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Genocidal graffiti: Russian soldiers’ inscriptions in Ukraine show it’s not just Putin’s war

Russian soldiers’ graffiti in Ukraine expose a genocidal worldview, brimming with the imperialism, chauvinism, and simply hatred of Russian propaganda.
Inscriptions of the Russian military “Z Turn away Krym is ours” at the abandoned artillery installation 2C19 “Msta-S”. Kharkiv region. September 2022. Photo: Wall Evidence project
Genocidal graffiti: Russian soldiers’ inscriptions in Ukraine show it’s not just Putin’s war

The Wall Evidence project, curated by the Mizhvukhamy team, collected and archived hundreds of inscriptions left by the Russian military in Ukrainian regions occupied within the first months of the full-scale invasion in 2022. The areas that the project covered include Kyiv, Sumy, Kharkiv, Chernihiv, and Kherson. The collected inscriptions tell the story of the initial advances of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. At the same time, these images indicate how the Kremlin rhetoric of eradicating Ukraine as a sovereign state and Ukrainian identity is carried out by Russian combatants.

Russian soldiers graffiti UKraine genocidal
Locations of hate-filled graffiti by Russian soldiers in Ukraine. Screenshot from Wall Evidence Project website

The inscriptions echo and parrot Russia’s eliminationist rhetoric against Ukraine that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his cronies have been integrating into the Russian public space at least since 2008.

Putin started creating an aggressive elimination rhetoric toward Ukraine as an independent state after his failed attempt to establish Russia’s control over Ukraine in 2004. The Orange Revolution participants exposed an egregious voter fraud arranged by Putin protégé and Ukraine presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych and prevented him from winning the election.

Early instances of genocidal language toward Ukraine

During 2004 Putin undertook an overt linguistic gesture to refer to Ukraine in Russian by using the preposition “na” or “on.” The preposition typically designates geographical territories but not independent states. In English, this reference would be equal to the usage of “the Ukraine” instead of “Ukraine.” The same applies to the spelling of Kyiv in Russian sources that are published in English. In 1995, Kyiv officially mandated its new English spelling that follows the Ukrainian language name and dropped the Russified “Kiev.” The Kremlin does not recognize these changes and continues to linguistically mark Ukraine as a part of Russian space.

Statements undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty have been circulating in the censored Russian media long before Russia’s full-scale assault. The Russian narrative is that Ukraine is a “failed state” and a state that came to be by mistake. This now must be remedied through its eradication and the erasure of its people’s identity as distinct from Russians.

In his infamous 2021 article “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” Putin portrayed the Ukrainians as victims of “radicals and neo-Nazis” and the West. He also presented a distorted history of Russia and Ukraine, positing that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people,” i.e., Russians. That gave the green light to genocidal rhetoric that has been broadcast to the Russian population.

After Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Russian propagandists doubled down on the portrayal of Ukrainians as “radicals,” “nationalists,” and “neo-Nazis.” The calls for the extermination of Ukrainians intensified, and Ukraine presented as highly anti-Russian, became an “existential threat” to Russia. Vladimir Solovyov, a Kremlin mouthpiece, expressed overt threats to all who criticize Russia’s actions and unambiguously stated that Ukraine was nothing but an “intermediate stage” in Russia’s strategies to establish its global security. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, falsely accused Ukraine of following NATO instructions and rejecting Russia’s peace negotiations on multiple occasions. According to Lavrov, Russia today “defends its security.”

How ordinary Russians were turned into murderers and rapists through TV and smartphones

The presentation of Ukraine as a NATO proxy gained traction in Russians’ perception of Ukraine. As Timothy Snyder, an American historian, points out in Road to Unfreedom, Russia has always needed an external enemy to justify its aggressive policies, and to sustain its martyrdom and victimhood.

For Putin and his aides, there is no Ukraine outside Russia. In their vision of Russia as “a unique civilization,” Ukraine does not exist. Yet, simultaneously, there is no Russia without Ukraine. This understanding of Ukraine, unfortunately, resonated with the collective perception of Ukraine in Russia: Ukraine does not, and today cannot and should not, exist on its own.

