Life and Death and in Between in Kyiv

Zelensky
Photo by Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
April 11, 2022

When Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky toured Bucha and Irpin last Monday, at his side was his aide Serhiy Leshchenko. I first met Serhiy in 2014, through Mustafa Nayyem, when the two of them successfully ran for the Ukrainian parliament, the Rada, on the heels of the Maidan revolution. Like Mustafa, Serhiy had also been a star investigative journalist, exposing corruption at the highest levels of the Ukrainian government. Even while he served in government, however, Serhiy’s investigative instincts never left him. In August 2016, he revealed the secret ledgers showing illicit cash payments to Paul Manafort, which ended Manafort’s run as Donald Trump’s campaign manager and began his downfall.  

At the end of last week, I spoke to Serhiy. I wanted to ask him about what it was like to tour the sites of atrocities committed by the Russian army, and he agreed readily. He scheduled the interview for midnight, Kyiv time, only to then push it off by an hour because he just wasn’t done with work yet. To say that he sounded exhausted after six weeks of war and living in the Ukrainian president’s office would be an understatement. I could barely hear him on the line. His voice was so faint that I had to listen to my recording of the interview surrounded by perfect silence in order to transcribe what he was saying. It was well worth it. I hope you find our conversation, which has been translated, condensed, and edited for clarity, as interesting and provocative as I did.


Julia Ioffe: You went with President Zelensky to Bucha. What was it like?

Serhiy Leshchenko: Before [going with Zelensky], I went to Irpin on Saturday with [advisor to Zelensky Oleksiy] Arestovych. It was the third day after it was liberated from the Russians and I just knew that I had to see it all with my own eyes. My journalistic instinct pulled me there. So we just got a car and drove there, no security, anything. That Saturday night, I saw Zelensky and told him that he should go, that it was important for the president to be there. On Monday, he went to Irpin and Bucha. By the time we got to Bucha, they had already moved the bodies. 

How much did you know about what was happening in these towns around Kyiv when they were still occupied by Russian forces?

Before they were liberated, everything we knew was still essentially hearsay. We heard rumors that people were disappearing. We had seen the video from, I think, a German channel, of a man who got out of his car and a [Russian] tank fired on him. There were a few examples like this, but no one knew about the scale until the towns were liberated. 

You told me what it looks like there, but what did it feel like?

It all looks very different in real life. When you see it on television, you don’t feel an emotional connection to it. But when you’re standing there with your two feet on the ground, and there are pieces of an armored personnel carrier right under your feet and then right over here is the shoe of some Russian tank driver and all that’s left of him is a piece of bone sticking out of his shoe, it’s a very different emotional reaction. It’s a very strong emotion. I’m trying to find the word for it. When you hear the air raid sirens in Kyiv, when I’m walking down the central street, the Khreschatyk, because I’ve been living in the president’s office for the past month, and there’s ten minutes left till curfew, and the air raid siren sounds, they turn off all the lights. It’s a terrifying feeling. The street is completely empty, not a soul anywhere. And when they turn off the lights, it’s just black, black, black, and the siren goes off—it’s not fear, it’s horror. It’s almost cinematographic. In Bucha, it’s not fear, either. It’s a different emotion. It’s closer to despair, I think. You realize that all this before your eyes has happened in just four weeks, and many of these things are irreversible. Thousands of lives—you can rebuild a house, but these people are gone forever. 

How do you think Zelensky felt when he was there?

He’s very empathic so he internalized it all. You could see that it hurt him. After this experience, his words, his rhetoric became much tougher.

Do you think these were conscripts or officers carrying out these apparent war crimes? And do you think there was an order given at the top or do you think it was spontaneous?

[If it’s just troops] turning into animals, it wouldn’t be a mass phenomenon, but it is. And the first bodies started appearing within five days of the capture [of these towns]. The first corpses were spotted by satellites on March 10 and 11. They wouldn’t have had time [to turn into animals]. It wasn’t random. In Bucha, there’s a summer camp and there, they set up—I wouldn’t call it a concentration camp, but it was where they took people. In one of the rooms, five people were found who were standing on their knees with their hands tied behind their backs and shot in the back of the head. They had been dealt with in a conscious manner. If it had been done emotionally, the enemy might have just randomly shot passers by. But instead, they rounded up these people according to some principle, then brought them to this basement, then tied their hands behind their backs, then shot them. There was thought put into it. 

