АвторAuthor: Vera Korolchenko | Translation: Valentina Mykhaylova
10 October 2022
Immediately after the beginning of the war, Kherson journalist Kostyantyn Ryzhenko began working for the local guerrilla movement. During six months of occupation his life was repeatedly threatened. To leave the city, Kostyantyn had to completely change his appearance and get fake documents. Ryzhenko told the project “Monologues of War” about the occupation, the partisan movement and collaborators.
Before the war, I was engaged in anti-corruption investigations. I had my own publication in Kherson — Newscity.in.ua. We wrote political analyses, exposed corruption schemes regarding budget expenditures. I was well known in the city. Due to the fact that I was engaged in investigations, I used to live in a semi-military mode: on average, I changed my apartment every six months, and had a number of reinsurance passwords. I always had an “alarm” backpack packed, because you could never say for sure what would hit the head of the person involved in your investigation, and whether he would decide to hit you on the head. But despite all this, I had no understanding that the war would soon begin. Military topics have never been my profile — I concentrated on local politics.
And yet, on the night of February 24, I suspected something was wrong. A few hours before the start of the full-scale Russian invasion, I was monitoring a cyberattack site and noticed that there was a large-scale attack from Russia and China on the servers of Ukraine and the EU. It seemed to me that this attack had no logic, but I did not know then that it was a war.
I have Chornobaivka almost next to my house: if you draw a straight line from my window, it will go straight to this airfield. Early in the morning of February 24, I woke up to the fact that Russian missiles had arrived there. I immediately announced mobilization in the family, and I went to the city to explore: I was on Antonivskyi bridge, in the Regional State Administration, in the mayor’s office. The regional authorities left the city within five hours after the invasion began. Already at one o’clock in the afternoon there was no one in the building of the regional council. I met the military and found out from them what was happening. At home, I told them that most likely we would have to fight for the city, but my family stayed with me for a long time. I took them out when Kherson was under occupation and it became clear that it was dangerous to stay in the city.
I was not going to go anywhere by myself. I considered it my duty to stay in the city, first of all, because I am a journalist, and journalists write a draft of history and it is important that the information they transmit should be clean and not distorted. And secondly, I could help Kherson residents a lot while being inside the city.
Almost immediately after the war started, the city ran out of medicines, especially thyroxine for people with thyroid problems. We organized a volunteer headquarters and tried to help people with medicines and food. It was cosmically difficult to deliver medicines to the city. The first batch of pills was brought by local “hunters” literally on their backs, and the (Security Service of Ukraine) SSU officers drove a whole car of medicines to Kherson through some fields. We had a new route for each batch. For some time we worked like that, in emergency mode. It was difficult for me to drop out of the process even for a few hours.
People came to us and received two pills of thyroxine, but they had to drink that much every day. They divided these pills into several parts, just not to die.
Later, the medicines were allowed to pass through the checkpoints, but this also proved to be dangerous. Many people were injured, detained, killed — all in an attempt to break through this “road of life” and deliver medicines to the city. For some time we were like in the besieged Leningrad.
Since March 1, we have been occupied. I immediately started collecting a lot of information for the military, and then, when we started working with the partisans, I collected information for the resistance.
The resistance movement in Kherson was formed by itself. We met with friends, discussed a number of issues and created “sleeper” groups of partisans. Soon other people joined us. We arranged tough checks for them, we bled them, to put it bluntly. They completed a number of tasks, confirmed their intentions, and we took them to the resistance.
Many people became active. Some were activists even before the war, some were not. In the first days, when the Russians were just entering the city, some guys offered to throw a train off the rails so that it would lie across the tracks and prevent the enemy from throwing equipment. Other Kherson residents drained fuel from the tanks. We destroyed everything that could be destroyed, tracked down collaborators, shot, harassed, blew up, and arranged explosions.
The partisan network was scattered in different parts of the city. We had our own passwords, symbols. For example, we used to mark an apartment with certain marks if it was covered. The most important rule of the guerrillas was that we should intersect with each other as little as possible in reality. We communicated with the resistance through secure messengers.
We tracked down the collaborators, and I can say that the politicians who agreed to cooperate with the occupiers were most likely in debt to the FSB. Some of them had been receiving money from Russia for a long time: they took a conditional thousand dollars, and then methodically told about the “steadfastness”, and did not even really understand the meaning of what they were saying. They did not expect that there would be an offensive and war, and the “Russian world” came and forced them to do something. I call it a contract with the Devil. FSB is like a devil on the left shoulder, which is constantly there and offers: “Want some help, huh?” Someone was once bailed out of a bribe, someone – from an accident, someone was helped to take a position or job.
The FSB had a wide sphere of influence in our city, and in general, they penetrated deeply enough into various processes in the country to trade influence. In many moments, the FSB tried very hard to make corruption flourish in Ukraine, because corruption decomposes society and weakens the defense capability of the state.
But it should be understood that there are “professional” defenders of the Russian world, who are initially “solid”, with a clear spirit of the “Russian world”, and there are urban madmen — people who could not realize themselves in life before the war. We have one collaborator — a pagan, he fucks the ground in spring for fertility. These are people of this kind. They can be easily distinguished: if they talk about biological laboratories, the hand of the West, a chip in the forehead, the number of the beast, vaccination to reduce the population, then most likely they are potential collaborators. They are not even so much traitors as mentally ill people. They wanted some kind of recognition from society, but it could not be under any circumstances, and then the Russians came and finally asked what they wanted.
In the first days of the occupation, the Russian military had an order not to interact with ordinary citizens. When there were rallies and people climbed on the equipment, the soldiers left the city. It seemed to us that we had won and proved that we should not be released. But then the Rosgvardia SOBR came to Kherson — these are security forces who work directly with the population. And then the repressions started.
