What is life like in Ukraine's southern region of Kherson, under Russian control since the start of the invasion?
I grew up in the city of Kherson, capital of the Kherson region in southern Ukraine, just north of Crimea. The region has been under Russian control since the very first days of the invasion. On 7 June, the occupying administration announced a referendum in support of joining the Russian Federation - although when it will be held remains unclear. Meanwhile, Russian and Ukrainian forces are still fighting over Kherson's borders in the west and the north.
It seems the Russian military thought they would be welcomed with open arms by local residents, supposedly oppressed by the so-called 'Nazi regime' in Ukraine. "The Russians, by all accounts, expected to be met with bread and salt," says Oleh Baturin, a journalist from the town of Nova Kakhovka, who spent eight days in Russian custody in mid-March.
Yet despite the creeping "Russification" of Kherson - through banks, mobile phone operators and central political influence - the Russians have failed to find people ready to become 'representatives' of the local population under occupation, says Baturin. Instead, they have been forced to dredge up a range of local officials to staff their administration.
Kherson residents, meanwhile, have been voting with their feet. Half of the region's inhabitants left in the first three months of the war, according to Hennady Lahuta, head of the Kherson regional administration based in the nearby town of Mykolaiv - still under Ukrainian control.
At what cost - and with whose help - is Russia trying to establish control in Kherson? Why does it need this southern region next to Crimea? And what is life like for people there today?
A tale of three mayors
Saldo: the mayor who joined the Russians
Since I left Kherson 15 years ago, the city has had three different mayors. Much like the city's residents, these officials have chosen different strategies for life under Russian occupation. One, Vladimir Saldo, is head of the occupying military-civilian administration; another, Volodymyr Mikolaenko, is, in the much-used euphemism, "sitting in a basement" for resisting the Russians; and a third, the pro-Ukrainian mayor Ihor Kolykhaev, is still trying to keep life in the city going.
Saldo, owner of a construction empire, could well be an example of a small-time kleptocrat. Once spanked on stage by a Russian-Ukrainian pop star, and later arrested in peculiar circumstances in the Dominican Republic, Saldo was elected mayor of Kherson three times between 2002 and 2012.
After his 2016 arrest in the Caribbean, journalists discovered that Saldo and his family owned significant real estate in Odesa, Kyiv, Crimea and his hometown - properties worth far more than he could afford on his official salary. A Kherson real estate agent, who has since left the city, told me on condition of anonymity that Saldo also owned a sizeable chunk of commercial property in the city before the Russian invasion.
In a Facebook post dated 14 March, Saldo responded to rumours of a 'Kherson's People's Republic' being set up in the region, in the vein of similar pro-Russian entities in Donetsk and Luhansk. "Our team and I decided to prevent and disrupt this event," he wrote at the time. "I did not betray my soul, my soul is Kherson, and Kherson is Ukraine."
A few days later, Saldo stated that he had been forced by the Russian military to participate in a so-called 'Committee of Salvation' - a gathering of Kherson politicians who were ready to cooperate with the Russian military.
Less than a month later, Saldo was proclaimed the head of the Russian administration of the Kherson region.
Although I attempted to contact Saldo on several occasions recently to speak with him, he did not reply.
Under Saldo's leadership, Kherson has received a new coat of arms featuring a two-headed eagle, based on the city's old imperial emblem. United Russia, Russia's ruling party, has opened a humanitarian assistance centre, and there is now an office where people can apply for Russian citizenship in a simplified procedure. (Saldo has suggested opening an additional ten offices due to alleged demand.)
Russia's deputy prime minister, Marat Khusnullin, has declared that the region is now part of a "ruble zone", where Russian banks are set to arrive, and that its future lies with the Russian Federation. (At this moment, shops are obliged to accept both Russian and Ukrainian currency.) "We look at Russia as our country," Saldo said on Russian television in mid-May.
But not everyone agrees. Against a background of small-scale partisan activity, the occupying authorities' Telegram channel regularly publishes a link to a "Database of Nazis of Kherson", which contains personal data on opponents of the Russian occupation.
Mykolaenko: the mayor who disappeared
Volodymyr Mykolaenko, mayor of Kherson between 2014 and 2020, is one of the many names in this 'database of Nazis'. An active participant in the Euromaidan revolution, Mykolaenko was one of the most consistent representatives of pro-Ukrainian forces in the region. His assistant, Kateryna Handziuk, was killed in a brutal acid attack in 2018.
Mykolaenko disappeared on 18 April. Like many now in Russian custody, Mykolaenko received a call from a friend, went to meet them and did not return.
