Spring of 2022 was a challenging period for Ukraine, particularly for those territories that were invaded by the Russian army. It was a time of uncertainty. Striking from Belarus, the invading forces came dangerously close to the capital. They moved more slowly than anticipated, meeting heavy resistance every step of the way. Still, they were greater in number, and the Ukrainian military was not as prepared as it should have been, given the threat dating back to 2014. Russian casualties did not stop their convoys from moving south. One by one, small towns and villages were occupied. Kyiv, however, proved to be a much tougher target; Russians were stopped a few kilometres away from the city’s outskirts.
For several weeks, it was unclear how this standoff would end. Each day was filled with skirmishes, artillery engagement, and battles for control over the sky. On the Western side, the Ukrainian army held positions in Irpin, a prosperous town that, along with its northern neighbour Bucha, was a popular residential area for wealthy families who work or do business in Kyiv. The Russian army controlled Bucha and a large part of Irpin until it was forced to retreat from the northern regions of Ukraine in the early April.
Widespread claims of Russian soldiers marauding and terrorising the local population were finally confirmed. Bucha became known because of the numerous war crimes committed there; photos of bodies in the streets, mass graves, and ruined buildings were published worldwide. Many foreign politicians who visited Kyiv after the invading army was repulsed were taken there to witness the destruction left by it.
Three months after the Russian forces withdrew from the Kyiv region, I visited Irpin and Bucha to see how the towns were dealing with the consequences of the war. The capital’s outer defences, particularly heavy in the west, were still in place, complete with trenches, sandbags, concrete blocks, and hedgehogs. The road beyond the checkpoint, however, was wide and smooth, almost undamaged and full of vehicles.
The first impression of post-invasion Irpin was nothing short of apocalyptic. Some buildings were utterly destroyed, while others stood roofless. There were numerous shelling marks scarring the parts of town that had been held by the Ukrainian army and relentlessly fired upon. A small church had all of its windows smashed and its facade damaged by what looked like fragments from a nearby shell explosion. Further on, there was the famous blown-up bridge over River Irpin, often featured in photos; a rather pretty temporary one was built next to it.
As I reached the town centre, the mood changed. There were still many damaged buildings, but fewer than I had expected to find. Some were already repaired. Shops and cafes opened their doors to the public, and traffic filled the streets. People who had previously left returned to their homes and revived their businesses; their number was not even close to the pre-war abundance but still quite large given the circumstances. A common sentiment among the population is that Ukrainians cannot afford to indulge in woe but should do their best to rebuild, regain lost wealth, and live on.
The Irpin House of Culture, near the local stadium.
PHOTO: DARIA FEDOTOVA
However, not everything was easily restored. The local stadium—modernised just a few years before the invasion—and its vicinity were particularly battered: the Irpin House of Culture, a neoclassical concert hall, appeared to have suffered from a direct hit. The square around it had numerous marks of mortar fire—including a crater near the World War II monument. The old office centre on the other side of the road had a few holes in it and did not have a single surviving window. A car parked near the main entrance was riddled with bullets. A side path led to a five-story apartment building with a whole section burned down; its intact parts were still inhabited, and broken glass was replaced with plastic sheets.
Damaged apartment block, Irpin.
PHOTO: DARIA FEDOTOVA
The entrance to Bucha was decorated with a large banner advertising a fundraiser for the town’s restoration. The work had already begun; the streets were thoroughly cleaned, lawns mowed, and a fresh coat of paint applied where necessary. Some houses were burned, and some gates were broken, but the majority looked neat—at least, from the outside. The central boulevard was almost as good as new, save for a few shattered shop windows and damaged benches. However, an attentive observer could notice scratches on the pavement, cracks in the park trees, and a few stumps left from those that took direct hits. A pity, since the town is well known for its old pines.
On the square with a monument to the Afghan war (which was, naturally, targeted, although it survived the assault), I discovered a family-owned restaurant that was not only open but quite crowded. Its terrace had clearly seen some action, judging by the bullet holes in the glass and wooden joists. This did not seem to bother anyone and definitely did not affect the quality of food and service. Once the initial shock wore off, the town gradually began to return to normal. If not for the occasional ruins, it would be hard to imagine its recent adversity. Still, a lot may be hidden from the public eye behind walls and fences.
Afghan War memorial, Bucha.
PHOTO: DARIA FEDOTOVA
As if the initial devastation was not enough, withdrawing Russian troops left behind thousands of booby traps hidden in residential areas. Several months later, most of the Kyiv region is reasonably safe, including Irpin, Bucha, and the surrounding villages.
Yet there are other remnants of the invasion to be found in the forests. On a side road leading to the highway, I discovered the rusty remains of a Russian convoy caught in an ambush. There were ten tanks and armoured troop carriers—or, rather, their burned and disfigured remains—pushed into the bushes to make way for the traffic. A couple of tanks were hit so hard that their turrets were blown off. The site was popular: about four or five cars were parked there, and passersby, including a school boy, wandered around taking photos. Unlike showpieces in a history museum, these were actual military vehicles that had recently taken part in a real battle. For many, this thought still seems outlandish, even after half a year of full-scale war.
Nevertheless, the Ukrainian people are both resilient and resourceful. Despite the spring events, Irpin and Bucha did not become a depressing wasteland but immediately started rebuilding. Many residents returned as soon as sappers finished clearing the booby traps, and the international community provided generous donations to aid them. The towns became the symbol of the war crimes committed by an invading army and, as such, were often visited by European delegations. Yet it seems wrong for their names to only be associated with suffering; after all, they are putting a lot of effort into becoming even more prosperous and vibrant than they were before.