KHERSON, Ukraine — The jailhouse near the Dnipro River where the Russians imprisoned and tortured hundreds of Ukrainians sits empty now. Many of its inmates were freed when Ukraine’s forces liberated the city more three months ago.
But one prominent prisoner is still missing: the city’s former mayor, Ihor Kolykhaev.
The mayor, who refused to flee and for a while remained at his post after Russian forces swept into Kherson, was arrested in June and put in solitary confinement. In the fall, as Ukrainian forces advanced on the city, Mr. Kolykhaev’s jailers moved him deeper inside Russian-held territory, according to witnesses.
He has not been heard from since.
The disappearance has deepened questions swirling around Mr. Kolykhaev and the role he tried to play. Though he refused to acknowledge the Russians’ authority or swear fealty to them, he remained at his desk, working to keep the lights on and the buses running. The decision helped to ensure a livable city but also smoothed the way for Russian forces to create an occupation government.
Many city residents consider the 52-year-old former mayor a hero for staying put even as much of the political and security establishment fled in the opening days of the war.
But others harbor suspicions about the mayor’s loyalties that even his arrest and imprisonment have not dispelled.
The competing views about Mr. Kolykhaev underscore the complexities of assessing loyalties in wartime Ukraine, particularly in occupied territories.
With Russians in control, what counts as treachery is often fuzzy. It does not have to be something as serious as abetting the Russian military. Teachers and police officers who did nothing more than continue to show up at work have been disparaged by those who fled, and in some cases, they were arrested after liberation.
“There’s a lot of talk and leaks saying that he’s a traitor, he gave up the city,” said Dmitry Poddubnyi, a Kherson City Council member, who remained by the mayor’s side until his arrest. “We spent so much time with him. We slept all together in the City Council building. Every day we were together, and I never saw anything like that.”
Kherson’s prosecutor has opened a criminal investigation into the mayor’s disappearance but said in an interview that he had no information regarding his whereabouts. The lack of progress has angered Mr. Kolykhaev’s son, Svyatoslav, who said that he had started his own inquiry, interviewing as many as 20 people who laid eyes on his father during his incarceration. But he has come up with little more than rumors.
“I got information that he got sick,” he said. “For now, I honestly don’t know.”
Supporters say Mr. Kolykhaev never intended to collaborate with the occupiers. Days after the invasion started, heavily armed commandoes marched up to his third-floor office and demanded he capitulate. The Russian military already effectively controlled the city, and a refusal could have resulted in arrest, imprisonment or worse.
He refused, according to his bodyguard, who was present.
The mayor “told them, ‘I can’t do that because I am a citizen of Ukraine, because the people elected me and I won’t abandon them,’” said the bodyguard, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals over his own role during the occupation.
Why Russian forces let him remain in place remains a mystery, but it was an uneasy accommodation.
The Russian forces seemed happy to have him at the helm at first, as he freed them from the responsibility of running the city as they set about building an occupation government. In exchange, the mayor refrained from openly criticizing them or publicly supporting the large protests against the occupation that broke out in the first weeks.
But the mayor refused to acknowledge the Russians’ authority. He rebuffed several attempts by Russian commanders, sometimes at gunpoint, to compel him to switch sides, according to people who were with him throughout the occupation. And he ensured that the Ukrainian flag still flew over the city administration building while he continued to work there.
In his frequent Facebook posts, which he wrote in Russian, the most commonly spoken language in Kherson, he tried to buck up the spirits of Kherson residents and often signed off with the phrase “Kherson is Ukraine,” accompanied by a Ukrainian flag emoji.
“I’m not a soldier,” the mayor wrote in one Facebook post in June. “My task is to preserve our common home and maintain our city in proper condition.”
The stance earned him critics, among them the former governor of the Kherson region, Hennadiy Lahuta, who fled Kherson on the second day of the war. In a lengthy interview in June with the Ukrainian news outlet Glavkom, Mr. Lahuta said he had advised Mr. Kolykhaev to leave as well.
