Izium. 9 March 2022, 07:00. The apartment building at 2, Pershotravneva [1st of May] Street, where dozens of people are hiding in the basement because the Russians are attacking it with tanks and then aircraft. Only the last two sections of the building are left. [Apartment blocks in Ukraine often have several entryways, or pid’izdy, each giving access to apartments located around one stairwell. In this building, only two pid’izdy survived - ed.] Over fifty people have been killed.
For a month and a half, Halyna Zhykharieva kept visiting the ruins of the building. The Russian soldiers would drive her away, but still she came every day to pray that her loved ones would survive. Her last hope was extinguished when they started to clear away the rubble and recover the bodies. Eight people close to her were dead.
A photo of the family’s graves went viral online. These people lost their lives:
- Dmytro Stolpakov, aged 33
- Olena Stolpakova, aged 31
- Oleksandra Paniukhno, aged 8
- Olesia Stolpakova, aged 5
- Mariia Zhykharieva, aged 13
- Oleksandr Zhykhariev, aged 49
- Tetiana Zhykharieva, aged 49
- Liudmyla Sokol, thought to be over 70.
It is only now that Izium has been liberated from its Russian occupiers that the world has come to hear about this tragedy.
This is the story of a family killed by the Russians.
"I still remember his cheerful smile…"
Marharyta Smoliarova, 59, is the mother of 33-year-old Dmytro Stolpakov. She has been living and working in Poland for the last five years. She last saw her son, her daughter-in-law Olena and her granddaughters Oleksandra and Olesia just before the war started. Marharyta stayed with them for the winter holidays, and left Izium on 17 February.
Dmytro’s mother reminisces about him with warmth in her voice. Her son was born in Kapytolivka near Izium and went to school there. He was keen on natural sciences, especially maths. For many years he grew up without a father.
"He’s a good-looking boy. He liked sport - he played football for teams in the Izium area. He’d enjoyed fishing ever since he was a child, even though he didn’t eat fish. What he liked to eat was my borshch and fried potatoes," Marharyta says.
Now, some of the places where Dmytro used to like going fishing have been bombed.
Marharyta also recalls how her son used to go mushroom-picking in the woods with her. They’d go to the local forest, just the two of them. On the way they’d talk about school, girls, football. Dmytro often listened to his mother’s advice.
Anna Sliusarenko, who was in Dmytro’s class at school, remembers him as a very cheerful person, full of energy.
"I remember his smile when he came out onto the football field. The Stolpakov brothers were tall and handsome [Dmytro’s brother died a few years ago - ed.]. All the girls in the school had crushes on them," Anna recollects.
"When he was 15, Dmytro went to Izium Agricultural Lyceum No. 61 to study to become an agronomist. He didn’t go to university. Times were hard, so he needed to work," his mother says.
Her son had been earning extra money on building sites since he was a young man. Then he started to go abroad for work. Lately he had been working at the sawmill in Izium.
Dmytro met his wife Olena six years ago online, even though they lived not far away from each other in Izium. They dated for about six months. Shortly after that, Dmytro showed his mother a photo of Olena and declared, "I really like Lenochka [a diminutive of Olena - ed.], so there are no two ways about this: you have to accept my decision, Mum, I’m going to marry her."
"We got on really well together. Lenochka isn’t a daughter-in-law, she’s my daughter," says Marharyta.
"Lena was sociable, always gathering friends around her"
Olena Stolpakova was born in Izium on 1 February 1991. She lived in the apartment block on 2, Pershotravneva Street together with her parents, Oleksandr and Tetiana Zhykhariev. Dmytro Stolpakov was her second husband. Olena had a daughter, Oleksandra Paniukhno, from her first marriage. Olena’s second husband, Dmytro, raised his stepdaughter as his own and loved her very much.
Olena received a secondary vocational education, studying accountancy. Later she studied at one of Kharkiv's universities while also working as a manager and product specialist at a supermarket in Izium.
