Ukraine: The hunt for Russian collaborators and the case against an alleged disinformation journalist

Photo of Russian soldier in Kherson, Ukraine on May 9, 2022,from newspaper run by journalists accused of collaboration.
Click to play video: 'Ukraine’s hunt for Russian collaborators is deeply personal'
Ukraine’s hunt for Russian collaborators is deeply personal
Ukraine's hunt for Russian collaborators is deeply personal – Feb 16, 2023

KHERSON, Ukraine — To the Kherson journalist Olena Shelestenko, the Russian invasion brought a “peaceful life” to her southern Ukrainian city.

In the Kherson New Herald newspaper she operated with her husband, they were “heroes,” as opposed to the “fascist regime” of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

She wrote about the “Nazis of the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” and in line with official Russian spin, referred to the invasion as the SVO — or Special Military Operation.

But a score-settling is underway: Shelestenko is under investigation by a branch of the Kherson regional prosecutor’s office trying to bring to justice Ukrainians who sided with Russia during the eight-month occupation of the city.

The case against the pro-Russia journalist, accused of being part of the vast disinformation campaign supporting Moscow’s invasion, is among dozens that have been opened against suspected collaborationists.

Ukrainian prosecutor Oleksii Lehkyi, in front of a war-damaged building, is investigating a Kherson journalist accused of collaboration. Stewart Bell/Global News

“It’s a lot of cases,” said Oleksii Lehkyi, head of the team attempting to bring charges against Kherson government officials and others who allegedly cooperated with the Russians.

Those accused include a former Kherson mayor, Volodymyr Saldo, whom Moscow allegedly put into power during the occupation. He now faces a charge of treason, which carries a possible life sentence.


Prosecutors have also gone after those who took positions in the police, prisons and bureaucracy. Two residents were sentenced to five years on Monday for distributing ballots during the sham referendum Russia used to justify annexing Kherson.

Others helped implement Russia’s educational curriculum. Prosecutors said Wednesday they were investigating a school director who allegedly organized the introduction of Russian textbooks and persuaded staff to “cooperate with the occupiers.”

Prosecutors have accused Raisa Murshati of implementing Russia’s curriculum at School 51 in Kherson during the occupation of the city. Facebook

Kherson residents resisted when Russian troops invaded the city on March 2, 2022. Protesters waved Ukrainian flags at armoured columns and mounted partisan attacks. Mayor Ihor Kolykhayev’s refusal to cooperate with the city’s new rulers got him arrested.

“Kherson is a Russian-speaking city, but not pro-Russian,” said Kherson journalist Oksana Naumova. “And during the occupation people proved it. Ninety per cent of Russian-speaking people switched to Ukrainian.”

But some residents aligned themselves with President Vladimir Putin’s expansionism, and now find themselves facing possible charges under a Ukrainian law that specifically prohibits “information activities in cooperation with the aggressor state.”

The prosecutor said the Shelestenko investigation was one of the most important on his desk. In a war that Russia has buttressed with depictions of a Nazi Ukraine subservient to NATO, the case may be a rare chance to hold someone to account for spreading falsehoods.

Billboard at entrance to Kherson, Ukraine asks for information on collaborators, Jan. 20, 2023. Stewart Bell/Global News

Disinformation impacted “how people understand what’s happening around them. As a result of it, we have the reality of what we have around us,” Lehkyi said in an interview.

“Also, as you can see, it has physical results,” Lehkyi said, gesturing to the ruin behind him, which was once Mykolaiv’s gymnasium. “Destroyed buildings, losses of life.”

The Shelestenko investigation is still in the pre-trial investigation stage. A statement published on the website of the Kherson prosecutor’s office on Jan. 3 alleged she “cooperated with the enemy.”

“As a correspondent for one of the radical anti-Ukrainian Internet sites, it is suspected that she was spreading the narratives of Russian propaganda, and also she was justifying the Russian aggression against Ukraine,” it said.

