In occupied Kherson, Tropinka staffers outwitted—and outwaited—the invaders, as they fought over hallway posters and the flag out front
By Ian Lovett
Nov. 25, 2022
The Wall Street Journal
KHERSON, Ukraine—The first time Russian soldiers came to Tropinka Hospital, they told Leonid Remiga, the hospital’s chief physician, to take down the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag hanging over the main entrance. He refused. “You can shoot me if you want,” 68-year-old Dr. Remiga recalls saying, “but I’m not going to do it.”
The Russians left without insisting. But that meeting on March 7, days after Russia seized this southern city, was the start of a battle for control of the hospital that raged through the entire occupation. The Russians detained two doctors, banned Ukrainian symbols and put hand-picked people in charge. To thwart them, the staff faked a Covid-19 outbreak, hid equipment and spied for Ukrainian forces.
The staff’s resistance was part of an eight-month, mostly unarmed campaign by Kherson residents to keep the city Ukrainian—and out of Moscow’s full control—for as long as possible. Thousands joined anti-Russian protests in the city’s central square and, when the demonstrations were violently quashed, turned small acts of resistance into part of everyday life—even at the risk of being detained or tortured.
Kherson was the only regional capital Moscow seized in this year’s invasion, making it a strategic prize for both sides. Russia’s struggle to exercise control over the city exposed a critical miscalculation in Mr. Putin’s invasion: He expected his takeover would be welcomed as a liberation, or at least silently tolerated, in Russian-speaking areas. “In their imagination, they had this belief that all Ukrainians would support them,” said Yaroslav Yanushevych, governor of the Kherson region. “What they found was the opposite.”
Founded in 1914, Tropinka Hospital reflected Ukraine’s lack of investment in infrastructure since declaring independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Its unadorned, five-story main building is surrounded by a handful of satellite offices with stone floors and fluorescent lights. There are no automatic doors. Dogs sometimes lounge in the entryway to escape the cold.
Still, Dr. Remiga, who had served as the chief physician since 1995, was committed to the hospital and to Ukraine. A former city councilman and member of Ukraine’s European Solidarity political party, he believed the country’s future was with the West, and harbored little nostalgia for Soviet times. When the invasion began, Dr. Remiga planned how to keep the hospital out of Russian hands. Days after Dr. Remiga refused to take the flag down, more Russian soldiers arrived in an armored personnel carrier intent on converting Tropinka into a military hospital. Dr. Remiga, still spry with a white goatee, greeted them in full protective gear, including a body suit and foot covers, and told the troops they couldn’t come in because of a Covid outbreak. Staff had plastered the walls with warnings of rampant infections. The ruse worked, and the soldiers left. Doctors and nurses faked a Covid outbreak to avoid turning the building into a hospital for Russian troops.
Over the following weeks, doctors treated some wounded Russian soldiers and civilians from frontline villages. Around 200 locals sheltered in the basement while the city was under shelling. In April, Dr. Remiga’s wife, son and grandchildren left for Ukrainian-controlled territory. He decided to stay. “Our hospital couldn’t become a Russian hospital,” Dr. Remiga said. “All the employees felt this way…I couldn’t leave them.”
The Russians tried to win over Dr. Remiga. Occasionally, two men dressed in black would show up and ask if he needed anything. He assumed they were from the FSB, Russia’s security service. With supplies of prescription
drugs running low, Tropinka was almost out of insulin. Dr. Remiga asked the men in black for help. They soon brought insulin.
Meanwhile, anti-Russian protests gripped the city. Thousands thronged the central square, waving Ukrainian flags, jumping onto tanks and shouting at the Russians to get out. Dr. Remiga says he attended several demonstrations, and encouraged staff to join. Some staffers went further, secretly reporting on Russian movements to contacts in Ukrainian intelligence. Medical staff at Tropinka take care of an elderly patient.
Soon, civilians began showing up at the hospital with eyes stung by tear gas and bruises from beatings with night sticks. By May, they were appearing with bullet wounds to the legs from ricochets as the Russians shot at the ground to disperse the crowds. “They became more strict,” Dr. Remiga said. “The period after May 8,” when the last major protest took place, “was a period of depression.”
Russian soldiers began knocking on residents’ doors to ask them about posts on social media saying “Kherson is Ukraine.” The city’s elected mayor was detained in June and hasn’t been seen in public since.
The Russian-installed administration of the Kherson region didn’t respond to requests for comment.
