and intimidation were also widely used against school teachers who refused to work for Russia.
Since many locals disappeared without a trace, it is now difficult to tell how many of them were killed and how many – taken to Russia. Currently, most of the bodies found in Kharkiv are victims of the indiscriminate missile attacks and bombardment by the Russian army targeting residential neighborhoods.
A 57-year-old resident of Izium told The Guardian about one of such strikes. He also reported that Russian soldiers “prepared a list of persons to be ‘hunted down,’ people who may carry weapons, wealthy, or ‘dangerous’, including businessmen, activists, military, and their families.”
Izium City Council Deputy Maksym Strelnyk estimated that at least 1,000 civilians were killed in Izium alone.
For example, an air bomb that hit a multi-storey building in Izium on March 9, when the Russians tried to seize the city, killed about 50 people. At an improvised cemetery in Izium, which was set up during the occupation period, the Stolpakov family was buried: 31-year-old Olena, her husband, daughter, and parents. There is a total of 445 graves with crosses above them, discovered at the site.
Olena Stolpakova with her younger daughter and the place of their burial in Izium Photo: Radio Liberty / Suspilne
The indiscriminate use of weapons is also evidenced by the fact that on September 22, prosecutors, together with police officers, during an inspection of the liberated Kupiansk in Kharkiv region, discovered FAB-500 parachuted concrete-piercing air bombs, which did not explode. The length of each bomb is more than 2 meters, while its warhead’s weight reaches half a tonne. The Kharkiv Regional Prosecutor’s Office reported on September 28 that Russian occupiers had killed 56 children in the region snce the beginning of the full-scale war.
The FAB-500, which landed in the residential area of Kupiansk
However, many victims, whose bodies were discovered at mass burial sites, were not killed in shelling or bombing, but were executed during the occupation. Exhumed bodies showed signs of torture, such as a rope tied around the neck.
According to First Deputy Chief of the Main Investigation Department of the National Police of Ukraine Serhii Panteleyev, as of September 23, 18 locations where citizens had been held captive and tortured were discovered after the deoccupation of Kharkiv region. More than 1,500 investigations into war crimes have been launched.
In total, since the full-scale invasion, the police have initiated 34,000 criminal proceedings to probe Russian war, including those committed by mercenaries with their private military companies and proxy formations, the so-called “DPR” and “LPR.”
School teachers who refuse to work for the occupier become targets of Russian terror. They are intimidated, kidnapped, and abused. For example, primary school teacher Olha Istotska of the village of Lyptsi in Kharkiv region told how armed people came to her, telling her how they hated and were ready to kill “Ukrainians, Poles, and Belarusians,” and eventually forced her to leave. Lidiia Tilna, a 62-year-old school principal of the village of Ivanivka in Kharkiv region, said that she was kidnapped, starved, threatened with execution, and held in the basement for refusing to work for Russia. Viktoriia Shcherbak, a teacher from Balakliya, said that she and her family were put into a torture chamber, where she was forced to cooperate as the invaders threatened to rape her 16-year-old daughter right in front of her.
Torture chamber in Vovchansk, Kharkiv region. Photo: National Police
In total, 200 people could have gone through the torture chamber in Izium, which was discovered on the police station premises. “Logs with a list of detainees kept by the ruscists have been discovered, as well as instruments of torture, such as electric cables, said the Head of the Investigative Department of the National Police in Kharkiv region, Serhii Bolvinov. Moreover, every cell where people were held is investigated — DNA samples and fingerprints are being extracted, a database of evidence is being collected for the court. In the dark basement cells, people were held from several weeks to months, not even always understanding what the occupiers wanted them to do.”
The employee with the State Emergency Service, Albina Strilets, told what happened in the torture chamber in Izium. The occupiers kidnapped her from her office, along with her other colleague, putting a bag over her head and handcuffing her. The kidnappers threatened her: “Consider that you are lost to everyone, you will not get out.” The woman was captured for her pro-Ukrainian position and forced to “take the side” of Russia, intimidated that the issue of whether to kill her or not was being solved. The woman was held in captivity from 3 to 19 August before being taken from the occupied territory to a Ukrainian checkpoint, which was then also shelled. According to Albina Strilets, she heard the Russian military setting up mass rapes and beatings, and using electric shockers on detainees in the torture chamber.
A resident of Izium told that her son, who was walking with his wife to the market, was beaten by the occupiers right on the street, her daughter-in-law was being raped for a long period of time, and then forced to bring her rapists to her home. The other son was also taken right out of his home and beaten.
According to eyewitness accounts, Russian soldiers are often drunk or under the influence of other stimulants. In the village of Mala Rohan in Kharkiv region, according to locals, some civilians were shot dead. One of them was Valerii Kot, who was shot when came out of the cellar to see if the windows were intact after the strike. Another person was killed right in the flat for refusing to open the door. According to the residents, the occupiers would break into one house where a family lived, and started shooting a machine gun before “taking the girl upstairs.”
In the deoccupied Lyptsi in Kharkiv region, a torture chamber was discovered of so-called “LPR people’s militia.” According to the Security Service of Ukraine, the ruscists subjected their captives to brutal torture, followed by forcible deportation to the Russian territory. Deputy Head of Derhachi Prosecutor’s Office Anton Yevtushenko reported that before the full-scale invasion, about 4,500 people had lived in this village. After the occupation, about half of the residents were deported to Russia. “It is currently impossible to identify all the people affected by the Russian occupation forces, as part of the population was taken to the Russian Federation by the occupation troops. I believe that 80% of citizens were taken away by force or under pressure from the Russian military,” Yevtushenko says.
