In Kherson city, sympathies for Russia complicate reintegration into UkraineA portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen in an office at Kherson Maritime College on Nov. 16 in Kherson, Ukraine. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)
KHERSON, Ukraine — When the Russians occupying her city came for the maritime college where she worked, Maryna Ivanovka refused to fall in line. The 60-year-old administrator was fired and banned from campus. Her house was raided and her phone, computers and passport were confiscated. A pro-Russian underling was installed in her place.
Months later, the occupation of Kherson suddenly began to crumble. Russian soldiers fled. And so, too, did the woman who had taken her job and office.
No sooner had Ukrainian authorities swept the college for booby traps than Ivanovka was back at her desk on Wednesday, sifting through the evidence her Russian-backed replacement had left behind: a ledger of employees who had worked for the Russians, a list of students who had voluntarily gone to Crimea and, peering from beside a potted plant, a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“We’re going to put it in the bathroom above the toilet,” Ivanovka said as a colleague slammed the portrait face down, “so everyone will show him their rear.”
Undoing eight months of occupation will not be so easy, however.
About a week after the last Russian soldier fled across the Dnieper River, the mood in Kherson remained largely celebratory. Hundreds still gathered each day in the central square to hug soldiers. Electrical power was mostly still out, but businesses were coming back to life. Russian propaganda billboards were being torn down, and Ukrainian ones were going up.
But in institutions across this regional capital, from the city council to hospitals and schools, newly restored leaders like Ivanovka are facing a double conundrum. How to rebuild without the thousands of Russia sympathizers who fled? And even more vexing, what to do with those who remain? Thousands in the city held an ambivalence toward the Russians, or even an affinity.
Kherson was spared the scorched-earth strategy Russia employed elsewhere in Ukraine. Despite widespread detention and torture in the city, few of its buildings were shelled. Until sabotaging utilities on the way out, the Russians kept the lights on and the taps running. Kherson, a Black Sea port founded by Catherine the Great, was a place Putin aimed to assimilate, not annihilate.
Russia’s fleeting success in Kherson is a reflection not only of its brute force, but also of the connection many here felt to Moscow. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people in Kherson accepted Russian passports in the hope of receiving benefits. Many more accepted thick envelopes of Russian rubles on top of their pay as an inducement to stay in their jobs.
As Ivanovka rifled through documents, a Ukrainian intelligence agent poked his head in to ask for information on the woman who replaced her. Ivanovka suggested he question a security guard named Vyacheslav Maksymov, who was close to the woman and had also kept working.
“And take the keys away from him,” she said.
The agent rebuffed a reporter’s request to observe the questioning.
“Better you don’t,” he said. “We haven’t been home for a long time and when we confront these people, sometimes we snap.”
Selling a ‘United Russia’
Across the street from the prison where Russians allegedly executed some of their enemies sits a soaring performance hall. If Kherson’s torture chambers were the hidden side of the occupation, the hall — transformed into a humanitarian aid hub — was the image the Russians hoped to project.
A few days after they fled, however, the building was in disarray. Papers were strewn about. Glass windows and doors were shattered, and a ripped sign for Putin’s political party lay on the floor.
But amid the debris remained signs of a concerted attempt to curry favor with locals. Children’s backpacks featured a cheery Russian teddy bear sailor urging kids to “stay the course.” Crayon drawings showed smiling stick figures atop Russian tanks and warships with the words “United Russia.” An old man wandering through the building grabbed a collection of plays by Anton Chekhov.
“Of course, it’s Russian,” he said when asked whether the books were leftover handouts from the occupation. “What else would it be?”
The clearest picture of Russia’s persuasion campaign lay in a disheveled office. There, piles of documents catalogued Kherson residents applying for aid, pensions, passports and employment. One listed children sent to a summer camp in Crimea. Applications to volunteer at the aid center filled binder after binder.
The Washington Post visited addresses for almost three dozen applicants. A few addresses appeared to be false, perhaps a sign that people felt forced to apply. Most were real but the homes were empty. Neighbors or relatives said the applicants had fled days or weeks before the city was liberated, often to Crimea.
“I’d be okay with any kind of government so long as it takes care of its people,” said a woman named Marharyta as she rummaged through the abandoned aid center. The Post is identifying her only by her first name because of the risk of retribution.
Some residents said they were swayed by billboards and social media posts promising that a Russian passport would enable them to obtain medical care or a Russian pension worth four times as much as their Ukrainian one.
Sasha, 60, whom The Post is also identifying only by his first name, said he lined up for six hours to receive the first of four 10,000 ruble payments at what was once the Ukrainian post office. Without telling his wife, Sasha also applied for a Russian passport so he could receive a permanent Russian pension.
