Many citizens thought the occupiers were there to stay. Some fought back, others actively supported them, while the majority just tried to survive.
By Yaroslav Trofimov
Nov. 1, 2022
The Wall Street Journal
SHEVCHENKOVE, Ukraine—When Russian armored columns drove into this rural community of 20,000 people on the first day of the invasion, Mayor Valeriy Prykhodko tried to count the tanks, artillery pieces and fighting vehicles that rolled past his windows. After the first few hundred, he gave up. “It was too big for counting,” Mr. Prykhodko said. “The horror.”
Located some 35 miles from the Russian border, Shevchenkove fell without a fight the afternoon of Feb. 24. In the six months of Russian rule that followed, many locals came to believe that Moscow, with its awe-inspiring military might, would stay here forever.
Unwilling to work under Russian authority, Mr. Prykhodko tried for a time to resist orders, then fled to Ukrainian-controlled territories. But the municipality’s second-in-command, Executive Secretary Nadiya Sheluh, stayed on the job even once the Russians raised their red-blue-white flag over the building.
Mr. Prykhodko, who is now back in office, recalls being surprised and outraged. But he also acknowledged that many in Shevchenkove think his former colleague did the right thing by helping keep basic services functioning through the occupation. “Our people are split about her,” he said. “Old ladies here say they are thankful to her, that she helped them and fed them.”
Ukrainian forces came back to Shevchenkove in September, as part of their rapid offensive in the eastern Kharkiv region. Now, like other towns and villages in recently liberated parts of Ukraine, Shevchenkove is torn from within by tensions between those who escaped or opposed the Russians—and those who are viewed as having accommodated the enemy.
The delicate task of sorting out one from the other falls on investigators from the Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU, and the National Police, who are collecting evidence in recently retaken territories and in large parts of the country that remain under Moscow’s rule.
In Shevchenkove, a few citizens tried to resist the occupation, scribbling anti-Russian graffiti on walls and passing intelligence to Ukrainian troops. Some others enthusiastically embraced the invaders, taking government positions and joining the Russian-created security forces. The majority in Shevchenkove, as in other occupied areas, tried to survive. As time went by, they were increasingly forced to make compromises with the occupiers, accepting Russian humanitarian aid, pensions or jobs.
At the outset of the war, Ukraine sought to undermine Russia’s hold over occupied areas with strict anti-collaboration laws. Voluntarily joining Russia’s education system on occupied territories can be punished with up to three years’ imprisonment. Taking a managerial role in the Russian-created administrations can mean up to 10 years in prison. Participation in Russian
created law-enforcement and security structures can be punished with up to 15 years behind bars—life imprisonment if it caused the death of a Ukrainian citizen.
Dozens of presumed collaborators have been gunned down by unknown assailants in occupied areas in recent months, mostly in the south of the country. Now that many of the formerly Russian-occupied areas are back under Kyiv’s control here in the east, Ukrainian authorities say they are taking a measured approach. “We don’t work like the Russians. We don’t keep people in torture chambers,” said Serhiy Bolvinov, head of the investigations department of Ukraine’s National Police in the Kharkiv region. “It’s not enough that someone comes to us and points a finger at someone else to say, ‘This is a collaborator.’ We need to investigate according to the law and to look for solid evidence that will stand up in court.”
In the first month since the Ukrainian offensive reclaimed occupied parts of Kharkiv, he said, law-enforcement agencies opened a total of 132 criminal investigations, with 21 people formally notified of suspicions against them and four others indicted and sent to court.
An SBU investigator in Kharkiv added that rounding up everyone who collaborated with the Russians one way or another would be impossible because of the sheer number of people who broke the Ukrainian law to survive. “In every village here, they tell us that everyone in their own village resisted, but that the next village over is full of collaborators,” the investigator said.
While the Russian-appointed mayor and a few other senior collaborators fled Shevchenkove alongside Russian forces, many others who worked in the occupation administration and education systems, such as Ms. Sheluh, remain here, free to roam the streets after their initial questioning by Ukrainian authorities.
Ms. Sheluh, a former radio broadcaster who speaks flawless literary Ukrainian in a town where most speak either Russian or a mixed dialect known as surzhyk, once unsuccessfully ran for the district legislature on a pro-Western list and showed no pro-Russian inclinations before the war, according to villagers.
