In Ukrainian villages, whispers of collaboration with the Russians

Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post
Destroyed Ukrainian tank in Chernihiv, Ukraine, April 23, 2022.

Olena peered out from her bedroom window to see what looked like her neighbor, a tall man nicknamed Girovka, step out of a car with Russian markings and begin sending flares into the night sky from the side of the road. The next day, Russian tanks and armored vehicles emerged from the woods in a long column, descending on this small village about 60 miles south of the Russian border, along the same road.

Days later, after the Russian retreat from northern and central Ukraine, four investigators from the Security Service of Ukraine filed into 66-year-old Olena’s living room. She told them what she’d seen and showed them the spot where Girovka had stood and fired the flares. Other neighbors told investigators Girovka had been seen walking to and from Ukrainian positions minutes before they were shelled by Russian forces.

No one in the village has seen the neighbor since.

“Maybe they did it for money?” Olena, whom The Washington Post is identifying only by her first name out of concern about possible retaliation against her, said of those suspected of collaborating with Russia. “They were promised something. I’m wondering how it is possible to sell your conscience and dignity. I don’t know. I don’t get it.”

In small towns and villages across Ukraine that fell under Russian occupation in February and March and have since been liberated, the fog of war has been replaced by the fog of conspiracy and suspicion. Weeks later, citizens across the country speak in hushed tones about people who they believe sold out their neighbors and whether they might have done so willingly or under duress.

Photo for The Washington Post by Wojciech Grzedzinski
Traces of the Russian presence seen in the forest near Shestovitsa in April.

Ukraine’s armed forces declined to share how many Ukrainians accused of collaborating with Russia have been identified or apprehended. The Associated Press reported that about 400 people in the Kharkiv region suspected of collaborating have been detained and could face prosecution under new laws that make any action aiding Russian forces that results in deaths of Ukrainians punishable by life in prison.

Dmytro Ivanov, deputy head of the Chernihiv regional civil-military administration, said security services are investigating cases of alleged collaborators marking Ukrainian positions with phosphorus, which can be identified from the sky and has helped Russians target artillery fire on Ukrainian positions. He said others led Russians to food and supply storehouses. In some cases, he said, collaborators had accepted food or cash from Russians in exchange for information.

“We assume these people are still here,” Ivanov said. “Right now, special security services are working on it. Among locals, there are not that many cases, because communities here are strong and united more than ever before.”

Photo for The Washington Post by Wojciech Grzedzinski
Dmytro Ivanov stands amid the ruins of the stadium in Chernihiv on April 23.

In villages northeast of Ukraine’s Mykolaiv, a city of about 500,000 near the Black Sea coast, Russian occupiers were expelled after less than two weeks. But resentment and rumors of possible local collaborators remained.

In Pisky, which has some 800 residents, a man greeted Washington Post journalists by telling them that the town was full of “Ruscists” – a term Ukrainians have coined as shorthand for “Russian fascists.” He said most locals here supported Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian Ukrainian president who was ousted during the country’s 2014 revolution.

In March, the invading soldiers made Pisky’s school their base. People in the town still accuse the school’s director of unlocking the doors for the Russians and passing information to them. The Post could not independently verify those allegations.

“When the Russians came, she was saying to them, ‘Oh, we’ve been waiting for you for eight years so you could bring order!'” 70-year-old resident Marina Polyshuk said, raising her voice to mimic the woman.

“Then after they left, she said, ‘Oh, I just misunderstood,'” Polyshuk said. “You live in Ukraine and you misunderstood? Come on.”

In many cases, stories of alleged collaborators are less concrete. Rumors and accusations take on lives of their own as they are told by emotional locals who are often traumatized and can seem suspicious almost to the point of paranoia. Villagers in Berezanka, near Chernihiv, told The Post of an employee of the State Forest Resources Agency whose home was raided by Russian forces. They took multiple guns, acting on a tip received from a local collaborator, according to a commonly repeated local rumor. Other locals said it was actually the employee, Oleh Nechypurenko, who willingly offered his weapons to the Russians. He had been arrested by Ukrainian security agents, they said.

Photo for The Washington Post by Wojciech Grzedzinski
Nikolai and Ihor Anachenko, members of the Chernihiv territorial defense, inspect former Russian positions in Chernihiv on April 23.

Nechypurenko, 50, said none of it was true. Visited by a reporter at home with his wife, son and two dogs, he said Russians had come and taken his only gun – a small-caliber hunting rifle – before leaving peacefully. He said Ukrainian police interviewed him later but did not take him into custody.

One thing struck him as peculiar, he said: The Russians visited only two homes on his street – the ones with registered firearms (Ukrainians are required to register all firearms with local authorities).

“I’m not sure who did it, but it looks like someone tipped them off,” Nechypurenko said.

In nearby Yahidne, a married couple who are in their 50s said Russian soldiers came straight to their home on entering the village, raiding their house and storage shed for cash, jewelry and other valuables. The Minenkos are considered wealthy in the village of about 300 people; they think the Russians had inside information about their status.

After raiding their home, Russian soldiers used the floor as a toilet before leaving, said Vitaliy Minenko, 58. Villagers who ventured into the streets were forced to sing the Russian national anthem and were threatened with death if they stopped singing, he said.

“The war showed who is who, the other side of personalities,” Minenko said of his neighbors. “Who we thought was good turned out to be bad. Who was angry became nice.”

Photo for The Washington Post by Serhiy Morgunov
Vitaliy Minenko, 58, seen in Yahidne on April 24, said Russian soldiers damaged his cars.

Inside the school in Pisky, there was a poster praising local men and women who had served in the Ukrainian military, fighting in the country’s eastern Donbas region against Russian-backed separatists since 2014. Polyshuk’s son, Evhen Kostenyuk, was one of those pictured.

His service ended in 2017, and he said he didn’t know his picture and name were posted inside the school until Russian soldiers dragged him away from his mother’s home. They held him for 24 hours, beating him and torturing him, he said. Then they led him into a neighboring town’s forest and shot him, he said.

Kostenyuk said he dropped to the ground and kept still after the bullet entered his shoulder; it ended up grazing a lung but not killing him. The Russian troops apparently thought he was dead. They left him there, and when he heard the sound of car doors closing and then tires rolling away, he jumped up and eventually found a stranger who was willing to help, he said. The stranger helped him tie up his shoulder to stanch the bleeding, then drove him to a Ukrainian military checkpoint.

Polyshuk said the school director left town when the Russians did but has since returned.

“I told her that she won’t have a life after the war,” Polyshuk said. “I’ll strangle her with my own hands.”