Mass graves in Izium, Ukraine.
Mass graves in Izium, Ukraine

It was a beautiful, fresh October day in the pine forest near Izium, eastern Ukraine, when I walked among the empty graves, avoiding the discarded plastic gowns and gloves, the Russian army trash. The sandy ground, once a place for picnics, was marred by gaping holes, splintered coffins, makeshift markers and spooled police tape. 447 people had been exhumed here.

Ahead and behind me, Ukrainian writers – from Kyiv, Kharkiv, Lviv and elsewhere – also lost for words, were moving slowly through the carnage. They had come, a
busload of them, to the recently liberated areas east of Kharkiv, looking for news of their colleague Volodymyr Vakulenko. Looking for grave 319, and hoping that the rumours were true, that he was never there.

“He was a very special man,” his friend Maksym Bespalov told me, then immediately corrected himself. “He is a very special man. Idealistic.” They’d met more than a decade ago – Volodymyr was hugely active in the literary scene, publishing almanacs and magazines, getting published himself and winning awards for his books and poetry, organising festivals and encouraging younger writers. He turned to children’s books after the birth of his son. Maksym tells me Volodymyr “tries to be everywhere, involved in everything. A little bit crazy, perhaps. But we like him because he is him.”

What are his ideals, I asked Maksym. Without hesitation, he replied: “For all of the good versus all of the bad”. Volodymyr was an idealist; an outspoken, strident patriot who didn’t just write about the Ukrainian struggle but put himself on the line during the revolution of 2014.

Those who loved and admired Volodymyr – and there are many – had hopes he was in a Russian prison, awaiting trial. “We all understand the most truthful version is that he is dead,” Maksym said bluntly. “But when we speak about Volodya, we always say that we hope he’s still alive.”

It was a hope shared by Olena Ihnatenko, the writer’s mother. Our next stop, once we’d made it through half-destroyed Izium and down cratered roads to the village of Kapytolivka, was Olena’s flat. She lives with her husband Vasyl and, now, Volodymyr’s son Vitalik, who has autism and cannot speak. Volodymyr had hoped that the fact he was Vitalik’s sole guardian would mean the soldiers would leave him alone. He was wrong.

Abducting a civilian

We all crammed into the flat and sat on the floor around Olena and Vasyl, like schoolchildren being told a story. They described the bombardment, the month in a cellar, the freezing cold and near-starvation. Then the troops arriving in the bombers’ wake. Volodymyr, who had been living with Vitalik and his own father elsewhere in the village, apparently ran out when the soldiers came, and shouted, “The rashists are here!”

“Rashist” is a neat portmanteau of Russian, racist and fascist that provokes ire in Russian soldiers: it expresses the widely-held Ukrainian view that Russians are now little different to Hitler’s forces, which also invaded at 4am, 81 years earlier. It was in keeping with Volodymyr’s stubborn, proud and undaunted character that he would shout this as the invaders arrived. It was also incredibly dangerous.

Vasyl, with pure white hair and bushy eyebrows, seems a kind, gentle old man; as he speaks to us he is calming Vitalik, stroking his shoulder and murmuring to him. Vitalik is rocking, agitated, staring at the strangers. He knows what’s going on, his grandmother insists – just can’t express himself. The idea of this highly strung, nervous boy being seized by troops is almost incomprehensible. But on 22 March, that’s what happened.

“Where’s your nationalist?” a soldier nicknamed “Bes”, or “Demon”, had demanded of Volodymyr’s elderly father. His men turned the house upside down looking for pro-Ukrainian literature. Volodymyr, sensibly, had hidden the flags he’d kept from his time on the Maidan – Ukraine’s “Revolution of Dignity”, which overthrew corrupt ruler Viktor Yanukovych in 2014.

Both Volodymyr and Vitalik were taken to a nearby “special department” for a few hours, where Volodymyr was beaten, then both were returned home. Olena thinks it was probably a mistake that they took Vitalik. But Volodymyr knew they’d be back for him. It was at this point he took a shovel and dug a hole under the cherry tree in his father’s garden. He buried the notebook in which he’d been describing their life under occupation.“Give it to our guys [as everyone calls the Ukrainian Armed Forces] when they come,” he told his father.

A little later the soldiers returned, grabbed the writer while he was cooking on an open fire in the garden, and threw him into a bus on which they’d daubed their infamous invasion symbol, the latin letter “Z”.

