The Hunt for Russian Collaborators in Ukraine

    One day in August, a resident in her fifties named Olga Solomka complained to Tur that the bread she was handing out, which was supposed to be fresh, was stale. Two days later, Solomka was detained by Russian soldiers and taken to a police station for questioning. She was locked in a cell, where, she said, guards showed her a complaint from Tur instructing them to “bury” her. The next morning, Solomka was released. “Frankly, she’s dead to me,” Solomka said of Tur. “God is her judge.”

    Ukrainian law allows constituents to remove their kvartalnaya through a majority vote. A week after Izyum’s liberation, a hundred or so residents gathered by a well on Cosmonauts Street and overwhelmingly voted to replace Tur with Natalia Solodovnik, a forty-one-year-old worker at a nearby bread factory. “I wish Elena Petrovna prudence and health,” Solodovnik told me, using Tur’s patronymic. “But everyone has their own boiling point.” The mayor’s office was notified of the result, ending Tur’s reign. “People see that the courts and law enforcement aren’t always so quick to deal with those who coöperated with the occupiers,” Matsokin, the deputy mayor, said. “But, by exercising their democratic right, they can nonetheless demonstrate their attitude toward such people.” He compared the process to a “healthy organism fighting off infection.”

    When I pulled up to Tur’s house, I found her sitting on a wooden bench under a lilac tree. She was dressed in a floral robe, her white hair combed back. She insisted that she had only wanted the best for her neighbors. “Call them occupants,” she said of the Russian soldiers in Izyum. “But they handed out food, and not a single person in my neighborhood died of hunger.” She called Koptev’s claim that she had tried to extort him “absurd”; Solomka was detained, she said, for public drunkenness; and she had no personal relationship with Shere Khan. “He asked, in a very calm, cultured way, for help cleaning up the city, putting things in order,” she said. In exchange, Tur told me, she asked for his help in providing such essentials as bread and milk. “For this I don’t consider myself a criminal,” she said. Her only regret was acting on behalf of her neighbors at all. “Because, no matter what, people turned out ungrateful.”

    Perhaps no aspect of life under occupation in Izyum was more fraught than education. The Russian invasion was predicated on a chauvinistic reading of history, in which Ukraine didn’t exist but, rather, was assembled from the borderlands of larger empires. It was the Russian state, whether in the form of the tsar or the Communist Party, that gave Ukraine its place in the world—an ideology that had implications for the teaching of history, language, and literature. Vladimir Putin made clear that schoolchildren in territories occupied by Russia should be taught that Russia and Ukraine were historically united, and that Ukraine has no legitimate claim to independence. In Izyum, at least two school principals and dozens of teachers agreed to return to the classroom and teach the Russian state program.

    Oleksii Bezkorovainy, the head of Izyum’s education department, evacuated in the spring, returning days after Ukrainian forces retook the city. “Those who went back to teaching all have the same story, like a carbon copy,” he said. “ ‘We had nothing to eat, we were forced, we felt sorry for the children.’ ” But the majority of teachers in Izyum, Bezkorovainy noted, refused to work under the Russian flag. Many were harassed repeatedly; some were threatened. “They say, ‘We endured six months of occupation, and the ones who worked for the Russians treated us like second class,’ ” he said. “ ‘Now we should go back to school under equal conditions? Shoulder to shoulder?’ I don’t know how to answer these people, because they acted like true patriots.”

    During my time in Izyum, one name came up more than any other: Lubov Gozha, the director of School No. 2. Gozha, who is fifty-three, had been its director for seven years. School No. 2 had a long history: in the Soviet era, it was Izyum’s only school with Ukrainian-language instruction, and through the years it became known as a center of Ukrainian culture and identity. Gozha kept up the tradition, wearing a vyshyvanka, an embroidered Ukrainian folk shirt, on the first day of classes every year, and setting up a small exhibit on the school grounds with handmade artifacts that reflected Ukrainian history and customs. A few years ago, an alum who had joined the Ukrainian Army was killed in the Donbas war; Gozha put up a memorial plaque near the entrance and held an annual ceremony to commemorate him and other veterans. “We would stand next to each other singing the Ukrainian anthem, and I could see she had tears in her eyes,” Bezkorovainy said.

    That is what made the scene that took place on August 16th all the more unexpected. In a large hall at Izyum’s House of Culture, Gozha stood onstage, surrounded by Sokolov and other occupation officials, handing out Russian-issued diplomas to several dozen local high-school students. “Congratulations from the bottom of our hearts,” Gozha was quoted as saying to the assembled students and families, in the occupation paper Kharkiv-Z. “We are counting on you to raise up our city and help in its stable development.” The article also noted that Gozha’s school was among the first in Izyum to be accredited by Russian education authorities. “It’s strange and painful that she sold herself out like this,” Bezkorovainy told me. “I guess I’m not as good a judge of people as I thought.”

    I found Gozha at her home, in a troubled state, a coil of nerves and fright. She was sitting at a folding table in her yard, barely able to speak, her hands shaking. Her husband, Anatoly, was trying to tend to her, but he, too, seemed in a state of shock; he’d start to tell a story, then trail off, or interrupt himself to rub tears from his eyes. It has been like this for weeks, Anatoly said. He pointed to a line of pill bottles on the table. “Thank God we found these,” he told me. “She was in some faraway place, lying there like a cutlet. I thought she was done for.”

    Gozha began to tell me of her years at School No. 2. “It was my whole life,” she said. “I was devoted to the school, and still am.” Her house is on the edge of town, and had ended up between Ukrainian and Russian troop positions. The booms were loud and frequent. A shell landed right in the garden, blowing out the windows of the house; another slammed through the front gate. Anatoly’s mother, who is eighty-three, lives nearby and is virtually bedridden. It would have been impossible to evacuate her. So Lubov and Anatoly spent most of their time in the cellar, which fit only an old mattress and shelves of pickled vegetables. “I would come up to wash myself, and then hear a blast, and Anatoly telling me, ‘Luba, get down!’ ” She added, “I can’t describe the fear.”

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