Two men in front of the village store in Vyshneva just a few weeks after the village's liberation. Vyshneva lies around 90 kilometers south of Kharkiv and was under Russian occupation from the end of February to the beginning of September. Life is slowly returning to the village, though there is great mistrust among its residents.

Two men in front of the village store in Vyshneva just a few weeks after the village's liberation. Vyshneva lies around 90 kilometers south of Kharkiv and was under Russian occupation from the end of February to the beginning of September. Life is slowly returning to the village, though there is great mistrust among its residents.

Foto:

Emile Ducke / OSTKREUZ / DER SPIEGEL

Post-Occupation Divisions Mistrust Abounds Among the Liberated Residents of Ukrainian Village

For six months, the village of Vyshneva, population 503, was occupied by Russian troops. Initially, there was resistance, but it gave way to collaboration and treason. Now liberated, the village is marked by deep distrust.
By Thore Schröder in Vyshneva, Ukraine

The craters at the entrance to Vyshneva have long since been filled in. Artillery fired had torn several holes into the road leading into the village, located some 90 kilometers south of Kharkiv. A Ukrainian flag is now flying from the mobile phone mast, and soon, it is said, electricity will return as well.

DER SPIEGEL 41/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 41/2022 (October 8th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

Three weeks ago, the Ukrainian army retook Vyshneva, a village of 503 inhabitants, as part of the rapid offensive that pushed Russian troops back 70 kilometers to the east within just a few days.

The school and the large agricultural facility in the village were both destroyed shortly before the liberation. One might think that the residents of Vyshneva would now be joining forces to rebuild their hometown. "But," says Iryna Yantshenko, 51, the shopkeeper at the village store, "I have no idea what's going to happen next." She fears "that we will soon have a civil war."

Vyshneva is made up of four roads, a World War I memorial, a post office, a culture house, the village store, a school, City Hall and two facilities belonging to an agricultural operation. The homes are built of wood and covered with corrugated drywall, many of them painted in pastel hues and decorated with carved molding.

Vyshneva is made up of four roads, a World War I memorial, a post office, a culture house, the village store, a school, City Hall and two facilities belonging to an agricultural operation. The homes are built of wood and covered with corrugated drywall, many of them painted in pastel hues and decorated with carved molding.

Foto:

Emile Ducke / OSTKREUZ / DER SPIEGEL


Vyshneva is a village like many others in embattled eastern Ukraine. It has experienced two major upheavals within the course of just a few months. First, the Russians came and subjugated the community, with some of the residents finding a way to adapt to the new situation. And then, only six months later, the Ukrainians liberated Vyshneva, and the villagers are now trying to adapt once again. But the joy at seeing the Russians thrown out of village is far from unadulterated – because it is not shared by all.

A fissure now runs through this village. Perhaps it was always there, and it has only become visible since liberation. Residents are wondering: How can we trust each other? Or: Who betrayed me? Who collaborated with the occupiers?

Iryna Yantshenko of the village store now divides people in the village into two categories: patriots and "rascists," an aspersion made up from the words "Russian" and "fascist." The reference is to those who sympathized or collaborated with the occupiers.

Iryna Yantshenko, 51, shopkeeper in the village store, now divides people in the village into two categories: patriots and "rascists," an aspersion made up from the words "Russian" and "fascist." The reference is to those who sympathized or collaborated with the occupiers.

Iryna Yantshenko, 51, shopkeeper in the village store, now divides people in the village into two categories: patriots and "rascists," an aspersion made up from the words "Russian" and "fascist." The reference is to those who sympathized or collaborated with the occupiers.

Foto: Emile Ducke / DER SPIEGEL
"I am afraid that we will soon have a civil war.”

Iryna Yantshenko, 51, shopkeeper in Vyshneva

The questions facing the residents of Vyshneva are a clear illustration of the fact that war doesn’t just bring death and destruction. It can also destroy cohesion in the community long after the invaders have withdrawn.

Vyshneva is made up of four roads, a World War II memorial, a post office, a culture house, the village store, a school, City Hall and two facilities belonging to an agricultural operation. The homes are built of wood and covered with corrugated drywall, many of them painted in pastel hues and decorated with carved molding. The residents have large gardens full of peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots and corn. As autumn progresses toward winter, they are busy harvesting squash, walnuts and apples.

