Terror as Cornerstone of “Russian World”: What De-Occupied Kharkiv Region Bares

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After the crimes near Kyiv in March of this year, when the Russian army shot at unarmed residents, the Kremlin continues to “open the portal” into the dark barbaric past of humanity, when ruthless violence, torture, intimidation was common practice.  

The rapid deoccupation of the Kharkiv Oblast of Ukraine allowed the police to record Russian war crimes that were committed in almost every village. Their analysis gives an idea of how the aggressor country acts on occupied lands after the promotional pseudo-referendum, which it uses to cover the seizure of new lands.  

From 6 to 14 September, about 8,500 square kilometres were liberated in the Kharkiv region, 388 settlements with a population of 150,000 people. 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, in particular, from the FSB, often use electric shocks. Representatives of Russian proxy formations from the so-called DPR and LPR participate in the illegal detaining of people. This once again reminds us that the territory occupied by Russia immediately becomes a training ground for new criminals. 

There have been frequent cases of murder, robbery, abduction, rape, as well as intimidation of citizens. All those who show their loyalty to Ukraine, under occupation, become the target of terror. In addition to civic activists, Russia’s special services also hunt down former military, law enforcement officials who were not combatants. As well as relatives of people of these categories.

On the eve of the full-scale invasion, the Foreign Policy publication, citing data from American intelligence agencies, reported the existence in Russia of a formalized list, which included, among other things, Ukrainian journalists and activists whom the Kremlin wanted to capture or execute after seizing Ukraine. Consequently, acts of terror were an integral part of the occupation programme even before Russian missiles targeted Ukrainian cities. 

This is similar to the continuation of the Cheka/NKVD strategy during the war for Ukrainian lands a hundred years ago. At that time, the Bolsheviks formally declared “red terror” in the country, took representatives of the enemy strata among the population as hostages in the territory occupied by the Red Army.

In Kharkiv region, kidnapping and bullying were also widely used against school teachers who refused to work for Russia.   

Since many people disappeared without a trace, it is now difficult to establish accurately how many of them were killed and how many were taken to Russia. Currently, most of the bodies found in Kharkiv are victims of the indiscriminate use of missiles, shells, and bombs by the Russian army on residential premises.  

A 57-year-old resident of Izium told The Guardian about such shelling. He also reported that Russian soldiers “prepared a list of persons to be ‘hunted down,’ people who may have weapons, rich or ‘dangerous’, including businessmen, activists, military and their families.” 

MP of the Izium City Council Maksym Strelnyk estimated that at least 1,000 civilians died as a result of military actions in Izium alone.

For example, an aircraft bomb that hit a multi-storey building in Izium on March 9, when the Russians tried to seize the city, killed about 50 people under the ruins. Therefore, in the improvised cemetery in Izium, which was formed during the occupation of the city by the Russian army, there are, for example, the burial of the Stolpakov family: 31-year-old Olena, her husband, her daughter, as well as her parents, among 445 graves with crosses. 

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 by the AFU Kupyansk 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, the weight of the warhead reaches half a ton. In general, the Kharkiv Oblast Prosecutor’s Office reported on September 28 that Russian occupiers killed 56 children in Kharkiv Oblast since the beginning of the war. 

FAB-500, which fell in the purely residential areas of Kupyansk. 

However, many victims of mass burials were not killed in shelling and bombing, but were executed during the occupation. Exhumed bodies showed signs of torture, such as a rope around the neck.   

According to the First Deputy Chief of the Main Investigation Department of the National Police of Ukraine Serhii Panteleyev, as of September 23, 18 places where citizens were detained and tortured were discovered after the deoccupation of Kharkiv regionMore than 1,500 inspections of war crimes were conducted in the region. 

In total, since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the police have initiated 34,000 criminal proceedings for the commission of war crimes by the armed forces of Russia, including its private military companies and proxy formations 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 from the village of Lyptsi in Kharkiv region told how people with machine guns came to her, said that they hated and were ready to kill “Ukrainians, Poles, and Belarusians” and forced her to leave. Lidiia Tilna, a 62-year-old school principal from the village of Ivanivka in the Kharkiv Oblast, said that she was kidnapped, starved, threatened with death, and kept in the basement for refusing to work for Russia. Viktoriia Shcherbak, a teacher from Balakliya, said that she and her family got into a torture chamber, where she was forced to cooperate with threats to rape a 16-year-old daughter in front of her.