Her relatives say that Olena was a great cook and loved doing table decorations.
"I remember when it was my birthday," recalls Tetiana Lunina, a friend of Olena and the family, "and Lena was pregnant with Olesia [her younger daughter – ed.], she travelled to another part of the city to set the table and decorate it. All for me. Her specialities were cabbage rolls and mushrooms. Dmytro, on the other hand, liked gathering the mushrooms. He used to catch so many fish that Olena often said that she didn't know where to put them."
Yevhen Samotukha, Tetiana’s ex-husband, lived in the same building as the Stolpakov family. Tetiana and Olena met when they were both pregnant, and they had been friends ever since.
"Olena wasn’t one to just sit around at home. She was always calling me and saying let’s go out for a walk, go down to the river, or go for a boat ride. Dmytro was literally ‘obsessed with football’. Yevhen and Dmytro both played for the Kapytolivka Saturn team. We were always invited to their matches," Tetiana recalls.
According to her friend, Olena was a creative person as well. She made birthday decorations and gift items to order, and she loved dancing and singing.
"They had karaoke equipment at home and we used to sing," says Tetiana Lunina. "Lena was sociable, she always gathered friends around her. Even when times were tough, we used to meet up - we supported each other," Tetiana says.
"They were lovely little girls"
Olena’s elder daughter Oleksandra (Sasha) was born on 22 August 2013, and her younger one, Olesia, on 27 April 2016.
"We raised Sasha from the age of one. She had finished 5th grade, and Olesia would have been starting school just this year - the same school that their mother went to, just across the street. They were lovely little girls," recalls their grandmother, Marharyta, through tears.
Oleksandra attended a dance club and performed in shows. Family friend Tetiana Lunina says that she particularly remembers Sasha performing in a dance to the song "Strange Flower".
"It was a very beautiful patriotic dance, really well choreographed," says Tetiana. Her daughter Polina attended the same dance studio, where there were classes in modern dance and Ukrainian folk dance.
The Strange Flower (Dyvna Kvitka) dance on Olena Stolpakova’s YouTube channel:
Five-year-old Olesia went to kindergarten. She loved dancing and singing as well. When the girls’ grandmother Marharyta was over from Poland, the girls would spend a lot of time at her place in the village of Kapytolivka.
"We went for walks together, went to the cinema," Marharyta recalls.
Oleksandra looked out for her younger sister. She helped her mother when Olesia was a newborn, changing nappies and looking after the baby.
The sisters loved each other, although they had different personalities. According to relatives, Oleksandra was gentler and more obedient, while Olesia was a fidgety, fun-loving chatterbox. Like most children of their age, they were sometimes glued to their devices, they played with dolls, they did drawings - they lived life to the full.
"Half of Izium used to buy their shoes from Auntie Tania and Uncle Sasha"
Olena Stolpakova’s parents, Oleksandr (Sasha) and Tetiana (Tania) Zhykhariev, lived on a different floor in the same section of the building at 2, Pershotravneva Street, with their younger daughter Maria.
"They were always visiting each other," says Tetiana Lunina. "I often used to stop by Uncle Sasha and Auntie Tania’s too. There was one funny incident when we went out onto the balcony of Olena’s apartment and accidentally got locked out there. The children couldn’t help us. We called Uncle Sasha, and he got us out."
The Zhykharievs were born in the same year and month: Oleksandr on 4 January 1973, and Tetiana on 16 January.
They were entrepreneurs. They sold children’s shoes at the Central Market. They also had their own shop, "Yarkyi Ya" (Bright Me). According to Tetiana, half of Izium bought shoes from their shop.
"It was a family business. They started off trading at the market and then, as the business took off, they opened a shop. Everyone was involved in the business, even Oleksandr’s mum, Grandma Halyna," recalls Olena’s friend Tetiana.
