”Someone killed a Russian patrol at 4 in the morning.” Partisans are fighting the invaders and collaborators in occupied Kherson. Ukrainian activists are kidnapped and tortured — a school teacherʼs story

Author:
Oksana Rasulova
Editor:
Yuliana Skibitska
Date:
”Someone killed a Russian patrol at 4 in the morning.” Partisans are fighting the invaders and collaborators in occupied Kherson. Ukrainian activists are kidnapped and tortured — a school teacherʼs story

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Kherson Oblast was occupied on February 24. The Russian army advanced from the annexed Crimea, gradually capturing the region, and on March 1, Russian troops entered Kherson. Despite this, the city council worked until April 25, until the Russians began to appoint the occupying power — Volodymyr Saldo became the "mayor" and Oleksandr Kobets "the head of the oblast". The occupiers constantly announce a "referendum" on the creation of the "Kherson Peopleʼs Republic" and the joining of the region to Russia, but they have not yet done so. In the oblast and the city, they ran into partisan resistance — from pasting leaflets about waiting for the Ukrainian Armed Forces to killing collaborators. About 45% of residents left Kherson, one in five left the oblast. Serhii, a local teacher, left the city only two weeks ago. Babel journalist Oksana Rasulova spoke with him about local collaborators, the organization of the resistance network, and education as a tool of the occupation.

In Kherson, the occupiers are being resisted everywhere. From June 8, they began to demand double price tags from all shop owners — they said that the two-currency system was in effect. Some entrepreneurs put price tags in hryvnias and dollars — thatʼs two currencies, just like you asked.

I was very surprised by Khersonʼs resistance. The city did not develop well — if someone who left it in the 90s would return now, he will not notice much of a difference. I thought people would say, "We have it so bad, maybe weʼll be better off with Russia?" This didnʼt happen.

I was among the activists from the first days. I went to rallies with my friends in medical masks. Because of the covid epidemic, we did not look strange. But we understood that sooner or later the occupiers would start oppressing people [so it was a safety measure].

Pro-Ukrainian rally in occupied Kherson, March 2022.

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The last rallies were at the end of March. I stopped going out when they [the occupiers] started kidnapping the activists. In March, activist Oleksandr Tarasov disappeared [he covered rallies against the occupation in Kherson]. Later we learned that he is one of the close friends of Kirill Stremousov, one of the main collaborators with Russians in the city. In March, the occupiers recorded an interview with him about the fact that the locals go out to protest for money and for destabilization, and all of us are "agents". We think the abduction was staged.

Some of my friends were kidnapped and brutally tortured. One of them has already been released, he remains in Kherson. The occupiers also took away my university friend — he was held captive for three weeks. They were tortured by the usual Russian practices — using electricity, cold water, and beaten. The Russians let him go, and we still donʼt understand what they wanted from him — no "interviews" with him were recorded. He has already left [the occupied territories]. Many abductees are not released.

The occupiers began to abduct people for postings on social networks. Abductees often appear on video the next day with traces of torture — one man apologized for writing on social networks, with electric cables hanging from his ears.

People were shot in Skadovsk, pointed out by a local collaborator. In one of the villages, the collaborators offered people who did not support the occupation to give the activists to the occupants — "so that the village does not suffer." People refused.

At some point, the local "authorities" ordered the occupiers to remove all Ukrainian symbols from the city. Their rags, tricolors are very depressing. When there is even a symbol of Ukraine in the occupation — a flag, just a word in Ukrainian — it inspires from within. Many people, not only activists, began to independently hang Ukrainian symbols on roads and walls, paint with yellow and blue paint, and attach ribbons.

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When not only rumors but also evidence of the murders of activists appeared in April, people began to hide. Subsequently, Kherson partisans blew up several cars of collaborators. And they were really scared. This can be seen from the number of guards — at first the collaborators were surrounded by several people, but now some are escorted almost by armored personnel carriers. For example, when Volodymyr Saldo on the Trinity celebration visited the cathedral, there were Russian military personnel both around the temple and inside. In addition, most of the most famous collaborators stopped living at home, they are looking for empty apartments for themselves.