I think there was an order to act without mercy. I don’t think there were specific instructions that everyone had to have their hands tied with white tape. I think the instruction was to act without mercy, to not spare the mothers or the children, which is why there are so many examples of these kinds of murders. 

Are you hearing about anything similar happening in other parts of Ukraine occupied by Russian forces, say, in Kherson or Mariupol?

In Mariupol, there is an expectation that the scale will be even bigger. Kherson was basically taken without a fight, so the repressions are more political: cracking down on protests, kidnapping journalists. 

You revealed the documents that brought down Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. Rudy Giuliani accused you of doing it to help Democrats. Because you got caught up in all that, I wanted to ask you about a line of argument that has become popular with Republicans here in the U.S. They say that if Trump had been president now, Putin wouldn’t have invaded Ukraine. What do you think about that?

There’s a Russian expression that history doesn’t understand the subjunctive. It’s impossible to predict. Maybe there wouldn’t have been a war, or maybe there would have been a war but Ukraine would have gotten far fewer weapons and there wouldn’t be the kind of sanctions [on Russia] that we’re seeing today. I will say this, I think that no matter who would have been in power [in the U.S.], Ukrainians would still think that America could do more to support Ukraine. This is a pretty popular point of view in Ukraine now, that America isn’t supporting us enough.  

How do you personally think the U.S. could do more to help?

I was a witness of how the whole story of the [MiG fighter] planes went from a big hope to a big nothing. Just a big nothing. We waited every day for them to make a decision and when Poland said they were ready to transfer them to the Rammstein base in Germany, we were sure that the next step was transferring them to Ukraine. But a month has passed and nothing has happened. For Ukraine, air support is the most important thing. We can win the ground war but they’re attacking us from the air. We don’t have enough to defend ourselves in the air. 

If you were speaking to the American people, who are afraid that they’re going to get dragged into a direct military confrontation with Russia and World War III, what would you say to convince them that the U.S. should help Ukraine more by closing the skies and giving it airplanes?

Ukraine got security guarantees from America in 1994 after giving up its nuclear weapons. It was America that had demanded this. If you’re talking not about the form but the substance of the guarantees, the Budapest Memorandum guarantees were very weak. But they were guarantees nonetheless. Everyone understood that if you give up nuclear weapons, you have to be compensated for this loss by getting security. According to this principle, we have the right to count on American support. Because if we hadn’t given up these weapons, Putin wouldn’t have invaded. 

The second point is one of values. Ukraine is standing up to the enemy and defending values that are shared by Ukraine and America and European countries. This is a war of values, the values that have made Western civilization so successful. Ukrainians are dying in trenches today for the same values that the grandfathers of today’s Western politicians died for in the trenches of World War II. Their grandchildren are enjoying the results of that victory, having forgotten the price that was paid to achieve it. Today, Ukraine is in the same situation. It’s a far more European and NATO country than the current members of the E.U. and NATO.  

What about American fears that this will set off World War III?

It’s absurd. If Russia has become so weak that it couldn’t hold on to Bucha, Irpin, and Hostomel, then what World War III could you possibly be talking about? They’re just incapable of doing it. The threat of using nuclear weapons is just the appearance of a threat. He’ll never fire it. Because this decision isn’t made by one person. You can’t just press a button and a rocket starts flying toward America. 

To what extent do you make a distinction between the Russian people and the Russian government?

I would probably be the last person to tell people not to conflate the politicians and the people, but now it truly is impossible [to separate the two]. The last month has robbed me of that argument. We see the level of support for Putin. We can see who brought him to power, who made him the way he is. So yes, I think the Russian people bear a responsibility for this murderer.

Is this a common view in Ukraine? 

