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‘You can’t breathe freely’ Conversations with locals reveal realities of life under Russian occupation in Ukraine’s Kherson region

Source: Meduza

In early 2023, a worker from a Russian government organization traveled to a number of occupied towns and villages in Ukraine’s Kherson region. During the trip, this person, who we’ll refer to as “A.,” recorded his candid conversations with locals and took photographs of what he saw — and then turned over all of these materials to Meduza. The following story by Meduza special correspondent Kristina Safonova weaves together A.’s observations and the firsthand accounts from locals, offering insight into the fears, thoughts, and experiences of Ukrainians living under Russian occupation. 

Meduza first published this story in Russian on May 29, 2024. The following translation has been abridged for length and clarity.  

Grandmothers sitting outside of panel apartment buildings. Men drinking outside their garages. Children playing on the playground. It looks like an ordinary residential neighborhood — save for the roar of a Russian bomber flying overhead. 

The sound reminds A. of World War II films and evokes a “terrible feeling.” But the children are drawn to the noise in the sky. One of them, who looks to be five or six years old, tries to catch a glimpse of the plane. Another points and says, “There, it’s flying over there!” 

“They don’t understand that this machine just bombed or is on its way to bomb Ukrainian cities,” says A. As he puts it, this “juxtaposition of everyday life and the horror of war” has been a constant for people in Ukraine’s Kherson region since February 24, 2022.

A. works for a Russian government organization and Meduza has granted him anonymity for safety reasons. He had the opportunity to travel to occupied areas of the Kherson region through work in early 2023, more than a year into Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Though he could have refused, A. wanted to see for himself if Kremlin propaganda alleging newfound “prosperity” in the region was telling the truth. 

A. does not support the war. The following story is based on photos from his trip to the occupied territories and audio recordings of conversations he had with locals, which he provided to Meduza. “I wondered if this was worth the risk,” he admits. “But if it’s the one thing I can do, then others should see what I have seen.” 

‘We had never seen soldiers here’

The Russian army crossed into southern Ukraine from occupied Crimea on February 24, 2022, capturing most of the Kherson region by March. According to A., locals said the region came under occupation so quickly that all they remember from the war’s early days are “fragmentary memories” and a sense of bewilderment. 

Traveling through Crimea remains the most popular route into the occupied territories from Russia; it’s considered safer than the road connecting Russia’s Rostov region to the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics.” Russian soldiers, occupation officials, and volunteers use this route, as do pro-Kremlin media workers and “war correspondents.” Residents of Crimea also visit the neighboring Kherson region to see relatives or to set up businesses. 

“Some come from Russia for ‘ultra-patriotic reasons’ or just because,” says A. “It’s not a massive flow [of people], but it exists.”

The occupied areas of the Kherson region are home to “ordinary southern cities.” Despite the war, towns located on the Azov Sea still have a resort atmosphere, complete with sunshine, beaches, and people sitting outside on their verandas. Only the Russian soldiers patrolling the streets shatter this image; A. got the impression that the soldiers and the locals “exist in parallel but constantly intersecting worlds.” 

“We had never seen soldiers here; we never had any ‘little green men.’ We’ve never even had [military] drills here,” a local woman told A. He became convinced she was telling the truth after he visited an army surplus store and asked if they had any leftover Ukrainian goods. “There were never any army stores here [before]; there were grocery stores,” the shopkeeper replied. 

Invading Russian soldiers often clashed with locals at the start of the occupation. According to residents, the soldiers drank a lot, brawled, and raced KAMAZ trucks. They also looted locals’ valuables and moved into the empty homes of people who fled the war. 

Things grew calmer with time. “A balance was gradually established in the relations between locals and soldiers,” A. says. “The former live quietly and the latter generally leave them alone.” One resident said the guiding principle behind this “balance” is for locals to “stay out of trouble.” 

Some local women even began dating Russian soldiers. “Girls left their husbands and [started] going out with Russian soldiers. [You’ve got] your boring husband and then handsome men come along with money and fire in their eyes; hungry guys, without sex or feminine affection,” one local woman explained. In her opinion, locals enter into these relationships mainly out of self-interest: “They sleep with [Russian] soldiers in the hopes that they’ll get something out of it,” she said. 

Another resident who was herself dating a Russian army officer assured A. that their feelings were “really sincere and mutual.” The war and occupation are “more of a backdrop” for them, she said. 

Abandoned fields

In September 2022, Russia declared that it had officially annexed the Kherson region (along with Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia regions, which Russian forces only partially controlled). To justify its annexation plans, Russia staged sham referendums in these regions, under the supervision of armed soldiers and FSB agents. 

“They were afraid to go, but [locals] generally went to ‘vote,’” one Kherson resident recalled. “Nobody voted against; those who were against it didn’t go [to the polls]. There’s a war going on, who would vote against? Every other person [on the street] has a machine gun.” 

