Meet the mayor who liberated his mother – and his village – from Russian occupation

A video went viral of Vyacheslav Zadorenko reuniting with his mother Natalia
A video went viral of Vyacheslav Zadorenko reuniting with his mother Natalia

Natalia Kubrak puts a steaming bowl of borscht in front of her son and tells him to eat.

Now a grown man, Vyacheslav Zadorenko gently chides her for cooking too much.

It is a quiet domestic scene but there is a smile on both their faces that betrays a feeling of unreality. Neither can quite believe they are here.

Two weeks ago, a video of the pair went viral on Ukrainian social media when Mr Zadorenko liberated his home village - and his mother - from Russian occupation.

The enormous smile on Mrs Kubrak’s face as she threw her arms around her son lifted the hearts of millions of viewers at a time when the war was tilting in Kyiv’s favour.

“I’ve been waiting,” she told him while holding him in a tight hug. “I knew you’d return.”

But their story is also a microcosm of the war - and the compromise, collaboration, fear, brutality and family separation it has forced upon millions of Ukrainians.

Natalya raised her son in the village of her birth: a tiny settlement called Kozacha Lopan that is strung out along a road leading to a border crossing between the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv and the Russian city of Belgorod.

Mr Zadorenko is a businessman turned local politician. He served as the head of the village for two terms between 2010 and 2020, then successfully ran for mayor of Derhachi, the town 20 miles to the south in whose district Kozacha Lopan lies.

Like local politicians everywhere, he takes pride in hometown triumphs: a crackdown on fly tipping and neighbourhood clean up programme; a dramatic expansion of revenue and investment; the 2016 award for the village with the best house of culture in Kharkiv region.

It was hardly training for war.

The war

Around 9pm on Feb 23, he was playing cards with some friends when he got a tip-off that Russian troops had been spotted near the border just up the road. He passed on the report to the Ukrainian security service.

“Then at midnight, it was reported that the Russian troops were already deploying Grad rocket systems in our direction and ammunition was being laid out in the fields,” he said.

“I was up till 3am. I walked around the yard, stomped about, had all sorts of thoughts in my head. At around four I just fell asleep. At 5.05am, plus or minus, the first shots came.”

“They hit us with Grads, Uragans, shells... probably 1,000 of them flew at once. This whistling sound, all over Kozacha Lopan, over my house. I went out into the yard and saw all these rockets were flying over us. Kharkiv was already on fire.”

Smoke over Kharkiv on Feb 25, within 48 hours of the invasion - GETTY IMAGES
Smoke over Kharkiv on Feb 25, within 48 hours of the invasion - GETTY IMAGES

He bundled his wife and children into the car and drove away fast. But he was unable to take his mother.

Over the next few days, chaos reigned.

The Ukrainians engaged the Russians south of Kozacha Lopan and stopped their advance, but were unable to push them back.

The Russians, apparently expecting to advance quickly into Kharkiv, did not bother securing the village and for the first two weeks locals were able to come and go relatively freely.

Mr Zadorenko himself made two trips - “reconnaissance” he calls them - to scout the occupation. On the second visit, he was nearly caught and had to escape by backroads as the Russians mounted a manhunt.

That was the last time he saw his mother before the liberation.

In Derhachi, there was plenty to do. The displaced needed to be housed, the vulnerable evacuated - those who would go - and the remainder kept fed and warm. The town was one village down from the front line, and constantly under fire.


Back in Kozacha Lopan, Mrs Kubrak was having a hard time, and not just from the roar of jets and the rocket launchers that drove from hill to hill to fire salvos at the Ukrainians to the south.

The Russians had quickly worked out who her son was, and suspected her of helping the enemy.

Within days, she had the first of several frightening visits from men with guns. Eight soldiers climbed over the fence and ordered her and her husband out of the house.

“So we ran out into the street and stood there. Naked in our underwear. And they said: ‘Where are the guns? Where’s the military in the house?’ I said we don’t have guns, we don’t have any military. They said: ‘Here is your son? How many people?’

“We were held for an hour... Well, it was still cold. It was still snowing in March, we were standing on the pavement barefoot, and I thought I was going to die of cold. I said, what do you want? They said - to tell the truth.”

People in Derhachi queue for UN food supplies in the town square - JULIAN SIMMONDS
People in Derhachi queue for UN food supplies in the town square - JULIAN SIMMONDS

The soldiers - Ossetians and Chechens, she believes - eventually left.  But within a month, the Chechen battalion had rotated out, and fresh soldiers came knocking on the door with the same questions.

It was a pattern that would continue throughout the occupation. But it was the third visit, sometime in summer, that is seared into her memory.

This time the soldiers were not content with asking a few questions at her house. She was driven to the centre of the village where the Russians had set up a prison in a basement. She remembers a scene of horror inside.

