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After The Russian Withdrawal, Memories Of Resistance And Collaboration Linger In A Ukrainian Village


Shevchenkove is a sprawling village of about 7,000 people on the road from Kharkiv to Kupyansk, a key logistical hub for the Russian Army.
Shevchenkove is a sprawling village of about 7,000 people on the road from Kharkiv to Kupyansk, a key logistical hub for the Russian Army.

SHEVCHENKOVE, Ukraine -- Aside from gutted buildings and twisted scraps of military hardware, the liberated village of Shevchenkove, like others in northeastern Ukraine's Kharkiv region, now lives with an intangible but harrowing reminder of more than six months under Russian occupation -- the stories of those who resisted the invaders and those who cooperated.

In the still-turbulent wake of the Russian withdrawal, reporting by Schemes, the investigative unit of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, reveals how survival of the occupation often came down to a stark personal choice in the face of factors as dire as torture and intimidation and as mundane and meaningful as family ties.

Shevchenkove police chief Volodymyr Yaroshenko made his choice, under harrowing circumstances, about a month after Russian troops rolled into town on the day Moscow launched its large-scale invasion of Ukraine, February 24.

Recruiting a Moscow-loyal police force in Shevchenkove, a sprawling village of about 7,000 people on the road from Kharkiv to Kupyansk, a key logistical hub for the Russian Army, appeared to be a priority for the invaders.

On March 23 or 24, several Russian soldiers interrogated Yaroshenko in the boiler room of the village council building, he told Schemes in an interview late last month. Traveling in a stolen Ukrainian police car and a local farmer's Toyota Land Cruiser Prado, seven of them then brought him to a hangar on a nearby farm.

There, he said, they tied his hands and suspended him from a crane -- and as he dangled overhead, they beat him with a blunt object that looked like a bat.

"They wanted me to cooperate with them and to order the police officers to go to work," Yaroshenko recounted. The soldiers, he continued, told him that 20 local police officers had agreed to work with the occupiers but were "'waiting for your command.'"

"I categorically refused," Yaroshenko said.

Shevchenkove police chief Volodymyr Yaroshenko describes the torture he underwent by Russian soldiers during the occupation of Shevchenkove.
Shevchenkove police chief Volodymyr Yaroshenko describes the torture he underwent by Russian soldiers during the occupation of Shevchenkove.

Eventually, he said, the Russian soldiers lowered him to the ground and untied his hands. They gave him "two to three days to think" over whether to cooperate.

Yaroshenko alleged that they threatened to bring his young daughter to the hangar next, telling him "'either you will hang and she will watch or vice versa.'"

The police chief made his decision -- he slipped out of the village and into Ukrainian-controlled territory without the Russians' knowledge. "For several months after my 'conversations' with them, I could not feel two fingers on my left hand and two fingers on my right hand," Yaroshenko said of his treatment by his captors.

Yaroshenko managed to get his wife and daughter out, as well, settling temporarily in a Ukrainian-controlled area in the Kharkiv region. For him, it was a decision not to run away or flee "but to leave."

Not all local police did the same.

After Ukrainian forces retook Shevchenkove on September 8, prosecutors found left behind lists of employees of the so-called Department of Internal Affairs of the Kharkiv Oblast Temporary Civil Administration, the name adopted by the Russian occupation authorities. The Russian military police appear to have abandoned the documents in a building they were using that formerly housed the local branch of the Kupyansk district prosecutor's office and a courtroom.

Personal belongings, chevrons and badges, and recently cooked porridge littered the prosecutor's office in Shevchenkove after Russian forces fled the village. Bound court cases had been used as mattresses.
Personal belongings, chevrons and badges, and recently cooked porridge littered the prosecutor's office in Shevchenkove after Russian forces fled the village. Bound court cases had been used as mattresses.

The lists include people who were full-time police officers when the Russian occupation began and those who began to work with the police during the occupation, said Eduard Myrhorodskiy, chief prosecutor for the Kupyansk district.

That roster includes at least 10 men who were either former or active police officers in Shevchenkove when the Russians seized control of the village on February 24, according to one current police officer and a local resident who reviewed the list at the request of Schemes. During the occupation, these men worked for the Russian-allied police in positions ranging from traffic inspector to criminal investigation officer.

Schemes tried to contact the men via their Ukrainian phone numbers and on social media but received no responses. Myrhorodskiy said he had information indicating that the men "escaped" to Russia after the Russian forces withdrew from Shevchenkove -- an account echoed by local residents.

