Vitaly Shishov lived with his girlfriend in a rented house on the drab suburban edge of western Kiev. It was not the life he had back in Belarus, but his new shack had its moments. Nature was never far away, and Shishov, a fitness fanatic, would often escape into the adjacent forest for a run whenever he had the chance.
It was there that his body was found, in full running gear, and hanging from a noose, on the morning of 3 August.
Two months on, Ukrainian police are yet to publicly confirm how they think the 26-year-old activist died. A source with knowledge of the official probe insists suicide remains the most likely explanation. But few of the thousands of Belarusians who have fled Alexander Lukashenko’s bloody regime for Kiev are ready to believe that.
There is history, after all.
“My first thought on hearing about Shishov’s death was to run,” says Andrei Tkachov, a former fitness instructor who sought safety in the Ukrainian capital last winter. “Any Belarusian with a brain knows that hanging is one of the regime’s favourite fetishes.”
Tkachov, a grassroots organiser during the Covid-19 pandemic, left Belarus after being caught up in Lukashenko’s August 2020 crackdown. He says he was beaten by police so hard he lost consciousness, only coming to in the back of a van, sandwiched between layers of other injured bodies, limbs and pools of blood.
“They called it renovation,” he says. “They kept saying ‘you’re bastards, you’re s***s, and we’re here to renovate you.”
The activist stops mid-sentence, distracted by the sight of a minivan pulling up alongside our table. He apologises: a black van still has the power to freeze, he says. These were the vehicles Lukashenko’s OMON riot police used on their prowling missions in Minsk.
Tkachov says the Belarusian community in Ukraine understands the risks of life in their new home. Minsk and Moscow have long arms, he says, and are aided by local criminals that stretch them further. Then there is the Ukrainian far right, which brings in its own dynamic.
“Life is cheap in Ukraine,” Tkachov says. “I found out the other day just how much it costs to kill someone in Kiev. Ten thousand dollars.”
He declines to elaborate.
In the immediate aftermath of Vitaly Shishov’s death, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky vowed to protect the Belarusian community in Ukraine. On the whole, they tend not to believe he can. The murky, unsolved 2015 murder of Belarusian-born journalist Pavlo Sheremet, blown up in the centre of Kiev, is evidence of the limitations (or involvement) of the Ukrainian state, they say.
“No Belarusian activist can be sure he isn’t on a list, or isn’t being watched here,” says Lidzya Tarasenko, a 37-year-old medic and community leader who arrived in Ukraine a year ago. She says she has noticed many “strange people” congregating around the Belarusian diaspora.
“If you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean you aren’t being followed,” she says, quoting a phrase first bandied about in Soviet times.
Friends say Shishov himself complained about a tail during his final days. He wrote down the number plates of suspicious cars, and even reported them to police and security services. Three weeks before he died, the activist told his close friend Yury Lebedev that he suspected Belarusian. or even Russian agents had infiltrated his organisation, the Belarusian Home of Ukraine (BDU).
“Vitaly took me aside and said, Yury, look out, these guys are here,” Lebedev says. “I mumbled and said something like ‘yeah, let’s stay alert’.”
Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, 55, an MP who headed the SBU, Ukraine’s security services between 2014 and 2015, says he believes foreign spy agencies were responsible for Shishov’s untimely end. “Belarus or Russia, no one else was interested in such a demonstrative death,” he says. “And it looks like a complete f**k-up from our guys. Shishov complained of being followed, and the SBU should have been over it.”
Nalyvaichenko rejects a common view that Ukraine’s own security agencies are themselves compromised by infiltration. “Young, ideological" counter-intelligence officers have long flushed out bad apples, he insists. But he says the Belarusian KGB and Russian FSB are heavily invested in Ukraine, helped by the common language and local criminals.
“The bad news is their behaviour is changing and they are becoming more assertive,” he says. “Before it was more about effect, blowing up a few grenades with minimal damage. Since the murder or Sheremet, I think we have entered a new phase where it’s the result that counts.”
Bellingcat, the investigative team which uncovered the Skripal assassins, Alexey Navalny’s likely poisoners, and others, claims to have proof of at least one “Russian agent” working within Shishov’s entourage. Christo Grozev, the outlet’s star sleuth, says the investigation has already discovered “some crossover” between Shishov’s final movements and the Russian officer. But so far it isn’t enough to make any firm conclusions.
Many in the Belarusian diaspora remain highly suspicious of the BDU, the organisation to which Shishov devoted his final months.
They point to the shadowy involvement of far-right nationalists Rodion Batulin and Sergei Korotikh, aka “Botsman”. Both are originally from Belarus, but they are better known as the architects of Ukraine’s controversial “Azov” military battalion. In the year leading up to Shishov’s death, the two men apparently took a keen interest in new emigres from Belarus: helping them “solve” legal problems, finding them flats and jobs, often in grey sectors. Detractors say that created a cycle of dependence.
The same critics point to a number of suspicious deaths and suicides in the mens’ immediate entourage.
Korotkhikh, who graduated from an academy of the Belarusian KGB before being naturalised as a Ukrainian citizen, features in investigations into Pavlo Sheremet’s unsolved murder. He was a close comrade of the lead suspect in the 2000 killing of Sheremet’s cameraman, Dmitry Zavadsky, in Minsk. There is no conclusive proof linking Korotkhikh to any of the crimes, however. Before his own death, Sheremet wrote a piece saying he believed the neo-Nazi had nothing to do with his cameraman’s murder.
Ukraine’s security service appears to have passed its own judgement on Batulin, meanwhile. In early August, just a few days after Shishov’s death, the mixed martial arts fighter was banned from entering the country on grounds of “national security”. It is unclear if this has anything to do with the ongoing investigation into Shishov’s death, but the timing certainly looks suspicious.
In a sharp-edged phone interview, Korotkikh tells The Independent he wouldn’t “fantasise” about Batulin’s problems nor the reasons for Shishov’s death. He “barely knew” Shishov, he says, and dismisses “silly” allegations he could still be working for the Belarusian KGB. Korotkikh “is and always was” a sworn opponent of Lukashenko. “On the day of the elections I made a blog to say I think that he should leave,” he says. “And now I think he should be jailed, and possibly even shot.”
Fact-checking the Korotkikh blog adds grey to an already murky picture. Yes, the Azov hardman does criticise Lukashenko, but he does so without tremendous passion. And he also suggests the only alternative, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, is a “Russian agent”, and therefore worse.
“If you’re confused, welcome to our world,” jokes Gleb Kovalev, the owner of Kiev’s Belarusian diaspora bar, which has just opened across the road from the Bessarabian market. Kovalev pours a drink before telling me what he had found out on his own journey, extracting himself and his bar from central Minsk to Kiev, via smoke grenades, police raids, divorce and Poland.
“There’s more to this diaspora than meets the eye,” he says. If in Minsk, you’d know which side someone was on by their readiness to carry the white and red Belarusian independence flag, but things are different in Ukraine, he adds. “Kiev is the only place in the world I’ve seen people carrying a swastika alongside the Belarusian independence flag.”
Regulars at the bar, who are mostly on the left, say they have all become more careful about their safety since the Shishov episode. They don’t believe the police will protect them, they say; some have even taken protection into their own hands. But for them, the threat is not so much from Lukashenko’s agents as it is from the local far right.
“We’ve come to understand you have to split the diaspora into three,” one of them tells me (he asks to remain anonymous). “There are those you can be friends with; those you can’t; and those you simply don’t know enough about.
“Not everyone arriving in town for the first time realises that,” he adds, “and Shishov, I think, might have been one of them.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies