In the photographs above, the first is of the Chonhar border crossing station, which is located in the Kherson region in mainland Ukraine and connects it with Crimea. After the annexation, people would have to pass through it and then get their passports checked to get into the peninsula. One could cross by car or on foot, so people would wait in line, get their passport checked first by Ukrainians, then by Russians, and enter Crimea. The second picture is of Crimea Novooleksiyivka, a train station in Crimea. Ukrainian railways used to connect Kyiv and other parts of Ukraine with annexed Crimea even after the peninsula was annexed; passports would be checked on the train when entering the peninsula from Kherson region. And the third is of a cafeteria called “Soviet Bistro,” with a very communist aesthetic, nostalgic of the USSR times. Ironically, the security sticker on the door (a small blue and yellow sticker, colors of the Ukrainian flag) is from the times when Crimea was under Ukraine’s control; it reads “the object is under surveillance” in Ukrainian.
Since 2014, the occupied Crimean peninsula has received a large influx of Russians, especially policemen, security forces, government officials, and soldiers who came there as the Russian state was tightening up surveillance and control over the region. Many units of the Russian army have been moved from mainland Russia to Crimea, and they were crucial in attacking Southern Ukraine in 2022.
The Russian authorities also persecute dissent. Russian authorities launched a crackdown on Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian activists, jailing many on fake charges for decades. About 140,000 Crimean residents have left the peninsula since 2014 and resettled in mainland Ukraine because of the persecution. Below is a picture of an old mosaic of Vladimir Lenin, where someone wrote “Glory to Ukraine” in Ukrainian. You can be jailed or fined for saying that in Crimea.
A mural of Vladimir Lenin with a sign that says “Glory to Ukraine.”
“I have not been home for a few years, and I don’t think I will come back there as long as Russians are in control,” Nika said.
She moved out in 2014, right after the annexation, and settled in Lviv, Western Ukraine, later moving to Kyiv, the capital. Together with her husband, the woman later purchased a house a 30-minute car ride North from Kyiv. Nika also got a job as a journalist, and later, as a human rights researcher. She is now collecting data on Russian crimes against humanity in Ukraine.
“It is hard. It hits so close because everything literally happened at home,” Nika said, her voice stern, “My new home.”
THE OCCUPATION OF KYIV
“Russians stole everything. They took everything they could take from our home,” she continued.
The Russian army occupied the areas North of Kyiv in early March, two weeks after the start of the full-scale invasion into Ukraine. The Ukrainian forces liberated the region in early April when the Russians retreated.
“I heard explosions on February 24, when the new invasion started,” Nika said, “I was still in my house as I was planning to get ready for work. I used to drive to Kyiv a few times per week back then, but on that day, I was unsure where to go or what to do.”
Nika’s husband suggested that they stay home on Feb. 24, and then follow the unfolding to decide how to act.
“In our garage, we had three cars. My husband used to be a trader; he was selling used cars as well as doing a lot of online trading before the war, so our home was always kind of like a storage space,” Nika explained. The husband would buy the cars abroad and resell them in Ukraine, so there were always new vehicles around.
During the first three days of the full-scale invasion, the couple stayed where they were, but soon they decided it was too dangerous.
“We gave one of our cars to the local territorial defense forces. We used the other car to flee,” Nika said. The third vehicle remained in the garage — the couple hoped to get it back when they would return home.
They packed the car with Nika’s pet chinchilla, a pet cage and food, and some clothes, snacks, and documents.
“We picked up my husband’s parents who also lived on the outskirts of Kyiv, and we drove to Western Ukraine,” Nika recalled, “It was a freakishly long car ride, and it took us almost three days, but it was worth it. We would all be dead if we didn’t leave.”
Her face grew solemn as she finished saying this, and she showed me photos of her second home after the Russian occupation: everything was destroyed, there were cars and rubble on the streets and houses without roofs. Her voice, usually robust and strong, grew suddenly low and quiet.
“My neighbor was killed,” she finally said, “His body was torn into pieces by homeless dogs because it was lying on the streets for a week. They only found a carcass.”
A BROKEN HOME
Nika’s neighbor lived next door, his house is now nearly destroyed. Nika learned about his death in May when she visited her home for the first time after the Russians left the area.
“I remember driving back there and seeing what I saw, and I was getting emotional. All this time, I tried to keep my distance and stay as calm as possible, and I block all emotions, good and bad, but back then, I just could not,” the woman recounted.
She saw the destruction of the region that had welcomed her and became her second home in 2014.
“Our house is one of the few that survived on the street,” Nika said, “Russians took everything valuable and even things which didn’t make any sense. The third car we left was gone, the TV, the washing machine, all the electronics, they even took clothes and some trinkets.”
“My husband says that we now have to start from scratch because we’re basically at a square one. But we’re much better off than most of our neighbors because at least, we still have a house,” Nika sighed.
“I was unsure if I wanted to come back at first, after all that happened,” the woman reflected, “Every street has seen so many deaths, there were corpses everywhere. I was worried about how to live with all this trauma and pain because it will definitely stay with people in the long run.”
“But I decided that as long as Ukraine is here, I am here,” Nika continued, “My husband agrees. We will restore our home and our country.”
Now, Nika is collecting evidence of the Russian war crimes in Ukraine. She is interviewing people and helping preserve the testimonies of survivors. She is also working on identifying the names of the Russian soldiers who are accused of committing those crimes.
“It is a terrible task to hear and think of those crimes again and again when talking to people. I cry, and people cry as we recollect those stories and those memories,” Nika says, “But it has to be done.”
“I just think what will happen after the war. For now, people are still holding on because they have to; they don’t have the luxury to break down and cry and just do nothing,” the woman said, “But we are talking about a 40-million nation where nearly everyone is traumatized, and where we are facing about a huge collective pain that will take decades to address.”
“I share this pain, and I fear for my people. It is so unjust what is happening to us, so inhumane,” she sighed.
“But like everyone else, I pile up my emotions somewhere far so I can work, and I hope that I will have the strength to address these feelings sooner or later,” Nika concluded.
I ask her if she believes Crimea will be liberated.
“Soon,” she says, “I believe in the army.”
Anna Romandash is an award-winning journalist from Ukraine.
Photos in the text are by Nika. She took them in 2017, which was the last time she was in Crimea.