KHERSON, Ukraine — On the night of March 15, Illia Karamalikov received an unexpected phone call.
As a nightclub owner and member of Kherson’s city council, he had been running a volunteer neighborhood watch in this southern Ukrainian city that had just been invaded by thousands of Russian troops. The soldiers had taken Kherson with little resistance but then largely kept going, racing toward other territory and showing no interest in administering the city.
Looting and chaos followed until Mr. Karamalikov and others organized neighborhood patrols of local men. They weren’t working with the Russians but had their permission.
On the phone that night, one of Mr. Karamalikov’s watch leaders reported that a team of guards had encountered someone stumbling toward a checkpoint in a strange green uniform, slathered in mud, looking shellshocked. He wasn’t a looter. He was a lost Russian pilot, and they had disarmed him and were keeping him in a school classroom.
It was a highly unusual prisoner of war situation — a band of civilians capturing an enemy officer in a city that the enemy controls. “Nobody knew what to do,” said Mr. Karamalikov’s lawyer, Mykhailo Velychko. “They couldn’t hand him over to Ukrainian forces — there were no Ukrainian forces in the city at that time. And there was no Red Cross. And the Russians were everywhere.”
What followed over the next few hours and continues to play out in court months later reveals the blurred line between complicity and survival that many Ukrainians had to navigate after the Russians invaded their country — and that poses vexing problems for the authorities now as they decide who to punish.
Mr. Karamalikov brought the captured pilot back to his house and locked him in a utility room. Later that night he arranged to return the soldier to the Russians. He saw no other option.
Ukrainian authorities saw things differently. They later arrested Mr. Karamalikov as a collaborator and charged him with treason. He is awaiting trial and faces life in prison.
In the areas of Ukraine that Russia has seized — more than a fifth of the country — millions of civilians have had to coexist with an occupying army that wields all the power. The Ukrainians have recently clawed back chunks of their territory, like Kherson, which was liberated in mid-November, and almost immediately the hunt was on for collaborators. People are now being judged by the choices they made during very stressful occupied times.
A 12-page indictment accuses Mr. Karamalikov of helping an enemy soldier escape and resume aggression against Ukraine. But in interviews with a dozen people in Kherson, from close friends to others who expressed reservations about Mr. Karamalikov’s reputation as a domineering businessman, everyone said he did the right thing.
“From everything I know about him, and I’ve known him for years, the only thing that was in his head was keeping that soldier alive,” said Mr. Karamalikov’s rabbi, Yossef Itzhak Wolff.
Rabbi Wolff was speaking by phone from Berlin and sounded pained. He said he’s not surewhen or even if he’ll return to Ukraine. Like Mr. Karamalikov, he said that some people in town suspect him of collaborating with the enemy for what he views as a benign act: allowing a few Jewish Russian officers from the occupying force to join prayers at his temple.
The State of the War
- A Pivotal Point: Ukraine is on the offensive, but with about one-fifth of its territory still occupied by Russian forces, there is still a long way to go, and the onset of winter will bring new difficulties.
- Ukraine’s Electric Grid: As many Ukrainians head into winter without power or water, Western officials say that rebuilding Ukraine’s battered energy infrastructure needs to be considered a second front in the war.
- A Bloody Vortex : Even as they have celebrated successes elsewhere, Ukrainian forces in the small eastern city of Bakhmut have endured relentless Russian attacks. And the struggle to hold it is only intensifying.
- Dnipro River: A volunteer Ukrainian special forces team has been conducting secret raids under the cover of darkness, traveling across the strategic waterway that has become the dividing line of the southern front.
The rabbi said the Russian officers, who he described as “the men who ran the city,” showed up at the synagogue with armed guards and there was no way to refuse them. He said that he and his family could have left Kherson at the beginning of the war and avoided all this, as so many policemen and politicians did, but that they stayed and the walls of their house shook from shelling.
“All these people who ran away are judging us,” he said. “These are cruel times.”
“It was insane”
The Russians stormed into Kherson on Feb. 24, the first day of the war, thundering up from the Crimean Peninsula with an ease that raised suspicions of local complicity. The Ukrainian government is now investigating several intelligence officers suspected of leaking critical information on Kherson’s defenses to the Russians.
The security services fled. The army disappeared. Police officers vanished from the streets.
“It was a city without a head,” Rabbi Wolff said.
Many residents said they were in a state of shock. They felt abandoned by Ukrainian forces and wondered why they didn’t put up more of a fight.
“Right now we support Zelensky but after the war we will come back to him and ask him about this,” said Valentyn Yermolenko, a retired fishermen who lived through the occupation and provided snacks and hot coffee to the neighborhood watchmen.
Life in Kherson got harder and harder. Supplies couldn’t get across the front lines, and the city, with a prewar population of around 300,000, began to run out of food. The looting became so bad, residents said, that thieves rolled freezers stocked with the last frozen chickens in town out of the supermarkets and down the main roads.
“It was insane,” said Oleksandr Samoylenko, a politician and head of Kherson’s regional council, who left when the Russians invaded. “Kherson was under Russian occupation but the Russians weren’t interested in taking over the administration — the water, the sales things, the markets. They didn’t want the headache.”
Mr. Karamalikov, 51, stepped in. Along with some other city leaders, he organized the Citizen Patrol: 1,200 men, mostly unarmed, some with sticks, who prowled Kherson’s streets after dark. They arrested curfew violators and petty criminals, sometimes making them pick up garbage or perform other community service. It was a short-lived, grass roots criminal justice system.
Mr. Karamalikov had something of a godfather reputation in his city. At nearly six feet tall, stocky and well connected across business and politics, he owned two popular nightclubs, Amigo and Shade, and several grocery stores. He was known as a man who would engage anyone in the interests of doing business and he rubbed some people the wrong way.
