Izyum. City of Heartbreak

/ Ukraine /

The largest de-occupied city in Kharkiv region. Spiritual heritage and rich history of the area. Mass graves. The greatness of the cathedrals. Inspiration for recovery. Destroyed boiler houses. Since the Ukrainian flag was again hoisted over Izyum on September 11, people have been returning here. However, this is a different city. How did it live, what was close to the heart of the residents, what currently hurts them the most and what plans does the city have for the future? Read on.

This year, the whole country spoke about Izyum, and for many months these were just words: news briefs, fragmentary descriptions from those who managed to leave. Words of pain, words imbued with losses and sprinkled with concrete chips from destroyed buildings. We retelled, listened, described, imagined or did not want to imagine.

On September 11, Izyum appeared before the eyes of Ukrainians. The city that survived. The damaged infrastructure, the ruins of once warm and entire walls (many of which even have historical value), split by the wreckage of the street, places of pre-war celebrations and walks. Where to go? But people began to return almost immediately.

On March 9, the Russians dropped a bomb on a residential building. More than 50 people died. Photo: Viktor Kovalchuk/MIPL


If we compare this fact and the news of the last month — about the cold winter, about the inability to connect high-rise buildings to heating, about the terrible degree of destruction throughout the city — it seems that the residents are returning to some other Izyum. Some safer, warmer, more livable, returning to which does not seem so reckless. However, homecoming stories are usually not about prudence. They're just about home.

Going to your hometown, you imagine it as you once remembered. You remember the meeting places, your favorite vegetable kiosk on the market, painted curbs in the spring on a certain part of the street, from which it will drive away a little with a characteristic smell. You sort through the memories to which you are involved. You go to make it happen again. You collect things, partly already purchased during the war, away from home, because you left with the most necessary, and you think about where to put them, because the home closet may not be enough. You pack documents. You don't put an IDP certificate on top, you just put it somewhere, among other things. You're going where you're not an IDP.

View of the Cathedral of the Demolition of the Lord. Photo: Oleksandr Rybalka

Izyum have changed. He now has other habits, a different daily routine, other routes of movement

Izyum looks at his inhabitants comfortingly and a little guilty for what he is now. It is customary to speak of the injuries received in the struggle with pride, because these should be stories of resilience and courage, of courage and indestructibility. That's what they are. Only when your knee is bruised you can't lean on it. When your hand is broken, you can't hug it. When the face is sewn with scars, the smile loses its recognizable features.

Izyum now is not a city for everyone, because not everyone is ready to see it like that. Not everyone is ready for him to be so eager — because he won't be wrapped up yet. This is actually a veteran city that needs to be re-acquainted. However, understanding change is possible only in comparison with how it was before. So how was it?

City of addresses and histories

Panorama of Izyum. Photo: Oleksandr Rybalka

Raisins are morphologically divided into two parts by the Seversky Donets River. Thus, residents have the southern part of the city - the center, and the northern part - quieter and "grounded". At the end of the XVII century, the Izyum fortress was erected on this site, which also consisted of a "large" (current center) and "small" cities. It is from then on that the history of the city of Izyum originates, and 1681 is considered the official date of its foundation.

Any city, if you are trying to understand it, should be described through stories and personal memories. Such memories were shared with us by Sergey, an Izyum resident who lived in his hometown before entering Kharkiv University. V. N. Karazin. During his studies, Sergey often came to visit his parents, but most of the memories of the city originate from a young age.

View from the central square to the building of the Izyum City Polyclinic (right). Photo: Oleksandr Rybalka

"It's not that this division by the river is very pronounced in people's lives and the infrastructure of the city, but still there is a difference. Both historical and modern. There are almost all administrative buildings, most hospitals and the densest multi-storey buildings. The northern part has more private sector and a more relaxed life in general. When you need to go to the center, the locals say: "Let's go to Gorod," says Serhii. — A very lively point of the city has always been the central square with the same central park and no less central stage. On major holidays, the main street was always made pedestrian, fairs, concerts, etc. were organized. The stop "Shtuka" (from the name of the store "1000 Little Things"), perhaps, is familiar to every resident of the city.

