July 2, 2022

Politics and Commentary News Aggregator

A Ukrainian City Under a Violent New Regime

7 min read

But just as quickly Oleksa’s fate shifted again. He and a number of other imprisoned Ukrainians were hustled aboard a military transport plane and flown to Sevastopol, a port city in Crimea and the site of a major Russian base. The next day, he was driven two hundred and thirty miles to a bridge in Kamianske, the same spot where Fedorov, the mayor, was freed, and let go in a prisoner exchange.

Svetlana Zalizetskaya is a one-woman media institution in Melitopol, a gadfly and a muckraker who has worked as a journalist in the city for two decades. She’s been a television news anchor and the editor-in-chief of a local newspaper, and, for the past nine years, has overseen her own news site, RIA-Melitopol, which reports on everything from local crimes to the cherry harvest.

RIA-Melitopol has also become the main source for news on the occupation. When Russian troops first took over the city, Zalizetskaya tried to figure out their intentions. “No one explained anything—they basically just stuck to themselves,” she said. The site has since tracked who among the local population has agreed to collaborate with the Russian-installed administration, and exposed multiple cases of corruption and theft, such as the three million Ukrainian hryvnia—around a hundred thousand dollars—that Russian troops carted away from a post office in April.

Before Danilchenko was announced as interim mayor, she invited Zali­zetskaya to a meeting. Danilchenko seemed eager to aid the Russian military command. “The old city administration didn’t give me a chance,” Danilchenko said. She also told Zalizetskaya to think about collaborating with Russia: “If you join us, you’ll have a brilliant career. You can rise all the way to Moscow.” Zali­zetskaya balked. “I love Ukraine,” she said. Nevertheless, Danilchenko replied, Zali­zetskaya should meet with the Russian commandant, who wanted to see her. “If I entered that meeting, I would not have come out,” Zalizetskaya told me. “I understood it was time to leave.”

Zalizetskaya slipped out of Melitopol unnoticed, decamping to a Ukrainian-­­controlled city that she asked me not to name. She has managed to keep RIA-Melitopol going, scanning social-media posts and relying on a network of sources in Melitopol. But even from a distance Russian authorities moved to silence her. On March 23rd, a week or so after she left town, Russian soldiers showed up at her parents’ apartment, ransacked the rooms, confiscated the couple’s cell phones, and arrested her father. At around ten that evening, Zalizetskaya got a call from him. She asked where he was. “In some basement,” he answered.

Zalizetskaya could hear the voice of a man with a Chechen accent. (Many of the Russian troops in Melitopol are Kadyrovtsy, so named for their allegiance to Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, and known for their violence and brutality.) “Tell her that she should be here,” the Chechen said. Zalizetskaya was terrified, but also furious. “You are holding a pensioner in ill health,” she said. Her father had a heart condition and had recently suffered a stroke. “I won’t come back and I won’t collaborate with you.” The Chechen hung up the phone.

Two days later, Zalizetskaya got another call from her father. He started to recite what sounded like a prepared text: “Sveta, no one is beating me here, they treat me well, everything is fine.” She asked if he had access to his medication; he said no. She pleaded with his captors to release him. She heard a soldier in the background saying, “Tell her not to write any more nasty things.” Later that evening, she got a call from a man who introduced himself as Sergey. From the tenor of his questions, Zalizetskaya assumed he was from the Russian secret services. He was interested in the workings of her news site: who owned it, what interests it represented, and who her sources of information were. Sergey said that Zalizetskaya should coöperate with Russian forces or, barring that, hand over the site to them. “You know that what you are writing about Russian soldiers is not true,” he told her. “They’re not like that.”

Finally, Sergey offered a compromise: if Zalizetskaya wrote a public post saying that the site did not belong to her, her father would be released. “The site belongs to Ukraine, then and now,” Zalizetskaya told me. “I didn’t coöperate with the occupiers, and don’t plan to.” But she wrote the post, and thirty minutes later she got a text message asking where she wanted her father delivered. Home, she answered. The next morning, Zalizetskaya received a photo of her father standing in his front garden.

