“One day, Russian APCs came to our village.” Entrepreneur on his life under occupation in Kyiv suburbs

On the first day of the full-scale invasion, the founder of a performance-marketing agency Roman Rybalchenko together with his wife Olga, a friend and their labrador left Kyiv. And found themselves… on a territory which was not under the control of Ukrainian Armed Forces. In an interview to AIN.Capital’s editor, Roman is speaking about how he organised life under occupation in Kyiv suburbs, fixed internet connection and electricity supply for the community, and even got into a Russian propaganda TV video as ‘a Ukrainian fake stream overseer’.

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Ukrainian entrepreneur Roman Rybalchenko. Photos in this article are provided by speaker

I began preparing for war in January and February

I’d been reading a lot about the war, including the Institute for the Study of War publications, and came to the conclusion that with the bombings going on and troops and aviation movements, it is safer to sit through the fierce battles in a village rather than in the capital. 

Before the war, we bought a country house in a village in Kyiv suburbs, in Vyshhorod region. It’s a small village, which even in peacetime experienced power outages or snowdrifts. That’s why people got used to living more or less autonomously. Everyone has firewood stocks, wells; the majority have power generators, stocks of mushrooms and preserves, hunting and fishing gear. As for me, I had 60 litres of fuel stored in three oil cans, two walkie-talkies, food for more than three months, medication that I and my wife Olya take.

In Kyiv, my wife and I packed our go-bags, although I didn’t feel any anxiety as it is. I was just thinking rationally and preparing. The go-bags had everything we might need to survive: knives, water purification systems, dry provision units, energy bars, armchairs, condoms, a tourniquet to stop bleeding, a first-aid kit, torches, sleeping bags, rescue blankets, etc. We also kept some useful things in the car, such as a tent.

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At the end of February, we paid salaries to the team in advance, so that they could withdraw or exchange money. We also suggested switching to remote work for a while in order to move to a safer place, but everyone stayed in Kyiv, so we were with them. Before the invasion, my friends offered me to go to Asia, but I refused — to be with the team.

On February 24, I woke up, saw the news, woke my wife up and said: ‘It’s started, get ready, let’s go’. She asked if she had time for the shower, and I said ‘no’. We took our go-bags, laptops, and our dog, and around 6:20 in the morning we were already on our way out of Kyiv. We managed to get past the traffic jams.

I thought it would be over quickly. That in 3-4 days there will be some clarity. But after a couple of days, the Rashists* marched past us along the wide roads to Kyiv, and we ended up in a territory not controlled by the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

*Editor’s note: Rashism, rashists — a term used to describe the political ideology and social practices of the Russian authorities during the rule of Vladimir Putin, and the Russian military expansionism. The term became more internationally known and more widely described after the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.

We learned that we are under occupation from the news. At that time, we still had an Internet connection.

At the same time, we understood that these territories had no tactical military significance either for the occupiers or for the Armed Forces. There are no strategic objects there, no one would attack or defend them. The only risk was the proximity to Chernobyl. 

In the early days, people believed that Russians could be convinced of something. And my wife suggested that I should join in the information war.

I didn’t like the idea. For one thing, we were on territory outside the Ukrainian Armed Forces control. Secondly, the connection was unstable. The only thing I did — on the third day of the full-scale invasion — was to send a letter to the 8,000 subscribers of my agency Roman.ua, urging the Russians to think about whether they were being lied to. 

I realised that for the Russians to admit that they are wrong was to admit that they are horrible people and that they have blood on their hands. Therefore, I now understand that my appeal hardly influenced anyone. But I sent this newsletter, and my partner in the Internet Marketers Club asked if I didn’t mind him distributing the post to the followers of the Information Resistance Club. I didn’t mind. Olya also introduced some Internet marketers from Ukraine to each other, who then started the informational resistance. 

Before that, I also managed to publish one of my friend’s texts on LinkedIn. It collected 360,000 views.

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This newsletter and this post are actually all I have done in the information war.

All of a sudden, though, I got featured in a Russian propaganda TV video on Rossiya 1 TV channel! I was called ‘an overseer of the Ukrainian fake stream against the Russian Federation’, on which tens of millions of dollars are allegedly spent, and which has 1,500 people in the team.

I don’t know how I got so ‘lucky’. I have two theories. Either they did some frequency research and saw that my last name was mentioned several times. Or, which is more likely, they simply googled ‘internet marketer Kyiv’ and found a more or less public figure.

I was surprised and a little worried. In the video, a fragment of which they used for their story, I was driving to my country house, and the landscape is easily recognizable. At that moment, we were sitting there, already with a bad connection. And I was wondering if a Russian helicopter could suddenly fly by to check on the ‘overseer of Ukrainian fakes’? And then, they would record a video of me apologising to the Russian people… Although it is difficult to call them people, to be honest.

