Russian ‘collaborators’ rounded up as Ukraine reasserts control over tense, divided region
The Friday morning civic budget meeting was not expected to be a thrilling affair. Then the Ukrainian intelligence services burst in and arrested the head of funeral services for helping the invaders.
“He was a collaborator,” claims Oleksandr Senkevych, the mayor of Mykolaiv, who arranged the operation so that he could look his colleague in the eye as he was handcuffed. “I’m sure during the Soviet Union he would have been shot.”
It has not been possible to substantiate the mayor’s claims, or reach the funeral director Oleksandr Sahadiak, a father of one in his early forties, who has now been held without charge for weeks.
But the episode offers a glimpse of the febrile backdrop to a war fought across territory where loyalties are deeply divided.
Today as Ukrainian soldiers advance on the battlefield, consolidating their hold on Kherson, 35 miles southeast of Mykolaiv, after driving the Russians out on Friday, the Ukrainian security services (SBU) are hunting the enemy within.
Southern Ukraine boils with intrigue and suspicion. Fears of spies and saboteurs haunt the region, where pro-Moscow and pro-Kyiv allegiances run strong and deep.
The incident in Mykolaiv, a city of half a million people near the Black Sea, was only the latest in a series of theatrical detentions of alleged traitors in recent weeks.
For months the city had held the Russians back after the Kremlin’s march from Crimea towards the great imperial port of Odesa was halted on its outskirts in the early days of the war. Now the hunt for collaborators is reaching a frenzied pitch. Strangers loitering on a street corner, sitting in a car or taking photos on a phone risk being reported to the authorities.
Such extreme vigilance is not groundless. In interviews last week, security officials, prosecutors, military representatives and local officials in Mykolaiv detailed how the Russians worked for years to build a wide network of contacts and informants in the region — and unleashed it in wartime.
“Russians chase these people in open groups on social media, like a Mykolaiv community chat. They see those who criticise the Ukrainian army, and then they reach out directly through Telegram,” said Dmytro Pletenchuk, 41, public affairs officer of the Mykolaiv regional military administration.
Others, he added, make contact with the Russian security services through family links.
Dozens of suspected collaborators have been arrested since the war began, according to two local officials. Some of them did it for the money — at times as little as £20. Others did it for ideological reasons; rooted in nostalgia for the lost days of their youth in the Soviet Union.
They are either put on trial or swapped for Ukrainian civilians held by the Russians.
This month a 72-year-old woman in Mykolaiv was sentenced to 15 years in prison for collaborating with the Russian security services — renting an apartment where she held supplies for their saboteur groups. She also shared co-ordinates of Ukrainian soldiers and strategic objects that helped the Kremlin’s forces target their fire.
“A lot of people were killed because of this,” said a person close to the case, who did not want to be named.
During the Soviet era, Mykolaiv was a closed city — shut to outsiders to preserve the secrecy of its military shipyards, where great aircraft carriers and battleships, including the Moskva, which was sunk by the Ukrainians this spring, were built. Every breath of dissent was repressed.
Yet some people also recall the rich cultural life at the time — concerts, plays, the ballet. They remember going on holiday across the Soviet Union, how everyone had a job, and how there was less of a gap between rich and poor.
“It was a very good life then,” said Lyudmila, 74, who asked that her real name not be used. After independence, she said: “It was very difficult, everything was privatised, people were very poor.” Young people today “don’t know about the Soviet heroes”.
Lyudmila, and others like her, say they have never felt part of an independent Ukrainian state. They spend their days glued to Russian television, which tells them that Nazi Ukrainians and their Nato allies were preparing to destroy Russia, and had to be stopped.
This makes them a target for Russian recruiters seeking informants.
“The majority of these people who collaborate are old,” said Pletenchuk, the public affairs officer. Kremlin propaganda has convinced them “that if Russia comes here they’ll have all the things they used to have during the Soviet period, like their youth, their job and so on”.
The weaponisation of the past by the Russian security services presents a serious challenge to Mykolaiv’s leaders, who have to reconcile the divisions among residents — many of whom settled in the city during the Soviet era — while tracking down genuine Russian saboteurs.
“We need to get rid of this Soviet Union nostalgia, we need to get rid of these ‘brother’ feelings [with Russia],” said Senkevych, the mayor, who like most others in the city grew up in a Russian-speaking family.
The head of the funeral services was a special case. When the war began, the mayor claimed, Sahadiak was overheard repeating pro-Russian talking points to his colleagues. This caught the attention of the Ukrainian intelligence services, who began a secret investigation.
They found, Senkevych claimed, that Sahadiak had been passing information to the Russians on the locations of Ukrainian checkpoints and on the names of soldiers killed. He had also allegedly tried to recruit others to his cause.
Several of Sahadiak’s colleagues said that he gave no outward indication of pro-Russian views and had worked tirelessly arranging the military funerals of soldiers in the region. He lent the diggers used to excavate graves to troops digging defensive lines around the city – and offered to operate them himself.
“He was the best director we had here. He made it profitable, and he didn’t steal money,” said one of his colleagues, who did not want to be named. “I was so surprised when he was arrested. And now I’m really scared. His family are being bullied online, and people wrote really terrible things about us here in the municipal office, like that we should be killed and we are separatists. Everyone here has guns, and some stupid guy with a grenade can just come by and throw it in our office.”
Nelli Yarovenko, 33, a red-headed city council employee, had worked with Sahadiak since the war began — arranging the transport of bodies, funerals and even trying to find wood to make coffins. She had never for a moment, she said, suspected him.
“I thought he was pro-Ukrainian,” said Yarovenko. “He was helping a lot.”
It was only when she saw the video of his arrest, published by the security services last month, that she changed her mind.
“He was always so emotional, so outgoing,” she said. “And what was weird is that when the SBU people came for him he was so calm. I was so shocked, I went pale. My friend asked me, were you his lover? I said no! But I was really shocked.”
Sahadiak’s case is still under pre-trial investigation, and he has not formally been charged with any crime.