When Russian soldiers left the village of Novyi Bykiv after a month of occupation, Natalia Samson returned to her house to find they had stolen her perfumes, jewellery, some wine, a scooter, a novelty cushion and a collection of old coins.
A few days later she ventured into the village school, where she works as the deputy headteacher, and discovered the Russians had taken most of the computers, the projectors and other electronic equipment.
In the headteacher’s office, an opened pair of scissors had been inserted into a plasma screen that was left behind, apparently in an attempt to ensure that what could not be stolen was instead destroyed.
“People saw them simply loading everything on to Ural trucks, everything they could get their hands on,” said Samson, shaking her head in disbelief. A dozen houses on the village’s main street had been looted, as well as all the shops. Other villagers reported losing washing machines, food, laptops and even a sofa.
Over the past week, during reporting from numerous places where Russian troops had occupied Ukrainian territory, the Guardian has collected evidence that suggests looting by Russian forces was not merely a case of a few wayward soldiers, but a systematic part of Russian military behaviour, across multiple towns and villages.
Reports of looting have prompted widespread outrage among Ukrainians, as well as among Russians opposed to the war.
“Those who fight like this are not a regular army, but rabble,” wrote Vladimir Pastukhov, a liberal Russian political scientist who is a columnist for Novaya Gazeta. “Even in the Soviet and Nazi armies, looting was fought as much as possible, albeit not always successfully. In the Russian army … it is a form of additional motivation of the personnel.”
At one flat in Irpin, a town outside Kyiv that was partially controlled by Russian forces for part of the last month, one family returned home to discover that Russian soldiers had been living there.
They found discarded alcohol bottles, food wrappers and cigarette butts strewn around the apartment, large piles of faeces blocking the toilets and family photographs torn and thrown around the house. They also found that a lot of things had gone missing.
“They took away all the clothes – literally everything, male and female coats, boots, shirts, jackets, even my dresses and lingerie,” said one of the residents, who asked for the family’s names not to be used, but supplied photographs of the damage.
According to Hajun, a Belarusian investigative media project, more than 128 packages – totaling nearly 3,000kg of freight – were sent to Rubtsovsk alone from the Belarusian border town of Mazyr in video shot on 2 April this month.
Rubtsovsk, which is located in the southern Altai Krai region of Russia, is a poor town known for hosting four prison facilities.
The data on the parcels was collected during a three-hour surveillance video that showed Russian soldiers wrapping and stuffing clothing, TVs, tools, fishing equipment, car batteries and other household items into packages before they were sent as far as Siberia or even to Russian towns close to the Pacific Ocean.
In the surveillance videosoldiers in fatigues joke with other customers as they shuffle about the cramped office for hours, laughing as a soldier comes in with a looted e-scooter to be sent back to Russia.
Hajun published the data of 16 Russian soldiers who had sent parcels back to Russia on 2 April from the offices of CDEK, a Russian express delivery company that works across the former Soviet Union. The influx of looted goods, as well as growing attention to Russian looting in Ukraine, has led the company to begin requiring a bill of sale or check from a store in order to send goods abroad.
Hajun identified Evgeny Kovalenko as the solider who sent the most freight that day: 17 parcels totaling 440kg. According to Hajun, that included tools, speakers, a table and a tent.
The Guardian has attempted to contact a number of the soldiers accused of looting, without success.
The Russian sociologist Alexandra Arkhipova said it was not just poverty and material shortages among soldiers that led to the widespread looting.
“A lot of Russian soldiers feel this war is absolutely useless and senseless. It’s an absurd war and they are staying in Ukraine with the immediate risk of being killed … So [they think]: ‘I’ll take this computer because my kid needs a computer back home.’ It makes a senseless situation less absurd and more practical,” she said.
However, this does not explain the destruction that has accompanied the looting. Many people have found their houses or businesses defaced with pro-Russian graffiti. In the town of Trostianets, soldiers smeared faeces on the walls of a meat shop that they also looted. Many homes appear to have been demonstratively smashed up.
Often, the victims are people living modest lives who now find themselves with nothing.
In the village of Staryi Bykiv, east of Kyiv, the Andrusha family are primarily concerned about the whereabouts of their daughter, Viktoria, who was kidnapped by Russian soldiers on 26 March on suspicion of supplying Ukrainian authorities with coordinates of Russian positions. She was held for a day with other prisoners before disappearing, and has not been seen since.
But in an added insult, her father, Mykola Andrusha, reported that soldiers had robbed the family during searches of their home, taking electronics and cash.
“I’m not a rich person. We had about $3,000 and about 60,000 hryvnia (£1,600). But for me, that was big money. We wanted to do house repairs – me, my wife and my daughter,” he said. The soldiers also took the family’s laptop and their mobile phones.
The confirmation of widespread looting was preceded by telephone audio, leaked by Ukrainian intelligence, which claimed to reveal Russian soldiers discussing with their wives what to steal while on assignment. The authenticity of the intercepts could not be confirmed, but the reports from liberated areas have slowed their credibility.
“I bet all the boys have taken something there,” said one wife to her husband in one of the leaked telephone calls. “I bet you’re not alone.”
“Everyone’s got a bag with him,” the soldier replied.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism