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'Little Russia': Moscow's occupation of a Ukrainian town

August 25, 2023

Surrendered without a shot fired, the town of Kupiansk was one of the first Ukrainian territories to face Russian occupation. Under the facade of Moscow’s Russification strategy, a divided city was further broken.

A destroyed building in Kupiansk, the first Ukrainian city to surrender to Russian forces
Kupiansk was the first city to surrender to Russian forces when they invaded Ukraine in February 2022Image: DW

Among the Ukrainian cities occupied by Russia, Kupiansk stood out

It was the first city to surrender without condition to Russian forces when they invaded in February 2022. The town's mayor, Hennadiy Matsehora, told his fellow citizens that he had done so to "avoid human sacrifice and destruction of our infrastructure." 

On pro-Russian Telegram channels, the seemingly non-violent power transfer was dubbed a symbol of Moscow's intentions for Ukraine. Kupiansk was to become a bastion of Russian cultural and political revival — or so the messaging went. 

But before Russia's efforts to root out Ukrainian heritage could begin in earnest, Russian forces needed to deal with the resistance they met in the aftermath of the surrender; not a firefight led by partisans against the invader, but rather a demonstration of locals led by Mykola Masliy, a local opposition leader and veteran of the 2014 conflict in eastern Ukraine. 

When Russia comes - Fear and loyalty in a Ukrainian town

Resistance fails 

Masliy acted quickly. Within days of the invasion, he had attempted to organize armed resistance but failed to gather enough troops and equipment to counter the Russian advance. 

Down and out, Masliy turned to organizing a large demonstration, using local chat groups to spread the message, and in that, he succeeded.  

By day six of Russia's invasion, he managed to gather around 300 people on the city's central square, in front of the town hall where the mayor had announced Kupiansk's surrender. Masliy addressed the crowd, as seen in footage obtained by DW.  

"They thought they would go on a drill, and instead, they had to come here. They are demotivated. They want to go home," he said. 

But that wasn't quite the case. The demonstrators weren't met by soldiers looking to return home. Instead, Russian troops shot tear gas grenades into the protesting crowd, and in the confusion, Masliy disappeared.  

Protests tapered off, and with it, resistance was driven underground. 

Mykola Masliy, a local Ukrainian opposition leader, speaks to protesters days during a protest in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kupyansk
Mykola Masliy (center left), a local Ukrainian opposition leader, speaks to protesters days after Kupyiansk is surrendered to Russian forces. Moments after this image was taken, he disappeared. His whereabouts remain a mystery.Image: Bohdan Cheremskyy

Purging locals 

Svitlana, a clerk at a public office who requested anonymity for fear Russian forces would return, said her boss had instructed her and her colleagues to use Russian as their working language and that they would officially "work for Russia" from then on.  

When she threatened to quit her job, her boss threatened her: "It won't go well for you." 

A few days later, she was arrested and brought to a basement, where she was interrogated and tortured. But Svitlana wasn't the only one. Soon, the town's detention facilities, including improvised cells in the basements of official buildings, were overcrowded.  

Svitlana and other inmates recalled frequent beatings and electric shocks during interrogations. 

"When the occupiers entered a settlement, they first looked for buildings that could serve as their headquarters — and as detention facilities and torture chambers," said Oleksandr Kobylev, a Kharkiv police officer currently investigating suspected Russian war crimes

A makeshift cell with garbage and beds strewn across the floor
One of the first things Russian forces did in Kupyansk was to create makeshift detention cells. As Russia's occupation efforts grew, other security bodies established their own detention centers in the town, including Moscow's notorious secret service, the FSB.Image: DW

Russification begins

Besides Russia's military presence in the city, its organizations and ideology became increasingly present in people's lives. By May 2022, Russian efforts to dismantle Ukrainian cultural heritage and replace it with its own were in full swing.  

Russian TV reports showed lavish celebrations of Russia's V-Day celebrations on May 9, a holiday commemorating Soviet victory over Nazi Germany and one of the most significant political dates in Putin's Russia.  

Along with the celebrations came a free newspaper. Telecommunications were moved to Russian networks. Television channels were broadcast from Russia. In all aspects of life, the Russian perspective had taken center stage.  

By June, Kupiansk had become the center of Russian political and military endeavors for the occupied areas of the northeast Kharkiv region. 

Vitaliy Ganchev, a 47-year-old former Ukrainian police officer, was named the head of Russia's civil-military administration for the region. With a new administration in place, Kupiansk Mayor Matsehora was also replaced. He and several Ukrainian officials who had stayed in office under Russian occupation were arrested, though it is unclear why. 

According to eyewitnesses, Matsehora was kept in one of the cells at local police headquarters until Ukrainian forces recaptured Kupiansk. His current whereabouts remain unknown. 

The silhouette of a person is seen during an interview with a resident of Kupyansk who was tortured during Russia's occupation of the town
DW spoke to several people who detailed accounts of beatings and torture while detained under Russia's occupation of Kupyansk. Some of them wished to remain anonymous for fear that Russian forces might return to the Ukrainian town.Image: DW

'One with Russia' 

The new administration accelerated Russification. Ukrainian symbols on buildings were removed. Landmarks were repainted in Russian tricolors. "We are one people with Russia," announced banners and billboards. 

Russian political parties even opened branches in the city, including in the former office of Masliy, the disappeared Ukrainian veteran. A supermarket was converted into an aid center run by Putin's United Russia party. Russian officials visited the city, promising food, medicine, and basic supplies, and a parade was held on August 22 to celebrate Russia's official flag day. 

Over the summer, new Russian schoolbooks arrived. In a series of local meetings and educational conferences, Ukrainian teachers were given new curriculums to teach. Some even traveled to Russia for further training.  

Schools were equipped with Russian textbooks when the new school year began in September 2022. Although some teachers had quit over the new teaching rules, many chose to stay.  

"We decided that it would do less harm to the children if we stayed than if they brought teachers from Russia," said Natalya Altanets, School Nr. 1's deputy director.  

When we met her in November 2022, she had just been interrogated by Ukraine's state security. She has since been detained under suspicion of collaboration.

Shadow of occupation 

Russification ended abruptly when Ukrainian forces recaptured Kupiansk in September 2022. Since then, police have opened more than 200 cases over suspected collaboration.  

The occupation haunts Kupiansk, a once-important transport hub that now resembles a ghost town. Of the city's 27,000 pre-war inhabitants, only 5,000 remain.  

This month, Russia stepped up its efforts to advance on Kupiansk. Fighting has intensified only a few kilometers away. The destruction the mayor had hoped to avoid by surrendering returns with a vengeance. 

A Ukrainian flag is seen around the neck of a statue in the center of Kupyansk
In September 2022, Ukrainian forces recaptured Kupyansk. Investigators have sought to identify people who collaborated with Russia. Civil servants and teachers who continued to work under the occupation have faced interrogations.Image: DW

Edited by: Davis Van Opdorp