Deportation and re-education: life in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine

As Russian officials carry ballot boxes from house to house in Zaporizhzhia, intimidation tactics are rife

Early voting in Russia’s presidential election has already begun in occupied areas of Ukraine, with officials carrying ballot boxes going house to house in some areas, accompanied by soldiers.

With critics and opponents silenced, exiled or murdered, Vladimir Putin is expected to be anointed for another six years when the polls close at the end of next week. The four partially– occupied Ukrainian regions, claimed by Putin as Russian territory in 2022, will have a special part to play in the set-piece vote.

The picture that Russian television will paint is almost as predictable as the final result: carefully curated images of grateful Ukrainians, delighted to be brought under Russian rule.

It will be a message to local people that there is no alternative to Russian control, and tell a story for people inside Russia of a supposedly happy population welcoming their new rulers. The narrative will also be specially curated for an audience of one – Putin – said a senior Ukrainian security official: “Most of all, the results will be about the elites demonstrating to the tsar that the people in his new territories really do love him.”

But the real story is very different, as shown by a Guardian investigation into life in one of the four areas partially annexed by Russia in 2022: the Zaporizhzhia region.

Dozens of interviews with current and former residents, as well as information from leaked Kremlin documents, suggests the election will be one more stage in Russia’s attempts to stamp its rule on the occupied territory, a paper-thin veneer of legitimacy to governance by coercion, terror and population transfers.

The takeover

Russian authorities have used threats and violence since the first days of the occupation. Moscow’s troops took over around two-thirds of the Zaporizhzhia region in the first weeks of the war, rolling into the cities of Melitopol and Berdiansk without major fighting and taking control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe. The frontline eventually settled about 20 miles south of Zaporizhzhia city, and has hardly shifted since.

In each town, one of the first acts of the Russian army on arrival was to detain local leaders and pressure them to work for the occupiers. Most mayors rejected the pressure and refused to collaborate.

In the town of Molochansk, with a prewar population of about 12,000 people, the Russians arrested mayor Iryna Lypka, along with her deputy, secretary and driver. She was put in an airless cell in the basement of a police station in the nearby town of Tokmak.

Most nights, she was brought upstairs and interrogated by men in balaclavas, who demanded she go over to the Russians. If she declined, they said, she would be put on trial for “anti-Russian agitation” and spend life in a Siberian prison. Her sons, too, would be in trouble, they said. At night, she could hear the screams and moans of men being tortured coming from neighbouring cells.

“I had hallucinations, I started hearing my children’s voices. I was thinking, ‘What would I do if my son was tortured in front of me?’” she recalled. Still, though, she managed to find the strength to resist, and after 24 days in captivity, she was released. Two weeks later, she fled for Ukrainian-controlled territory.

Across occupied territory, there were similar “conversations” with mayors and local leaders. Eventually, the Russians installed puppet authorities in every city and village. Sometimes, they extorted an agreement with threats. Other times, they tapped up former officials with a grudge, who became willing collaborators, or opportunists with no experience in governance. In the town of Vasylivka, a local actor who had run an agency doing children’s photoshoots took over as mayor.

All of those who agreed to collaborate face long prison sentences if Ukraine takes the territory back.

The deportations

Between July 2022 and May 2023, the Russian occupation authorities in the Zaporizhzhia region had an official policy of deporting residents who engaged in the loosely defined activity of “discrediting the organs of Russian power”. Authorities proudly posted chilling videos of masked men reading out the deportation order to quivering victims, then ordering them to walk across the frontline towards Ukrainian territory, without any of their possessions.

In a recent interview with a Russian video blogger, the Russian-installed governor of Zaporizhzhia, former Ukrainian MP Yevgeny Balitsky, presented these deportations as a humanitarian measure.

“What to do with a woman with three children, who has different views and doesn’t see Russia as her homeland? She doesn’t think what’s happening is correct. What, should we kill her? Obviously, we just squeezed them out … We did not want to have the blood of innocent people on our hands, just because they don’t think like us,” said Balitsky.

The deportations intensified after the so-called “referendum” in September 2022. Supposedly a popular show of support for annexation by Russia, the illegal ballot in fact offered local authorities another way of uncovering potential Ukrainian sympathisers.

