KhersonHow the City Fell to Russian Forces
As Ukrainian forces mount a counteroffensive towards the occupied city and its mayor is abducted by Russian soldiers, Elena Kostyuchenko has early eyewitness accounts of resistance, propaganda, abductions and protests. Translated from Russian by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse
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The Russian army occupied Kherson on 3 March 2022. First, the city was surrounded: they took the outlying villages and the Chernobayevka airfield. Then troops entered the city. But only Kherson, of all of Ukraine’s regional centres, has been occupied and held by the Russian army. How did they take it?
“Idiocy or betrayal, or maybe both,” says Andriy Gordeev, the former governor of the Kherson Region.
As his colleagues tell it, as soon as war broke out the acting governor Gennadiy Laguta placed his keys on the mayor’s desk, saying “I’m not going be involved in this,” before leaving the region entirely. The top brass from the police, prosecutor’s office and the courts left with him – on the first day of the war. The Security Service evacuated their staff soon after.
The battle for Antonovskiy Bridge, which lay across the Dnieper, lasted two days. Vitaly Skakun, a marine battalion’s engineer, gave his life to destroy one of the transport bridges: he stayed behind to set off the explosives. Zelenskyy posthumously created him a Hero of Ukraine.
The Russian tank column, meanwhile, was looking for a way around – and naturally, it found one. According to Konstantin Ryzhenko, a local journalist:
“The deputy head of the regional council, he kept on posting these cheery talking points, how everything was going to be fine. And people were completely confident that we had a defender corps, the military had some clever plan too, we were going to lure the enemy to some key staging points then lob a bunch of Molotov cocktails at them, and then our soldiers would come charging in from around the corner and rain down artillery fire, and the defenders helping on the sidelines, finishing off the enemy wounded.
It was a kind of euphoria, I guess, for people who had never actually seen war. I must have believed in it too, to some extent, because if you look at how it went down in the other cities… they put up the heaps of car tyres, the sandbags, you know, they were holding out somehow. You could see they were resisting. So I was like, great, we can do it too!
But it turned out that Teroborona, the volunteer corps, managed to get only 200 people together, bussed them out somewhere on the very first day – the enemy hadn’t even crossed the bridge yet – gave them one rifle between five guys, a handful of bullets, and told them to sit and wait. Nothing happening. They made them do some kind of physical fitness, just short of jogging and push-ups. I mean, honestly… They sat out there for 24 hours, and then the military guys came and told them to go back home. Two days later it was, no, come back. One minibus came, space for 20 guys. They told the rest to go on home.
This was an unofficial volunteer militia. When they heard “go home” they took it to mean the city was about to be given up, so they thought, fuck this. They got the bit between their teeth and went off on their own, to fight. And they all got killed.”
The martial commandant’s HQ has taken over the former regional council building on Freedom Square. The name of the commandant remains a mystery. The curfew order and the proclamation forbidding public gatherings – unsigned – float about the local Telegram chat groups.
Both the city council offices, which belong to the Ukrainian side, and the regional council building, occupied by the Russians, are actually located on the same main street, 500 metres apart. Kherson’s regional council recently issued a resolution confirming there was no plan for a KNR – a Kherson People’s Republic on the LNR and DNR models – in the works.
“The representative members of Kherson’s regional assembly will never accept any attempt to create a “people’s republic” on Kherson territory, and make off with a piece of Ukraine,” the council said.
Yuri Sobolevsky, the regional council’s deputy head, explained that since the council’s building itself is occupied by Russian troops, they had to take a vote on the resolution via Zoom, and only 50 out of 64 people were able to dial in. 44 voted against a KNR.
Russian flags fly above the abandoned Security Service building and police headquarters. Curfew is between 8 pm and 6 am. On the third day of the occupation, Russian television channels began to broadcast in Kherson.
Those who are plugged into the antenna directly, without a cable box, still have access to Ukrainian TV. The city’s own media have more or less ceased working. Kherson gets its information from Telegram channels.
