A few months before the full-scale invasion, the FSB formed a team of politicians and intelligence officers who, together with the Russian military, were to enter southern Ukraine and lead the local authorities and security forces.
— Yanukovych was planned to be returned to Kyiv, and former Minister of Education Dmytro Tabachnyk and former head of the SBU, Oleksandr Yakymenko, to be placed in Khersonsk and Zaporizhzhia regions, a SBU employee in Kyiv tells "Babel" on condition of anonymity. We do not disclose his name — he is an active operative.
In the Kherson region, the FSB has identified several key areas of work, says our source in the law enforcement agencies of the Kherson region. The administrative block was entrusted to the collaborator Oleksandr Kobets. He is from Kyiv, during the USSR he served in the KGB, then in the Kyiv SBU. In March 2022, Kobets left Ukraine for Europe, and from there to Russia. And on April 25, the Russians appointed him the occupying mayor of Kherson.
Another collaborator, Volodymyr Lipandin, headed the "law enforcement" block, or rather the occupation police of the Kherson region. Until 2014, he headed the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Cherkasy region, but after organizing the beating of activists in Cherkasy during the Maidan, he fled to occupied Crimea.
Yakymenko and his eight henchmen, collaborators from the SBU and militia of Sevastopol and Donetsk region, whom he knew personally until 2014, were given a separate task.
— Yakymenko and his group were supposed to create the "State Security Service" in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, the Russian abbreviation of the Security Service, "says the source of "Babel" in the law enforcement agencies of the Kherson region. — But he could not cover the entire southern direction. On the one hand, Russian troops stopped in the Zaporizhzhia region. On the other hand, Yakimenka simply physically lacked his own people to build the GSB in two regions. Therefore, he remained in the occupied Kherson region.
The GSB was supposed to become an analogue of the Ministry of State Security (MGB) in the so-called "LPR/DPR" and deal with the same thing — fighting Ukrainian activists and partisans, torturing dissenters, squeezing businesses. The GSB, like the MGB, was supposed to be subordinate to the Russian FSB, and the personnel was planned to be recruited from former Ukrainian policemen and SBUshniks.
Yakymenko, who turned 57 last year, was chosen for this direction not by chance. A person with such a biography was almost ideal for the head of the Security Service. He was born in the family of a Soviet soldier in Estonia. He studied at the military aviation school in the Krasnodar region. Served as a pilot. In 1990, he moved to Crimea and served in the Russian army until 1998. Then he moved to Donetsk and became an operative of the local SBU, which he habitually called the KGB.
In 2007, Yakymenko resigned from the SBU and went to work for the business structures of Viktor Yanukovych, who was removed from the post of prime minister at the end of the same year. When Yanukovych became president in 2010, Yakymenkoʼs career took off rapidly: he headed the SBU in Sevastopol, in 2011 — the SBU in Donetsk region, and within a year became the first deputy head of the SBU in Kyiv. He was entrusted with the management of "K" — the fight against corruption and organized crime. In January 2013, Yakymenko headed the SBU, and in February 2014, together with Yanukovych, he fled the country — first to the Federal Security Service in Crimea, then to Moscow. For almost ten years, Yakymenko has been under investigation for involvement in the shooting of Euromaidan participants in 2014. In February 2020, the Pechersk Court of Kyiv arrested him in absentia, but the hearing has not yet started. In 2021 , economic sanctions were imposed on Yakymenko for treason and participation in the annexation of Crimea.
The Russians captured Kherson on March 1, 2022. On the fourth, the townspeople began to go to daily meetings. The military did not cope with the protests, then the Russian Guards entered the city. They did not disperse the protestors, but filmed them — forming a dossier for future repressions. The last rally in Kherson took place in mid-April — thatʼs when Yakymenko and his group arrived in the city without too much noise. At first, almost no one heard about their activities.
— The Ukrainian special services knew, of course, that he was in the city, but bloggers started writing publicly about Yakymenko only in June, — says the source of "Babel" in the law enforcement agencies of the Kherson region. — And they found out about it from the leaks of the Ukrainian special services.
