In Kherson’s main square, people gathered to greet the president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. In Ukraine’s counteroffensive, the president has made a habit of surprise appearances in newly liberated territories.
After Zelenskiy had made his speech, he walked out into the grassed area at which point the crowd burst through the police cordon and surrounded him, shouting “Ze-len-skiy! Ze-len-skiy!”. He had “officialised” the liberation – reconnecting the city to the rest of Ukraine after more than eight months under Russian control.
It was yet another surreal day for the city’s residents who had become accustomed to seeing pro-Moscow “Z” cars, trucks and armoured vehicles parked right by the grass where Zelenskiy now stood.
At one point, a man said, the Russians fired artillery from the middle of one of the main roads. When asked where the Russians stayed, he said everywhere from administrative buildings to factories, schools, colleges and people’s apartments.
The city’s residents overwhelmingly spoke Ukrainian, though it was clear that for many who occasionally searched for Ukrainian words it was not their primary language. They said the occupation had sparked an internal reckoning – being Russian-speaking Ukrainians meant that they could be used for Russian propaganda to incorrectly portray them as Russians.
“Now, no one will ever think that Kherson is a Russian city,” said Olga, the head of a regional cultural centre, wrapped in a Ukrainian flag.
One local doctor, Oleh Dohopoliy, said that he had used his position in the community to discourage people from having any dealings with the occupying authorities. Those who did, he said, did so because they did not understand the significance of the historical challenge they had been dealt and were insufficiently schooled in “patriotism”. He recommended that “patriotism classes” be introduced as soon as possible.
People said that they could not convey their relief when they realised the occupation was over. Some said they still felt that they were in a trance-like state.
The first sign that Ruslan Kalyn saw was a Ukrainian jeep, and he immediately ran home to tell his wife. “I can’t express the emotions that ran though me. I burst into tears. It was unbelievable euphoria. I went home and shouted ‘Marina, we’ve been liberated!’, but she didn’t believe me. I said ‘I’ve been on the square and seen our flag’.”
The aim on the occupation was to “Russify” the population through a mixture of propaganda, soft intimidation and brutal coercion. For many of those who resisted, their lives became severely repressed. Schools taught the Russian curriculum, so many parents opted to home-school and turned to classes taught online, said Anastasia, a mother and teacher.
But then the Russian and Russian-appointed locals began asking why a child was not attending school and rumours started to circulate that absent children might be put into care, said Anastasia. “So, parents started to cooperate, they felt they didn’t have a choice.”
Larisa and her husband, Valentin, said this was the first time that they had properly been out together since the war started. They said they had never felt this happy. Like other military-aged men in Kherson, they were afraid of Valentin being detained by Russian soldiers.
“I didn’t let him go anywhere. To the market and back and that was it,” said Larissa. “If you were a young man still around, they started to suspect you might be a partisan.”
Kherson city became famous for alleged partisan assassinations and bombings targeting various Russian-appointed officials. Pictures circulated of pro-Ukrainian leaflets and graffiti appearing in the town.
At least two men spoken to on Monday said they were beaten and detained by Russian soldiers. One 18-year-old man, Serhiy Sydorov, said he was seriously attacked twice.
The first time he was drinking a beer on the street and they said he had broken the public order rules. They told him to put his face to the wall and then started beating him in the ribs with metal bars. When he fell, they told him to get up and then beat him again but this time on his legs.
The second time was as recently as a week ago. His face was still bruised and he had wounds at the back of his head and on one of his shins. Sydorov said he had run into Chechen soldiers at the market. They accused him of stealing a gun. “I said: ‘What gun? Are you kidding?’”
The soldiers pushed Sydyrov to the ground and told him to get in the boot of their car. He refused and they shot at the ground and then placed the gun on his foot and said get in or else. Sydorov continued to refuse.
They asked for his passport (“Oh you’re still a Ukrainian”) and then started beating him, he said. “Then they said: ‘OK, you’ve fucked around enough, then get in the back then.’”
The soldiers had two women in the back, who Sydyrov believes were sex workers. While they were figuring out where everyone would sit, Sydorov, who only had one foot in the car, ran off.
In the last week, newspaper reports have been circulating that Ukraine’s western allies are pressuring Ukraine into opening to negotiations with Russia, which is now facing a serious counteroffensive. Italy’s La Republicca said that the Nato military alliance envisaged Ukraine opening up negotiations after Kherson was retaken.
Zelenskiy and his team have made it clear that there will be no negotiations until Russian troops have vacated all of Ukraine, including those areas occupied in 2014. Ukraine has said that anything else would be used as a temporary truce by Russia to rearm and attack in the future.
But nevertheless, the hard-won victory for Kherson city is a significant milestone for the war. Asked during his Kherson visit if he thought this could be the beginning of the end of the war, Zelenskiy said: “Of course. You see our strong army. We are step by step [moving] through our country.”