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“Neither Ukrainians nor Russians like traitors.” How Moscow recruited collaborators in occupied territories

For the past eight years, Ukraine has grappled with the unresolved issue of the fate of collaborators. However, with the recent liberation of territories previously under occupation administrations, a wave of treason trials against those who betrayed their homeland has begun, resulting in numerous verdicts. The Insider interviewed individuals who bravely resisted cooperating with the invaders, despite facing threats. They shared their experiences of being coerced into collaboration, the ways in which conformists adapted to their changed circumstances, and shed light on the relatively smaller number of traitors among the teaching community.

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  • Kozacha Lopan. Occupied village under the Ukrainian flag

  • “I'll eat worms, but I won't take money”

  • “She was hiding the Ukrainian flag under the lining of her coat”

  • “Let's opt for an unbiased coverage”

  • “He was pro-Ukrainian... Until Russia arrived”

  • Almost no traitors among teachers

  • Fate of collaborators

Situated approximately an hour north of Kharkiv, the village of Kozacha Lopan finds itself in close proximity to the Russian border, with a distance of about three kilometers separating the two. Prior to February 24, 2022, the village was home to nearly 6,000 residents, but now, only 1,800 individuals remain. Access to the area requires a pass, which is carefully inspected by military personnel at multiple checkpoints. The road leading to the village is eerily quiet, with occasional sightings of aged Soviet passenger cars and dusty military off-road vehicles. Throughout the villages, one can spot dilapidated houses, gates marred by shrapnel, and windows covered with makeshift plastic sheets. Even the asphalt bears the scars of war, with track marks causing the vehicle cabin to resonate with a humming reminiscent of an airplane.

The Insider had the opportunity to interview Lyudmila Vakulenko, the current head of Kozacha Lopan. During the occupation of the village last spring, she was unjustly accused of treason. However, in March 2023, the court reviewed the case and ultimately dismissed the charges against her.

“On February 24, we woke up to volleys. The darkness in the window was illuminated by balls of fire flying past us, through Kharkiv. I got into my car and drove here, to the village council. The roads were already jammed, people were going to Kharkiv. Everything was quiet here, we didn't understand anything. And in just two hours tanks arrived,” Liudmila Vakulenko recalls.

Kozacha Lopan. Occupied village under the Ukrainian flag

Inside the village head's office, artificial lighting illuminates the room, as the windows are covered with sandbags due to ongoing shelling in the area. Ludmila Vakulenko had been unable to visit the office from March until September 2022, until the Russian flag was taken down. Surprisingly, during a month of occupation, the village administration continued to operate under the Ukrainian flag. However, the village faced numerous challenges during this time. Power lines were severed, gas supply was disrupted, and local stores remained closed. In response, the administration building transformed into a makeshift humanitarian hub. Essential supplies such as bread, cereals, flour, and medicines were transported across the front line from the district center. However, due to restrictions imposed by the Russian military, only limited quantities could be brought in by car. Behind the administration building, a large cauldron was used to cook porridge over an open fire, which was then distributed to the people in need.

Lyudmila Vakulenko, village head, in her office. The building is called the village council, although after the reform, Kozacha Lopan became part of the Derhachi territorial community.
Lyudmila Vakulenko, village head, in her office. The building is called the village council, although after the reform, Kozacha Lopan became part of the Derhachi territorial community.
Photo by Alexander Belokobylsky

Early in the morning of March 13, the military came to pick up Lyudmila at home. We speak Ukrainian (they don't speak Russian in Kozacha Lopan). Recounting the dialogues, the village head cites the remarks of the servicemen in Russian. At the railway station, where the military was stationed, a uniformed man approached Lyudmila and introduced himself as “Rem.” He asked why people were gathering near the village council. “We cook food and feed people,” Lyudmila answered.

“Why is there so little humanitarian aid?”
“Because you don't let our trucks through. Only passenger cars.”
“They won't be allowed through here anymore.”

A few days later, a scene unfolded on the square in front of the village administration as KamAZ trucks carrying humanitarian aid from the Russian Federation arrived. Alongside them were military personnel, people dressed in civilian clothing, and police officers affiliated with the LNR group. Under the cover of darkness, the Ukrainian flag was taken down from the administration building, only to be replaced by a new flag by the village head the following morning. And just before the column's arrival, the Ukrainian flag was removed from the flagpole situated in the square.

