The southern Ukrainian city of Kherson remains the only regional center in the country that Russia has managed to seize, and Kherson residents have been living under Russian occupation for over a month. Ukrainian TV is long gone, cell coverage is patchy, and the streets are patrolled by Russian troops. Ukraine-leaning citizens vanish without a trace.
NV spoke with a resident of the city, who, understandably, chose to remain anonymous.
NV: How would you describe living in Kherson in recent days?
Kherson resident: First of all, there are a lot more checkpoints throughout the city, lots of controls. For example, while our buses continue to operate, albeit on a rather sparse schedule, today the occupying troops were stopping them – to check everyone’s IDs. A couple days ago, several guys were taken off a bus, beaten, and taken somewhere. That sort of thing happens. Maybe someone ratted them out, I don’t know.
We thought, long and hard, what could explain this sudden surge in checks and inspections. One explanation would be that they are looking for Ukrainian recon squads, since there’s fighting going on only 20 kilometers away. Another one – and I find it more likely – is that they are looking for their own deserters. There’s a lot of chatter about troops Russia mobilized in so-called “people’s republics” that were deployed to Kherson Oblast, who simply refuse to participate in this war. They desert their regiments, hide in villages, and, perhaps, try to blend in in Kherson. They steal, or barter for, civilian clothes. And that’s not new. The area is swarming with semi-regular troops from these unrecognized “republics”, (South) Ossetia, there are even allegations of Kadyrov’s goons around. I never saw the latter kind.
Another recent development is that many locals are trying to flee the city. Everyone understands that as the whole thing drags on, looting becomes a problem, as well as terror tactics – following the footage from Bucha.
NV: Where can one flee to from Kherson these days? Is it possible to get to free Ukraine?
Resident: We have several routes out. Kherson Oblast is vast, and while Kherson itself is on Dnipro’s right bank, there are parts on the left bank as well. Most are trying to get to the mainland. Some bolt to Crimea, getting to Russia, Georgia, or Turkey from there. Many people form convoys of 500 or so cars, trying to get to Ukraine proper. There are a lot of Russian checkpoints on the way, where people are extorted for food, cigarettes, or vodka. For instance, Yevhen Hryshyk, a local official, recommended having a lot of vodka and cigarettes to barter with. Those things could buy you another lease on life from the goons blocking the road.
On some routes it can be done with cash. While initially they were demanding mind-boggling sums, these days it’s much cheaper to skip town: an equivalent of a bottle of vodka, cigarettes, or canned food; some might steal something from you. A guy I know had a power-bank taken from him, for example. With more checkpoints and fewer occupying troops, it has become more feasible to try and leave. They aren’t marauding looters yet, but its getting close to that.
There are harrowing reports from the villages, though. We don’t know much, but many instances of looting and violence will emerge, once the region gets liberated. There’s some chatter about private cars getting shot at, but it’s not yet as systemic as it was in Kyiv oblast.
Another thing – the humanitarian crisis here is mounting. While we still have food and staples, there’s less and less to go around. Volunteers are helping seniors, disabled, and poor people, cooking them dinners, but they are starting to say that they’re simply running out of food to cook those dinners with. People with cash on hand are fine, Kherson is an agricultural region, so produce is readily available at the nearby market. Meat and grains, though – besides rice, which is also grown nearby – are in short supply.
Things are much worse when it comes to medicine – there is simply none of it. Some people, in particular diabetics and cancer patients, are dying because of this. A friend of mine suffers from diabetes, and she says she knows the day of her death, exactly. All this is going on in the regional capital, mind you. Small towns and villages are even worse off. Local group chats are full of people looking to buy medicines at any price.
There are some ways of trying to get them. Our volunteers are very organized, we pool cars and drive to Mykolaiv to restock. But that doesn’t always pan out, and at any rate, it’s not enough to supply a large city this way. Yesterday, the head of one such organization said that the invaders took their entire haul of medicines at one of the checkpoints, worth $7,000. I suspect they will look to resell those themselves. At the same time, local businesses are becoming more active, starting to get supplies from Crimea.
Oh, and also: Russian humanitarian aid. International law, including the Geneva convention, mandates that Moscow has to provide such aid to people under its occupation. Food, medical supplies, etc. But for them, humanitarian aid is little more than publicity, filmed by their own media. Some residents then go on and sell Russia-provided supplies at local markets. Others take this food just to survive.
NV: We’ve heard reports of Russians hunting down activists in Kherson. How dangerous is it for openly pro-Ukraine people?
Resident: Yes, people have been getting abducted and beaten since early March. We don’t know how many people were targeted this way. The Kherson Prosecutor’s Office mentioned 137 people, including four journalists – two of whom were released. They raid and take people from their homes, severely beat and torture them. Some are later released, others remain missing.
Local officials, veterans of the war in Donbas, and SBU Security Service employees – both current and former members – are in the greatest danger here. Recently, several local officials and councilmembers left the region. They and their families were threatened. The mayor of Skadovsk, Oleksandr Yakovlev, has been roughed up several times already. There’s talk that there is now a facility in Kherson, where Ukrainian citizens are held captive and tortured – just like the infamous Izolyatsia in Donetsk.
NV: How are the Russians treating regular, non-political citizens?
Resident: To occupy the city and break our will, they effectively blockaded it, inducing hunger and fear. They’re basically hoping for Stockholm Syndrome – that humiliated, miserable slave-like people will start to feel affection for their captors. They’re making some progress there. Next is propaganda: days after taking Kherson, Ukrainian TV was gone, replaced by Russian broadcasts. There are numerous pro-Russia Telegram channels, filled with distorted news. At some point, after being cut off from reliable information and bombarded by misinformation, people start to doubt. That’s in addition to their pathetic humanitarian handouts.
Despite all that, the people of Kherson are very much opposed to the invaders. Constant attempts by the Russians to set up some phony local governments – in Nova Kakhovka, for example – are unsuccessful. People refuse to cooperate and legitimize them, and try to leave, instead. Some marginalized political freaks and corruptible individuals lead these “administrations.”
NV: How did the traditionally pro-Russia political forces react to the occupation?
Resident: Ah, that’s interesting, actually. For instance, one of the OPZH (pro-Russian Ukrainian political party) leaders in the Kherson city council, Yuri Stelmashenko, was making patriotic statements, serving as deputy mayor. He then announced that the local chapter of OPZH was disbanding. Another OPZH party official in Nova Kakhovka, Dmytro Vasyliev, similarly refused to cooperate with Russian troops. He was arrested, and is currently missing. Sure, there are those who cooperate, but they never do it openly. We have to keep in mind that sometimes they do it under coercion, when their families are threatened.
NV: Are Russians attempting to make their currency legal tender in Kherson?
Resident: No, nobody is using or accepting rubles here. They did some handouts in rubles – but it was purely for propaganda purposes. The Russian army is interested in perception, not reality. Their hold over Kherson is limited. While we are under the constant threat of being detained and imprisoned, they can’t control all of us, our daily lives.
And our lives run in parallel, not interacting much with the occupying troops. The vast majority of Kherson residents hate the invaders. All they can do is stage these asinine images for Russian TV: humanitarian aid, ruble handouts.
NV: Some media are suggesting that Ukrainian Armed Forces will soon try to liberate Kherson. Do you see any signs of that in the city?
Resident: There’s fierce positional warfare going on near the city. Our soldiers are relentless, gradually liberating the area, town by town. We understand that retaking Kherson won’t be easy, or quick. But we’re confident that our armed forces are doing everything they can to liberate the city.