In my circle, this view is fully shared by everyone. Maybe I don’t have the full picture and you’d need a poll to really understand it, but even people like my wife, who always made a point of separating the two, no longer does that. This is the propaganda phenomenon. When Hitler was in power, everyone supported him. When he fell, people asked, who could have supported him? Who were these people who made him so all-powerful? I was recently reading the memoirs of [former German chancellor] Helmut Schmidt. He fought in the Wehrmacht and he wrote in his memoirs that he didn’t know about the concentration camps and the mass killings, he just fought and that’s it. Back then, you could still write that, because 80 years ago, there was no internet and no access to alternative sources of information. Today, no one can make that argument anymore because there is always the option of getting real information elsewhere, even in Russia. 

Do you think Russians want to believe it, maybe so they can sleep better at night?

They did the same thing when they shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. They invented the Spanish flight dispatcher Carlos. They invented a Ukrainian jet fighter that flew over the plane, then they said that the plane had already been filled with cadavers or hostages. Then they said that Ukraine shot the plane down. The classic tactic of Russian propaganda isn’t to advance their version of events, but to undermine people’s trust in any version, to advance the idea that the truth is unknowable, that everything is so complicated and everyone around you is lying so much that the truth will never come out anyway. This way, they’re not advancing their own version but are instead destroying the truth. 

Why do you think the Russian people buy this?

Because they’ve been turned into slaves. A slave will carry out any command for a plate of soup—or a portion of propaganda.

I’ve been asking this of everyone I speak to, so I’ll ask you, too: How do you think this ends—and when?

Let me tell you a story. On the Sunday before the war started, I was with a group of current and former Rada deputies at the Munich Security Conference. We had our own room where we took meetings, and all kinds of people would come talk to us— current and former defense ministers and foreign ministers of various countries—and the last person we talked to was [member of the European parliament and former Polish foreign minister (and husband of Anne Applebaum)] Radek Sikorski. Everyone but Radek was giving us platitudes, saying [about the prospects of war], maybe yes, maybe no, that Ukraine has already won—it was basically political demagoguery. And the last person we talked to was Sikorski. He took a bucket, filled it with cold water, and dumped it on our heads. He said, There will be a war and it will happen this week. This was Sunday, February 20. [Russia invaded on the 24th.] And he said, This week, there will be a war in your country. You will be destroyed in three days. No one will help you. Only if you quickly destroy 10,000 Russian soldiers, 100 Russian aircraft, and 300 Russian tanks. If you do this, countries will start giving you weapons and impose sanctions on Russia. When he said it, there was a deafening silence. All of our eyes were bulging out of our heads because this was so unlike what everyone else was telling us and it was totally not what we wanted to hear. It was like hearing from the herald of the apocalypse. 

After that, everyone looked like they had seen a ghost. We tried to distract ourselves, but it was impossible to unhear what he said. Then we came back to Kyiv, and on Tuesday, Antony Blinken said the war would start in 48 hours. 

It still didn’t compute at all because it’s just impossible to believe that there will be a war in your country tomorrow. And if everyone is saying there will be a war, that means there won’t be a war, right? Because the plans have been exposed already. And on the morning of the 24th, I woke up with a start. And while I was trying to find where I could read Putin’s address, I started hearing explosions at Boryspil. So to answer your question about when this ends: if I couldn’t predict that it would happen at all, I can’t tell you when it will end. 

There’s been some evidence of Ukrainian troops also apparently committing war crimes. Is there a difference between Ukrainian and Russian troops committing war crimes?

It is different. It reminds me of the film Fury with Brad Pitt, where there are tank battles inside a city, because you see how commands given at the top don’t always get all the way down the chain of command or aren’t always followed. And at some point, it just becomes a self-reinforcing process. There are several answers here. First is that Ukraine is on its own land. It is defending its own territory and isn’t taking something that doesn’t belong to it, and so it is beginning from a stronger moral position. The moral advantage has been on Ukraine’s side from the first second of this war. 

Second, Ukraine values its reputation. Of course, war has all kinds of manifestations. It’s never something that’s waged in white gloves. But because Ukraine values its reputation, when something like this happens, when there is a suspicion that the rules of war have been violated, of course Ukraine will always demand that this be investigated. This corresponds to the moral imperative of the Ukrainian army so that it doesn’t become like animals. 

Your prosecutor general’s office is currently working on investigating and documenting everything that happened in the Kyiv region. Do you have any hope that this results in anything real, like a trial?