A week later, Russian media began to circulate excerpts from an interview with the former mayor, who was apparently in prison or captivity - though where is not known. His relatives have only said that he could be subject to a prisoner exchange.
Kolykhaev: the mayor who stayed
Indeed, it's down to Kherson's third mayor, Ihor Kolykhaev, that we know anything about the scale of the disappearances in the city. According to him, by the end of May, 250 people had "disappeared" at some point - although 70 have since been released.
These disappearances were preceded by sizeable pro-Ukrainian rallies in Kherson, which inspired the whole country - until April, when the Russian military began to disperse participants with rubber bullets and stun grenades. Those suspected of coordinating the protests began to be kidnapped. Dozens of local politicians and officials are still under illegal arrest, including, for example, the mayor of the nearby city of Hola Pristan, Oleksandr Babych. Those who were released after weeks of interrogation and beatings quickly left the occupied territories.
Kolykhaev defeated Saldo in the second round of the 2020 elections. "My job is to have the Ukrainian flag fly over the city," he declared at the very beginning of the Russian invasion in February.
The flag fluttered for two months. Kolykhaev was virtually the only representative of the Ukrainian authorities in the city during this time - the heads of the military administration, the police and the security service all left. On 25 April, the Russian military expelled Kolykhaev from the city council and removed the state flag. The very next day they presented their own administration, headed by Saldo.
But the legally elected mayor did not resign. Instead, Kolykhaev moved into a public building and continues to manage city services from there: public transport, plumbing, janitors. Back in April, Kolykhaev requested instructions from the office of President Volodymyr Zelenskyi: what should he do next?
"We received a letter saying instructions were under way and asking us to wait. So we are waiting," he said, a month later.
Loss of communications
There has been no Ukrainian television or radio in the Kherson region since the first days of the occupation. And there has been no permanent mobile phone connection since the end of May, according to Ukraine's state communications service. The Russian army turned off infrastructure belonging to Ukrainian mobile operators, Kolykhaev said.
The occupying administration blamed Ukraine for cutting off communications, and began to distribute SIM cards for Crimean mobile operators. Unlike Ukraine, Russian mobile operators require a customer to present their passport to purchase a SIM card - which gives the Russian authorities an opportunity to conduct a census of the population remaining in the region.
Also, when residents connect to the internet via Russian providers, they have restricted access to information, due to the strict requirements of Roskomnadzor, the Russian media regulator.
Disconnecting communications made it difficult to get state budget transfers, says regional administration head Hennady Lahuta. For the first three months of the war, Kyiv continued to transfer money to Kherson - pensions, salaries for doctors and teachers, support for the local budget - but this is no longer possible.
Ukraine's canal and Crimea's drinking water
Vladimir Putin justified Russia's "special military operation" in Ukraine by referring to the need to protect people living in the so-called 'People's Republics' in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
But the fact that occupying the Kherson region was one of the goals of the invasion of Ukraine became clear on the very first day, after only a few hours, when Sergey Aksyonov, the Kremlin's man in occupied Crimea, ordered the North Crimean Water Canal to be readied for operation.
This 400-kilometre canal has supplied water from Ukraine's Dnipro river to dry regions in the south of the Kherson region and on to Crimea, since the 1970s. It was the main source of drinking water for Crimea, and up to a billion cubic metres passed through the canal every year - until Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Soon afterwards, the Ukrainian authorities installed a dam to block the canal. The consequences for Crimea were very damaging. Agriculture practically stopped in the peninsula's northern regions, access to drinking water became more difficult, and summer droughts became much more noticeable.
So it's no surprise that the canal administration, and the reservoir and hydroelectric power station at Kakhovka, were some of the first targets for the invading Russian army. On 25 February, Russian troops blew up the dam blocking the canal.
In early March, water began flowing again into Crimea's water network. The occupying administration in Kherson has agreed to supply water to the peninsula for free. "Now there will always be Dnipro water in Crimea," Aksyonov said triumphantly. In northern Crimea, farmers have sown rice for the first time since 2014.
Ukraine's state ecological inspectorate calls supply of water from the canal into Crimea a "theft" and claims losses of up to $1m a day. The Ukrainian government has claimed that, under its own laws and the Geneva Conventions, the occupying state (Russia) must take responsibility for providing territory under its control (Crimea) with water.
Joining the Russian Federation?
After the annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, the administrative border between Kherson and Crimea turned into a de-facto national border, breaking up neighbours, families and economic ties.