When asked to step out and “clarify to her people the consequences of their government's actions,” the village head, Lyudmila Vakulenko, refused to comply until the Ukrainian flag was reinstated on the flagpole. Eventually, her demand was met, and the Ukrainian flag was returned. Notably, a video aired on the Rossiya 1 propaganda channel showcased three flags: the crimson flag representing the Kozacha Lopan settlement (symbolizing the Zaporizhzhia army), the Russian flag positioned in the center, and the reinstated Ukrainian flag.

“We were handing out small grocery bags from the administration's back door. And here on the square there were trucks, people carried two bags each of groceries and household chemicals. They made a beautiful picture,” said Liudmila Vakulenko bitterly. “I stepped out, as I was told. I said I was sorry for the shortages. because we were receiving little aid from Derhachi. Humanitarian supplies were available, but they were not allowed through the checkpoint in large vehicles. This, of course, was not included in the report.”

A man dressed in plain clothes approached and provided reassurance, stating that the support and assistance would “no longer be inadequate.” He assured the villagers that they would be taken care of and said the Russians were here to stay indefinitely. This man was identified as Vitaly Ganchev, who, in the footage aired on the Rossiya 1 channel, was introduced as “the head of the temporary administration of the liberated territories of the Kharkiv region.”

“I'll eat worms, but I won't take money”

Lyudmila Vakulenko received multiple offers to join the occupation administration. In the first month, when she went to work, she was summoned to the office of the “handler.” He did not introduce himself, and others in the office did not address him by name. On his desk, there was a briefcase.

“You are working now, there should be a reward for every job.”
“I'm already getting paid.”
“You do realize that sooner or later it will stop, right?”
“When it stops, then I'll eat worms,” replied Lyudmila Vakulenko. She adds: “I understood that if I took their money, I wouldn't be able to get clean.”
“I knew that if I took their money, I wouldn't be able to get clean”

At the same time, the head of the local State Emergency Service was called into the office. He, too, refused money. To help him, the village head blurted out: “Yura, we've also refused.” The “handler” replied, “You did refuse, but let the others speak for themselves.”

Following face-to-face discussions, some of the employees chose to continue working in the administration even after the Ukrainian flag was substituted with the Russian flag. Meanwhile, the head of the administration, carrying the official stamps, left the building. So, what happened to those people who decided to remain in their positions?

“They left with the Russians. These are the employees I worked with. Can I not talk about them?” Lyudmila asks. “One thing is certain: the situation must be much worse for them now than it is for us. In fact, it will likely only worsen for them. Traitors are not viewed favorably by anyone, neither by the Russians, even if they accepted their employment, nor by our own people, even if they claim to be supporting their own. There exists a boundary that should never be crossed.”

Subsequently, the village head was visited at her home by several individuals, including Maxim Gubin, the head of the “temporary administration of the settlement,” and Igor Telyatnikov, the “acting head of the Kharkiv district Military and Civilian Administration,” a former deputy of the Kharkiv City Council and an entrepreneur with business interests in the Belgorod region. The village head rejected their offers as well.

During that period, the occupation administration continued to function without the involvement of Lyudmila Vakulenko, as her participation was deemed unnecessary. Nevertheless, until the very end, there were persistent attempts to persuade her to cooperate. As an example, her daughter was denied permission to leave, with the condition that she could only leave once her mother “joined us.” This situation persisted until two days before the departure of the Russians, alongside the administration, from Kozacha Lopan on September 9.

“She was hiding the Ukrainian flag under the lining of her coat”

Back in March 2022, the residents of Kozacha Lopan continue to rely on supplies of cereals and flour brought from Derhachi, the district center. These provisions are transported in light trucks. Every day, a significant number of people, ranging from 400 to 500, arrive at the city council with jars and pots to receive porridge for eating and sharing with those who are unable to visit themselves. This situation was the same even a day or two after the distribution of Russian humanitarian aid, which took place in front of the cameras for propaganda purposes.

“On March 17, I witnessed civilians losing their lives for the first time. When the shelling started, we all scattered like scared animals. Some hid in basements, others took cover behind garages, and some just ran home. The sound of breaking glass and the intense shaking made everything feel surreal. I quickly rushed downstairs, but to my surprise, the doors were wide open. That's when I noticed something flying towards me from the direction of the garage. It looked like a couple of bricks stuck together, moving so fast yet appearing slow, like a scene from a movie. I knew I had to close the doors, but they were already damaged from the explosions. Frantically, I sought refuge behind a wall,” Ludmila Vakulenko recalls.

