Occupation changes life forever | Eurozine

Occupation is like a flood. The water doesn’t reach every house at the same time. First it covers the roads until it meets an obstacle – a wall or a fence. Then it starts to rise, finding cracks, seeping further, conquering one house after another, together with everything inside them.

This is what happened across a third of Ukraine’s territory in February 2022, when Russia began its full-scale invasion. Like water when a dam breaks, Russian troops entered on tanks in the north, east and south of the country, destroying everything in their path.

Watching footage from the early days of the invasion, as the first Ukrainian towns were being seized, it’s impossible to avoid comparisons with the Nazi occupation of Soviet Ukraine in World War II. Most of the available film from the summer of 1941 shows locals welcoming the Russian occupiers with flowers and flags, receiving newspapers and aid packages in return. The scenes were used as propaganda to prove to the populations of Nazi Germany and its fascist allies that the Ukrainian population welcomed the occupation.

In 2022, Russian propagandists also strove to show that Ukrainians were welcoming the occupying troops. But reality fought back. The invaders were greeted with sticks not flowers, together with anti-Russian placards and shouts to ‘get off Ukrainian land’. So they had to use other methods to bring the captured territories under their control.

Kherson, June 2023. Image: serhiikorovayny / source: Wikimedia Commons

Ukrainians first experienced occupation in 2014, when Russian troops seized the Crimean Peninsula, holding a so-called referendum on joining Russia and installing a new regime in what was a de-facto annexation.

The first official signs were the checkpoints that appeared across Crimea and on the border with mainland Ukraine, where regular Russian troops began checking the documents of everyone moving across the territory. Soon after, they were replaced by Russian FSB agents. If a person aroused their suspicions – for example, if they were wearing Ukrainian symbols or were known for their patriotic views on Crimea and Ukraine – they could be detained or arrested. On the peninsula itself, street searches became common. Paramilitary groups with no official signs, such as the militia Samoobrona Kryma (‘Crimean self-defence forces’), could detain anyone who aroused their suspicion or behaved in ways deemed ill-disposed towards the occupiers.

Not long after the annexation, pro-Russian protests began in Donetsk, Luhansk and other cities in the Donbas. With the support of Russian political strategists and large-scale propaganda, pro-Russian forces sought to persuade the local population to break away from Ukraine and, following the example of Crimea, to support either regional autonomy or incorporation into Russia. Proactive citizens with pro-Ukrainian views initially organized their own protests in opposition to the separatists, but the situation quickly escalated. Security forces in Donetsk and Luhansk joined the separatists. This marked the end of civil resistance and the beginning of armed struggle.

That is how the war began between the Ukrainian Defence Forces and the separatists, supported by Russian security agencies. As in Crimea, the first and main signs of occupation were the checkpoints set up in cities and on the perimeter of the separatist-controlled territories, and the random searches of citizens on the streets and in public spaces. Soon afterwards began the arrests of activists, journalists and local officials.

When the occupiers took control of a territory, actively pro-Ukrainian citizens were forced either to leave or to go underground. They were replaced by others who saw the occupation as an opportunity for their own advancement and benefit.

Temporary occupation

From 2014, people in the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine have witnessed three main scenarios of occupation. The first, temporary occupation, lasts from several weeks to several months. This scenario usually involves intense fighting, resistance and a chaotic occupying administration, often accompanied by violence towards the local population.

Such was the case with the Slovyansk in the Donetsk province. Armed separatists seized power in the city in April 2014 while pro-Ukrainian rallies and protests were still taking place in Donetsk, the regional capital, and elsewhere. The separatists appointed Slovyansk the ‘capital’ of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and focused all administrative and military power in the city.

Igor Strelkov-Girkin, a Russian FSB employee likely to have been one of those responsible for shooting down the Malaysian Airways flight MH17 over the Donetsk region in July 2014, was responsible for military operations and partial management of the city. Girkin established his own laws in the territories under his control, trying locals who had broken the rules or, in his view, committed a crime. The most severe punishment was the firing squad – and Strelkov’s subordinates really did kill people under their occupying laws.