Stop "Shtuka", to the destruction caused by the war, is a popular meeting place in Izyum. Photo: Oleksandr Rybalka

The stop "Shtuka", mentioned by Sergey, is one of the most popular "focal points" in the city. It is located right next to the city center, and this is where walks, meetings, dates, etc. usually began. It's now destroyed, as is the 1000 Trivia store near it. The building did not survive the occupation.

If you can somehow rank the monstrousness of the ruins left by the invaders in Izyum, then the center suffered the most. On the site of the central park is now its distorted reflection, as if in a broken mirror. Craters, mutilated trees, destroyed sites, holes from shells in buildings nearby - all this is now gradually being repaired and sorted out, but in the conditions of emergency preparation for winter it is not in such an urgent priority. People are no longer walking here. People in Izyum now walk quickly, from point A to point B.

Now the building near the stop "Shtuka" has been destroyed. Photo: Volodymyr Matsokin

Sergey's grandparents managed to leave for Kharkov. Serhii's mother remained and survived the occupation. When asked what the family's plans are now, Sergey replied: "My mother came to Kharkiv. But I couldn't stand it here for long. I helped her with renting a new container on the market and purchasing goods. She returned to trade. For as long as I can remember, I traded in the bazaar. Rides a car to Kharkov for goods. My grandparents also returned to Izyum. The house collapsed, and we will rebuild. Life wakes up and goes on."

Trade and markets in Izyum have always been of particular importance for urban infrastructure and even everyday life of citizens

If you can somehow rank the monstrousness of the ruins left by the invaders in Izyum, then the center suffered the most. Photo: Volodymyr Matsokin

"The busiest points of life were and remain the local markets - Central and Railway (as the locals call it, because it is located near the station). On Saturday, everyone went to the Central Market, and on Sunday — to the Railway. Some people, especially the elderly, went out just to take a walk without buying anything," says Serhii.

During the occupation, the markets acquired a significantly different meaning for raisins. This is no longer a place for a promenade — people came here hoping to find and buy at least something from food. In addition to the aforementioned Central and Railway markets, during the war, the center of life was also the "Bazaar near the church", located near the Holy Ascension Cathedral. Several shops worked there, people sold vegetables, and about 300 m from there — Kirichenko's well, where citizens (and the occupiers also) collected water. It was the well that saved the majority of Izyum residents from the fate of Mariupol residents, who at one time were forced to drink water from batteries and puddles.

Fragments of the city of Izyum, now destroyed by the Russians. Photo: Volodymyr Matsokin

Now the city is gradually coming to life, people are getting used to the new reality, in which outlets, post offices and so on begin to appear between destroyed houses and craters from shells. Winter is already a few weeks away, some residents are not without reason concerned about the issue of heating. But the city is preparing — more actively than ever. After all, unlike the northern territories of Ukraine, the Izyum region was de-occupied not on the eve of warming, but on the contrary — on the threshold of cold weather, to which it was necessary to have time to restore the boiler houses and communal infrastructure of the city destroyed by the occupiers.

Yuriy Bryl

This is how Yuriy Bryl, head of the "Beautification" of the city of Izyum, comments on the process of restoring the city and preparing it for winter: "The Izyum community is one of those that have suffered the most from the military aggression of the Rashists since the beginning of a full-scale invasion. For more than six months she was in the zone of the most brutal hostilities. The consequences of the atrocities of the occupiers are the destroyed 80% of the city. This is much more than our city experienced during the Second World War," Yurii compares. — Among the urgent plans of Izyum is the priority restoration of destroyed buildings, especially the dwellings of our residents. Immediately after the liberation of the city, the city authorities joined the work to ensure the livelihoods of the most critical areas of the Izyum community. First of all, electricity and water supply were restored. Currently, gas supply has been restored by 85% in apartment buildings and private houses, where people remained living after the rashist invasion. Work is underway to insulate apartments, replace damaged windows, doors, roofs. After all, the priority direction of the authorities' work in the de-occupied Izyum is to provide the population with heat in their homes during the winter.

Currently, restoration work on damaged infrastructure facilities is also actively underway. In the spring we will be engaged in the capital restoration of those objects that are completely destroyed. In conditions of limited terms of preparation for winter, the heating of apartment buildings remains the most acute issue. This is 40% of the total housing stock. Of the 22 boiler houses, we will be able to launch 9. All others are completely or partially destroyed. That is, out of 200 high-rise buildings, we will be able to connect only 70 to heating. With all the desire, we will not be able to restore or build new boiler houses in a few weeks remaining before the cold weather. Here we will try to provide apartments without heating with electric heaters. The issue of acquiring the required quantity is currently being resolved jointly with the regional administration, public organizations and volunteers."