After the “vote,” Russia imposed martial law in the occupied territories. In the Kherson region, this included a nightly curfew and a ban on alcohol sales (according to several local residents, only a few shops and restaurants sell alcohol — and only under the table.)

Less than two months later, in November 2022, Russian forces retreated from the city of Kherson. The Russian occupation authorities declared Henichesk — a port city on the Azov Sea that had a pre-war population of around 18,000 people — the new “regional capital.” 

Having visited Henichesk, A. says the city struggled to accommodate the influx of Russian officials, security forces, and troops who fled Kherson in the fall of 2022. However, the occupation authorities quickly came up with a solution, he explains: “The expropriation of property, which was previously a private initiative, reached the institutional level.” One local noticed an increased number of cars with flashing lights and without license plates — or with vanity plates that said things like ZZZ, KHERSON, or AKHMAT. “For those [vehicles] there were neither [road] signs nor traffic lights — they were going 120 [km/hr],” he said. 

Pro-Russian residents also took part in the exodus from Kherson. “There were people who cooperated with the occupation administration in one way or another: from those who collaborated closely to those who worked in schools,” A. explains. “Some left for ideological reasons; some were simply afraid of being considered collaborators.” 

The most influential regional politician to support Moscow’s occupation of southern Ukraine, former Kherson Mayor Volodymyr Saldo, remains the Russia-installed “regional governor.” However, one pro-Russian activist who does humanitarian work in the occupied territories described Saldo as a “figurehead” who literally “does nothing.” 

There are few jobs in the region: many companies and enterprises were forced to shut down. On the streets of Henichesk and other occupied cities, it’s common to see signs advertising jobs in Russia. Before the full-scale invasion, many residents worked in the tourism industry. But now Russian soldiers are the main driver of economic life in the region. “The city is empty. Only the soldiers help us out. They go on leave and need to bring back some kind of souvenir,” said the owner of a local shop.

Fields where farmers once grew wheat and sunflowers now sit abandoned. “[Because of] the damn war, half the owners [of the land] have fled,” a resident told A. “There’s very good land here for [growing] vegetables, the largest irrigation complex in Europe. But all the logistics are tied to the [Ukrainian-controlled territories on the right bank of the river] Dnipro,” another local said. 

The occupation authorities have tried to “appease” the population with perks and social benefits, like free utilities and increased pensions (though locals complain that these payments are sometimes delayed). At the same time, prices have gone up several fold. Before the full-scale war, most goods were brought into the Kherson region from other parts of Ukraine. Now, they mainly come from Crimea. 

According to A., “plenty of villages” are experiencing shortages of goods ranging from clothes to medicines. As a result, many residents depend on humanitarian assistance. “Food packages are important for many. For some, they’re vital,” A. explains. According to locals, however, aid doesn’t always reach those in need. “Low-level officials carve up humanitarian aid among themselves. They keep the best for themselves and resell [the rest].”

‘Russian roulette’

A. visited several towns on the Russian-occupied side of the Dnipro River. Sometimes he heard people speaking Ukrainian in public or saw Ukrainian signs — reminders of life before the full-scale war. But next to those signs hung the Russian tricolor (sometimes painted over the Ukrainian flag) or banners honoring the “heroes of the special military operation.” 

In the occupied territories, Ukrainian radio and television stations are jammed. News from the “other side” is only accessible online via VPN. Many websites are blocked, including YouTube, and social networks like VKontakte and Telegram are flooded with pro-Russian content. Ukrainian history books have been removed from the libraries and schools have stopped teaching in Ukrainian, with the exception of language and literature classes.

The occupation administration devotes special attention to its work with children and youth, A. says. A network of Russian organizations helps in this endeavor — the biggest and most significant among them is a branch of the Russian paramilitary youth group Yunarmiya. Its cadets take part in “patriotic” runs, attend meet-and-greets with Russian soldiers, and even go to training grounds to fire machine guns. 


‘They could start to resist’ How the Russian authorities are working to indoctrinate and digitally surveil deported Ukrainian children


‘They could start to resist’ How the Russian authorities are working to indoctrinate and digitally surveil deported Ukrainian children

Adult residents are issued Russian passports and citizenship. “The blue book with the [Ukrainian] trident is becoming more and more [toxic],” A explains. “Receiving pensions or benefits without obtaining a Russian passport is still possible, but doing business or working in the public sector is not.” 

In late May, Saldo claimed that an “absolute majority” of the Kherson region’s residents had obtained Russian passports. While some locals told A. they took Russian citizenship willingly, others did so out of necessity. “At first everyone was afraid, but now the majority are getting [Russian passports],” one person said. “[A lot of time] has passed already, you need to do it already whether you want to or not.” “Russian documents are optional, but ‘[if] you don’t want to take them, get the fuck out’ — that’s what they told me,” said another. 

