In Bucha, a Final Rampage Served as a Coda to a Month of Atrocities

BUCHA, Ukraine — On one of the last nights of the Russian occupation of Bucha, a lone Russian soldier, drunk or high, went out looking for wine. He forced a 75-year-old resident at gunpoint along the street and made him bang on the doors of private homes.

What unfolded thereafter was a night of horror for two families that stands as a coda to a month of senseless killings by Russian troops in Bucha, a suburb of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. The Russian soldier left a trail of blood and devastated lives in a last paroxysm of violence only hours before Russian troops began withdrawing. His own unit fetched him in the morning, disposed of the bodies, and within hours, it was gone.

Nine months after those events, the dead have mostly been recovered and laid to rest, and people have picked up their lives and returned to work. But the grief of family members remains raw, and the pain inflicted on this small section of one neighborhood by this Russian soldier and his comrades still ripples through the Bucha community.

The soldier’s rampage was not an isolated event. Nine soldiers from a unit based in the same wooded neighborhood have been charged in one of the first war crimes cases to reach court in Ukraine. The case centers on their cruel treatment of a civilian, an electrical engineer who was repeatedly detained and beaten in the last days of March.

The engineer, Serhiy Kybka, is losing his sight from injuries suffered in another severe beating he received later, by a Russian soldier who encountered him on the street after his release.

More than 450 people died in Bucha in one month, which was roughly 10 percent of the remaining population, a level that war crimes investigators say could amount to the crime of genocide.

Fifteen of those people died in an area of only a few blocks around Antoniya Mykhailovskoho Street, where the intoxicated soldier went on his rampage. They included six members of a seniors’ home who died from cold and lack of medicines, and an 81-year-old woman found hanging in her garden.

Like their neighbors, the two men — who, according to the mayor of Bucha, neighbors and family members, died at the hands of the lone soldier — were victims of an undisciplined and brutal occupying army.

It was evening, not long before the 8 o’clock curfew on March 27, when the Russian soldier encountered Oleksandr Kryvenko and ordered him at gunpoint along the street to a large house set behind high walls. Bucha was in the dark, without electricity or internet.

A photograph of Oleksandr Kryvenko on his wife’s phone.Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

Mr. Kryvenko was a teacher, who was living alone after helping his wife and her disabled daughter evacuate from Bucha. Trained as a pilot, he had spent his life working as an adjuster at Bucha’s glass processing factory, acclaimed for his multiple mechanical inventions. Since then, he had run an educational center, sharing with generations of children his love of building model ships and aircraft.

His family said he would have sought to make peace with the Russian soldier. “We never had fights,” said his wife, Svitlana Tkachuk, 55. “He was very even-tempered, always trying to come to an agreement.”

When he and the soldier reached the house, Mr. Kryvenko banged on the gate and called out to the guard, a Ukrainian named Serhiy, whom he knew.

Serhiy opened the gate and the soldier, pointing his assault rifle, shouted, “I want wine, Boyar!” using an old-fashioned form of address for a Russian nobleman.

Serhiy explained he was just a guard. Russian soldiers had already seized all of the alcohol there was in the house, he told him.

“Then he put the gun to my temple, and asked, ‘Do you have any wine?’” Serhiy recounted in an interview, providing only his first name. “I said: ‘No.’ I thought: ‘This is the end.’”

Serhiy braced for a bullet, but the Russian suddenly jerked his rifle upward and fired over his head, he said. The soldier ordered the two Ukrainians inside the house to look for alcohol. When he found there was none, he threatened to throw a grenade, but was so intoxicated that he could not manage to pull it from a pocket on the side of his combat pants.

Eventually, the soldier, who Serhiy said was ethnic Russian and looked about 35 years old, went off, taking Mr. Kryvenko with him.

Serhiy, holding a bullet fired by the Russian soldier.Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

Twenty minutes later, Serhiy said, the soldier’s commander came by with a posse of three soldiers looking for the soldier. The commander said the soldier, whom he called Aleksei, was a troubled man, a veteran on his fourth war, and dangerous.

“Go and hide and don’t stick your nose out for anything,” the commander told him. “He’s not in his right mind. He can shoot or throw a grenade.”