In Kherson, everyone knew where the torture rooms were in the basements. There they extracted information about partisans, the Armed Forces and the SBU from people. Sometimes they tortured just to make others afraid, without a purpose. Some were shot demonstratively.
At that time, I had already done several executions. Many of my friends were killed, many were taken away. Some guerrillas I worked with were also shot. It was a lottery, Russian roulette.
Many people in the city knew me by sight, and this popularity often interfered. I had to disguise myself, walk in back alleys and not live at my address.
Of course, I was afraid that they would find me. But it was scary in any case, even if you were a partisan or not. Being a Ukrainian under occupation was scary in principle: you could be taken to the basement because of the Ukrainian flag on your phone’s screensaver or because of the Ukrainian music in your player.
I managed to escape from the Russian security forces at the last moment. I was very lucky — I was warned in time. At first, the security forces came to the wrong address where I was. I had just moved out of the address they came to a couple of days before. We missed each other.
The security forces took my brother away, but since we don’t communicate with him much, he was quickly released without any severe consequences.
At some point, the guys from the resistance began to convince me that I had to leave the occupation. Many people in the city recognized me, and there were fears that I could expose the entire network of guerrillas. I refused to leave, resisted to the last. But the guys raised the issue very harshly. They told me: “We will do something to you now, and you will go in a coma under the legend that you need treatment”.
When I realized that I would have to leave the city, I contacted several people who I thought would be able to help me make fake documents. And it turned out that most of these people made documents for me. As a spy, I had four passports at once. There were drawn passports, stolen and semi-legal documents. I moved around the city with them.
From the moment I received the documents, I deliberately forced all my friends to call me by my new name, so that I had a reflex to this name. I learned my new date of birth, even my horoscope sign and element. I even learned the legend of my father’s and grandfather’s names. Because if you have passed the test and you are suddenly asked your father’s name and patronymic and grandfather’s name and patronymic, you can lose control.
I also had four prepared phones with digital identities that matched each passport. A digital identity is everything you are online: your accounts, your searches, your music, the professional publics you subscribe to. When you take a person’s phone, looking through it, you can understand who this person is and what they do. Therefore, on each phone I set certain search queries and behaved on the Internet as the person whose name I introduced myself as would behave. For people under occupation, I wrote whole instructions on creating digital identities.
I fully understood that at the checkpoint I could be recognized, taken to the basement or shot. Before leaving, I recorded a video message where I told how to bury me and how to mark my death. There was a whole program of events just in case.
My departure was postponed several times, so we joked a lot in the resistance about what would happen if I was taken. It was such a black humor, and where there was no occupation and war, it would not be understood. But this humor saved us. We knew that something could happen to each of us, so we modeled it and talked about it. I do not know how morally prepared we were for it, but we had a clear understanding that anything can happen. I left with the attitude: either I will die or we will laugh later.
At the beginning of the war, a professional make-up artist contacted me and wrote: “Kostiantyn, you are in danger. I will help you change your appearance”. But we still believed that in two or three weeks there would be a counteroffensive, so this offer sounded wild to me then. I said: “Well, when the time comes, I will contact you”. And then I had to write: “Congratulations! I thought you said you could help? I am ready”.
For the trip, I completely changed my appearance: repainted my hair, even put on colored lenses. The most difficult thing was to cover the tattoo properly and not to let it float. I had to experiment a bit in Kherson: for some time I was wearing makeup as a “twink”.
The masquerade helped a lot at the checkpoints. I completely resembled the person I introduced myself as. According to the legend, I was an IT specialist and basically everything in the city suited me, and I needed to leave to fix the computer. The occupiers usually treat apolitical people by profession who are not suitable for war normally. I left with a disassembled laptop and said that my video card was burned out, and it was impossible to check it without technical intervention. I was ordered to show the things, and I had a bag with a bunch of incomprehensible parts. I asked: “Guys, please, do not spill the bolts, I will not assemble them later. I’d rather show you everything myself”. The occupiers saw that I was a nerd with a motherboard and did not even check the bag.
When I was on the territory controlled by Ukraine, I was not euphoric. I was coming here and thought that people were running around, literally serving ammunition to the military, but I saw people sitting in a cafe, drinking wine, the air raid started, and they were like: “It’s kind of stuffy in here”. And I think: What is going on here? Get ready quickly, there are people in torture chambers. What are you doing?” I began to cheer up the people on this side of the front, because many things need to be done for the occupied territories, and they are not being done yet.
People who have not lived through the occupation will never understand this. It takes a cosmic level of empathy to feel what people are feeling there. Being under occupation is like trying to survive in a submarine that sank. Imagine that you are in the part of it where there is still some air. You can’t get out of there, you can’t call for help, you can’t move, you just have to breathe and wait. And you do not know whether this boat will sink at some point, or one day you will be found and rescued. You just exist with the thought that maybe you will be lucky and survive. This is how people feel under occupation.
I left Kherson, but for me neither the war nor the occupation ended, just the range of my tasks and opportunities became a little wider. I just have the opportunity to act more effectively in the war.
Чому важливо поширити цю історію?
Якщо українці не розповідатимуть свій погляд на війну в Україні, світ поступово забуватиме про нас. Натомість цим обов’язково скористаються росіяни. Тому не даймо їм жодного шансу.
Why is it important to share this story?
If Ukrainians do not share their views on the war in Ukraine, the world will gradually forget about us. Instead, the Russians will definitely take advantage of this. So let's not give them a chance.
АвторAuthor: Vera Korolchenko | Translation: Valentina Mykhaylova