Torture chamber in Vovchansk, Kharkiv Oblast. Photo: National Police

In total, 200 people could have gone through the torture chamber in Izium, discovered in the police station. “Logs with a list of detainees kept by the Rashists are already discovered, as well as instruments of torture — electric cables, said the Head of the Investigative Department of the National Police in Kharkiv Oblast, Serhii BolvinovMoreover, every cell where people were held is investigated — DNA samples and fingerprints are extracted, a database of evidence is collected for the court. In the dark basement cells, people stayed from several weeks to months, not even always understanding what the occupiers wanted them to do.

The employee of the State Emergency Service Albina Strilets told what happened in the torture chamber in Izium. The occupiers kidnapped her from the unit of the State Emergency Service, along with another colleague, putting a bag over her head and handcuffs right at work. The kidnappers threatened: “Consider that you are lost to everyone, you will not get out.” The woman was captured for the 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 prison from 3 to 19 August, and then taken from the occupied territory to a Ukrainian checkpoint, which was then also shelled. According to Albina Strilets, she heard the Russian military organizing mass rapes, beatings and using electric shocks in the torture chamber.

The 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 raped for a long time, and then forced to bring her rapists to her home. The other son was also taken right out of the house 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 Oblast, according to fellow villagers, civilians were shot dead. In particular, Valerii Kot, who came out of the cellar to see if the windows were intact. Another person was killed right in the flat for not opening the door. According to the residents of the village, the occupiers broke into the house where a family lived, and shooting with a machine gun, “took the girl” to the second floor.  

In the deoccupied Lyptsi in Kharkiv oblast, they found a torture chamber housing the so-called “LPR people’s militia.” According to the Security Service of Ukraine, the ruscists used cruel torture against prisoners, 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 4.5 thousand people 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 is shooting civilians in the head and in the back. In Zaliznychne (next to Chuhuiv) there have already been four statements from locals about shootings they 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 coverage of Zaliznychne. Journalists quoted a witness, Mariia Hryhorova, who had to bury 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 Oblast Prosecutor’s Office, all four bodies in Zaliznychne had traces of torture. 

At the site of murder of a 58-year-old resident of village Cherkaski Tyshky, Kharkiv Rayon, by the occupiers.  Photo: press service of the State Police Chief Directorate in the Kharkiv oblast

In Hrakove, Chuhuivskyi Rayon, the police found 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 place 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 their ears were cut off. The bodies were exhumed, examined and sent for a forensic medical examination. The examination observed bullet wounds in the back of the head and no ears.” Two more burial places of residents were 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 of 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 given electric shocks. Some of them are still in hospitals. They were mostly former Ukrainian soldiers who defended Ukraine against the invasion since 2014, as well as civilians whose phones were found to contain pictures of military equipment or patriotic pro-Ukrainian sayings. Local resident Artem Naumenko was tortured, namely, given electric shocks, for having served in the army. His house was robbed. People were also detained for simple telephone conversations, since the occupiers found it suspicious. People were forbidden to even raise their heads and look at those who were keeping 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 was interrogated by an FSB investigator, call sign “Kot,” who tried to torture prisoners into telling them which locals supported Ukraine, which ones were part of the territorial defence forces, and which ones were former military servants. During the first interrogation, the survivor, who was in a bag, was “shocked with electric current for 40 minutes“, shot with a pneumatic or gas gun. He was beaten with a bat and with pipes. According to him, other prisoners had swastikas burned onto their skin with a soldering iron.

Law enforcement agencies have started investigations, which will eventually show how many people were killed by the Russians in the torture chambers.

The fact that the war is also being waged against the Ukrainian culture is yet again illustrated by Russians burning a church of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine before their escape, as reported by the OCU press service. Military servants with the AFU in Izium found weapons and museum items stolen by Russians during the city’s occupation. The director of a mental hospital near Borova in Kharkiv oblast 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 oblast, on their way to Luhansk. “Most vehicles had trailers loaded with stolen goods and were driven by Russian military servants.” said the speaker of 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 oblast 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” behaviour is caused by bad morale and psychological situation and lack of discipline among Russian soldiers. But this is only partly true. There are already enough reasons to claim that the blame lies with the Putin regime in general, which for years cultivated anti-Ukrainian sentiment among Russians through state propaganda, and sent 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 representatives.

Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security

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