At the entrance to the village is a monument to the Soviet soldiers who fell in World War II. Fourteen of them are buried here. An inscription on one of the steles reads: "No matter where you are going, no matter where you are headed, stop here at this precious grave and bow down with all your heart."

At the entrance to the village is a monument to the Soviet soldiers who fell in World War II. Fourteen of them are buried here. An inscription on one of the steles reads: "No matter where you are going, no matter where you are headed, stop here at this precious grave and bow down with all your heart."

Foto:

Emile Ducke / OSTKREUZ / DER SPIEGEL

Squash is currently being harvested in Vyshneva. A rocket that was used to fire cluster munitions at the village is embedded in a field. It will likely take months, or even years, before all signs of the occupation are removed.

Squash is currently being harvested in Vyshneva. A rocket that was used to fire cluster munitions at the village is embedded in a field. It will likely take months, or even years, before all signs of the occupation are removed.

Foto: Emile Ducke / OSTKREUZ / DER SPIEGEL

Nina Chemeris, 60, was mayor of Vyshneva until the end of March – and is officially still in office. For the time being, she no longer lives in the village, having returned to Lutsk, the western Ukrainian town of her birth. She told DER SPIEGEL her story from there by way of a messaging service.

Chemeris knows the history of Vyshneva by heart: It was founded in 1792 and 90 percent destroyed in World War II. During Soviet times, many people moved to the village from other Soviet republics, but others moved away to work at the steel mills and coal mines in the nearby Donbas. Vyshneva – a derivation of the word for "cherries" – has always survived on farming, she says, with residents growing their own food or working for the local agricultural operation. During communism, it was a collective farm called "Morning Dawn," with the name changing in 1991 after Ukraine gained its independence to the Balakliya Grain Processing Company, after the nearby district capital.

Nina Chemeris, 60, was mayor of Vyshneva until the end of August. Prior to that, she taught for 30 years in the village school. A Ukrainian patriot, she is still deeply disturbed by the gratitude many villagers showed the Russians.

Nina Chemeris, 60, was mayor of Vyshneva until the end of August. Prior to that, she taught for 30 years in the village school. A Ukrainian patriot, she is still deeply disturbed by the gratitude many villagers showed the Russians.

Foto: Emile Ducke / OSTKREUZ / DER SPIEGEL

Nina Chemeris was sent here in 1980 after finishing her teaching degree, and she taught at the school in the village for 30 years, including Ukrainian language and literature. "Even during Soviet times," she says. She became director of the school and remained in the position for 13 years, until she was elected mayor of Vyshneva in 2010.

The village, she says, was not in good shape when she came into office, with empty coffers, poor water supply and roads in bad shape. But together, the villagers were able to make significant improvements, with everyone chipping in. Despite the destruction left behind by the Russian invasion, those improvements can still be seen.

But the first rifts in Vyshneva began showing up in 2014, says the mayor, when pro-Moscow separatists in the Donbas began to destabilize Ukraine. "Some started saying 'Glory to Ukraine,' while others thought that was a Nazi slogan." Some 60 percent of the population is made up of retirees, she says, whose lives were strongly influenced by the Soviet Union. Many would also watch Russian television, she says, receiving a steady diet of Putin’s propaganda. "For my part, I always said that we could be proud of Ukraine," says Chemeris.

The school in Vyshneva. Initially, soldiers from the pro-Russian enclave of Luhansk allowed villagers to keep the Ukrainian flag flying, even though they used it as their base. After the Russians left, it was hit by artillery and destroyed by fire.

The school in Vyshneva. Initially, soldiers from the pro-Russian enclave of Luhansk allowed villagers to keep the Ukrainian flag flying, even though they used it as their base. After the Russians left, it was hit by artillery and destroyed by fire.

Foto:

Emile Ducke / OSTKREUZ / DER SPIEGEL

A woman in Vyshneva transporting aid goods on her bicycle. Behind her are the remains of a Russian checkpoint, destroyed by artillery fire.

A woman in Vyshneva transporting aid goods on her bicycle. Behind her are the remains of a Russian checkpoint, destroyed by artillery fire.