On June 7, Dr. Regima was summoned to a meeting. Two local men and one Russian sat across from him. Several armed Russian soldiers stood behind them. A camera pointed at Dr. Remiga. One of the local men, Vadim Ilmiyev, introduced himself as the region’s healthcare minister, then began to shout at Dr. Remiga, saying he was spreading an anti-Russian mood in the hospital, and they needed to get rid of him. At one point, Dr. Remiga said, he stood up and said they were in his office. A soldier hit him on the back with the butt of a pistol.
The hospital’s head nurse, Larisa Maleta and a few other employees were called in. Mr. Ilmiyev said Dr. Remiga had been fired. Then he pointed at Ms. Maleta. “You’re now the head doctor,” he told her, as she and Dr. Remiga recalled. Ms. Maleta, a somber-looking 51-year-old, says she protested that she wasn’t a doctor. Mr. Ilmiyev insisted the job was hers. “They didn’t care,” she said. “They just wanted to start controlling the hospital.” Mr. Ilmiyev, whom hospital employees said left Kherson with Russian forces, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Dr. Remiga said the Russians told him he was headed to jail. He felt sick. As they left the office, he realized he couldn’t speak. He was having a stroke. His colleagues convinced the Russians that he could die if he didn’t stay at the hospital. Then they whisked him away for treatment. The next day, Ms. Maleta went to speak to Dr. Remiga, who was recovering well. She told him she was going to quit. She didn’t want to work for Russians. “No, you have to stay,” he told her. “Better you than one of their people.” The two made a deal: She wouldn’t quit, and he’d help her run the hospital from his sickbed.
That night, Ms. Maleta said, she also called Ukrainian security services to tell them what had happened, and make clear she wasn’t going over to the other side. “It was difficult. Eighty percent of the [hospital] staff realized I was doing something useful. Twenty percent thought I was a collaborator,” Ms. Maleta said.
One of her first acts was to take down the hospital’s Ukrainian flag. Ms. Maleta said she agreed to that only to avoid letting the Russians have the satisfaction of removing it themselves. Still, she said, she slow-walked other orders.
She and Dr. Remiga said their strategy was to appear to comply, but avoid signing anything. After putting up posters the Russians brought—and taking photos to show Mr. Ilmiyev—Ms. Maleta said staff took them down again. She warned Mr. Ilmiyev that doctors would quit if he tried to make them sign contracts with the Russian government—something that would have violated Ukrainian anticollaboration laws. He backed off, she said.
All the while, Dr. Remiga remained in the hospital. After spending the first two weeks in bed, he began to take walks. His deputies consulted with him and asked him to sign documents so employees would keep receiving salaries from the Ukrainian government. Once a week, in the evening, staff would drive him home to change clothes and feed his cats. Dr. Remiga resumed his post after the Russians pulled out.
Mr. Ilmiyev and his deputies inquired about Dr. Remiga all the time, Ms. Maleta said, often asking if he was bothering her. “No, he’s getting treatment. That’s it,” she recalls responding. Bit by bit, Mr. Ilmiyev tried to get
Ms. Maleta to work more closely with the Russian administration, she said. At the end of July, she decided she was done. Early on Aug. 1, Ms. Maleta set off toward Ukrainian-held territory, leaving behind her husband, daughter and grandson. When she didn’t arrive at work that morning, Russians came looking for Dr. Remiga. He was off on a walk when they reached his hospital bed.
They had moved on to another part of the hospital when he returned a few minutes later. Warned by nurses, he packed a few things, then slipped out of the building using a little-known route through the intensive care unit. One of the hospital’s drivers took him to a distant relative’s house in the city. By that point, a summer exodus from Kherson was under way, amid a Russian crackdown on all things Ukrainian.
Firemen were interrogated at their stations. Parents were warned that if they didn’t send their children to Russian-run schools in the fall, the kids could be taken from them. Residents were detained for passing out humanitarian aid. White-blue-and-red billboards were erected around Kherson, promising free healthcare and declaring, “Russia is here forever.”
Around the same time, Ukraine started hitting Russian bases and supply lines in the region with U.S.-made long-range missile systems, seeking to cut off Russian troops in the city.
By August, Russian soldiers were showing up at hospitals in droves, complaining of headaches or back pain in hopes they’d get sent home. “One guy said he had problems with his knees,” said Andriy Koksharov, head of Tropinka’s trauma department. A scan showed there wasn’t much wrong, but the soldier asked Dr. Koksharov to exaggerate. Dr. Koksharov wrote that he had arthritis and needed to leave the front. “The fewer of them the better,” he said. “I was ready to sign it for the whole army.”