Focal points formed by terrain

The main connection between the banks in Izyum is now a pedestrian bridge. Residents also call it "New" — since it was built back in 2004, and then simply because the name has taken root. Many of the Izyum residents moved on a bicycle, so the bridge project also provides special ramps so that people do not carry bicycles up the stairs. It was an important infrastructure link on the map of Izyum, residents loved this bridge. As a result of shelling during a full-scale invasion, he suffered greatly: damaged fences, basic structures, bridge coverings. However, in the occupation, it was he who remained for the inhabitants the only way to get from one bank to the other.

In particular, the opportunity to get to the other side was important for Izyum residents in the spring, when there was still a connection on Mount Kremenets, on the southern outskirts of the city. Then this location, as the place where the connection caught the best, was not yet so heavily shelled, and people went there to call family, friends, etc.

Pedestrian bridge over the river Seversky Donets, which divides Izyum into northern and southern parts. Photo: Maria Beskorsa

Quite quickly, the occupiers of Kremenets "shot", and it became dangerous to be there. Communication began to look for in neighboring settlements. We talked to Elizaveta Boryskina, a resident of the village of Oskil, which is located east of Izyum. There she survived the occupation. In Oskol there is a small hill of Mischievous — it remained the only "oasis" of communication until the last. Here is what Elizabeth told about the situation with the connection in those days, and how it affected the inhabitants of Izyum and Oskol:

"In March, the connection could still be caught — there was some kind of mountain in Izyum, and the shelling was not so dense. Then, sometime in mid-April, when the occupation began to spread, the connection began to deteriorate and disappear — not only here or in them, but everywhere in general. And soon after, in the area of May, the whole of Izyum began to travel to us. It has become much easier and safer for many to get to Beshket than to go to Kremenets. Many people wanted to call their relatives. At some point, the forays on Mischievous reached such proportions that there were about a few dozen cars parked nearby at a time. It was conditionally safer here: if in Kremenets you actually stand in an open area, then there is a levada nearby with a large number of ravines and irregularities in the relief, where in case of which you can hide.

Polovtsian women against the background of the night panorama of Izyum, which opened from Mount Kremenets. Photo: Oleksandr Rybalka

It should be understood that in any case it was a risk. The occupants knew all the places where people could call. Wherever you go, they could come to you with a check. But from a certain moment, closer to summer, an unspoken rule of a kind of "watering place" began to work on Mischievous: you could see orcs standing and talking to someone on the phone, and 10-15 meters from them there are also Ukrainians. For the latter, who, I repeat, came from all the surroundings, it was also a place where you could find out the news and at least break out of information isolation."

Surviving Legacy

Returning to Mount Kremenets, it is worth noting that this location was of considerable importance for the locals not only at the beginning of the occupation.


The ancient mountain saw a lot. It stretches a rosary of objects of cultural and historical heritage of the city, and in itself it has a significant memorial status. Here, back in March, the occupiers shelled a memorial to the fallen liberators of Izyum, installed after World War II.

This has its own bitter irony — almost first of all, those who unleashed the war have mutilated the reminder of the horrors it causes

"Attack" is a memorial to the memory of the Second World War, located on the top of Mount Kremenets, now damaged. Photo: Oleksandr Rybalka

"Almost all the Izyum residents climbed tanks and guns displayed along the Walk of Fame in honor of the heroes of the Second World War. Some even managed to crawl to the insides of those seemingly brewed tanks. The alley leads to the stairs to the top of the mountain — to the memorial complex, symbolizing the explosion, and the soldiers who are advancing in that explosion. On both sides of the stairs, lanterns are on display, as they say, made of unexploded shells from the Second World War," recalls Raisinian Serhii.