Oleksandr was a very kind and positive person. When Olena and Tania were feeling down, he could always cheer them up. He’d drop everything to help and support his daughter, but he never interfered in Olena and Dmytro’s relationship.
Oleksandr’s social media are full of photos from family holidays. He and his wife enjoyed picking mushrooms, going for walks in nature, and travelling abroad. Their friends only remember good things about Tetiana. They say that she was a highly intelligent, very well-read woman.
Oleksandr and Tetiana were university students when they became parents to Olena, so she was mostly brought up by her grandmother, Liudmyla Sokol, Tetiana’s mother. Liudmyla also helped to take care of the couple’s younger daughter, Maria. She often took her granddaughters with her on holidays by the sea. They went ice skating and bowling together. Friends of the family recall that Liudmila loved doing embroidery and had mastered various techniques.
Maria Zhykharieva, Oleksandr and Tetiana’s younger daughter, was born on 17 March 2008. She was modest and a little shy. She attended secondary school and had a talent for drawing - she went to art classes and was fascinated by anime culture.
"Olena and Maria had become very close - as if they sensed that they only had a short time left," says Tetiana Lunina.
"Maria wanted to be able to sleep properly without the sound of explosions and eat normal food..."
Tetiana says that Izium was relatively calm when Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began. Olena and her family did not want to evacuate from their hometown, although Dmytroʼs mother asked them to.
"Back then we thought that in a few days it would be over and everything would be fine. We didn't expect events to unfold like this," says Tetiana.
The Stolpakov and Zhykhariev families used to hide in the basement of the building while the shelling was going on. They would return to their apartments between attacks to cook food and get warm.
Marharyta Smoliarova last spoke with her son Dmytro on 6 March. They were chatting on Viber, and the connection was poor.
"I asked how things were. Dmytro replied, ‘Stable, normal.’ Lenochka and my grandchildren wished me a happy birthday. Dima said they were looking forward to me visiting on 1 September, because they would be taking Olesia to school for the first time. My son wanted the whole family to be there together", Marharyta says in tears.
6 March was also the last time Tetiana spoke to her friend on the phone.
"I suggested leaving Izium, but she refused. The city was under heavy bombardment then. We’d be sitting in the basement not knowing which areas were being hit," Tetiana recalls.
Polina, a friend of 13-year-old Maria Zhykharieva, says that when they last chatted, Maria was feeling scared. "She wanted to be able to sleep properly without the sound of explosions and eat normal food," Polina recalled.
The following day, no one in the family could be reached.
"On 7 and 8 March, I tried to call each of them, but I couldn’t get through. My son had warned me that this might happen. On the 9th, I started to panic terribly. I must have dialled their numbers - the children, their in-laws, and relatives who’d stayed in Izium - a million times. But it was all pointless," Marharyta says with despair in her voice.
Grandma Halyna came to the ruins of the building every day to weep and pray
At 07:00 on 9 March, the building at 2, Pershotravneva Street sustained a two-pronged attack: the Russians first used tank guns, then conducted several airstrikes. Only two sections of the building escaped destruction; the rest of it was razed to the ground. Around fifty people lost their lives in the basement that day. The Zhykhariev and Stolpakov families died there too.
For over a month, Russian soldiers would not let locals so much as approach the ruins. And yet Grandma Halyna, Oleksandr Zhykhariev’s mother, came to 2, Pershotravneva Street every day for a month and a half. She would wait there and pray, hoping that her loved ones might have survived. And though the Russian soldiers tried to drive her away, she stubbornly came back again and again, weeping over the building’s ruins.
In early April, local residents started to clear away the rubble with the help of municipal service workers, using primitive equipment. The charred bodies were almost impossible to identify.