One man in his 70s, who asked not to be identified because he has relatives still living in occupied territory, recounted how several local women had walked down the street in his village, accompanied by armed Russian soldiers, going house to house with an urn for voting in the referendum. He did not want to vote, he told them. They told him that was fine, and made a note next to his name.

Later that night, a group of soldiers broke into his house, knocked him to the ground, and began beating and kicking him. After some minutes, they told him they would return in a few days and he would be officially deported from the region, as a dangerous anti-Russian element.

He left of his own accord, with a single bag of possessions, and now lives in one room of an apartment in a small town in Poland, one of tens of thousands of Ukrainians from the Zaporizhzhia region uprooted from their homes. He left behind family members, the grave of his wife, his livestock, his car, and the house he has lived in since the 1970s.

“My body is here but my soul is there. At home, I was someone useful. Here it’s a foreign country, a foreign language. Nobody needs me,” he said.

The kidnappings

As well as deportations, Russian authorities have kidnapped thousands of local Ukrainians considered to be dangerously pro-Ukrainian. Many of their families have had no news about their missing loved ones for months.

In a small house on the outskirts of Zaporizhzhia, Tetiana Dolzhenko told the story of her son Maksym, an IT specialist who was 31 when the war began. Maksym had been active in Ukrainian nationalist circles since the Maidan revolution in 2014, and in early May, three armed men arrived at the Dolzhenko home at dawn. They smashed the windows and doors of the family home and dragged Maksym into the street. There, they undressed him and began beating him, before pushing him into a waiting car.

Tetiana went from police station to police station asking for news of her son, but nobody could give her any information. It was only in October 2022 that several Russian soldiers came to her apartment to tell her Maksym was alive, and being held in a basement 10 minutes away from her home. They had come, they said, to pass her birthday greetings from her son. This uncharacteristic goodwill gesture, she thought, came about because one of the soldiers was tormented by his conscience. “I could see in his eyes that he realised what he’d got into. The eyes never lie,” she recalled.

In December 2022, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti released a video of Maksym, claiming he was a recently apprehended Ukrainian nationalist who was now “voluntarily giving evidence” about his crimes. The video was proof, at least, that Maksym was still alive. But that was the last sign of him. Tetiana heard a rumour he may have been transferred to Crimea, where many kidnapped civilians are held, but there has been no news of Maksym for 14 months now.

Tetiana tried to leave Melitopol last summer, but was rejected permission to leave by local police. To ease the process, she applied for a Russian passport, a move strongly encouraged by occupation authorities for all residents. To pick it up, she was forced to sing the Russian national anthem under a portrait of Putin.

In January, she made it out with the new passport, and travelled to Zaporizhzhia. The journey used to take 45 minutes; now it takes four days, in a huge loop through Russia, as it is not possible to cross the frontline.

Tetiana is trying to start life anew in Zaporizhzhia, and is looking for a job. But she is tormented by the whereabouts of her son. “I need him back, he’s all I have,” she said.

In February, Ukraine’s SBU security service told Tetiana that Maksym’s name had been included on a list provided to the Russians, asking them to confirm his location. But the Russians would not confirm they are holding a prisoner of that name.

Ivan Fedorov, the Kyiv-appointed governor of the Zaporizhzhia region, said in an interview that the Russians have kidnapped 1,000 civilians from Melitopol alone. “Some have surfaced in Russian courtrooms, some are in prison in Crimea or inside Russia. But with almost half of them, we have absolutely no information at all about their whereabouts,” he said.

The re-population and re-education

While many public-facing occupation roles have been given to collaborators, the hard edge of Russian power – law enforcement and the FSB security services – is all imported from Russia.

The Russian-installed FSB head in the Zaporizhzhia region, Alexander Gaglazov, was transferred from a role heading the regional FSB in Russia’s Tambov region, while the head of Russia’s powerful investigative committee, Alexander Tsarakayev, came all the way from a job on Sakhalin island, eight time zones away in the far east of Russia.

As well as hard power, the Russians have launched a propaganda drive to keep control of the messaging.

A series of internal Kremlin financial documents, leaked to the Estonian website Delfi and shared with a number of other outlets including the Guardian, shows the scale of these efforts.