Yes, of course. If we could do it with Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, which happened on territory we didn’t control, where the artillery installations were controlled by secret units of the Russian army, then we can do it here because it’s happening on territory we control and the technology—geolocation and such—has gotten so much better in the last eight years. 

But no one went to jail for shooting down the plane, no one was punished.  

We’re not talking about someone going to jail, we’re talking about having a tribunal. The case was brought by a prosecutor and the trial is still going. 

But do you hope to see specific people brought to justice?

I hope that specific people are identified and charged. The question about whether they’re caught or not, this is not the goal in Ukraine because so many criminals from the time of [former president] Viktor Yanukovych have fled that our goal has become investigating and charging these people, and having a judicial process independent of the fact of whether this person is physically in Ukraine or not. So that will be our goal here: establishing facts. Plus I think Ukraine will form—or maybe it will form on its own—a group that will seek revenge all over the world, the same way Israel does. 

By the way, I think that, with time, pro-American sentiment in Ukraine will really ebb. 

Despite everything America has done for Ukraine?

Because of everything America hasn’t done for Ukraine. I think our society will start asking why this happened. I don’t think America will become an enemy, but it will become more like Germany [is for us]. But I don’t think pro-American sentiment will become the primary reference point in Ukrainian politics. 

What will be? It certainly won’t be Russia, so will it be Europe?

I’m talking about something else. Before, in order to run for president or to have some kind of political future, our politicians flew to America and tried to be liked over there. Now, Ukraine will be on its own. Now, having some kind of internal political support will be more important than having the approval of the Americans. 

What’s happening today will determine the rest of the 21st century. If the second half of the 20th century was all about the consequences of the Second World War, what’s happening now will determine what happens for the rest of this century. We don’t know what that will look like or what it will lead to yet, but this is the big catastrophe of the 21st century. Back then, the issue was that people became like animals. Now, the problem is that, even though humanity has reached such heights of technological and intellectual development, and yet, at the same time, we’re seeing this absolutely medieval war. 

I think America is trying to drown Russia using Ukrainian hands, making sure it sinks to the bottom, but not too fast. Because we know that this could really be sped up if America shows itself to be part of the process. As it stands now, it’s help is a drop in the ocean at a time, and that way it stays out of the game but achieves its ends with our hands. This opinion is quite common in Ukrainian politics. 

This sounds a lot like the view in Moscow, which is that Ukraine isn’t an independent country but just an American tool to be used to destroy Russia.  

But it’s different. We think America can end this horror very quickly if it gets involved, rather than worrying that a country that is so economically and politically weak that it can’t take Irpin could start a world war. Russia thinks that there’s a global conspiracy against Russia. We’re not talking about a conspiracy. We’re saying that if there’s a master of the house, he can restore order very quickly.

Can I share one more thought with you? I’ve been carrying it inside of me for a long time. 

Sure. 

This is all hard, but it’s especially hard to think that the people who have left Ukraine might not come back, that they might use this war as an excuse to sever their ties to Ukraine. When I see some friends who have left, you see that they’ve rented a house, and now their kids are starting school or learning French, you feel a certain irreversibility, that first of all, life will never be the same, and second, these people have chosen a different life. It really undermines you because then you don’t know why you’re doing all this. Or weakens your arguments. 

What’s the alternative? To stay under the bombs with their kids?

I’ll put it this way: of the four million who left, only about a million were under any real threat. Some left because they panicked. Some left because they were looking for an excuse to leave. And only some left because they really were at risk. But it’s not just whether you left, it’s whether you return. 

As we’ve seen from other wars, the longer they go on, the less likely it is that refugees go home, because they start growing roots in their new places. 

Yes, and this root-growing causes me internal, spiritual pain. You start feeling like you’ve been fooled. But I guess everyone lives for themselves, everyone sets their lives up as they see fit.

And you feel like people aren’t sacrificing as much as you are?

Well, I’m sacrificing a lot less than the people who are doing the fighting. Those people are really sacrificing. But yes, you stay here and you count on the fact that it will be valued and when people leave, and live just for themselves, you feel deceived. 

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