“They’re Armed to the Teeth, But They’re Not An Army”
An interview with a Ukrainian man from Bucha, who was captured three times and barely escaped with his life, highlights the cruelty and incompetence of the invading Russians.
Bucha, a small city outside Kyiv, has come to represent the wanton brutality Russian soldiers are still inflicting on Ukraine. After the city was liberated in late March, images of its murdered residents, strewn along roads and dumped in ditches, stoked outrage across the world.
But fewer stories have emerged about what the Russian occupation was like. This interview with local volunteer Sergei Petrenko, published in Russian by Elena Kovalenko at the Ukrainian news site UNIAN, gives some idea.
It showcases the randomness and pointlessness of what the invading forces are doing — cruelty not even in aid of victory, but for its own sake. It demonstrates their disorganization and mistrust of each other. And it especially highlights their incompetence in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance.
If you read Russian, I highly recommend the original interview. If not, my translation, slightly condensed, is below.
Sergei, where did the war find you?
The war found me in Bucha. I'm an electronic engineer, and I was working in Bucha on a project on alternative technologies. Since my partner is from Bucha, that's where we set up our research lab.
For the first three weeks after the invasion, it was relatively quiet. That's why many people didn't leave the city. I stayed in Bucha for that reason, too. I had a project and I had to finish my work. There were some booms, shells were flying, but there was still a kind of illusory calm.
How did the occupiers enter Bucha?
In groups. There was a first group, then a second, then after some time, a third. All these groups behaved differently and, most interestingly, they clearly weren’t communicating with each other. They had no clear coordination, and this was striking.
In addition, it was extremely chaotic — that is, constant rotation. One group would come in, in a day it would leave and another would come, then this one would leave and a third would come. We had the impression that they themselves didn't really understand what they were doing here.
What kind of groups were these, what kind of chevrons did they have?
I can't say anything about chevrons. I couldn't remember the identifying signs, even if I wanted to. A military man would know everything from a patch, but for a civilian the patch doesn’t mean much.
I can only say that the Russians were the first to enter Bucha. Then came the Buryats. They behaved differently and didn’t communicate with each other. And it seemed to me that the Russians were afraid of the Buryats.
What was the difference between them?
To put it succinctly: The Russians drank and robbed, while the Buryats drank and killed.
And less succinctly?
Less succinctly, the average age of both groups was between 20 and 25. There were, of course, some older men, but mostly they were very young boys.
The Russians looted. They took everything they could out of stores and broke into apartments. If the tenants didn’t leave and opened their doors, they took what they liked and left. But if the tenants were gone, they opened the doors and took absolutely everything. They were taking out alcohol in crates and drinking everything. Cell phones, money, appliances, rags — they stole it all in crates and sacks.
And they were very afraid that someone would film them on their cell phone and post a video somewhere. So they took away people's phones right away.
Another interesting thing: They were thrown into a panic by home appliances. I remember them throwing themselves at the switchboards on fences, because they thought they were transmitters. They didn't understand what a boiler was. People tried to explain to them that it was to keep the house heated, but they just stared and understood nothing.
In a few words: They’re a poor, uneducated horde. Just impoverished savages.
They really didn't believe that Bandera was dead. They didn't know that. In Bucha there were no Russians from Moscow or St. Petersburg. These were guys who had never seen a boiler in their lives. Kids from remote villages who had never studied anything anywhere. All they know how to do is drink. But actually, they can't drink either.
Why can't they drink?
Because they drink everything, and then, when they're drunk, they want to have a heart-to-heart talk and tell us that they've come to save us.
They're such zombies, they view Putin as a saint. He's a kind of Voldemort to them — a name you can't say out loud.
And the Buryats?
The Buryats are a different story. They drank, too, but it didn’t bring on drunken tears. It made them pull their triggers. They killed. Brutally, and for no reason. Just because they could. Just because they have guns in their hands and they realize that right now, at this moment, they have the advantage over you.
They shot people in the streets, took prisoners, raped men. It was the Buryats who did all this.
They’re just sick people. You can't talk to them. It's impossible. They see a terrorist in everyone and kill without thinking twice.
All the civilians were walking around Bucha with white armbands on their sleeves, but they were shot anyway!