With friends whom I trust, we planned resistance, made "Molotov cocktails" back in February. But when we saw the number of Russian troops that entered the city and region, we poured them out — there was no chance [to win over them]. At first, there were 120 people in our Territorial Defense group. This is a network of friends and acquaintances. We were managed by Kostyantyn Shostak, a protégé of the mayor [Ihor Kolyhayev]. He promised weapons as early as February 24, but we never received them. He now controls the local "Ministry of Emergency Situations".

We regrouped and started working on information resistance. Сollected data on the movements of the occupiers and passed ше on to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. At the beginning of May, mobile communication and the Internet disappeared for 4 days in the Kherson oblast. It was very scary — we did not understand what was happening. We immediately deleted all the information we had. The occupiers came to the activists, to me too — they spoke politely, but pointed their guns [at us]. During the same raid, they searched for empty houses and apartments. After 7-10 days the wives of Russian soldiers, mostly Buryat women, began to settle there. There are not many of them, they live in the Ostriv microdistrict [another name is Korabel, located in the southwest of the city].

Once my wife went to the Kherson central market, she was going to buy meat, but she did not find it on the shelves. It turned out that all the butchers were taken away by the occupiers. At 4 in the morning, someone killed a Russian patrol squad near the building of the regional state administration. The occupiers suspected the butchers who were in the market nearby. Of course, it wasnʼt them. They were beaten and released.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

Our group communicated in online messenger, but traitors were even there. Once I wrote about a local entrepreneur who started cooperating with the occupiers. After that, he started threatening me — that is, someone from the chat told him that I found out about his cooperation. Then we all quarreled and had to rebuild the network.

Collaborators of Kherson and region:

  • "City mayor" Volodymyr Saldo. He was the mayor of Kherson in 2002-2012;

  • "Head of the region" Oleksandr Kobets. A local businessman, served in the KGB before the collapse of the USSR, later worked in the Security Service of Ukraine and Alfa Bank. At the time of the invasion, he lived in Kyiv, but went to the occupied territories to cooperate with the occupiers;

  • Kirill Stremousov. He calls himself a politician, public figure, and journalist. He is known for fights with police officers, an attack on SSU convoy, shooting of a person with a traumatic gun, and the shooting in the editorial office of the Novy Den newspaper. As a self-nominator, he was a candidate for a member of parliament, ran for the post of mayor of Kherson, but never got into politics. He spread Russian fakes about the coronavirus and "US biolaboratories in Ukraine". In 2020, the SSU searched him as part of criminal proceedings to expose the network of FSB agents, but there is no information about the suspect being handed over to him. Since March, he has joined the occupying authority — the Rescue Committee "For Peace and Order" in Kherson, cooperates with the Russians;

  • Maxim Philin. He was an activist in Lazurne town. He closed his Facebook profile, but in the Lazurne.Online group in May he spread calls to go to the celebrations of "Victory Day" and the march of the "Immortal Regiment" organized by the occupiers, and in April he organized "night patrols", called the Kherson oblast "liberated from the Nazis" and wrote that it will not return to Ukraine. Back in March, he distributed a video of Serhiy Belik, in which he declares against the background of the Ukrainian coat of arms and flag that "Lazurne community is Ukraine, remains so and will be so";

  • Sergiy Belik. The head of the Lazurne territorial community, a veteran of the Donbas military operations. Back in March, he claimed that he remained loyal to Ukraine, and in April he began to hang the Russian tricolor and cooperate with the occupiers;

  • Tetiana Kuzmich heads the educational direction of the occupiers. She taught at the Kherson Academy of Continuing Education, headed the NGO "Russian National Community "Rusych". To promote pro-Russian ideas, she held "literary evenings" dedicated to Pushkin and Tolstoy. In 2020, the SSU was detained as a Russian agent, accused of treason;

  • Kostiantyn Shostak. He ran for the city council from the "Servant of the People" party, managed the municipal utility company "Three Wells". Now he is a "representative of the Ministry of Emergency Situations of Russia".

The Russians are supported by those who are waiting for some money from Russia and complain that Ukraine did not give them anything. Those who are waiting for the "Russian world" are few, but they exist. As early as 2014, Kirill Stremousov ran around the city with the Russian tricolor, but continued his "journalistic" activity. And Volodymyr Saldo traveled to Russia for propaganda programs, but quietly ran for mayor of Kherson.