In the photo – Olga Salo, a member of the Heritage Salvation Headquarters, surrounded by damaged Polovtsian women during a rescue expedition to Mount Kremenets. Photo from the archive of the National Museum of the Revolution of Dignity

In the same Kremenets, thousands of years of Polovtsian women were damaged at the hands and weapons of the occupiers , a landmark not only in the Izyum region, but also in the entire Kharkiv region. For many months, the shelled location of their location was a wasteland and waited for specialists to eventually pay due attention to it. Since the city was de-occupied on September 11, the corresponding expedition has been organized, and in October specialists of the Kharkiv branch of the National Research Restoration Center of Ukraine, the Kharkiv Historical Museum, as well as team members from the Heritage Rescue Headquarters arrived in Kremenets. We talked to Olga Salo , who is responsible for meeting the needs of museums, logistics, forming a rapid response network and publishing projects at the Headquarters.

Olga Salo

"We took part in an expedition in the Kharkiv region. We visited several cities, including Izyum, in order to initially record the damage to cultural heritage sites," says Olga. — Together with the partners-restorers, we went to Mount Kremenets, where, in fact, the Polovtsian women stand, and examined them. It is already known that one sculpture is completely destroyed, while others have varying degrees of damage. We helped to record all the losses that were available. The wreckage of the sculpture, destroyed by the Rashists, was scattered several meters by a blast wave. All the fragments that were found and identified were collected, the restorers took them away for possible further restoration — it is not known at this time whether this can be done, but at least they will try."

Also, as part of the expedition, specialists visited the museum of local lore, located in the very center of the city, on Sobornaya Street. "I was struck by how much Izyum is mutilated in principle, how much is destroyed there. Compared to other houses, the museum building, fortunately, did not suffer too much," says Olga. — The museum needs priority restoration of the roof, because the roof is damaged. For the museum, such damage is quite critical, because in the premises for exhibits a certain mode of temperature and humidity must be observed. Of course, it will be very difficult to ensure ideal conditions at the moment, but at least it is necessary to stabilize them, so that later you have to do less work to restore the museum as such. Until the work is completed, all exposure facilities are packed and stored in a reliable storage."

Photo report from Mount Kremenets, visited by a team from the Heritage Rescue Headquarters together with specialists from the Kharkiv branch of the National Research Restoration Center of Ukraine and the Kharkiv Historical Museum to fix the existing damage, as well as collect fragments of the destroyed sculpture of the Polovtsian woman for further transportation and possible restoration. Photo from the archive of the National Museum of the Revolution of Dignity

The unique exhibits of the Izyum Museum of Local Lore include objects of local life of the period of the XVIII-XIX centuries, as well as a numismatic collection of rare coins and the altar Gospel published in 1707 in a silver and gilded salary — a gift from Peter I of the Holy Transfiguration Cathedral in Izyum.

In response to a question about the plans of the Heritage Rescue Headquarters in the Izyum and Kharkiv regions in general, Olga replies: "Of course, we have further plans to organize expeditions to the de-occupied territories. Because, in addition to the tasks of urgently fixing losses and injuries, we are also engaged in museification of evidence of this war. We take pictures, record memories, collect war artifacts: evidence of civil resistance, traces of the behavior of the occupiers on our land, etc."

Architectural Izyum

Izyum cathedrals are a separate reason for the pride of the city and its inhabitants. But now this pride is somewhat different - seasoned with pain, despair and rage towards those who have mutilated the sacred sights of their hometown. At the end of March, on the 22nd, the Holy Ascension Cathedral, known for the fact that it was in it that the miraculous icon of the Peschanskaya Mother of God was kept. As soon as the shelling of the monument died down, the press service of the Izyum diocese of the UOC published photos of the mutilated objects, leaving the pictures without comment. On the website of the Izyum diocese, even after the shelling of churches, there is no condemnation of either the actions of the Russian military leadership or the occupiers as a whole.

Another of the most prominent architectural and spiritual monuments of Izyum region is the Holy Transfiguration Cathedral. During the war, he was similarly hit by shelling and damaged. Built in 1684 in the style of Ukrainian Cossack Baroque, the cathedral is almost the same age as the city. At one time, it was an integral part of the fortifications, and later it was around him that the architectural ensemble of the center began to grow.

Izyum. Cathedral of the Demolition of the Lord

As a city with a long history, Izyum has a lot of architectural pearls. If you ask any Izyum resident about the local attractions, he will certainly remember the building of the former Izyum women's gymnasium. Erected in 1870 in the eclectic style, it overlooks the central square with a façade. Over the years of its existence, the building changed hands several times, changed its purpose, and finally in the building of the Izyum Women's Gymnasium there was an outpatient department of the Izyum Central City Hospital. Included in the list of architectural monuments of local significance, it is now burned and destroyed by shelling.

