February 3, 2023

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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 in search of wine. He forced a 75-year-old resident down the street at gunpoint and had him bang on the doors of private homes.

What happened next was a night of horrors for two families, marking the end of a month of senseless killings by Russian troops in Bucha, a suburb of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. The Russian soldier left a trail of blood and destroyed lives in a final spate of violence just hours before Russian troops began retreating. His own unit picked him up in the morning, disposed of the bodies, and within hours it was gone.

Nine months after these events, most of the dead have been recovered and buried, and people have resumed life and returned to work. But the grief of family members remains unbroken, and the pain this Russian soldier and his comrades inflict on this small part of a neighborhood still runs through the Bucha community.

The soldier’s killing spree was not an isolated case. Nine soldiers from a unit stationed in the same wooded neighborhood have been charged in one of the first war crimes cases brought to trial in Ukraine. The case revolves around her cruel treatment of a civilian, an electrical engineer, who was repeatedly arrested and beaten in the last few days of March.

The engineer, Serhiy Kybka, lost his sight from injuries he later suffered from further severe beatings by a Russian soldier who met him in the street after his release.

More than 450 people died in Bucha in a month, about 10 percent of the remaining population, a number that war crimes investigators say could amount to the crime of genocide.

Fifteen of those people died in an area just a few blocks from Antoniya Mykhailovskoho Street, where the drunken soldier was rampaging. They included six members of a retirement home who died from a cold and lack of medication, and an 81-year-old woman who was found hanged 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 fighter, fell victim to an undisciplined and brutal occupying army.

It was evening, just before the 8am curfew on March 27, when the Russian soldier Oleksandr met Kryvenko and ordered him at gunpoint down the street to a large house behind high walls. Bucha was in the dark, with no electricity or internet.

A photo of Oleksandr Kryvenko on his wife’s cell phone. Source: David Guttenfelder for the New York Times

Mr. Kryvenko was a teacher who lived alone after helping his wife and their disabled daughter evacuate from Bucha. Trained as a pilot, he had worked all his life as a setter in Bucha’s glass processing factory, celebrated for its many mechanical inventions. Since then he ran an educational center and shared his love of building model ships and airplanes with generations of children.

His family said he tried to make peace with the Russian soldier. “We never had arguments,” said his wife Svitlana Tkachuk, 55. “He was very even-tempered and always tried to come to terms.”

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

Serhiy opened the gate and the soldier pointed his assault rifle at him and shouted, “I want wine, boyar!” using an old-fashioned address for a Russian nobleman.

Serhiy explained that he was just a guard. Russian soldiers have already confiscated all the alcohol in the house, he said.

“Then he put the gun to my temple and asked, ‘Do you have any wine?'” Serhiy said in an interview, giving 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 up and fired over his head, he said. The soldier ordered the two Ukrainians to search the house for alcohol. Realizing there weren’t any, he threatened to throw a grenade, but was so drunk he couldn’t manage to pull it out of a pocket on the side of his combat pants.

Eventually, the soldier, who Serhiy said was ethnic Russian and looked about 35 years old, left and took Mr. Kryvenko away.

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

“Go and hide and stick your nose out for nothing,” the commander told him. “He’s out of his mind. He can shoot or throw a grenade.”

Despite all 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.

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

If anyone could handle a belligerent Russian soldier, it was probably Mr. Rzhavsky, who spoke Russian and was of natural authority. His “friends and his opponents agree on one thing — he was always sincere,” his family wrote in an obituary in April. “The explanation for this is very simple – his goal has always been peace and tranquility on Ukrainian soil.”

Mr. Rzhavsky was perceived by many Ukrainians as pro-Russian, and in his pre-war writings he supported greater political and diplomatic efforts towards a settlement with Russia.

But he expressed great shock at President Vladimir V Putin’s full-scale invasion, which began on February 24. “Why now and through open war?” Mr. Rzhavsky asked in a Facebook post on March 2. “The brain frantically searches for different options, but finds none that will not lead to an even greater catastrophe.”

Mr. Rzhavsky apparently let the Russian and his hostage into his home. 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 sister, managed to hide and escaped injury, according to Bucha Mayor Anatoliy Fedoruk.

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

“A night like in an American horror film followed,” said a neighbor, Olga Galunenko. “This dark house, two bodies lying there and this madman with a gun.”

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

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

The Kyiv regional prosecutor has launched a separate investigation into her death for “violating the laws and customs of war in connection with premeditated murder,” according to the prosecutor’s information office. In the case of Mr. Kryvenko there is an additional charge of violating the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

The Rzhavsky family blamed the soldier for Mr Rzhavsky’s killing in a joint Facebook post in April, saying he was “drunk on his own impunity”. You didn’t mention Mr. Kryvenko. When his son came by to look for him in early April, they confirmed Mr Kryvenko had been shot but said they didn’t know what 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 about his father’s death. He spent the next week and a half searching for his father in the desperate hope that somehow he had survived.

At one point, the family became so desperate that they consulted a psychic who said that Mr. Kryvenko’s body was only two doors down from his home but in the woods. As the snow began to melt, Mr. Kryvenko’s son, with the help of a friend, began searching the grove across from Mr. Rzhavsky’s home. They found a pair of shoes and uncovered his father’s body. He lay on a curtain from the Rzhavsky house.

Mr. Kryvenko was buried next to his mother in his native village outside of Bucha.

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