Life in Starobilsk under Russian occupation

Luhansk National University building in Starobilsk (Credit: V1snyk/ CC BY-SA 4.0 Wikimedia Commons)

The city of Starobilsk is located in the Luhansk region, very close to the Russian border and the demarcation line in the Donbas, which was broken by Russian and separatist troops after the war. The city was occupied by the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic, and residents faced interrogation and restraint of liberty. Local journalist Ksenia Novitska told about her experience of living in the occupation.


We’ve spent the last one and a half months in occupation. In early March, Russia’s occupying forces entered my hometown in the Luhansk region, Starobilsk. And life has basically stopped.

Over the first days, the occupants took down our flags and seized governmental buildings – including police and prosecutors’ offices and lyceums. A curfew followed. Yes, in the 21st century, we can only leave our homes at certain times.

With the forces’ arrival in the town, life became scary. You never know when they can turn up at your door, put a sack over your head, and take you in an unknown direction for interrogation. They look for any patriotic Ukrainians, local activists and volunteers, former soldiers and their families, and officials. Volunteers from battalions like Azov or Aidar are also in high demand.

And the occupiers find those who are needed. Of course, not without the help of local collaborators. Imagine people who have spent most of their lives in the city "leaking" information to the invaders. Some don't even hide it.

It's not easy to talk directly about what's going on during interrogations. An acquaintance of mine was there with his family. They were taken from their homes and brought somewhere. Most of the time, they just sat there and waited. According to him, the waiting was unbearable. He was interviewed. They questioned the information about the army. No physical violence was used. They were the lucky ones... Because they returned home safe and sound.

The situation in the city is unstable. We have no mobile connection. Specifically, the Ukrainian mobile operators do not work. The occupiers have deliberately "muffled" the signal so that people will buy Russian SIM cards. The internet connection is so weak that it takes time to search for information. It is problematic to call for an ambulance or report an emergency, call a cab, or just call your mother and ask how she is.

Food prices skyrocketing

There is also a problem with the availability of food. Although products have already appeared on store shelves, they are not of very good quality, as they were imported from territories that are no longer under the control of Ukraine since 2014. In addition, not only are they of poor quality, but they are also expensive. For example, if previously a good smoked sausage could be bought for 250 Ukrainian hryvnia **(**UAH) per kg (around 8 Swiss francs), now such a sausage costs 400-500 UAH per kilogram. I remember how my husband and I went to the store in mid-March and saw oranges at 150 UAH per kg.

It's hard to say if it’s the high price of the goods we bought or if our entrepreneurs just lost their conscience. But I know for sure that these are the consequences of the "Russian peace".

But not all entrepreneurs have tarnished their reputations by raising prices. There is a company called Green Valley, which is engaged in baking bread and bakery products. Not only did they start working on the third or fourth day of the invasion to provide the population with bread, but they hardly raised their prices. It is also worth noting the farms that distributed free milk to residents not only in their communities.

There are almost no jobs in the city. Only stores and wholesale bases are open. State entities stopped their work when the occupiers entered the city. In one day, thousands of residents, including employees of schools, kindergartens, social institutions, and government agencies, lost their jobs and found themselves without a source of income. Banking institutions are not functioning either.

The city is deliberately short of money. Since the bank branches do not work, in 90 per cent of the stores you can only pay for goods in cash. But "local businessmen" have not lost their jobs - they withdraw funds from people's bank cards for a commission, which sometimes reaches 20 per cent of the amount.

Traitors were not left without work. Among them are certain police officers, civil servants and judges who sided with the occupiers. However, they are in no hurry to pay their salaries.

There are also enough collaborators among the teachers. Yes, in some schools, full-time teaching has resumed. However, now under the Russian and LNR flags. Ukrainian language and literature, history of Ukraine, and its law among other subjects are no longer taught. But there is the History of the Luhansk region. One can imagine what you can learn there.

Endless days

A photo showing Russian flag in Starobilsk. (Credit: Ksenia Novitskaya)

Every day in the city is essentially the same. Life stopped. Especially for people who have lost their jobs and hobbies –  everything they used to do. Now there is one thing left to do: go to the shops, look at people and return home.

There are more and more strangers on the streets – displaced people from Rubizhne, Lysychansk, Severodonetsk, Kreminna, who have been evacuated to the territory outside of the control of the Ukrainian government. They are exhausted, impoverished, hungry and looking for shelter.

The city still has evacuation points organised by state departments, but they are already overcrowded. People are waiting for financial and humanitarian aid from the "new authorities", not realising that no one is going to help them.

When I look out the window, I see boys playing in the courtyard from morning until night. It's a welcome sight. Grandmothers sit on a bench and discuss the Russian pension, which, by the way, no one has paid yet. And only a few of them whisper and talk about Ukraine; about Ukrainians...