In Slavyansk, residents feel divided loyalty to Ukraine and Russia

On June 13, 72-year-old Nina Starushenko cleared debris in front of her apartment building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk.  The building was damaged in a Russian strike on May 31.  (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)
On June 13, 72-year-old Nina Starushenko cleared debris in front of her apartment building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk. The building was damaged in a Russian strike on May 31. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)

SLOVYANSK, Ukraine – Elena Valentivna stood among a pile of rubble, looking at what was left of her elderly relative’s modest living room.

Hours earlier, Russian artillery fire had destroyed the apartment building, shattering Inna Fyodorovna in pieces in her chair while watching television.

Now the TV was upside down. The window was gone. Blood flowed on the floor.

Valentina searched the 78-year-old woman’s belongings to find a photo to place on her grave, carefully stepping over broken glass, pieces of bone and a neatly folded pair of bloodied plastic glasses.

“We are nothing to anyone,” she said.

Only nine residents of this largely destroyed 120-block apartment building have remained since it was hit by Russian forces on May 31 in an attack, according to neighbors, which may have targeted Ukrainian soldiers sleeping at a nearby school, which was also hit.

Most civilians have fled as Russian forces approach this strategic city in eastern Ukraine. Many feared artillery strikes on their homes and the kind of brutal occupation the Russians imposed elsewhere.

But this dilapidated apartment building illustrates the complex choices facing people with deep historical, cultural and family ties to both Ukraine and Russia. Those who fled fled in opposite directions: some to the south or east to Russian-held separatist territories, others to safer areas of Ukraine to the west.

Those who stay feel the same magnetic shocks and pulls.

Some are fiercely opposed to Ukraine and disgusted by Russia’s false propaganda that Moscow is “liberating” Ukraine from a tyrannical Nazi government.

Others feel the appeal of history and sympathize with Russia. Despite all the misery and death caused by Russian forces during nearly four months of war, including in their own apartment building, they still feel more connected to Russia than to the government in the distant Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

Some are just too poor or traumatized to leave. They described themselves as “beyond fear,” even as Russian forces made solid progress toward Slavyansk in a heavy artillery war designed to take control of the cities by destroying them.

Competing loyalties hang heavy in the air here, as Valentina admitted among the remnants of the deadly blast.

Born in Russia in the early 1960s, she moved to Ukraine in 1974 and found a job as a teacher. She said she was loyal to an independent Ukraine; her son is fighting in his army on the front line.

“This is my home region, but my heart has a place in Russia. Can anyone understand that? “She said.” I feel bad for these boys and these boys. “

In the hallway, a young Ukrainian soldier in a military apron was repairing a neighbor’s door. He eavesdropped on Valentina and stormed into the apartment.

“Do you feel sorry for them?” he shouted. “The children you are talking about came here to kill us! Who are you sorry for? “

“I’m Russian, look at me!” She shouted.

“Well, thank God you don’t have a gun,” he shouted back.

It was all too much. Blood, glass, death – the fear of what might follow. Now a stranger was shouting at her for what she felt she could not control.

“Don’t huddle in civilian houses to be killed!” Go to the field and fight! She shouted at him.

She rummaged in her sedative bag, then swallowed. “I’m Russian, but I’m for Ukraine,” she said softly, then leaned against the wall and put her hand on her face.

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Two weeks later, the debris was piled up outside the building. Intertwined electrical wires hung from the walls.

Olena Voitenko and Nina Starushenko, who live opposite the hall from each other, are fed up with the mess.

They put on their gardening gloves and set to work, burying the remains of their neighbors’ apartments on a white sheet and dragging them away from the building.

Voitenko, 59, looked up at the scattered cement apartment building, pointing to the windows of the less fortunate: the old woman who died after being pulled out of the rubble; the man who burned alive on the fifth floor; another whose blood still stains the floors and walls.

Cleaning, she said, is a way of life cope.

The old woman climbed the stairs. Most apartments were abandoned, some with doors open, others boarded up. She pointed to the app. 73, where three young soldiers slept on the night of the strike, renting the room to take a break from the fighting. One was killed and his blood still covered the wooden floor.

