A Ukrainian City Under a Violent New Regime
Source: The Newyorker
By Joshua Yaffa
Published May 16, 2022
How the Russian occupation transformed life in Melitopol.
Ivan Fedorov, Melitopol’s mayor, was abducted by Russian forces and became a symbol of courage in the face of invasion.Photographs by Jérôme Sessini / Magnum for The New Yorker
It was still dark on the morning of February 24th when Ivan Fedorov, the mayor of Melitopol, a midsize city in southern Ukraine, awoke to the sound of explosions. He thought it was a thunderstorm and went back to sleep. “I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that in the twenty-first century some sick mind would think to start firing missiles in the center of Europe,” he said. A duty officer called, waking him again, and told him the city was being bombed.
The attack was directed at a military base for the Ukrainian Air Force’s 25th Transport Aviation Brigade. In recent years, the unit’s aircraft have flown in support of a U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and to deliver fuel to a Danish-run scientific station in Greenland. Russia wanted to seize the base and fly in personnel and equipment for its ground campaign. Cruise missiles crippled the control tower and a fuelling station. Ukrainian pilots scrambled to get their planes airborne before they could be destroyed. Within minutes, an aviation technician was killed as a blast hit the IL-76 transport plane he was preparing for takeoff.
At daybreak, a hundred or so men went to the local branch of the Territorial Defense Forces, a volunteer military corps, to join up. A Ukrainian commander took out his pistol and laid it on the table. “This is the only weaponry we have,” he said, and sent the volunteers home. That afternoon, the 25th Brigade was ordered to pull out of Melitopol entirely, a tactical retreat. “It was painful,” Marina Rodina, one of the unit’s medics, told me. “We knew the city was counting on us.” But the brigade’s mission is transport logistics; the five hundred or so airmen at the base had no heavy weaponry, just Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades. Rodina and the others could only hope that, if Ukrainian forces evacuated, Melitopol would be spared further assault.
Fedorov, who had gone to his office at city hall, was informed about the pullout by phone. “Imagine the situation,” he told me. “I’m a mayor of a city with a hundred and fifty thousand people, three hundred thousand if we include the surrounding region. It’s four in the afternoon and already getting dark. Russian tanks are at the entrance to town and all I have are five garbage trucks, three tractor trailers, and, I don’t know, a metal shovel. That’s it. There’s not a single armed person left.”
The next morning, Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers were in the streets. Soldiers seized city hall, the regional administration building, and the headquarters of the Ukrainian security service, the S.B.U. “Russian units were on the march and, without encountering any resistance, entered Melitopol,” the Russian Defense Ministry declared. The troops posted flyers around town, which included a message from Vladimir Putin to the citizens of Ukraine: “Today’s events relate not to the desire to curtail the interests of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people but to the defense of Russia itself from those who have taken Ukraine hostage and are using it against our country and its people. I call for your coöperation so that we can quickly turn this tragic page and move forward together.”
Russian troops also distributed leaflets with instructions on how locals should behave during the “special military operation.” Ukrainians were told to keep away from Russian soldiers and their armored vehicles, to give them the right of way on the street, and to remain unarmed. To avoid “propaganda and disinformation from Kyiv,” the leaflets said, Melitopol’s residents should tune in to Russian state television, and to the Telegram channel of one of Moscow’s most famous and bombastic propagandists, Vladimir Solovyov. People driving around town discovered that the local radio airwaves had been taken over by Russian broadcasts, including one that aired a speech by Putin over and over.
Melitopol is an agricultural center, known for its honey and deep-red cherries, and its population is largely Russian-speaking. But in recent years, Fedorov told me, as the city attracted funding from the European Union and unveiled a series of urban-renewal projects—a new ice rink and public swimming pool, a state-of-the-art infectious-disease clinic—its identity had become less and less tied to Russia, let alone to the long decades of Soviet rule. Fedorov himself, a triathlete with a boyish smirk, close-cropped brown hair, and jutting ears, embodied a new generation of democratic leaders in Ukraine. He won a seat on Melitopol’s city council in his early twenties; in 2020, at the age of thirty-two, he was elected mayor. “People stopped living in the past and started to believe in the future,” he said.
