Ukrainian village scarred by murder of mayor & her family prepares for long war

The grave of Mayor Olha Sukhenko lies next to those of her son and husband. All three were killed during Russia’s occupation of Motyzhyn, near Kyiv. Photo: Emanuele Satolli for The Wall Street Journal
The grave of Mayor Olha Sukhenko lies next to those of her son and husband. All three were killed during Russia’s occupation of Motyzhyn, near Kyiv. Photo: Emanuele Satolli for The Wall Street Journal


Two years after Russian forces fled, Motyzhyn has ousted a Russia-linked priest, has built a bomb shelter for its school and is pulping its Russian-language books.

MOTYZHYN, Ukraine—Two years ago, Ukrainian soldiers who retook this village near Kyiv from Russian invaders found the bodies of the mayor, her husband and their son buried in a shallow grave with bullet holes in their chests and heads.

These days the front line is hundreds of miles away, to the east and south, with the war in a violent deadlock. But the village is adapting for a long war.

The library is sending more than 10,000 Russian-language books—the majority of its collection—for pulping. Villagers evicted a priest linked to the Russian Orthodox Church and welcomed a replacement from the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine. The school has equipped an underground bunker with a stove, benches and games for children to take shelter and continue learning when the air-raid siren sounds.

While the U.S. and its allies are dithering over providing more and better weapons to Ukraine, villages like this one are going all in. Having experienced Russian occupation that left at least 15 people dead, including civilians who were gunned down in their cars as they tried to flee, Motyzhyn is bracing for the long term.

“Putin is choking on Ukraine, he can’t swallow it, but Ukraine is bleeding," said Tetiana Semenova, deputy head of the Kyiv Regional Council and a good friend of Motyzhyn’s late mayor, Olha Sukhenko. “We can cope, but we can’t fight against weapons with sticks."

Motyzhyn was a prosperous village of 850 residents located among forests and lakes some 30 miles west of Kyiv when Russia invaded in February 2022. In the first days of the invasion, the population swelled as people arrived from Kyiv hoping the village would prove safer.

Instead, Russian forces occupied the village and terrorized its population. They fired on civilians in cars who were fleeing Motyzhyn and nearby areas, killing dozens.

Ukrainians in the village fought to survive and resist. Sukhenko and her family distributed medication and food brought to the village by volunteers. They were also among many villagers who sent information on the locations of Russian military positions to Ukrainian forces.

Natalia Klymenko, 76 years old, recalls how she would share candles and matches with her neighbors. “The war united us all," she said.

Klymenko, a former farmworker, used to climb on a small haystack to count Russian tanks and report their location to her son, who was living in a government-controlled area.

After Ukrainian commandos ambushed a Russian armored vehicle and a truck in the village, Russian soldiers shot several civilians on the streets who raised their suspicion because they were wearing black.

Then, the Russians came for the Sukhenkos. According to Ukrainian prosecutors, Russian soldiers detained Sukhenko, her husband, Ihor, and son, Oleksandr, tortured them and then killed them.

When Russian troops fled at the end of March 2022, Ukrainian soldiers found a shallow grave with the bodies of the three Sukhenkos and a volunteer who had been bringing supplies to the village.

The Sukhenko family’s sacrifice has been widely recognized. President Volodymyr Zelensky awarded Olha Sukhenko a posthumous medal for bravery. The main street in Motyzhyn now bears the family name. Villagers organized a soccer competition last summer as a tribute to Oleksandr, a keen player. Ukraine’s postal service released a stamp with a portrait of the family.

A court in nearby Makariv is hearing a war-crimes case against a Russian sergeant accused of taking part in the torture and murder of the Sukhenkos.

Motyzhyn, meanwhile, is rebuilding and preparing for lengthy resistance against the Russian invasion, which officials in Moscow acknowledge is aimed at destroying Ukraine’s independence.

A few weeks after the Russians fled, villagers gathered at the church and unanimously voted to evict the priest linked to the Russian Orthodox Church and invite a new one from the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

One recent Sunday morning, the Rev. Ilariy, the new priest, held a service attended by about 30 villagers.

Inside the church, which is still scarred with small holes from shrapnel, stands a memorial plaque with 15 names of people killed in Motyzhyn during the occupation. “You are everywhere where we are," the plaque reads.

Among the attendees was 66-year-old Mykola Lytvynenko, whose daughter Yaroslava was gunned down by Russian troops during the occupation. He and his wife began regularly attending church after they lost their daughter.

“People who were touched by the war started to go," he said. “God saved me. Why? I don’t know."

Like many other residents, the Lytvynenkos received a free greenhouse from the government to plant some vegetables.

“There is a quiet life here like it was before. People work, plant their gardens," Lytvynenko said.

But differences are everywhere. Villagers rarely visit the pine forest where the Sukhenkos’ bodies were found, which used to be a spot for picnics and mushroom picking.

One wing of the village school remains heavily damaged by shelling. Several rooms were ravaged by fire and are still out of use. Others have been renovated with help from the government and foreign donors.

Near the entrance of the school stands a display dedicated to soldiers from the village fighting in the war, who total about 80. Residents regularly collect money and food parcels to send to the front.

In the first months after Ukraine retook the village, children were running or hiding under their desks after hearing any loud sound, but now they have mostly recovered from stress, said school principal Valeria Moskalenko.

“Our teachers can do everything," she said. “They are teachers and psychologists."

The villagers constructed a spacious bomb shelter heated by a stove and stocked with toys, board games and coloring books.

In the nearby village library one recent day, Russian-language books were piled high, ready for pulping. During the centuries that Ukraine was ruled from Moscow, Russia sidelined Ukrainian and aggressively promoted its own language, and the Kremlin has used cultural links to try to justify its invasion. The library has received new books in Ukrainian and English, and was holding an exhibition about the artistic works of Ukraine’s national poet, Taras Shevchenko.

Events in the village concert hall and youth club next door are on hold for now because the building doesn’t have a bomb shelter. But an amusement park on the edge of the village is working again. Families there one recent day enjoyed hot dogs and mulled wine as well as a carousel and slides.

Ivan Rudiak, a local Ukrainian soldier who was military commandant of Motyzhyn after it was retaken, said he still can’t bring himself to take his kids to the park.

“Some feel fear," he said. “I feel anger."

While the focus is on rebuilding, the past is never far away. Authorities in December recovered the bodies of three civilians likely killed by the Russians.

Semenova, the friend of the late mayor, said she is still inspired by the words of Olha Sukhenko when she would plead with her to leave the village to save herself from the Russians.

“I can’t leave my people," she recalled her friend saying.

Write to James Marson at

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