In occupation, they cared for the vulnerable. Now they’re in jail for it

Ukrainians who ensured elderly neighbours survived when Russia took their town are being convicted of collaboration

When the eastern Ukrainian city of Lyman was occupied for five months last year, Valentyna Tkach and Tetiana Potapenko stayed behind. They volunteered to help their vulnerable neighbours. They cared for elderly residents, contacted the Russian occupation administration to ask for food and coal for them, and even buried dead bodies.

Now, both women are in detention, having been accused by Ukraine’s Secret Service of collaboration with Russia – a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Tkach and Potapenko were volunteers long before the occupation. Since Soviet times, Lyman’s population has self-organised to better coordinate with local authorities. Residents of each of the city’s ‘microdistricts’ nominate individuals, who are usually women and are known as street attendants (vulychni), to maintain order and liaise with the mayor’s office on their behalf.

This work is coordinated by a head of the neighbourhood, who is elected by residents. When Russia captured Lyman, the local leaders in Tkach and Potapenko’s microdistricts fled, and the women stepped up to take on their roles.

Today, they believe they are being punished for helping others. As part of a series of stories on collaboration trials in the Donetsk region, Ukrainian news outlet Graty met both women in April, while they were in pre-trial detention. Below, openDemocracy publishes an abridged translation of Graty’s feature.

War enters Lyman

At the end of April 2022, Valentyna Tkach, 63, and her husband took shelter in the cellar of their house in north Lyman. It soon became clear they had been right to hide: Russian forces broke through the city and the shelling didn’t stop. Electricity, water and gas supplies to the city were cut. Stores were forced to close and many people’s food supplies dwindled.

Tkach’s street, like much of north Lyman, was mainly private one-story houses, often home to elderly women who refused to leave when the war started. “They said: ‘We grew up here, our children and grandchildren grew up here. We're not going anywhere. We will live in tents, in our vegetable gardens,’” Tkach explained.

Tkach, a street attendant who has been involved in social work for many years, began to help her elderly neighbours with food and care, even taking in one 86-year-old woman for five months after her house collapsed, until relatives came from Lviv to fetch her.

She cared for and fed another octogenarian neighbour, Vira Pymenovna Naumova, when the latter became bedbound. In the end, Pimenovna’s house collapsed on her, and she became one of three women Tkach and her husband were forced to bury her on their street.

Russian troops approached Lyman on 22 May. Tkach says there was the most horrible shelling that night. “It was a real Armageddon,” she said.

“Our entire street [was] on fire. And most of the houses were demolished that night. We thought it was the end of the world, that we would never come out alive. I don’t want any person on earth to experience what we experienced.”

By the end of that month, city authorities had announced an evacuation. Most Lyman residents left, but a third of the population remained. Tetiana Potapenko, 52, had wanted to leave, but her 72-year-old husband’s chronic illnesses had worsened after spending so much time in their cold, damp basement.

“My husband almost died, I resuscitated him three times. The Lord simply saved him. My son was also ill, he is disabled. And we are simple people, we have no income. My husband and son each receive around two thousand hryvnias [less than £45] in benefits, we couldn’t afford to leave,” Potapenko explained.

Trying to escape their own damp cellar, Potapenko and her family moved into the basement of a nearby four-story building – where they stayed until Russian soldiers arrived. The soldiers told them they could go home if they wore a white cloth around their arms, to show they were civilians. They did so, but the shelling continued, forcing them to spend more nights in the basement.

Like Tkach, Potapenko was a street attendant and the deputy head of her microdistrict. Soon, neighbours approached her to complain their food was running out. The Russians distributed humanitarian aid, but rarely and only near the town council, far from her street. It was difficult for older people to get there and stand in line waiting.

Potapenko’s neighbours had other problems, too. “People approached me about what to do with construction waste. Houses were in ruins, there was glass, slate and brick all around,” she said. “They asked what to do with the unexploded ammunition that some people had lying in their sheds. They asked essential questions: where to bury people, where to get coffins.”

Potapenko went to the city executive committee building to get help for her neighbours. There, she found a help centre for the ‘Donetsk Republic of Denis Pushilin’ had been opened, headed by Viktoria Zinchuk. Before the occupation, Zinchuk had led the local House of Culture and often sang Ukrainian folk songs at concerts. She wore embroidered shirts in honour of national holidays. But in July, two months after the occupation, Pushilin presented Zinchuk with a certificate “for her contribution to the development of the Donetsk Republic” in occupied Mariupol.

On behalf of this ‘civic movement’, Zinchuk started supervising the heads of Lyman microdistricts and their street attendants. She held meetings with them in her office. At one of these meetings, Zinchuk asked Potapenko to replace the head of her microdistrict, who had fled before the occupation. Potapenko accepted.