Now Russia had occupied the city. A little more than a hundred miles away, Russian forces were pummelling Mariupol, destroying whole residential districts; in Melitopol, the offensive was nowhere near as savage but still all-encompassing. The city was effectively blockaded: there were no shipments of food or medicine, except from areas already under Russian control, and no cash for A.T.M.s. Russian soldiers were everywhere, patrolling the streets and questioning people at random. One afternoon, Serhii Pryima, the head of Melitopol’s district council, was driving near the outskirts of the city when he was stopped at a checkpoint. Pryima asked one of the Russian soldiers, who looked no older than twenty, what he was doing there. “We’ve come to liberate you,” the soldier replied. “From whom?” Pryima asked. The soldier had no answer.
After the Russian Army invaded, Fedorov set up temporary headquarters in the Soviet-era House of Culture, on Melitopol’s main square. The occupation had put him in an odd position. Russian troops controlled the city, but he was still mayor. Initially, they told Fedorov that he’d be left alone to run city business. He was summoned at gunpoint to a meeting with a group of senior Russian officials. He told them, “You won’t be here for long.” One replied, “We’re here forever.” Another said, “You carry out your functions, we’ll carry out ours.”
Fedorov began recording daily video addresses for his constituents, rattling off locations where they could find groceries and access cash. When city buses stopped running, he called on residents to give rides to medical workers. Much like the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, who, in the early days of the Russian assault, rallied people across the country with defiant videos posted to social media, Fedorov tried to project an upbeat spirit. On March 1st, he filmed himself at a social-services center that offered free food and clothes to people in need. “Melitopol did not surrender,” he said. “Melitopol is temporarily occupied.”
When Putin set out to invade Ukraine, he expected an easy victory. Many experts predicted that, within a week, his fearsome army would overcome all resistance; arrest or, if necessary, assassinate Zelensky; and establish a pro-Russian puppet regime in Kyiv. Instead, with the help of Western arms and intelligence, the Ukrainian military fought back and inflicted heavy losses on Russia.
And yet the Russian military has made advances in the Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, and, with its naval superiority, threatens to form what amounts to a land bridge to Crimea, which the Kremlin annexed in 2014. It has also occupied a number of cities and towns in the southeast, Melitopol among them. In Berdyansk, on the Sea of Azov, Russian troops took control of the port and began docking their own naval vessels. During a short but fraught battle in Enerhodar, missile and rocket fire came perilously close to the city’s nuclear power plant, the largest such facility in Europe; after Russia captured the city, the plant’s managers were informed that they now worked for Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear-power company. Kherson fell on March 2nd, the first major city to be seized, with a population of two hundred and eighty thousand. Andrey Turchak, the head of the main pro-Putin party in Russia’s parliament, recently visited Kherson, where he declared, “Russia is here forever. There should be no doubt about this.”
The cities of southeastern Ukraine, by dint of geography and history, tend to be overwhelmingly Russian-speaking. But their vulnerability had little to do with cultural ties. The proximity to Crimea meant that Russia could efficiently transport armor and equipment into the region, with few of the logistical barriers it faced in the north. And the landscape, which is dominated by steppe, made it harder for Ukrainians to mount the kind of ambushes that so mangled Russian forces around Kyiv. In Kherson as in Melitopol, Ukrainian commanders retreated rather than risk losing units with little chance of victory.
“If Russian troops had come to Melitopol in 2014, they would indeed have been welcomed with bread and salt,” Fedorov told me, using a Russian expression that means to be greeted with hospitality. Putin’s acts of aggression since then have changed public attitudes. Melitopol was once a hub for visitors headed to Crimea, but that connection was all but severed following Russia’s annexation of the peninsula. The war in the Donbas, where Russia stoked a separatist conflict for eight years, further soured residents’ feelings toward their neighbor. “We didn’t want to see Melitopol become a banana republic,” Vlad Pryima, Serhii’s twenty-two-year-old son, who works in I.T., said. “And it became clear that’s what one should expect under Russian rule.”