The occupation of Slovyansk lasted for three months. During this time, violent kidnappings, beatings and murder were widespread. Violence was used to terrorise the population, contain resistance and keep people at the ready. In July 2014, armed separatists left Slovyansk and finally captured Donetsk, establishing an occupying regime which functions to this day.

Similar events took place in the cities that were occupied eight years later. Witnesses of the occupation of the Kherson, Kharkiv and Donetsk regions in 2022, which were held by Russians for eight to nine months, report of exactly same thing. When Russian troops first entered Ukrainian cities, residents tried to resist. Mass protests and uprisings took place almost everywhere. But the price of resistance was high.

Hanna Volkovicher, a resident of Kherson, took part in the volunteer movement under occupation. She recalls that, at the start of the invasion, she and other locals went out almost every day to protest on the streets against the armed Russian invaders. They were sure that if they showed them that Kherson did not need Russia, the occupiers would leave. ‘We were naïve,’ she admits. Soon the occupiers started to intimidate local activists: they came to their homes, carrying out searches and making arrests. Hundreds of people, including Hanna, ended up in prisons and basements. There they were beaten and tortured. The Russians tried to extract information from them about their cooperation with the Ukrainian military and to pressure them to defect. Many were later found dead or are still missing.

‘The numbers protesting against the Russian invasion became fewer and fewer, and [the Russians] became meaner and meaner,’ remembers Hanna. ‘Once they broke up a demonstration – they threw stun grenades and shot one man in the leg. It was very dangerous. I realized I’d started walking down the street with a bowed head and felt disgusted.’

The occupiers set out of establish full control over every city that they seized. The resistance of Ukrainians was not part of their plan. Russian propaganda showed happy citizens of Kherson and Mariupol rejoicing at the Russian invasion of their cities, while ordinary, unarmed citizens threw rocks at soldiers.

The Russians’ reaction to this humiliation was to tighten their control. This had serious consequences. Kateryna, a resident of Kherson, told me on the condition of anonymity how a sniper had killed her husband. He was driving home with her and their young child, ten minutes after the start of the curfew. That night the occupiers didn’t even try to stop the car to find out who was in it. Instead, they dealt with the problem by shooting the driver. Kateryna’s husband died instantly, with she and her child suffering numerous fractures when the car drove into a wall. Kateryna reported the murder to the police but was told that pursuing the complaint could have serious consequences for her. In the end, the cause of her husband’s death was ruled to have been a heart attack. Nobody tried to investigate what had really happened.

During temporary occupations, towns were usually managed by the Russian foreigners with the help of local collaborators. Those who collaborated were mostly people who already supported a pro-Russian path for Ukraine. They had long-standing relations with Russian politicians and the military and had supplied Russia with intelligence in the past. When local officials refused to collaborate, as happened in some cities, the Russians chose people randomly. In Berdyansk, in the south of Ukraine, a janitor was appointed deputy mayor.

The occupation that began in February 2022 is often called the ‘new’ or ‘fresh’ occupation in Ukraine. There is indeed one thing that distinguishes it from the occupation of 2014: the seizing of territory was carried out not by separatists with the secret help of the Russians, but directly by Russian military personnel and FSB officers. The Russian occupiers treat the residents much more brutally than even separatists would have done. Indeed, there is much evidence that Russians treat their local collaborator ‘colleagues’ as expendable: for example, troops of the ‘People’s Republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk are sent to serve at the most dangerous areas of the front or forced to carry out the ‘dirtiest’ jobs.

