In Ukrainian villages, fear and paranoia of collaborators

Rumors of traitors swirl as invading forces seem to know in advance which locals have guns and which are reputedly wealthy

A destroyed Ukrainian tank in Chernihiv, Ukraine on April 23.  (Photo by Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)
A destroyed Ukrainian tank in Chernihiv, Ukraine on April 23. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)

IVANIVKA, Ukraine — Olena looked out her bedroom window to see what her neighbor, a tall man nicknamed Girovka, looked like, getting out of a car with Russian markings and starting to send flares into the night sky from the edge 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.

A few days later, after the Russians withdrew from northern and central Ukraine, four investigators from the Ukrainian Security Service entered the living room of 66-year-old Olena. She told them what she had seen and showed them where Girovka had stood and fired the flares. Other neighbors told investigators that Girovka was seen marching 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 the money?” Olena, whom The Washington Post identifies only by her first name for fear of possible reprisals against her, said of those suspected of collaborating with Russia. “They were promised something. I wonder how it is possible to sell your conscience and your dignity. I don’t know. I don’t understand.

In the small towns and villages of Ukraine that fell under Russian occupation in February and March and have since been liberated, the fog of war has been replaced by the fog of conspiracy and suspicion.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 are whispering about people they believe sold out their neighbors and whether they may have done so of their own free will or under duress.

Ukraine’s armed forces declined to say 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 arrested and could face prosecution under new laws that make any action aiding Russian forces that results in the death of Ukrainians punishable by life in prison.

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

“We assume these people are still there,” Ivanov said. “At the moment, special security services are working there. Among the locals, there aren’t many cases, as the communities here are stronger and more united than ever.

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

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

In March, the invading soldiers made the school in Pisky their base. Townspeople still accuse the school principal of opening doors to Russians and passing information to them. The Post could not independently verify these claims.

“When the Russians came, she was like, ‘Oh, we’ve been waiting for you for eight years so you can clean up!'” Marina Polyshuk, 70, 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? Go on.”

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In many cases, the stories of alleged collaborators are less concrete. Rumors and accusations come to life on their own when 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 that an employee of the National Forest Resources Agency whose house was raided by Russian forces. They took several firearms, acting on a tip received from a local collaborator, according to a frequently repeated local rumor. Other locals said it was actually the employee, Oleh Nechypurenko, who voluntarily offered his weapons to the Russians. He had been arrested by Ukrainian security agents, they said.

Nechypurenko, 50, said none of this was true. Visited by a reporter at his home with his wife, son and two dogs, he said Russians came and took his only gun – a small-caliber shotgun – before leaving peacefully. He said Ukrainian police questioned him later but did not take him into custody.

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

“I don’t know who did it, but it looks like someone tipped them off,” Nechypurenko said.

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

After raiding their house, the 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 threatened with death if they stopped singing, he said.

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

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

His service ended in 2017 and he said he did not know his picture and name were displayed inside the school until Russian soldiers dragged him away from his wife’s home. mother. They detained him for 24 hours, beating and torturing him, he said. Then they took him to the forest in a nearby town and shot him, he said.

Kostenyuk said he fell to the ground and remained motionless after the bullet entered his shoulder; it eventually grazed a lung but did not kill it. 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, he jumped out and finally found a stranger who was willing to help, he said. The stranger helped him tie his shoulder to stop the bleeding, then led him to a Ukrainian military checkpoint.

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

“I told her she would have no life after the war,” Polyshuk said. “I will strangle him with my own hands.”

Serhiy Morgunov at Yahidne and Serhii Korolchuk at Berezanka contributed to this report.

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