Billboards that still line the main road to Kherson promise that “Russia is here forever”. And there were times when residents of this town, liberated on Friday by the Ukrainian military, feared that their future was indeed to live as unwitting citizens of the Russian Federation.
During more than eight months of occupation, this city – the biggest hold captured by Russian forces in more than 260 days of war – and the lives of its inhabitants have been forced into Russia step by step.
The first 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 misrepresented Vladimir Putin’s colonial invasion of Ukraine as an operation to liberate the country from its ‘Nazi’ rulers, were the only ones on the air. .
Three months later, Ukrainian cellphone networks were suddenly blocked, forcing residents to buy Russian SIM cards – something they could only do by showing their passports to the occupying authorities, which many residents from Kherson were afraid to do. Then comes the currency, the Ukrainian hryvnia gradually being abandoned in favor of the Russian ruble. Residents of Kherson 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 over time they created such conditions for us that we were starving here, we had to take it… people were starving,” said Julia Rudeva, a 31-year-old acrobat who came to the main square of Kherson with his friends on Sunday to celebrate, for a third consecutive day, the end of Russian domination. “But as soon as the Russian government evacuated… it took a day for people to get rid of the rouble. No one accepts it anymore. »
Ukrainian symbols and infrastructure returned to Kherson with impressive speed over the weekend – just six weeks after Mr Putin claimed to have annexed the entire region – even as regional governor Yaroslav Yanushevych on Sunday warned residents not to not gather in the city center because “the enemy placed mines almost everywhere. He ordered a curfew from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. as the Ukrainian army continued to hunt pockets of resistance in and around town.
On Saturday, the city’s main ATB grocery store began restocking its shelves with familiar Ukrainian products as the first truckloads of food arrived. Mobile phone company Kyivstar erected a tower in the city’s main Freedom Square on Sunday as elated residents gathered, anxiously flicking through their phones in the hope of finding a signal and ignoring the sounds of a duel relentless artillery somewhere in the distance. .
Mrs. Rudeva’s watch, however, was still set to Moscow time. “We’re still in transition now,” she said when pointed out. “We are lost right now.”
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Repression was another characteristic of the occupation. While Russian troops encountered 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 in which protesters marched through the city center carrying a huge Ukrainian flag.
The protests were initially tolerated, but Russia’s FSB security service soon began chasing those who participated. Several residents told The Globe and Mail how they saw citizens being abducted from the streets, with bags placed 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 support Ukraine, and if you answered, they caught you,” said Irina Dobrinina, a 42-year-old saleswoman. “People who told the truth have disappeared.”
Ms Rudeva, who previously worked as a translator for Canadian government-funded election monitoring missions, said the worst days of the occupation were early, when Russian soldiers fired on cars for no apparent reason. “We were finding a lot of shot down cars in the city. There were a lot of corpses in there,” she said. Rape was also commonplace. “The women were afraid to go out. I dressed in the worst way I could. People stayed inside.
In his nightly video address on Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said investigators had already found evidence of more than 400 alleged war crimes committed by occupation forces. “The bodies of dead civilians and soldiers have been found,” he said.
Some residents disappeared after sending information to the Ukrainian military that helped them target Russian troops based in and around the town. “We tried to investigate the locations of Russian troops and send the coordinates to our contacts in areas under Ukrainian control,” 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 participatory intelligence operation was effective while it lasted. Ukrainian artillery pounded the Russian base at Chornobivka, a military airport on the outskirts of town, so often Chornobaivka has become linked with the film groundhog day in Ukrainian online memes. Hundreds of Russian soldiers, including two-star general Yakov Rezantsev, were reportedly killed in the attacks.
Not everyone in Kherson resisted. The city’s defense ended so quickly in March that many here believe the local political elites struck a deal to cede the city. Russian salaries and pensions were often higher than in Ukraine, and many residents of Kherson – Russia claims 115,000 – accepted an offer to evacuate across the Dnipro River to other parts of Russian-occupied Ukraine before the withdrawal of Russian troops from the city last week.
“In this city, 80% worked for Russians and they were well paid,” said Artem Yureyivech, a 40-year-old entrepreneur who stood in the square silently watching the celebrations on Sunday. While some of those who accepted the Russian offer to evacuate wanted to leave Kherson because they feared there would be a protracted urban warfare in the city, he said, others “feared be killed or repressed because they worked with the Russians. .”
Russian troops left behind a city – which had a pre-war population of almost 300,000 – which as of Sunday was still without electricity, heat, water or communications. As Kyivstar rushed to restore cell phone service, a crowd gathered in a riverside park where they could still get a signal using their Russian SIM cards.
Tatiana Ivanovna explained that she tried in vain on Sunday to call her children, who were staying with their grandmother in another Ukrainian city, to tell them that she was fine. Although the first Ukrainian troops reached the city on Friday, she said it took her 48 hours to believe the Russians had really left Kherson.
“Friday, I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was a trick,” the 42-year-old grocer said. “It was only today, when we see so many Ukrainian flags in the city, that we started going there. to believe.”
Back in Freedom Square, a squad of Ukrainian soldiers were greeted like rock stars when they arrived outside the city’s main administrative building. Oleh Khilyuk, a 19-year-old student, asked each of them to sign a blue and yellow Ukrainian flag, which he could only wave on Friday.
“It’s a piece of history, a memory of when we were liberated,” Mr Khilyuk said with a broad smile. “Without the soldiers whose names appear on this flag, we would not be free.”