As of September 30, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), the country's domestic intelligence agency, was conducting 178 investigations related to instances of suspected cooperation with the occupation authorities in the Kharkiv region, some of them involving multiple people, Oleksandr Kuts, head of the regional SBU office, told Schemes. He said that 32 suspects had been detained so far, some occupation-era mayors or police chiefs.

"They cooperated in different ways. Some were collaborators, some just provided some assistance, some were openly traitors," Kuts said.

One Shevchenkove resident who said she was forced to work at the local police station during the Russian occupation recognized the de facto new police chief, Vitaliy Mikhalyov, as a former classmate. An official document obtained by Schemes confirms Mikhalyov served as the police chief for the occupation authorities in Shevchenkove.

Before Russia's February invasion, the 33-year-old Mikhalyov was a police officer in Shevchenkove.

"We used to get along fine. We went to the same school," recounted the woman, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Yaroslava, citing security concerns. But in his new role as police chief for the occupation, she said, Mikhalyov's attitude changed.

"It's like he doesn't know me at all. [He would say,] 'Shut up, why are you coming here?' -- like that, even though we used to be friends."

A 2018 Instagram photo shows Vitaliy Mikhalyov in a military uniform bearing a Ukrainian flag.
A 2018 Instagram photo shows Vitaliy Mikhalyov in a military uniform bearing a Ukrainian flag.

That connection with Mikhalyov did not benefit Yaroslava, who said she was detained for three days "for no reason at all." During this time, she claimed, a police employee, striking her shoulder with a rubber baton, ordered her to name local residents who had fought against Moscow-backed separatists in the war that erupted in 2014 in the neighboring Donetsk and Luhansk regions -- the Donbas -- and became part of the broader conflict following the February invasion. Apart from one man who "comes and goes," she said, she knew no one.

Yaroslava describes her imprisonment in the Shevchenkove police station and subsequent compulsory work there.
Yaroslava describes her imprisonment in the Shevchenkove police station and subsequent compulsory work there.

"They treated you not like a person but like a dog," Yaroslava said. She charged that the "people's police" -- as the occupation police called themselves -- gave her no food or water during her three-day imprisonment, and regularly humiliated prisoners.

A detention cell at the Shevchenkove police station
A detention cell at the Shevchenkove police station

Upon her release, the occupation police ordered Yaroslava to work at the district police station for 15 days, citing a "new law, new regulation," she told Schemes. Starting at 8 a.m. each day, she cleaned up the station, fed its prisoners, and weeded the grounds. An extra 15 days were added to her punishment when she showed up 30 minutes late on her last day.

She was compelled to sign a statement saying that she had no complaints about her treatment and that "I want to help," Yaroslava said, adding that an officer on the force warned her that refusal to do so could lead to consequences for her three children.

Ihor Reutskiy, the deputy police chief in Shevchenkove, experienced such threats as well.

When the Russian occupation of Shevchenkove began on February 24, Reutskiy said, he and his fellow police officers remained at their posts and "performed our official duties as best we could, monitored the movement of columns of military equipment, and transmitted data to our servicemen and leadership."

But on March 18, Russian soldiers came to Reutskiy's house -- likely the result of leaked information, he believes.

"Under the threat of physical violence against me and my family, they took me to their car and brought me to [the premises of] an agricultural enterprise, where they tied my hands, lifted me up with an electric winch, and began to strike me with weapons," Reutskiy said -- a scene very similar to what Yaroshenko described; it was likely the same hangar.

The soldiers hit him with rifle butts, bats, and wooden sticks, "trying to force me to cooperate," he said, adding that he refused to comply.

Ihor Reutskiy, Shevchenkove deputy police chief
Ihor Reutskiy, Shevchenkove deputy police chief

Neither Yaroshenko nor Reutskiy could specifically identify the Russian military unit whose members kidnapped and beat them.

Some of the men who beat him understood Ukrainian, Reutskiy said, leading him to believe that while some were Russian soldiers, others were fighters from the separatist forces in the Donbas. In addition to those groups, Ukrainian authorities say that Russian fighters in the area during the occupation included military police, officers of the military intelligence agency known as the GRU, and potentially others as well.

The soldiers who abducted him had weapons of higher quality than those normally used by ordinary Russian servicemen, Reutskiy added.

Shown photos of the uniforms and weapons used by both Russian military intelligence and private Russian military companies, Reutskiy stated that the soldiers who beat him could have been from the GRU or a private military company linked to it.

Survivors and eyewitnesses have given numerous accounts of torture and other abuses at the hands of members of the Russian invasion force, and other forms of evidence have also emerged following the withdrawal of Russian troops from areas they have held in northern, eastern, and southern Ukraine.