Anna, who lives in the border zone, told openDemocracy that since the Russian invasion there's a sense "that everyone forgot about us and abandoned us".
"There is no central authority. From time to time, a Russian military official comes by, but he's useless," she said. "We are trying to provide for ourselves. Old people have been left without pensions - we help them. But food has to be transported from Crimea, and then we are called traitors in Ukraine [for taking it]."
A feeling of abandonment comes up often in conversations. Russian forces and their collaborators feed this feeling, trying to convince locals that the Russian Federation "will be here for a long time", and that if they leave for Ukrainian-controlled territory they will be met with fighting and condemnation for 'collaboration'.
The Kremlin, it seems, has taken a long time to decide how to legitimise its occupation of Kherson (and the adjacent Zaporizhzhya region). Official Russian propaganda has moved on from 'People's Republics' to suggest that Kherson should become a full-blown part of Russia.
Vladimir Saldo's administration is ready to ask Moscow for permission to "accede" to Russia, but the Kremlin, so far, is evading the issue: residents of the region, it says, need to express this desire themselves - and a referendum now looks likely.
The problems of evacuation
Since the invasion, there has been no safe way for people in Kherson to travel directly to Ukrainian-controlled territory. The shortest route, between the city of Kherson and the nearby town of Mykolaiv, was immediately blocked due to fighting between Russia and Ukrainian forces.
Unlike other areas in the north and east of Ukraine, no safe evacuation corridors have been set up. Russian troops did not allow the organised evacuation of children from orphanages, prisoners or psychiatric patients. Even local missions of international organisations such as UNHCR or OSCE were not allowed to leave.
At the end of March, the first route to Mykolaiv through Snegirevka and Bashtanka was launched. Neither the Ukrainian nor the Russian military gave any security guarantees, but they let hundreds of cars pass every day. Commercial carriers soon started operations, asking for $100 for passage to Odesa (later increased to $200).
In Telegram chats about evacuation routes, those who are planning to leave ask questions of those who have left: how many checkpoints did they cross, how are inspections carried out, how long is the queue? It's strictly forbidden in these chats to disclose the positions of Ukrainian troops. Emotions run high sometimes, with participants complaining of high prices and scammers demanding prepayment for travel.
On the evening of 17 May, one of these discussions was interrupted by a message from the village of Davydiv Brid. At about 4pm, a convoy from the city of Krivyi Rih, trying to get to the Kherson region, found itself under artillery fire between the Ukrainian and Russian checkpoints.
"The 'orcs' [a widely used term for the Russian army] went crazy. Our troops were advancing. We lived for four days near Davydiv Brid. For three days, we hid from explosions. On the fourth day, after dinner, they started shooting at us. One man who was ahead of me died, the guy next to me was hit in the legs, one woman's head was blown to pieces. It was a terrible mess," one of the eyewitnesses said the next day.
Three people died and at least six were wounded, according to the Ukrainian police, who are now investigating the shelling of the convoy as a violation by the Russian Federation of the laws of war, combined with premeditated murder. The Russian army allowed the most heavily wounded into Beryslav hospital, in Kherson, but the Ukrainian police still have no news from them.
A message is now pinned in the Telegram chat about evacuation: "It's very dangerous to leave. Please, stay at home, don't risk your life. There is a war going on, everyone travels at their own peril and risk."
Yet people continue to travel in and out of the region. A new evacuation route connects Kherson to the city of Zaporizhzhya - some 300 kilometres away, past Enerhodar and Dniprorudne, through Vasylivka, which Ukrainian and Russian forces fight over from time to time. It costs almost $300 per person.
Many leaving Russian-controlled territories are taken aback by the care that Ukrainian volunteers, humanitarian organisations and public officials show them. Life in occupation made them not only fearful, but gave them a sense that everyone was looking out for themselves. For Kherson residents, the fear of winding up in the middle of full-scale fighting mixed with their desire to see their home region liberated as soon as possible - and their desire to leave the Russian occupation fought with the fear of never seeing their homes again.
Today, the safest route out of Kherson is via Crimea, which is much less affected by direct fighting or missile strikes. Commercial evacuation services offer minibuses to Krasnodar, in Russia, and then on to Georgia, Latvia or Poland. It costs $250 to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, $450 to Warsaw.
But it's not only the cost and long journey that deter Kherson residents from these evacuation routes. Many fear punishment for a potentially illegal crossing - that they will be forbidden from entering Ukraine in the future. However, Ukraine's border service recently said it "was waiting eagerly" for Ukrainian citizens returning from Russia, and that it would "take into account" the fact that people had to cross borders under pressure.
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