As Lyudmila glanced outside, she saw a young woman who had come to procure diapers for her baby lay lifeless on the ground. To be precise, only half of her body remained. Six people lost their lives on that fateful day, while four others sustained injuries. Ambulances from Belgorod arrived promptly to transport the injured to medical care. The following day, representatives from the “administration of the liberated territories” arrived with a film crew in tow, intending to showcase how “Ukraine shells its own citizens.”

“They were firing from the direction of Zolochev, where our military was located, but not directly from Zolochev itself! It would have been too far from there. And our troops couldn't get closer due to a hill that was under Russian control,” Lyudmila explained. “Additionally, there were other indicators pointing to the source of the gunfire. Just fifteen minutes before the shelling, Gubin, the 'acting head of the interim administration,' came rushing in, saying, 'Lyudmila Mikhailovna, I'll take you home.' I said I couldn't leave, as I had to oversee the distribution of porridge, among other tasks. But he insisted, 'You must leave!' I firmly refused, saying I would stay. Panic ensued among the military personnel as they hurried into the village council, crowding the corridor... It was impossible for our troops to have fired at the village, especially during daylight when humanitarian aid was being distributed.”

On May 3, 2022, an in-absentia suspicion of treason was announced with regard to Liudmila Vakulenko, as she had been absent from the city council for over a month. The village head was taken aback upon discovering that she was allegedly involved in “facilitating the provision of so-called humanitarian aid from the Russian Federation and promoting it through Russian media.” She says she had never yearned for anything as fervently as she did for the restoration of Ukrainian control over the settlement, so she could finally share the true account of what had transpired.

“I understood perfectly well, they won't be here forever. But Luhansk and Donetsk didn't think it would last that long either. That's what terrified me: how long will it last? Will I physically survive to see the end of it,” says Vakulenko, who suffered a heart attack without hospitalization in the summer of 2022.

At the crack of dawn on September 11, as the Russians hastily left the village without putting up a fight, and it was the village head who proudly hoisted the Ukrainian flag. Since spring, she had been hiding it under the lining of her coat. She raised the flag on a flagpole near the village council, marking the return of the symbol even before the arrival of Ukrainian troops in the village.

“Let's opt for an unbiased coverage”

Valentina Fedorchuk, a journalist from Kherson, chose not to wait for liberation in her city. Alongside her husband, who worked as a cameraman, they embarked on a challenging and perilous journey across the front lines during the summer of 2022. Their intention was to remain undetected by the Russian military, unaware that journalists were making their way through. To ensure their safety, Valentina crafted a fabricated backstory for herself, adopting the guise of a wedding planner as a cover.

The local TV channel VTV Plus, which she left a few weeks prior to the outbreak of full-scale war, continues to operate to this day, focusing on the activities of the occupation administration. Tatiana Kamenskaya, the owner of VTV Plus, conducted an interview with the Russian-appointed “governor,” Vladimir Saldo. (By March 2023, Kamenskaya herself was declared a suspect for collaborationism.) Since June, the channel has been transmitted via a Russian satellite. In essence, Valentina had an opportunity to become a propagandist. However, she made a courageous decision to risk being locked up in a “basement” and continued reporting news and conducting live broadcasts for Ukraine's Channel 5.

Valentina Fedorchuk and her husband Vlad Radkovsky, an underground photo shoot during the occupation of Kherson.
Valentina Fedorchuk and her husband Vlad Radkovsky, an underground photo shoot during the occupation of Kherson.
Photo by Anton Tatochenko

“We had already observed Kamenskaya's pro-Russian stance prior to this. She outright prohibited any on-air discussions regarding the potential of a full-scale invasion, despite it being a topic on everyone's lips. It wasn't until later that I recalled another conversation I had with her. Tatyana seemed particularly interested in the fate of local TV channels following the occupation of Crimea,” Valentina recalls. “Then, when the Russians seized control of Kherson and the initial wave of protests erupted, Kamenskaya contacted me and urgently summoned me to a working meeting, stating, 'We are ready to work.'“

Just before February 24, VTV Plus found itself devoid of journalists. Valentina recounts that due to the inability to collaborate with Kamenskaya, all the journalists decided to depart. Among them were two students who swiftly quit as the invasion commenced. Only the cameramen and one presenter were present during the meeting.

