Some Ukrainians Helped the Russians. Their Neighbors Sought Revenge.


When I asked Bilozerkans about the types of collaborators they knew, I heard a taxonomy: There were the older Soviet nostalgists, usually pensioners, who missed what they remembered as the stability and pride of life in the U.S.S.R. and believed Putin could recreate it; there were the “zombies,” the people who lapped up Russian propaganda, even the most obvious lies, like the claim their nation was a NATO puppet state led by a Jewish fascist; the “konservas,” or “tin cans,” the people with not much going on in life who just needed to be approached and cracked open; and the “waiters,” the fence-sitters who waited to see how the war went, so that they could align themselves with the winning side. Most belonged to that last category, I was told, including most of Kozlyonkova’s staff. The betrayal that stung most was that of Anatoliy Korniev, the priest at St. John of Kronstadt, an Orthodox church in town. Korniev distributed aid and sheltered people in the church at the start of the war, but the Russian Orthodox Church backed Putin, and soon enough Korniev told parishioners that Russia was here to stay. They should adjust to the new reality.

It seemed obvious to me that some townspeople would have collaborated out of fear or the need to survive. But when I made this point to loyalists in Bilozerka, it was usually dismissed. The underlying motivation was simple selfishness, they said. They thought the collaborators weren’t even pro-Russian, just pro-themselves, with no more ideology than loyalty. The occupation was a chance to advance their careers, to improve their stations, to collect an extra pension check or just make a little extra cash. This explanation went for everyone from Kozlyonkova down to the strawberry farmer whom Oleksandr Guz pointed out at his repair shop, who was barely making it around the corner in his sputtering sedan. If he’d gained anything from Russia, it evidently hadn’t been much. (I could not reach any of the accused collaborators from Bilozerka or Volodymyr Saldo.)

One woman, Alyona Zelinska, had a different theory. A researcher with a nonprofit government watchdog group in Bilozerka, Zelinska investigated Kozlyonkova for misusing state funds before the war. To be sure, she told me, Kozlyonkova was part of an “amoral group of people.” But her betrayal didn’t derive just from selfishness. Kozlyonkova had a cynical “philosophy of life” that was more complex and inherited, Zelinska believed. She learned to be cynical in the waning days of the Soviet Union, a survival instinct of a people raised amid coercion and deceit. “What were we taught in the Soviet Union?” said Zelinska, who was 12 years old when Ukraine became independent. “The children march in line. Don’t stand out, and everything will be OK. That is what Sovietism is.” Kozlyonkova and other accused collaborators were “leftovers of this herd mentality.” She had used the war for personal gain, giving up on the idea that Ukraine could improve on the sclerotic empire from which it broke off a generation ago. Forsaking the promise of a more decent life that was their young republic: For Zelinska, that was the real treachery.

The defection no one understood was that of Andriy Koshelev. Koshelev and his wife, a nurse in the surgical ward at the hospital, were well liked in town. They shared the property on Pushkin Street with his parents. His mother was a popular teacher at the main public school, and she and his father owned the butcher shop where Koshelev worked. Koshelev was kind and humble, according to Oleksandr Shcherbyna, a friend of his. So humble, indeed, that he was “a completely unnoticeable figure.” At the beginning of the occupation, he and Koshelev waited on food lines together and talked about the war. “He would emphasize that he was pro-Ukraine,” Shcherbyna says, “that he was categorically against the Russians.” When the shelling was bad, Koshelev’s wife would bring people to the basement of the hospital to take shelter. The coach Andriy Dibrova and his wife, Alina, lived nearby, and Alina was friendly with her. They saw each other during the occupation and commiserated over the situation. No one in the family had ever been heard to express pro-Russian views before the war. As far as I could determine, none of the accused collaborators had.

Nevertheless, soon after taking up their posts, they were outed online. In addition to the mostly innocuous local forums like the Telegram channel Bilozerka Chat, there were partisan forums devoted to shaming Russian helpmeets. The administrators of Bilozerka Chat knew the channel was being monitored by Russian intelligence, and they erased posts that would raise suspicion. The administrators of the partisan forums clearly wanted to raise suspicion — to let accused collaborators know that they were being monitored, too. A photo of a smiling Koshelev was posted on the Telegram channel Database of Traitors of Kherson, along with his home address.


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