Standing in the gloom, Maksim Maksimov pointed to the spot where he was tortured with electric shocks. Russian soldiers took him from his cell in the basement of Izium’s police station. They sat him on an office chair and attached a zig-zag crocodile clip to his finger. It was connected by cable to an old-fashioned Soviet military field telephone.
And then it began. A soldier cranked the handle, turning it faster and faster. This sent an excruciating pulse through Maksimov’s body. “I collapsed. They pulled me upright. There was a hood on my head. I couldn’t see anything. My legs went numb. I was unable to hear in my left ear,” he recalled. “Then they did it again. I passed out. I came round 40 minutes later back in my cell.”
The Russian army occupied the police station in April. This followed a furious month-long battle with Ukrainian forces who had based themselves on a hill next to Izium’s Soviet war memorial. According to Maksimov, a 50-year-old publisher, the soldiers rounded up anyone suspected of having pro-Ukrainian views. He had stayed behind to look after his elderly mother.
They sought veteran servicemen, home guard volunteers and city hall officials. The Russians turned up with a list of names. Some local politicians appear to have collaborated. They included several city council deputies and a retired police chief Vladislav Sokolov, who became Izium’s new pro-Vladimir Putin “mayor”.
Residents were unable to say how many people vanished during Russia’s five-month occupation of the city. One answer could be found on Saturday in a sunny pine forest on the outskirts of town, close to a Russian checkpoint. Beneath orange-barked trees, Ukrainian forensic experts were carrying out a gruesome process of exhumation and truth-telling.
A Russian battalion had parked its tanks next to a cemetery, cutting down branches and building underground shelters with neat log roofs. Izium’s war dead – 443 people since February – joined them in nearby sandy plots. They included 17 Ukrainian soldiers. They were dug up on Friday from a scooped-out hollow for a tank, used as a mass grave.
Ukraine’s armed forces discovered the grisly site when they swept into Izium a week ago, as part of a stunning counter-offensive that saw them recapture almost the entire north-eastern Kharkiv region. On Friday, the first 40 bodies were removed. Some had their hands bound together; on the decayed arm of a woman was a bracelet in Ukrainian blue-and-yellow colours. On Saturday, experts in white boiler suits continued digging. Graves were marked with wooden crosses. Watched by police, they scraped, pulled out bodies and laid them carefully in a glade. The first was a soldier, identifiable from his camouflage trousers and boots. Then two civilians – one possibly female – and another soldier. All were zipped up in white bags.
“Sometimes we find ID and passports. But we don’t have names for many of those here. Or cause of death,” Roman Kasianenko, the deputy chief prosecutor for Kharkiv, told the Observer. “There are some signs of torture. We found individuals with hands tied together and broken limbs.” But, he stressed: “It’s too early to say if this is another Bucha.”
The site smelled strongly of human decay and pine resin. Relatives said Russian missiles killed their loved ones. Oxsana Gruzodub had come to report the deaths of her daughter-in-law’s family, Anatoly, Galina and their son Artyom, 14. They died on 9 March when a Russian warplane bombed their apartment block, she said.
Another relative, Feyodor, was searching for the spot where his wife Svetlana was interred in grave number 333. A cluster bomb killed her on 16 May on the street, he explained. Feyodor and his nephew, Nikolai, wandered past police tape and eventually located the spot. He was tearful. Svetlana – like the others – would be dug up next week and sent to a laboratory in Kharkiv.
Showing the Observer around the shattered centre of Izium, Maksimov admitted he had been fortunate. A group of young Russian conscripts arrested him in March soon after they took up positions on the edge of town, next to the reed-lined Siverskyi Donets river. They grabbed him as he went over the city’s pedestrian bridge.
The soldiers told him they had come from Belarus. Later that evening, the Ukrainians shelled the riverside building where he was being kept. The Russians hid in another room. Maksimov ran out on to the street, grabbed his bike and escaped.
He was detained for a second time on 3 September by soldiers who accused him of being a Ukrainian spy. The police station torture room, he later discovered, was an indoor shooting range, its walls muffled for sound. The guards came from the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR).
These separatist auxiliaries brought the prisoners cold soup twice a day. Their toilet was a bucket. Three rats lived on a ledge next to a window. Maksimov shared a cell with two other local men. On day six, the guards said the Ukrainians were coming, and threatened to throw a grenade into their chamber. The next day, other LNR warders appeared and told them to run.
About a quarter of Izium’s 60,000 inhabitants lived under Russian rule. A third of those sympathised with the occupiers, Maksimov said. “It’s Stockholm syndrome,” he suggested. The Russians swapped diesel for home-made vodka. The city lived with little food and no electricity.
The publisher said he had not expected the Russian army to leave Izium without a fight. They made a chaotic exit last week, abandoning T-80 tanks, BMP infantry fighting vehicles and rows of mortars. On Saturday, Ukrainian troops rolled around Izium in these former Russian war-machines, hastily repainted with a plus sign and the Ukrainian flag.
In the space of a few days, Ukrainian forces liberated an area half the size of Wales, retaking more than 300 settlements and pushing the enemy back to a new defensive line about 10 miles east of Izium, which
was key to the Kremlin’s plan to seize the Donbas. Its loss means there is now little prospect of this happening soon, if ever.
As the Russians retreat, however, the price paid by civilians grows clearer. Russian soldiers rounded up and executed hundreds of civilians in February and March in Bucha and other satellite towns in the Kyiv region. The latest mass grave in Izium suggests this was not an anomaly. Rather, it is part of a savage pattern seen in each area Moscow occupies.
Ukrainian officials say they have found at least 10 torture chambers in other newly liberated towns including Vovchansk, right on the border with Russia, Kupiansk and Balakliia. “Russians wore masks and tortured civilians with bare electric wires,” said Andriy Nebytov, the head of the national police’s main directorate in the Kyiv region.
The Kremlin claims its forces are “regrouping”, and has responded to military setbacks by ordering attacks on critical civilian infrastructure. Last week, Russian war-planes fired missiles at a dam and reservoir in Kryvyi Rih, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s hometown, causing extensive flooding. They also targeted Kharkiv’s electricity station, plunging the city into darkness.
Most of Izium has been destroyed. The main boulevard is full of gutted apartment blocks and walls pockmarked by bullets. The administration building is an eerie sandbagged ruin. A bomb tore a chunk out of a church’s cupola. The city’s road bridge has been destroyed, with residents getting around on bikes.
But life is already returning. Locals queue for aid parcels, delivered in the central square that was once used for celebrations. Women wheel shopping trollies past a mural of John Lennon. The city’s beer factory remains closed but a cafe reopened on Saturday. “You look at all this and think we don’t have a future,” Maksimov said. “But I believe we do. We can rebuild.”