Until a few weeks ago, Bucha was a leafy, comfortable commuter town. It was even nicknamed ‘little Switzerland’ in reference to its affluence and cleanliness. Half of the town stands in the pine forests — the big, well-kept homes of the wealthy dappled in the sunlight by the tall dark needled trees. It wasn’t always that way: when Ukraine gained its independence in 1991 after the collapse of the USSR, Bucha was a relatively unknown village. Its modest claims to fame were that the writer Mikhail Bulgakov (author of The Master and Margarita) had a summer cottage here and that the railway station is a heritage protected landmark from the 19th century.
It was around the 1990s that my family also moved from the capital into the village. My mum remembers the sinking despair with which she surveyed the dirt track roads and run-down homes. But little by little, as Ukraine began to regain its confidence and investment filtered through, Bucha began to grow and develop. It was always slightly ahead of its time: the statue of Lenin that stood in the dusty town square was knocked down around the new millennium, fourteen years before the wave of decommunisation swept the country after the revolution. In an absurd twist, my aunt remembers Lenin’s metal head appearing in the garden, lying among the vegetables for some time, before disappearing without trace.
As the years went on, Bucha started to look more and more like a typical European town. Gone were the grey relics of Russian influence. Essential services like the hospital and library were given new life, and Bucha was soon voted the best town to live in all of Ukraine. My aunt told me that she would often go for evening strolls after dark and never felt unsafe: the town was full of young professionals, journalists, and musicians, and their conversations would drift from out of open windows.
The last few months before the war saw a flurry of activity in Bucha. In the autumn of 2021, a centre was opened to help people who wanted to start their own small businesses. Government officials were present at its opening and famous entrepreneurs shared their advice with the audience. In January 2022, a new shopping mall was opened with big technological brands setting up stores inside, making a mark on what just thirty years before had been a forgotten village in the middle of nowhere.
A few weeks ago, that progress stopped.
The newly opened shopping mall was destroyed by the shelling of the Russians. Computers, projectors, and electronic equipment were hauled out of the schools and medical clinics, and loaded into the backs of Russian trucks. The newly painted playgrounds were crippled and littered with mines, barely visible under the sand. The shops were blown open, luxury apartment blocks blackened, smooth roads mangled with craters. The metal in the town curled in the heat of the fires.
And those who had lived in that town for those short decades of prosperity, who had found work there, who had celebrated birthdays in the restaurants off the town square, those children who had enjoyed art classes, football camps, and acted in plays with their friends: many of them have now been murdered, tortured, raped, shot. Their homes have been looted, with everything from used lingerie to sofas stolen by the retreating horde. To complete the humiliation, reports have emerged of Russian soldiers graffitiing the infamous ‘Z’ symbol and slogans like, ‘Ukrainians, suck on us down here’ and ‘Russia is great’ on the walls of private homes and public centres.
As they advanced, the Russians remarked on was how prosperous life was not just in Bucha, but all over Ukraine. Perhaps it was a shock for people who came from a country where, outside of Moscow and St Petersburg, there is little opportunity and basic fixtures like streetlights are a rarity. Perhaps it was additionally shocking for people who consider themselves superior to Ukrainians — or, as they call us, ‘Little Russians’. Perhaps, when they saw what was good in my country, they felt jealousy and hatred. Not only had Ukrainians rejected them, but we had done well out of our independence. In some sense it may even have seemed logical to them, the ‘justice’ that they were delivering.
The whole world has seen images of that justice.
Julia Lasica is a journalist living in London originally from Bucha