The first mass protest against the Russian takeover of Melitopol was held on March 2nd. Several hundred people gathered in Victory Square, in the center of the city, chanting “Melitopol is Ukraine!” At first, Russian troops “seemed confused, as if they hadn’t been expecting such a situation,” Evhen Pokoptsev, a Melitopol resident who participated in the protest, told me. But, as protesters marched on the S.B.U. headquarters, soldiers positioned inside fired warning shots. One protester was struck in the leg. The following day, Russian armored vehicles drove along Melitopol’s central avenues with loudspeakers blaring, “The military-civilian administration of Melitopol, in order to prevent law-breaking and to insure public order, temporarily prohibits rallies and demonstrations.” A curfew was declared from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
The protesters were undeterred. They gathered every day at noon to march around the city, singing the Ukrainian anthem and calling on the invaders to leave. Russian soldiers responded by firing off smoke grenades and chasing people through the streets. Pokoptsev told me of a day when, amid the chaos, Russian soldiers grabbed a dozen protesters from the crowd, then drove them fifteen miles out of town and left them in an open field. “The goal was to maximally frighten people,” Pokoptsev said.
Fedorov was heartened by the protests but worried for the well-being of those who took part. “I know perfectly well how the Russian Federation reacts to protests and those who attend them,” he told me. In one of his video addresses, Fedorov appealed to the city’s residents to remain peaceful and not confront the soldiers. “Our task is to save your life,” he said.
Every few days, Russian officials came to Fedorov’s office to demand that he stop the demonstrations. It was a case of projection: protests in Russia are either nonexistent or imagined to be the work of outside forces. But in the modern political culture of Ukraine, Fedorov said, demonstrations are “part of our DNA.” If a person doesn’t like her President, or her mayor, for that matter, she takes to the streets and says so. “They couldn’t believe that I wasn’t organizing these protests and paying for them,” Fedorov told me. “They said, ‘Stop the protests!’ And I answered, ‘I can’t.’ ”
On the afternoon of March 11th, two weeks into the occupation, Fedorov was sitting at his desk in the House of Culture when a dozen Russian soldiers carrying Kalashnikovs, their faces covered by balaclavas, burst into his office. They tied his hands behind his back and put a black bag over his head. He was told that a criminal case had been opened against him in the Luhansk People’s Republic, a Russian-backed territory in the Donbas. He was accused of financing Right Sector, a nationalist faction that often serves as a bogeyman in Russian propaganda—the “Nazis” of Kremlin legend.
“Are you joking?” Fedorov asked.
“We’re not joking,” one of the soldiers told him. They dragged Fedorov outside and into a waiting van.
As they sped through town, Fedorov kept track of how many turns they made, and when. “I know the city well,” he said. Even with his eyes covered, he guessed that he’d been brought to police headquarters, which Russian forces had taken over on the first day of the occupation. When the soldiers removed the bag from his head, he found himself alone in a jail cell. “Ten steps in one direction, four in the other,” he recalled.
The next day, the local Russian military command named an interim mayor, a city-council deputy named Galina Danilchenko. Danilchenko had been a close aide to a local pro-Russian politician named Evgeny Balitsky, who was famous for wearing a Soviet military uniform around town. (In May, Russian authorities made Balitsky the region’s governor.) Danilchenko recorded a video address for the residents of Melitopol. “Our main task now is to adapt all mechanisms to the new reality so that we can begin to live in a new way as soon as possible,” she said. In an oblique reference to the protests, she added, “Despite all our efforts, there are still people in the town who try to destabilize the situation. I urge you, please, be sensible and do not fall for these provocations.”
Few listened. Later that day, more than a thousand people gathered in front of the regional administration building, chanting “Freedom to the mayor!” By then, the Russian troops in town had been joined by a contingent from the riot police and the state security service, the F.S.B. One guard confided to Fedorov, “After every single protest, we get it upside the head from Moscow.” As Fedorov explained, “In their picture of the world, if there are rallies, they should be in support of Russia.”