Did you see the bodies on the streets?
Yes, I did. Some of the bodies were lying there for weeks. I saw people shot just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. People were killed just for going out into the street to look for food.
By the way, what was the situation with food in Bucha during the occupation?
It was difficult. I'm not a military man, so from a military point of view, I can't say anything. But as a civilian I can say that Bucha was absolutely unprepared for what happened. During the occupation there was no light, no gas, no water, no communication in Bucha. There was nothing. Survive however you can. Young people could sneak into a looted store to find food that had not yet been stolen by the occupiers, but the elderly had no hope. Without help, the elderly simply had no chance of surviving.
Were there medics in town? Was it possible to find a doctor during the occupation?
I don't know. I didn't see any medics. Maybe there were some by the hospital, but I wasn't there. I can only say that when the first corpses appeared in the streets, nobody took them away.
How were you captured?
I was volunteering. I rode my bike and brought people things: food, water, medicine. Anything that was needed, anything I could do. They stopped me, took away all my documents, tied my hands, and led me away.
They took us to the so-called “headquarters.”
Were there any other detainees there?
Yes, there were nine of us.
Do you know where they took you?
It was just an apartment in a block of flats, on the fourth floor. I even know the building — a ten-story building on Malinovsky Street. They made me strip down to my underwear. They were looking for tattoos. I have one small tattoo on my chest — a zodiac sign. They looked it over carefully, asked what it meant, but they didn't beat me.
Did they feed you?
Yes. They gave me food and water. They kept me for 24 hours and let me go. But they didn’t give me my documents back.
A few days later I was detained again, by the same Russians. They brought me to the same house, but on a different floor.
What did they want this time?
Somebody told them I was an electronic engineer. They wanted to know if I was military. But again, they didn't beat me.
How many of you were in that apartment?
Three. At night the Russians came, put a bag on my head and told me to walk. They brought me to another apartment in the same building. There was a table and alcohol. They said: "You will drink with us."
I think they wanted to loosen my tongue. They wanted to understand what I was doing in Bucha, what exactly my job was. Apparently, they were afraid that I had something to do with the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Or maybe they were intimidated by the fact that I was an electronic technician and could theoretically transmit something to our people, even if there was no reception in the city.
So did they make you talk?
They don't know how to drink. They mix everything and drink huge amounts.
Naturally they get drunk right away. Then they get drunken tears and try to have “heart-to-hearts.”
And what did their "hearts" say?
That they came to save us from Bandera. That we’re rich, all of us. Then they started crying and saying how hard it was for them: they were defeated in Gostomel, they weren't allowed to attack Kyiv, they couldn't go back to Borodyanka, because the Kadyrov guys were there, and they’re so scared that they shoot at everything that moves. They couldn't go home. The more they drank, the more bitter the tears.
And what about you?
I kept quiet so as not to provoke them. They all had guns, who knows what a drunk person will do. On the next day they let me go again.
The strangest thing was that they gave me my phone back. It had zero battery, so they couldn't turn it on. So they broke the SIM card, but they gave me my phone back.
What were they looking for in the phone?
Photos. I think they were afraid I'd taken pictures of them. They are all very afraid of that, at least the Russians were.
Why didn't you leave Bucha then?
It was impossible to leave. There was no way. None of the civilians had a chance to leave. So everyone just tried to survive. Some hid in basements, some in apartments.
A couple of days after these strange detentions, I was stopped by the Buryats. This time it was much tougher. They put me in an APC and wrapped duct tape around my head to cover my eyes. I don't know where they took me. But this time they beat me. Brutally and for no reason. They beat me in the APC, then they took me to some basement.
Were there other people there?
There was some guy. They put me and him up against the wall and told us to put our hands up. Then they gave me a knife and told me: "If you want to live, kill him.” I refused. Then they gave that knife to the other guy, with the same words: "If you want to live, kill him," and pointed at me. He refused too.
The Buryats shouted something like, "You're going to die anyway," took away the knife, and walked away a few steps. We thought we were leaving. Suddenly there was a gunshot.
They hadn’t walked away, they just walked back a couple of steps and turned around and shot the guy in the head.
He was standing an arm's length away from me, and they killed him for refusing to stab me.
