Spies in the Forest: How Partisans Helped Win the Battle of Kyiv
By John BeckSeptember 2, 2022
Oleksander dropped into a crouch, motioned back to Pavel and Viktor, and took his revolver from the pouch slung round his chest. The revolver had been a present from his unit to mark his departure from the army the previous year and was loaded only with blanks, but it looked real enough from a distance, so he had brought it with him anyway. As they huddled there in the fleeting stillness, a murmur of overlapping Russian voices drifted up towards them.
A movement flickered on the left of Oleksander’s vision, and he started round. It was a third soldier, much closer, but half hidden because he was squatting next to a fallen tree with his trousers around his ankles and a wad of toilet paper in his hand. The soldier was young, a long, pale face in a bundle of olive green with a lightly stubbled upper lip and wide, dark-bagged eyes fixed on Oleksander. Ragged orange-and-black Saint George’s ribbons of the kind the invading troops used to identify themselves hung from each arm, and his weapon, also a Kalashnikov, was close enough that he could have reached it if he lunged. But the soldier did not lunge or call out or move at all; he squatted there with those wide, frightened eyes.
Oleksander held a finger to his lips and beckoned with his pistol. “Here,” he whispered. “Here.” The soldier did as he was told, placing his hands on his head and moving towards them in a waddle without stopping to pull his trousers up, and they led him back the way they had come.
It was March 20, 2022, day 24 of the invasion and the week before Oleksander’s 30th birthday. Russian troops were pressing into the outskirts of Kyiv, but he and a few other residents had stayed in the area to make forays into Russian-held territory and gather information on their movements for the Ukrainian military. Partisans, they called themselves, and the intelligence they provided was proving crucial to the city’s defense.
That morning, Oleksander had been hoping only to reach his neighbor Fedir, a carpenter who had refused to leave when the Russians approached and had been sending Oleksander updates on the situation in the village. In his most recent, Fedir had described Russian soldiers and tanks moving past his house. Oleksander had tried again to persuade him to go, but the carpenter was stubborn. Just bring me some cigarettes, Fedir had asked, and Oleksander had agreed, hoping he’d be able to change Fedir’s mind in person. He enlisted Pavel and Viktor, who were with the hastily formed local Territorial Defense Forces so donned their mismatched uniforms as well as body armor and helmets. Oleksander had dressed just as usual in his dark puffer jacket, track pants, and Nike trainers, then pulled a cap emblazoned with a green marijuana leaf over his cropped, thinning hair.
Fedir seemed to be cut off, but a prisoner was consolation, and Oleksander was quietly cheerful as they moved away. He took point again, followed by the soldier, hunched forward with his hands on his head and the barrel of Viktor’s Kalashnikov jammed into his upper back. Pavel tailed a little behind.
“Stay calm,” they told the soldier. “Then you’ll stay alive.”
When they stopped to rest, the soldier sunk to his knees without being ordered to, his hands unmoved. Up close, he was not in good shape. He looked as if he was wearing every piece of his far-too-large uniform to keep out the cold, and the parts of him that were still exposed were coated in dark grime. Oleksander expected to hate the Russian, but looking down at him, he felt something approaching pity.
The four of them wound back across Ukrainian lines to the village of Stoyanka and a Territorial Defense base opposite a gas station reduced by a Russian strike to a tangle of metal overlooked by the cactus-topped sign of an adjacent western-themed supermarket. They sat the prisoner down in a red metal chair outside the base, until recently a trendy Georgian restaurant, and gave him a large bottle of water and a cigarette. He told them his name was Vova — the diminutive of Vladimir — that he was 23 and from Ryazan region, and had signed a two-month military contract so expected to be deployed only for training exercises. Now, he said, he just wanted to go home.
Someone found Vova a bag of chips and an apple while the Territorial Defense men radioed his capture in. Then the base was full of police and military intelligence officers who, it seemed to Oleksander, all wanted to take credit for the capture themselves, even though they had largely ignored the Stoyanka unit until then. The officers hustled Vova off for interrogation, leaving Oleksander to lapse back into worrying about Fedir.
Oleksander’s village was around a mile north of Stoyanka and the same distance west of Kyiv’s outskirts on the road to the commuter towns of Irpin, Bucha, and Hostomel. Most of the houses were dachas owned by families who arrived only with the summer heat, laden with children and holiday cheer. But about 60 people lived there year-round, including Oleksander, who had moved from the capital the previous Christmas with his wife, Hannah.