The city is without police. The top brass left Kherson on the first day of the war, with the suggestion that beat cops might want to dress in mufti and make their own way out.’The municipal guards and a cadre of volunteers have taken on policing duties.
Looting, which began two days after the Russians arrived, is no longer a concern. After Fabrika, the largest shopping centre (it was shelled), the ‘Citrus’ appliance store and a few of the food shops were hit by looters: the Greenline and Sel’po supermarkets didn’t wait to be broken into, they simply opened their doors to the public.
There are burned-out cars everywhere in the streets, with no one to move them.
On Tarle Street someone is patching up a metre-wide hole in building No 2, next to a pocket balcony that’s been turned inside out, with sheet metal. The houses along this street were the first to be shelled as the Russian army rolled into town.
Aleksandra Kaznacheeva is sorting out the humanitarian aid parcel she’s just received – ten loaves of bread to be distributed across the building. A piece of paper on top of each loaf denotes the apartment number. There are flowers on her table. They fell off the windowsill during a bombardment, but she managed to revive them.
“I mean, I can understand it when it was Hitler, they were Fascists over there, foreigners, you know, it was just not the same at all… I can’t even think of what to call that man, something worse than the devil, I really don’t know what. I have no words. No words. To rip away all the joyous things in life!” She gives herself barely a minute to cry, already she’s dry-eyed.
“They started bombing before lunchtime, you know. Because I was right here by the kitchen counter. No one expected it, least of all me! I shot into the bathroom without thinking. I sat down, and then I heard the glass breaking, all the glass.
Our building got hit, you see, number 2, and also number 4, a shell flew into the side of the building. The shockwave ripped through all the ground and first floors. When it went quiet I opened the door and came out, then I saw my flowers all over the floor, the window glass sprayed everywhere. Two big explosions, basically. By the time I came out of the bathroom, there wasn’t a single window left in my apartment.
Meanwhile, in apartment 6 – that’s the one opposite me – their granny who was living with them, she was sitting in the kitchen, and that saved her. She started screaming. Hysterical… Their front door was locked, a good solid door that didn’t even stave in. We couldn’t get the granny out through the door. We had to pull her out through the balcony, the hole where the balcony was before. We called an ambulance. She was all covered in blood. Probably the shattering glass, it cut her. We asked her if there was anyone else in the house. She says, “Not nobody there,” we thought she was in shock, eighty-two years old, you know. If there’s nobody else there, there’s nobody else there.
But the next day the phone rings, and it’s her grandson’s army commander. He says, your neighbour is looking for his wife. I tell him: “We were told she’d gone to her parents, back to her village. There was only the granny here.” I told him what happened. But it turned out, the wife was there all along, under the building panels, she… It all just fell on top of her.
You see that cement panel there, the balcony doorway and the big window? That whole thing fell on top of her. Even if we’d got to her straight away… When they found her eventually, her face was badly cut. She was probably killed instantly.
She was 29, Tanya Ermolaeva was her name. A real sharp cookie she was! The granny’s name is Valentina, she’s 82. Her grandson’s called Sasha, he’s serving near Luhansk right now. And that’s the whole family right there.”
The city is, in effect, blockaded. Russian troops control all exits. The most acute problem is the lack of medicines. The pharmacies have run out of heart and blood pressure medication.
There’s no L-thyroxine, which is a life-and-death matter for people with malfunctioning thyroid glands – in fact, there is no L-thyroxine to be had in all of Ukraine right now. They managed to literally smuggle some insulin into the city and parcelled it out between hospitals. Every pharmacy has a list of unavailable medications posted outside. The lists are usually 40-50 items long and most of these are for chronic conditions. There are no chemotherapy drugs. There are no psychotropic drugs.
Food prices have roughly doubled, and the price of eggs tripled. There is plenty of gingerbread and jam, brie and frozen salmon – special occasion food – still on offer at the larger supermarkets. There is no pasta to be had, or cooking grains, or bread and sugar. The old signs, “no more than 1 kilo per customer”, are all that remains of these staples. You can find anything at the food markets, but it’s more expensive. A week ago, the wholesale warehouse near Bolshie Kopani started operations again, so the city is supplied with vegetables once more. Bread is available from smaller, independent bakeries – a loaf can cost up to 25 hryvnyas (around 75p in British currency).