“I have a [Ukrainian] pension, but it’s not enough to live or get medicine,” he said. As soon as the Russians fled, however, the rubles were nearly worthless and he was left with little but the shame of having taken the payments and the passport.
“I don’t know what will happen,” he said as his wife squirmed uncomfortably and a neighbor eavesdropped. “The Ukrainians might shoot me tomorrow.”
Sasha said he accepted responsibility for his mistake but also felt betrayed by Russia, which he always thought of as a “brotherly” country. “They looted my birthplace,” he said of the Russian withdrawal from Kherson. “If before I had some loyalty to Russia, now I have only disgust.”
Rubles and resistance
On a crisp morning four days after the Russians fled, Halyna Luhova stood on the street corner in front of Kherson’s city council building. A sign on the front door said “MINES MINES MINES,” so Luhova, the former city council secretary, and other officials were waiting for the Ukrainian military to check for explosives or booby traps and let them in.
The officials gathered in small groups to discuss bread deliveries and repairs to the electrical grid. But again and again, the conversation turned to collaborators. Of the nine councilors before the invasion, five had conspired with the Russians, she said. One, a wealthy real estate magnate, was appointed mayor. The real mayor was still missing.
“They fled to Crimea and took everything with them,” said Luhova, who is now the head of the city military administration.
In some institutions, workers simply refused to follow Russian orders. Teachers risked their lives to offer classes online to students, an alternative to the Russian propaganda offered in their schools. And the staff at one of the main hospitals simply ignored many demands from their new bosses.
Andrii Koksharov, the head of the trauma department, said he refused to sign a new set of rules imposed by his Russian bosses and refused to accept a Russian salary, but he was allowed to keep working because his skills were needed. At one point, Russians forced him at gunpoint to amputate one of their soldier’s arms, he said.
When the Russians fled, the hospital’s director, Leonid Rymyga, emerged from hiding and went back work. To his surprise, his Russian-installed replacement did not flee, but tried to negotiate to keep a job.
“I told him to negotiate with the SBU,” Rymyga said, referring to the Ukrainian intelligence service.
‘You sold out your motherland’
The Russians initially kept their distance from Kherson Maritime College, a hulking Soviet-era institution where young men and women learn to be commercial ship captains. But then one day, they burst into the head offices and held officials at gunpoint.
In May, Russian-appointed officials visited and said that the college, like Kherson, was “Russian now.” When Ivanovka and others objected, they were fired and barred from campus. On July 21, Russian security agents visited her home and confiscated her passport, phone and computers.
In her place, the Russians installed a low-level teacher whose eagerness to work under occupation elevated her to deputy director.
“I never thought a teacher of Ukrainian history and patriotic education would collaborate with the occupiers,” Ivanovka said of her replacement, who could not be reached for comment.
The replacement moved into Ivanovka’s office and put up the Putin portrait. Then she began trying to coerce other employees to keep working, said Oleksiy Kucher, 36, a lawyer who works at the school. Sometimes she said staying was the right thing to do, Kucher said. Other times, however, she hinted there could be consequences for saying no.
“She would send texts saying, ‘Aren’t you afraid you’ll start your car and it’ll explode?’” Kucher said, adding that he ignored the threat.
The staff shriveled from 178 to 51, and the number of cadets from 1,200 to 71. Yet, the payroll nearly doubled. Those who continued working were rewarded with salaries in rubles nearly triple their Ukrainian pay.
Maksymov, the security guard whom Ivanovka suspected, insisted he was not a collaborator. He said he helped Ukrainian students escape in the hectic early days of the invasion and kept working because he and his family had nowhere to go. He also claimed that he prevented the Russians from storing military equipment on campus.
Ivanovka didn’t believe it. When the SBU finished questioning Maksymov, Ivanovka confronted him on the college quad. “You were happy to work for Russian rubles,” she said angrily. “You lived here, you got paid, and still you sold out your motherland.”
The burly man recoiled, then shot back that only a court could judge him. But Ivanovka continued delivering her own sentence.
“Are you kidding me?” she said. “Did you get a paycheck?”
“So what?” he said. “The entire city got a Russian paycheck!”
“Where are they now, huh?” she said with a gesture toward the other side of the river, where the Russians and their supporters had retreated days earlier.
“Well I’m not there, am I?” Maksymov said. He turned to get into his beat-up blue car, then pointed at a Ukrainian flag stuck in its dashboard.
“Do you see this?” he said. “I never took it down! I took down the Russian one, but I never took this one down.”
Anastacia Galouchka and Serhii Korolchuk contributed to this report.