They bought one of a series of unfinished wooden cottages being built on a plot at the village’s western edge with plenty of space outside for their two beloved mastiffs. Fedir, who lived a couple of houses over, was crafting the fittings of the new place, and during that time of busy industry, he and Oleksander grew close. Fedir was calm, generous, and polite, the kind of man who went out of his way to avoid an argument, and when Oleksander watched him work, he saw the hands and mind of a sculptor.
After the regimented drudgery of military life, the village felt like a spa to Oleksander and the idea of war impossible, even when Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rambling speeches grew more explicitly threatening at the beginning of the year. So Oleksander made no special preparations and had planned to spend February 24 fishing at a nearby lake. Instead, he woke at 4:00 a.m. to the sound of explosions echoing through the night along with news of Russian airstrikes and of armored columns moving across the border. Later that morning, Ukrainian Sukhoi attack jets screamed over the treetops towards Hostomel Airport, where Russian airborne units had just landed.
Oleksander called the commander of his old unit and said he was ready to do whatever was needed of him. Stand by, the commander replied, and keep the updates coming. In the village, nothing much else happened, except a cat belonging to Maria, who was 80 and sold moonshine from her dilapidated house not far from Oleksander’s, had a litter of kittens.
By the following evening, the invasion force was within 20 miles of Kyiv, and it seemed likely the city would soon be encircled. The village residents began to organize, gathering whatever guns they could along with bottles, rags, and petrol to make Molotov cocktails. Russian saboteurs had attempted to infiltrate the suburbs, so Oleksander and the other veterans began patrolling the woods in pairs.
A few days later, there was a deep boom, and fire and black smoke rushed up into the sky as the gas station was hit. It was the work of a Russian helicopter, witnesses said, that then fired rockets in the direction of the village, which hit a house and killed a young woman who lived there. Shells started to fall too, gouging craters in gardens, spraying shrapnel through walls and destroying one of the newer dachas completely. That was enough for most of the rest of Oleksander’s neighbors, who headed west or to whatever safety Kyiv could offer them.
In the village remained only the obstinate, the outsiders, and those with nowhere else to go. As well as Oleksander, Hannah, and Fedir, they included Maria, the moonshine maker — known as Baba Masha — Anatoly, a Soviet army veteran who had lost an eye in Afghanistan, and his lodger, Sergiy, who had fled his home in Crimea when Russia annexed it in 2014 and was not willing to run again. Then there was a gentle middle-aged couple named Nadia and Sergiy, who fed the stray cats and dogs around the village and did not want to abandon them. And there was Igor in his house just off the main road. Igor was soft-spoken with messy gray hair, thick glasses he had to push back up his nose every so often, and hands that shook if he did not have a drink soon after waking up. He had been in the army, too, and knew the area well, so he had also been passing information from his tramps through the woods and through conversations with neighbors back to a Territorial Defense contact.
One day, a shell or a rocket landed on Anatoly’s house. He and Sergiy were out, but it staved in the corrugated iron roof and started a blaze that left nothing much for the two men to go back to. They began spending time at Baba Masha’s place, bringing her food and firewood and hoisting water from her well. When a piece of shrapnel fatally sliced a foot off one of Baba Masha’s chickens, they cooked and ate it together.
The Russian force continued to advance, and stories of the rapes, mutilations, and murders they committed spread ahead of them. Hannah left for Kyiv to stay with Oleksander’s grandmother, but he remained, believing he still could be useful.
Oleksander spent his days in the woods scouting out Russian troop numbers, equipment, and artillery positions. He stayed in his regular clothes when he did, reasoning that if the Russians saw a Ukrainian uniform, they would shoot immediately, whereas civilians at least had a chance of being taken captive. Pavel, the Territorial Defense man, did the same, making forays back and forth across the frontlines.
The kind of local knowledge they and other partisans provided was giving Ukrainians an unexpected edge. Russian forces had the numbers and a massive firepower advantage, but their unwieldy formations were vulnerable to precise bombardment or marauding special forces teams armed with anti-tank missiles.
On March 18, two rockets landed near Oleksander’s home, shattering the windows. Something must have hit an electrical substation, too, because the power went out and did not come back on. By then, Russians had been seen in the woods nearby, so Oleksander went to Fedir. He told Fedir it was getting dangerous, so he was going to stay at the Territorial Defense base. Fedir said he would not be driven from his land, and Oleksander eventually gave up, entrusted the dogs to Fedir’s care, and asked him to let him know if he saw or needed anything.
Ukrainian forces had pulled back to defensive lines around Stoyanka, so there was no real fighting for the village. The first Russian soldiers that arrived moved along the unpaved tracks, kicking in doors. An older man took his hunting rifle, then went outside to confront them. The soldiers shot him and left his body in the mud where stray dogs soon began to eat it.