Military action left the Chernobayev poultry farm without electricity, water or chicken feed. They gave away the entire stock – around three million live chickens. The birds were brought in through the checkpoints, unloaded by ninety prisoners, and driven into the city proper by private car. It is said there’s not a fridge left in Kherson that hasn’t stored a Chernobayev chicken.
The daily search for food takes two or three hours. Every day, people assemble by the train station where humanitarian aid packages are being given out. This is aid from Russia; Ukrainian aid is not allowed through. The queue today is half-hearted: they’ve been told that there won’t be anything today, but thirty or so people hang around just in case. They’ve been here since 6 a.m.
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A youth comes up to say something quietly to a woman in the queue.
“I’m standing here, young man, because I need the help! I might ask why you’re here, too?”
“Your nice Russians blocked a lorry yesterday,” the youth tells her. “It was heading for Kherson, and they said, go back to where you came from, we have our own aid here. First, they manufacture a humanitarian catastrophe and then they pat themselves on the back, we’re so great, we’re the saviours, feeding the indigent. Such good guys we are, saving you from ourselves!”
He is cut short by a woman in a torn body warmer: “Hey, we don’t want your propaganda here.”
“This truck came, and it just waited for the photographer to drive up, take some photos of them handing out aid, how many people were lining up for help,” the young man continues. “They want to use those photos to show we were waiting for the Russians to come. We were waiting for our own people!”
“Where am I supposed to get food from, then?” the woman says.
“Go and look around town, we have our own volunteers, Ukrainian ones! I can’t remember the addresses off the top of my head…”
“So come back when you’ve got an address to give me!”
“It’s unbelievable!” The young man turns away from her. “What’s the point of talking to you, anyway?”
“We’re grateful for the help. They came and they’re giving away free food,” says the woman in the torn body warmer. “All the stores are either closed or empty. They’ve got everything at the food market though. The military was going to hand out food on the fourth, at Freedom Square. As soon as they started, our Ukrainians worked up a protest. By the time I got there, the soldiers were heading off, there were a couple of smashed-up cans of meat lying around. The dogs were at them.
A Russian officer came out to talk to us, quite civilized, polite. He promised to get us some buses. He was saying, we’re not at war with you, only with the nationalists. We don’t need your Kherson, it’s going to stay Ukrainian. We’re fighting the nationalists, we want to topple your government, clean things up.”
“Thirty years of corruption, no gamekeepers, just poachers.”
“Yes, and thank heaven they came. How long have you had Putin now?”
“That’s how you have order. The Americans are building research labs, making Covid and things like that. There are so many labs in Kherson, who are they going to destroy first? Us, of course. Where do you think the Covid came from? From here. There are 30 labs across the Ukraine.”
“That came from Wuhan, Covid!”
“Listen, I have a neighbour who was working in a Kherson lab, and she puffed out like a balloon, her legs were that swollen!”
A heated debate carries on for some time: could the coronavirus be one and the same as the biological weapon that, according to Russian TV newscasts, is being developed in Ukrainian bio-labs?
“Ukraine is like another Switzerland. But we need a strong hand, not just thieves as far as the eye can see.”
“If these guys don’t cut the head off, it will be the same as always, thieves all the way to the top.”
“We were standing by the theatre one time, the Russians were giving out tinned goods, and there was a big queue of course. About a thousand people. And they told us, your mayor won’t allow us to give you food. So what can we do?”
“The Red Cross has stopped now, because people are getting greedy, queueing up three times, then taking it to the market to sell on.”
“Our people are starving!”
“Who asked you to throw Molotov cocktails at them? Don’t provoke them! Don’t harm them and they won’t harm you. It can’t get any worse, anyway. We can manage.”