These ‘new’ occupations are distinguished from the ‘old’ temporary occupations by the fact that the occupiers are hostile to citizens and expect betrayal from everywhere. Oleksandr, a resident of Melitopol in the south of the Zaporizhzhia region, occupied in February 2022, spent ten days in prison for following the Telegram channel of a pro-Ukrainian local newspaper. The forty-year-old was arrested on the street after he checked the news on his mobile. Usually when he went out, Oleksandr recalls, he took another phone that contained no sensitive information. Habits like this were formed under occupation: most people engaged in some form of resistance concealed their main mobile devices, computers and notes at home or in hiding places, where they would be harder to find in case of a search.

Oleksandr was accused of consuming information from a news outlet hostile to the occupiers, and of being a terrorist working for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. He was later released, but his passport was confiscated. Despite this, succeeded in leaving the occupied territory and making it to Europe by semi-legal means. He says there were many ‘terrorists’ like him in prison.

Tactical occupation

The situation in the cities in northern Ukraine captured by the Russian army during its attempt to take Kyiv at the beginning of the invasion in 2022 was different. The occupiers used these cities as temporary logistical bases for creating command posts, carrying out reconnaissance, and supplying weapons, ammunition and food. Lack resources of their own, the Russian forces were obliged to use civilian infrastructure, living in schools and colleges, and often private houses and apartments.

But to get what they wanted, the occupiers had to have local collaborators, or to force local politicians and officials to work with them. There were problems with this in the north of Ukraine. Numerous investigations have shown that, before the invasion, the Russian authorities had relied on the intelligence of collaborators amongst Ukrainian civil administration and security forces, who had promised to arrange everything on the ground. But many of them went back on their promises, meaning that the occupiers encountered difficulties during their attempt to capture the north of the country – and, in fact, suffered a defeat.

Where the occupiers understood that they had no support in a town, they used ‘soft power’. Serhii Harus, the head of Ripkynska community, located near the Belarusian border, recalled how Russian commanders together with Belarusian military personnel came to him at the start of the invasion to agree on joint action to supply food, water and other critical things. ‘When we said that we didn’t need them, that we would figure it out and organise things ourselves, the commander of the Rosgvardiya replied, “then we will join you to Belarus, since you have everything”.’

The occupiers persuaded Serhii not to resist by promising that they only needed the territory temporarily, that they would not touch the population, and that everything would be calm and quiet. But those who refused to accept Russian soft power ended up in torture chambers, hastily set up on the premises of schools, in the basements of administrative buildings and in dormitories.

Dozens of Ukrainians were tortured in Bucha, Irpin and other towns in the north of the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions. Many were killed for actively resisting the occupiers, supporting the Ukrainian troops, or helping residents with food deliveries and evacuation. Wherever active combat or reconnaissance operations were taking place, the Russian troops wanted them out of the way.

Tactical occupation was also accompanied by mass looting and sexual violence. We know that during the occupation of towns around Kyiv, Russians raped dozens of women, men and even children. The office of the Ukrainian prosecutor has recorded more than 250 cases in different parts of the country during the occupation; in reality, the figures were much higher. In most cases, the occupiers broke into people’s homes and raped women and children, some in the presence of their husbands, particularly those they believed to have connections to the Ukrainian intelligence. After the act of sexual violence, the Russian occupiers killed the men. None of this was spontaneous or incidental: human rights activists describe sexual violence as a Russian method of war, intended to terrorise the population and break people’s will to resist in both the short and long term.

Looting also became a feature of occupation during the siege of Kyiv. Because of problems with the supply of food, clothing and other critical resources during the first days of the invasion, Russian troops raided shops and stole food and household appliances from residents’ homes. Even more looting took place when the Russians withdrew at the end of March 2022. This time they took microwaves, washing machines and clothing from Ukrainians’ homes, along with equipment from schools, colleges and hospitals. In some cases, the occupiers left notes: ‘Sorry, it was an order’, they wrote on the fence of one house. Many could be identified because they had boasted on social media of robbing residents. In Irpin, one Russian soldier accidentally left behind a selfie that he had taken using a Polaroid camara stolen from someone’s home.