The GSB Yakymenko set up an office in the Commercial Court at 18 Teatralna Street, in a historic building in the city center. In Soviet times, there was a militia there. There are bars on the windows of the first half-basement floor.
Yakymenko himself constantly changed his place of residence for security reasons. For some time, he lived in the Ostriv microdistrict in the same house with the Russian Oleksiy Katerynychev, the first deputy head of the occupation administration of the Kherson region, Volodymyr Saldo. In September, the Armed Forces hit this house, and Katerynychev was killed, and Yakymenko was not injured.
— He was constantly wandering from Kherson to Crimea. He was often not in the city, — says the interlocutor of "Babel" in Kherson law enforcement agencies. — Moved in a civilian car — a white Toyota. He was accompanied everywhere by security, but there were no attempts. He did not appear in public places. Yakymenkoʼs main rule was to constantly be on the move so that no one could track where he was and what he was doing.
GSB Yakymenko created from scratch, recruited people exclusively based on recommendations. First — acquaintances of former Ukrainian policemen and SBUshniks from Donetsk and Sevastopol. Later, they brought in local "colleagues". During the entire time, Yakymenko recruited up to 100 people and personally supervised all processes. It was impossible to get into the Security Service without an interview with him.
The former head of counter-intelligence of the SBU in the Kherson region, Gennadiy Semeletov, and assistant to the head of the local SBU, Ihor Sadokhin, helped to look for personnel for the Security Service. They handed over the law enforcement officers who remained in the occupation to the State Security Service and persuaded them to go to work in a new structure. Semeletov and Sadokhin are currently in a Ukrainian pre-trial detention center.
In the Kherson region, the GSB had several tasks: to find and torture pro-Ukrainian Kherson citizens, to check people who were appointed to key positions in the occupation authorities, and to earn money.
— Yakymenko did not approve the candidacy of Saldo and his deputies, but he did approve the lower-ranking managers, — says our source in Khersonʼs law enforcement agencies. — The Security Service checked people so that they were not connected to Ukraine and had pro-Russian views. They were not appointed without Yakymenkoʼs refusal.
According to Kherson prosecutor Oleksiy Butenko, Yakymenkoʼs people earned money in two ways — they demanded ransom from those who were taken to the torture chamber, and they squeezed business from entrepreneurs. The fee for exiting the basement varied from a thousand dollars to $30,000. All those who had a pro-Ukrainian position were considered enemies of the GSBshniks — they were accused of subversive work and cooperation with the Ukrainian special services. "Evidence" was collected on social networks and even those who distributed humanitarian aid were monitored — this was also considered as work against the occupation authorities.
Yakymenkoʼs execution house was located next to the building of the State Security Service, at 15 Pylypa Orlyk Street. Before the occupation, it was a five-story office center with a large basement.
- These houses are connected by a common yard. In one, Yakymenko met with officials, in another he tortured people — itʼs convenient, says our source in the law enforcement agencies of the Kherson region.
The local occupiers called Katyvnia for the "rich", because people were mostly held there for ransom, Andriy, one of the members of the Kherson partisan movement, tells Babel. In the basement of the GSBshniks, six cameras were installed. Each had 24-hour video surveillance. They were tortured in a nearby room. Interrogations were conducted on the first three floors.
Prisoners were tortured with water — a towel was thrown over their face, water was poured over it, and the person suffocated. Current was also used. Wires were attached to the genitals — it was called "Zelenskyʼs call", and to the anus — "Bidenʼs call". The captured women were forced to undress, says Kherson prosecutor Butenko. Wires with current were attached to the chest.
There were no windows in the cells in the basement, but the light was constantly on — so that the video would have a clear picture. There were no beds in the cells either, people slept on bare concrete. Instead of a toilet, there were toilet bowls in the corners, which were allowed to be taken out once every few days. They didnʼt feed people every day — they brought dry military rations. The prisoners were handcuffed to the battery, forced to sit with a bag on their head.