“We are ready to work, providing unbiased coverage.”
“What do you mean by 'unbiased,' Tatiana Alexandrovna?”
“On the day of Kherson's liberation from the German fascist invaders, there was a protest [against the Russian occupation] and a rally led by Saldo and Stremousov <Vladimir Saldo and Kirill Stremousov are, respectively, “head” and “deputy head” of the occupation administration of the Kherson region - A.B.>. We will be covering both events.
“All right! I will cover the protest, and who will cover the other event? Do you realize that no adequate person would do that?
“I'll go if you don't want to!” Kamenskaya burst out.

Following the meeting, Valentina Fedorchuk was approached and questioned about her readiness to commence work. In response, she inquired about the potential wage and the overall source of funding. She was informed that an agreement had been established with the city council to address these financial matters.

“I found it quite surprising that the reference was made to the city council. VTV Plus had established somewhat better connections with the regional administration, rather than the city council. Nevertheless, I was provided with the specific amount of remuneration expected, quoted in hryvnias,” the journalist says.

The offer appeared dubious, and Valentina promptly declined. However, she subtly hinted that she would also refrain from working for Channel 5, just to cover her bases. In reality, she continued to diligently prepare news stories for Ukrainian television. Meanwhile, VTV Plus launched a program called “Rukhaemosya dalі” (“Moving on”), which adopted a Ukrainian title but distorted the actual reality.

“They simply drive through the city, capturing footage from their car. Back then, it was impossible to navigate the city without encountering the occupying forces. You would invariably come across some Zs or military personnel, etc. However, despite these city-wide expeditions, there isn't a single shot showcasing the reality of the military presence in the city!” Fedorchuk says. “And let's not forget about the interview with Saldo that Kamenskaya conducted personally.”

“He was pro-Ukrainian... Until Russia arrived”

That particular spring, Tatyana Kamenskaya turned 71. She had been a longstanding figure in local TV, having worked since Soviet times. She had a long history of collaboration with Vladimir Saldo, who served as the mayor of Kherson from 2002 to 2012. VTV Plus had been supportive of Saldo during his subsequent mayoral campaigns (although he was unsuccessful on both occasions). This sheds light on the strained relationship between the TV channel and the mayor's office, as shared by Valentina Fedorchuk.

“Kamenskaya's motives? Well, first and foremost, she was always highly motivated by money. During that meeting, she uttered this phrase: 'Soon it will be too late, soon everyone will be working for them.' Perhaps they truly wanted to secure the top spot, to be the first channel to resume operations. Secondly, of course, she had a close relationship with Saldo, and there seemed to be some kind of agreement,” the journalist says.

The journalists who remained in Kherson steadfastly declined offers to work for VTV Plus and another local television channel called Kratu. The owner of Kratu, Vyacheslav Gorlovsky, who was a friend of the late “deputy governor” Kirill Stremousov, personally reached out to the journalists, urging them to join. He openly stated that he was seeking people to cover the “positive changes in the city” following the occupation. Eventually, Kratu failed to attract any journalists and had to shut down, while VTV Plus resorted to actually recruiting people from the streets.

Valentina also encountered officials who became involved with the new government.

“In Kherson, people's patriotism was judged based on their language preference. Speaking Ukrainian was seen as a sign of being a patriot. For instance, we had Yuri Romaskevich, the chief sanitary doctor of the region. In times of peace, when I called him and greeted him in Russian, he would respond with 'Good day' in Ukrainian,” recounts Valentina Fedorchuk. “He was strongly pro-Ukrainian… until Russia arrived. It was quite surprising when he attended their conference, and from what I gather, he began cooperating with them.”

Almost no traitors among teachers

When discussions arise about collaborators, teachers are often mentioned as well. Their role is seen as ensuring the right to education. However, it's worth noting that under the Ukrainian Criminal Code, there exists a separate provision in Article 111-1, Part 3, which pertains to the introduction of standards from an aggressor state in educational institutions. The penalties for such actions include corrective labor for up to 2 years, imprisonment for up to 3 years, and a prohibition on engaging in certain activities for a period of 10 to 15 years.

