Russian troops entered Kherson on March 1. Since then, the southern city has been under their de facto control. Ukrainian politician Ihor Kolykhaiev remains the city’s mayor. He has already been forced to notify residents of the Russian troops’ demands: “walk alone or, at most, in pairs,” “do not provoke the soldiers,” and “stop what you’re doing immediately upon request.” This has not, however, prevented Kherson residents from holding large-scale, pro-Ukrainian rallies. Meduza spoke with Kherson-based journalist Konstantin Ryzhenko about the current state of the city.
Please note. This interview was first published in Russian on March 8, 2022.
Are there a lot of Russian soldiers in Kherson right now?
For the past two days, ever since people started holding rallies protesting the occupation, all Russian troops have left the city. All of Kherson is racking their brains, trying to understand why. My guess is that they’re doing this to avoid accusations of causing a humanitarian crisis, so they can then come back and provide aid to make themselves look good.
Instead of the troops, we now have the Rosgvardiya [Russian National Guard] and its SOBR [Special Rapid Response Units] with riot vans.
Is there fighting? Are they targeting civilian objects?
The fighting continues but luckily, it’s currently taking place outside of the city limits. Civilian targets are not currently being shelled, but when they were taking the city, they were bombing people’s homes and grocery stores. In Nova Kakhovka [another town in the Kherson region], either Rosgvardiya or SOBR forces attempted to disperse a rally using sting ball grenades, they were indiscriminately firing on the crowd with rubber bullets. Today, we learned that one person was killed there.
How are the food supplies?
People are panicked, so they are taking everything off the shelves. This is normal in this kind of situation. My sense is that we are heading for a humanitarian disaster, because only people with money were able to stockpile enough food. The poorer ones are already starting to starve.
We are in dire need of medicines, especially those for the chronically ill and cancer patients. These medicines are rare, before, they had to be special ordered, and now they’re basically impossible to find. You can’t get them because the city is blockaded.
The Russian troops created the blockade by demonstratively not touching the population, but also not allowing us to leave the city to get supplies. At the same time, they periodically offer us “humanitarian aid” from Crimea. Nobody want to accept this on principle. Even if people have no food at all, they would rather ask for some from their neighbors or in chat groups.
The occupiers’ logic is simple: we will be violently peaceful, we won’t touch you, we’ll just lay in wait until you get so hungry that you accept our aid, and then we will take photos of you and use them to spread disinformation through every channel, like, “Kherson and the [Kherson] region want to be part of the Russian Federation.”
What is going on with the humanitarian corridors?
No one is providing them for us. It’s impossible to evacuate no matter how much you want to. We are literally blockaded. There are rumors that people are managing to escape in the direction of Mykolayiv through the swamps. But this is only a handful of people. Most likely, they’re taking the hunting and fishing trails that nobody knows except them.
Are the communications systems working within the city?
Yes. We have phone and Internet, but sometimes they go out. Providers have told me that we are on the same fiber optic network as Mykolayiv, where there is fighting. So the wires are occasionally getting shelled — it’s unclear whether or not this is intentional.
Is there resistance beside the rallies? How do the Russian troops react to it?
Territorial Defense volunteers were rounded up and shot on the first day of the invasion, even though most of them weren’t even armed. That’s why we have no other way to resist, all we can do is hold non-violent rallies with our flags, and shout “We don’t need to be ‘liberated’! We don’t need to be ‘denazified’! We want to live in our own country and we are against everything that Russia is doing on our land!”
Like I said, the troops have left the city. The SOBR and Rosgvardiya don’t really interfere in the rallies, they just watch them and conduct drone surveillance. On the first day, the SOBR attempted to carry on the great Russian tradition of dragging someone out of the crowd and beating them with their clubs. However, our people can’t just stand by and watch that kind of thing, and the entire crowd rushed to free that person. The officers had to fire into the air. Excuse me, but we already went through this in 2014. That kind of thing won’t work here. The people stood up, they are standing, and they will continue to stand.
Has there been an increase in crime?
Surprisingly enough, there are practically no conflicts among city residents. Our city has never been very peaceful in terms of crime, but as soon as the war broke out, Kherson came together as much as possible. There were a lot of looters for a few days, but the people have united against that. Volunteers from the municipal guard and business leaders organized a special chat group and quickly caught all [the perpetrators]. They were tied to posts with packing tape and conveyer belts and beaten up. This was a lesson to everyone. Now people out in the streets are only helping each other.
How are the Russian soldiers behaving?
The Russians soldiers simply don’t understand what they’re doing here. There are a lot of reports [in the group chats about looters] that they are just robbing our stores and businesses. For example, yesterday they robbed Nova Poshta, the largest shipping business in Kherson, tearing through unsent packages. One business owner said that they took everything they could carry out of his fishing resort: equipment, mattresses, silverware. They even shot the sturgeons in his pool. I don’t know why they did that, maybe the fish gave them the Nazi salute. A lot of the Russian soldiers are just getting wasted, wandering around, and shooting at stuff at random.
Have you heard of any conflicts between the civilians and the troops or Rosgvardiya?
Outside of the rallies, basically, no. But two days ago, people in Chornobayivka, which is right outside of Kherson, asked a Russian soldier for a light, and then there was some kind of argument that ended in both of them getting shot. There are photographs of their bodies.
What do you see happening in the next few weeks?
I couldn’t tell you, because the frontlines are constantly moving. I can’t even tell you what’s going to happen tomorrow.
I think that our mayor is going to stay in his position because nobody here has made any moves to create a wartime administration. De jure, we’re not even technically under Russian control, Kherson is legally in a grey zone. On the one hand, the Geneva Conventions apply to us, and on the other, no one has taken away the mayor’s power over the city, we are completely under Ukraine’s jurisdiction.
I don’t think that they’re going to try to create a local occupation government here. Kherson is just going to be used as a transit base. But I hope that we’re going to get the Russian Army the hell out of here soon.
Translation by Bela Shayevich