Looking out over the edge of their muddy trench, the Ukrainian soldiers tasked with defending a forlorn patch of blood-soaked land in the Donbas region were close enough to peer into the eyes of the Russian soldiers.
It was winter 2023, a year after President Vladimir V. Putin ordered his military to invade, citing unsubstantiated claims that Ukraine was run by Nazis. Now his fighters were making another desperate attempt to advance in eastern Ukraine.
The Russian commanders had failed repeatedly to break through the Ukrainian lines despite unrelenting bombardment that had left whole cities and towns in ruins, and they were now deploying waves of soldiers, many conscripted from Russian prisons, poorly trained and threatened with physical violence if they retreated.
Since the beginning of the invasion, Tyler Hicks, a photographer for The New York Times, has been working almost exclusively in the Donbas, witnessing the close-quarter combat and the region’s descent into ruin.
The fighting would continue to rage, but in the trench line, Ukrainian soldiers often found a single word to describe the war: hell. And in the various circles of hell in eastern Ukraine, virtually nowhere is as emblematic of the savagery of the war as Bakhmut.
The annihilation of the eastern Ukrainian city did not happen in one action. The transformation of the once peaceful place widely known for its fine sparkling wine into a grim tableau of destruction and death occurred over months of fierce fighting. Ukrainian soldiers faced bullets, bombs and attack drones. Amid the rubble of the wrecked city, they were up against artillery barrages, aerial bombardment and snipers. The cratered fields and entrenchments carved into the earth evoked memories of World War I and some of Europe’s deadliest killing fields such as Verdun and the Somme.
When the Russian bombardments first started, civilians were still living in Bakhmut, and even as the destruction around them deepened, thousands of residents refused to flee. But every day the situation was more dire. By autumn, what life remained moved underground away from the endless shelling.
The soldiers still regularly hear predictions that the city will soon fall, but they have their orders and the chorus of doubters have so far been wrong. A new phrase has entered the Ukrainian lexicon: “Bakhmut holds.”
By Christmas, 90% of the population had fled. Those who stayed were the poor, the disabled and those too old to move. As the city turned into a military garrison, the civilians disappeared from view, replaced by the exhausted faces of soldiers trying to survive in the unrelenting violence. The number of casualties on both sides soared, but almost a year after Russia began its heavy bombardment of Bakhmut, the city still stood.
Now, Bakhmut has become emblematic of the toll of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Tyler Hicks’s images offer a vivid record of its destruction.