In Kherson, sympathy for Russia complicates reintegration into Ukraine

A portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen in the offices of the Kherson Maritime Academy on November 11.  16 in Kherson, Ukraine.  (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)
A portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen in the offices of the Kherson Maritime Academy on November 11. 16 in Kherson, Ukraine. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)


KHERSON, Ukraine — Maryna Ivanovka refused to stand in line when the Russians occupying her city stormed the maritime academy where she worked. The 60-year-old administrator was fired and banned from campus. Her house was searched and her mobile phone, computer and passport were confiscated. A pro-Russian subordinate was placed in her place.

A few months later, Kherson’s occupation suddenly began to unravel. Russian soldiers fled. So did the woman who took her job and position.

Ukrainian authorities had just cleared the academy of booby traps, and Ivanovka was back at her desk on Wednesday, sifting through the evidence left by her Russian-backed successor: a classification of employees who worked for the Russians Account, a list of students volunteered to go to Crimea to gaze at a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin from next to a potted plant.

“We were going to put it in the bathroom above the toilet,” Ivanovka said, as a colleague snapped the portrait face down, “so everyone would show him their ass.”

However, ending the eight-month occupation has not been easy.

About a week after the last Russian soldier escaped across the Dnieper, the atmosphere in Kherson remained largely celebratory. Hundreds of people still gather in the central square every day to hug soldiers. Most power is still out, but businesses are coming back to life. Russian propaganda billboards are being taken down, while Ukrainian ones are going up.

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But across institutions in the regional capital, from the city council to hospitals and schools, newly-recovered leaders like Ivanovka are facing a double dilemma. How to rebuild without thousands of Russian sympathizers fleeing? Even more troubling, what about the rest? Thousands of people in the city feel ambivalent, even close, to the Russians.

Kherson has survived the scorched-earth strategy Russia has employed elsewhere in Ukraine. Despite widespread detention and torture in the city, few buildings were shelled. The Russians kept the lights on and the taps running until they vandalized public facilities on the way out. The Black Sea port of Kherson, founded by Catherine the Great, is something Putin wants to assimilate, not destroy.

Russia’s short-lived success in Kherson reflects not only its brute force, but also the connections many here have to Moscow. Hundreds of thousands of Khersons have accepted Russian passports, hoping for favours. Many more accepted thick envelopes of Russian rubles in addition to their wages as an inducement to keep working.

As Ivanovka flipped through the documents, a Ukrainian intelligence agent poked his head out and asked for information about the woman who would replace her. Ivanovka suggested he ask a security guard named Vyacheslav Maximov, who was close to the woman and had also been working.

“And take his keys away,” she said.

The agent declined the reporter’s request to observe and ask questions.

“You better not,” he said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve been home, and when we’re confronted with these people, sometimes we throw a tantrum.”

Selling “United Russia”

Across the street from the prison where the Russians allegedly executed some of their enemies, sits a soaring performance hall. If Kherson’s torture chamber is the hidden face of the occupation, then this hall – turned into a humanitarian aid center – is the image the Russians hope to project.

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However, days after they fled, the building fell into disarray. Documents were scattered all over the place. Glass windows and doors were shattered, and a tattered sign of Putin’s party lay on the floor.

But amidst the ruins, there are still signs of a concerted effort to curry favor with the locals. A cheerful Russian teddy bear sailor is printed on the children’s backpack, urging children to “stay the course”. Crayon drawings of smiling stick figures on Russian tanks and warships read “United Russia”. An old man wanders the building, grabbing a collection of Anton Chekhov’s plays.

“Of course, it’s in Russian,” he said when asked if the books were handouts left over from the occupation. “What else?”

A messy office is the clearest picture yet of Russia’s persuasion campaign. There, piles of documents sort Kherson residents applying for aid, pensions, passports and employment. One listed child was sent to a summer camp in Crimea. Apply for volunteer binders at the Aid Center one by one.

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The Washington Post accessed the addresses of nearly three dozen applicants. Some addresses appear to be fake, which could be a sign people feel compelled to apply. Most are real, but the houses are empty. Neighbors or relatives said the applicants fled days or weeks before the city’s liberation, usually to the Crimea.

“I don’t care about any government as long as it takes care of its people,” said Maharita, a woman rummaging through abandoned aid centres. The Post identified her only by her first name because of the risk of retaliation.

Some residents said they were swayed by billboards and social media posts promising Russian passports would give them access to health care or Russian pensions worth four times the value of Ukrainian passports.

