oDR: Feature

Russia promised Kherson it would stay forever. It left chaos behind

The author returns to his home town, to discover how locals are coping now the Russians have gone

Burdyga (1).jpg
Igor Burdyga
5 December 2022, 12.00pm

The traces of Russian propaganda in Kherson have since been put on display in Kyiv

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Igor Burdyga. All rights reserved

Three weeks after Ukrainian forces liberated Kherson from Russian occupation, residents are getting used to life under constant rocket fire from their former occupiers, a country that once promised them it would “be here forever”.

Yet that promise, made time and again in Kherson during the staged ‘referendum’ on joining Russia in the autumn, ended in chaos, dismay and uncertainty.

On 10 November, when the Russian army finally retreated from Kherson – the only major Ukrainian city it managed to seize earlier this year – it destroyed the water supply system, electrical substations and the main television tower. People were left without power or communications.

In the days after the Russian retreat, it was almost impossible to contact anyone in the city. But those who managed to find a mobile signal on top of high-rise apartment buildings carefully reported back to the outside world: there were no Russian flags left in the city, and no Russian military personnel either.

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I went back to my hometown – the supposed heartland of Putin’s “new Empire” in south-eastern Ukraine – to find out what happened.

No water, little power or food

“I didn’t believe it at first,” is how Angela Silvashchuk describes finding out that the Russian military was leaving. “A neighbour ran over and said: ‘The Ukrainian military is driving up the main road!’” she recalls.

Silvashchuk heads a residents’ association in the north of the city, and we are talking in the courtyard outside her apartment building. A diesel generator crackles beside us, as residents take turns heating kettles of water on a small stove.

We even tried not to buy Russian food and drink. Somehow they delivered their sausage [to the city], but even our cat won’t eat it. She’s too much of a patriot

Maxim Sivalshchuk

The mobile signal has been sporadic, but more and more new base stations are being connected every day. Electricity was partially restored on 26 November, but there is still no water in the taps – Russian forces set mines in the pumping and filtration stations.

“We waited eight months for liberation, we expected that the Ukrainian authorities would bring order, but in these first weeks there has been even more chaos,” Silvashchuk grumbles.

“By some miracle, we managed to pry this stove from the Red Cross. The queues for humanitarian aid have been constant, people were even fainting in them. And what if some kind of missile flies through the crowd? Why not deliver aid to people’s courtyards?”

Humanitarian aid has flooded into Kherson since liberation

Humanitarian aid has flooded into Kherson since liberation

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Igor Burdyga. All rights reserved

In the cramped entrance to her building, Silvashchuk draws up a list of residents who need humanitarian aid. Out of the 213 apartments in her building, more than 150 residents – most of them pensioners – stayed throughout the Russian occupation.

Despite her grumbles, Silvashchuk’s happiness at the liberation of Kherson is evident. Like many residents, she proudly tells her personal story of resistance to the occupation: refusing to let public utilities workers with Russian documents into her building, and forcing a Russian military concert to leave a local kids’ playground.

“We even tried not to buy Russian food and drink. Somehow they delivered their sausage [to the city], but even our cat won’t eat it. She’s too much of a patriot,” laughs Maxim, Angela’s husband.

The sad irony is that Kherson, once a key food hub in southern Ukraine, is only surviving today thanks to an endless stream of humanitarian aid

Since early morning, people have been waiting for the first Ukrainian chain supermarket to reopen. Food has not been delivered to Kherson since the end of October. Canned food, mineral water, biscuits and cigarettes from Crimea are still available in small corner shops, but it seems that people have stopped buying these products, probably because of high prices.

The sad irony is that Kherson, once a key food hub in southern Ukraine, is only surviving today thanks to an endless stream of humanitarian aid. Much of it arrives via dirt roads from Mykolaiv, a nearby regional centre sitting on an inlet on Ukraine's Black Sea coast (the main bridge connecting the two cities was destroyed on 9 November). And the city’s central square, where people greeted Ukrainian forces with tears in their eyes, is now full of people queuing for frozen chicken, sunflower oil, nappies and second-hand winter clothes.