Two days after Fedorov was imprisoned, eight armed Russian soldiers came to the home of Serhii Pryima and accused him of organizing the protest. Pryima had been expecting such a visit, telling his family, “They’ll probably come for me, too.” The soldiers searched the apartment. They told him to gather a change of clothes, his personal documents, and his cell phone, which they promptly confiscated. Then they tied his hands behind his back, put a bag over his head, and drove him away in a military van.
For more than a month, Pryima’s wife, Natalia, visited the police station, city hall, the regional administration building—anywhere that had been taken over by Russian forces—in search of her husband. “Write a missing-persons claim,” she was told. She did so, many times, but got no reply. After a week, one of the Russian soldiers in the mayor’s office told her to give up writing her appeals. “We’re sick of reading them,” he said.
Natalia was eventually granted an audience with the newly appointed Russian military commandant of Melitopol. He introduced himself as Saigon, a nom de guerre, and told Natalia that his troops had nothing to do with her husband’s disappearance. “This is a matter for those higher up,” he said.
Natalia also reached out to her husband’s former deputy in the district council, Andrei Siguta, who had switched sides and was now working with the occupying administration. In fact, he had taken Pryima’s job as head of the council; Pryima’s son, Vlad, called Siguta a “pure collaborator.” Siguta came to the courtyard of the family’s apartment building to meet with Natalia. He began by saying that he had tried to warn Pryima, telling him that he needed to have a “not so aggressive” attitude toward the Russian forces in town. “I made the right choices, and look, everything is fine with me,” he said. “But Serhii did not make the right choices, and now he’s in a cellar.” Siguta could offer only a vague assertion: “The decision about when and how to release him has not yet been made.”
Back at the police station, Fedorov endured long interrogation sessions. His captors pushed him to resign and transfer his authority to Danilchenko. Fedorov took the opportunity to ask what they were doing in his city. They had three explanations, he remembers: to defend the Russian language, to protect Ukrainians from Nazis, and to stop authorities from mistreating veterans of the Second World War. “It was all funny and absurd,” Fedorov said. He told the soldiers guarding him that ninety-five per cent of Melitopol’s residents speak Russian; that he has lived in the city all his life and has never seen a Nazi; and that, by his count, thirty-four veterans live in Melitopol, and he knows just about all of them personally, has their numbers saved in his phone, and tries to visit them often. But his captors seemed to take their imagined picture of an anti-Russian, fascist-ruled Ukraine seriously. “They repeated it like a mantra, over and over, as if they were zombies,” Fedorov told me.
An air of menace, even violence, was never far away. At night, Fedorov could hear the screams of people being tortured. The Russian soldiers said that they were Ukrainian saboteurs who had been captured in the city after curfew. At one point, Fedorov listened as a man in an adjoining cell shouted in agony; it sounded as if someone was breaking his fingers. “This was happening one metre away,” Fedorov said. “What would stop them from coming to my cell and doing the same thing?”
But after a couple of days the tenor of his interrogations changed. Among Ukrainians, Fedorov had become a symbol of oppression and resistance, an example of courage in the face of invasion. In a video address, Zelensky declared, “The seizure of the mayor of Melitopol is a crime not only against a specific person and not only against a particular city and not only against Ukraine. It’s a crime against democracy as such.” Fedorov sensed that his captors were aware of the uproar: now, instead of pressuring or threatening him, they asked about practical matters of administering the city. “They realized they had created a problem for themselves that they wanted to get rid of,” he told me.
On the evening of March 16th, as darkness was settling over Melitopol, Russian soldiers came to Fedorov’s cell. He was being freed in a prisoner exchange. A soldier put a bag over his head and led him to a waiting jeep. He was driven to the village of Kamianske, near the front line where Russian and Ukrainian forces were battling for control of the Zaporizhzhia region, and let out of the jeep. An officer from the S.B.U. stepped forward to identify him. As Fedorov was led back to Ukrainian-held territory, nine Russian prisoners of war walked in the other direction—the price the Zelensky administration had agreed to pay for Fedorov’s freedom.
