‘I’m not sure I fully trust anyone who stayed’: Ukrainian city split by suspicion a year after Russian retreat | Ukraine

Often, when Kostiantyn Grygorenko walks the streets of Izium, he spots people he suspects collaborated with the Russians during the five-month occupation of his home town last year.

He used to feel an overwhelming rush of emotions when he saw them. Now, he tries to conserve his energy and nerves and ignore them. But still, it gets to him.

“These people are walking around the town, living among us, and they think they’re not guilty of anything. But I think they’re criminals and should go to jail,” said Grygorenko, editor-in-chief of the local weekly newspaper Izium Horizons.

More than a year after the Russians retreated from Izium, much of the city is still in ruins. More than 5,000 houses and 120 apartment blocks have been damaged or destroyed. Schools, bridges and other critical infrastructure remain out of action. “Renovation work will take a decade, and that’s in the absolute best-case scenario,” the city’s mayor, Valerii Marchenko, said in an interview at his temporary office. His old office building, like so much of central Izium, remains gutted.

As well as the material destruction, the 160 days of Russian occupation left an insidious psychological legacy that may take just as long to heal. It’s hinted at by the phone number daubed on walls throughout the town in white paint. The number is for a hotline run by the Ukrainian SBU security service, an invitation to provide information on who did what during the dark days of occupation.

So far, the SBU has opened cases against 30 people in Izium for collaboration, and sent 24 indictments to court, the agency said in a statement. Some people, including a headteacher who agreed to cooperate with the Russians, are in detention awaiting trial. But nobody doubts that more than 30 local people helped the Russians run the town.

“Not everyone was arrested. Some of them fled, others are still out there. Our laws are not adapted to this, and legally they cannot be accused of anything, although they were collaborating,” said Marchenko.

A phlegmatic local politician with few airs, Marchenko said he is understanding of people who helped provide essential services to the city during the occupation. But he cannot forgive teachers who agreed to teach the Russian curriculum. “If they were ready to tell our kids that Ukraine never existed, they should never work again,” he said.

Where the legal lines that define collaboration should be drawn, and what scale of punishments there should be, is one of the most sensitive questions for Ukraine today. It is a dilemma that Europeans have not had to grapple with on this scale since the aftermath of the second world war, and it will only become more relevant if the Ukrainian army manages to free more territory from Russian rule.

In a town like Izium, the issue is particularly visceral. With a prewar population of about 50,000, there is a maximum of two degrees of separation between most residents. Rumours spread, accusations fly. When Marchenko or Grygorenko talk of collaborators walking freely through the streets, they have specific names in mind, not abstract statistics.

Kostiantyn Grygorenko, editor-in-chief of the local weekly newspaper Izium Horizons. Photograph: Oleg Solokha/The Observer

The febrile atmosphere is exacerbated by another social divide hewn over the past two years: the rift between those who left for other parts of Ukraine or abroad before the occupation, and those who stayed behind.

Marchenko and his administration sat out the months of Russian rule in Ukrainian-controlled territory an hour’s drive away, a decision that many locals consider a dereliction of duty. “The captain is meant to leave the ship last, instead this lot scarpered like rats and left us all to drown,” hissed one elderly woman, who was picking up a package of food aid in the central square, when asked about the mayor.

Marchenko is used to the accusation, and answered a question on the topic with a sigh. “We would have been either killed or forced to collaborate if we had stayed,” he said, wearily.

The mutual distrust between those who stayed and those who left is never far from the surface. The remainers resent the leavers for abandoning them; the leavers view those who stayed behind with suspicion. Every person can be an unreliable narrator; every story can be told in many different ways.

“If I’m honest, I’m not sure if I fully trust anyone who stayed behind,” Grygorenko admitted.

When it became clear, early last March, that Ukraine would not be able to hold Izium, Grygorenko gathered a few possessions and sped out of town before the Russians arrived, along with thousands of others. He spent the next months in western Ukraine, filing online updates for Izium Horizons whenever he gleaned new information from recent evacuees or Russian Telegram channels.