According to Mikhail Gonchar, the head of the education department of the Beryslav City Council in the Kherson region, “Beryslav was liberated on November 11, and there were only a few teachers remaining in our territory. Initially, many decided to stay, but eventually, they realized they needed to leave. We had been actively encouraging teachers to leave. Then our priority was to restore the educational process, based on distance learning of course.”

Mikhail Gonchar - historian, doctor of pedagogical sciences.
Mikhail Gonchar - historian, doctor of pedagogical sciences.
Photo by Mikhail Gonchar

The territorial community encompasses the town of Beryslav, a settlement, and eight villages. Despite the efforts of the occupation administration to open schools during that time, the attempts were futile. While directors could be found, there was a significant shortage of teachers.

“The significant advantage was that the Ukrainian government managed to secure salary payments for the people. We transitioned them to a downtime status, and the state provided financial support. The amount was an average salary, which was quite substantial given the circumstances. Teachers were able to sustain themselves without resorting to collaboration with the occupation administration,” Mikhail explains.

The Ukrainian government managed to secure salary payments for the teachers while they were out of work

Gonchar, who holds a degree in history and a doctorate in pedagogical sciences, combines his administrative duties with the collection and analysis of data on the occupation. He has already published an article titled “Educational Policy of the Russian Administration in the Occupied Kherson Region (Late February - October 2022),” but his research efforts are ongoing.

The Kherson region has a total of 380 schools and 11,500 teachers. During the summer of 2022, the occupation administration made the claim that 20,000 teachers had been retrained to work according to Russian standards. However, on September 1, the “minister of education,” Mikhail Rodikov, stated that only 900 teachers had actually started working. Even if we consider this “official” information to be accurate, it indicates that less than 10 percent of teachers chose to collaborate with the occupation administration.

“I personally believe that even the claim of 900 teachers is exaggerated,” Gonchar says. “But even if we consider that number, it would still be insufficient for the alleged number of open schools they announced. When the majority of the region was still under occupation, with only two communities remaining free, they initially declared the opening of 78 schools, and later increased it to 110. Can you imagine having only eight or nine teachers per school?”

The occupation administration attempted to address the severe shortage of teachers by offering salaries of 40,000 rubles, enticing for the region. However, this strategy proved ineffective, just like their other measures.

“In their efforts to open a school in the village of Tavrichanka, Kakhovka district, the occupation administration resorted to extreme measures,” recounts Mikhail Gonchar. “Teachers were forcibly taken from their homes, transported to secluded wooded areas, stripped of their clothes, and subjected to ridicule. 'If you dare to refuse coming to school tomorrow, don't expect to return from the woods next time.' At the outset, the school directors were even thrown into “basements” to ensure compliance from the staff,” Mikhail Gonchar says.

Fate of collaborators

Mikhail Gonchar personally knows some of the people who chose to teach according to Russian standards, categorizing them into distinct groups. These categories include those who were unable to fulfill their ambitions within the regular functioning education system, those who were inclined to adapt and embrace the new circumstances, and older individuals who held sentiments for the Soviet Union.

“There's this teacher who personally taught me the Ukrainian language,” Mikhail says passionately. “Despite receiving her salary and pension from Ukraine, she made the choice to work for the Russians. I pondered over her motives, and I believe there's one explanation: a deep-rooted sympathy for the past that she wishes to manifest through this collaboration.”

According to Gonchar's assessments, the number of those who admire Putin's “ideas” is minimal among the collaborators. He claims that schools are currently operational only in the two occupied cities of Genichesk and Skadovsk, as well as in the surrounding villages. However, there are no children residing closer to the front lines, so there's no one in need of education.

The implementation of Russian standards in the temporarily occupied territories goes beyond just teaching in the Russian language. It includes the Kremlin's perspective on history education, as well as the regular hoisting of the Russian flag in schools. Additionally, there are “Conversations about Important Things,” which are extracurricular classes held every Monday to instill in students a sense of love for Russia and Putin.

“I strongly believe that the state must take every measure to prevent teachers who have collaborated with the occupation administrations from ever returning to the education system,” Gonchar says.

The only exception, he adds, may be made for those who were not involved in spreading propaganda. He emphasizes the need for filtering procedures, similar to those implemented after the occupation during World War II, where the state forgave teachers who were not involved in any crimes and dealt severe punishment to the officials responsible.

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