Kherson, a city in southern Ukraine that has been occupied by the Russians since the first days of the invasion, is proving to be a debacle for Vladimir Putin. It’s a political failure, even more than a military one. A strategic city connecting the Donbass to Crimea, Kherson, known for its pro-Russian sympathies, has been rising up time and time again to protest against the occupiers.
“We have been taking to the streets every day,” Aleksander Danilov tells us from Kherson, an activist and lawyer for the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union. “There are also many people among us who supported pro-Russian parties in previous years. At first, the invaders did not react; then, when they saw that they couldn’t maintain control, they changed their tune.”
They began shooting into the crowds, using beatings, threats, searches, sometimes kidnappings and torture. It all amounts to a long catalog of horrors that Aleksander recounts with cold precision. Those targeted were not only demonstrators, but also officials, journalists, priests, activists.
Among the most notorious cases is that of Dmytro Afanasyev, deputy of the Korabel District Council and head of the European Solidarity faction, who was kidnapped in Kherson at the end of March, after the Russian police had dispersed a pro-Ukrainian demonstration. Afanasyev was beaten together with his wife, his home was searched, then he was taken prisoner.
However, the iron fist approach did not help to lower tensions. Protests have continued to take place, even if more sporadically. There has been such hostility that the Russians have been forced to postpone, perhaps permanently, the organization of a referendum that was meant to end with the proclamation of a People’s Republic of Kherson, following the script previously enacted in Donbass with the secessionist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.
The referendum had been set for the end of April, then postponed to early May. “They tried several times, in vain. That’s why they forcibly took over the city’s administration,” Aleksandar explains. Last Tuesday, they occupied the Kherson City Hall and replaced the mayor, Ihor Kolykhaiev, with his driver, Oleksandr Kobets, a former official of the Soviet security services of the KGB, which then became the Ukrainian SBU.
Kobets is a puppet figure, together with Volodymyr Saldo, a former mayor of Kherson for 10 years, now put in charge of the Oblast. “The idea of the referendum has failed,” Father Anastasij tells us without hesitation. He has just managed to escape to Lviv from Kherson two days before. It was an escape “in terrible conditions,” at the crack of dawn, when “you have more chances to cross the occupied territories.”
Father Anastasij, like many priests of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, was in mortal danger. “The invaders were extremely irritated by our presence,” he recounts. “In the first weeks, they ordered us to keep quiet and not to help the Ukrainian resistance. All to no avail. I know priests who have bravely brought aid to our soldiers.” What sparked his own plan to escape, however, was something else: “I realized that I would be living in my own country deprived of all freedom and all rights,” he says, almost in disbelief, as if reality has gone far beyond anything imagination could offer.
Anastasij recalls the first days of the occupation: “Scary. We could hear explosions, the Russians had bombed the city’s airport. No one knew what to expect. By the end of the month, Kherson was unrecognizable.” The turning point, according to Father Anastasij, came only in late March, when the Russian army realized it was not in control of the territory and began to suffer significant losses in the fight for Mykolayiv.
“The Russians could not afford to leave Kherson unattended, at the mercy of the protests. That’s when the worst came.” Raids, expropriations, violence. Kherson, explains Father Anastasij, “is a strategic city, fundamental for the Kremlin. The fact that they are not managing to organize the referendum is significant, considering that pro-Russians were the majority here.”
Now they are moving on to phase two of the occupation, the Russification of Kherson. First comes the currency. From Monday, according to what has been reported in recent days by the vice president of the military and civil administration of the region, Kirill Stremousov, the ruble will be gradually introduced in the Oblast to replace the Ukrainian hryvnia.
This process is set to take four months, during which both currencies will be in circulation. Then, also starting on Monday, “Ukrainian education will be banned,” as Aleksander, the activist from Kherson, explains. “We have news of teachers being taken to Crimea to be trained by Russian personnel.”
Even worse, part of phase two involves mobilization, drafting Ukrainians to fight against other Ukrainians. “This has already happened with doctors, who were called to operate at the front in the service of the Russian army.” Now, local NGOs are raising the alarm that men might be conscripted by force to fight on the side of the enemy. “Kherson has been closed down for a week: the men, in particular, are not allowed to leave. Maybe this is the first sign,” Aleksander warns.