Olena Shelestenko is under investigation for allegedly collaborating with the Russian occupation of Kherson. Facebook

Shelestenko declined to be interviewed, but in written statements she denied cooperating with or receiving money from the Russian occupation administration in Kherson.

“The Prosecutor’s Office of Ukraine does not bother to correspond with us,” she said. “We are not aware of any accusations, only information from third parties, the reliability of which is in doubt.”

The collaboration allegations stem from “the fact that we never supported Nazism,” rejected Ukrainian nationalism and favoured the Russian language, she wrote.

“We are not going to make excuses, we have stated our point of view on the pages of our publication,” she said.

“There is nothing invented from what was published in our publication, only facts.”

The collaborationist

Since Ukrainian troops retook Kherson on Nov. 11, investigators have found evidence of widespread Russian war crimes — torture, killings, sexual crimes, disappearances and extensive property damage.


More than 1,000 residents were imprisoned during the occupation, many for months in detention centres known as “basements,” according to officials. Ten suspected torture centres were uncovered.

More than 200 civilians were executed, another 400 died in shelling and 112 were killed by land mines, while about 500 are still missing, Ukrainian investigators said.

Andrii Kovalenko, Kherson regional war crimes prosecutor, at his office in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, Jan. 20, 2023. Stewart Bell/Global News

The chief prosecutor for the region, Andrii Kovalenko, said he began documenting the extent of these suspected war crimes long before Ukrainian forces pushed the Russians back across the Dnieper River.

But he said he did not realize how bad it was until the area was liberated and he was able to visit. The Russian troops were out of control, he said. As awful as it had seemed from afar, “in reality, it was more horrifying.”

Prosecutors have opened about 9,000 war crimes cases against Russian soldiers — but readers of Shelestenko and her newspaper were instead told that Ukraine was an “artificial” country, and Russia only wanted to free it from “fascists.”

As Putin was struggling to justify his faltering war, Shelestenko appeared in a Russian news outlet discussing the “fascist slogans” and “hatred of everything Russian” in Kherson before the invasion.

An article from her newspaper, posted on Shelestenko’s Facebook page, described grateful Kherson residents receiving food packages and medicine from the Russians.

“Finally!” it claimed a woman had told them. “I’m so glad you came!”

Gennady and Olena Shelestenko are both under investigation for allegedly collaborating with Russia. Facebook

A 42-year-old mother of five whose husband is also accused of collaboration, Shelestenko has written that she is a descendent of a Russian naval captain who built Kherson’s first street.

In an interview with Russian news outlet Ria Fan, she called herself “Russian by blood and Russian by spirit,” and said she had no time for Ukrainian nationalism. “Because I know the truth. I went to a Soviet school and (was) taught true history.”

She went on to lament the difficulties she said her family faced in Ukraine prior to the invasion. She claimed she was “ridiculed for being Russian” and “faced harassment in her city.” Ukrainians “threatened to throw acid on the children,” she claimed, and she “never received any benefits and material support from the Ukrainian authorities.”

The Russian troops, she wrote in her column for the Russian news outlet Kuban News, had provided the food, medicines and supplies the city lacked. “Firefighters and ambulances were brought in, even police cars were brought in. They opened all the hospitals and did everything there for free.”

“Many people lived a peaceful life that Russia established, all institutions, schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, banks, theatres, cafés, restaurants, shops, markets worked in the city,” she wrote.

Since losing Kherson city, Russian forces have pummelled it with deadly artillery fire, damaging residential buildings and hospitals. Stewart Bell/Global News

“The entire infrastructure was working,” she continued, “there was electricity, water, gas, they even managed to turn on the heating, the elevators were working. The city lived.… Repairs were made, abandoned buildings and premises were updated.”

Asked about her depiction of Kherson, she told Global News the Russian invasion was justified by international law, and those arrested were released. “The city was able to survive solely thanks to the help of Russians,” she maintained.


