Even for those who witnessed the battle for Bakhmut, the longest and likely the deadliest clash of the war in Ukraine, words often failed.
Soldiers who fought in the shell-racked city strained to articulate the carnage. The reek of the trenches around the city and the unceasing howl of shellfire, they said, recalled the Battle of Verdun in 1916, which lasted 300 days and was one of the bloodiest of World War I.
By the time the Russians declared “victory” on Saturday, relentless bombardment had turned former shops and homes to charred ruins. As Ukraine shifted focus to the fighting on the outskirts, President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged that the city was gone, saying “Bakhmut is only in our hearts.”
It was an arc of destruction captured by photographers from The New York Times over the past year.
A First Strike
The loss of Bakhmut started in earnest with a Russian missile strike in May 2022. The front was still some 10 miles away and artillery thundered in the distance. There were already few cars on the streets except for military vehicles; shops and banks were boarded up. Only one or two cafes and supermarkets were still open.
By June, the Ukrainian government was urging all those who remained in Bakhmut and other cities and towns in the path of the Russian advance to join a growing exodus of civilians fleeing for safety.
Across the eastern Donbas region — a constellation of industrial cities and mining towns dotting the steppe — Russia has repeatedly reduced towns and cities to rubble before claiming the ruins.
In July, after weeks of fierce fighting, Russia captured the twin cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, about 35 miles northeast of Bakhmut, and drove Ukraine nearly completely from the Luhansk province, which is part of the Donbas region.
Capturing Bakhmut was seen as a step toward two more important cities, Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, and to the rest of Donetsk, the other province in the Donbas region. The pace of artillery fire picked up, and Ukrainian soldiers were being wounded and killed by the hundreds every day, government officials said. Homes burned and the city shook day and night.
Declaring a Target
After Russia’s plan to quickly topple the Ukrainian government failed and its military suffered a humiliating string of defeats outside the capital, Kyiv, and in other cities in the northeast, the Kremlin regrouped and redoubled its efforts to seize the Donbas region.
In the summer, Russia still had vastly more firepower at its disposal than Ukraine, whose soldiers were dangerously close to running out of ammunition. At one point, Ukrainian officials estimated that Russian forces were firing 50,000 artillery rounds every day, noting that their own troops could only hit back with around 5,000 to 6,000 rounds.
On Aug. 1, the Russian minister of defense, Sergei K. Shoigu, declared that the battle for Bakhmut had begun. Not for the last time, speculation swirled: Could Bakhmut hold?
Fighting at a Distance
The city of Bakhmut was renamed Artyomovsk in 1924 by the Soviet leadership after the Bolshevik revolutionary Fyodor “Artem” Sergeyev, a friend of Stalin. In 2016, residents jettisoned the Soviet name.
In more peaceful times, Bakhmut was known for its sparkling-wine factory and salt mines. But as Russia stepped up its attempt to capture the city, Ukrainian officials said it was their fortress; over time, its symbolic importance grew even as military analysts questioned its military significance.
For much of the summer, the fighting took place at a distance as the two sides engaged in artillery duels and long-range strikes.
Bridges were blown up and the land was seeded with mines. Ukrainian soldiers fortified positions in the city and Russian forces kept pounding away from the perimeters.
As the fighting raged, the authorities in Kyiv continued to try and convince civilians to leave. Fearing there might be no heat, gas or power as winter approached, Ukraine ordered a mandatory evacuation in August.
That meant thousands more joined the estimated 14 million Ukrainians displaced from their homes across the country, often fleeing on packed evacuation trains — a lifetime packed into a suitcase or two as they headed off not knowing if they would ever return.
In the fall, a stunning Ukrainian counteroffensive swept the Russians out of the northeastern province of Kharkiv; a short time later, Ukraine pushed across the southern Kherson province west of the Dnipro river, recapturing the city of Kherson, the provincial capital.
Despite the setbacks, the one place that Russia kept attacking with ferocity was Bakhmut.
The assault was led by a mercenary group known as Wagner, which was founded by a Russian tycoon who became a confidant of Vladimir V. Putin and used his ties with the Kremlin to amass a fortune. The group’s ranks were bolstered by criminals recruited from Russian penal colonies. Despite poor moral and abysmal leadership, they kept attacking.
While the broader contours of the war shifted dramatically in the fall, the battle for Bakhmut continued to be defined by appalling losses for both sides.
A City in Ruins
By November, the city was a maze of rubble, barricades and hastily constructed blast walls. Military analysts continued to question its strategic importance and whether it was worth the cost Ukraine was paying to keep the Russians out. When The New York Times visited the city in late November, the hospital was packed with dozens of soldiers suffering from all manner of trauma. Gunshot wounds, shrapnel injuries, concussions.
“They came in batches — 10, 10, five, 10,” said Parus, one of the Ukrainian medics at the hospital.
But a new phrase was also entering the lexicon of Ukrainians across the country as soldiers battled to keep the city from falling: Bakhmut holds.
Trying to Hold On
For the Ukrainian soldiers charged with holding Bakhmut, being surrounded by carnage and death could not help but take a toll. And the combat was relentless.
The mobilized Russian troops “are just taking a rifle and walking right down like in Soviet times,” said a Ukrainian medic who went by the call sign Smile. “He gets killed and the next one comes up the same way.”
As temperatures dropped below freezing, the few remaining residents mostly lived in basement bunkers. They relied on volunteers to provide food and medical supplies, occasionally venturing out for firewood.
The two sides continued to slug it out. Russian forces said that they had managed to enter the eastern outskirts of Bakhmut in early December. Once again, military analysts wondered how much longer the Ukrainians could hold on.
By February, Russia had deployed hundreds of thousands of newly mobilized soldiers — replacing the estimated 200,000 dead and wounded in the war overall. Desperate for a victory, Russian fighters attacked Ukrainian positions, often with little support.
One Ukrainian soldier told The New York Times in February that they simply could not kill the Russian troops fast enough. They would mow down one wave only to be met by another group pushing ahead over fields littered with their own dead.
Despite suffering staggering losses, the Russians kept attacking, slowly choking off the city as they closed in on vital supply lines. By March, the main roads in and out of the city were coming under heavy shelling and thousands of Ukrainian soldiers were at risk of being cut off.
As Ukrainian soldiers secured a crucial road and then started to take back land to the north and south of the city, Russian forces intensified their already withering bombardment of the city and of the last blocks where Ukrainian defenders held out.
Almost every night for the first two weeks in May, sometimes twice a night, the Russian Army rained fire down on the Ukrainian positions in the form of incendiary munitions. As the fires burned, Russian artillery and tanks blasted away, and snipers hid in battered buildings to keep the Ukrainian forces from bringing in reinforcements or moving troops out.
The flames from Bakhmut lit up the night sky for miles, and smoke hung over the ruins in the early hours, so thick it looked like fog.
By Saturday, one year after the Russians first started shelling the city regularly, they had succeeded in razing it to the ground.
Bakhmut was no longer a city but a graveyard.
Bakhmut was perhaps an unlikely city in which to take a stand — for both sides. But over time, it took on an outsize importance: a symbol of Ukrainian defiance and of Russian leaders’ determination to blast their way to a small victory in a little-known corner of eastern Ukraine. It will long be remembered as a place of unfathomable suffering.
Reporting was contributed by Carlotta Gall, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Gaëlle Girbes, Andrew E. Kramer, Evelina Riabenko, Michael Schwirtz, Maria Varenikova, Slava Yatsenko, Dmitry Yatsenko and Natalia Yermak.