For all of his dire warnings, the commander did not catch up with Aleksei or his hostage that night.

The two ended up not far away at the large property of a retired Ukrainian politician, Oleksandr Rzhavsky.

A former banker and member of Parliament, Mr. Rzhavsky, 63, was the leader of a small political party, and had run twice as a presidential candidate.

If anyone could handle a belligerent Russian soldier, it was probably Mr. Rzhavsky, who was Russian-speaking and carried himself with a natural authority. His “friends and his opponents agree on one thing — he was always sincere,” his family wrote in a death announcement in April. “The explanation for this is very simple — his goal has always been peace and tranquillity on Ukrainian land.”

Mr. Rzhavsky was perceived by many Ukrainians as pro-Russian, and in his writings before the war, he supported greater political and diplomatic efforts to reach agreement with Russia.

Damage in the streets of Bucha in April after Russian soldiers retreated.Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

But he expressed great shock at President Vladimir V. Putin’s full-scale invasion that began on Feb. 24. “Why now and through open war?” Mr. Rzhavsky asked in a Facebook post on March 2. “The brain frantically searches for various options, but does not find any that would not lead to even greater disaster.”

Mr. Rzhavsky apparently let the Russian and his hostage into his house. They sat at the dining table in the main open-plan living area, and Mr. Rzhavsky gave them wine, according to neighbors familiar with events.

Mr. Rzhavsky’s family declined to be interviewed for this article, asking for privacy during difficult times. But the two women in the house at the time, Mr. Rzhavsky’s wife and his sister, were able to hide and escaped injury, according to Bucha’s mayor, Anatoliy Fedoruk.

Something snapped that evening, and the soldier, Aleksei, opened fire on the two men at the table. Mr. Kryvenko was killed in his chair with three bullets to the chest, said his son, Yuriy Kryvenko. Mr. Rzhavsky was shot in the head. The soldier subsequently threw a grenade and injured his own leg in the explosion.

“There followed a night like an American horror movie,” said a neighbor, Olga Galunenko. “This dark house, two bodies lying there and this crazy man with a rifle.”

She said Mr. Rzhavsky’s sister, Zoya, crawled out and hid in a cloakroom. “The wife was hiding in another place,” Ms. Galunenko said.

Only in the morning did the soldier’s unit come to find him. They took him away in an armored vehicle. They apologized for his actions to the women and even dug a grave and buried Mr. Rzhavsky in the garden. In a final act of cruelty, they dumped Mr. Kryvenko’s body in a small copse across the street.

“For 18 days, he lay on the ground, covered with leaves,” Yuriy Kryvenko said of his dead father. “At first, I didn’t think it was him. When a person is missing, it is somehow easier.”Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

The Kyiv regional prosecutor has opened separate investigations into their deaths, for “violation of the laws and customs of war, combined with premeditated murder,” according to the prosecutor’s information office. There is an additional charge in the case of Mr. Kryvenko for violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

The Rzhavsky family blamed the soldier for the killing of Mr. Rzhavsky in a joint Facebook post in April, saying that he was “drunk with his own impunity.” They made no mention of Mr. Kryvenko. When his son came by looking for him at the beginning of April, they confirmed Mr. Kryvenko had been shot but said they did not know what had happened to his body.

“They thought he was some kind of bum, or alcoholic,” Yuriy Kryvenko said bitterly, recounting in an interview how he pieced together details of his father’s death. He spent the next week and a half searching for his father, desperately hoping that he had somehow survived.

At one point, the family became so desperate that it consulted a clairvoyant, who said that Mr. Kryvenko’s body lay only two houses away from his home, but in the forest. As the snow began to melt, with the help of a friend, Mr. Kryvenko’s son began to search the copse opposite Mr. Rzhavsky’s home. They found a pair of shoes and uncovered his father’s body. He was lying on a curtain from the Rzhavsky house.

Mr. Kryvenko was buried beside his mother in his home village outside Bucha.

“For 18 days, he lay on the ground, covered with leaves,” Mr. Kryvenko’s son said, recounting the pain of confirming his death. “At first, I didn’t think it was him. When a person is missing, it is somehow easier.”

A snow-covered portrait of Oleksandr Rzhavsky this month at his grave in Bucha.Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times
Back to top button