The billboards that still line the main road into Kherson promise that “Russia is here forever.” And there were times when residents of this city, which was liberated on Friday by the Ukrainian military, feared that their future was indeed to live as involuntary citizens of the Russian Federation.
Through more than eight months of occupation, this city – the biggest prize captured by Russian forces in more than 260 days of war – and the lives of its residents were integrated into Russia step by forced step.
First to change was television. Kherson’s main TV tower was destroyed on March 1, the same day Russian tanks and infantry entered the city. When the signal was restored, Kremlin-controlled broadcasts, which falsely described Vladimir Putin’s colonial-style invasion of Ukraine as an operation to liberate the country from its “Nazi” leaders, were the only ones on the airwaves.
Three months later, Ukrainian cellular phone networks were suddenly blocked, forcing residents to purchase Russian SIM cards – which they could only do by presenting their passports to the occupation authorities, something many Kherson residents were afraid to do. Next came the currency, with the Ukrainian hryvnia gradually phased out in favour of the Russian ruble. Kherson residents were also forced to live their lives on Moscow time, with all clocks set one hour ahead of the rest of Ukraine.
“At first, people refused to take anything from Russia, pensions or anything. Then with some time, they created such conditions for us that we were starving here, that we had to take it … people were starving,” said Julia Rudeva, a 31-year-old acrobat who came to Kherson’s main square with her friends on Sunday to celebrate, for a third straight day, the end of Russian rule. “But as soon as the Russian government evacuated … it took one day for people to get rid of the ruble. No one accepts it any more.”
Ukrainian symbols and infrastructure returned to Kherson with impressive speed on the weekend – just six weeks after Mr. Putin claimed to have annexed the entire region – even as regional governor Yaroslav Yanushevych warned residents on Sunday not to gather in the city centre because “the enemy has placed mines almost everywhere.” He ordered a 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. curfew as the Ukrainian military continued to hunt for pockets of resistance in and around the city.
On Saturday, the city’s main ATB grocery store began restocking its shelves with familiar Ukrainian products as the first trucks full of foodstuffs arrived. On Sunday, the Kyivstar mobile phone company was erecting a tower on the city’s main Freedom Square, as elated residents gathered around, anxiously flicking at their phones in the hopes of finding a signal and ignoring the sounds of a relentless artillery duel somewhere in the distance.
Ms. Rudeva’s watch, however, was still set to Moscow time. “We’re still in transition now,” she said when it was pointed out to her. “We’re lost at this moment.”
Repression was another feature of the occupation. While Russian troops met little resistance when they entered the city in March, Kherson residents were nonetheless defiant in their opposition to Russian rule. They staged a series of peaceful demonstrations, including one where protesters marched through the city centre carrying a massive Ukrainian flag.
The protests were initially tolerated, but Russia’s FSB security service soon began hunting for those who had taken part. Multiple residents told The Globe and Mail how they had seen citizens abducted off the streets, with bags put over the victims’ heads before they were forced into cars. Some were interrogated for several days and then released, others were never seen again.
“People would come up to you and say they supported Ukraine, and if you responded they would grab you,” said Irina Dobrinina, a 42-year-old salesperson. “People who told the truth went missing.”
Ms. Rudeva, who previously worked as a translator for Canadian government-funded election monitoring missions, said the worst days of the occupation were the first ones, when Russian soldiers would fire on cars without any apparent reason. “We were finding a lot of shot cars in the city. There were a lot of corpses in them,” she said. Rape was also commonplace. “Women were scared to go out. I dressed myself the worst I could. People stayed inside.”
In his nightly video address on Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that investigators had already found evidence of more than 400 alleged war crimes committed by the occupying forces. “Bodies of dead civilians and servicemen have been found,” he said.
Some locals disappeared after sending information to the Ukrainian military that helped them target the Russian troops based in and around the city. “We tried to investigate the locations of the Russian troops and to send the co-ordinates to our contacts in the Ukrainian-controlled areas,” said Alexandra Parkhomenko, a 30-year-old teacher. The effort ended, she said, when her point of contact, another woman living in Kherson, was abducted and taken to a prison in nearby Crimea.
The crowdsourced intelligence operation was effective while it lasted. Ukrainian artillery pounded the Russian base at Chornobaivka, a military airport on the outskirts of the city, so often that Chornobaivka became linked with the movie Groundhog Day in Ukrainian online memes. Hundreds of Russian troops, including two-star General Yakov Rezantsev, were reportedly killed in the attacks.
Not everyone in Kherson resisted. The defence of the city ended so quickly in March that many here believe the local political elites cut a deal to hand the city over. Russian salaries and pensions were often higher than those in Ukraine, and many Kherson residents – Russia claims 115,000 – accepted an offer to be evacuated across the Dnipro River to other Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine before Russian troops withdrew from the city last week
“In this city, 80 per cent were working for the Russians, and they were getting well-paid,” said Artem Yureyivech, a 40-year-old entrepreneur who stood on the square silently watching the celebrations on Sunday. While some of those who accepted the Russian offer to be evacuated wanted to get of Kherson because they feared there would be prolonged urban warfare in the city, he said, others “were worried they would be killed or repressed because they were working with the Russians.”
Russian troops left behind a city – which had a prewar population of almost 300,000 – that on Sunday was still without electricity, heat, water or communications. As Kyivstar raced to restore mobile phone service, a crowd gathered in a park on the edge of the river where they could still get a signal using their Russian SIM cards.
Tatiana Ivanovna said she was trying unsuccessfully on Sunday to call her children, who were staying with their grandmother in another Ukrainian city, to tell them that she was okay. Though the first Ukrainian troops had reached the city on Friday, she said it had taken her 48 hours to believe that the Russians really were gone from Kherson.
“On Friday, I didn’t believe it. I thought it was a trick,” the 42-year-old grocer said. “Only today when we see so many Ukrainian flags in the city did we start to believe it.”
Back on Freedom Square, a squad of Ukrainian troops were greeted like rock stars when they arrived in front of the city’s main administration building. Oleh Khilyuk, a 19-year-old student, asked each of them to autograph a blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag that he could not have waved until Friday.
“It’s a piece of history, a souvenir of the time when we were liberated,” Mr. Khilyuk said with a wide smile. “If not for the soldiers whose names are on this flag, we would not be free.”