Kherson not pro-Russian, journalist says

Shelestenko launched Khersonsky Visnyk New with her husband Gennady after the local newspaper Khersonsky Visnyk closed, said a Kherson journalist who fled the city after it was taken over by Russian troops.

The free publication mirrored the old one in design, but was known for its “Russian narratives and propaganda,” Yevheniia Vinnych said in an interview in Kyiv.

“Using this kind of tool, they created disinformation,” Vinnych said. “It was the focus of their work. Basically, they created an image for the occupiers that Kherson was waiting for the Russians.”

Vinnych said she welcomed the investigation into Shelestenko, saying the image she created of Kherson was false. While there were pro-Russian elements in the city, they were a fringe.

Kherson journalist Oksana Naumova in Kyiv, Ukraine, Jan. 26, 2023. Stewart Bell/Global News

Fellow journalist Naumova said she crossed paths with Shelestenko at press conferences during the pandemic and noted she both was pro-Russian and flouted the city’s masking rules. “Also, it was very aggressive anti-vaccination,” Naumova said.

Shelestenko justified Russia’s military actions and portrayed Kherson as a Russian city, she said. “So it was open information that they joined the Russian side.”

While Shelestenko’s coverage was permitted, Naumova ran into trouble with the Russian military over pro-Ukrainian posts on her Facebook page, she said.

Oksana Naumova, second from right, reporting in Kherson, Ukraine before the Russian invasion. Facebook

“They came to me first because I’m a journalist, and second because of my Facebook page,” she said. A city official helped her flee in July. “Because they understood that if I didn’t leave the city, something would happen to me.”

She said it was fair that Shelestenko was under investigation for collaboration. “Because we are living in a country of law, so these people should reply for their guilt,” she said.

Intense Russian shelling of Kherson has prevented her from returning to her home city. Instead, she is adjusting to Kyiv, and shakes her head at purveyors of disinformation.

“How can you lie like this? I don’t know. It’s difficult to say something about those people and not to use bad words,” she said. “I think she believed that Russia was here forever.”

It wasn’t.

Writing from exile

Before Ukrainian forces freed Kherson, Shelestenko fled to Russia, but left a trail of columns, social media posts and interviews as notable for what they omitted as for what they said.

Kherson resident hugs Ukrainian defence force member in Kherson, southern Ukraine, Monday, Nov. 14, 2022. The retaking of Kherson was one of Ukraine’s biggest successes since Moscow’s invasion. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue). BA

From exile, Shelestenko continued writing about Kherson, claiming in Kuban News it was under the control of “fascist evil spirits,” and was burning and unable to function, amid “squeals” of Glory to Ukraine.


Although she left long before Ukrainian troops arrived, she claimed that “raging crowds of waiters with yellow-blue flags and terrible cries of ‘Glory to Ukraine’ were running around the city.”

Residents were “sitting at home without food, water, light, in cold apartments,” too scared to go outside. “Nazis” were going door to door taking people away and shooting them, she wrote.

Global News visited Kherson in January and found no evidence to support any of these allegations. Her reports in the Kubin News agency in Krasnodar, Russia also failed to mention the relentless Russian artillery fire directed at the city’s civilians.

Olena Shelestenko, a Kherson journalist under investigation for allegedly cooperating with Russian forces. Facebook

Asked to respond, she accused Global News of only seeing what its reporters “were shown” and “pursuing the goal of not seeing the Nazis in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.”

In another column, she complained that Ukraine’s SBU security service had searched her apartment in Kherson “like burglars.” She said they were “foolish” to think they would find evidence of her cooperation with Russia.

“All my cooperation is that I am Russian by nationality, I speak and write poetry in Russian,” she wrote. “The Russian man has a soul. Those who are against us have no soul.”

She wrote that she was in Moscow and expected to receive housing from the Russian government. “And, God forbid, we will take root in a new place.”

“And we will become a part of Great Russia.”