Vadim Shishimarin, 21, is the first Russian soldier tried for a war crime in Ukraine since Russia began its all-out war on Feb. 24.
He faces a life sentence for violating the laws of war by killing a civilian during the Russian troops’ retreat from Ukraine.
On Feb. 28, Shishimarin and four of his comrades in arms were driving a stolen civilian car through the village of Chupakhivka in Sumy Oblast near Ukraine’s northern border with Russia.
A 62-year-old villager, Oleksandr Shelipov, was unlucky enough to be passing by. Shishimarin took his Kalashnikov assault rifle and shot him in the head.
This high-profile case attracted the attention of over a hundred journalists from all over the world. The Kyiv District Court where the case was first heard on May 18 was unable to fit them all, so the judges moved the hearing to the bigger building of the Court of Appeals.
As he addressed the court on May 19, Shishimarin pleaded guilty and said he was ready for the harshest penalty he deserved. The prosecutors asked judges for a lifetime in jail for Shishimarin. Kateryna, the widow of Shelipov, agreed but said there could be one exemption.
“If he is exchanged for the Mariupol defenders, our boys,” she said referring to the soldiers evacuated from Azovstal steel plant days earlier, “I won’t oppose, I will be for it.”
‘My husband was everything to me’
On the morning of Feb. 28, Shelipova’s husband Oleksandr decided to ride his bicycle to the center of the village. He wanted to check out the consequences of the Russians’ overnight shelling.
Shelipova did not like the idea but she let him go. When he left, she saw a car passing by her house.
“I saw this young man,” Shelipova said in court pointing at Shishimarin, “who was holding a gun.”
Shelipova then heard a few gunshots. “I got scared and froze, leaning on a pillar for seven minutes or even more,” she said.
“When everything calmed down, I opened the gate, came out and looked around and saw my husband lying there… I ran to him, but he was already dead, having been shot in the head,” Shelipova said.
It was too late to save Oleksandr. His head was heavily wounded. Together with neighbors, his wife covered Oleksandr with a piece of fabric.
“He was everything to me. He was my defender,” Shelipova said. The couple had two children. Their daughter died at a young age. Their 27-year-old son lives separately. They also have two grandchildren.
On Feb. 28, after Shishimarin’s commander was killed, their unit was ordered to take wounded Russian soldiers and bring them back home.
They formed a convoy out of five vehicles and started their retreat to Russia.
“In a couple of hours, this convoy was destroyed (by the Ukrainian armed forces),” Shishimarin said while speaking in court.
Then Shishimarin saw his peers shooting at a civilian car, a grey Volkswagen, which was passing by.
“There was an officer, a captain, and he told me to go check the car and have it join our column, but since I could not drive and I told him about it, he assigned someone else to do it,” he said.
An ensign got behind the wheel. Apart from Shishimarin and the ensign, there were three other soldiers in the vehicle.
“An ensign, Makeev, saw an old man who was talking over the phone,” Shishimarin said, referring to Oleksandr Shelipov.
“He told us, ‘this man will turn us in, he is calling the (Ukrainian) military,” he went on.
“Then he ordered to shoot him. I did not,” Shishimarin said.
“Then another soldier I do not know, who was sitting on the driver’s right, he turned to me and started ordering me to shoot in a threatening voice and arguing that we won’t get to our troops, won’t call for backup, that we are in danger,” he went on.
“I then fired a round at him thus killing him.”
They then switched cars after stealing another vehicle from a civilian who was passing by them.
“After we crossed the bridge, we were ambushed by the hunters. Our driver was killed, and the car skidded into a ditch, into a swamp,” Shishimarin said.
Four of the Russians hid at a farm. Then they surrendered to a civilian at night. Ukrainian soldiers soon arrived and took them prisoner.
‘Did not want to kill’
The oldest out of five children, Shishimarin got conscripted to the army in June 2019. In ten months, he signed a contract with Russia’s armed forces, as he put it, to earn some money to help provide for his family. His mother raises her other children alone.
Originally from Irkutsk Oblast, a Russian region bordering Mongolia, he wanted to move to Moscow after quitting his military unit based in Moscow Oblast.
When asked why he came to invade Ukraine, he said his commanders told him the goal was to reach the city of Sumy and then return to Russia. According to Shishimarin, they had enough combat rations for three days.
When Shelipova asked Shishimarin what he felt when killing her husband, he said he felt fear.
“I did not want to kill him. I fired so they leave me alone,” Shishimarin said, referring to his comrades.
When Shelipova asked him whether he recognizes that he is guilty, Shishimarin said he does.
“I understand that you won’t probably be able to forgive me, but I apologize,” he said.