After the liberation of the Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Kherson regions, Ukrainians discovered graffiti and inscriptions left by Russian soldiers on the streets and inside the buildings they had occupied. The Ukrainian cultural nonprofit Mizhvukhamy is documenting these findings in Wall Evidence, an open archive created for future research and analysis of the Russian invasion.
“These writings need to be documented before people wash them away, which happens quickly because people don’t want to live alongside the traces of occupation,” Anastasia Olexii, the archive’s project manager, told Hyperallergic in a video call. Olexii stayed in Kyiv during the region’s occupation and visited nearby villages as soon as the Russians retreated in early April 2022. That’s when she and her colleagues, Mizhvukhamy’s founder Pavlo Haidai and philosopher Oleksandr Filonenko, discovered the various graffiti and decided to begin documenting them.
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The Wall Evidence team collected over 500 inscriptions during expeditions to the liberated areas by monitoring open sources and inviting people from front-line cities to contribute. Some of the stories the locals share are quite disturbing, the team admits, referring to an episode in a destroyed library where Russian soldiers “found the librarian’s lipstick in the drawer and made an inscription with it.”
Among the collected data, some topics and motifs prevail: the letters “Z” and “V,” used as military symbols in the Russian campaign, obscenities about NATO, slurs directed at Zelenskiy, and abundant Soviet insignia, such as the Hammer and Sickle, Red Star and “1941–1945” (dates of the so-called Great Patriotic War).
“Our favorite category is apologies. They make the most grammatical mistakes in them,” said Roksolana Makar, a researcher on the Wall Evidence team. “In addition, these apologies are often aimed at escaping accountability.” She provides examples: “This is war, I’m sorry,” or “Sorry for the mess, but it’s okay, Americans will help you clean up.”
However, with the war raging, apologies have become rare. Instead, the recent inscriptions appeal to nationalistic pride and military bravado.
“Often, in settlements where [Russians committed] especially many war crimes, inscriptions are associated with the glorification of Russia and the army,” Makar added. In a stream of aggressive propaganda, some of the inscriptions are openly bloodthirsty — such as one quoting a Russian song that has 1.3 million views on YouTube: “I will burn other people’s villages with a cheerful smile on my face,” it says.
Wall Evidence aims to be an additional resource for verifying the identities of Russian soldiers coming to Ukraine. Some inscriptions can provide insights about the geography and demographics of people enlisted for the war as well as reveal soldiers’ brigade numbers, making their identification easier. Along with other evidence, archival data may become a substantial ground for future war crime allegations.
The Wall Evidence team sees their data primarily as a source for international communication and artistic and academic research. The team had originally planned to recreate the inscriptions in Europe to show the narrative Russians perpetuate in their invasion of Ukraine. However, the idea eventually proved unnecessary: Many Russian immigrants voice the same statements in their own graffiti abroad.
“All of these clearly indicate the intentions of Russians,” Olexii explained, “not Putin or the authorities, but ordinary people who serve in the army but also live in exile for a long time.”