Russian commanders took a large house on a rise as headquarters, and men dug foxholes around the edges of the woods. They looted everything — food, alcohol, kitchenware, jewelry, and blankets — and stashed the most valuable items at their positions in empty ammunition boxes. From Oleksander’s place, they took a backgammon set and a watch, then sat at the table where he worked and drank his wine.
Occupation shrunk the remaining residents’ worlds to the few dozen square feet they sheltered in and their awareness of events to fragmented glimpses. Some did what they could even then. Igor, the mild-mannered bachelor who had agreed to pass information to the Territorial Defense, kept watch from his second-floor window, noting and reporting the young soldiers he saw patrolling the path behind his high garden fence.
Some only hid. Sergiy and Nadia, the couple who fed the village animals, brought blankets, pillows, and supplies to their basement when the Russians came, then shut themselves in and lay there in the dark together, threads of light framing the door during the day and fading into nothing after sunset. For them, the occupation was one long night and the noises that split it: clanking tracks and diesel roar on the road outside, shouted orders and tramping boots punctuated by explosions that shook the floor above them.
Baba Masha considered herself too old to hide, so hunched that fixing her gaze on anything beyond eye level was a chore; she shuffled around her house, maneuvering past the jars and boxes stacked everywhere and checking regularly on the cat and its new kittens. Anatoly and his lodger Sergiy continued to spend time with her, passing nights and sharing what food they had left.
Russian soldiers had dug in near a children’s treehouse just past her place, close enough that she could see the flicker of their campfires reflected in the windows at dusk. Some soon visited. They seemed nice — young and so in need of a good meal that she wondered about offering them some of her fresh eggs. She asked them what they were doing there. “Just our jobs,” they replied, and gave her a couple of army ration packs: green cardboard boxes containing canned food, crackers, pâtés, and purees along with tea and coffee.
Another group came to her house a day or two later — harder, older men this time. Anatoly and Sergiy were there then, and when he saw them, Anatoly grew angry, telling them about the damage done to his house. One of the soldiers ordered him and Sergiy to show them where it had happened, and they did as they were told, leading the Russians down the road towards the ruin.
Oleksander spoke with Fedir again on March 20 just after they captured Vova. Fedir asked him why the Russians were causing such damage and destruction, why no one had forced them away yet. “Fedir,” Oleksander told him, “I’ll come for you as soon as I can.” The power was still out and Fedir’s phone was running low on battery, so they agreed to speak at 7:00 a.m. each morning when he would turn it on briefly.
Oleksander, Pavel, and the others continued to pass information to their contacts. They were never quite sure how directly it helped, but Ukrainian drones began hitting Russian positions outside the village. And when Oleksander reported an armored column moving south from Irpin, special forces and artillery had torn it to pieces within hours. Fighting at the Stoyanka front was growing fierce, however, and Russian snipers menaced the road by the Territorial Defense base.
Oleksander spoke with Fedir on the 21st, and on the 22nd, too. But when he called on the 23rd, Fedir was whispering. There were soldiers in his house, he said, and he was hiding in the attic. Oleksander told Fedir again that he would come when he could, bringing a charge pack for his phone and those promised cigarettes. Keep hidden, Oleksander said, and wait for me.
On the 24th, Oleksander’s birthday, Fedir’s phone was off at 7:00 a.m. and stayed that way. The weather was bad, and Oleksander was considering creeping in to try and reach him. But Ukrainian artillery shells began slamming overhead towards the Russian positions on the edge of the woods, and there was no way to get close. By nightfall, word came that the Russians had fled, and early on the 25th, Oleksander stalked north through the trees with a Territorial Defense unit.
Whole clumps of trees around the Russian foxholes had been splintered by the shelling, and though there were no bodies, weapons were strewn around. The Territorial Defense men started collecting them while Oleksander ran for Fedir’s house, trying not to think about whether the area might be mined. He called out Fedir’s name as he did but heard no reply, and when he reached the house, found it empty. Back outside, he approached a shape in the long grass and discovered the massive fawn body of one of his mastiffs, bloodied by four bullets. Oleksander was distraught. At least Fedir must have managed to slip out of the house and escape, he told himself before another, less optimistic thought dislodged it: perhaps his friend had been discovered and captured.
By evening, Russian troops seemed to be pulling back all along that front, abandoning burned-out armored vehicles, destroyed by explosions of such ferocity that many of their turrets catapulted clear of their chassis. On the Stoyanka front, Ukrainian defenses had finally held, stopping the invasion at the gates of Kyiv.