Then he looked at the app. 74, where the door was closed. “He moved away at the beginning of the war,” she said, shrugging. “People who had little money have moved. “Even people who are pro-Ukrainian and try to present themselves as patriots have moved away.”

Starushenko pointed to the closed door of the app. 76, also already abandoned. “She was a separatist,” Starushenko said. “It simply came to our notice then. “People were talking.” Then the app. 77: “This woman’s family moved her to the Russian side.”

The elderly woman who died lived in the apartment. 78. “Olena pulled her out,” she said. “Her husband said he even saw the bone.”

The stench of fire still hung in the air on the top floor. A burnt pigeon carcass lay on the floor of the corridor.

The old woman slept in her daughter’s house on the day of the explosion. Otherwise, she said, the shelf that fell on her bed in the app. 61 “would crush me.”

When she returned after the attack, she realized that her world was shattered. Last summer, she spent her days visiting friends’ villas and playing mahjong. Now she was sweeping the remnants of her neighbors’ lives.

“I’m 72. I have other things to do,” she said. She decided to stay in Slavyansk while her 50-year-old best friend fled to Russia, a decision she found unthinkable.

Starushenko has been working with Russians for years and considers his colleagues a family. And yet now the Russians are enemies – how can her boyfriend not understand? “We used to share a spoon,” she said. Now they don’t talk at all.

She knew the risks of staying. She was worried that the building might be hit again.

Still, the thought of moving somewhere new was heavy and stressful. Her daughter still works in the city. And Starushenko, who left her home village decades ago, does not want to return to rural life. “I want things back to normal,” she said.

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Voitenko stood in his small kitchen on the other side of the corridor, washing the mushrooms he had gathered outside and chopping cabbage, which he was preparing for borscht. In the other room, her husband slept quietly in bed.

After weeks without water, the taps had just been turned on again. But Voitenko didn’t mind walking down the block to fill buckets of water, or even squatting outside to relieve himself. She prefers to do so in Ukraine, she said, rather than using a toilet in Russia.

She is a seamstress and has two daughters. One lives abroad. The other lives in pro-Russian separatist territory and has not seen her since 2017. They have not even spoken on the phone since February, when they fought for the war.

“You don’t set us free,” she recalled, telling her daughter. “I don’t want to be released.”

“We can’t communicate, we just argue,” she said.

Before 2014, when pro-Russian forces briefly took over Slavyansk, Voitenko had some pro-Russian views. But she said she changed her mind when she saw her city being shelled.

She said some of her few remaining neighbors still hold those views. A mother and daughter, who live a few doors downstairs, try to talk about politics while Voitenko sits outside on his bench. When Russia is mentioned, it just leaves.

“They believe the Ukrainian army shot this building,” she said. “They’re just talking nonsense.”

Even at the age of 59, Voitenko said he was considering joining the army.

“I used to be a sniper,” she said. “My vision is not so good now, but if necessary, I will wear glasses and fight for Ukraine.

She sees staying as an act of resistance. “If there are people here, life will go on,” she said. “But if the people leave, the Russians will move in and destroy this place.”

In the morning after the explosion, 89-year-old Idea Svistunova woke up in the apartment. 75 to the screams of the young soldiers she had seen arriving in the corridor the day before. Somehow she was not injured in the blast. The doors were torn off their hinges, and in a frantic attempt by the soldiers to move their dying friend down, they arranged doors in front of her, blocking her.

She waited in horror as firefighters rescued and escorted her. Even that day, with the glass and debris strewn in her apartment and the blood smeared in the apartment across the hall, she knew she would stay. “They were good boys,” she told the soldiers.

Two weeks later, she said, she hardly thought about what had happened. A pile of bloody clothes and curtains still stood in the corner.

“This is life,” she said. “Someone is alive. Someone is dying. ”

She was born near Siberia, moved to Slavyansk when she was young and worked in a pencil factory. She has lived in this block for 50 years. Now she is the only one left on her floor. Her son stops by every day, delivering food and water.

She was used to the noise of war, she said. But as Russian forces approached, it felt as if an ominous silence had settled over the city, “like a lull before a storm.”

In the abandoned apartment across from her, flies were still buzzing over the young man’s dried blood. Downstairs he could hear Voytenko sweeping glass. An air raid siren sounded in the distance.

She closed the door and returned to her apartment alone.

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