Oleg Baturin is 43 years old. He’s a journalist at the Novy Den newspaper, specializing in corruption investigations. He lives in Kakhovka, a small town 80 kilometres outside of Kherson. Everybody knows him.
On 12 March 2022 he was kidnapped.
“Their faces were covered. You could see a little of their eyes, but even those I just saw briefly. I only caught the odd glimpse of them, since they always made me face down to the floor, or put a hood over my face, or wrapped scotch tape over the hood so it couldn’t fall off, real tight. I couldn’t have identified them, I never saw their faces. They were speaking Russian, and they clearly were from Russia: it was obvious.
They took me to the city council building and started to interrogate me: first name, last name, date of birth, address, and place of employment. So you’re a journalist, why are you writing about stuff like… They were asking me about some nationalists, whether I knew these local ones, what I knew about the protests we were having in the region.
I only realized that there were others being detained with me when they took us from the city council building to the police station. They interrogated me again, and the others also. Then we were all handcuffed to the radiators, and I sat there until morning. They kicked us and beat us with their rifle butts. Not on the head, thankfully. On the legs and back, on the sides. My jacket muffled the blows somewhat. Being hit on the legs was the worst.
The handcuffs were really tight, my hands swelled up terribly. I still have scars. They were constantly threatening to kill us. Sunday morning was probably the scariest. When they moved us again, I thought they were taking us out to the field, to shoot us. I said goodbye to my family, in my mind.
On Sunday they took me and a few others over to the Kherson regional council. They wanted to know about the organisers of the protests, and they were also interested in people with Telegram channels. I couldn’t see who I was speaking to. I was bent down very low, they always made sure of that.
During the interrogations, my hands were always cuffed, either behind my back or in front of me. They kept a watch on me, and every time I wiggled, if my nose was itching or something, they’d get sharp with me, and tell me not to mess around.
After one of these interrogations, someone opened a window, and there was a protest going on just then, outside in Freedom Square. It was huge, I could hear everything out there. I could feel how disoriented they were, the men interrogating me. They kept saying: we came to defend these people, and they’re out there stalking around and shouting, something’s not right.
Everyone was interrogated separately, in different rooms. Each holding cell had a toilet and a water fountain, so we could drink. There was a little spigot over a sink, but no toilet paper or soap or hand towels, or any clothes to change into, nothing at all. We slept on bare bunks.
The first few days it was freezing, there was a cold snap, especially at night. I was freezing. It did get better later, with the radiators giving out a little heat, the last few days were much easier. It was Monday before we had anything to eat. They gave each of us 350 grams of millet porridge with meat, and then for the next few days one portion a day, sometimes two.
They were constantly interrogating people, including me, at different times of the day. I figured it meant that they were dropping off new people every day, so the interrogations were going on constantly. I heard people being beaten. They were taken out to another room, but some people got beaten in their own cells. Some, they went at for several days at time. I can’t say exactly, because I didn’t see it, but I know what I heard. I had the impression they were beaten half to death, savagely. I really hope those boys survive.
Everything that went on seemed to be aimed at scaring you stupid. The more or less professional interrogations, that was just the first two days. Everything that came after was sort of chaotic. They asked me when Victory Day was, and how come we didn’t celebrate it in Ukraine anymore. When did the Great Patriotic War begin, when did it end, who was fighting whom?
The morning of the eighth day, they told me “gather your belongings, we’re taking you home.” They kept telling me “Why do you go to these protests, do you really need the trouble, why rile up the population, it’s all foolishness, just sit tight, we came to liberate you and here you all are rebelling for some reason.”
I’m with my family now. I’m in pain. I’m hurting, because I love this region. This is not the fate I would wish on myself or my loved ones.”
There have been 44 missing person reports filed with the city council since the occupation began. Three are women, and one is a Spanish national. Five of the missing vanished from Freedom Square, where people gather for peaceful anti-occupation protests. The others were taken off the streets, at checkpoints, from apartments.
Khersonites report that the kidnappers are actively seeking out members of the law enforcement Security Service, those who fought in the Anti-Terrorism Zone, activists, volunteers and people with Telegram channels.
