Photograph by Chien-Chi Chang / Magnum Photos
Anatoly Isichenko’s farm was one of the first to fall.
By March 2022, less than a week into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, enemy troops had reached Husarivka in Kharkiv Oblast and seized the 68-year-old Ukrainian’s land. Isichenko watched in horror as his once-prosperous business turned into a military base—a foothold where enemy forces carried out attacks against Ukrainian troops and civilians fighting for liberation.
Isichenko’s dairy farm, which once employed up to 240 local civilians, now looks like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie. Nothing is unscathed—a grim reminder of Russia’s cruel efforts to bring Ukraine under its rule once more.
The story in Husarivka echoes the horrors seen across the country. For nearly 20 months, Ukraine has suffered a constant stream of destruction. The Kyiv School of Economics estimated that by December 2022, the war damaged nearly $138 billion of critical infrastructure. Of that, the damages to the agricultural industry, one of the most important sectors of their economy, reportedly reached $6.6 billion.
But for Isichenko and many others, losing a farm is about more than just earning a profit. His land has been a constant source of stability since the Soviet Union. He’s owned it for four decades; he was bonded to the animals that lived there and the people that tended to them. As he speaks, waves of depression and grief wash over him, causing him to cry out in despair over all that he has lost.
Isichenko first purchased his farm in the 1980s. In its early days, he was forced to follow the Soviet Union’s strict communist rules of collective farming. At the time, the Soviet Union controlled the entire agricultural enterprise, making it difficult for farmers to earn a significant living off their land.
“Under the Soviet way of life, it was the state economy,” recalled Isichenko. “If the [farm’s] leader could not cope with this, he was changed,” he added.
Even after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Isichenko struggled to find stability on his farm throughout the first 10 years of Ukraine’s independence. According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), the country’s poorly organized transition led to hyperinflation and an unusually steep production decline for a country not experiencing a major war.
According to CEIP, Ukraine’s gross domestic product (GDP) was halved from 1990 to 1994, and it continued to drop throughout the decade. Isichenko recalled that the first five years of Ukraine’s independence were the hardest for him. During that time, products were sold informally and untaxed in a shadow economy, and corruption only added to the problems.
“It broke my mind… Every time I try to realize what happened, I start crying.”
“The transition was very difficult for me. There was no money as we know it. The quality [of supplies] was not right,” said Isichenko. But as time progressed, Ukraine adjusted to its independence, and operating the farm became easier.
Eventually, Isichenko, who was known for his compassion and warmth, gained notoriety in the town. By the time the war started in 2022, his 1,485 acres of land was one of Husarivka’s economic staples. In its heyday, Isichenko’s annual production order exceeded $2.6 million. “It was a rather large, developing, and profitable business that fed both the village and provided work,” he said.
During the summer months, he employed up to 240 people who harvested crops and tended to the animals. The farm was home to pigs, chickens, and horses. The staff grew seasonal crops, including sunflowers, Ukraine’s national flower, and wheat—an economically important crop that became threatened when Putin backed out of a critical export deal in July. The business’s main feature, however, was its 2,500 cows, which produced over 3,000 tons of milk annually.
Isichenko expected his business to stand firm against all odds. But he had not prepared for what would come when Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his special military operation in Ukraine.
Isichenko was at his home in the village when the war started. “People who could leave left. The population of the settlement was about 1,200 people. On average, 178 stayed here,” he said.
Husarivka is located in the eastern Kharkiv region, just a stone’s throw away from the Russian border. Kharkiv is Ukraine’s fourth most populated region, with a prewar population of 2.6 million. When enemy forces stormed into Ukraine, the impacts there were immediate.
“They came and occupied the whole village, the whole settlement. It was the frontline of the Russian army. They were everywhere… Every day, it burns here, then it burns there,” Isichenko said.
Though Russian soldiers never occupied Kharkiv’s city center, about a quarter of the larger region was occupied during the first few months of the war, according to a February 2023 press release from Oleh Syniehubov, head of the Kharkiv Oblast Military Administration.
Isichenko remained, hoping that the war would end in a matter of days, much like Russia’s 2014 invasion of the eastern Donbas region, which saw the annexation of the Crimean peninsula. But as time carried on and soldiers continued to occupy his land, a more somber reality became evident.
