From her bedroom window, 26-year-old Liza Udovic can see the view from the other side, where the Russians have retreated. The sound of fire from Ukrainians shook her apartment as the Ukrainian army entered Kupyansk in the past few days and the city became a battlefield. Russian tanks and armored vehicles still patrol the streets, but the Ukrainians are driving them and using the weapons the Russians have left against them.
Seconds counted between hearing the deafening sound of Udovik’s artillery being launched and seeing a plume of smoke in the distance. From Tuesday to Wednesday alone, the gap increased from 9 seconds to 13.
“They’re being pushed back,” she said with a laugh.
Oscil became a shield for the Russians on September 9. As the Ukrainians closed in, the invading army crossed the bridge and blew it up behind them to slow Kiev’s advance. And Kupyansk was suddenly cut off from its other half. The next morning, 55-year-old Lena Danilova stared in confusion at the Ukrainian vehicles driving through the city’s streets. A man next to her sat tight on her sleeve, pointing at the different uniforms of the soldiers now patrolling the area.
“Look, these are our children,” he whispered to her. Danilova said as she wiped away tears of joy.
“Finally,” she said. But later she became aware of the illness. Her two children were stranded on the other side of the river. A few days ago, he had gone to study in a school there. Now the line is where the Russians are keen to stop a hard-charging advance into the occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions, further south in Ukraine.
Having captured Kupyansk after just three days of battle, the city at least escaped Russian bombardment. Now the people here are facing some of the horrors of the war that other Ukrainians experienced a few months ago. They waited and hoped for Ukrainian liberation, many said, but they never imagined it would happen: the threat of Russian fire, no power in the city, and no way to get basic medicine. Locals quickly packed their much-needed supplies and set out in droves with volunteers this week, conjuring images of the first days of war.
The 58-year-old left her cats behind. Bowls of water littered the floor of her apartment with them, and she left a key with her friend to feed her.
For the past six months, with the only Russian state television channel available in Kupyansk, a Kremlin propaganda tool, people have turned away from independent news about what is happening in Ukraine. The Russian government has forbidden the media from calling it a war, preferring to call it a “special military operation” and information is tightly controlled.
While out with her mother, Udovic was asked if she knew about the atrocities committed by Russian soldiers against civilians in Bucha, including torture and killings – which had been major international news in April. Udovic shook his head.
“Bucha?” Udovic said. “I think I heard something about it, but I’m not sure.” A Russian channel she sometimes watches focuses on how Europe could face an energy crisis this winter as Russian natural gas flows drop.
People spoke in hushed tones about what happened during the occupation because they say a part of the population is sympathetic to Moscow and neighbors may inform neighbors if Russian soldiers return. Udovic’s own family was torn apart by it. Her grandmother stopped talking to her sister after hanging a Russian flag outside her house.
On February 27, just three days after Russia launched an unprovoked full-scale invasion, the mayor of Kupyansk, Gennady Matsegora, posted a video on Facebook announcing that he had surrendered the city to Russian forces. Matsegora was a member of the pro-Russian Party of Ukraine.
“At 7:30 this morning the Russian battalion commander called to propose negotiations,” he said. If refused, the city would be hit ‘with all consequences’. I decided to participate in the discussion to avoid loss of life and destruction in the city.
Udovic, who considered himself a Ukrainian patriot, admitted that Matsegora would almost certainly be considered a traitor. But her own feelings are complicated.
“Obviously for civilians, that decision probably saved lives,” she said. “We did not hear these explosions that we are hearing now. It was quiet at first, but we knew it would all start eventually. “
The Russians used Kupyansk as the seat of their occupation government. A propaganda radio station called “Kharkiv-Z” – the letter “Z” has become the symbol of the Russian military – has spread among local shops. Residents could only call Russia. Even without formal annexation, the city became so integrated into Russia that Udovic made a relative visit from Vladivostok, a far eastern Russian city near the border with North Korea. Moscow-based authorities advertised that people could get Russian passports.
Danilova said she was forced to send her children to school despite knowing the Russian curriculum would be taught. People were threatened that their parental rights would be terminated if they did not do so. Others said they feared the strict 8pm curfew because last time there were rumors of people disappearing if caught outside.
The Russians used Kupyansk as a transportation hub, moving hundreds of tanks and armored personnel carriers through and to what was then the front line. Some of those vehicles have returned – trophies of the Ukrainian army using equipment left behind by the Russians during their retreat.
On Thursday, as the sounds of fire echoed out of the city, shells tumbling on the free side of the river could barely be heard – a sign that the Russians could run out of ammunition depots after Ukrainian attacks and a quick retreat forced them to abandon or destroy much of it.
On the road to Kupiansk, the Ukrainians were transporting pontoon bridges, preparing to cross the river and continue their advance. The sign announcing the city, painted white, red and blue – the colors of the Russian flag – was broken and vandalized.