Since then I’ve become more careful, using a VPN and trying not to show my movements. I make publications of what I do for the Armed Forces with significant delays, when the enemy is no longer able to benefit from this information.

And then, being under the occupation, we faced the problems that had to be solved

Interruptions with connection, electricity, Internet. People started running out of resources. When you’re under occupation, you quickly get used to saying ‘yes’ when something is offered. Because resources are very limited.

When you come to visit, they say to you: ‘Will you have borscht?’ – ‘I will!’. Because tomorrow there may be no more borscht.

When the electricity went out, I went to a nearby village and found people who helped connect our village and territories further to the substation. Thus, we managed to provide people with electricity for several days.

Together with the locals, we organized ourselves and started taking turns to keep watch and to warn people in time if something suspicious was going on. I gave one walkie-talkie to another post so that they could communicate with the rest and with me, and I could already pass the information to the other side of the village.

Every morning we had a meeting where we summed up what we had in terms of resources and what problems we had to solve. Who has some medication in reserve, and who has run out of some critically important medications. For example, someone has asthma or diabetes. To understand what you need to get first. At these meetings, I brought news from the Institute for the Study of War and coordinated people on humanitarian issues. 

At times, it got ridiculous. For example, a man moves in with his neighbours and complains that soon there will be no heating because there is no electricity supply. You go to the owner of the house and ask: ‘Do you have an electric boiler?’ — ‘No, I have a generator, but I need fuel for the boiler to work.’ — ‘Wait, but your new neighbour has fuel, doesn’t he?’ — I say. And it turns out that they are living under one roof without talking to each other. 🙂

Under such circumstances, people become confused. They do not share information, sometimes they withhold some information because they are anxious. They need to be coordinated, reassured and directed. Everything is just like in business.

When the Internet began to disappear in the neighbouring villages, I took my MIMO antenna, 3G/4G modem and WiFi router, found a high point and connected it all to the power cable. Thus, we were the only access point in the village. People came to us for an hour in the morning and for an hour in the evening, we turned on the generator, I disabled the auto-loading on their phones in messengers — and they had the opportunity to write or sometimes even call their relatives, to say that everything was fine. 

There were some funny stories. For example, a builder comes by, he has a porn tab open on his phone — you pretend that you didn’t notice it, disable his autoload, connect him to the Internet. And what he does is write a message to his sister ‘Hello!’, and that’s it. He sits down and waits for the answer.

Dude, seriously? Connection may be interrupted at any moment, and everything your sister will hear from you is ‘hello’! Well, write right away that everything is fine with you, where you are and how. I took the phone and wrote instead of him. Apparently, his sister had never received so many points and commas in one message from him🙂

You have to support your inner Arestovych*

*Editor’s note: Oleksii Arestovych is a former Ukrainian intelligence officer, political and military columnist, who became famous due to his calm ‘pacifying’ manner of presenting news concerning the military invasion of Ukraine.

I read a lot about survival and came to the conclusion that people who survive in extreme conditions are those who do something, not panic. Those who take care of others. There were several particularly alarmed citizens in our community, who were afraid that Kadyrov* people would come to us, rape, kill, and rob everyone. We tried to calm them down in every possible way, and in this way we calmed down ourselves.

*Editor’s note: Ramsan Kadyrov is a Russian and Chechen politician who currently serves as the Head of the Chechen Republic, and whose troops are actively involved in the military invasion of Ukraine. 

On TV they were running ‘brain candy’ all the time — many repetitions, little information. Therefore, I focused on data from the Institute for the Study of War, which revealed the current situation on the frontline.

Focusing on it, we understood from the maps and told people that this is where our troops launched a counterattack, and this is where the occupiers were stopped, etc. It helped not to despair.

Sometimes, it got scary. Once we went to catch communication in a neighbouring village, and one of the locals told us that a Rashists’ car with the letter V had just passed by the place where we were heading. It was scary, but what could we do? We had to go, warn our relatives, because they had no connection. And you don’t know what that car might do. Maybe it will stop somewhere on the road I’m driving on, or go back to meet me, and there is no one else on the road except for my car…

We drove with the windows down and seatbelts unfastened, so that we could at least try to jump out and run somewhere if something happened.

When I got there and got out of the car, my knees were shaking. We passed on the information to the locals and they prepared for the meeting 😉

One day, Russian APCs came to our village

We had just received a message on the radio saying that armoured personnel carriers were coming to us and at that very moment our neighbour turned on the generator! It’s good that the Rashists’ diesels were roaring louder.

It was scary, because you don’t know if they’re going by themselves or if another convoy will follow them now. And, generally, what their tasks are.

When the news reported about the corridors from Kozarovychy, Dymer and Demydov to the territory under the Ukrainian Armed Forces control, we decided to try to get to Kyiv. And although the information about the corridor was later denied, we passed. As it turned out, this corridor worked for three days, we left just in time — on the second day. And then the Russians blocked all the ways again until the counteroffensive of the Armed Forces.