Chapel-bath near the holy spring "Kirichenko's well" in the city of Izyum. Photo: Oleksandr Rybalka

Special attention should be paid to the buildings of Izyum schools. Each of them is a center of memories and stories. The vast majority of them have now been destroyed — literally a couple of institutions have survived. This is a terrible loss not only for the Izyum educational system, but also for the local architectural fund. So, many of the Izyum residents in response to the same question about the sights of the city mention the building of the Lyceum No. 4. The former real school was founded in 1882 as a fairly democratic and affordable institution. Before its appearance, the only educational institution was the aforementioned women's gymnasium, where only daughters from noble families were accepted. In contrast, the school retained its educational function and turned into school number 4. Before the war, this institution was considered one of the best schools in the city.

Now the building has been destroyed, ruins have remained in its place - they still trace the architectural value of the building, its venerable age and stylistic color. However, this building, like many others throughout the city, needs to be restored.

The building of the Izyum Lyceum No. 4 (the former Izyum real school, built and opened in 1882) was destroyed in the occupation. Photo: Volodymyr Matsokin

Compared to the active, most accelerated preparation for the heating season, the question of restoring architectural monuments really does not seem so urgent. However, it exists, and not only state institutions, but also public initiatives are involved in its solution , and the Heritage Rescue Headquarters already mentioned by us in particular.

Olga Salo shared with us the processes of fixing the damage to the monuments and their subsequent restoration together with the foreign partner of the headquarters, the ICCROM Center (International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property): "We have developed a form of fixation of damage, which will eventually be transferred to specialists to formulate conclusions, on the basis of which a plan can already be developed, if not restoration, then at least stabilization of damaged objects. Currently, we plan to carry out a survey of the objects to which we have visits in accordance with this form and in this form to transfer our observations to professional responsible institutions. The most priority for inspection are buildings whose condition may deteriorate due to weather conditions and future frosts.

Photo report from the Izyum Museum of Local Lore. M. V. Sibilyov, now damaged. Photo from the archive of the National Museum of the Revolution of Dignity

The form indicates not only the scale of the destruction, but also such factors as the presence of rubble of the same brick near the structure, if we are talking about working with architectural monuments that have the appropriate status and require special treatment. Ideally, of course, this brick should be assembled and restored for reuse in the reconstruction of the monument, and we must understand that each situation is individual, and the final decision is made by the higher institutions of the restoration institute in Ukraine. Of course, we understand that in a situation with so much destruction — not only in Izyum, but throughout the country in general — we want to restore everything as soon as possible. But as a non-governmental organization responsible for the preservation of cultural heritage, we want to believe that this will be done properly, and the affected architectural monuments will be restored according to all relevant rules."

Night panorama overlooking the Izyum pedestrian bridge across the Siverskyi Donets River. Photo: Oleksandr Rybalka

Being at home

Does a city like the current Izyum expect courage from its inhabitants — those who have not left, and those who are returning now? Sure enough, yes. Bravery. Sustainability. Acceptance and patience. However, there is one common denominator in these features, which the city usually does not ask for, but it is given it. Love. We always talk about courage as something heroic, about resilience and indestructibility as something metallic-cold, but in its very essence, when it comes to people, it is not. You're brave for something you love. You are steadfast for those you love to survive. You're willing to buy warm blankets and generators because it's going to be cold at home, but you're here because you love this house.

It hurts you for the arteries of the city stitched with shells, because it is dear to you. You are bitter from the scorched windows in the buildings that you went to work or walked by on weekends. You feel despair in a city that you remember with your five fingers, but now you don't recognize it. You stay not because it's warm or comfortable here. And because it's yours. Because with you, these ruined streets will become exactly one person less abandoned, no matter how inhospitable and beaten they will be at first.

It's hard with veterans. Rehabilitation takes time. Thousands of people in this country have this need. Cities have it. Izyum are one of them. And they come back to him so that he doesn't go through it himself. For, quoting Zhadan, what keeps the fish in the river? Obviously tenderness.

This publication was created with the financial support of the Stabilization Fund for Culture and Education 2022 by the German Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Goethe-Institut