Kidnappings have become a hallmark of the invasion. In Melitopol alone, at least three hundred people have been detained by Russian forces. “The aim is to extract a certain benefit from this person while frightening the local population, to send the message that ‘We are the power now, we decide all questions,’ ” Olena Zhuk, the head of Zaporizhzhia’s regional council, said. Zhuk has tried to keep track of those who are kidnapped or go missing, but she is certain the Ukrainian authorities are aware of only a fraction of such cases. “We didn’t understand what was going on in Bucha until Russian forces left,” she said, referring to the suburb of Kyiv where, in the wake of Russia’s withdrawal, in early April, evidence surfaced of torture, rape, and the summary execution of hundreds of people. “We will only know the real scale of atrocities and violence when we get our territory back.”
In Melitopol, the primary targets for arrests and kidnappings have been elected officials, activists, business owners—anyone seen as influential or capable of shaping local opinion. Pryima was eventually released, at the end of April, but others haven’t been as lucky. The owner of a grocery store, for instance, was arrested after handing out free food; the distribution of humanitarian aid was considered the prerogative of the Russian military. Soldiers seized his car and the keys to his store. A month and a half later, he remains missing.
The occupiers seem especially interested in local military-recruitment offices, where they have gathered the names of veterans who they fear might pose a threat. “All you have to do is find a janitor and order him or her at the barrel of a gun to unlock the room where the records are kept,” Zhuk said. In Melitopol, the records were even easier to access. A Ukrainian officer at the city’s recruitment office switched sides and gave the Russian soldiers lists with hundreds of names.
A local veteran of the war in the Donbas, who asked to be called Oleksa, told me that, after Melitopol was occupied, he felt certain that his military service would make him a target. “If southern Ukraine stays under their control,” he recalled thinking, “I won’t survive.” He hid at the homes of friends and relatives, until he could secure a ride out of town. But, as he was fleeing, the car was stopped at a checkpoint manned by troops from the Donetsk People’s Republic, another Russian-backed territory in the Donbas. They ordered him out of the car at gunpoint.
The soldiers marched him to their nearby base, where they slapped and kicked him, and fired a gun next to his ear. They brought him out to a field, handed him a shovel, and told him to dig a grave. Once he was several feet deep, a soldier shot him in the leg. Another soldier slammed him in the head with a rifle butt, knocking him to the ground in the pit he had dug. He briefly lost consciousness.
After he came to, he was brought to the former base of the 25th Brigade, in Melitopol. Russian soldiers there were carrying out a process known since the Chechen wars of the nineties as “filtration,” a dark euphemism for separating prisoners into categories, with varying degrees of violence applied to each. As Oleksa remembered, interrogators at the airbase were intent on sniffing out anyone they considered a Ukrainian nationalist. Prisoners from Ukrainian military units such as Azov, which has attracted fighters with far-right sympathies, were subjected to regular beatings and torture. Some were locked in a metal safe until they lost consciousness and had to be revived by Russian Army doctors. Oleksa got off relatively lightly: a Russian officer told his soldiers that Oleksa’s head was already smashed in, and not to hit him too hard.
After about a week, Oleksa was driven east to a Soviet-era prison colony outside the city of Donetsk. He was held there with dozens of Ukrainian soldiers who had been captured during fighting; he also met a man who had been detained while driving to Mariupol to pick up family members trapped in the siege. His car had caught the attention of Russian forces, who arrested him and kept the car for themselves. Oleksa spent several days there before he was moved again, this time across the border into Russia, where he was deposited at a military jail in the Rostov region. This was perhaps the harshest stop of all, he said: “They beat us during interrogations. They beat us because we were standing the wrong way. They beat us for pleasure. They beat us just because.”
Oleksa’s captors broke his ribs and rendered his feet so bruised and swollen that they wouldn’t fit into his boots. His journey continued to a prison in Voronezh, a Russian city nearly four hundred miles away. There, he was given forms to fill out, with questions ranging from his political allegiances (“Nationalist/Patriotic/Indifferent”) to what he thought of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Finally, a Russian official showed him another document, which was dense and complicated but with a clear enough conclusion: a tribunal that Oleksa had never heard of had convicted him of war crimes and sentenced him to thirty years in prison.