Sasha, 60, who also gave only his first name, said he queued for six hours at what was once the Ukrainian post office to receive the first of four 10,000-ruble payments. Sasha also applied for a Russian passport without telling his wife, so that he could receive a permanent Russian pension.

“I have a [Ukrainian] A pension, but that’s not enough to live on or to get medicine,” he said. However, as soon as the Russians fled, the ruble was almost worthless and he had nothing but the disgrace of taking the payment and the passport.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said, as his wife squirmed uneasily and a neighbor overheard. “The Ukrainians could shoot me tomorrow.”

Sasha said he took responsibility for his mistakes but also felt betrayed by Russia, which he always considered a “fraternal” country. “They looted my birthplace,” he said of Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson. “If I had some loyalty to Russia before, now I have nothing but loathing.”

On a crisp morning four days after the Russians fled, Halina Lukhova stood on a street corner in front of the city council building in Kherson. A sign on the front door said “Mines, Landmines,” so Lukhova, the former city council secretary, and other officials were waiting for the Ukrainian military to check for explosives or booby-traps before letting them in.

Officials broke into small groups to discuss bread deliveries and grid repairs. But time and time again, the conversation turned to collaborators. She said five of the nine MPs before the invasion conspired with the Russians. A wealthy real estate tycoon is appointed mayor. The real mayor is still missing.

“They fled to Crimea and took everything with them,” said Lukhova, now head of the city’s military administration.

In some institutions, staff simply refused to obey Russian orders. Teachers are risking their lives to offer online classes to students as an alternative to Russian propaganda offered by their schools. Staff at one of the major hospitals simply ignored many of the demands of their new bosses.

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Andrii Koksharov, head of the trauma unit, said he refused to sign a new set of rules imposed by his Russian bosses and refused to accept a Russian salary, but was allowed to continue working because his skills were in demand . On one occasion, the Russians held him at gunpoint, forcing him to amputate one of their soldiers’ arms, he said.

After the Russians escaped, the director of the hospital, Leonid Remiga, emerged from hiding and resumed his work. To his surprise, his successor in Russia did not flee, but tried to negotiate to keep his job.

“I told him to negotiate with the SBU,” Rymyga said, referring to Ukrainian intelligence.

“You betrayed your country”

The Russians initially distanced themselves from the Kherson Maritime Academy, a sprawling Soviet-era institution where young men and women studied to become merchant marine captains. But one day, they stormed the headquarters and held officers at gunpoint.

Russian appointees visited in May and said the academy, like Kherson, “is Russian now.” When Ivanovka and others objected, they were fired and banned from campus. On July 21, Russian security agents visited her home and confiscated her passport, phone and computer.

In her place, the Russians installed a junior teacher who was eager to work under occupation, promoting her to deputy director.

“I never thought that teachers of Ukrainian history and patriotism education would cooperate with the occupiers,” Ivanovka said of her successor, who could not be reached for comment.

The successor moved into Ivanovka’s office and hung a portrait of Putin. She then began trying to force other staff to continue working, said Oleksiy Kucher, 36, a lawyer who works at the school. Sometimes, Kutcher said, she said staying was the right thing to do. Other times, however, she hinted that there were unlikely to be consequences.

“She would text and say, ‘Aren’t you afraid that if you start your car, it’s going to blow up?'” Kutcher said, adding that he ignored the threat.

The staff was reduced from 178 to 51 and the number of trainees was reduced from 1,200 to 71. However, the payroll has nearly doubled. Those who continued to work were paid in rubles, almost three times their Ukrainian wages.

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Maximov, a security guard Ivanovka suspected, insisted he was not a collaborator. He said he helped Ukrainian students escape during the early rush of the invasion and continued to work because he and his family had nowhere else to go. He also claimed he prevented the Russians from storing military equipment on campus.

Ivanovka did not believe it. When the SBU finished interrogating Maksymov, Ivanovka confronted him in the university quadrangle. “You’re happy to work for Russian rubles,” she said angrily. “You live here, you get paid, but you still sell your country.”

The burly man backed away, then retorted that only a court could try him. But Ivanovka continued to read his sentence.

“Are you kidding me?” she said. “Did you get your salary?”

“So?” he said. “The whole city gets a Russian salary!”

“Where are they now, huh?” she said, pointing to the other side of the river, where the Russians and their supporters had retreated days earlier.

“Well, I’m not here, am I?” said Maximov. He turned and got into his battered blue car, and pointed to the Ukrainian flag on the dashboard.

“Did you see that?” he said. “I never took it off! I took the Russian one off, but I never took this one off.”

Anastacia Galouchka and Serhii Korolchuk contributed to this report.

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