In the former Soviet Union, Ukraine remained under Russian control. Russians have underestimated Ukraine’s ability to resist despite political pressure and Moscow’s attempts at physical extermination through the Holodomor and the Executed Renaissance.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians did not reevaluate their relationship with Ukrainians—Ukrainians remained for them “younger brothers” who had to be guided, protected, and punished if they misbehaved and deviated from the “Russian route.”

Erasing Ukraine through history textbooks

In a new history textbook for eleventh-graders written by Vladimir Medinsky and Anatoly Torkunov, the “special military operation” narrative about Russia’s war against Ukraine solidifies the erasure of Ukraine as a democratic, independent state. The authors describe Ukraine as an “ultra-nationalist” state. The Russian soldiers who fought against and committed war crimes against Ukrainians are Russia’s new heroes.

Russian hate and propaganda are part of the Kremlin’s intentional memory construction and knowledge production regarding Ukraine. This led to the deepening of Russians not seeing, not recognizing, and not remembering Ukraine. Younger generations in Russia, again, likely will see Ukraine only as an integral part of Russia.

The erasure of the memory of and about Ukraine is a signature of Russia’s current war. The Kremlin swiftly renames the regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson that Russia occupies. It also takes intensive and extensive measures to incorporate these territories into Russia administratively, economically, militarily, and culturally.

Laying the groundwork for eliminating Ukraine

The imperial term “Novorossia”—distorted and misinterpreted by Russian officials—has circulated within Russia’s information space since the initial stage of the Russo-Ukrainian war in 2014. The Ukrainian territories have been systematically presented on both official and broader public channels as part of Russia. The Kremlin has eliminated the territories’ Ukrainian history, culture, and names.

In today’s Russia, killers and terrorists become heroes and martyrs. Violence and aggression evoke respect and admiration. The death of the Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was mourned across Russia. Prigozhin was responsible for the bloodiest battles in Ukraine. Among his recruits were criminals who were imprisoned for homicide in Russia. They signed contracts with the Wagner Group to escape prison tortures and earn money. Notably, Prigozhin is mourned by those who support Russia’s war in Ukraine and those who criticize Moscow for the military aggression.

The atrocities committed by Russians in Ukraine provide insights into Russian combatants’ hate and spite toward Ukrainians. A perverse glorification of violence has become part of Russia’s systematic erasure of Ukraine as a nation.

As ghastly as it might sound, what sustains Russian combatants’ barbarity in Ukraine is not “the threat of NATO expansion” and “the dominance of the West,” as the Kremlin has touted Russia’s assault on Ukraine, but the sense of superiority, the spite and animosity toward Ukrainians as a people. “We [Russians and Ukrainians] are one people”—the statement made by Putin in 2021—is a driving force for Russian soldiers to kill Ukrainians and raze Ukraine to the ground.

Chauvinism

Ukrainians are dehumanized in Russian soldiers’ perceptions. The inscriptions rarely mention Ukraine as a nation. Ukrainians are called “Nazis,” “Fascists,” Banderovites,” “Ukrops” (slur for “Ukrainians”), “*itches,” “losers,” and “shmucks.”

Russian imperialism graffiti ukraine
“Beat the fascists. Russia for peace. No to Nazism. 1941–1945. Officers, Officers [lyrics of a Russian song by Oleg Gazmanov]. Z (Velyki Prohody, Kharkiv district, Kharkiv Oblast.Photo credit: Viacheslav Mavrychev, Suspilne, Kharkiv via Wall Evidence)
Russian imperialism graffiti ukraine
“Death to Nazis! Glory to Russia!” (Kherson, Kherson district, Kherson Oblast. Photo credit: Myhailo Palinchak via Wall Evidence)
Russian imperialism graffiti ukraine
“Ukrops [Ukrainians] are suckers schmucks and fags” on the door of the school. (Kropyvnia, Kyiv Oblast.Photo credit: Pavlo Smovzh via Wall Evidence)
“A soldier has three paths: 200, 300 and prosecution! ⓒ Sanya [The so-called cargo-200 is a term describing a killed soldier. Cargo-300 means a wounded soldier] Tour agency Wind companies. We will complete the task. Chop the Ukrops [Ukrainians]. For you, for Kavkaz, for Donbas. There is no withdrawal as well as salary. I hear the call to fuck Azov. Where the bullet cannot VOG-17 will help. Where parsha cannot AGS-17 will help :) Where a machine gun cannot VOG will help.” (Velyka Komyshuvakha, Kharkiv Oblast, November 2022. Photo credit: Defense of Ukraine, Twitter via Wall Evidence)

Inscriptions were left in public places, such as schools, shops, supermarkets, and administrative buildings. Private properties were ruined, vandalized, and marked by Russians. Inscriptions reiterate Kremlin propaganda and also reflect the current mentality in Russia, where the support for the invasion of Ukraine remains high. They testify to Russians’ longstanding imperialist and chauvinistic attitudes toward Ukrainians and their sense of superiority, which is driven by their belief in Russia as a “great Motherland.”