Interviewed in her home, Ms. Sheluh said she never accepted pay from the occupiers and worked with the Russians only because she sought to help Shevchenkove’s people in their darkest hour. “I was defending the interests of our local citizens,” she said. “Mostly old people and children stayed here, and they needed the baby formula, the diapers,” she said.
Some in Shevchenkove defend her; others are furious, demanding swift punishment for Ms. Sheluh and anyone else who helped the Russian occupation machine. “Why are our boys dying out there? Why has my grandson not seen his father for seven months? So that we forgive all these people as if nothing had happened?” asked Olha Usyk, a director of one of Shevchenkove’s schools whose son-in-law serves in the Ukrainian military.
Ms. Usyk was especially angry that Ms. Sheluh ordered schools to reopen under Russian authority. Russia has sought to erase Ukrainian identity by teaching in Russian and implementing that country’s curriculum, part of Moscow’s plan to annex the conquered areas.
Speaking at an improvised gathering on Shevchenkove’s leafy main square, Ms. Usyk and other educators complained that the returning Ukrainian authorities were slow to weed out Russian collaborators. “What’s scary is that, on the front line, it’s clear who is the enemy. But here, it’s murky, a real swamp,” said Maria Danylova, a teacher. “Everyone who collaborated with the Russians here was making their own choices. Nobody put guns to their heads.”
In the first days of Russian occupation, Shevchenkove—named after Ukraine’s national poet who spent a decade in penal exile for his opposition to Russian imperial rule—was largely left alone.
Still, residents faced wrenching decisions. Serhiy Kovshar, a former police lieutenant whose son was killed fighting Russian proxies in the Donbas region in 2015, quietly removed a commemorative plaque on the front of his house. By May, he had joined the new occupation police force, say local residents who saw him at checkpoints and on patrols.
At the community’s 73-bed hospital, Russian soldiers arrived with one of their men, with an inflamed appendix, and demanded at gunpoint that doctors operate on him, said Natalia Nesvoyeva, who served as acting director. The surgery was successful, she said.
Over the course of the occupation, more than 100 Russian soldiers ended up at the Shevchenkove hospital, usually for conditions that weren’t life-threatening, according to Ms. Nesvoyeva. “They had shot themselves in the foot, or had hypertension crises after an overdose of something, or frostbite,” she said.
Ukrainian officials say that providing urgent medical care to Russian soldiers is protected under international humanitarian law and thus isn’t considered collaboration.
Meanwhile, Mayor Prykhodko and other local officials worked on their own to try to secure supplies, bake bread, and keep basic services running.
On March 5, agitated Russian soldiers arrived at Mr. Prykhodko’s office in the two-story government headquarters on Shevchenkove’s main square, he said. As soldiers pointed guns at the mayor, their commander demanded that he hand over lists of locals who served in the military, particularly the Donbas, that he take down the Ukrainian flag that still flew over the municipality, and that he write a letter to Vladimir Putin welcoming the Russian takeover. “I will throw a hand grenade if you don’t,” the Russian officer threatened. Mr. Prykhodko, surrounded by some 15 staff members, decided the threat was empty and stood his ground. The Russians ended up driving away and the Ukrainian flag kept flying.
Initially, Russia’s presence in Shevchenkove mostly consisted of ill-equipped troops from the Russian-controlled statelets of Donbas. They demanded that Mr. Prykhodko allocate them housing. When he refused, he said, they settled in vacant homes and started looting. “They said they have been ordered to operate in a self-reliant fashion,” Mr. Prykhodko said. “They were dirty and stinky. We knew they just drank all night, and didn’t do much else.”
By April 18, a new batch of disheveled, shellshocked Russian troops arrived here, redeployed after the Russian withdrawal from Kyiv. “If you had forgotten about Irpin and Bucha, we will remind you,” they shouted, referring to the massacre of Ukrainian civilians in those suburbs of Kyiv. There were no massacres in Shevchenkove, however.
Ms. Danylova, a teacher of Ukrainian and one of the most passionate pro-Ukrainian activists in Shevchenkove, had spent the previous four decades collecting artifacts for the museum of Ukrainian traditional culture that was housed in the local high school.