"Russian forces and others operating under their command routinely tortured detainees during their six-month occupation of Izyum," Human Rights Watch said in a report focusing on a Kharkiv region city that lies about 50 kilometers south of Shevchenkove and was also recaptured by Ukrainian forces in September.

Agreeing to work with the occupation authorities, though, was not always a matter of threats and violence. For Mykhaylo Stryzhko, family ties played a role.

Stryzhko, 24, went from being a stable employee to head of Shevchenkove's maintenance department after the Russian military made his father, Andriy Stryzhko, a blacksmith known for his nostalgia for Soviet rule, the chief administrator of the village.

Videos on Facebook show Andriy Stryzhko chairing a meeting or, in one instance, tearing down an official Ukrainian emblem. The elder Stryzhko is believed to have fled to Russia when the Russian military withdrew from the village.

His son, Mykhaylo, is being held in pretrial detention at a Kharkiv jail on suspicion of collaboration with the Russians over his role in Shevchenkove's occupation administration. If tried and convicted, he could be sentenced to five to 10 years in prison, be deprived of his property, and face restrictions on employment and other activities.

He is currently in custody through November 19, but his detention can be extended by court order.

Detainee Mykhaylo Stryzhko is suspected of collaborating with Shevchenkove's occupation officials.
Detainee Mykhaylo Stryzhko is suspected of collaborating with Shevchenkove's occupation officials.

In its October 12 notice of Stryzhko's detention, the Kharkiv region prosecutor's office alleges that Stryzhko "followed all the Russian leaders' instructions," including organizing the installation of "pro-Russian propaganda billboards" intended "to boost the occupiers' fighting spirit."

The document does not state Stryzhko's name and an embedded photo blurs out the suspect's face, but the cited work location, job title, and activity match Stryzhko's own statements.

In an interview with Schemes on September 29, Stryzhko defended his actions, saying that the main task his job during the Russian occupation entailed was distributing aid, including ruble-denominated financial handouts, to Shevchenkove residents.

"I was supporting people to whom I'd given out humanitarian aid," he said, adding that "if we hadn't brought them the aid, half of them would have died."

Before the interview, the younger Stryzhko signed an agreement to talk with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service journalists about his experiences during the occupation. A representative of the SBU, which is charged with investigating his activities, was present during the interview, as required by law. Stryzhko's government-appointed defense attorney did not attend.

Once the Russian occupation began, Stryzhko said, his parents urged him to return to Shevchenkove from the village where he had been living, which was also in the Kharkiv region but remained under Ukrainian control.

Stryzhko said that when asked to put up billboards in Shevchenkove that proclaimed "We're one nation with Russia" -- a false and highly contentious claim that Russian President Vladimir Putin has made repeatedly -- he connected the request with humanitarian assistance, saying that four vehicles carrying aid had been promised to Shevchenkove but only two had arrived.

Though Stryzhko maintains that the Russian and Ukrainian people are "different," he said he associated the concept of "one nation" with his relatives who live in Russia. "I support them," he said of his relatives. "Many [Russians], I don't support."

Andriy Stryzhko, the head of Shevchenkove's occupation-era de facto government, shown previously near Moscow's Red Square. The graphic reads, "I love Russia."
Andriy Stryzhko, the head of Shevchenkove's occupation-era de facto government, shown previously near Moscow's Red Square. The graphic reads, "I love Russia."

Once Russian forces withdrew from the village, Stryzhko said he expected Ukrainian officials would question him about his activities, but not put him in detention. "I knew that they'd have conversations with me, but like -- not prison," he said. "If I'd known how severe it would be, I might have left."

Yet now, Stryzhko feels only "emptiness" when he thinks of the Russian forces. "I'm left with nothing at all, as far as I understand," he explained.

"No home, nothing. My family is scattered. What can I feel?"

Written by Elizabeth Owen based on reporting by Valeria Yehoshyna and Kira Tolstyakova of Schemes
  • 16x9 Image

    Valeria Yehoshyna

    Valeria Yehoshyna is a journalist for Schemes (Skhemy), an investigative news project run by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. Yehoshyna was recognized as one of the "Top 30 Under 30" by the Kyiv Post in 2019 and has won a number of awards, including the top prizes at the V. Serhienko Investigative Journalism Competition in 2017 and the Mezhyhirya Festival in 2018. An investigation she co-authored in 2023 about Izyum and the Russian invasion of Ukraine received a Special Certificate of Excellence at the Global Shining Light Awards from the Global Investigative Journalism Network.

  • 16x9 Image

    Kira Tolstyakova

    Kira Tolstyakova is an editor for Schemes, the investigative unit of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. 

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