The torture of not knowing

For Volodymyr’s ex-wife, Vitalik’s mother Iryna Novitska, the lack of information was unbearable. She lives in central Ukraine and had begged him, as everyone had, to get out while he still could. Their last communication was on 7 March when he’d called to say troops had entered the village. Then a message, later that night: “I’ve wiped my phone contacts”, to protect their identities from the soldiers, in case he was picked up.

The mobile networks were knocked out, one by one. Silence. Kapytolivka, like all the other villages and towns the Russians occupied, was swallowed up. It just disappeared into an information blackout for six long months. Relatives in free Ukraine had no idea if their loved ones in the occupied territories were hungry or fed, wounded or safe, imprisoned, scared . . . dead. Meanwhile, those inside the “dark zone” didn’t know what had become of the rest of the country. Propaganda from Moscow told them lies: Kharkiv has fallen, Kyiv has fallen.

In the occupied towns, troops – both from Russia and conscripts from the so-called “republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk – roamed the streets, drunk and dangerous, searching men for “patriotic” tattoos, and taking them to torture cells, ten of which were later found in Izium alone. Informers were apparently active in the village. Volodomyr’s family suspect this is how he was picked up. Long before the invasion, he had predicted that the neighbours would turn him in.

Throughout the spring and summer, 71-year-old Olena, struggling with the lack of food, medicine, gas, water and electricity, traipsed back and forth to checkpoints and distant military commanders’ offices, searching for information about her son, and pleading with the Russians to let him go. The couple made written statements to the new “authorities”; detailed descriptions of Volodymyr and his arrest. The men promised they weren’t holding him; scoffed at the very suggestion. “We’re not Nazis!”

Some rumours reached her; that her Vovka was in Russia, awaiting trial. Or in a prison in occupied Donetsk. After the region was liberated in September, there was a terrible confusion over the mass grave lists: “Vakulenko” from Kapytolivka was listed. But no date of death was given, and authorities said it was a woman’s body in that pit. Could it have been a mistake? “I am living on hope,” Olena told me, that day in October. “I have to. He’s my only son.”

The Executed Renaissance

The idea that a children’s writer can be murdered because he believed in his own country is so absurd, so appalling, that you want to find another version of events to believe in. But actually, none of the writers I was with seemed surprised by what had likely happened to Volodymyr. Horrified, deeply angry, but not surprised. The killing of writers and artists, of creative people who shape a national culture, is nothing new in the grim history of Ukrainian–Russian relations.

Back in Kharkiv with the writers, I stayed one cold and eerie night in a building that stands as testament to Russia’s repeated attempts to wipe out Ukrainian cultural life: the House of the Word, or Slovo. Built in the late 1920s, it contained high-end apartments that accommodated Ukrainian writers and intellectuals. They were prized by the state in the brief period when Kharkiv was capital of Soviet Ukraine and had a flourishing literary scene. But then came the 1930s. The very idea of Ukrainian culture became anathema. In the countryside, Stalin killed millions with man-made famine, and in Kharkiv’s Slovo he killed the poets, playwrights and novelists. I lay awake in the dark listening to intermittent air-raid sirens and thinking of the night-time knocks from NKVD officers which preceded the execution of 33 of this building’s residents. But their senseless deaths – many in a camp in northwest Russia – did not prevent this group, known as the Executed Renaissance, from having a lasting influence.

Victoria Amelina is their cultural descendant: a writer who vividly describes life, who is actively engaged in that old, old struggle to build a sovereign, free Ukraine. It was she who dug up Volodymyr’s notebook in September, shortly after the Russians had fled Kapytolivka. She was in the area to document war crimes with an NGO. It took a few minutes of digging to find the little parcel. The day made a lasting, deep impression on her. “When you’re digging up the diary of a kidnapped writer from under a cherry tree, well – you feel you’re somewhere in the 30s, when our writers were shot. Or in the 40s, under Nazi occupation,” she told a TV news crew covering the story.

Victoria [who was interviewed in the Summer 2022 New Humanist] kept a little acorn from the garden that day, a physical memory, and was still carrying it in her pocket when we spoke in November. “You know they took literature from his room?” she asked me. “Books with blue and yellow, or the trident [the Ukrainian national symbol]. They took some as proof of his being Ukrainian, they equal this with ‘Nazi’. This is how genocidal logic works.” With the family’s permission she handed the diary to the Kharkiv Literary Museum for safekeeping. “The museum has manuscripts of writers from the Executed Renaissance period; it’s symbolic.”

