Roubles and repression: how life in Russian-occupied Kherson is changing
Daily life in an occupied Ukrainian city continues with a veneer of normality – and an undercurrent of shortages, restrictions and Russification
“People walk as if they’re on parade. They’re strangely calm; everyone walks around smiling. I can’t understand it,” Yuriy*, 50, tells me on the phone from his home in Kherson. He lives alone in the city – his wife works abroad – and he’s keen to speak to me because, like many of the city’s residents, he’s keen to draw attention to the situation there.
When Russian troops occupied the southern Ukrainian city almost two months ago, life appeared to carry on with some sort of normality for residents – at least in terms of governance. The mayor’s office continued to operate, the Ukrainian flag still flew above the city’s central administration building, and, initially, there seemed to be a ‘tolerant’ attitude towards protests in support of Ukraine. And although there was no official evacuation corridor, people were able to leave the occupied city.
The situation in Kherson has gradually changed, however, as Russia’s occupation of south-eastern Ukraine has continued. Protest rallies have been dispersed with more force, and on 25 April, the Ukrainian flag was removed from the city authorities’ building. Russian forces have apparently appointed their own mayor, though Kherson’s mayor, Ihor Kolykhaev, has not evacuated and continues his work in the city.
Rumours about a ‘referendum’ to consolidate Russian control have long been circulating in the city, and a representative of the Kherson region’s Russian ‘civil-military administration’ recently stated that the region would soon start using the Russian rouble as its official currency.
Get one whole story, direct to your inbox every weekday.
Despite the remaining semblance of official normality – Ukrainian laws are still in force and pensions are being paid – daily life has changed significantly. Immediately after occupying the city, Russian soldiers cut off supply lines for Ukrainian goods and looted local supermarkets. In the three days that followed, residents bought all the remaining food, leaving supermarket shelves bare.
The situation with food has now stabilised as local farmers supply vegetables to the city, but prices have risen significantly for eggs, dairy produce and meat. The city seems to have returned, in a sense, to the 1990s, when Ukrainians had to deal with economic disruption and supply chain collapse following the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Daryna, who left her hometown on 14 April for Odesa, shared her family’s ritual for acquiring food. “Every morning, my grandparents would go to the market and elsewhere in town, looking for someone who was selling food. People were literally on their knees, selling what they had left,” the 17-year-old student recalled.
Daryna noted that one day oranges and bananas suddenly reappeared at Kherson’s markets. “We realised that the owners of the stores had changed suppliers and started bringing products from Crimea,” she said.
But the situation is still bad for medical supplies. Russian forces are blocking humanitarian aid from the Ukrainian side, and the medicines that are available in the city are sold at inflated prices.
Aside from the difficulties of accessing food and medicines, residents also reported having to deal with Russian soldiers regularly checking their documents and phones on public transport.
For example, Daryna said that her family has to ‘clean’ her grandfather’s phone before he goes to work in the nearby village of Chornobaivka because of random phone checks by Russian soldiers.
“You don’t even know if you should go out or take your phone with you,” she said. “What do you think I should choose: to have someone accuse me of something or to leave my phone at home? Do I have to delete everything from my phone every time I go out?”
While some residents are adapting to the changes to everyday life at home, others have left the city.
Russian troops began turning cars trying to leave the city back on 22 April. Before that date, a long column of drivers would head for Mykolaiv, in the direction of Snihurivka, at 6am every morning, when the overnight curfew ends, passing five Russian checkpoints. Some drove their own cars, while others took unofficial taxis, with drivers charging from 2,500 hryvnia (£68) per person. Now, though, very few cars make it past the checkpoints.
From Snihurivka, people went mainly to Odesa, while some headed to Russian-controlled Crimea. One young man I spoke to, Ihor*, from the nearby town of Nova Kakhovka, told me he had evacuated to Crimea to avoid conscription into the Russian army.
“On 21 April we heard the news about the beginning of the [Russian] mobilisation of men in the occupied territories. My parents decided to take me to our friends for a while, until the situation in the Kherson region stabilises. I don’t want to flee Ukraine and go to another country. I plan to return and continue living in Ukraine,” he said.
"It was a full-fledged interrogation. We were told to undress to have our tattoos examined, then he took our cell phones and checked them"
This wasn’t Ihor’s first journey to Crimea. He said that in the past Russian soldiers checked his documents in a routine, if cold, manner when crossing into the occupied peninsula. But this time was different.
“When we were going through passport control, my father and I had our passports confiscated, and we were told to wait our turn to talk to an FSB officer. We were taken to the customs office, where there were more than 100 men. They kept us there for four hours. An FSB officer in civilian clothes and a balaclava came down and picked out five people, including me.
“We were taken to a small trailer with three benches, a table, a chair and a fan heater. It was a full-fledged interrogation. We were told to undress to have our tattoos examined, then he took our cell phones and checked them. He questioned us about any connection to the Armed Forces of Ukraine or to the police, and checked our position on the ruling regime in Russia and the Russian army. The FSB officer treated us like useless rubbish.”
Now that Ihor is in Sevastopol and feels safe, he plans to enjoy time with his friends, but hopes he will be able to return to his home town when it’s freed.
“I’m optimistic about going back to Nova Kakhovka. I hope to be able to return without any problems. If not, I will have to go to Europe with shame and start building a new life alone. This is the worst option for me.”
Daryna, who is now in Odesa with her parents, explained that they had left because of her younger brother.
“He is almost eight years old and he has autism,” she said. “He needs risperidone, an antipsychotic. This was usually issued free of charge in the [city’s] psychiatric hospital, but then they gave us the last few packs and said that there would be no more. He needs a strict routine, but, of course, all the resource centres have closed, and the teachers who worked with him left. He’s in a worse state because of all this.”
Waiting for the worst
For those who remain behind, living with the expectation of the unknown is difficult. Yuriy, whose wife is working abroad, said that initially he didn’t want to leave, but then eventually decided to do so – only to miss his opportunity as Russian troops had begun stopping cars leaving the city.
“People are saying, ‘It’s fine for now, it’s fine.’ There are some who say, ‘It doesn’t matter to me what flag is flying’. People here are passive and peace-loving. They just want to continue living.
“Are they happy with what is happening, or do they just not understand what awaits some of them? Life in Kherson is so calm that it’s become sickening,” he said. His sense of irritation with the ‘new normal’ and people’s speedy adjustment to it, along with a sense of abandonment, is clear. It seems that for him, a veneer of a peaceful life in Kherson is worse than the bombing and fighting in Mariupol or other cities.
“People say, ‘Who needs it [fighting], with all those deaths in vain?’ And I agree. Those I communicate with most of course hope for liberation. Those who don’t have hope decided to leave, some in the hope of coming back.”
Since 27 April, when – after a long period – there was an air raid on Kherson, life in this city is less calm. The people I spoke to are unsure about what their future holds, but still hope that liberation will come soon.
Get our weekly email