Volunteer Tata Kepler testified that Russians use information terror against the local population, convincing people that Ukraine now considers them traitors: “The rhetoric was the same as in Mariupol: Kyiv has fallen, you are traitors to Ukraine, if the Armed Forces of Ukraine come here, you will all be killed.”
After the village of Zaliznychne, Chkalovska amalgamated community of Chuhuiv district was deoccupied, four village residents were found killed.
Serhii Bolvinov shared some details: “The war crimes of Russia’s army include shooting civilians in the head and back. In Zaliznychne (a settlement near Chuhuiv) there have already been four statements from locals about shootings they had witnessed. Serhii, 61. Shot in the back in his home. His neighbours buried the body in the garden. Ilham, 58, and Kostiantyn. Buried in Ilham’s yard, bullet wounds to the head were found during the examination. Volodymyr, 47. The body had been lying on the factory tower opposite the station since February 26. According to the locals, he was shot with a machine gun.”
CNN also covered the murders of Ilham and Kostiantyn in their report from Zaliznychne. Journalists quoted a witness, Mariia Hryhorova, who buried her neighbour and his friend, killed by Russians, back in February 2022. “I noticed the doors stayed open for a few days. When I went to check if they were alive or wounded, they were already cold, and then I saw two holes on Kostiantyn’s forehead.” According to Kharkiv Regional Prosecutor’s Office, all four bodies in Zaliznychne had traces of torture.
At the site of murder by the occupiers of a 58-year-old resident of village Cherkaski Tyshky, Kharkiv district. Photo: press service of the State Police Chief Directorate in the Kharkiv region.
In Hrakove, Chuhuivskyi district, the police found the bodies of two young men shot in the back of the head. DW journalists covered this case in their report. They talked to Serhii Lutsai, a local resident who showed the burial site to the National Police.
Serhii Bolvinov shared some details of the crime: “At the beginning of the occupation, back in March, ruscists killed two people and forced the locals to dig graves and bury them. On site, a witness, a resident of this same village who buried the killed, explained that the men were tortured by the ruscists before being killed, and that their ears were cut off. The bodies were exhumed, examined, and sent for a coroner examination. The examination saw bullet wounds in the back of the head and no ears.” Two more burial sites were later discovered in the village.
Resident of Velyki Prokhody, Liubov Kashaieva, told BBC News Ukraine how Russian soldiers beat up her husband just for saying he did not have a phone. According to the man, he was later detained for two weeks, which were akin to torture, because there was no place to lie down in the cell with a wet floor. The prisoners were fed with waste food once a week.
According to Oleksandr Kulyk, speaker for the head of Derhachi Community, a torture chamber was also set up in the basement of the train station in Kozacha Lopan. There were dozens of people who were severely beaten and tazed. Some of them are still in hospitals. They were mostly former Ukrainian soldiers who had defended Ukraine against the invasion since 2014, as well as civilians whose phones contained pictures of military equipment or patriotic pro-Ukrainian messages. Local resident Artem Naumenko was tortured, namely tazed, for having once served in the army. His house was looted. People were also detained for simply making phone calls since the occupiers found it suspicious. People were forbidden to even raise their heads and look at those who were holding them prisoner.
An improvised device for torture by electric current, which was used in Kozacha Lopan
A resident of Kupiansk told the Security Service of Ukraine that he had been interrogated by an FSB investigator, call sign “Kot,” who tried to torture prisoners to make them tell on the locals who supported Ukraine, which ones were part of the territorial defense forces, and which ones were former military. During the first interrogation, the survivor, who was in a bag, was tortured with electric current “for 40 minutes“, shot with a pneumatic or gas gun. He was beaten with a bat and pipes. According to him, other prisoners had swastikas burned onto their skin with a soldering iron.
Law enforcement started investigations, which will eventually show how many people were killed by the Russians in those torture chambers.
The fact that the war is also being waged against the Ukrainian culture is yet again illustrated by Russians burning a temple of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine before their withdrawal, as reported by the OCU press service. Ukraine forces in Izium found weapons and museum items stolen by Russians during the city’s occupation. The director of a mental clinic located near Borova in Kharkiv region also reported theft during the occupation.
Looting and robbery, particularly car theft, became an extra “bonus” for “21st century pirates” on the occupied territories. During the Russians’ retreat, about 300 cars were observed on the Starobilsk – Luhansk motorway, mostly from Kharkiv region, on their way to Luhansk. “Most vehicles had trailers loaded with stolen goods and were driven by Russian military servicemen,” said the speaker for the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
In addition, the EuroKharkiv website reported a convoy of 150 Russian soldiers leaving from Borshchova and Artemivka on two buses, one lorry, and 19 stolen cars.
The liberated Kharkiv region has highlighted the infrastructure of terror set up by Russian in the occupied territories. Russian special services are looking for non-combatants — former Ukrainian soldiers, police officers, and their relatives — and resort to cruel torture, in particular, by electric current. The killing of civilians, looting, and rape have a similar pattern to what occurred during the attempt to capture Kyiv, particularly in Bucha. The terror against school teachers proves that Russia, as a true fascist state, destroys any culture that can challenge it politically.
It could be assumed that such “wild” behavior is due to poor morale, psychological condition, and lack of discipline among Russian soldiers. But this is only partly true. There are already enough grounds to claim that the blame lies with the Putin regime in general, which for years cultivated anti-Ukrainian sentiment among Russians through state propaganda, sending its generals to Ukraine with a clear programme of genocide: the destruction of Ukrainian statehood, identity and culture, as well as physical elimination of their active carriers.
Center for Strategic Communication and Information Security