One document, dated January 2023, says 6.6bn roubles (£57m) have been allocated for various projects in the occupied territories related to training new civil servants, “educational programmes among youth” and deploying the infrastructure of Roskomnadzor, Russia’s internet censor that blocks out “undesirable” websites and monitors web use.

A spreadsheet from June 2023 lays out federal budgeting for several new propaganda media resources in occupied Zaporizhzhia, including websites, Telegram channels and influencers. It says 144m roubles (£1.2m) has been allocated for the region for 2023, and suggests doubling this amount for 2024.

The suggested budget for one new outlet,, included the salaries of three journalists brought in from Moscow, office rental, two cars, money for reporting trips and for corporate parties.

The website is already running, and publishes daily propaganda and surreal chronicles of the occupation. One recent news item proudly announced that a brigade of workers from the Russian region of Chuvashia were removing Ukraine-era billboards and replacing them with giant Putin quotes.

Running the names and faces of local government employees featured in articles on through Google searches and facial-recognition technology shows that even at lower levels, most have been brought in from Russia.

In one article, Anna Moskalets, apparently head of the Zaporizhzhia branch of Russia’s Union of Journalists, spoke about the work of “our local journalists”. In fact, Moskalets arrived in Zaporizhzhia only after Russia’s annexation. Prior to that, she was the editor of Oktyabrsky Oilman, a small local newspaper in the Russian region of Bashkortostan.

The election and the future

Over recent weeks, Russian officials have been going house-to-house, several people still living in the region reported, checking which residences are empty and could be resettled, and pressuring Ukrainians who have not done so yet to take up Russian citizenship.

In a university building in Zaporizhzhia the municipal leaders of various occupied towns work in exile, one town per classroom. Lypka, the mayor of Molochansk, said the people who have stayed behind under occupation can be divided into three categories: those who welcome Russian rule, elderly people who have been bought off with promises of higher pensions, and those who are keeping their heads down and quietly waiting for the Ukrainian army.

In one home in Ukrainian-controlled territory, a few people whispered stories of sneaking across the lines to bring vengeance on the Russians, and of ingenious schemes to smuggle explosives to partisans in occupied territory. These are stories for later, for the history books, they said. To tell them now would risk exposing the methods.

The threat from partisans has put Russian authorities on edge, and security is being stepped up further ahead of the vote. But it will take more than partisans to dislodge Russian rule for good, and the failure of Ukraine’s military counteroffensive last year has been a psychological blow for pro-Ukrainian residents of the territory.

“It got harder and harder to wait, so I sold my furniture and television to get money for the trip and finally left,” said Pavlo Dvoretskiy, 58, who recently arrived in Zaporizhzhia from Molochansk, and struggled to speak without tearing up. His son is fighting in the Ukrainian Army, which meant constant searches and raids on his home by Russian troops. Friends called not long after he left to tell him 10 Russian soldiers have now moved into his house.

By now, around half the region’s population have left voluntarily, in addition to those deported or kidnapped. Many are now in Zaporizhzhia city, others are scattered elsewhere in Ukraine and across Europe, hoping the Ukrainian army will liberate the territory and they can return home.

Fedorov said he believed the current population of the occupied areas numbered 250,000 prewar residents, with an additional 150,000 newly-arrived Russians, including military, police and civilians. “They are trying to change the genotype of our population,” he said. He added that he expected a further crackdown after the election, on residents who refused to vote.

From Ukrainian-held territory, the police and SBU security service monitor events in the occupied areas and draw up lists of local collaborators for later use. In Molochansk, the official in charge of the military recruitment office went over to the Russians, as did a local councillor who had written the town’s anthem. Lypka even has friends who agreed to collaborate, and she still struggles to fathom their reasons. “I have jelly in my head,” she said, mournfully.

What will happen if and when Ukraine regains the territory is something on everyone’s mind. In cities like Izium, which was occupied for just five months in 2022, recriminations and suspicion were omnipresent when Ukraine regained control. In Zaporizhzhia region, where the occupation is reaching the two-year mark, untangling people’s motivations, and discerning the blurry line between survival and collaboration will be a thorny and likely painful task.

“How to build peace and harmony between our citizens again? It will be a great problem, one of the biggest problems,” said Fedorov.