“Kherson is freezing over,” chuckles Yevgeny Dikyi, a famous Ukrainian military personality and polar researcher, who is delivering diesel generators for local hospitals. “It’s a bit like the Antarctic, which means [Kherson] is also its own kind of South Pole,” he laughs.

Many city residents depend on humanitarian aid, despite Kherson‘s previous position as a food trade hub

Many city residents depend on humanitarian aid, despite Kherson‘s previous position as a food trade hub

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Igor Burdyga. All rights reserved

Museum exhibits looted

Indeed, Kherson is not short of prominent visitors these days. Ukrainian government officials, heads of international aid organisations and foreign ambassadors arrive from Kyiv daily – all accompanied by the Ukrainian military. After all, Ukrainian forces are still carrying out so-called ‘stabilisation measures’ in the city – in other words, searching for collaborators and agents left behind by the Russian army.

Yuri Savchuk, director of Ukraine's National Museum of the Second World War, rushed to Kherson from Kyiv the day after the city was liberated. He immediately began collecting personal stories of local residents who had survived the Russian occupation.

“I have already recorded about 50 interviews,” Savchuk says, when I meet him on a city avenue. A few days later, his museum began an open-air exhibition of Russian propaganda found in Kherson, where the Kremlin’s crumpled slogans (“Russia is here forever”) lie on display in central Kyiv.

Everyone began to shout something about the victory of the Russians, but I said that I didn’t agree to it at all

Elena Eremenko

On Savchuk’s recommendation, I visit Kherson’s regional history museum, which holds artefacts from ancient Scythian tombs as well as the Nazi occupation of Ukraine some 75 years ago.

Only the security guard and museum secretary Elena Eremenko remain. Most employees left the city after Russia took over, though museum director Tatiana Bratchenko stayed, finally leaving – presumably for Russia – just before the Russians themselves departed.

Elena Eremenko, museum secretary, stands in the looted museum

Elena Eremenko, museum secretary, stands in the looted museum

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Igor Burdyga. All rights reserved

Eremenko recalls how Bratchenko assembled museum staff in May, two months into the occupation, and said they “would now work with the Russians”. Some colleagues hailed “the Russian victory”, but when Eremenko said she didn’t agree, Bratchenko said the museum no longer needed her.

“Everyone began to shout something about the victory of the Russians, but I said that I didn't agree to it at all,” says Eremenko, who had worked at the museum for 21 years. On 25 November, the Ukrainian security services charged Bratchenko with collaborating with occupying forces.

The Russian administration removed most of the museum’s exhibits before it left the city.

Museum artefacts are not the only thing the Russian authorities stole. They even removed monuments to 18th-century Russian military commanders

“Only the wildlife exhibits are untouched. All the stuffed animals are still there,” Yeremenko says as she leads me through the building’s dark corridors, strewn with broken glass.

“But the ancient history exhibits – the Cimmerians, Scythians, Sarmatians – almost everything was taken.”

Signs beside damaged display cases reveal what has been looted: bronze axes, ancient flint sickles, Sarmatian gold jewellery, 18th-century religious items, coins and awards from the era of the Russian Empire.

A monument to 18th-century Russian naval commander Fyodor Ushakov was stolen by the Russian occupation administration

A monument to 18th-century Russian naval commander Fyodor Ushakov was stolen by the Russian occupation administration

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Igor Burdyga. All rights reserved

The Second World War display cases were plundered with particular cynicism: the glass not just cracked, but completely smashed, an abandoned chisel lying on the floor nearby. The Russians removed Soviet and German documents, banners, a general’s tunic, rifles and pistols – which I remember staring at on school trips. The only unbroken case contains a Molotov cocktail, a symbol of local resistance to the Nazi occupation.

But most of all, Eremenko laments the theft of the metre-long marble sculpture of a lion, the museum’s symbol. She has unearthed the museum’s full inventory – only these documents will reveal the scale of what was stolen from the collections.

Eremenko assumes the stolen items are now in Crimea. She says museum employees from Crimea arrived in August, and “the director showed them all the exhibits… After she left, according to the guards, two women were in charge. They loaded everything into cars from Russia’s emergency services ministry.”