Here is a sample of some of the reports:
21.03.2022 the orcs showed up at our apartment, after having a go at smashing up the door..They went round the other landings first, looking for my husband there. When they came, my husband hid so they interrogated me and my child, then called my husband and told him to go home. He came they handcuffed him and pulled a hat over his eyes and drove him off somewhere. My husband is in the municipal guards. There were five of them, and two outside by the front door.
Russian soldiers took our children out of the apartment we were renting, the children had bags over their heads. There were two Jeeps, a mini-bus and a Ural 6×6 marked with a Z parked outside.
My son left home with a friend of his, and they went to look at the aftermath of the military action in our region. They’ve not been seen since then. His phone is switched off, he hasn’t made contact.
Masked and armed men took my brother. They drove off, I don’t know where.
A female person is missing. She went from Antonovka to go to the market, didn’t have a way of calling home, but contacted her family at 12:00, that was the last time. She said she was queueing and would be making her way back home soon. She was wearing a metallic-coloured puffa coat with fur trim, jeans and her footwear is boots with fur trim.
My sister is missing, along with the guys who shared her apartment. People in Russian uniform with the letter z and the car also with the letter z.
My son and I were going to the shops, the orcs at the checkpoint took exception to something on his phone, they detained him and said he’d call me later, but no one’s called since.
On the 12th of March, soldiers burst into where I’m staying, in a relative’s apartment, and interrogated me, trying to scare me and threatening violence! They were searching for weapons, asking me if I belonged to the “nationalist wing”, or Teroborona, or the armed forces, or any other special forces. Trying to catch me out as a protest organizer, even though I only went once, on the 5th, they assumed I was an admin for some nationalist group. They were threatening to cut my leg off or shoot me in the leg, because I’d gone to that protest, on the 5th.
My brother has vanished. I beg you, help me. The scammers who phone in the middle of the night, demanding ransom, are driving me out of my mind.
On the 5th of March, sometime between 12:00 and 13:00, Sasha, Zhenya, and a few other men were standing about in the village square. Russian soldiers in Tigers drove up, started checking their phones. They found something on Sasha’s and Zhenya’s and tool them away. When the took them, they said they would bring them back. They drove off through the fields towards Kherson. Then they turned their phones on, so we started to text and call them. The soldier answered that they would let them go, and everything would be fine; they even picked up a voice call once and said again that they would let them go. They promised to let them go. On the 7th they stopped texting back or reading texts.
Around 10 a.m on 16.03.2022, Russian soldiers entered our home. After checking whether he had any tattoos (he didn’t) and his phone (the phone blocked them a few times automatically, which they really didn’t like), they took Maksim away for further discussion. The neighbours said he was beaten up as they took him out, and then he and another man were driven away. It’s impossible to find out where they were taken.
My father went missing on Monday, 21.03.23, he went to the protest and didn’t come back.
Some came back. I managed to speak with them and triangulate the location of the “prison”.
It is the city’s pre-trial detention centre, which also functions as a processing centre for orphaned, homeless or otherwise unclaimed children. The authorities had moved all the detainees to another prison before the Russians rolled in, so the building itself would have been standing empty. The returned kidnapping victims described the same view from the window, the same holding cells furnishings and floor plan. They told me there were two foreign nationals still in the “prison” – a citizen of Spain and a Dutchman. They had it from the other “inmates” that the Dutch national was ill and at death’s door.
Freedom Square is where the anti-occupation protests take place. Every day, at noon. The biggest protests are on Sundays.
People have gathered across the road from the regional council building, by the ‘Ukraine’ movie theatre. 500 people and the crowd is still growing.
The main symbol is the Ukrainian flag, There are many flags. People are carrying flags, raising flags aloft, and wrapping themselves in flags. Young women are wearing yellow-blue ribbons braided into their hair.