Russian imperialism graffiti ukraine
“There are two answers to all questions about Ukraine 1. This didn’t happen 2. They deserved all this. Both are correct.” (Velyka Komyshuvakha, Kharkiv Oblast. Photo credit: armyinform via Wall Evidence)
Russian imperialism graffiti ukraine
“Here are two caps for you [quote from the track of the Russian band Noggano – Tem kto s nami]. We are Russian and we are proud of it. I agree!” and an image of a red star and a tank. (Bohdanivka, Kyiv Oblast. Photo credit 1: Meduza via Wall Evidence. Photo credit 2: proslav via Wall Evidence)

A fragment from a Russian soldier’s diary (dated 24 March 2022) shows consistent use of slur toward Ukrainians: 

Russian imperialism graffiti ukraine
“Time 20:00. We got situated in a store. Took two khokhol [Ukrainian] bags and a blender for my wife. I want to get as many things for her as I can, but there is not much left. Everything has been stolen.” (This diary was discovered in Trostianets, Sumy Oblast. Photo credit: apostrophe.ua via Wall Evidence)

Another diary discovered in Katiuzhanka, Kyiv Oblast, contains the author’s confession about being “merciless” during interrogations. The author of the diary (only once he mentions his first name, “Konstantin”) summarized that all detainees “turned out to be Nazis.” Not only does the writer have no empathy, he enjoys the power of the interrogator’s role.

Russian imperialism graffiti ukraine
“I will not be wrong if I say that yesterday thanks to the collective efforts of humbly yours and his colleagues an interrogation of twelve people was conducted, all turned out to be Nazis. They were a pathetic excuse for warriors, their eyes were moving frantically, and their appearance was begging for mercy, but, as was expected, I was merciless, torturing them by cross, individual, and night interrogations.” (Katiuzhanka, Kyiv Oblast. Source: Wall Evidence) 

Imperialism

Russian soldiers draw Russian symbols over Ukrainian words and symbols. The Ukrainian language is corrected to the Russian language. In this symbolic gesture of correction, the Russian occupiers eliminate Ukraine as a state and culture distinct from Russia.

Russian imperialism graffiti ukraine
“Go Russia” on the kiosk. (Lyman, Donetsk Oblast. December 2022. Photo credit: Vchasno via Wall Evidence)

 

Russian imperialism graffiti ukraine
“Every missile is aimed at a khokhol [Ukrainian]” on the wall of a private house. (Kamianka, Izium district, Kharkiv Oblast. December 2022. Photo credit: Sashko Brynza, MediaPort via Wall Evidence)

 

Russian imperialism graffiti ukraine
“Primary school classroom,” corrected by the Russian military from Ukrainian to Russian. (Hostomel, Kyiv Oblast, Hostomel Lyceum. Photo credit: Batky “SOS” via Wall Evidence)

“Ukraine should not happen” may sound like boilerplate rhetoric of the current Russian government, but this illustrates the representation of Ukraine that Russia has been entertaining for centuries. The 1863 Valuev Decree that banned publications in the Ukrainian language summarized the Russian Empire’s attitude toward Ukraine: “The Ukrainian language never existed, does not exist, and shall never exist.” This understanding of Ukraine in Russia has yet to be critically reevaluated. Since Putin acceded to power, the tendency has been the opposite: Ukraine has been perceived as one of the “eternal lands” of Russia and the Ukrainian language as a language that cannot compete with the “greatness” of the Russian language. According to this imperialist mentality, everybody under Russia’s control should convert to Russian.

“Russia for Russians. Passage for Ukrops [Ukrainians] is forbidden!!! Fear 28 Fuck” at school. (Kropyvnia, Kyiv Oblast.)