“On Feb. 25, Kolykhaev definitely understood that the enemy would enter Kherson,” Mr. Lahuta said. “No matter his elected office and business, he should have left the city, because a parallel existence between the occupier and the Ukrainian government doesn’t exist. Those lines will eventually cross.”
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That viewpoint, held by others who left Kherson, helped foster suspicions about Mr. Kolykhaev’s loyalties that still linger today.
Mr. Kolykhaev dismissed the criticism of outsiders whom he accused of failing to grasp the reality of life under occupation.
“Unlike those who carry out their service to the country only through television screens, I am present in the city, responsible for its functioning and the security of those living in it,” he wrote in one Facebook post. “Only the city residents can judge me and my actions.”
Among the mayor’s strongest supporters are those who suffered most during the occupation.
Andriy Andryushchenko, 28, was a nightclub director before the invasion and helped form an underground resistance group. He said he was arrested over the summer and tortured for 47 days at the same prison where Mr. Kolykhaev was held. Russian guards, he said, knocked out half his teeth and administered electric shocks through wires attached to his genitals. He and his fellow inmates were given one cup of macaroni and a glass of water per day.
Mr. Andryushchenko is now a member of the Kherson military administration overseeing the distribution of humanitarian aid. He said he had known the mayor for years.
“I don’t think he’s a traitor,” he said of the mayor. “He supported the city and didn’t give it up. Of course, he had to be in contact with them, but under the barrel of a gun.”
All the mayor’s efforts at accommodation did not save him from imprisonment. In April, Russia’s military commandants expelled him and his team from the city administration building, installing a puppet mayor as Mr. Kolykhaev continued to work from another location. In June, Russia’s domestic intelligence service, the F.S.B., arrested him and his bodyguard and threw them into a jail for political prisoners. His bodyguard was released months later.
The Russians were quick to use the ambiguity of the mayor’s situation in their efforts to break resistance to their presence.
The first question a Russian interrogator asked Oleksandr Maksimenko after he was arrested in July was about the mayor, Mr. Maksimenko said. How would he feel, the interrogator asked, if he learned that the mayor had capitulated, obtained a Russian passport and abandoned his people?
“I had doubts,” said Mr. Maksimenko, who said he was imprisoned because he was head of the local affiliate of a Ukrainian government think tank. “What if it’s true?”
It was a few weeks later when, by accident, he saw Mr. Kolykhaev, who was largely kept out of sight of the other inmates. A guard in the prison had left the mayor’s cell door ajar, and he happened to be standing in the doorway.
“We saw each other and looked each other in the eyes,” Mr. Maksimenko said. “He sincerely smiled at me and I at him. In that way, we supported each other.”
“That was the last I saw him,” he said.
On the street where Mr. Kolykhaev had a private office in central Kherson, the facades of the little cottages are painted with the frescoes of angels and hot air balloons, a project that the mayor financed himself. Kherson now has a new mayor, Halyna Luhova, who is a member of Mr. Kolykhaev’s political party.
Close by, an artillery duel was underway last month between Ukrainian forces in the city and the Russian troops, who still occupied the east bank of the Dnipro River.
The heavy booms elicited no reaction from Natalia Havrilenko, who was wearing a green camouflage flak jacket over a pink and blue puffer jacket. Ms. Havrilenko said she spent the first part of the occupation smuggling food and weapons to a small group of armed partisans fighting the Russians behind enemy lines.
Then she was arrested.
Though she spent several weeks at the same Kherson jail as the mayor, she saw him for the first time only in October, as Ukrainian forces were pressing in and the Russians moved them to another location across the river. He had grown thinner, she said, but showed no signs of torture.
She said she saw “no fear in his eyes,” and from their brief conversations in the prison yard, she said, she believed that he had remained true to Ukraine.
Some residents of Kherson think Mr. Kolykhaev is being held captive in Russian-controlled territory. Others think he is dead. Those more skeptical of his actions wonder if he is living it up in Russia.
Ms. Havrilenko is firm in her conviction. Kherson had many traitors, she said. The mayor was not one of them.
“Everyone abandoned the city,” she said. “There was no one from the leadership left. He was the only one who stayed.”