Halyna’s heart – a mother’s heart – helped her identify her son Oleksandr. She was also able to identify Dmytro and Olena by their distinctive tattoos. Olena had an Arabic saying tattooed on her arm, and a feather on her collarbone. Dmytro had a pair of wings tattooed across his back, a birthday gift from Olena. But Grandma Halyna was not able to identify Maria and Tetiana Zhykharieva…
"The airstrike split the building in half… People said that when their bodies were found, they were lying there side by side," Tetiana Lunina says through tears.
"I dreamt that they were walking towards the setting sun…"
Marharyta Smoliarova learned about the death of her loved ones in early April when someone showed her a video on Facebook.
"I thought I would lose my mind! I couldn’t believe it was true until the very end. I couldn’t believe that I would never see my son and daughter-in-law again, that my granddaughters’ hands would never caress my face again," Dmytro’s mother says, weeping. She is particularly hurt that she never got to say goodbye to her family, to bury them.
Family friend Tetiana Lunina says that eventually a former classmate of Olena’s helped to organise a funeral for the Stolpakovs and Zhykharievs. After much pleading, Russian soldiers agreed to mark the graves of the bodies identified by Halyna Zhykharieva with plaques bearing their names; initially they intended to bury all the bodies together in a mass grave.
Tetiana and Maria Zhykharieva, whose bodies were never identified, were buried in a mass grave…
Tetiana Lunina says that after the tragedy, the dead began to appear to her in her dreams.
"Once I thought I could smell Olena’s perfume. I still remember it so well… That night, I had a dream: there was a red and yellow sunset, and I was standing behind everyone from the Zhykhariev and Stolpakov families who had died. They were holding hands and walking towards the setting sun," Tetiana Lunina says in a shaky voice.
Tetiana recalls that Olena liked to joke that she and Dmytro loved each other so much that they would die on the same day, like in Shakespeare’s plays. Coincidentally, local residents sometimes refer to the place by the forest where their bodies were found as "Shakespeare’s place".
"[Olena] loved life so much, she never even thought about death. I think about them all the time, and I can’t stop crying. We had so many amazing experiences together. We used to go to the river near [Izium], to the Shum beach. We used to camp out in tents, make fish soup, laugh and joke around…" Tetiana says.
Anna Sliusarenko, Dmytro’s classmate, says that Izium is a depressing city which she had always wanted to escape from, as it has always been on the edge of the "Russian world". [Russkiy mir, literally "Russian world" or "Russian order," is the concept of total domination of Russian culture over other cultures; it gives rise to and "legitimises" Russia’s current expansionist, colonial politics - ed.] Rethinking the city’s role in light of the war, Anna finds it difficult to process that while some of her former classmates defended Ukraine or suffered at the hands of the Russian occupiers, like Dmytro and his family, others betrayed Ukrainians to the Russian occupiers.
The Stolpakov family had many plans. Olena wanted to renovate their apartment and had even made plans with her friend to choose new wallpaper in spring. The family wanted to go abroad, for a trip to the sea, in the summer.
"They were planning to take Olesia to school on 1 September. When I last visited them, I was teaching her to write and count. The first of September was our big dream," Marharyta Smoliarova says with great sadness.
She has still not recovered from this enormous tragedy. She says she keeps going for the sake of her daughter in Uman, who is pregnant. Both her daughter and her son-in-law took part in the Anti-Terrorist Operation [in Donbas].
"I have to keep going and to help my loved ones," Marharyta says.
Her elder sister still lives in Izium, as does her sister-in-law and her grandchildren. Since Izium has been liberated, the women can now talk to each other and console one another once again, despite the poor phone service.
Marharyta plans to return to Izium in December to visit her family’s graves. She says that despite everything, she will remember them all with smiles on their faces, full of joy.
This article was prepared by the Memorial platform, which collects and tells the stories of civilians and soldiers killed by Russia exclusively for Ukrainska Pravda.
Author: Inna Kubay
Translation: Olga Loza, Myroslava Zavadska, Artem Yakymyshyn, Yulia Kravchenko
Editor: Teresa Pearce