His 67-year-old deputy, Mykola Kalyuzhnyi, decided to stay. Kalyuzhnyi spent the first night of heavy fighting sheltering with his wife in the cold, damp basement of the Izium Horizons newsroom, then moved into the cellar of a nearby church, where the couple sat out the next few weeks, enduring terrifying booms that shook the foundations.

Moscow’s forces took full control of Izium at the end of March. A mysterious military commander with the call-sign Shere Khan, named after the tiger in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, took charge of the city. Civilian control was entrusted to Vladislav Sokolov, a former police chief who had been working in security for a bank before the occupation.

The Russians ruled mainly through fear. A mass burial site discovered in a forested area next to a cemetery on the outskirts of the city after the Russians left contained more than 400 bodies, some of which showed signs of torture. But there were also plenty of older Izium locals, nostalgic for their youth and the Soviet past, who welcomed Russian rule.

With the phone and internet cut off in the town, there was an information vacuum, which the Russians filled with old-fashioned propaganda. They appointed a town cryer, a woman who paced the streets calling out “news”: Zelenskiy has abandoned the city; Russia will be here for ever. They also produced the Izium Telegraph, an A4 freesheet that extolled the benefits of the “new epoch” of Russian rule, even as the city was without electricity, gas or running water.

Liubov Tkacheva, an Izium local known to be an eccentric communist, took charge of official communications and was on the hunt for cadres to help spread the Russian gospel. She sent a messenger to Kalyuzhnyi’s home, summoning him to the local administration to ask him to lend his decades of journalistic experience to the Izium Telegraph.

Kalyuzhnyi, a wry raconteur with a knack for spinning a long yarn, wrote his first lines of journalism during military service in the Soviet army in the late 1970s. He then worked at various army and factory titles before joining Izium Horizons. He was, in short, exactly the sort of Ukrainian the Russians had assumed would greet them with a warm embrace. But Kalyuzhnyi is a fierce Ukrainian patriot. He made his excuses, telling Tkacheva he was retired, too old, not fit for work.

“It was only later I realised what thin ice I’d been walking on, what was happening to other people who they thought were pro-Ukrainian,” he recalled.

One day, Kalyuzhnyi ran into Evhen Sipkov, a poet and artist who had drawn the cityscape silhouette that Izium Horizons used for its logo. Kalyuzhnyi had known Sipkov for years; they had both attended a monthly literary salon, where Izium’s intelligentsia gathered to discuss novels and poetry.

“He’s a good poet, but my God was he pro-Russian! We would often have arguments and everyone would leave red-faced. But back then of course, it all seemed completely theoretical,” remembered Kalyuzhnyi.

Now, Sipkov told him he’d offered his services to the Izium Telegraph, and beseeched his old friend to join the Russian propaganda effort too. “He told me the money was great, but I kept saying no,” said Kalyuzhnyi.

For a brief period it seemed like Izium’s future belonged to people like Sipkov. On 20 August, another Russian propaganda paper ran the front-page headline “With Russia for ever!” But the old poet, and many others who had bought Moscow’s promises, had backed the wrong horse. Less than three weeks later, the Russian army fled Izium as the Ukrainians advanced. Hundreds of local supporters fled with them, Sipkov among them. He left his wife, Olena Burtseva, behind in Izium.

Reached by telephone, Burtseva declined to be interviewed, but did offer a short monologue before hanging up: “My husband did nothing wrong, and now our lives are ruined and our family is torn apart. I have lost my job, I have no money and I am sitting here with nothing. I don’t trust anyone any more, neither Ukrainians nor Russians. This phone call is probably a provocation by the security services. I will not speak with you.”