A painted flower meadow is spread out over the asphalt pavement. A priest carries an icon of Saint Vladimir. A middle-aged couple unfurls their homemade banner: “You’ll find Ukraine tough to Zwallow”. A clutch of very young people inscribe their own poster with coloured chalks: “we won’t sell or Motherland for a bag of grain.” Someone’s graffitied “Glory to our armed forces, death to our enemies,” onto the safety net alongside the road. Two megaphones are making the rounds of the assembled crowd.
“One! United! Independent Ukraine!” People are singing the national anthem, right hands over hearts.
There’s a swell, the crowd has spotted two men in military uniform on the other side of the street; they’re detaining a young man in a brown jacket.
“Hey! Let him go!”
People are climbing over the roadblock, running across the street. Military vehicles marked with Z pull out from the regional council’s courtyard, a part of the crowd peels off to bar the way – and the cars retreat. People pause by the anti-tank hedgehogs that were made from melted-down rails. There are 80 metres between them and the soldiers. A line no one crosses.
A woman in late middle age is affixing a little toy baby to the hedgehogs, along with a placard that says “Russians are child-killers”.
A woman of fifty or so has got the megaphone. She is shouting. “Making a grab for our land, are you? Assholes, that’s what you are!”
“Child-killers!” the crowd echoes.
In reply, the soldiers bring out a loudspeaker and put music on. It’s the Russian national anthem.
The protesters find a loudspeaker of their own. They play the Ukrainian national anthem.
The musical duel carries on forth. The Russians put on a mix of Soviet-era kids’ songs about Lenin and tunes from popular 80s cartoons.
“Go home while you still can!” screams the crowd.
A Russian soldier performs a little jig to the rhythm of the screams.
“It’s some kind of water truce,” says a woman with ribbons in her hair.
A very young man pulls her up: “It’s war, not truce, for these orcs!”
“No, it’s a water truce. Only one river and everyone must drink. There’s only one city, too, and we’re here and so are they.”
On Sunday night the water truce was broken. There is a stele in front of the city council building, incised with a Ukrainian flag, and with portraits of Khersonites who died in Donbas etched in the base. Somebody graffitied the portraits, red script right across their faces: “Ukrainian armed forces – Donbas child-killers”.
There were not that many protesters on Monday, fewer than a hundred people. They crossed the road to rub out the graffiti. They managed to do two letters before the Russian soldiers opened fire with stun and gas grenades. One man fell over and couldn’t get up again, his leg running with bright red blood.
The man was taken to hospital. His injury turned out to be a bullet wound, though the doctors believed these were probably rubber or pneumatic bullets being fired. There were a few wounds on him, mostly scrapes, but one of the bullets went right through and damaged the tibia, tearing the blood vessel alongside.
The protesters came out again on the following day. There were even fewer this time, 60 at best. Nobody brought a megaphone. People were shouting “Go home!” They sang the national anthem. Those who were shouting insults were booed and derided as provocateurs.
One of the paddy wagons moved forward and broadcast: “Citizens of Kherson! Whoever has not dispersed within the next five minutes will be detained.” People stayed, shouting “We don’t understand you!” in Ukrainian. The cars on Ushakov street encouraged them by honking their horns. Across the street, beside the pale regional council building, a line of soldiers was forming up, 8o or so. They looked confident, shifting from foot to foot. Their movements are unhurried.
A gas grenade rustles as it flies. Bang, hiss, the grenade falls onto the movie theatre steps, fumes. The people remain rooted in place, and more grenades come bursting. One hits a man in his side, he begins to choke. They drag him away and lay him out on a bench, to await the ambulance. People dash into the alleyways. When the gas in their lungs clears, they return, again and again, to the square. Now they scream obscenities. The soldiers are firing.
Ihor Kolykhaev, Kherson’s mayor, has ordered a new flag to be put up over the city council. Five metres long, it hangs over several floors. The old one – sun-bleached and weather-beaten – they’ve put away.
Update: Ihor Kolykhaev was detained by Russian forces in late June.
Elena Kostyuchenko, an award-winning investigative journalist and activist, is a reporter for the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which has now been shut down. This article was translated from Russian by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse
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