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.”
Vladislav moved on to his main point: it was imperative that the school resume in-person classes. Shulyatyev said that this wasn’t possible—it wasn’t safe, and many families had left. Vladislav grew frustrated. “It doesn’t interest us what you want,” he said. “What matters is what we want.” Vladislav urged Shulyatyev to think about the proposal: “We will be waiting for you to inform us of your decision.” Shulyatyev, his wife, and their two children packed their things and left Melitopol.
The first destination for families fleeing southern Ukraine is the parking lot of a big-box store in the city of Zaporizhzhia, a regional capital eighty miles north of Melitopol.
Danilchenko appointed Elena Shapurova, the head of a local technical college, as Melitopol’s education chief. In late March, Shapurova assembled the city’s school principals for a meeting at the college. The educators who attended had conferred beforehand and decided to submit their resignations—none of them were willing to work with the city’s occupying authorities. From the building’s front steps, Shapurova implored them to resume classes and repeatedly motioned for them to come inside. The principals refused. Suddenly, Danilchenko appeared, trailed by men in masks carrying Kalashnikovs, and tried to herd the group inside the building.
“We just turned around and left,” one of the principals told me. This seemed to enrage Danilchenko. She chased after them and, as the principal remembered, yelled, “Then we’ll have you all sent the fuck out of town!”
The educators planned to meet the following day to decide how to respond. “We were in shock,” the principal said. But, the next morning, news went around: four of the principals had been taken from their apartments. One of them later told me that they were held in an unheated garage, where they could hear the sounds of a man being beaten through the walls. After two nights, they were driven twenty miles outside of town. “You refused to coöperate with us, so therefore you are punished,” a military officer told them. “You are deported from Melitopol and prohibited from returning.”
In the end, Danilchenko got her way, at least to a degree: Melitopol’s schools were officially reopened in April, but only a few of them have actually held any classes. Attendance levels have been paltry. Shulyatyev said he heard that around twenty students are coming to his school these days, compared with more than five hundred before the invasion. Meanwhile, Danilchenko has announced that “pseudo-historical books propagating nationalist ideas” would be removed from Melitopol’s central library, and only “books that tell the true version of history will appear on the shelves.” In a segment that aired on pro-Russian propaganda channels, Shapurova’s husband, a onetime powerlifter who had been appointed head of a grade school, held up a copy of “Ukraine Is Not Russia,” written by the former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, as an example of the kinds of books that should be banned.
By most estimates, nearly half of Melitopol’s population has left the city. “I understand those who are leaving perfectly well,” Fedorov told me. “We are used to living in a different city, with a different mentality, and a different set of freedoms and values. And they are trying to force new ones on us.”
For those who flee, the first destination is the city of Zaporizhzhia, a regional capital eighty miles north of Melitopol. Since the start of the war, an Epicenter—a Ukrainian big-box store specializing in home improvement and gardening supplies—has served as a one-stop welcome-and-processing center for those coming from occupied territories in the south. Volunteers hand out tea and snacks, medics help the sick and injured, and police roam among the new arrivals, looking for pro-Russian collaborators and saboteurs.
Leaving cities under Russian occupation has been a tricky affair. From Mariupol, where as many as ten thousand people have been killed, Russian forces guarantee safe passage in only one direction: to Russia. Those travelling to Ukrainian-held territory are forced to brave roads under constant shelling, with Russian troops frequently shooting in their direction. I saw a number of cars arrive at the Epicenter parking lot with shattered windshields and bullet holes strafing the sides. But even the route out of Melitopol passes through the front line, with tank shells and rocket fire occasionally striking cars. At each checkpoint, Russian soldiers make male passengers lift up their shirts, looking for nationalist tattoos and bruises from the recoil of a Kalashnikov.
While hanging around the Epicenter’s parking lot, I met the members of a convoy of buses and cars that had managed to depart Melitopol. Space on the buses was so limited that some people rode in the cargo holds of tractor trailers. Just about every car was stuffed with more people than it could sensibly fit; parents had held their children in their laps as they jostled along the road. Many drivers had taped handmade signs reading “children” to the windows.