Asked to describe the experience of living under Russian occupation, one local replied, “You can’t breathe freely. And when you can’t breathe freely, then you aren’t living.” Another person explained that residents must appear to have no ties to Ukraine at all. “You have to be ‘clean’ and if you’re not [...] they take you to Zaporizhzhia, to the border, they give you a liter of water, and [then] you walk back to ‘your’ Ukraine. You’ll be deported from your own land.”

Other residents spoke of forced deportations and people ending up in “basements” — the local term for the secret prisons where occupation forces detain and torture people. In Henichesk, the “basement” is inside Vocational School #17, locals told A. (This is also corroborated by media reports.) One local resident said “hundreds” of people have been detained there. “We know a family with three children. They put bags over the parents’ heads and took them away right in front of their children,” she recalled. “Their 20-year-old daughter died a few months ago. Her heart disease worsened due to fear and stress, [and] she died of it within a few weeks.” 

Disagreeing with the occupation authorities isn’t the only thing that can get you detained: some of the people taken to the “basements” are struggling with homelessness or drug addiction. Sometimes, locals use the threat of the “basement” to settle personal scores or extort money or valuables. 

Residents told A. that some people detained in Vocational School #17 were only interrogated, while others were tortured, including with electric shocks. Other people’s fates are unknown. “Local residents couldn’t produce evidence of murders at Vocational School [#17], though in general such rumors circulate throughout the region,” A. says. He likened repressions in the occupied territories to “Russian roulette.” 

‘We’re living in a madhouse’

“To me, it seems as if everyone has lost their minds. Roads are being built while there’s a war going on. There’s torture in ‘basements’ here, and somewhere else, music is playing. Children are getting killed over there while playgrounds are being built here. It’s as if we’re living in a madhouse,” a Henichesk resident said. 

A. says he always began his conversations with locals by “testing the waters.” After a few “banal” questions, he’d usually have a clear idea of where his interlocutor stood. “There were those who would take [my questions] as a provocation — they withdrew into themselves. And there were those who were fed up and wanted to talk,” he explains. 

Residents spoke about their experiences carefully, but not everyone seemed “intimidated,” A. says. Moreover, there seemed to be a general consensus among the people A. spoke to (including pro-Russian residents) that most locals are awaiting the Kherson region’s liberation by Ukrainian forces. One local official said that 60 percent of residents are “waiting” for Ukraine, 20 percent are pro-Russian, and another 20 percent don’t care who’s in charge. 

Most of the pro-Russian residents A. met were people from Russia who had moved to Ukraine during the Soviet period. But some were from the Kherson region or other parts of Ukraine, and said things like: “What has Ukraine given me? How did it help? Russia came here and money came into [the region].” 

“Russian state media broadcasts a picture of how happy everyone is, how well everyone is, how the territory is developing. In reality, they’re throwing money at things — building roads, for example. But behind this [facade] is a complex, multi-layered world; a world of people who, for the most part, are not happy with the Russians,” A. says. 

The Kherson region hasn’t seen mass protests opposing the occupation since the spring of 2022: the security forces stamped out all resistance. Nevertheless, A. believes that most locals consider themselves part of Ukraine — though they don’t know what will happen to them if the territory is liberated. Various people said they feared being accused of collaboration. “If Ukraine comes, everyone will be screwed. They’ll go even further and haul everyone off to the fucking army. And not just to the army — in for interrogation,” one person said. 

The Ukrainian authorities accused dozens of people of collaboration following the liberation of the city of Kherson. If convicted, they face up to 15 years in prison. But according to A., being sent to the frontlines — on either side — is the biggest and most widely held fear among locals. As one resident put it, “No one wants to fight.” 

“I can’t understand why the mothers of Russia don’t stand up and say, ‘I won’t let my children [go to war],’” said another. “I asked one man, [a Russian soldier], ‘When are you going to stop the war?’ And he said to me, ‘Whatever for?’” 

* * *

Shelling is rare in Henichesk, but for residents of towns and villages closer to the Dnipro River and the contact line, it’s commonplace. They described poor connectivity, frequent power outages, and sappers coming to clear their homes and yards after incoming attacks. And the consequences of the Kakhovka Dam disaster are still felt on both sides of the river. 

“I think the worst feeling for a person is powerlessness,” A. reflects. “Russians feel it, but Ukrainians in the occupied territories, [living] among Russian soldiers, are many times more powerless.” Residents of Russia, he explains, came to feel this way gradually, whereas Ukrainians were plunged into a much more brutal reality in a matter of weeks. 

When he was in the occupied territories, A. constantly felt that he shouldn’t be there. He has no desire to return to the Kherson region or visit other Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine. “I drew my main conclusions while I was there,” he says. “There’s no point in going back for the details.”


‘I want to live a bit longer’ In their own words, Kharkiv residents describe life under constant Russian bombardment


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Story by Kristina Safonova

Abridged translation by Eilish Hart

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