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The writing is on the wall: Ukrainian archivists collect Russian graffiti as evidence of war crimes

by Alexandra Keeler October 19, 2023 10:31 PM 7 min read
The letters "V" and "Z" used by the Russian military and the image of a skull on the fence of the building of the city employment center in Borodianka, Kyiv Oblast. (General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine)
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“It is not considered a war crime if you had fun,” reads graffiti left by Russian soldiers in the backroom of a bar in the village of Velyka Komyshuvakha, located in the Izium district of Kharkiv Oblast.

Before being liberated, the area was occupied by Russian forces for six months between April and September 2022, during which Russian troops set up a network of torture chambers and carried out a systemic, organized effort to terrorize the local population.

The message is just one of around 650 inscriptions translated and verified by members of the Wall Evidence project, an open-source digital archive of graffiti, drawings, diary entries, notes, and other markings left behind by Russian forces in previously occupied territories.

The inscriptions documented by the project span historical references, ethnic sentiments, and propaganda phrases, revealing a wide spectrum of attitudes from fear and confusion to enjoyment, cruelty, cynicism, and remorselessness.

The trail of graffiti uncovered in liberated territories leads the way into Russian soldiers’ minds, speaking volumes about their culture and psyche, the project’s managers say. It also provides evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine, as markings are at times accompanied by identifying information.

Some of the messages left by Russian soldiers served a practical purpose, such as informing civilians of their imposed curfew times.

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Others served more as intimidation, as seen in the inscription, "We are Russians!!! Ukraine trembled when Russia entered!!!" on a house in Sviatohirsk in Donetsk Oblast.

Roksolana Makar, one of the project’s researchers, says another large number of the inscriptions reference the Soviet narrative of World War II of the USSR’s victory over the Nazis, reflecting the idea that Russian soldiers are “continuing the deed of their Soviet ancestors.”

Religious messages, or ones linked to Russian minorities (the project has identified Chechen, Dagestani, and Buryat origins), and white nationalist rhetoric with swastikas and slogans like "Russia for Russians," have also stained walls in Ukraine.

Other cynical messages left in people’s homes read like a guest log from hell: "Your home is our home,” “Thank you for the hospitality Z” and “Sorry for the mess V.” The letters “Z,” “V,” and “O” are commonly used by the Russian military to signal their presence.

In a similar vein, some of the graffiti found in homes betrays shades of jealousy: “Lucky you,” reads one message.

Unearthing and documenting the painful evidence of Russian occupation has taken a toll on the project’s members.

"The first challenge was psychological. You see so much pain, death, and destruction just to find one image,” Anastasiia Olexii, the project's manager, told the Kyiv Independent.

Sociological analysis

“Graffiti is a projection of a person’s mind,” says Anna Samchuk, the sociologist tasked with analyzing the wall inscriptions.

Through her research, Samchuk has been able to distill the inscriptions into three main categories: projections of culture, expressions of fear, and the dissemination of propaganda.

Many of the inscriptions refer to Russian pop culture – literature, music, and memes, according to the project’s managers.

“This is very significant for us,” says Makar, “because it signifies that the inscription is not a particular thought by a singular person, but something more broad that belongs to Russian culture.”

Scholars Timothy Snyder and Serhii Plokhy have both written about the legacy of contradiction in Russian culture, particularly in the context of political and social dynamics.

For Makar, one of the most striking characteristics of the Russian army’s inscriptions is the prevalence of these contradictions.

In a diary entry discovered in Kyiv Oblast, a Russian soldier reflects on the invasion with mixed emotions, expressing both doubt about the invasion and regret for his actions, all while carrying on with violently interrogating Ukrainians and labeling them "Nazis."

While Russian propaganda narratives paint Ukrainians as Nazis, and Russia’s “special military operation” as Ukraine’s “denazification,” another diary entry reveals a Russian soldier comparing his own actions to that of the Nazis: “We, like the Nazis, plundered all the shops, broke the windows, people are afraid of us.”

“Lots of Russian soldiers have this total mess in their heads,” says Makar.

“They are like, ‘Ok, we are sorry that we made a mess and destroyed your houses and killed your people, but never mind, it’s not us, it’s your government or NATO.’ They have this very interesting outlook where everything is possible and you can do anything and you will find a justification.”

In a school in Hostomel in Kyiv Oblast, the words “We really didn't want this! …Sorry, we were forced," were written on a blackboard.

In Ukraine’s northeastern Sumy Oblast, another inscription reads, "Sorry we left a little mess in here; It's ok... Amerikosy (pejorative term in Russian for Americans) will help you clean up.”

Fully deflecting the blame, one graffiti found in Kharkiv Oblast reads: "There are two answers to all questions about Ukraine: 1. It didn't happen 2. They deserved it. Both are correct."

Samchuk points to the irony of the many "apologies" spray painted on hallway walls or lipsticked on mirrors of defiled homes.

“They are apologizing for the destroyed house on the wall of the same destroyed house,” she says. One such inscription, crudely carved into a wooden door (causing further damage) reads, “Sorry for breaking the door.”

Despite frequently using the word “sorry,” Samchuk hypothesizes that these messages do not reflect genuine guilt. “Rather, it is linked with the avoidance of responsibility,” she says.

The psychological toll

Olexii, Makar, and Samchuk all found the initial stages of this project very difficult psychologically.

“It was hard to see these messages and know that these are places where our fellow Ukrainians suffered or died,” says Samchuk.  

In addition to the psychological toll documenting Russian soldiers' violent words has taken on the group, they say they also face criticism inside of Ukraine for taking on this work.

"Some people say it's wrong to talk so much about Russia and what they do in Ukraine, but we want to tell the story about us through these images.”

The words "We will feed your children with bones" written by Russian soldiers on the wall of the cultural center in Novy Bykiv, Chernihiv Oblast. (Alexey Furman/Getty Images)

"To explain is not to justify," Makar emphasizes, underlining their intention to collect and analyze the inscriptions in support of Ukraine's cause.

Despite the challenges, a desire to honor the memory of those affected and unearth the criminal roots to reveal the often-overlooked dark side of Russian culture motivates the team to continue.

“Russians who come to our land are evil, personally and as a group. Their culture is about conquering and exterminating those who do not want to be conquered because they can,” Samchuk said.

Collecting evidence of war crimes

Residents of the towns and villages where these inscriptions were left are eager to forget.

Most of the graffiti documented in the archive has been removed as residents rebuild their communities. Getting rid of them is also a way of moving on in the wake of occupation.

However, just like in a crime scene, the bloodstains are recorded before they are washed away.

Although many of these blatant and remorseless admissions of crimes remain anonymous, some of the inscriptions are verifiably incriminating.

Olexii and Makar explain that some soldiers have left sensitive information, like the numbers of their regiments, or their Telegram and Instagram handles, at locations where crimes were committed.

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“There are also some inscriptions that could be evidence of torture,” explains Makar.

The Transfiguration Cathedral in Izium, one of the oldest Ukrainian Baroque masterpieces, was targeted during the occupation of Kharkiv.

A sign reading “mines” in front of the cathedral indicates the area was mined. According to the International Criminal Court, damaging and endangering cultural heritage sites constitutes a war crime.

The Wall Evidence team is collaborating with military lawyer consultants who serve in the Armed Forces, as well as international partners, to undertake forensic documentation related to the loss of cultural heritage.

This documentation is being carried out within the Ukrainian Heritage Monitoring Lab.

“Every word written by Russian soldiers on Ukrainian walls will be used against them in an international court,” Makar states in her text contribution to the Wall Evidence project.

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