Tkach was also asked to become head of her microdistrict – one of six in the city – when its previous leader fled. She had been a street attendant for 15 years. Before the full-scale war, she and other attendants in her neighbourhood organised clean-up days and holidays and resolved everyday issues. No one was paid for this work.

During a massive shelling on the night of 22 May, Tkach was overwhelmed by severe stress. Once she was feeling better, street people from her neighbourhood began to come to her. They said the city was in ruins; houses were damaged, windows were broken, roofs were leaking, garbage hadn’t been collected, there was a shortage of food and medicine. They asked her to help, to temporarily take on the leaders’ duties. She, too, agreed.

‘Everyone was fed’

As heads of their microdistricts, Potapenko and Tkach’s main job was to obtain humanitarian aid from Lyman’s occupation administration, which the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ set up in June and was headed by Alexander Petrykin, the former vice-mayor of occupied Yenakiieve, another city in Donetsk.

“Drivers of vehicles distributing aid didn’t know the area. The city is scattered. I argued with Mayor Petrykin. Everyone was fed. Everything went in an orderly manner, there were no crowds, no one struggled, fought, cried or shouted,” Potapenko said.

Tkach asked the street attendants to compile lists of people in need, which she took to Zinchuk. “I drove one single car with humanitarian aid into the neighbourhood. There were 800 packages and of course, that wasn’t enough for everyone,” she sighed. “They would bring [aid] to the neighbourhood, and the street attendants would deliver it to those who couldn’t come on their own.”

The Russians issued pensions, and Potapenko, together with other street attendants, handed over lists of pensioners to the occupation administration.

Many street attendants left Lyman or were injured or killed, and Potapenko and Tkach helped residents to find new ones.

“One of my attendants was actually lying wounded. Her husband was killed by the shelling, and she ended up in hospital,” Tkach recalled. “I would say: ‘Ladies, please go out and help the grandmothers who are left.’ And the women were great, they looked for doctors for them.

“One old lady had gangrene, so the attendant says: ‘It doesn’t matter to me what kind of government the doctor is from, I need to save a life.’ Although, of course, the old woman died. There were no functioning hospitals, no pharmacies.”

‘Security Service of Ukraine, come with us’

After five months of occupation, the Ukrainian army launched a counterattack and shelling became more frequent again in the city. On 30 September, Russian and ‘DPR forces’ left Lyman, and the next day Ukrainian troops arrived.

“It became much easier, I started breathing more easily,” Potapenko said.

But the following day, Potapenko’s situation took a turn for the worse.

“A motorcade of cars stopped outside my house. I came up and said: “Who are you?” and they answered: ‘Security Service of Ukraine, come with us,’” Potapenko recalled.

Other street attendants were also brought to the station and interrogated by officers from the security services (SBU, by its Ukrainian initials). Zinchuk, like most Lymanians who had joined the leadership of the occupation administration, had fled east to occupied territory together with the Russian military.

Potapenko and Tkach were questioned about their activities during the occupation and released. The women continued their roles as street attendants, but were now distributing Ukrainian humanitarian aid rather than Russian.

At the end of December, a representative of the Lyman mayor’s office visited Potapenko to inform her that she had been removed from her duties as the head of the microdistrict. On 9 January 2023, SBU officers told her she was under suspicion of collaboration, namely “occupying a leadership position in the occupation administration” – a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. She was accused of following the instructions of Pushilin and Zinchuk, as well as appointing and supervising street people.

SBU officers took Potapenko to Dnipro, where a district court sent her to a pre-trial detention centre for the duration of the investigation. She was in shock and did not admit guilt.

“I don't think I did anything wrong. I can't understand why I was arrested. Am I a spotter [for Russian missiles] or did I do something else? What have I done against our country, Ukraine? Tell me,” Potapenko said.

Tkach suffered the same fate. SBU officers took her to Dnipro on 20 November, where the court arrested her. The SBU released a statement about “the capture of a collaborator who offered dry rations from the Russian Federation in exchange for support of the occupation authorities”.

The statement said Tkach had “contributed to the spread of the Kremlin regime and ‘surrendered’ members of the resistance movement to the aggressor”. It continued: “In addition, she helped the invaders organise an illegal referendum on the ‘annexation’ of the region to the aggressor country... In case of disagreement to support the fake plebiscite, she threatened with ‘complaints’ to the occupation authorities and reprisals.”

In the end, Tkach wasn’t charged with any of these allegations – only with holding a position in the occupation administration and overseeing her street, like Potapenko. She also feels she was unfairly charged.

“I’ve worked so long [pre-occupation]. My sideboard is filled with diplomas from the city executive committee for assistance in self-government. There have never been any complaints. And then they made me an enemy of the people. But I gave my soul to people,” Tkach lamented.