"I was taken prisoner by three orcs," Olena Naumova, one of the captives, tells Babel. — They came home, searched, took a pink bag from the supermarket at my house and put it on my head. I spent all my days in captivity with that pink bag on my head. They said that if they are going to knock, then put on a bag. They were constantly knocking and growling. On the first night, they gave me a drink of my own water, and after that I saw hallucinations: instead of walls, there were worms, and a porcupine crawled out of the floor.
Naumova is 58 years old. They were born on the same year as Yakymenko. She has been working as a kindergarten teacher for twenty years. A few years ago, she started running a video blog on Facebook, after the occupation of Kherson, she streamed on Tik-Tok, recording videos from the streets of the city.
She was captured on August 23. She later recognized the kidnappers as Yakymenkoʼs accomplices — Oleksandr Ulizko, Mykhailo Grebenyuk, and Serhii Sachuk. Olena was in captivity for 11 days, sitting in cell number 2. She used to put lines on the wall to count the days of imprisonment. During the interrogations, they threatened to kill her, forced her to surrender other Kherson citizens, and also asked if she had any money in her stash. Before her capture, Naumova helped pensioners in the occupation. Their relatives put money on her card, and she withdrew cash and took it home to pensioners.
— The orcs were surprised that I was helping someone. They took notebooks from my home where I wrote down how much money I gave to whom. When they realized that I had nothing, they let me go. "Before that, they checked my bank accounts — I opened the applications on my phone and showed them that I only have 1,000 hryvnias," the woman says.
On the day of her release, Elena was put in a car with the same pink bag on her head and taken somewhere. On the way, they said that she needed to leave Kherson. But to settle in an unoccupied territory, you need money. Elena asked how much. She was answered — 70-80 thousand hryvnias.
- I was released, in three days I collected this amount. When the orcs arrived, I told them: "Letʼs go to the house, Iʼll give the money." And they: "You misunderstood us, we care not for ourselves, but for you," Naumov recounts a strange dialogue.
They never took the money from her. While Olena was in captivity, a campaign was launched in social networks in support of her. Naumova thinks that this is exactly what saved her — the GSB did not want to shine. The police officers never allowed her to leave Kherson, they came almost every day and checked what she was doing.
The family of Olga and Valery Komagorov, Olenaʼs friends, also ended up in the torture chamber of the Security Service. During the occupation, the couple hosted streams on social networks, talked about life in the city in "Classmates", "VKontakte", Facebook and Tik-Tok. They were captured on August 24. At eight oʼclock in the morning, three cars of the State Security Service arrived home — 15 people in total.
"They thought we had a DRG cell there," Valeriy tells "Babel". — They did not find the weapon. Among those who detained us were Oleksiy Suprunenko, Dmytro Leonov and Denys Nasypanny.
Valery was put in cell number three in the torture chamber, and his wife Olga was put in cell number five. During the interrogations, they were beaten, tortured with electric shocks and threatened with death. Valery was especially abused. He is 32 years old. Has the citizenship of Belarus, but has been living in Ukraine since 2014. He moved because he did not support Lukashenkaʼs regime. In the torture chamber of the Security Service, Valery was beaten every day, twice taken to the forest and told that they were going to be shot.
- They gave a shovel, they said, dig a grave. I said: "Kill and dig yourself." They will let the queue into the air, beat them and bring them back, — Valery remembers.
Olga GSBshniki was released after she fell ill with angina and became very ill. On the way home, she was told to prepare $20,000. The family did not have such money — they gave 20 thousand hryvnias. As with Elena, after her release they came to Olga almost every day and checked what she was doing.
When Naumov was released, two boys, Denis and Dmytro, were put in her cell. Valery secretly spoke to them through a hole in the wall.
— Dmytro and Denys engraved a cross in the cell, made the inscription "Save and save," says Valery. — If you look at the SBU photos from the torture chamber, one of them shows lines near the battery. I put them. I was strapped to the battery every night so I wouldnʼt run away. For two months, I was never able to lie down on the floor at full height.
Valeriy sat in a cell with two men. There were nine to ten people in neighboring cells. In September, the GSBshniks brought prisoners every day, three shifts worked in the torture chamber — a total of 50 people. One person was tortured to death — his heart could not withstand the electric shock.