“There were 15 people lying there, they were all covered in blood, there were dead people too. And they just cut off one woman’s ear, he nearly cut off my ear,” she said.

The Russians set up a prison in an outbuilding - JULIAN SIMMONDS
The Russians set up a prison in an outbuilding - JULIAN SIMMONDS

When it was her turn for interrogation she was taken across the road to another basement room underneath the railway station.

“Then they put some kind of rubber caps on my fingers. They put some kind of metal wires over my eyes and it was all flashing somehow. I said, ‘I can’t see you.’

“The interrogator said: ‘You will see clearly in a moment.’ And then he punched me right here,” she pointed to her stomach just below her ribs. “I said it hurt. He said, ‘that’s just for prevention. If you don’t tell the truth we’ll take you to Belgorod and you’ll never see this place again.’”

The interview now began in earnest. Like the Chechens, the interrogator wanted to know where Vyacheslav was, but he was less willing to accept excuses.

When she said she didn’t know where he was, and had no way of finding out because her phone had been confiscated, he punched her again in both sides of the rib cage.

“Then they hooked up the electric current and it pinched me. And cramps came after that,” she recalled. “Since then sometimes my fingers cramp up now. And my leg cramps, too. And he kept asking me, ‘Where’s your son? Talk to him, get him and call him’.”

Vyacheslav Zadorenko with Russian newspapers that were distributed to the occupying soldiers and villagers - JULIAN SIMMONDS
Vyacheslav Zadorenko with Russian newspapers that were distributed to the occupying soldiers and villagers - JULIAN SIMMONDS

When she asked why they wanted to talk to him, they gave a reassuring, but unconvincing excuse: They were going to have a referendum, and they needed the mayor to help them carry it out.

“I think that if he comes here, you will kill him,” she replied. “You can hang me in the square, you can kill me. Why would I call my son to get him killed?”

“Did we kill anyone?” the man snapped back.

“What about the people who were killed,” she replied. “This is war, how many people died?”

“They said it was not war, it was a special operation, but sometimes people die, and sometimes they just die, and it’s no big deal. Then they threw me out.”

Kozacha Lopan was liberated last month - JULIAN SIMMONDS
Kozacha Lopan was liberated last month - JULIAN SIMMONDS

It was the aftermath that hurt most.

Natalia says she lay on the pavement outside the station for half an hour, and had to beg a stranger to go and find her husband. No one offered to help as she crawled through the station on all fours through the station.

“Everybody saw me, I was crying, and nobody even came near me, because half of our village was shouting ‘We are Little Russia, we are for Russia,” she recalls bitterly.


Her interrogator did not mention it, but it is possible there was another reason for the Russians’ desperate wish to speak to Mr Zadorenko.

Besides his municipal duties, he had quietly put together a band of partisans, mostly made up of friends and business acquaintances.

They had no military experience or links to the army. But they were enthusiastic, self-funding, and knew the local countryside better than the invaders.

They ran reconnaissance missions into the “grey zone” and flew commercial quadcopters for reconnaissance, sometimes helping Ukrainian artillery correct their fire.

Vyacheslav Zadorenko with villagers who are queuing for money handouts from the UN - JULIAN SIMMONDS
Vyacheslav Zadorenko with villagers who are queuing for money handouts from the UN - JULIAN SIMMONDS

They became experts at ammunition theft, poaching large quantities of ordnance. At one point, he claims, they managed to steal three T-80 tanks which they handed over to the Ukrainian army.

Then they worked out how to use the drones to drop grenades. For a month and a half, said Mr Zadorenko, they bombed their way up and down the frontline, terrorising infantry in their trenches.

The reconnaissance work had a perk - he could redirect drones over Natalia’s house to make sure it was in one piece. He toyed for a bit with the idea of dropping a note for her into the garden, but thought better of it.

Mystery Russian

The Russians began to find Mrs Kubrak herself was a force of nature.

After her ordeal in the station cellar, she says she somehow lost her fear. No longer caring if she was killed, she went around to see the Russian installed mayor, a Ukrainian man called Telyatnikov, to demand her passport back.

She got an apology, but no document.

Next, she stormed into the office of the senior Russian officer in command of the village. He too claimed to have no idea where her documents were, but in the face of her fury agreed to turf out the soldiers who had occupied her son’s house.

A jail which Russian soldiers are believed to have used as a torture chamber - GETTY IMAGES
A jail which Russian soldiers are believed to have used as a torture chamber - GETTY IMAGES

The soldiers were promptly evicted - although Mr Zadorenko says they took the oven, the television, and drinks cabinet with them.

“I’m in charge around here. If any others give you trouble,” said the apologetic Russian commander, “just give them this password: Crimea five.”

A month later, when an aggressive drunken soldier barged into her house with his rifle, she did just that. To her astonishment, the squaddie immediately changed his tone, apologised and left as if badly frightened.