We interviewed both women in the assembly hall of the pre-trial detention centre in April, five months after Tkach's arrest. Tkach complained that her health is worsening in prison. In addition to chronic heart disease, she now has problems with her blood pressure and her joints.

After our interview, Tkach got up from her chair to head back to her cell. Suddenly, she staggered and her eyes rolled back in her head. She had to be caught or she would have fallen. Miinutes later, she came to her senses and was taken away by a guard.

Ticking a box

Pensioner Lyudmyla Ivanova lives in a neat house in Lyman’s northern microdistrict. During the occupation, she stayed in the city – even when a shell landed in her garden and knocked out all her windows. In October, shortly before Tkach’s arrest, she became the new head of the microdistrict. Ivanova doesn’t think Tkach, her predecessor, should have been accused of collaboration.

“I don't think it's very fair. We live here, we stayed here. We had to live somehow. We couldn't drop everything and run away. We are home, this is our land, where should we have gone? I understand that they proposed evacuation, but not everyone could go,” said Ivanova.

On the next street, a short elderly woman in a colourful sundress is digging onions in her yard. Tamara Sarzhevska, 71, became a street attendant long before the war and continued to perform her duties during the occupation and into the present day. She’s known Tkach for more than 20 years.

“It seems to me that she was imprisoned for no reason. It was necessary to tick a box. I know Valentyna. We didn't do anything bad here. We didn't [transmit] any propaganda. Everyone lives on their own wavelength. No one gathered us, no one called us, they didn’t tell us anything, they didn’t ask us anything. We lived as we live now, digging in the garden,” Sarzhevska said.

Not everybody feels this way, though. Lyman’s mayor, Oleksandr Zhuravlyov, takes a different view.

“I don’t know how they worked there. But if the courts are going ahead, they have violated Ukrainian legislation,” Zhuravlyov, a wealthy farmer who was elected in 2020, said. “They betrayed their motherland, where they were born, where they studied, earned themselves a pension... I can’t understand why people lived in Ukraine for more than 30 years and decided [to support Russia].

“Why didn’t they leave [for Russia] before, no one forbade them,” he added angrily.

The hearing

Despite having been detained first, only Tkach remains in pre-trial detention, with her arrest repeatedly being extended. Her health has continued to deteriorate in prison. In July, she fainted in the courtroom, but the judge still sent her back to jail. Tkach was assigned a lawyer from Kramatorsk, who does not visit her and has not even challenged her arrest. She sees him only on the screen when he connects to meetings via video link.

Potapenko, meanwhile, entered the defendant's glass box for the last hearing of her trial on 15 August. Prosecutor Fedorenko spoke first, claiming: “Tetiana Potapenko’s guilt has been completely proven.” He asked the court to sentence her to five years in prison, ban her from holding leadership positions for 15 years, and confiscate her property – a move that would have left her family homeles..

Potapenko’s lawyer Irina Toode rejected this, pointing out that there is no evidence that her client was appointed to a position in the occupation administration. Instead, the lawyer said, Potapenko continued to perform duties that she acquired legally before the occupation.

“The head of the microdistrict where Potapenko lived left Lyman before the start of hostilities. People were left without help, mostly elderly people,” Toode said. “As the deputy head of the microdistrict, she believed that if there is no head, then, as is customary, the deputy becomes acting head. That’s why she decided to help the population.”

Toode added that Potapenko did not imagine that Ukraine could punish her for such work, but that even if she had known, she still would have helped her neighbours.

Potapenko echoed this in her final statement, her voice trembling as she spoke: “I have been involved in social activities for a long time, about 15 years. I just couldn’t leave people, I couldn’t. I grew up there, I had no moral right [to refuse] these old people who came to me for help. I didn’t pursue any malicious intent, no material gain for myself. On the contrary, it was all to the detriment of my family.”

She asked the court not to take away her home from her sick husband and son.

The judge, Yevhen Voloshin, retired to the deliberation room – returning an hour later to find Potapenko guilty. He sentenced her to five years in prison and banned her from holding leadership positions for 15 years, but didn’t confiscate her property.

“Thank you at least that the house wasn’t confiscated,” Potapenko managed to say as guards led her out of the court. “I’m shocked by everything that’s happening.”

Her lawyer Irina Toode later admitted that the verdict was what she expected, but that she plans to appeal. “There should be no criminal punishment for helping people. I realised that in today’s conditions we will not receive an acquittal, but we will at least count on a suspended sentence so that she can be with her family again,” she said.

Potapenko is also disappointed. During our conversation in the pre-trial detention centre in April, she had said that she expected an acquittal. She remains in pre-trial detention and has appealed against her conviction.

“According to [the state’s] logic, you can take every person after the occupation and put him in prison, and the grandmother who received their pension, and those who received one-time assistance,” she said at the time.

“I can’t understand why I’m here. They also found me an enemy of the people. It feels like I’m guilty only of staying alive.”