Bogdan and Yulia Shapovalov, who made the drive with their two kids, were initially from Donetsk, but in 2014, after the Russian-backed militias took over, they fled to Melitopol. They came to like the city’s parks and schools, its European feel. “We didn’t want to leave, but it became hard to breathe,” Yulia told me. They were now planning to head to western Ukraine. “We’re ready to go back to Melitopol,” Yulia said. “But only if it’s part of Ukraine.”
Nearby, I came across two mothers and their teen-age daughters, drinking tea and having a bite to eat. I asked what made them decide to leave. “It’s like the nineties have returned,” Larisa, one of the mothers, said. Instead of driving to the supermarket, she hauled bags back from the open-air market. Lines were everywhere. She had adopted a nickname for the armored vehicles that Russian soldiers drove around town, often with a big letter “Z”—the symbol of the Russian invasion—painted on the side: zalupa mashiny, or “dickhead mobiles.” “We understood that it won’t be like this for one or two months, but for much longer,” Larisa said. For three days they had tried, unsuccessfully, to pass a checkpoint on the outskirts of Melitopol. Finally, on their fourth try, soldiers let them through.
Fedorov had also made his way to Zaporizhzhia. He set up an office at the headquarters of the regional administration, a concrete Soviet-era structure on the main square. Inside, I found him in a vast ministerial office, plain and bureaucratic, with a Ukrainian flag standing in a corner. He hadn’t done much to make the space his own; he was only going to be there a short time, he insisted. “Our next interview will be in Melitopol—Ukrainian Melitopol,” he said, a mantra that sounded not all that dissimilar to the traditional prayer from Passover Seder: “Next year in Jerusalem.”
In a way, Fedorov spends his days as he previously did. There are meetings with the water department, the gas company, local business leaders, concerned citizens—only now they take place by phone or videoconference. Hundreds of city employees still technically report to him; a number of municipal expenditures require his signature. And yet keeping up services in Melitopol, without aiding the occupation, he said, is a peculiar challenge: “We do everything we can so that our enemies don’t ever feel comfortable, but so that regular people, who aren’t guilty of anything, don’t suffer.”
Fedorov continues to record video addresses to the residents of Melitopol, sharing news of the city’s occupation and the wider war effort. The Ukrainian Army has managed to recapture some villages near occupied Kherson. In Melitopol, as many as a hundred Russian soldiers have been “liquidated” by partisan fighters, Fedorov claimed, citing the Ukrainian intelligence service. But, given the geography and the military realities of the region, it may be some time before a full-scale operation is mounted to retake the city.
Russian forces and their local proxies, meanwhile, have tried to entrench their hold on Melitopol. In advance of Victory Day, which commemorates the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany, Danilchenko announced, with great fanfare, that the Ukrainian flag on the main square would be replaced with a Soviet Red Army flag. Red Army stars appeared on buildings in the city center; a banner declaring “Glory to the Victors” went up on the city’s historic archway. The aim, Danilchenko said, was to undo Ukraine’s policy of “de-Communization,” in which, following the outbreak of fighting in the Donbas, Soviet emblems, monuments, and street names were removed from cities across the country. “The Nazi Ukrainian regime has sabotaged our ability to celebrate this holiday,” she said in a video address. “Everything that we loved and held dear—they have destroyed it. But we will restore it all again to how it was.”
On the morning of Victory Day, May 9th, Danilchenko, accompanied by a camera crew, brought a bouquet of white roses to the city’s memorial for the Second World War. During a brief speech, she told Melitopol’s residents, “I wish you joy, happiness, and a peaceful sky above your head.” Later that day, the city held an “Eternal Regiment” procession, in which hundreds of people marched with portraits of their relatives who fought in the war. Soviet flags in the crowd were interspersed with the Russian tricolor; many attendees wore an orange-and-black St. George’s ribbon, originally a symbol of the Soviet victory over Nazism, which, in recent years, has been co-opted as a talisman for Russian nationalism and militarism. That evening, residents were treated to a fireworks salute. Once again, the sound of explosions echoed across Melitopol’s dark sky.
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