By early April, as Russia’s occupation of Melitopol stretched into its second month, Danilchenko was trying to project an air of normalcy, reopening the ice rink and resuming municipal services. In an interview with a Crimean news outlet, she thanked the Russian Army for entering the city “so gently and carefully” and freeing it from the “Kyiv regime.” She often spoke to residents in a tone that resembled a parent trying to sound sensible and convincing to her children. In one video address, she announced that the city was replacing Ukrainian television channels with Russian ones. “These days, we feel an acute shortage of access to reliable information,” she said. “Reconfigure your TV receivers and get accurate information.”

Nearly all supermarkets were closed, not to mention cafés and restaurants. Pharmacies were running low on drugs. Ukrainian authorities tried to dispatch humanitarian convoys with food and medicine, but Russian soldiers intercepted them and seized their contents. An open-air market still operated every day, offering fresh meat and produce, but access to cash was almost nonexistent, a particular problem for pensioners who get their monthly payments on bank cards. Danilchenko promised a transition to Russian rubles, but little of the currency was available in town. Gasoline was scarce and expensive; Russian soldiers and speculators moved to corner the black market, selling cannisters of fuel by the side of the road.

Local businesses, especially those in the city’s agricultural sector, began to report significant theft. Russian troops broke into the showroom of one company, Agrotek, and made off with more than a million euros’ worth of farm equipment, including two advanced combines, a tractor, and a seeding machine. A few days later, G.P.S. trackers showed that the stolen items were in a rural part of Chechnya. According to Fedorov, the new authorities have been forcing grain producers to give up much of their harvest, and moving it across the border to Russia by the truckload.

Communications slowed. Mobile service cut in and out. Residents took to standing with their phones outside long-closed cafés whose Wi-Fi connections were still active. One afternoon, I reached Mikhail Kumok, the publisher of a local newspaper called the Melitopol Vedomosti. He, too, had been held briefly by a contingent of armed Russians. He was taken from his apartment to the Russian military headquarters for a talk with officers from the F.S.B. “They asked me for ‘informational coöperation,’ ” he remembered. For the next several hours, the F.S.B. officers pushed Kumok to use his newspaper to produce “favorable coverage of events” in town. He declined. “I don’t see anything favorable going on here,” he said. “And you won’t allow me to write about what is actually happening.” Rather than publish lies, he closed the paper down. “They made it clear that, whatever I thought was going on now, things could get even worse for me,” he said.

Days later, the Russian occupiers began printing counterfeit copies of Kumok’s paper, which they used to distribute propaganda around town. One issue featured a portrait of Danilchenko on the front page. “Melitopol is getting used to peaceful life,” she said in an accompanying interview.

The occupying authorities devoted particular attention to the city’s schools, which had been closed for in-person classes since the first day of the invasion. Many students and their families had left town; others were studying online, joining lessons conducted elsewhere in Ukraine. The basements of a number of schools had been turned into bomb shelters. Reopening the facilities would be a way to signal to Melitopol’s residents that life was returning to normal. It would also provide a forum for a central aspect of the invasion—namely, installing Russia’s preferred version of Ukrainian history and ideology.

Artem Shulyatyev, the director of a performing-arts school in Melitopol, told me that he was visited by an officer from the F.S.B., who introduced himself as Vladislav. The conversation began politely enough. “You are governed by fascists,” Vladislav told him. “They oppress Russians. But this is wrong, and we are Slavic brothers.” Shulyatyev replied that he didn’t think there were any fascists in Melitopol. “You don’t understand anything,” Vladislav said. “You don’t know about the global plans of fascists.” He then asked if the school had a library, and whether it carried the collected writings of Lenin. “These are very important works,” he said. Shulyatyev said that there wasn’t any Lenin on hand, but, then again, why should a performing-arts school have his works? “Lenin didn’t dance or sing.”

Joshua Yaffa
2022-05-16 06:00:00

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