Isichenko tried to save his animals after the farm was seized. He pleaded with Russian soldiers to let his workers feed them, to which, according to the farmer, he was told: “Make a list of who will be in. The checkpoint will let them in.” But shortly after, Russian soldiers denied them entry. Those who defied the rules faced severe punishments, according to the manager of the land, 63-year-old Sergiy Vorobyov.
A few days into the occupation of Husarivka, Vorobyov, another worker, and a veterinarian tried to retrieve stray cattle that were believed to have left the farm. While searching for the animals, Vorobyov said a Russian soldier ambushed and arrested them.
“They took us to a [supply] room, and they put us in…. One guard was sitting with us at the door. Time passed, and no one had a clock. We knew that we would be shot because so many had been killed. We sat and sat. I think they were waiting for the evening to shoot us,” said Vorobyov. He believed that they were arrested for smoking cigarettes, which according to him, Russian troops forbid. “We didn’t know what to expect. There was no hope. We expected that this is the end,” he added.
Hours later, when a Russian soldier was injured, the three prisoners escaped their jail. “I said, run out. We jumped out and ran about 50 feet, and hid behind a milk barrel… They were shouting, where did they go? Then they screamed, I should have killed them in the morning.” For the veterinarian, Vorobyov added, the near-death experience erased a sense of reality that he still has not recovered.
Other farm workers were not so lucky. On a separate occasion, six workers who went to the farm to feed the animals were arrested by Russian soldiers, who put plastic bags over their heads and placed them into a cellar for execution. While most of the men were older, they begged the captors to spare their younger colleague—Sasha, a 21-year-old boy from the village.
As his friends pleaded, Sasha was placed in a separate room, uncertain of his fate. While Sasha declined to comment, Isichenko said the boy managed to escape that room through a hole in the wall and ran through a river to a nearby town. The five remaining men, however, were executed, only to be discovered by Isichenko after Husarivka was liberated, their bodies incinerated into ash, bones, and the charred remains of a shoe: “There were burnt bones already. There was nothing left from them.”
Russian soldiers occupied Isichenko’s farm throughout March, and armed conflict in the village lasted until September. When he was finally reunited with his animals after liberation, he was filled with grief.
“The cows weren’t fed. At first, they stood without water, without food. The main thing is that the cows want to eat. They, first of all, began to eat the manure that they excreted and drank the urine that other cows excreted. Then, they started eating each other… those who were stronger started to push the less strong ones and started with the tails.”
Of the thousands of cows that once lived at the farm, only 23 remain, half of which no longer produce milk. These days, without much product to sell, Isichenko can barely afford to buy enough hay to feed the cattle.
As he spoke about the state of his animals—ones he has deeply bonded to—he began to cry. “It broke my mind… Every time I try to realize what happened, I start crying,” said Isichenko.
“In the soul of each of us, this war does not go out of our heads, not out of our souls. It is not over yet.”
Goat kids, chickens, and a couple dozen calves now live in one of the more intact buildings on the farm. Sunbeams burst through its pockmarked roof. The calves watch Isichenko with wide eyes as he walks around their pen. They shy away from strangers, but they embrace their owner. Sticking his hand out in front of one calf, it playfully sucks on his offering. Isichenko smiles, his gentle demeanor calming the newborns that have never known a peaceful Ukraine.
Elsewhere on the grounds, in a building dedicated to dairy preparation, an employee who requested anonymity slips on a plastic hairnet. Speaking of Isichenko, the worker said, “This is a decent person. He treats everything in good faith, he can support us… We strongly appreciate him.”
With no end in sight for the war in Ukraine, Isichenko is uncertain how long he will be able to continue operating his farm. He struggles to afford the staff, and repairing damaged equipment will cost him. His friends have donated hay and lent horses, but still, the smoke of war casts an ill-defined future.
“In the soul of each of us, this war does not go out of our heads, not out of our souls. It is not over yet.” said Isichenko. “People lived peacefully in Ukraine. And suddenly, it’s all destroyed. This is not human. Now, we all live in order to defeat these enemies. Everyone wants this evil, this evil to be eradicated.”