Olga German is a glass-half-full kind of person. Walking down the shattered streets of Izium, she tries to keep the ruins and devastation out of focus and direct her gaze instead on colourful street art installations. She runs dance therapy classes to help traumatised children, she dresses in bright colours and wears her hair in pigtails tied with yellow-blue bands. But even she concedes that remaining positive is not so easy. “We are all still mourning at some level,” she said.

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German stayed in Izium throughout the occupation because she wanted to be with her parents, and resents being tarred with the brush of suspicion by those who left.

“Yes, there were traitors but it doesn’t mean most people supported the Russians. Even the president told people they should stay in their homes. I don’t like it if you left because you had an opportunity to, and then you judge people who stayed,” she said.

Everyone who remained has traumatic memories, especially from the first month of fighting, when the town was pummelled with shelling, missiles and Russian airstrikes. One airstrike in March killed 47 people, slicing through a residential block. Later, Ukrainian forces also targeted occupied Izium, sometimes with cluster munitions.

Liubov Prykhodko was sitting on the sofa, in the house where she has lived since 1972, when a Grad rocket slammed into her garden on 9 March last year. The explosion sent glass and furniture flying and set the house on fire, but she and her son, Anatoliy, somehow escaped unscathed. After the blaze, the pair moved into a scruffy downstairs room in a neighbouring house. Anatoliy, 41, has needed full-time care since he developed fluid on the brain after meningitis aged four. Liubov could not easily move him to the basement, so they stayed above ground throughout the fighting, and prayed for survival.

Liubov Prykhodko and her son Anatoliy sitting in the house that was damaged by a missile that struck their garden
Liubov Prykhodko and her son Anatoliy, whose house in Izium caught fire after a missile struck their garden. Photograph: Oleg Solokha/The Observer

There is a well in Liubov’s garden, and word got around that she was happy to share her water with anyone who needed it. Long queues formed each morning, of people waiting to draw water. Neighbours told Liubov it was too risky for her to leave the house – there would be nobody to look after Anatoliy if she were killed – so they rummaged and bartered for supplies for her and delivered them when they came for water.

“There was this incredible solidarity, I have never experienced anything like it,” she said, in an interview in the small room where she is still living with Anatoliy more than a year later.

Despite the memory of that camaraderie, both the physical damage and psychological trauma from those months continue to define Liubov’s life. She cursed the Russians for destroying her modest home, and had little better to say about locals who suspect anyone who stayed in Izium of collaboration.

“The people who weren’t here, they don’t understand us, they can’t understand us,” she said, moisture glistening in her eyes, as Anatoliy rocked silently on his chair in the corner. “They have no idea what we went through.”

Izium Horizons is up and running again now, although the handsome two-storey building that was once the newsroom was squatted in and ransacked by Russian soldiers, and the paper now operates out of a tiny office in a municipal building.

A recent issue ran a list of more than 100 street names that have been changed in Izium as part of a nationwide “de-Russification” process. Lermontov Street has been renamed after the Chechen independence leader Dzhokhar Dudayev. The street where Grygorenko lives has gone from bearing the name of Soviet bard Vladimir Vysotsky to that of Steve Jobs.

“We don’t want anything to remind us of the country that occupied us, and we want to start from a clean page,” said Marchenko, the mayor.

But it is easier to change a street name than to change what’s inside people’s heads. “Even after all this death and destruction I feel there are some people, especially older people, who are still waiting for Putin to come back,” said Grygorenko. “I can’t really understand it.”

If there is one thing everyone can agree on, it is that something of remarkable significance happened during the five months of occupation. The tragic interlude dissolved the mundanities of everyday life, and forced people to reveal something more profound about themselves, both as individuals and collectively.

Kalyuzhnyi plans to type up diaries he wrote in his basement, by candlelight, during the occupation months. He calls it the “final journalistic task” of his career. Grygorenko is also working on a book about the occupation and its aftermath. “We have lived through historic times,” he said, reflecting on the period. “The kind of times we only read about before in history books.”

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