The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Every Ukrainian knows both patriots and collaborators

A Ukrainian soldier and locals look at two alleged Russian collaborators in Kherson, Ukraine, on Sunday. (Libkos/AP Photo)

Iuliia Mendel is a journalist, the author of “The Fight of Our Lives” and a former press secretary for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

I couldn’t be more thrilled that Ukraine has finally liberated my hometown of Kherson.

Yet there are still countless problems ahead. The city has no water, gas or electricity. People are hungry and cold.

And then there are the moral and political problems — such as alleged collaborators.

Consider the story of my old high school civics teacher, Tatyana Tomilina, 56. When the Russians occupied Kherson in March, Tomilina — who already had a reputation as a pro-Russian separatist — seemed ready to help. They appointed her rector of Kherson State University, a high-profile cultural and political position that would have only gone to someone they believed willing to work hand-in-hand with the occupation government. In August, the Ukrainian government launched an official investigation into her activities, declaring her to be “under suspicion” of committing the crime of collaboration. The accusation was linked to her alleged dissemination of Russian propaganda, her implementation of Russian curriculum in the university, and her efforts to train a new generation of pro-Russian journalists under what critics claimed was the guise of a “media school.”

On Sept. 12, her Kherson apartment was blown up. The circumstances are murky, but it’s widely assumed that the attack was carried out by Ukrainian partisans, who were targeting her for working with the Russians. She survived but ended up in intensive care in the hospital. One man, apparently her security guard, died at the scene.

My feelings about Tomilina were complicated even before the war. I never liked her lessons. She didn’t react well to questions and seemed to enjoy bullying her students. I was glad she taught us for only one semester.

What I really enjoyed in school were the language lessons. Though I come from a Russian-speaking home, I participated in multiple Ukrainian-language competitions: First, I represented my class, then I competed at the city level with students from other schools. I ended up competing at the national level with the best students from all over Ukraine.

My Ukrainian language teacher was Alla Lukiv, now 62. She’s the one who prepared us for these competitions. She wanted us, the kids from the Russian-speaking Kherson region, to perform equally well in the Ukrainian-language competitions. And we did.

Recently, almost 20 years later, I visited her in a village outside Kyiv, where she rents an apartment. In July, she realized that she could no longer continue her life in Kherson under Russian occupation. Before the February invasion, she devoted herself to developing the Ukrainian language and culture, educating hundreds of young independent Ukrainians. Her prospects under Russian occupation would have been grim.

Now there she was, bringing me salt and pepper pots made of clay in the Ukrainian style. She was so happy that I finally got married.

She looked almost the same; her eyes still sparkled. She wanted to know all the details of the past 20 years.

She was the one who brought me to Kyiv for the first time. I remember how big the city seemed and how afraid I was to ride the crowded subway.

After I graduated from school, Lukiv told me, she got into a conflict with Tomilina and ended up leaving for a job elsewhere. Tomilina became the principal of our school for three years, until 2015. That same year she ran for mayor of Kherson, but her campaign failed miserably; she finished the race with a little more than 1 percent of the vote. After the campaign, she gained notoriety from a video aired on local TV in which she railed against secret “Pentagon laboratories” that she claimed existed in Kherson.

It turned out that she was talking about the regional center for disease control and prevention, whose laboratory received assistance from Western donors as well as almost every other state medical facility in Ukraine. In the years since, allegations about nefarious “secret NATO laboratories” have become a mainstay of Russian propaganda.

That claim was one she shared with pro-Russian activist Kirill Stremousov, who would later assume a top position in the city under the occupation. He worked as a deputy to Vladimir Saldo, a former Kherson mayor and a prominent member of pro-Russian parties, who was appointed as governor of the Kherson region by the occupation authorities. Saldo even went to Moscow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and sign the documents “annexing” Kherson at the end of September. (Stremousov was killed in a car collision last week as he was fleeing Kherson; Putin posthumously awarded him a medal.)

“People like me think that Russia is here for good, and Russia will protect us,” Tomilina said in an interview with Russian media in July. Now that Kherson has been returned to Ukrainian control, her fate remains uncertain.

Lukiv, for her part, is confident that she will return home and continue to teach Ukrainian after the occupation is over. She believes that the soft power of democracy has made us stronger and more resilient and that there is no way back to Russia for Ukraine anymore.

“After 40 years of teaching Ukrainian in Russian-speaking Kherson, I never expected that people would fight so hard for Ukraine,” she said. “This war has made people in Kherson identify with Ukraine more strongly than ever.”

I’ve never doubted that most people in Kherson are loyal to Kyiv. But there have been many collaborators — including spies and informers — as well. Identifying them and bringing them to account will be a big challenge now that the city is free.

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