Historical claims

Museum artefacts are not the only thing the Russian authorities stole. They even removed monuments to 18th-century Russian military commanders, Alexander Suvorov, Fyodor Ushakov and Grigory Potemkin – men who symbolise Russia’s ‘historical’ claims to Ukraine.

Prince Grigory Potemkin’s former grave in St Catherine’s Cathedral, Kherson

Prince Grigory Potemkin’s former grave in St Catherine’s Cathedral, Kherson

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Igor Burdyga. All rights reserved

Father Ilya, a local priest, shows me where Potemkin, founder of the city’s Russian fortress and a favourite of both Catherine the Great and Vladimir Putin, was buried in the city’s St Catherine’s Cathedral.

The grave is now empty – the Russians admitted that they removed Potemkin’s remains in late October. Father Ilya suggests they may have “feared for the safety of the remains”, though he believes such fears would have been groundless.

“It was under independent Ukraine that there was honour and respect for the historical past,” he says.

Indeed, since Ukraine declared independence 30 years ago, locals have often asked if these monuments to the Russian colonisers of Kherson are appropriate – a question that Russia itself seems to have answered after its occupation, attempted annexation and retreat from the city.

Prisoners and cremations

Ukrainian law enforcement officers are also, sadly, looking for much more recent graves. But so far, unlike in Kyiv and Kharkiv regions, the Russians do not seem to have left behind any mass graves in the city.

Kherson residents have their own grim explanation for this: the bodies of dead soldiers and executed prisoners were simply burned – in mobile crematoria, furnaces at a local silicate plant and simply in the city dump.

It was awful under [the Russians]. It would be stupid to leave the city when it’s only just been liberated. It’s ours again

Angela Sivalshchuk

Alena, who lives next to the Kosheva river that runs through the southern edge of the city, volunteers to escort us to Kherson’s silicate plant. “After each battle, the plant’s pipes would smoke and there was this strange smell of burnt bones,” she says.

Ukrainian law enforcement has not yet commented on the rumours of mass cremations, and forensic experts are currently examining the alleged crematoria.

Investigators are also working with survivors, people who experienced weeks of imprisonment and torture, to find out what happened.

Ukrainian police have found four locations in Kherson where the occupying authorities detained “political” prisoners, says police spokesperson Andriy Kovannyi. He promises to show me a Russian prison located in a Soviet-era drunk tank. But I have to wait several hours – in the building, Kovannyi’s fellow investigators are busy questioning former prisoners.

“In the mornings, [you could hear] the Russian anthem – the prisoners were forced to sing. And in the evenings, there were such screams that it was scary to think what was going on there,” a worker in a shop next to the old drunk tank tells me.

Vitaliy was imprisoned by Russian soldiers for several days in Kherson

Vitaliy was imprisoned by Russian soldiers for several days in Kherson

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Igor Burdyga. All rights reserved

Finally, Vitaliy, a 65-year-old pensioner, took me on a tour of the prison, where he was detained in late spring. He’d gone to check on the empty house of his son, a Ukrainian soldier, and was captured by Russian security forces – who questioned him extensively about where his son was serving.

On a cell wall, next to messages and drawings made by prisoners over the years, someone has neatly pencilled Russia’s coat of arms and the words of the Russian national anthem. Vitaliy confirms that detainees had to know the anthem by heart and sing it every morning. “If you didn’t learn it, they beat you,” he recalls.

Vitaliy spent four days in the isolation ward – not much by local standards. “But he returned all blue, from the chest to the knees. We treated him for a month and a half,” his wife recounts.

As we talk, we hear explosions overhead. The prison is close to the Dnipro river, and from the opposite bank Russia fires daily on the city that it considers its own former territory. Local residents are still getting used to this new reality – of life on the frontline.

The Ukrainian government insists that people evacuate due to a steady increase in Russian shelling, but after I’ve spent a week back in my hometown, Angela Sivalshchuk’s counter-argument stays with me: “It was awful under [the Russians]. It would be stupid to leave the city when it’s only just been liberated. It’s ours again.”

Ukrainian journalists share their stories of war

Hear Igor Burdyga and Kateryna Semchuk explain what it's like working in a homeland under threat. Plus British author Oliver Bullough and chair Daniel Trilling.

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