When I go to the museum, on a cold November day marked by power blackouts and snowfall, the curator, wearing white cotton gloves, gently pulls back the tissue paper and shows me the densely scrawled text, in black and red biro, scored out in places and spilling over into the margins. The very last line Volodymyr wrote in the diary he buried – “I believe in victory!” – is the same line I hear across Ukraine, day after day, week after week, as the war grinds on and people cling to their faith in their armed forces to drive out the occupier. Belief – hope – is non-negotiable. You must keep it, in order to keep going in the face of horror and terror.

But hope can be terrible too. After the bodies from the mass graves were exhumed and taken to Kharkiv for analysis in September, the family were told to wait for DNA results. Olena still felt her son was alive. Nobody released from Izium’s many torture basements had seen Volodya that whole time. Perhaps he’d gone to prison?

In mid-November, while in Donbas reporting near the front line, I got a message from Iryna Novitska, Volodymyr’s ex-wife. “Hope has turned to darkness,” she said simply. A photograph had emerged: gruesome, awful and irrefutably depicting Volodymyr before he was buried. Olena had seen it. It was all over.

Ukrainian journalists found the man who took the picture – a local, tasked with collecting bodies and burying them in the pine forest during the occupation. He’d taken photos so relatives could identify the bodies later. Volodymyr’s body had not been taken from a morgue or basement but from a spot by the side of the road where he may have lain for weeks. The body had bullet holes in the stomach and chest, from a Soviet-era “Makarov” pistol.

Echoes of the past

The next day I took a detour on the way back to Kharkiv, to see Olena one last time. She was heartbroken and furious, thinking back to those long months walking, exhausted, round the checkpoints for information. She recalled a meeting in April with a Russian commander, how he looked at the wall behind her, not meeting her gaze: “He said, ‘We’re looking, there’s no information” – and I knew then that he knew everything,” she said, shaking with anger. “Where my son was, what happened to him, everything. There was not the slightest point – everyone knew, but no one was going to say.”

Vitalik’s cartoons were playing in the background, and he was laughing at the TV. She hadn’t figured out how to tell him yet. He and Volodymyr were joined at the hip. It pained her that this boy was left without a father. She won’t be able to cope with his 24-hour-care for ever. Volodymyr used to joke with his mother that he’d live a long life, always taking care of Vitalik, going to a nursing home together in old age so they could be together for ever.

“Oh and what have you done,” she cried suddenly, berating her son. “What have you done, oh God, oh my God.”

As a writer, his ex-wife Iryna said, Volodymyr “tried to say something in a way that no one had said before”. He loved the unusual, the amazing, the unique; his interests were wide-ranging, and though his heart and soul were in the Ukrainian fight, he made common cause with other people living under the shadow of Moscow’s empire: the Crimean Tatars, Armenians, Ichkerians, Belarussians.

The investigation into who shot him and why will go on, as will countless others; a long slow reckoning that will never provide all the answers. But the soldiers who took Volodymyr were clear: it was his “nationalism” that made him guilty. So many stories like this have been uncovered, of Russian soldiers convinced by propaganda back home that Ukraine is a nest of Nazis. Stripping people and ransacking houses for “evidence” like blue and yellow ribbons, trident tattoos, books in their own language.

Too often in this war, the echoes of the past are deafening: not just of the atrocities committed by the Nazis, but of Stalin’s terror the decade before that. We, in recent years, comfortably consigned all that to history, at least in Europe. The mass executions and jackbooted soldiers, the columns of tanks and sadistic torturers, informants and brave resisters, existed in a black-and-white era.

To the Ukrainian woman digging up a diary of a disappeared children’s writer, just a few miles away from the heavy stench of mass graves, it is not history. Victoria Amelina thinks she knows why it’s happened again: there was never any reckoning for the Soviet Union’s crimes in Ukraine. And certainly no reckoning for what she calls the “annihilation of an entire generation of Ukrainian culture” in the 1930s: the execution of all those writers.

As there were blacklists then, there are blacklists now, she concluded. Activists, influencers, people to be removed first. The Russians [according to Ukrainian authorities] came with 45,000 body bags. “But they expected to win the war in three days,” Victoria said. “So those thousands of body bags were for whom? For me, I guess, and everyone else like me.”

This piece is from the New Humanist spring 2023 edition. Subscribe here.