In one of his alleged diary entries, Konstantin quotes Tsar Nicholas II, in express admiration for Russia’s imperial past. He is troubled not by Russia’s war of conquest, but by the fact that he might be held responsible due to “deceit” and “cowardliness” inside the army:

“I can’t but stop thinking that we will be held responsible for this war. . . . I recollect the lines from a diary of N. II (Romanov): Betrayal, cowardliness, and deceit are everywhere!” (Source: Wall Evidence)

For Russian occupiers, Ukraine is a territory of “lost people” who must be saved and liberated. Many images show Ukraine and Russia are viewed as one land: Russia. Ukraine as a separate state is a mistake that should be fixed, the Russian propaganda trope goes. Correcting this “mistake” entails the elimination of Ukraine as a state and the Ukrainians as a nation.

Russian occupiers look at Ukrainians as “inferior people,” and their mission in Ukraine is to “liberate” them from the “Kyiv regime” led by President Zelensky and from the influence of NATO.

Russian imperialism graffiti ukraine
“Zelensky sold you to NATO” (Shevchenkove, Brovary district, Kyiv Oblast. Photo credit: Obozrevatel via Wall Evidence)
Russian imperialism graffiti ukraine
“Ukraine is a brotherly nation of Russia, and we will protect it from fascism and from Bendera’s bastards P. S. Polite people” (sic) on a school blackboard. (Hostomel, Kyiv Oblast. Photo credit: NizhynNews via Wall Evidence)
Russian imperialism graffiti ukraine
“We don’t fear Biden and Macron. We are for Russia and OMON. For South and North, for Donbas. We’ll clean the bastards all at once” in the cell of the Kherson prison cell” (Kherson, December 2022. Photo credit: Stanislav Kozliuk, Tyzhden via Wall Evidence)

The Russians’ mission is to “educate” the Ukrainians and explain to them that Russia “wants peace” that is sabotaged by NATO and the West. Russians treat Ukrainians as an “inferior class.”

Russian imperialism graffiti ukraine
“Ukraine! Why do you need NATO???” on the wall of the room where the Kadyrov headquarters was located. (Bucha, Kyiv Oblast, Yablonska St. Photo credit: Zaborona, Pavlo Bishko via Wall Evidence)
Russian imperialism graffiti ukraine
“There will be peace soon” on the school blackboard. (Basan, Zaporizhzhia Oblast. Photo credit: Tymophii Berezhnyi via Wall Evidence)
Russian imperialism graffiti ukraine
“We don’t need this war. Neither do we. We were sent. Forgive us. We work by order. Sorr[y]. Russia peace. Glory to Rus and the Russian people. Let’s live as friends. Ok. Sorr[y] we left a little mess in here. It’s ok… Amerikosy [Americans] will help you) ——–> Clean up :D” (sic) on the whiteboard. (Trostianets, Sumy Oblast. Photo credit: Tymophii Berezhnyi via Wall Evidence)

 

“Good luck in your studies! The war will end and you will be restoring your Homeland. Be fair and honest to each other, lend a helping hand to everyone in need. We hope we will be friends! Become doctors, engineers, teachers – those who bring peace! God bless you, and once again forgive us for taking the school! Russians! Children, sorry for such a mess, we tried to save the school, but we were shot at. Live in peace, take care of yourself and do not repeat the mistakes made by your elders. Ukraine and Russia are one nation!!! Peace to you Brothers and Sisters!” on the school blackboard. (Katiuzhanka, Kyiv Oblast. Photo credit: Volodymyr Runets via Wall Evidence)

Expansionism

Many images say “Russia,” “V,” “Z,” and “Glory to Russia.” This is one of the ways to mark the occupied territory. Land occupied by Russian soldiers becomes “Russia.” This re-mapping aligns with the Kremlin strategy to not only establish Russian administration in the occupied territories but also to present the occupation as “liberation” of the “eternal Russian lands” from the “Kyiv regime.” Last year, the Kremlin declared the occupied territories of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk, and Donetsk oblasts part of Russia. Putin continues to specify that Ukraine was created thanks to Lenin and signals that Ukraine does have any right to any form of independence because its current territory is Russian.