There can be very difficult situations. My sources in the Lazurne Territorial Community reported that the head of the community, Serhiy Belik, had switched over to the side of the occupiers. He is a veteran of the Donbas operations. This happened in April. At the beginning of the occupation, the Russians bypassed some villages of the Kherson oblast. Later they returned to these villages with searches. The head of the community Belik met with them, allegedly to say that the settlement is peaceful and there are no soldiers there. Up to five cars with occupants drove into the settlement. They warned that if they did not get in touch with their own within an hour, Lazurne would be fired upon from the ships. They searched one of the houses and, as Belik later said, they found a lot of weapons there. After that, the Russians occupied a recreational camp near the settlement.

Maxim Filin, who was a local activist, was kidnapped from the settlement. He moved to Ukraine from Russia in 2015. The locals were afraid that because of his Russian citizenship, he would not be exchanged if there was such an opportunity. He later returned badly beaten and also began to cooperate actively with the occupiers. He said that he was wrong and that life would be better under Russia. He offered to catch Ukrainian activists. Then the occupiers took away and beat Belyk, and after that he began to cooperate with them as well. He himself hung the Russian flag at the settlement council. Later, at a meeting with Volodymyr Saldo, he confirmed that he cooperates voluntarily and believes that Russia came to the Kherson Oblast forever.

The main collaborator in the field of education is Tetyana Kuzmich. She was very influential among educators. In 2020, the Security Service of Ukraine exposed her as a state traitor, and everyone was shocked. In the end, bail was posted for her and she was sent under house arrest. With the beginning of the occupation, Tetiana Kuzmich was released [from arrest] and appointed "head of the education department" in the city and region.

For about a month, the occupiers paid no attention to education at all. They only searched a few libraries — they said they were looking for books about Nazism. At the beginning of April, there was an order to end the academic year on April 24. Our school decided to work according to the program until the end of May. The teaching continued online, although it was difficult due to communication problems. My first lesson under the occupation lasted three hours, I tried to learn more about the condition of the children. The graduating class, which I taught, completed tasks in preparation for the external examination. We worked in Google forms, in Google classes, through various messengers. It was important for the children that we continue learning.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

In April, Tetyana Kuzmich began visiting schools and holding meetings with teachers in Skadovsk district, Kakhovka district, and in Kherson. She offered to go over to the side of the occupiers and work for 10,000 rubles a month. This is from 3,000 to 5,000 hryvnias — it depends on which exchange rate to calculate. Later, they offered 15 thousand rubles. But the teachers turned out to be very patriotic.

When the occupiers realized in May that the teachers would not cooperate, rumors spread that they wanted to bring teachers from Crimea and Russia. Or take Kherson teachers to Crimea for "retraining". But no one wanted to go. And in Russia, there was opposition among teachers who were offered to go to the Kherson Oblast. They were offered huge sums of money — allegedly 130,000 rubles a month. For comparison, a school director I know in Crimea receives 36,000 rubles a month. My colleagues and I monitor Russian social networks and see that people name such sums and refuse to go.

I tried to find out how many schools in the city went over to the side of the occupiers. I found out only about two out of 60. My familiar director was at a "work meeting" with Stremousov. One of his colleagues stood up and asked what would happen if he just walked out. The occupiers said: "Nothing." He left, followed by the others. Five of the 12 remained, and only two of them agreed to cooperate.

Teachers are under pressure because of salaries. In order to receive a Ukrainian salary, a teacher must be on the lists submitted by the school management to the Department of Education. That is, the occupiers are blackmailing: cooperate with us to receive a salary from Ukraine.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

In June, the occupiers brought their textbooks to Kherson for the first time. I donʼt know for which subjects, Iʼve only seen photos of unloaded boxes and statements about 10,000 copies of textbooks. They do not have educational programs yet, there is no one to impose them. But at the beginning of June, ten teachers came from Crimea to "retrain" Ukrainians for the Russian program. They were accommodated in a dormitory of the Kherson State University. The principals of the schools were tasked with handing the occupiers lists of teachers — who left, who stayed, at which address they live, and whether they agree to cooperate.

I left on the morning of June 15 via Melitopol to Zaporizhzhia. The journey lasted 21 hours. This is one of the two routes by which a person can leave the Kherson Oblast.

I traveled with my wife and daughter by bus, one seat cost 6,000 hryvnias. The cheaper ones are booked far ahead. The free volunteer bus takes only women, children and men over 60. There were 18 adults and five children on our bus.