Having heard about how the Russians burned a museum containing the paintings of naïve-style folk artist Maria Prymachenko near Kyiv, she decided to rescue the century-old embroidered towels, shirts and wedding dresses and hid them in her cellar and in friends’ homes. To do so, Ms. Danylova and her son, Ruslan Shokirov, had to brave Russian checkpoints. “There is no
doubt that they would have destroyed these items if they had caught us—they were burning everything Ukrainian. The only question is what they would have done to us,” Mr. Shokirov said. All the artifacts survived.
On April 27, a different kind of Russian security force, well-equipped and in modern vehicles, arrived at the Shevchenkove municipality. “Run away, they are hunting for you,” Mr. Prykhodko said he was told by colleagues. He jumped on his bicycle and waited out the night in the dark behind the outhouse at his brother’s home. The Russians spread word they wanted him to start working under their authority. “All they want is for you to open the doors of the municipality and distribute their humanitarian aid. What’s wrong with that? They won’t do anything to you,” Mr. Prykhodko said he was told by a local woman who spoke with the Russians. “Are you crazy? I am a Ukrainian village mayor, not a Russian one,” he said he retorted. Unwilling to collaborate, Mr. Prykhodko fled Shevchenkove the following day and made his way through the front lines to Ukrainian government-controlled territory.
In his place, the Russians installed a local horse breeder, Andrey Stryzhko, who never hid his sympathies for Moscow. Usually dressed in black and wearing the papakha woolen hat of Russian Cossacks, Mr. Stryzhko used to hang the red Soviet flag outside his home even before the war. One of his first steps was to have himself filmed stripping away the Ukrainian coat of arms on Shevchenkove’s main square. He also ordered the removal of a monument to Ukrainian veterans of the war in Donbas.
Unlike Mr. Prykhodko, Ms. Sheluh, the community’s second-in-command, remained on her job. She played down her contact with the Russians. “I was in my office downstairs and they and their authority was upstairs,” she said. “I just worked in my own place.” Ms. Sheluh sat in on meetings with the new Russian authorities. Some were filmed for Russian propaganda channels. Mr. Prykhodko said he terminated Ms. Sheluh’s employment and stopped her Ukrainian salary payments once he learned about her work with the Russians.
While most Shevchenkove police withdrew to government-held areas in February, some officers joined the new Russian-run force that detained curfew breakers and put them to work sweeping streets and picking weeds. The villagers learned a new verb—“to kadyrov”—which meant beating inmates with a large wooden pole, a practice introduced by troops loyal to Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, a key Putin ally. “It was a bad time. I was afraid to walk on the street alone,” said Yana Holoboyko, a high-school student. “The Russians were very aggressive, especially when they got drunk, driving around and picking up women.”
On Ukraine’s constitution day in late June, block-length graffiti appeared on one of Shevchenkove’s streets. “Shevchenkove is Ukraine. Death to occupiers. Stryzhko—you’ll kick the bucket,” it said. Nobody bothered to paint it over. Around the same time, Aleksandr Sidyakin, head of the executive committee of Russia’s ruling party, came to nearby Kupyansk to announce that locals could now start receiving Russian passports. “Russia is here for eternity!” he proclaimed to applause.
In the Shevchenkove hospital, doctors and nurses did what they could, treating civilians and Russian soldiers alike. “The Russians always came here with guns. We were afraid of them, and they were afraid of us. You never knew what they could do,” said the head nurse, Olha Kokhan.
Unlike in Kupyansk, where most hospital staff quickly switched to a Russian contract with its significantly higher pay, the doctors and nurses in Shevchenkove continued to receive Ukrainian salaries in their bank accounts.
With no Ukrainian banks functioning in occupied areas, they could only withdraw cash, at a commission of as high as 35%, via entrepreneurial middlemen from the Donbas who arrived with an internet hot spot that allowed online bank transfers.
Gradually, pressure to work with the Russians became hard to resist. A few of the female staff started dating Russian soldiers and officers. Vitaliy Ganchev, head of the Russian-created interim administration of the Kharkiv region, and other officials came to Shevchenkove on Aug. 23 to meet with the hospital staff, telling them that there was no point in holding out. “You still hope the Ukrainians will come back? No, they will never come back,” Ms. Kokhan, the nurse, said Mr. Ganchev told them.