According to Valery, Denis and Dmytro were released at the beginning of October, and he was released at the end on the 24th. Before that, he was taken from Kherson to a military unit in the village of Priozerne, where he stayed for several days until he was released. Valeriy walked home for two days, and when he got there, he saw that Russians were fleeing the city en masse.
In addition to bloggers and businessmen, Yakymenkoʼs people robbed businesses. The loot was taken to the Crimea. The GSB was primarily interested in what could be quickly sold — grain, agricultural machinery, cars. In order to create the appearance that everything was happening legally, powers of attorney were drawn up for the property and transporters were hired.
"All this was coordinated with the FSB," says our source in Khersonʼs law enforcement agencies. — The doorbell was like a single mechanism. There was no competition between the GSB, the FSB, the military, and the Russian Guard. Everyone made money. The torture chambers were there to show the visibility of the work.
Yakymenko was supervised by FSB officer Serhiy Sinitsyn with the call sign "Sabir". He supervised the State Security Service, the police, authorities and the introduction of the "ruble zone" in Kherson. Sinitsyn was one of the first to arrive in occupied Kherson, in March 2022. He was part of the so-called service eight, which was supposed to suppress the movement of the resistance and discover the positions of the Armed Forces.
The GSB was fully financed from Russia. The first tranches for building the structure came from the FSB, and when Saldo officially headed the occupying regional administration at the end of April, the money went through him. Yakymenko wrote a request for Saldo, he submitted an application to Moscow, and the Russian Guard brought the money to one of the Kherson banks. The amounts were different. One of the tranches, according to our interlocutor in the law enforcement agencies of Kherson, was 13 million rubles. They asked for money for official cars, fuel, computers, means of special communication, but in fact the police officers squeezed all this from local people, and took the money for themselves.
Yakymenko and his accomplices left Kherson at the end of October — this was an order from the FSB. In order to destroy the evidence, documents were burned at the State Security Service. This was the second such arson in Yakymenkoʼs career, the first time he burned documents in the SBU building when he fled Kyiv together with Yanukovych in February 2014.
The GSBshniks were preparing in advance for the escape. Ukrainian prisoners told the investigators that there were bottles of gasoline in every cell of the torture chamber. However, the occupiers failed to burn everything — the SBU found documents signed by Yakymenko and internal documentation journals. The SBU also collected the testimony of 33 people who sat in Yakymenkoʼs basement.
After escaping from Kherson, Yakymenko moved the Security Service to occupied Genichesk — he organized an office and torture chamber similar to those in Kherson, our source in Khersonʼs law enforcement agencies tells us. However, he is not often at the "workplace" — he spends one week a month in Henichesk, and three — he lives in Moscow with his family. In addition, in May 2023, Putin ordered the dissolution of the GSB and MGB in the occupied territories and the creation of the FSB in their place. In September of this year, the old structures should disappear.
In February 2023, President Volodymyr Zelensky stripped Yakymenko of Ukrainian citizenship, and the SBU declared suspicion against him and eight of his henchmen — Nasypanny, Ulizky, Grebenyuk, Suprunenko, Leonov, Kolomoyts, Sachuk, and Selivanov. All of them are accused of treason, kidnapping, participation in illegal armed formations, encroachment on the territorial integrity of Ukraine and violation of the customs of war. They face life imprisonment.
In March, the case against them was transferred to the court in Odesa, but the hearings on the merits, and even more so, the verdicts, are still a long way off. In half a year, the court resolved only formal issues — it appointed lawyers for the defendants and notified them via the Internet about the trial, Yuriy Bilous, a lawyer for the victims of the torture center, tells Babel.
Valery, Olga and Elena go to court hearings. Olena testifies directly against Yakymenko — he interrogated her personally. It was on the first day of captivity. According to her, Yakymenko sat at the table, watched her being beaten, and said that they were not joking, so she needed to draw the right conclusions.
After the de-occupation of Kherson, Olena never came to the torture chamber. He says he will go there sometime later, because it still hurts to remember those events. She had a pink bag left from her captivity. She wants to bring it to one of the court sessions and show it to the judge.