We went on foot, having left the car by the house. Wearing our go-bags. And so we walked — my wife, my friend and our dog — for about 2 km. Then, we crossed the destroyed bridge in Demydovo. There were mines everywhere, and next to the mines there were stray dogs running around. We were very worried that a dog might run over a mine, and we would get hurt by the explosion as well.

Olya was anxious about them not letting us pass with the dog at the Russian checkpoint. When we approached them, they asked us where we were going. To Kyiv. ‘And why are you going to Kyiv? It is dangerous there. We are being shelled from there.’ — they said. We were silent, but we thought to ourselves: ‘Of course, you are, and it serves you right. Why have you come to our land?’ They said: ‘Wait until March 15, and you will go to Belarus’… But then, they let us go.

When we crossed over to the Ukrainian side, Russian artillery began to work nearby. And I was at the head of our column.

Suddenly, I see how a man wearing uniform (Ukrainian Armed Forces or Territorial Defence) instantly falls to the ground, and I understand that I should do the same. But if I fall now, people behind me will start to panic. That’s why I kept going. An interesting experience that I would not like to repeat.

When we reached the evacuation point, we were picked up, fed and taken by minibuses to Kyiv. It was very nice to be at home.

While we were under occupation, we couldn’t work

We had very limited communication, so the team coordinated itself, billed clients, and worked on projects. At most, I could watch something or write a couple of emails in the afternoon, when the people who came to our place to text and call went away. But this can’t be called remote work.

Since the beginning of the war, our turnover dropped by 60 percent. All Ukrainian clients held their operation and didn’t know what to do. We focused on our Western customers.

Salaries had to be adjusted up to 50% of the amount before the full-scale invasion, given that the load was at the level of 40%. Then, we raised them to 75%, now we are back at the old level of compensation.

We didn’t fire anyone, not even the trainees we recruited before the war. With the exception of one manager, who we had to say goodbye to — the stress made it too difficult for him to work. One of our employees joined the Armed Forces, and we continue to pay him.

As a company, we pay taxes and VAT, we did not switch to the 2% single tax. In addition, due to the exchange rate difference, we often pay more than 20% of tax, selling a dollar at 29.25, and paying compensation at 35, for example. But we aren’t complaining.

Every month we will donate $2,000 to the Armed Forces. This is how we supported the Army SOS fund, which develops ‘Kropyva’ software for artillery and participated in fundraising to buy drones for the Armed Forces and for other needs.

We bought an engine for a reconnaissance vehicle, delivered it, and put the vehicle into service. The car is really cool — made in such a way that it is extremely hard to detect it — so just buying a new one was not an option, and it was necessary to repair this one.

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I gave my drone to the ZSU (Armed Forces of Ukraine) while we were under occupation. I asked our cleaning lady to hand it over. I was asked if it was fine with me that the drone would most likely not come back? It was fine, especially if thanks to it, several Rashists would never come back here either.

The Ukrainian business is beginning to revive little by little, and things are getting better now

In addition, we resumed working at Upwork, which we had left because before the full-scale war we had been completely engaged by projects. Now, we have transferred the interns to ‘bidding’ at Upwork and have already attracted one long-term project there.

We could do more, but we are not ready to ‘work for food‘, and some clients are either on a limited budget or simply asking for inadequate discounts. Saying that it’s better to earn something than not earn at all.

We refuse them, and instead allocate free resources to our regular Ukrainian customers, who currently do not have the opportunity to pay a lot for our services. We are ready to meet our Ukrainian clients, receive many times less, and perform many times more.

Today, we have reached the level of approximately 30% of the pre-war turnover. Almost all employees, with the exception of one girl, are already in Ukraine. Half of the team has returned to Kyiv, but for now we are working remotely.

Our office was slightly damaged by shelling. The windows got broken, metal structures got bent and the doors were torn out, but the guards managed to hide the equipment. There is a plant ‘Artem’* nearby, which has been attacked several times already and may come under fire again. Just like our office. Therefore, we are in no hurry to come back.

*Editor’s note: ‘Artem’ plant is a military plant located in Kyiv.

The rent was greatly reduced for us without any questions at all. We don’t push Ukrainian partners for discounts, but almost all of them have given discounts, just like we do to Ukrainian customers. Everyone has given off as much as they could.

And I wrote a dozen emails to the Western partners, and we received sometimes six months of free use of the service, and sometimes a year. We have been supported with discounts or free periods by such companies as Google, Slack, Zoho, Digital Ocean, Zapier, SoundCloud, SiteGround, Calendly, SemRush.

We believe in the Armed Forces and work on our economic frontline. And we also help by volunteering — we are currently waiting for walkie-talkie adapters for headphones with active noise cancelling and several drones. Together we will win!