And then what happened?
I was covered in his blood and mine. I had his brains all over my clothes, because he was shot in the head. They took me to some kind of basement, where there were a lot of different rooms.
Where was this basement?
I don't know, I had tape on my eyes. I only know that there were about twenty more prisoners. I didn't see any of them, only heard them. I heard people being tortured and beaten.
I heard some inhuman screams. I heard men being raped. Then there were gunshots and the voices went silent.
Were there children there?
No. I didn't hear any children screaming. There were no children.
What did they want from you?
They wanted to know why I wasn't fighting. The fact that my eyesight was bad seemed to them like a weak argument. They hit me in the knees. Now the doctors tell me my kneecap was broken and I need an operation. I didn't know that at the time. At the time I was just in pain all over my body.
They kept me there for several days. No food, no water, no toilets. If you want to go to the bathroom, you have to go in the corner of the room.
How did you manage to survive?
I don't remember what day it was. Everything was mixed up. But it suddenly got quiet in the basement. It felt like I was the only one left in the room. That basement was a place where you could hear everything. You could hear the sound of a lighter being lit at the other end of the room. And now there’s a dead silence. So quiet that I could hear the sound of the generator running outside. And I heard footsteps approaching my room.
I don't know why, but I realized that I was alone, and that today they would shoot me.
And then a bored katsap [derogatory term for Russian] came up and said that everyone had gone somewhere on a mission, and that he had been left to sit in this basement and he was bored.
I knew this was my chance. I knocked on the door and asked for a cigarette, since they weren't feeding me. He slipped two cigarettes under the door. I smoked, gathered my courage, and asked for a cup of tea.
My calculation was simple: he wouldn’t be able to slip tea under the door. If he brought some, he’d have to open the door, and he had just said that everyone had gone on a mission and the basement was empty.
And then what happened?
He brought me a can of tea. The door opened and I nailed him with a piece of rebar. On the first day I was captured, I noticed a piece of rebar sticking out of the wall, pulled it out, and sharpened it against a brick.
I acted quickly, without thinking, hit him and immediately took a step back into the dark corner. The only lighting in the basement was from the flashlights they wore on their heads, so hiding in the dark wasn’t difficult.
They heard the sound of a falling body, and then another guy came. He leaned over the fallen one... and I knocked him out. At least I think so.
Do you do any sports? Where did you get the strength to tackle two military men after days of torture?
It's not strength, it's adrenaline. I don’t play sports, but I have a natural physical ability, and if you multiply that by fear and anger, you get an explosive mix.
You knocked them out and then what?
I got out of that goddamn basement. Ran through some backyards.
I fell, got up, ran again. I couldn't get over the fence for some reason, my legs weren't working. I didn't know then that I no longer had a kneecap.
I remember that I ran into some yard and saw the door to a basement. There were hundreds of such basements in Bucha at that time. There was no one there, but there was canned food. You won’t believe it, but I opened a jar of compote with my teeth.
I drank the compote and collapsed from exhaustion. I sat in that basement for three days. I was afraid to come out, because I understood that they would look for me and if they found me, they would shoot me. I also remember that when they were beating me, my head got covered in blood. During these days the blood dried up, my hair got sticky and looked like some horrific bloody cap.
And then our guys came...
Do you dream about your captivity?
Yes, almost all the time. After Bucha was liberated, I still tried to volunteer for a while. I couldn't pedal a bicycle with my bad leg, so my friend and I used his car to deliver food to people. But the injury turned out to be more serious than I thought. I had to go to Kyiv to see doctors. If possible, I’ll try to save my leg. But it’ll be a long time before I’m over all of this.
And finally, how are the occupiers armed? Do they have a strong army?
They’re armed to the teeth, but it's nowhere near an army.
They have expired rations, I've seen those green boxes myself. And they really have expired stuff in them that you wouldn't even eat if you were hungry. But they are really armed.
But there are very important points: first, they have no motivation, and secondly, there is not even basic communication among their own groups. But the most important thing is that they don't have even a hundredth of the spirit that Ukrainians have.
It's not an army, it's just a gang of alcoholics, looters, and murderers.
And a gang can't win a war. They don't stand a chance.