In Zakharivka

Maxim Edwards

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At the single crossroads in Zakharivka, a hundred kilometres north-west of Kyiv, the remains of a rocket are lodged in a tree. Nearly two-thirds of the village’s twenty or so houses were destroyed in the first weeks of the Russian assault last year. Signs on the metal gates of the bombed-out properties say: ‘There is an owner!’

For decades, small rural communities across Ukraine have been gradually disappearing for more quotidian reasons: the grind of rural poverty and depopulation. The residents doubt that they’re a priority for a cash-strapped government with thousands of towns to repair. Several locals wondered aloud whether their communities would be rebuilt at all.

I met 66-year-old Viktor Petrovych cutting grass in the almost empty village of Verkholissia, twenty kilometres to the north. Nearly half its houses were destroyed in the invasion. Russian soldiers had dug in at a school in the nearby village of Zhmiivka, from where they shot at Ukrainian positions in the area. Verkholissia was caught in the middle. Only six people, mostly pensioners, live there permanently, Petrovych said. ‘We’re what you call a dying village. Zakharivka used to be a real one; buses go there.’

Volodymyr Hurzhenko is a starosta (local official) with responsibility for Zakharivka. He lives in Olyva, a neighbouring village. ‘Russian soldiers with Kadyrovtsy’ – Chechen fighters – ‘arrived in tanks and shot every building they could see from the street,’ he told me. There were Ukrainian positions in the forest behind the village, less than a hundred metres away. The detritus of a military foxhole is still there, along with several craters.

Only six buildings were completely destroyed in Olyva; the Ukrainian troops who arrived told Hurzhenko that the village had been lucky, though the starosta’s office had been blown up by a grenade launcher. He described his neighbours’ attitude to reconstruction as ‘phlegmatic’. They know their villages are not a priority. But nothing will draw the younger population back now.

Bucha and Borodyanka, scenes of mass murder by the Russian army, are about an hour’s drive away. The local authorities were pleased to show journalists the apartment blocks that have been rebuilt even while missiles rain down on Kyiv nightly. In Irpin I watched as rows of Soviet-era apartment blocks were demolished. A worker in a hard hat sized up a piece of Banksy graffiti to be dismounted and preserved. Cavities in the ground show where unsalvageable buildings once stood.

Tamara Burenko, who works on Irpin city council’s commission for utilities, energy and industrial development, explained that it’s bureaucratically easier to rebuild a multistorey building than to deal individually with thousands of separate householders. ‘They use their own money and the money of whoever will help them, generally the money of international organisations or private sponsors. There’s not yet a centralised solution, but we’re trying,’ she told me.

Ukrainian officials are quite candid about the inequalities. The mayor of Bucha, Anatoliy Fedoruk, had suggested at a press conference in May that not all levels of government have the administrative resources to deal with such a complex task as reconstruction. ‘The ability to co-operate effectively with international institutions also gives results depending on the village,’ he told me. ‘Positive results and sometimes not so positive.’

One of Zakharivka’s few remaining residents is Tetyana Bityutskaya, who left Stakhanovka in the Luhansk Region in 2014 and after a period in Kyiv bought land in Zakharivka from an acquaintance. When the fighting started she fled through the forest. She could hear helicopters and explosions. ‘Then one morning our boys beat them, hard,’ she said. ‘We came back and barely the walls were standing.’ She now lives in a portahouse with a fridge and running water.

Entire rows of the temporary structures were installed in Bucha and Borodyanaka last spring. You see them here and there in the countryside around Kyiv, along with the occasional charred tank and the words ‘people live here’ scrawled in Russian on fences.

Svetlana Vishchenko is still waiting for a portahouse. Invalids and families with children are first on the list, she told me. Her village, Kukhary, is south of Olyva, on the road to Bucha, Borodyanka and Kyiv. It was the scene of intense fighting; the Ukrainian army blew up the bridge to stop the Russian advance and the Russian air force blew up the village. ‘I was lucky,’ Vishchenko said, pointing to an immense waterlogged crater nearby. ‘She got a five hundred kilo bomb.’

The night before, a drone had crashed into an apartment block in Kyiv. ‘In a few days, the glass will be like new,’ Vishchenko said. ‘They have a head of the building administration, they have a list of construction firms. It doesn’t take the owner of every flat to petition them to do something.’

Non-governmental organisations are doing what they can. The volunteers of Repair Together travel to rural areas to clear debris and lay bricks. An architecture firm in Kyiv has developed modelling software and instructions for rebuilding village houses. The hope is to preserve both the essence of the vernacular architecture and the agency of local residents while modernising where they live.

Meanwhile, officials come and go and ask the villagers to wait. And they’d rather wait on their own land, which they can at least use to feed themselves. ‘You can’t send a country man like my father to live in a city apartment,’ Vishchenko said. ‘He’d rather die.’


  • 28 June 2023 at 6:49pm
    Andrey Zheluk says:
    Good article. One additional dimension to rural life in Ukraine and other parts of the xUSSR is the persistence of (semi-)subsistence lifestyle from a past time. Collectivisation, WW2. Post WW2 starvation. These have only just disappered from living memory.

    The importance of semi-subsistence life in Ukraine has varied. During Soviet times private plots supplemented a dull and often inadequate government food supply. After the USSR fell, villages literaly allowed people in cities to survive the 1990s. Most people had and have relatives in villages. During the 2000s, summer visits to green arcadian villages in increasingly became exotic holidays for city dwellers. Horse drawn carts, cows, wandering geese. and buckets of mushrooms and cherries. Until the first 2014 invasion by Russia, the incessant digging and planting of tens and hundreds of kilograms of potatoes by older people became a subject of mirth. Why not just buy stuff in the supermarket? Stupid potatoes. Stupid corn. Now, it all makes sense again.