‘Two months of terrorism’ A dispatch from Kherson, where Russian occupiers are poised to conduct a sham referendum
After the war in Ukraine began, the Russian army captured Kherson within days. Kherson residents were defiant; they continued flying the Ukrainian flag on the city council building and have held multiple protest rallies against Russian occupation. Meanwhile, the local media, now under Russian control, regularly reports that residents of the entire Kherson region will soon decide via referendum whether to create a Kherson “People’s Republic” (KNR) analogous to the Russian-backed puppet states in Donetsk and Luhansk. A journalist living in Kherson, who chose to remain anonymous, spoke to Meduza about what life is like there.
Kherson has been under Russian occupation for almost two months. That's been enough time for us to go through all of the stages of grief, from denial to acceptance. At first, we held out hope that the Ukrainian army would protect us. But that didn’t work out, and the Russian army now controls Kherson.
On March 2, the day after the Russian military arrived, the entire city began living on the hope that someone would come to our defense. But the battles near Kyiv, Mariupol, and Izyum needed reinforcements, and doing everything necessary to defend Kherson would have meant withdrawing troops from the capital, which nobody was going to do. That’s what happens to border towns: they’re the first to take a hit and the first to get occupied.
It took some time to get used to the idea that the city had fallen. We had to adapt to the new realities of life: constant explosions (fighting continues around the city); long lines in stores; the word “shortage,” which we thought we'd left behind long ago. Once we adapted, the agonizing period of waiting for “liberation” began.
A few days after the occupation, Russian soldiers came to Kherson’s mayor, Ihor Kolykhaiev, with a list of demands. For example, they put limits on how people could move through the city: no more than two people together at once, and a curfew was established. But nobody claimed to have any rights to the city; nobody was talking about setting up a military government. The city was still run by a Ukrainian administration under the Ukrainian flag. But it was effectively being blockaded.
Meanwhile, the media began to report on what would happen next. Some reports said they would create a KNR; others talked about a “Crimean scenario” — incorporation into Russia. All of the options entailed separation from Ukraine. It was like they were testing the waters to see how the city’s residents would react.
Despite the city’s pro-Russian reputation, thousands of people gathered in the city center for a rally they called “Kherson is Ukraine” after what was literally the first report suggesting they might create a Kherson People’s Republic. Residents expressed their opposition to any kind of referendum or incorporation into Russia at all. The city didn’t have any Ukrainian soldiers — there was no way to fight — but the population still wanted to send the message to Russian soldiers that they aren’t welcome here and nobody needs their “liberation.”
They started holding these rallies regularly. But when the SOBR [Special Rapid Response Units] and Rosgvardiya [Russian National Guard] units appeared in the city, the protests became dangerous. They started breaking protests up with batons and firing tear gas on the protesters. Anyone they managed to detain was herded away on mini-buses they stole from local businesses.
Russian soldiers figured out where protesters lived and started coming to them at night and in the morning — and taking them away. We still don’t know what happened to many of the victims. Overall, according to the Ukrainian Armed Forces' General Staff, around 400 residents of the Kherson region have been detained. Those who have been released have been reluctant to talk about their experiences and have stopped attending protests.
Local journalist Oleg Baturin was one of the people captured. After his release, he said his captors had beaten, tortured, and abused him; he’s been diagnosed with rib fractions. On March 30, Ukrainian Orthodox priest Serhii Chudynovych was taken directly from his church. During his one day in captivity, he was beaten.
Every few days, new rumors spread on the city’s Telegram channels that Kherson will become the next Mariupol or Bucha. In the last couple of weeks, reports have spread about men from nearby villages being forced to dig trenches for Russian military equipment, disguise the equipment, and load shells.
As a result, most of the city’s population started leaving in a panic — the city is almost empty. The occupying forces don’t usually prevent anyone from leaving, but they do check people’s documents, compare them to a list, and force them to strip down to their underwear to get checked for [nationalist] tattoos.
The streets became deserted; most of the cars disappeared. Soon, the only people left in Kherson were the ones who couldn’t leave for whatever reason or who stubbornly refused to leave their hometown.
After two months of this terrorism, it’s become clear that most of the people left in the city are so frightened that when they see a car marked with the “Z” symbol, they immediately try to hide so as not to be seen by a Russian soldier.
On the other hand, if you don’t go outside or go on the Internet, and just watch TV, which only shows Russian channels now, you’ll get a fairly positive impression of what’s going on in Kherson. It basically goes like this: “Russian soldiers came to the Kherson region and de-Nazified it; peace and order ensued. Russian soldiers are giving food to the starving people, and it’s arriving in humanitarian convoys from the caring Crimeans. Meanwhile, the fact that Kherson’s newfound freedom has angered the Ukrainian authorities, and they’ve started shelling the city, but Russian air defense is protecting the liberated, primordially Russian Kherson.”
On April 25, Russian soldiers took control of the city council building, which until then had still been run by a Ukrainian mayor under a Ukrainian flag. All of the Ukrainian symbols and flags were removed (though no Russian flag has been put up yet) and new Russian administrators moved in.
According to recent media reports, a “referendum” is planned for April 27. Kherson residents fear this means Kherson will follow the model of the LNR and DNR.
Their fears are not unfounded. A week ago, three dozen or so people carrying Russian flags gathered in the town of Kakhovka, not far from Kherson. The town is small enough that everyone knows each other, but nobody recognized these newcomers. Presumably, they were Russian soldiers dressed in civilian clothes.
Kherson residents have been planning to take to the streets again on April 27 to protest against the creation of a KNR and the region’s incorporation into Russia, but given how few people are left in the city, the protest could easily turn into a massacre. Everyone knows that perfectly well.