Russian imperialism graffiti ukraine
“Russia! Russia is here!!” on building facades. (Trostianets, Sumy Oblast. Photo credit: Dmytro Zhyvytskyi via Wall Evidence)
Russian imperialism graffiti ukraine
Marking of the Russian military “Z” in the housing of local residents. (Kozacha Lopan, Kharkiv Oblast, September 2022. Photo credit: Sashko Brynza, MediaPort via Wall Evidence)

Expansionism and imperialism continue to be part of the Russian population’s attitude toward neighboring countries. A fragment of one inscription is an eloquent play on the meaning of the “Russian world.” In Russian, “Russkiy mir” can be interpreted as the “Russian world” and “Russian peace.” The inscription left on a piece of board says, “We need peace. The entire world, preferably.”

“We need peace. The entire world preferably. Canned army bacon. Ice cream and vodka.The house behind us is on fire – Well, let it burn. One more one less. Next time it won’t be the house on fire, but your ass. Humanitarian help [indiscernible]—no? Fuck off. No attack. It’s not scary yet. Attack – it’s not scary anymore. I will never forget so many tears of my country. The coefficient of defeat amazes the imagination. Hey guys, welcome to hell ZOV.” (Velyka Komyshuvakha, Kharkiv Oblast, November 2022. Photo credit: Defense of Ukraine, Twitter via Wall Evidence)

Some inscriptions left by Russian occupiers sound somewhat apologetic:

Russian imperialism graffiti ukraine
“Sorry – it’s war!” (Zdvyzhivka, Bucha district, Kyiv Oblast. Photo credit: Oksana Semenik, Mizhvukhamy via Wall Evidence)
Russian imperialism graffiti ukraine
“Thank you for the hospitality. Z. Sorry for the mess V” on the mirror. (Bucha, Kyiv Oblast. Photo credit: Hlavkom via Wall Evidence)
Russian imperialism graffiti ukraine
“Greetings from Siberia! We really didn’t want this! V. You v[…] Sorry, we were forced” on the school blackboard. (Hostomel, Kyiv Oblast. Photo credit: Roman Timenko, Mizhvukhamy via Wall Evidence )

Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, cases have occurred where Russian soldiers defected or inflicted self-injury to avoid combat operations. In Russia, there have been silent protests against the war, and prominent figures who left Russia after the invasion in February make occasional public statements condemning the war. The recent data also show that many Russian soldiers killed since the launch of the Russian assault on Ukraine are either from distant regions of Russia or from the regions that struggle economically.

Some combatants may have regretted their decision to join the Russian Army for financial or career reasons. Nevertheless, in most cases, the level of destruction carried out by Russian occupiers leaves little doubt regarding the intent of these messages. The goal is to further Ukrainian humiliation.

Russian imperialism graffiti ukraine
“Your home is our home” in the home of local residents.” (Velykodymer community, Kyiv Oblast. Photo credit: ProSlav via Wall Evidence)

For Russian combatants, the physical extermination of Ukrainians goes hand in hand with eradicating Ukrainian identification and cultural distinctiveness.

Russian occupiers and combatants are not simply “zombies” who blindly follow orders. The eradication of Ukrainians as a nation is a conscious act by Russia today. This month, the international UN commission investigating violations in Ukraine published a statement saying that, at the moment, they do not have a sufficient amount of evidence that meets the legal qualifications outlined in the Genocide Convention and provides grounds to confirm that Russia is carrying out genocide against Ukraine. At the same time, Erik Möse, chairman of the international UN commission, added that there are certain statements in the Russian mass media space that can be related to the incitement of genocide. The investigation is ongoing.

International lawyers and researchers document and investigate Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine to prove that they meet the legal qualifications of genocide. Russia has already employed vast media resources to not only spread the eliminationist rhetoric against Ukraine but also to construct and perpetuate a narrative that justifies and whitewashes the Kremlin’s aggressive policies.

This genocidal war actually reflects a deep inferiority complex. Moscow has already failed to subjugate the nation that not only resists Russia’s imperialism lasting for ages but also exposes its weaknesses and political, civic, and, in many ways, cultural impotence. Because of its inability to reconsider, rework, and reject its imperial past, Russia continues to welcome and espouse imperial thinking that embraces fascism disguised as patriotism.

Edited by Mike Cronin

Nataliya Shpylova-Saeed is a memory studies researcher. She teaches Ukrainian at the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University.

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