Employee departures accelerated at Tropinka after the Russians installed a new head doctor, Irina Sviridova, a local cardiologist. She hired Pavel Novikov, a former Tropinka doctor, as her deputy, and they began integrating the hospital into the Russian healthcare system. Employees received salaries in rubles for the first time in August and were banned from entering data in the Ukrainian healthcare database. Dr. Sviridova couldn’t be reached for comment.
Dr. Koksharov eventually found himself the only doctor in his department, after his three colleagues left. The anesthesiology department was reduced to three doctors from nine. On the morning of Aug. 17, four soldiers knocked on the door of Dr. Koksharov’s office. He was soon in a car with a bag over his head. Andriy Koksharov, head of the trauma department, was detained for several days. His wife, Oleksandra Koksharova, a nurse at the hospital, ran to Dr. Sviridova’s office and asked for help. Dr. Sviridova told her the Russian FSB was actually in charge. “I’m just sitting in the chair,” Ms. Koksharova recalls her saying. Dr. Koksharov, 55 years old, said he was taken to jail but released unharmed several days later.
Dr. Remiga, meanwhile, was on the run, staying a few days with one friend, a few days with another. He remained in the city and continued to meet with staff. Sometimes they went to the apartment where one of his deputies was living. Other times, they met at bus stations or a street market, places where they could fade into a crowd. On Sept. 20, he was heading to a meeting at a deputy’s house. As he drove up, he saw Dr. Novikov, Dr. Sviridova’s deputy, sitting nearby in one of the hospital cars. He thought little of it. As Dr. Remiga stepped out of the car, four soldiers with guns surrounded him, he said, along with two men in black, who he guessed were FSB. Dr. Remiga said he saw Dr. Novikov walk over and speak to the soldiers. Then a bag was put over his head. “I presume Novikov was there to identify me,” Dr. Remiga said.
In an interview with the Journal, Dr. Novikov said Dr. Sviridova had sent him on an errand, and he hadn’t known Dr. Remiga would be there. But he admitted to identifying him for the soldiers.
Dr. Remiga said he was thrown in a cell for four people that now held eight. Each morning when the guard entered, the prisoners had to stand shoulder-to-shoulder and say “Glory to Russia. Glory to Putin,” Dr. Remiga said. Anyone who refused was severely beaten, he said. They also had to learn the Russian national anthem, and guards would point at individual prisoners, who then had to sing it. Dr. Remiga said he was largely spared punishments
because of his advanced years and was released after about a week on condition that he stay away from the hospital. In Dr. Remiga’s absence, Tropinka was being transformed.
Russian men wearing black, whom staff assumed were from the FSB, roamed the halls. A Sept. 22 order required the removal of all Ukrainian symbols from hospital grounds. All documents were to be completed in Russian.
Dr. Novikov, 35 years old with a 1-year-old at home, relayed the orders to department heads. Then he walked through the halls with a Russian-installed official, showing him that flags and university diplomas bearing tridents, the Ukrainian national symbol, had been removed. In October, however, Dr. Novikov said he began to defy or ignore orders from Dr. Sviridova. On Oct. 18, Russian-installed officials announced that they were leaving the city for territory more firmly under Kremlin control. Two days later, they ordered the hospital to suspend admissions, discharge patients and prepare to evacuate. Dr. Novikov and another staffer said he told department heads he would defy the order.
Like many locals who worked with the Russians, Dr. Sviridova left Kherson in late October, according to several staffers. Days later, she called Dr. Novikov. “You got an order and it seems like you’re not going to follow it,” Dr. Novikov recalls her saying. He says he told her that was correct.
In the last days before the full Russian withdrawal from Kherson, officials showed up at the hospital, eyeing equipment to steal. Employees took computers home so the Russians couldn’t swipe them. One doctor hid the remote to a CT scanner and told the Russians it wouldn’t work if they took it. In the end, they took only a microscope and a centrifuge.
The Russians were gone from Kherson by Nov. 10. Ukrainian forces arrived the next day. Staffers debate the role Dr. Novikov played. Most call him a collaborator. Some say he also saved the hospital. He said Ukraine’s security service, which is largely responsible for investigating collaboration allegations, hasn’t contacted him.
On Nov. 12, Dr. Novikov showed up at the hospital. Dr. Regima asked what he was doing there, then told him to leave his keys with the guards. Out of 460 doctors at the hospital when the invasion began, only 70 remained when the Russians left Kherson, Dr. Remiga said. Many who left are now heading back to the city.
The Ukrainian flags are hanging outside Tropinka again. The Russian propaganda billboards around the city are being torn down. Back in October, Russians began stripping the blue-and-yellow paint from a fence outside the hospital. They never finished the job.
Nikita Nikolaienko contributed to this article.