It was now late August, and the Russian army handed over security to civilian agencies from Belgorod region.

The Russian official - she does not know his name or what service branch he was in - told her he knew her son as a “solid, decent bloke,” and would make sure no harm came to her.

He added some muttered regrets about the mess they all found themselves in, adding: “Belgorod would never have gone to war with Ukraine anyway.”

Mr Zadorenko has no idea who the man was - perhaps one of the many Russian officials he dealt with at official cross-border functions when he was head of the village.

But the mystery official was as good as his word. Mrs Kubrak never had another knock on the door. “He might have saved me,” she said.


In early September, the Ukrainians launched a lightning assault in southern Kharkiv region to retake Izyum.

A couple of days later, General Sergei Melnik, the commander of the Kharkiv city garrison, commenced his own offensive to push the Russians around the city back across the border.

On the morning of Sept 10, a friend who had been in Belgorod being treated for a shrapnel wound dropped round.

The Russians were in a panic, he said. He’d just travelled back past columns driving towards the border. The checkpoints in the village were abandoned. In Belgorod itself everyone was frightened and talking about an entire Ukrainian battalion on the advance.

A little while later he returned. “Wait for Vyacheslav. He’s coming. A soldier told me,” he said.

A Ukrainian soldier smiles from a military vehicle in the recaptured territory in Kharkiv region - AP
A Ukrainian soldier smiles from a military vehicle in the recaptured territory in Kharkiv region - AP

She dyed her hair and made borscht. Maybe, she thought, Vyacheslav would be hungry. Later that night, around 1.30am, she heard a commotion in the street and looked out.

The Russians were forming a large column of jeeps, lorries and rocket launchers. A buzzing caught her ear. Someone was flying a drone overhead. Russian or Ukrainian, she couldn’t tell, but something was definitely up.

The drone was one of Mr Zadorenko’s.

He had only realised the Russians were on the run that evening, when he received a call from an agent inside the village.

It was a moment of excitement combined with a chilling fear. Ever since the atrocities discovered around Kyiv in March, Russian retreats have held the threat of terror. The thought of a repeat in Kozacha Lopan has been gnawing at him for months.

He stayed up all night waiting for dawn. As soon as it was light he gathered his gang - about 20 guys in five vehicles - and drove north, aiming to either evict the Russians or engage them in a fight before they could begin killing civilians.

At the destroyed town of Prudyanka, the former Ukrainian frontline, they met a national guard unit. Together, the partisans and the infantry advanced on foot up the wrecked road, carefully picking their way through shrapnel and destroyed vehicles.

When they entered Tsupivka , the flattened village where the Russians had for weeks maintained their front, Mr Zadorenko wanted to push on, but “the military told me that was completely unacceptable,” he said.

“But I’d waited too long for this day.  I had a premonition that the Russians could kill my mother and people while retreating. So my lads and I got into the cars and drove off.”

The partisans brought up their vehicles and drove on alone, fearing at any moment they would come under fire. But the road was spookily empty.

Driving into the silent central square of Kozacha Lopan, they found the Ukrainian flag already flying over the village council building.

It later turned out Lyudmilla Vakulenko, Mr Zadorenko’s successor as head of the village, had ridden over on her bicycle early in the morning and raised it herself when she heard about the withdrawal. The sight of it had frightened the Russians yet to retreat so much they did not try to take it down again.

At 12.49pm local time, Mr Zadorenko drove up the tree-lined lane where his mother’s house is.

She was already waiting in the street with neighbours, in a red jacket and freshly dyed hair.  “Son!” she shouted. “I’ve made borscht!”.

“She’d made two big pots of the stuff,” said Mr Zadorenko, managing not to roll his eyes. “I had to say: ‘Mum, the Russians are still running away on the outskirts, we have to catch up with them, finish them off, then we’ll eat.”

Vyacheslav Zadorenko and his mother Natalia say they have been lucky - JULIAN SIMMONDS
Vyacheslav Zadorenko and his mother Natalia say they have been lucky - JULIAN SIMMONDS

Mr Zadorenko and his mother know their family has been lucky.

There was no Bucha-style massacre here, but Mr Zadorenko said a trench resembling a mass grave had been found. The Russians are still throwing shells from the other side of the border post a mile up the road.

Less than half of the pre-war population of 5000 remain. There is no gas, water, or electricity. Until the middle of last week mobile phone signal was down too.

The cluster of shops on the high street are burnt out wrecks so there is nowhere to buy food. Stray dogs and cats roam the shelled out buildings looking for the last remaining scraps of food.

But in the calm of the kitchen, Natalia could think of little more than the return of a son she had feared dead.

“My blood pressure jumped up... I guess God heard me,” she said, remembering once again the moment she saw him driving up the road.

“I have a golden son.”