Two days before the Russian invasion, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk received a call from the British ambassador to Ukraine, with a simple message: get out of Kyiv immediately.
The call, as Vereshchuk recalled it, was one of a number of warnings made to senior government figures, amid western expectations that the Russian army would swiftly win control of Kyiv and seek to install its own puppet government.
“The Americans and British were warning that there’s a kill list, and that the main target is the president and his family, and then members of the government,” said Vereshchuk.
“We were told, ‘They will be looking for you, they’ll hunt you down and they will kill you.’ And I said ‘What, they’re going to kill a deputy prime minister on live television? OK, no problem, so we’ll stay here and let the whole world see it, ‘”she said.
The decision to remain in Kyiv began with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. On the second day of the war, he told European leaders on a conference call: “This might be the last time you see me alive,” adding that he had information he was on a Russian hitlist. He also reportedly rejected an offer of evacuation from Kyiv made by US President Joe Biden, saying he “needed ammunition, not a ride”.
In the first weeks of the war, Russian state media promoted a number of conspiracy theories about Zelenskiy’s location: that the videos showing him in Kyiv were fake and that in fact the Ukrainian leader had fled immediately after the invasion.
However, these claims have become more forlorn as evidence mounted he had remained in the capital, and his regular, snappy video addresses have become a huge source of inspiration for many Ukrainians.
Vereshchuk said Zelenskiy’s decision to stay behind was one of the first signs that Ukraine was not minded to surrender to the supposed inevitability of Vladimir Putin’s capture of Ukraine, and helped lay the groundwork for the spirited response that led Russia to abandon its push to Kyiv, at least for now.
“The Kremlin really hoped that we would be disoriented and would run away… But it was one of the first steps which helped control the situation. Can you imagine that people found out that the president and his team, and the government, had run away? Of course, it would have demoralized everyone, ”Vereshchuk said.
For other Ukrainian officials in occupied areas, the question of whether to follow Zelenskiy’s lead was a difficult one. Many local mayors and other officials remained in place, sometimes with deadly consequences, while others decided to flee. In a few cases, mayors have expressed willingness to work with the Russians, and may face treason charges if Ukraine regains control over their towns.
In the town of Motyzhyn, the mayor, Olha Sukhenko, decided to stary. Together with her husband and son, she was detained by Russian soldiers on 23 March. They were later shot and buried in shallow graves, according to Ukrainian officials.
In many occupied towns, there were reports of Russian soldiers going door-to-door looking for those with Ukrainian government links. Ihor Kostovarov, the head of the villages of Staryi and Novyi Bykiv east of Kyiv, said that around the same time Sukhenko was kidnapped, he decided to leave his own village.
“We got information from our security services that the Russians were sending in FSB squads to find and execute local officials. I was here for the first three weeks, but after this information, I left, ”he said.
Kostovarov said many villagers were furious at his decision to leave, making it hard to return to the village after its liberation. Many local officials in other places who made the decision to leave have also come in for criticism.
In the Sumy region, which borders Russia and was partially occupied by its troops at the beginning of the war, the governor, Dmytro Zhyvytskyy, claimed that whether or not mayors stayed in place had an effect on the defense of the cities.
Krasnopillia fell because the mayor fled, and Trostianets fell because the mayor fled. There was nobody left to organize the defense, ”he claimed, referring to two towns the Russians occupied for a month.
Yuriy Bova, the mayor of Trostianets, said he had no choice but to leave the town, saying there were no Ukrainian army units there to defend it, given he had only a few rifles at his disposal to use against the column of Russian tanks that moved on the town on the first day of the invasion.
“If I had stayed then most likely I would not be alive and sitting before you today,” said Bova. “Instead, we made the decision to become partisans.” Bova and a group of confidants moved to villages outside the town, he said, and coordinated with residents who had remained and sent coordinates of Russian military positions by telephone.
Zhyvytskyy, the regional governor, remained unconvinced, and said he had major questions about Bova’s decision. “You go to Trostianets and everyone you see has aged 15 years in two weeks, and this guy is running around the place looking fresh-faced,” he said.
In Melitopol, one of a string of cities in Ukraine’s south occupied by Russian troops without major battles in the first part of the invasion, the mayor, Ivan Fedorov, remained in place but refused to cooperate with the Russian military.
Eventually he was marched out of his temporary office with a bag on his head, held for six days and questioned by Russian security services, before being released as part of a prisoner exchange.
“If we had left the city immediately, we would have given a gift to the Russians, they would say, ‘Your authorities have run away, we are the new authorities,'” he said. Now, he said, nobody could be in any doubt that Russian rule was only implemented by force.
He added, however, that he had some sympathy for those who had made different decisions.
“During occupation the main thing is to preserve life, and the people most in danger are the heads of the city. If the city is occupied, what should the mayor do, what should the team do? There was no single algorithm. Nobody gave us any orders. Everyone acted as they felt right, ”he said.