Integrated occupation

The Crimean Peninsula and a part of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions have been occupied for almost ten years. Life in these regions differs radically not how it was before, but also from the situation in the cities occupied since 2022. A sustained occupation fundamentally changes the population’s way of being and thinking.

When is the point at which no return to life before is possible? Some social psychologists believe that it takes about two years for residents to ‘get used to’ occupation and permanently change their thinking and behaviour. During this time, peoples’ habits and reactions can alter dramatically, as can their understanding of their situation. But for that to happen, there need to be radically new conditions.

For Donetsk, this point was reached with the conclusion of the second Minsk Agreements between Kyiv and the so-called People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in February 2015, with the participation of the presidents of Ukraine, Russia and France and the German chancellor on the territory of Belarus. At the time, fierce fighting was taking place near Debaltseve, a city at the intersection of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and the main transport hub of the region. When armed separatists occupied the city with the help of Russian troops, it became clear that it would be almost impossible to fight back and bring the territory back under Ukrainian control. The pro-Russian separatists were at a significant advantage.

Infrastructural changes are a good indicator of long-term occupation. A month before the signing of the Minsk Agreements, Ukrainian trains had stopped running directly between Kyiv and Luhansk, Donetsk and Simferopol. Until then, the routes had allowed citizens to move freely between the divided territories. At the same time, permanent checkpoints appeared, staffed by Ukrainian border guards. They registered the Ukrainian citizens leaving the occupied territories and those entering – which required a special permit. The borders of the occupation of Donbas and Crimea were consolidated and until the invasion of 2022 remained largely unchanged.

This signified not only a new level of control over the movement of citizens, but also the awareness that, from now on, occupation would be a constant situation. Instead of Ukrainian products on supermarket shelves, Russian ones began to appear; instead of Ukrainian petrol – Russian; instead of Ukrainian transport companies – local and Russian ones. Businesses either relocated to Ukrainian cities or re-registered in the occupied territories. But it was not just the entire market began to rearrange itself – public institutions were also affected by the change.

The same thing happened in Crimea, but with an important difference. Unlike in the Donbas, the peninsula immediately became part of the Russian Federation, and local residents received Russian passports. Without new documents, carrying out any kind of activities such as working legally or running a business became impossible.

Top posts in the occupied territories were handed out according to the same principles as during temporary occupation: those who had long cooperated with Russia or had proven their loyalty during the protests and preparations for the takeover, came to power. Sergey Aksyonov, a marginal politician who ran the ‘Russian Unity’ party, became the leader of Crimea. Denis Pushylin, who previously had run a semi-legal business involving financial pyramid schemes, became the leader of Donetsk.

By 2015, the residents of Crimea and the Donbas understood that this new reality was here to stay. A second wave of forced migration began (the first was in 2014, mainly due to shelling and persecution). After the signing of the Minsk Agreements, people who did not want to pay taxes to the occupiers, or to work with them in quasi-governmental institutions, or to send their children to schools and universities that had been largely deserted by well-qualified teachers, left.  But many people stayed.

Although they had different reasons, the view gradually hardened in Kyiv that those who had remained in the occupied territories were not pro-Ukrainian views and had chosen the so called ‘republics’ or Russia as their new home. But in reality, there are still many pro-Ukrainian people in these territories.

People living under occupation, or those who had registered there before deciding to leave, were deprived of certain rights. For example, internally displaced people had to prove to state institutions and banks that they resided permanently in Ukrainian-controlled territory and had not paid taxes to the occupiers. The permanent occupation deepened the suspicions of the local population on both sides of the control points – making the gulf between the two societies wider than ever.

Everyday life under Russian occupation

What is the main aim of the occupation? At the start of the invasion in 2022, the Russian government declared it was carrying out a ‘special operation to denazify and demilitarize’ Ukraine, which meant different things in different circumstances.