Foto: Emile Ducke / OSTKREUZ / DER SPIEGEL

On Feb. 28, four days after the beginning of the war, residents saw the first Russian military vehicles in the area, but they didn’t roll into Vyshneva until March 12. Four men in dark-green uniforms with white armbands, armed with automatic weapons, were suddenly standing in front of Chemeris' home on Victory Street. "They said that the armbands were a sign of peace," recalls Natalia Shukova, 39, secretary of the village administration. The soldiers – there were 25 of them, she says, all of them drafted into service from the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic – distributed candy to the children and greeted residents in a friendly manner. Their commander was also a teacher, she says. At Chemeris' request, they left the Ukrainian flag hanging on the school, but used the building as their base.

Initially, the mayor continued her work as before, coordinating aid deliveries from areas under Ukrainian control, as she says. But on March 30, she found agents from the Russian secret service agency FSB standing in front of her door wearing balaclavas. One of them pressed the tip of the barrel of his gun into her back, she says, and said loudly: "So, you’re the woman who is so patriotic."

The man told her that she had a choice: Either she could collaborate with the Russians, or she and her family would be in great danger. "We’ll take you into the basement, but you don’t want that," she recalls them telling her. They then demanded lists of veterans and of active members of the Ukrainian army. Chemeris says that by then, she had long since burned the documents. "That’s what I told them. And that at my age, I wouldn’t be changing my views."

The Russians tore down the Ukrainian flag and the mayor withdrew from her position. Even when a group of citizens asked her for help because food prices had increased sharply, she declined to help. She was afraid for her life, she says.

In April, Vasyl Vassylovich Litvin, 52, began calling the shots in the village, a man with a fleshy, scruffy face and thinning hair. He had lost out to Chemeris in two mayoral elections and had been working as the janitor for the agricultural operation. Other villagers describe him as impolite, criminal and prone to violence with his wife and daughter.

"A traitor lived here" is scrawled on the wall of the house belonging to Vasyl Vassylovich Litvin. After the mayor of the village, Nina Chemeris, fled, he became the main collaborator with the Russian occupiers.

"A traitor lived here" is scrawled on the wall of the house belonging to Vasyl Vassylovich Litvin. After the mayor of the village, Nina Chemeris, fled, he became the main collaborator with the Russian occupiers.

Foto: Emile Ducke / Emile Ducke / OSTKREUZ
Next to the cafeteria in the agricultural operation lies a cardboard box in which Russian military rations were packed. As everywhere in Ukraine, the Russians left behind mountains of trash in Vyshneva.

Next to the cafeteria in the agricultural operation lies a cardboard box in which Russian military rations were packed. As everywhere in Ukraine, the Russians left behind mountains of trash in Vyshneva.

Foto:

Emile Ducke / OSTKREUZ / DER SPIEGEL

He apparently has a son who lived in Moscow, who he would visit for several months at a time. In Vyshneva, it is said, he buddied up to the soldiers from the Luhansk People's Republic, procuring gasoline for them and inviting them for grilled shashlik.

Natalia Shukova, the secretary, says she watched from her window as Litvin would receive other villagers in his yard. "People were looking for someone to protect them," she believes.

Other residents, she says, would bring the occupiers food in order to get on their good side. The new commander of the Luhansk troops, a chunky 50-something with a moustache who went by the nickname "Sepa," for separatist, tried to get Nina Chemeris on his side. "He said we could manage the village together and that it would again be just as nice as it was in the Soviet Union," she recalls. "I told him that it wasn't nice back then at all. I experienced it, after all."

In the middle of May, the Ukrainian aid deliveries came to a halt. Starting in June, the villagers were able to apply for Russian support by presenting their passports. Many took advantage of the offer. Every two weeks, the occupiers distributed a kilogram of buckwheat, 250 milliliters of sunflower oil and one or two loafs of bread per household, far less than the Ukrainian aid had been. Retirees could also apply for a one-time payment of 10,000 rubles (the equivalent of about 170 euros) at the occupation administration in Balakliya.

The janitor Litwin arranged for 90 retirees to be driven to there.

On June 18, the Luhansk troops in the village were replaced. On that same evening, a side-street was fired on with cluster munitions, with one resident succumbing to stomach wounds sustained in the attack. "The shelling came from an area that was completely under Russian control," says Nina Chemeris, the former mayor. She believes that the Russians had wanted to strike fear into the villagers and to turn them against the Ukrainians. And with some, it worked. "The next day, I saw a number of people thanking the occupiers. And they started avoiding me."