There are a lot of checkpoints along the way — after the 27th, I stopped counting. Especially in the Henichesk district, it feels like every kilometer there is a checkpoint.

One of the toughest checkpoints is at the exit from Kherson, near the Nairi cafe. The women are asked to show only their documents, but the men are all taken out, stripped, searched for tattoos, and asked if they have served in the Ukrainian army. Those who drive their own cars are also searched. There was one heavily tattooed guy on our bus and he was thoroughly checked at every checkpoint.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

At one of the checkpoints near Henichesk, there was a strange situation — the occupant, an elderly man, entered the passenger compartment of the bus and started speaking to us in Ukrainian. We didnʼt know how to react. But already on the next checkpoint there were young Russians who felt like gods because they had weapons. They humiliated us — for example, they said that we should be killed.

At the very first Ukrainian checkpoint, when our documents were being checked, there was a feeling that you would simply blossom. Accompanied by the police, we went to Zaporizhzhia to the volunteer center, where dinner and an overnight stay awaited us. We were offered free accommodation in various cities of Ukraine and free transport. But we bought tickets to Kyiv so as not to wait — in the capital we were given free accommodation by people who had gone abroad.

I did not plan to leave [Kherson]. But money was running out, prices were rising. We tried to the last to buy only Ukrainian goods, to save money. And at the beginning of June, they turned off the connection again, it was just a collapse — Ukrainian banks stopped working, it was impossible to pay without cash and withdraw money. People stood in queues for ATMs at night, ignoring the curfew.

At first, my wife did not want to go without me, and then she was afraid to go because of the shooting. I wanted to wait. In addition, we listened to messages from the authorities and thought: "Two or three more weeks, weʼre close [to the liberation]". But when only the Russian mobile connection remained in the city after June 1, I realized that transmitting information is now even more dangerous.

During the entire period of the occupation, there was not a single evacuation bus from the authorities. But [the Minister of Temporarily Occupied Territories Iryna] Vereshchuk recommends leaving. This just killed us — how can you talk about it so easily? And I do not understand why there was no mass evacuation from the city, while we still had such an opportunity in the first 10 days of the war?

I am very worried about the people who remained in the occupation, about my schoolchildren — they have become like family to me over the years. One of the students, a graduate, is pregnant and wants me to become a godfather. The children did not collect their documents from school. There are 26 of them in the class, seven of them left. A few days ago, I learned that one of the students left for Lithuania via the Crimea — this is the only safe route, but it is very expensive.

All people under occupation are under threat, and after the liberation of Kherson Oblast, we will learn a lot more. I heard many stories — about torture, rape, group and public, about three mass graves near Chornobayivka, from which automatic rounds rang out from time to time.

In June, before I left, I passed a local pub where two very drunk occupiers were sitting, as is often the case. And they complained to the bartender that they like it in Kherson and the villages, but the authorities gave the order to "eraze everything to zero if we lose". I donʼt know how true this is, but the liberated villages of the Kherson Oblast were really destroyed.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

I still receive a Ukrainian salary. However, several schools from the region claim that they have not been paid, including teachers who left the occupation. For two months, teachers in Lazurne did not receive salaries, but the payments still came at the end of June. In Henichesk, the school does not receive a salary, because the local government dissolved itself. I am afraid that the teachers in the occupied territory will run out of money and will have to work for the occupiers. Because this will be necessary to survive. Therefore, I hope that Ukraine will not stop funding them.

There are no instructions from the Ministry of Education and Culture for teachers. One of the employees of the Kherson Department of Education wrote that we can go on vacation and will have 2/3 of the salary — but that is all just words. In the Ukraine-controlled territory, it is suggested to engage in professional development, but it is not clear what to do in the occupied territory. They do not offer an alternative place of work here. The management was also not interested in what happened to me and where I was, they only asked about it at the end of May. I do not know where exactly this information was transmitted.

Now it is very difficult to get any information from Kherson. People are afraid, and only the Russian mobile connection remains. VPN services practically do not work.

I left there two weeks ago, but I still donʼt sleep well because of the silence — it scares me. Iʼm too used to explosions. It was scary to go out in Kherson and meet the occupiers. In Kyiv, I am no longer afraid to walk the streets.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

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