The ‘gray wolf’ under Little Red Riding Hood’s cloak
The dangerous hunt for Russian collaborators in Ukraine.
Fearless reporting, a behind-the-curtains look at how journalism is made — and an unabashed point of view. Welcome to Chills.
We were sitting in a garden surrounded by perfectly formed roses. Shrapnel holes littered a rust-colored 6-foot-tall fence beyond them. Around the table were my fixer and his many cameras; myself and my endless equipment (camera, computer, notebook, computerized pen, audio recorder, phone…); and the residents of the house behind us, a Ukrainian Orthodox priest named Andriy Dudchenko and his wife, Polina.
We were in a small village called Ozera about an hour northwest of Kyiv, near Bucha and Irpin, both of which had been the sites of Russian massacres toward the beginning of the Russian invasion at the end of February.
I’m thinking about the Dudchenkos today because The New Yorker just published a long-form look at Russian collaborators in Ukraine. It was at that wood-block garden table when I first heard about possible collaborators, ones who were believed to be active in that very village.
Don’t get me wrong — I’d already made the assumption that there had to be Ukrainians working with the Russians in Ukraine, but I’d been so busy working on other stories and trying to avoid being killed by missiles that I never fully pursued the issue. In any war, there are collaborators, spies. In this one, there are complex historical and emotional realities involving Ukrainians who speak Russian, and/or side with Putin, or were forcibly made “Russian Russians,” particularly in the border areas, where Russia has tried over and over to annex territories — as it did in the 2014 Crimean war, when all Crimeans were made Russian citizens.
Before I even went to Ukraine last summer, a human rights expert told me: “We’re hearing a lot about collaborators, saboteurs, being arrested.”
“But,” she wondered, “are they really?” — as in are they really “collaborators”? She wasn’t entirely convinced that the Ukrainians ratting out their neighbors truly empathize with the invaders, something Joshua Yaffa, the author of the New Yorker story writes extensively about in his piece: neighbors reporting on neighbors over petty grievances as though it were East Germany and they were Stasi informants.
“If you want to settle the score with your neighbor, there is your opportunity,” my source said.
One man’s conviction
In his article, Yaffa defines “collaboration” through how it is written into the Ukrainian criminal code. A prosecutor who works with the country’s security service, Andriy Kravchenko, told him: “In general, collaboration is defined as any purposeful act that harms the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our state.”
As we sat in that garden north of Kyiv, I learned that there may have been a “purposeful act” that ended in the torture and murder of a Ukrainian man who had been informing on Russian positions to his government.
One of the priest’s neighbors, an unsmiling man named Ivan Boiko, crossed the street to join us in the garden. He wanted to tell us about his close friend, Andriy Voznenko, 42, who had been found dead after being tortured. As he relayed the nightmarish story, small drops began to fall from the sky, which had quietly turned into a gray blanket.
Voznenko’s prewar job had been as a truck driver for Boiko’s wife’s company. After the village of about 800 people was occupied in February, he then used that truck to deliver food to his neighbors. But, that wasn’t all he did. He was also giving information to the government about Russian positions he saw as he traversed the region.
On March 18, Voznenko went to a friend’s house to shower and shave, both of which were hard to do during the occupation because of disruptions to the water supply and a scarcity of items like shaving cream. The fact that Voznenko had shaved that day helped his friend figure out what happened to him next.
Voznenko went missing on March 20 or 21, a date determined by the length of his beard when he was found dead a few weeks after that. Witnesses had watched as Russian soldiers tied him up and put a bag over his head before driving him away, forever. Boiko had been looking for him all that time, and only located him when a priest in a nearby town, Zdvyzhivka, contacted a priest in Ozera to say that Voznenko’s body was in their local morgue.
Boiko’s friend had been found in the backyard of a house in Zdvyzhivka with four other bodies, all wrapped in sheets, all with signs of torture.
There was no doubt about it, Boiko said. The only way his friend had been caught by the Russians was if a local collaborator had informed on him.
“How else would they know what he was doing?” Boiko wondered.
I heard a lot of rumors about Russian lists of names while I was in Ukraine. Lists of former military personnel, activists, people who’d spoken to journalists, former soldiers, etc. These lists, sources told me, could only be generated by Ukrainians who actually knew, for instance, that another Ukrainian had been in the military years ago.
Among the equipment scattered on our table as we talked about what had happened to Voznenko was a severely outdated map left by the Russians in the Dudchenkos’ house. It served as further proof in Boiko’s mind that his friend had been betrayed by a Russian collaborator.
“If [Russian soldiers] are coming here with maps from 1985,” he asked, “how can they know who is who among the local people?”
Boiko was sure his friend was betrayed by a neighbor, although he didn’t want to discuss who or why. He did, however, underscore that the person who’d likely conveyed the information to the Russians was hiding in plain sight.
“Under Little Red Riding Hood’s cloak was a gray wolf,” he said.
Using found evidence to track collaborators
Among the many pages of found Russian documents Ukrainian sources passed to me while I was in the country was an evacuation map to Belarus that shows latitude and longitude points for various stops through Ukraine and across the border.
Interestingly, the route starts about 25 miles southwest of Kyiv, at the Vasylkiv airbase, which likely indicates the map was drawn pre-invasion — considering that Russian soldiers never took the base, although they did try to bomb it into oblivion.
“This is an optimistic map,” Pierre Vaux, an investigator at the Center for Information Resilience in London, decided. “Wishful thinking.”
Together with Vaux, I chose to tackle the map first by lining up the marked coordinates with overlays from Google maps, satellite images and internal databases. It’s also conceivable, Vaux said, to use synthetic-aperture radar, a form of radar that creates 2- or 3-D reconstructions of landscapes, regardless of cloud cover.
Through satellite imagery, it may be possible to see whether the Russians did any pre-planning at any of the sites, even in the days before the invasion. An unnamed Ukrainian official told The New York Times in April that there had been, in fact, Russian sleeper cells in Vasylkiv waiting for the Russians to overrun the airbase.
But this map I was given is terribly made, with coordinates next to town names that don’t match up. Not to mention that one of the final plotted points, near the Belarussian border, is in a forest that appears to be within the irradiated Chernobyl exclusion zone (close to Pripyat). Probably not a great choice of location to treat injured soldiers, just saying.
“It’s really like the back-of-a packet-of-cigarettes kind of map,” Vaux said. “A back-of-an envelope job.”
The main reason we decided to study this janky map though was because I was interested in what houses, churches or other buildings we might find at each stopping point. Since the marked rest stops wind through Ukrainian territory, it seems entirely possible to pinpoint collaborators who were meant to welcome the tired, retreating soldiers. The map’s coordinates can be overlaid with buildings in an attempt to potentially locate where the Russians may have received help from collaborators. Satellite imagery also can be used to see whether they laid down any infrastructure in these places.
It also may be possible to see whether the Russians did any pre-planning at any of the sites, even in the days before the invasion. Consider that we already know there were sleeper cells in Vasylkiv and it becomes pretty plausible.
While Vaux and I plan to continue to examine this map and a number of other found documents sources gave me, we can already see that the map is yet another instance in which Russian bumbling has managed to put their soldiers in harm’s way without much thought.
Overall, Vaux told me, “It shows how crappy their planning was.”
Chills is self-funded, without ads. If you want to be a part of this effort, of revealing how difficult reporting is made — of sending me to places like Ukraine to report for you — I hope you will consider subscribing for $50/year or $7/month.
When you can’t trust your neighbors … we are reliving the Nazi era in almost every way.