On that day, she says, "something fractured" for her. After all the years she spent living there, she felt cheated. On June 21, she and 15 others left the village, ultimately making it to Lutsk via Russia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. When talking about shifting loyalties of the other villagers, Chemeris begins to cry. She says she is planning on returning to Vyshneva soon, "but I certainly won't be mayor again."


From July onward, she says, Vasil Litvin, the janitor, began holding meetings out in front of the culture house in which he would provide information about the general situation. Following Chemeris' departure, he announced that he was now head of the village – the janitor had risen to the position of mayor. Starting in August, says Chemeris, he took charge of business in City Hall and hired the former librarian from the culture house to draw up lists of aid deliveries and property ownership. Some residents say that they were required to register their property in the Russian district of Belgorod. Litvin also organized the wheat harvest, spoke of the founding of a new farming collective and started distributing grain to his followers, one ton each.

At around the same time, newly arrived Russian units set up a repair workshop and storage area for tanks at the agricultural corporation. The Russians, say many villagers, were far less friendly than the troops from Luhansk. "They were constantly swearing, and they left their garbage everywhere," says one woman.

During one gathering in front of the culture house in late August, an occupation representative from the area warned the villagers against refusing to accept Russian aid deliveries. Those who continue to receive goods from Ukraine, the villagers were told, would end "with a sack over your heads." Many residents began packing up their things and preparing to leave.

A copy of the identification papers belonging to Vasyl Vassylovich Litvin, who collaborated closely with the Russians. Before the war, he lost twice to Nina Chemeris in mayoral elections in the village.

A copy of the identification papers belonging to Vasyl Vassylovich Litvin, who collaborated closely with the Russians. Before the war, he lost twice to Nina Chemeris in mayoral elections in the village.

Foto:

Emile Ducke / OSTKREUZ / DER SPIEGEL

Meanwhile, plans were presented at the culture house for the reopening of the school. The former mathematics and physics teacher from the school, Anatoliy Alexandrovich Busin, 59, said he would be willing to organize lessons according to the Russian curriculum starting in October. A representative from the Russian Education Ministry promised that students would be provided with school supplies free of charge and that they would also be sent on a class trip to Crimea, the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula that had been annexed by Moscow. More teachers, the villagers were told, would be brought in from Russia. Aside from Busin, all of the Ukrainian teachers who hadn’t already left the village refused to continue teaching.

On August 31, the Russian occupiers arrested a 28-year-old Ukrainian veteran named Ruslan Shukov in his grandmother’s yard on Peace Street. Afterward, he says that men with black masks and beards – he believes they were Chechens – tortured him at the cafeteria of the agricultural operation. The next day, he claims, the new mayor, Litvin, denounced him as a killer who had been "trained by NATO to kill children."

Ruslan Shukov, a 28-year-old veteran of the Ukrainian army, hid in the home of his grandmother Leda in Vyshneva. In late August, he was taken captive there by the occupiers and tortured for several weeks. "Somebody in the village must have betrayed me," he says.

Ruslan Shukov, a 28-year-old veteran of the Ukrainian army, hid in the home of his grandmother Leda in Vyshneva. In late August, he was taken captive there by the occupiers and tortured for several weeks. "Somebody in the village must have betrayed me," he says.

Foto:

Emile Ducke / OSTKREUZ / DER SPIEGEL

DER SPIEGEL reporters met with Shukov at the home of his parents-in-law in the neighboring village of Bezmyatezhne, where he went to recover from the anguish that would follow.

In the ensuing weeks, the sniper says, he was repeatedly tortured in a Russian dungeon in Balakliya, with his tormenters administering electric shocks and performing mock executions, among other methods. He says the Russians also tried to remove his tattoo of the Ukrainian coat of arms using a Bunsen burner. Prior to his arrest, Shukov says he constantly changed his location and told nobody of his hideout at his grandmothers'. "Somebody in the village must have betrayed me," he says.

Ultimately, the Ukrainian counteroffensive saved his life, with the occupiers fleeing from Balakliya. On Sept. 5, the Russian positions in Vyshneva, located on the two properties of the agricultural company, were both destroyed by artillery. The next day, the Luhansk soldiers and the Russian troops fled the village. In parting, one of them told the secretary Natalya Shukov that they were merely "redeploying."

A control point in the Kharkiv region. According to Ukrainian law, working in the occupation administration and distributing enemy propaganda is considered collaboration. But there are also a number of things that fall short of those hurdles, many of which are difficult to prove but which are considered unforgivable by many.