For example, at the beginning of the invasion it was repeatedly heard from the Russian leadership that it would be necessary to install a new Ukrainian leadership no longer amenable to the will of the West. This turned out to be impossible. But the occupation of the south and east of the country, bordering Russia, proved to be more successful. Half a year after the invasion, so-called referendums were held there on joining the Russian Federation. The idea of changing power in Kyiv was no longer heard. Clearly the territory was needed for military and economic aims: the occupiers took up positions in the Black and Azov seas, gaining significant levers of influence on the international arena, in addition to joining up with territories controlled by Russian-backed separatist since 2014.

The more effective its control over the seized region, the bigger the advantage the occupying state had in the war against its neighbour. Establishing control largely depends on subordinating the local population. In the north of Ukraine, the Russians’ priority was to set up command posts and get access to basic items as quickly as possible. To do this, they neither ‘worked’ the population with propaganda nor used knowledgeable, experienced collaborators. Instead, they immediately went about obtaining the most necessary resources by force.

The situation was different in the temporarily occupied territories in the south and east, which were rapidly conquered without almost any losses, and where military command was firmly established. Here, the propaganda machine quickly swung into action. The occupiers needed to win over the local populations so that the economy and infrastructure would continue working to their advantage.

According to Volodymyr Safonov, an employee of the State Emergency Services in Kherson, the Russians came to the administration’s offices during the first days of the occupation and proposed cooperation. Had their offer been refused, their proposal would have been passed to more junior ranks, who had less experience but greater incentives to work for the enemy: more money and the possibility of promotion.

For many, another significant motivation to cooperate was the fact that if they refused, the city risked being left without emergency services, and people may have died. The situation was the same in hospitals, pharmacies and other vital facilities. Many doctors stayed in order to help their fellow residents, even at the risk of being prosecuted under the law criminalizing collaboration.

The same compassion also motivated ordinary citizens with pro-Ukrainian views. Hanna Volkovicher says that she and other volunteers decided not to evacuate from Kherson because they knew that their presence was essential for vulnerable members of the population. The occupation left many people without work and income, and single mothers, pensioners and those with disabilities stopped receiving social welfare. The occupiers did nothing to care for them.

Medication was a major problem. The Russians prevented Ukrainian trucks with food and pharmaceuticals from entering the occupied territories, and generally refused to accept humanitarian aid from the Ukrainian side. The south and eastern regions, which share a border with Russia and occupied Crimea, were now supplied with Russian-produced food and humanitarian aid. But there were problems with the Russian medication. Some drugs did not meet patients’ needs and prescriptions, and some were not available at all, due to restrictions and laws in Russia introduced to replace sanctioned goods with local products. ‘Many of the tablets simply don’t work – for example, the blood pressure tablet is like crushed chalk, it breaks and crumbles’, said Hanna.

Humanitarian aid is another important factor. The Russian occupiers – and the separatists in 2014/15 – use food parcels, clothes, medicines and other critical items to mollify the population. Residents of Mariupol recalled how, during the siege of the city in March and April 2022, Russian officials, politicians and volunteers would come to apartment buildings to distribute bread, tea and chocolate, along with propaganda newspapers writing about how good life was under Russian rule. The volunteers would always be accompanied by someone from a propaganda outlet or press agency, who would film or photograph them distributing the aid, and then release the footage to the media afterwards.

The occupation needed propaganda to ease social tensions, deny war crimes, justify the intervention and create symbols of the future. ‘Russia is here forever’ was the most widespread Russian propaganda slogan. To make this seem real, efforts were taken across all social spheres, from mass media to school textbooks.

The Russians had already worked out how to use propaganda on an occupied population in Crimea and the Donbas 2014–15. The invaders set up an information department that produced propaganda materials for the local media and placed existing outlets at the service of the ‘state’. In 2014, TV channels in Donetsk came under separatist control almost immediately. During the the first few days of the invasion in 2022, Russian troops tried to seize TV towers broadcasting Ukrainian channels and local media. If they didn’t succeed, they shot at the towers or blocked the signal. When, after prolonged fighting and the death of tens of thousands of residents, the Russians finally captured Mariupol, they broadcast Russian TV from mobile vans. The people of Mariupol were told that other Ukrainian cities had surrendered and come under Russian control.