The fighting did not move too far at first, but far enough that some villagers started venturing back to see if their homes were still there. On March 31, a woman named Tatiana returned to hers. It was one of the houses on the village’s southern edge that Oleksander had seen through the trees the morning they captured Vova — red brick and slate behind a sturdy wooden fence. It was clear the Russians had been there; a section of the fence was broken in, and Tatiana’s things were strewn around the yard. The door to the root cellar, where she kept vegetables and homemade pickles, had been forced open, too. She looked down the stairs into the cool darkness and stopped, horrified.
There were three bodies there, crumpled and gored. One was Anatoly, another his lodger Sergiy. Their hands were bound behind them, and where their fingernails had been was torn flesh. One of Sergiy’s ears had been removed and a large nail was hammered into Anatoly’s head. The third body was Fedir. He lay on his back partway up the stairs in his leather bomber jacket. His hands were bound too, and while he had not been mutilated like the others, blood had seeped from his ears and his nose, covering the lower half of his face and dripping down his chin and his neck.
Tatiana took pictures on her phone to document what the Russians had done and reported it to the police, who came to take the bodies away. Oleksander was crushed when he found out. He had wanted so badly to be there for Fedir, to help him escape. The next morning, he returned, too, and wandered helplessly for hours, then buried his slain dog by the gate of his house and covered the grave with rocks.
I first visited the village on April 3 and met Nadia and her husband Sergiy as they chatted with a neighbor by a portion of road that had been flooded by days of rain. They walked around the top of the village towards Baba Masha’s place through a still-persistent drizzle, ignoring the regular booms and gunfire from the woods as Ukrainian troops mopped up the last resistance in Bucha and Irpin. Remnants of the occupation were everywhere: Russian field jackets and striped telnyashka undershirts, as well as the possessions that soldiers had looted, then left behind — a Daniel Kahneman book, blankets, tinned food, and decorative tea sets. Careful, Nadia warned me, booby traps had been found in some of the houses.
In the days that followed, the invasion force collapsed completely, retreating across the entire Kyiv front and revealing the extent of their cruelty. Hundreds of bodies were discovered in the once-occupied areas — strewn across roads, dumped down wells, buried in hastily dug mass graves, and sat where they were killed in the bullet-riddled vehicles of evacuation convoys.
I visited the area again later in the month and passed a few days there. In the village, residents were reclaiming traces of the time before the invasion: seeing to their property, sweeping up glass and fragments of metal, or digging allotments. They were back to gossiping. One morning, the big news was that Igor had been roaming around terribly drunk long before noon. The following day, I saw him with the Territorial Defense commander he’d sent updates to, who told me how important that information had been. Igor listened shyly, occasionally pushing his precarious glasses back up his nose with one shaking hand.
Oleksander retraced his patrol paths, tossing a chunk of shrapnel into the air and catching it as he talked. He still had his pistol — in case of more saboteurs, he said — but it did not seem likely he would need it. Spring had finally arrived and violet wood-squill flowers were pushing through the earth towards the green of budding trees and the flitting yellow brimstone butterflies. That weekend, I watched curious visitors clambering onto the remains of some of the charred Russian tanks to take selfies.
Oleksander smiled as he told us about catching Vova, mimicking the soldier’s trouser-down waddle and joking incessantly. But his outward cheer did not hide how much Fedir’s loss had wounded him, and he speculated at length about what might have happened. When Fedir could not reach him, Oleksander supposed, he must have tried to sneak out of his house and been caught. Although the Russians did not have time to torture him like the others, they had presumably decided to bludgeon him to death as they left.
Before I returned to Kyiv, I went to Tatiana’s house, stepping through the broken fence, past a toy gun on an office chair and some dusty Christmas decorations. The plastic cellar door hung open to the stairs, breeze-block walls, and an abrupt transition from sunshine to chill and gloom. One side of the cellar appeared undisturbed with potatoes on pallets next to jars of pickles, preserves, and crates of red apples fading under cobwebs of mold. The tiled floor, though, told of what had happened there. It was trodden all over by muddy combat boots, and in the middle was a large pool of blood that had remained disconcertingly liquid in the cellar condensation — dark where it was thickest at the bottom of the stairs, then smeared scarlet towards the back wall. The signs of the violence committed there remained as fresh as the day they were made.
John Beck is a writer and documentary photographer based in Istanbul. His work deals primarily with conflict, displacement, and their long-term repercussions. He has been published by GQ, Harper’s, National Geographic, Wired, and Businessweek, among others.
Photos provided by the author.
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