A control point in the Kharkiv region. According to Ukrainian law, working in the occupation administration and distributing enemy propaganda is considered collaboration. But there are also a number of things that fall short of those hurdles, many of which are difficult to prove but which are considered unforgivable by many.

Foto:

Emile Ducke / OSTKREUZ / DER SPIEGEL


Two days later, Litvin packed up his dark blue Lada, while the mathematics teacher Busin apparently organized the escape of the collaborators to Russia. Once they had all left, the school was fired on and it was hollowed out by fire. On Sept. 9, Ukrainian troops arrived, and residents slowly emerged from their homes.

Only just over half of the villagers were still there, 272 out of 503. It is unclear how many of them accepted Russian aid. Vera Bershnaya, 79, admits to having received the one-time payment of 10,000 rubles and food from the Russians. "Even though two of my sons-in-law are with the Ukrainian army, I don’t think it’s so bad," she says. Up until the beginning of the war, she says, she was only receiving a pension of what amounts to 40 euros per month from the Ukrainian state, and then nothing after that. "We just wanted to survive. And our mayor left us in the lurch."

Once the occupation came to an end, many residents waited in the Vyshneva City Hall for a one-time payment from the Red Cross of 30 euros. Many said they were dependent on state assistance.

Once the occupation came to an end, many residents waited in the Vyshneva City Hall for a one-time payment from the Red Cross of 30 euros. Many said they were dependent on state assistance.

Foto:

Emile Ducke / OSTKREUZ / DER SPIEGEL

Vera Bershnaya, 79, admits to having received the one-time payment of 10,000 rubles and food from the Russians. "Even though two of my sons-in-law are with the Ukrainian army, I don’t think it’s so bad," she says.

Vera Bershnaya, 79, admits to having received the one-time payment of 10,000 rubles and food from the Russians. "Even though two of my sons-in-law are with the Ukrainian army, I don’t think it’s so bad," she says.

Foto:

Emile Ducke / OSTKREUZ / DER SPIEGEL

Alexander Bogdanov, 69, says he also accepted Russian aid because he had been left with no other choice. "Things had grown so expensive,” he says. Bogdanov and his wife are able to take care of most of their needs with what they earn from their fields.

Alexander Bogdanov, 69, says he also accepted Russian aid because he had been left with no other choice. "Things had grown so expensive,” he says. Bogdanov and his wife are able to take care of most of their needs with what they earn from their fields.

Foto: Emile Ducke / OSTKREUZ / DER SPIEGEL

Fellow pensioner Alexander Bogdanov, 69, says he also accepted the Russian aid because he had had no other choice. "Things had grown so expensive," he says.

According to Ukrainian law, working in the occupation administration and distributing enemy propaganda is considered collaboration. But there are also a number of things that fall short of those statements of facts, many of which are difficult to prove but are still considered unforgivable by many.

Iryna Yantshenko from the village store remembers that after the shelling on June 18, she told a group of customers in her shop that the artillery fire had likely come from the Russians themselves. "Ten minutes later, a Luhansk soldier arrived and threatened to lock me away in the cellar. Clearly, I was betrayed."

At that moment, she says, she started dividing villagers into two categories. Those who only have good things to say about the Ukrainians after the liberation said only good things about the Russians during the occupation. "When they come into my shop, I really just want to scratch their eyes out," she says. "The war revealed their true faces."

The DER SPIEGEL team in Vyshneva: From left to right, interpreter Artem Pribylnov, reporter Thore Schröder and photographer Emile Ducke. The hardest part was deciding what was fact and what was mere rumor.

The DER SPIEGEL team in Vyshneva: From left to right, interpreter Artem Pribylnov, reporter Thore Schröder and photographer Emile Ducke. The hardest part was deciding what was fact and what was mere rumor.

Foto: Emile Ducke / OSTKREUZ / DER SPIEGEL

She says she doesn’t know either what the future holds for Vyshneva. She herself is originally from Russia, having moved to Ukraine when she was just one year old. She says she last visited her place of birth near St. Petersburg three years ago and was shocked by the poor state of the houses and roads there. Those who like it better in Russia than in Vyshneva, she says, are free to move there.

With reporting assistance by Artem Pribylnov and Fedir Petrov

Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.