The occupiers also covered the streets of the city with posters and graffiti, proclaiming their presence in the space in a way that was impossible to ignore. Citizens could ignore Russian flags on local administration buildings, but not the huge billboards that spread the word to remotest of suburbs. This is why defacing propaganda posters became one of the first symbols of the liberation of Ukrainian cities during the counteroffensive. The image of Ukrainian troops tearing down a ‘Russia is here forever’ poster became part of the Ukrainian culture of ridicule.

The temporary and integrated scenarios of occupation also require the ‘re-education’ of the population at an institutional level. After the occupiers had established themselves in the east and south in 2022, they started to change the curriculum at schools and universities, following the example of the Donbas. In the ‘People’s Republics’, schools teach the ‘history of the homeland’ instead of the history of Ukraine, referring to the Donbas without any mention of Ukraine as a state. But even in Donbas and Crimea, the Ukrainian language was still taught and used in class for several years. In 2022, Ukrainian was immediately designated the ‘language of the enemy’ and teaching it became dangerous for teachers.

Because many teachers left the occupied territories, forcing the schools to close, the Russian authorities began bringing in their own teachers. But Russian teachers soon encountered the problem that many schoolchildren in the north could not speak Russian. The image that Russian propaganda sought to convey was constantly being spoiled by countless such details.

What can be learned from the occupation?

It is possible to live under occupation, remain a good person, and even defend your values. But doing so requires much more effort than one can imagine. It is safer and easier to live in an authoritarian state than in an occupied territory. The local authorities are subordinate to military command and make decisions affecting matters of everyday life, while the population is no more than a consumable resource with no rights.

But it should also not be forgotten that there have been repeated acts of resistance by ordinary Ukrainian citizens. In the north of Ukraine, residents directed the Ukrainian army to Russian columns, laid ambushes and even captured soldiers themselves. Town and city dwellers came out with pitchforks against Russian tanks, and threw stones. The level of resistance was very high. In the Chernihiv region, for example, Russians entered the house of a man in charge of the local hunting club. He had the contacts of all those with rifles. The man detonated a grenade, killing several occupiers – and himself. Such is the price of resistance.

In the south and east of the country there is an underground movement that organises bombings of Russian military bases and vehicles and plans assassinations of Russian commanders and collaborators. Partisans call the movement the ‘Yellow Ribbon’. After de-occupation, many residents reported that they had helped the Ukrainian army identify Russian targets. There were even instances when citizens directed fire on their own warehouses, which had come under the control of the Russian army. Such self-sacrifice could have had fatal consequences – and for many people, it did.

Liliya showed me her house right after the Russian army blew up the Kakhovka Dam in June 2023. It was ankle-deep in water. She had lived there throughout the ten-month occupation of Snihurivka, a town in the Mykolaiv oblast not far from Kherson. Like most homes in Snihurivka, Liliya’s had been damaged by shelling, and after the de-occupation she had carried out major repairs. But her husband had died fighting in the Ukrainian army during the counteroffensive, and she was unemployed, with two children. Now the Russian bombing of the Kakhovka Dam had left them homeless. Liliya admitted she had lost faith. The occupation had ruined her life and the lives of all those around her. Deprived of any prospects, she didn’t know how to go on.

Occupation destroys people, whether they oppose the occupiers or not. The conditions of occupation deny human rights and opportunities, and massively reduce the quality of life. The longer occupation lasts, the harder it is for a society to return to normality. Occupation leaves behind ruined buildings, broken families, and severed ties between neighbours. The most vulnerable suffer the most – children, the elderly and the disabled.

Occupation is like a flood. The water enters everywhere, and when it recedes, it leaves behind marks that are ineradicable. A house becomes damp, together with its furnishings, and ceases to be a reliable shelter. It is possible to adapt to life under occupation, however unbearable. But it changes you forever.

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