HOSTOMEL, Ukraine — On February 26, Russian forces blitzed into a forest-side housing complex on the edge of the town of Hostomel, intending to use it as a forward base for their warfighters.
The soldiers were brimming with confidence, expecting that the nearby capital of Kyiv would fall shortly.
That never happened.
On March 30, the Russians left Hostomel just as quickly as they came, jumping into vehicles filled with loot gathered during weeks of ransacking and vandalism. Confidence had curdled into confusion and fear.
By early April, the Russians were driven out of Kyiv Oblast entirely, a crushing defeat for what was once called the world’s second most powerful military. The Kremlin is now regrouping as it plots an expected new offensive in eastern Ukraine.
Over the month spent under occupation, the housing complex’s three dozen remaining residents watched this progression, as reality gradually dawned on Russian forces: This isn’t working. We’re not wanted here.
“They came in here all like ‘we will take Kyiv in three days,’” said Olena, a local resident who lived through the occupation. “Within days, we saw the change. They got a good look at what life is like here and understood they wouldn’t be able to.”
With the front line just 500 meters away and ferocious exchanges of fire a daily constant, the Russians in Hostomel expressed shock at the Ukrainians’ high level of resistance, morale and quality of life.
Stepping outside last week on the year’s first warm spring afternoon to cook some food on wood-fired stoves, residents recalled the uncouth, anxious behavior of their erstwhile conquerors, providing a glimpse into the Russian soldiers’ mentality during the battle of Kyiv. The residents declined to provide their last names to feel more secure.
“I tried to speak to them about a dozen times,” said Mykhailo, a resident who spent the entire occupation in the complex. “It was hard.”
As Russians pulled out from Bucha, Borodyanka, Ivankiv, Makariv and other towns outside Kyiv at the start of April, Ukrainian forces going in after them saw horrific scenes: bodies strewn across the streets, inside basements or piled into mass graves.
Various Russian units stationed in these towns either randomly or systematically killed civilians, according to the Ukrainian government, international journalists, as well as multiple interviews with local residents. Other civilians were robbed, tortured and raped, according to officials and local interviews.
In Hostomel alone, 400 people have gone missing during the Russian occupation, according to the Ukrainian government.
To their great fortune, the remaining residents of this housing complex escaped this fate. There were about 500-600 Russians rotating through the complex at any one time, all of whom left the civilians alone.
The residents believe that with the front line so close, there was too much to do to terrorize the locals. The Russians fired on Ukrainian positions from a nearby grove of evergreen trees and some neighboring buildings and took fire in return, before retreating to the housing complex to shelter and rest.
“There was no aggression,” said Olena. “They didn’t see us as a threat.”
That’s not to say their occupation was pleasant or orderly. Olena first saw them arrive as squads of people rushing into her building. She knew they were Russians by their armbands.
The soldiers immediately began breaking down doors to top-floor apartments, searching for advantageous perches. Fortunately, the large majority of locals had already fled and the Russians occupied their temporarily abandoned flats.
The buildings were then torn apart, even before being damaged by incoming artillery. To hide their combat vehicles, Russians drove them straight into lobbies, through the doors and glass, damaging the elevators, covering the ground outside with a carpet of crunching shards. After they busted into people’s evacuated apartments, Russian soldiers ripped through them, scattering the locals’ remaining possessions in big, messy piles.
Behind the busted-open doors in one building, rooms looked like a hurricane had swept through.
“All the unoccupied units, they ruined them. They shat them up,” said Mykhailo. “In the literal sense. On the beds and the floor. These are not people. To me, they’re worse than beasts.”
“They threw shit at the walls, like children throwing snowballs,” confirmed Victor, a resident from Mykhailo’s building.
The evidence bears this out. Blobs of what looked like human fecal matter sat in the middle of the entryways into two apartments in one of the buildings.
“Ninety percent of apartments were broken into, robbed, vandalized and destroyed,” Victor estimated.
The Russians also appeared to have fired their assault rifles and grenade launchers at civilian cars left around the complex, possibly for entertainment. Some of the vehicles had holes, appearing to have been made from the buildings’ upper floors. One shot-up car had a “V” painted on it in white, a symbol Russia has used both to mark its equipment and as militaristic propaganda.
Looting was also rampant, the locals said. Unlike in Bucha — which grabbed international attention after stories emerged of Russian atrocities, including executions, torture and rape — these soldiers didn’t seize anything from people who were present, preferring to steal from apartments that had been evacuated.
“I was standing here,” Mykhailo said from outside his housing complex, “and I see two soldiers coming, without weapons. But they have an ax. I go after them.”
Mykhailo trailed the soldiers to another complex: “They go into a building and start destroying the locks on a door. Something inside me twisted.”
He asked to speak to an officer, who demanded, “What do you want?”
“I said, ‘Your army is an army of looters … your soldiers — come with me, I’ll show you — are breaking down doors of the peaceful population and robbing them,’” Mykhailo relayed.
“He says to me, ‘We’re looking for weapons.’”
Mykhailo recalled how towards the end of the occupation, he saw one Russian soldier moving quickly with a pair of someone else’s sneakers dangling over his shoulder. Others had bags filled with goods the apartments’ owners hadn’t taken with them.
“It’s just shameful,” he said.
Victor pointed out that most of the storefronts lining the ground floors of residential buildings had been broken into. Only two were spared, largely because he stepped in to convince the Russians to leave them alone. He mentioned World War II to the soldiers, playing on old ideals of Soviet solidarity and about how both his grandfathers had sacrificed themselves during the Great War.
“I had to recall that I have the same last name as a Russian oligarch,” hinting at kinship, he said with a smirk. “I told the commanding officer to look it up, how so-and-so is based here.”
It wasn’t true, but it worked.
Some Russian soldiers seemed reasonable, the locals said. During one fierce artillery exchange with the Ukrainian forces, a woman caught outside was killed by a fragment. The locals convinced the Russians to help bury her in a patch of ground near the complex, placing a simple wooden cross over her grave.
“There were some adequate people among them,” said Mykhailo. “I went with them to bury her and the two of them said to me, ‘Father, forgive us.’ I said, ‘What can I forgive you for if this is what you’re doing?’”
The locals’ determined attitudes seemed to mystify Russian soldiers as well.
“They asked us why we wouldn’t leave,” said Olena. “We said, ‘This is our home, our land, we live here. Why should we leave?’ We asked them, ‘Why did you come here?’ To which they responded, ‘To liberate you.’”
Olena chafed at the response. “From what? Utter nonsense. We were living perfectly well without you,” she said. “They actually thought we’d meet them with flowers.”
Some soldiers would compare life here with life back home.
“They would say, ‘You live better than we do,’” said Maya, another local resident from Olena’s building.
As the days wore on, Russian morale eroded. Mykhailo said he saw one young Russian soldier crying. Some of the troops acted jumpier than the civilians when they heard fire, several residents said.
“I personally saw it in their eyes,” Olena said. “Fear and a lack of understanding of what they’re doing here.”
Others seemed glad to be rid of their commanders. When Mykhailo spoke with a few soldiers, they mentioned how a column was destroyed, killing several high-ranking officers.
“They said, ‘We’re better off without them,’” Mykhailo recalled.