Russia paid more attention to schools. The occupation administration’s building in Kupyansk is still packed to the brim with Russian textbooks, teaching aids and educational posters. Ukrainian books and materials were removed and destroyed.
In August, Ms. Sheluh, the Shevchenkove executive secretary, called schoolteachers and directors, as well as the staff of the local kindergarten, demanding they reopen their institutions on Sept. 1. While all the school directors refused, Oksana Simutina, the local kindergarten director, agreed.
The kindergarten staff spent two weeks cleaning up the facility that was closed since February, washing curtains and sheets, sweeping the floors, and culling waist-high weeds, she said. Some 20 children showed up on Sept. 1. “There can be no politics in a kindergarten. We never communicated with the Russians,” said Ms. Simutina.
Out of the community’s 288 schoolteachers, only about one-tenth showed up as classes started on Sept. 1, according to Mr. Prykhodko, the mayor.
Teacher Ludmyla Zdorovko said Russian-appointed officials in Shevchenkove told her, “Go to work or you will remain jobless forever.” She added, “The people who went to work for them, it was not because they believed in the Russian world. Not many people did here. They were greedy and just wanted money.”
Ms. Sheluh said no Ukrainian books were destroyed in the community’s schools, and no Russian symbols displayed. Her decision was driven by patriotism, she said. “I asked our teachers to go to work and teach the Ukrainian language because I didn’t want them to bring outsiders to schools,” she said. “This is our land, we all grew up here, and nobody can educate better than our own people.”
On Sept. 5, senior staff of the Shevchenkove hospital were summoned to Kupyansk for a meeting with the occupation administration. “They asked that we collaborate and told us that we have no other choice,” Ms. Kokhan said. “And we almost agreed. Six months had gone by. It’s a very long time.”
If they had signed on to the Russian health system, as they planned to do days later, they would have been considered collaborators under Ukrainian law. But the following day, the Ukrainian offensive in the Kharkiv region began.
Russian soldiers disappeared from Shevchenkove’s hospital before dawn. Then, a few hours later, on Sept. 7, Ukrainian forces showed up on the street outside. “You can’t even imagine the joy, the euphoria we all felt when we walked out and suddenly saw that finally our boys are back here, with our flags, right outside,” said the acting hospital director, Ms. Nesvoyeva.
Unlike Kupyansk, severely damaged in fighting, Shevchenkove survived the occupation largely intact and with few casualties. Mr. Stryzhko, the Russian-appointed mayor, and a handful of other Russian-appointed officials escaped with the last Russian troops. Many other Russian sympathizers remain. “There are still people here in town who wait for the Russians to return,” said Yulia Fedorova, a paramedic in the hospital. “I have one in my own building. I tell her—if you like them so much, why are you lining up for Ukrainian humanitarian aid on the square instead of running away to your Russia?”
Soon after the Russian retreat, Mr. Prykhodko returned to his duties in the municipality. Ukrainian security authorities set up an office, too, looking for collaborators.
Mr. Kovshar, the former policeman, was detained for a couple of hours, and then released. Interviewed in his home, he acknowledged that he briefly joined the Russian-led police but said he did it only to steal the list of local hunters who owned rifles, so that the Russians wouldn’t have it. He said he passed intelligence to Ukrainian forces all along. The plaque commemorating his son’s heroism in Donbas is now affixed again on his home, a Ukrainian flag flying above it.
Queried about the case, Ukrainian law-enforcement officials declined to comment on individual investigations. Mr. Prykhodko, the mayor, said there was no legally admissible evidence of collaboration by Mr. Kovshar.
Ms. Sheluh, the municipality secretary, said she was repeatedly interrogated, her phone and her passport taken away. She remains in her home in Shevchenkove, waiting to see how the inquiry progresses. Ms. Simutina, the kindergarten director, is free after her three interviews with the SBU. “I don’t believe we were collaborators,” she said, speaking as she was running errands in central Shevchenkove. “We worked in our own village, for our own people and for our own children.”
In the Shevchenkove hospital, the staffers who dated Russian soldiers remain on their jobs, even though many colleagues no longer socialize with them. “They wanted to fix their personal lives, but chose the wrong men. Now, they are despised by the entire staff,” said Ms. Nesvoyeva. “They are good workers, and I cannot fire them. But they are crying all day that other people have a bad attitude to them. What else did they expect?”