The woman pointed at a muddy, half-broken bucket, gesturing to a visitor to look inside. Her home had been destroyed after the Russians invaded in 2022 but she was pointing to detritus from the last war to sweep through this part of eastern Ukraine: shell casings from World War II.
“The tractor plows, and the soil turns over and these are plowed up,” she said, looking down at the recovered cartridges.
Nadiia Huk, 63, has lived in the village of Kamianka her entire life. Her house, before it was sheared apart by artillery last year, was on the northern edge of the hamlet, next to a tributary of the Siversky Donets River and at the foot of a slight hill topped with a forest of fir trees and pines.
Ms. Huk was born after World War II, but the war’s legacy still lingered. The destruction wrought in the 1940s was the foundation for the village where she came of age — it was in the stories passed down by her family and in the soil, chewed up and spit out by passing tractors.
“At that time, the Germans were staying on our side here, and the Soviets were there,” she said. “And even in that war, they fired shells at each other.” Ms. Huk’s mother had hidden a Soviet soldier in her attic, she said, and her grandmother was wounded by shrapnel and treated by Nazi doctors.
The comparisons between World War II and Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine are apt. They serve as a baseline for distant observers as they try to understand the scope and scale of the destruction that began on Feb. 24, 2022. But for Ms. Huk, and the hundred or so residents who have returned to Kamianka since Ukraine reclaimed it, the current war is a continuation of violence, separated by generations, with both eras marked by the artifacts invading armies left behind.
In both wars, Kamianka held the same strategic importance. The small village was west and south of the Siversky Donets River, an important natural barrier, and roughly five miles south of the key city of Izium. If an invading army wanted to seize and hold Izium, Kamianka would have to fall too.
Kamianka “was essentially a German defensive line or Soviet defensive line depending on who was attacking at a given time, and that started in 1941,” said David Glantz, a World War II historian who has written extensively about the Eastern Front.
For the Russians last year, Kamianka would be part of their defensive line around Izium after they took the city in late March. Moscow’s forces tried to advance farther south and west but were eventually stopped. Ukraine recaptured Izium, and Kamianka, in September.
In the recent fighting, as in World War II, Kamianka was nearly destroyed. Even months after its liberation, electricity, water and gas are mostly nonexistent and mines are everywhere. The forest above Ms. Huk’s home is impassible and laden with explosives.
“Everything is broken,” Ms. Huk said.
But now both wars are part of the wreckage. And once the rust, water and grime were scraped away this time around, two of the shells in Ms. Huk’s bucket were legible.
One was the casing for a 7.92 x 57 millimeter bullet, a round fired from German Mausers, the standard-bolt action rifle issued to the German Army during World War II. The other once belonged to a type of bullet known as a .303 British, sent to the Russian Empire in World War I and then also later to the Soviet Union as part of Britain’s military assistance program that started in 1941.
The empty German cartridge had been stamped in 1937, made by Finower Industrie G.m.b.H., in Germany. The other was stamped in 1918, by George Kynoch Ltd., a munitions plant in Birmingham, England.
Both rounds had been fired, with a slight dent in their primers marking where the firing pin of the bolt had slammed home. It is unclear when exactly the two wayward casings ended up in Ms. Huk’s field, but it can be said with some certainty that their earliest arrival would have come during the Second battle of Kharkiv in 1942.
In the spring of that year German forces counterattacked around Izium and the city of Kharkiv to the northwest. The Soviet and German forces arrayed against each other, on just a portion of World War II’s sprawling eastern front, involved hundreds of thousands of men more than the Ukrainian and Russian armies fighting today. The roughly two-week battle resulted in roughly 300,000 casualties on both sides and a crushing Soviet defeat.
“If you took a metal detector and ran along the south bank of the Donets River you would end up with everything from German dog tags to pieces of equipment, because most of it was left where it was,” Mr. Glantz said.
But World War II’s relevance is not just buried in the soil of Ukraine, it also serves as an undercurrent of Russia’s present-day invasion.
One oft-cited reason that President Vladimir V, Putin of Russia has given for launching his illegal invasion was to “denazify” Ukraine. He falsely claimed the country was overrun by the same type of adversaries millions of Soviet soldiers had died fighting during World War II, or what Russians call the Great Patriotic War.
In 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, of which Ukraine was a part, after a pact between the Soviets and Germans collapsed when Germany launched a surprise assault. But some Ukrainians fought against the Soviets too, leaving a complicated history of alliances and remembrances that appears often on the current war’s front line in the form of symbols and patches.
About a hundred yards from Ms. Huk’s field, embedded in a dirt road that led to the center of Kamianka, was another collection of shell casings. The empty cartridges were still visible but well on their way to being buried for the next generation. These were probably left last year by the retreating Russians, who had occupied Kamianka for around six months.
One empty cartridge removed from the scattering of expended bullets had been stamped in 1987 at the Novosibirsk Cartridge Plant in Russia. Rifle ammunition assembled at Novosibirsk have appeared in Libya, Syria and Afghanistan over the last 20 years, a nod to the levels of Soviet small arms that proliferated after the Cold War.
But the Russians had left behind far more in Kamianka than just expended ammunition. They murdered many of the villages’ dogs, piling their corpses next to the river near Ms. Huk’s home. They buried artillery shells that the Ukrainian military found and took away. But the most abundant artifact they left behind were the empty dark green ammunition boxes that carried everything from rockets to mortars to artillery shells.
There were so many boxes that Ms. Huk’s son tore several apart and used them to make his mother an outdoor shower next to her home’s shattered remains.
Natalia Yermak and Yurii Shyvala contributed reporting.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a Ukraine correspondent and a former Marine infantryman. More about Thomas Gibbons-Neff
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