“I don’t think he’s honest or altruistic and I’ll say it to his face,” said Mr. Samoylenko.
But in Kherson’s small Jewish community, the remnant of what was once a major strand in this city’s fabric, Mr. Karamalikov was widely respected. Before the Holocaust, Rabbi Wolff said, Kherson had 26 temples. Now there is only one left, Kherson’s Chabad Synagogue, and Mr. Karamalikov regularly allowed it to use his nightclub space for free.
“He never said no,” Rabbi Wolff said.
A rendezvous with “Alpha’’
Mr. Karamalikov was busy during those first chaotic weeks of the war, his lawyer said — rushing around Kherson in his white Audi, checking on neighborhood patrols, stopping by the synagogue and turning his businesses into de facto aid depots where he handed out cartons of supplies.
This brought him face to face with Russian officers, in particular a colonel who dressed in all black and went by the code name Alpha. Mr. Karamalikov had little choice, his lawyer said. Jumpy Russian troops were spread across the city and Mr. Karamalikov needed to talk to Russian commanders like Alpha “to make sure they didn’t shoot any of the volunteers.”
Around 10 p.m. on March 15, a plumber, a carpenter and the carpenter’s son were standing at a checkpoint when they saw the silhouette of someone flitting in and out of the shadows. A voice then yelled out: “I’m one of you!” and out stepped the Russian soldier, who had mistaken the neighborhood watchmen for fellow Russians.
Andriy Skvortsov, the carpenter’s son, said the soldier was bewildered and barely able to string a sentence together. When he realized the men in front of him were Ukrainians, he looked extremely frightened, Mr. Skvortsov said. “He was childlike and helpless,” Mr. Skvortsov said. And he was heavily armed.
When they patted him down they found one short-barreled AK-47, one Makarov officer’s pistol and five ammunition magazines. They also found his military identification card showing he was Lieutenant Dmitrii Pavlovich Savchenko, 32, a combat helicopter pilot. From his discombobulated speech, they pieced together that he had walked nearly 10 miles from Kherson’s airport, which the Ukrainians had just shelled, killing many Russians.
The watchmen took the soldier to a school and called Mr. Karamalikov. There was no easy solution. The Red Cross, which handles prisoner issues, was not operating in Kherson at the time, and there was no way to get the captured pilot to Ukrainian forces, who were miles away.
Despite all the anti-Russian feeling coursing through Kherson, the civilian guards did not mistreat the soldier. A small crowd, curious, gathered around him and some took selfies. Mr. Karamalikov’s lawyer said that his client was determined to treat the soldier humanely and what he ultimately did was in accord with the Geneva Conventions.
Mr. Karamalikov called Alpha and they arranged to meet in the morning. Until then, the soldier would stayat his house. At daybreak, Mr. Karamalikov met Alpha and handed over the Russian soldier.
What Mr. Karamalikov didn’t know, his lawyer said, was that Ukrainian intelligence agents had tapped Alpha’s phone and heard the whole discussion.
“Should we have killed the soldier?”
By mid-April, the Russians had imported hundreds of intelligence agents and other security officers into Kherson who arrested many civilians and tortured some of them. At the same time, Ukrainian security services had their own network of informants in the city and were keeping tabs on anyone suspected of collaborating with the Russians.
Mr. Karamalikov decided it was time to go. On April 14, he packed his wife, his mother-in-law and three of his five children into two cars to drive 150 miles to Odesa, a Ukrainian-controlled city.
As soon as they crossed into Ukrainian territory, they were stopped. Ukrainian intelligence agents pulled Mr. Karamalikov out of his car and took him away. His family and lawyer said he was brought to an interrogation center in Kryvyi Rih, beaten all over his body, cut with sharp objects on his legs and injected with drugs and forced to talk.
Officials in Kherson declined to comment on the allegations of torture, but acknowledged that at least two of the agents involved in the treatment of Mr. Karamalikov have been placed under investigation.
“It’s hard to believe that our own country, which is committed to democracy and has its own laws, would do this,” his son Artem, 19, said in a phone interview.
In the indictment, prosecutors said that by releasing the soldier, Mr. Karamalikov “organized the further participation of a Russian serviceman in aggression against Ukraine.” They also charged him with leaking personnel data on military veterans and pro-Ukrainian political figures. His lawyer said he didn’t do that and that the information was already publicly available.
Prosecutors also accused him of “producing a positive image” of Russia by distributing Russian humanitarian aid and helping make Russian propaganda videos, which his lawyer denied.
But the crux of the case, his lawyer said, was the captured soldier and “to this day we have asked a question that no one can answer: What else, in those circumstances, in that city, at that time, was he supposed to do?”
The Kherson prosecutor’s office declined to respond to that.
Shane Darcy, an international law professor at the Irish Center for Human Rights of the University of Galway, has been following media reports on collaborator investigations in Ukraine, including the Karamalikov case. “It sounds like as collaboration, this was a particularly innocuous example, handing over a dazed and confused soldier,” Mr. Darcy said. But, he added, “it’s not for me to define for the Ukrainians what they consider collaboration.”
Mr. Samoylenko, the local politician, said that despite his misgivings about Mr. Karamalikov’s integrity, the decision to hand over the pilot was “absolutely right.”
“There was nothing else you could do,” he said, adding that it would have been dangerous for everyone involved to keep him as a prisoner.
Even after all that has unfolded in Kherson in the past nine months, Mr. Skvortsov, the watchman, seems deeply moved by what happened that night.
“We wondered later: Should we have killed the soldier and kept it secret?” he said. “But I’ve decided no, that wouldn’t have been good.”
“I remember seeing the bodies and the body parts at the beginning of the war, ours and theirs,” he said. “We did the right thing.”
Oleksandra Mykolyshyn contributed reporting.