Foto: Emre Caylak / DER SPIEGEL

A Visit to Kherson City Has Been Liberated, But a Few Are Not Happy

During their retreat from Kherson, the Russians took buses, ambulances and computers and destroyed the electricity supply. Most of the city's inhabitants are breathing a sigh of relief, but some actually miss the occupiers.

It's a gray Sunday afternoon when Colonel Roman Kostenko climbs out of the car on the main square of Kherson. A crying woman silently embraces him. A child is shoved into his arms. People take one selfie after the other. Liberators in uniform, liberated people in civilian clothes, it is both kitsch and authentic at the same time. Two days earlier, Russian troops had left the port city at the mouth of the Dnieper River, and the first Ukrainian troops marched in. It is the greatest victory since the defense of Kyiv shortly after the beginning of the war on February 24. "It's like a village wedding," member of parliament and military man Kostenko says of the general atmosphere. "It's worth putting your life on the line for something like this," he says.

DER SPIEGEL 47/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 47/2022 (November 19th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

The expulsion of the Russian troops put an end to a sinister experiment: the attempt to turn a major Ukrainian city into a Russian one in the shortest time possible, against the will of the vast majority of its inhabitants, with the use of both terror and enticements. But the past several months have left wounds that the city must now live with. Kherson is an empty, dark, cold and traumatized place that is lacking the most basic necessities and where, despite all the visible euphoria, deep rifts run between the residents.

Two days after Kostenko's visit, Yuri Sobolevsky is standing at the central Freedom Square, a portly man in an olive green jacket and a T-shirt printed with an off-color patriotic slogan. It's evening, just before the 5 p..m. curfew. Cars are still honking in the background, generators are rattling and a newly erected antenna provides makeshift mobile phone reception. Throughout the day, people with Ukrainian flags have gathered in the square to cheer what has happened or exchange information and grab Ukrainian SIM cards or food packages. A shashlik stand has even opened up, the only place in the city, which once had a population of 300,000, where you can buy warm food.

"I never saw so many people on the square in peace times," Sobolevsky says. "You'd think another 300,000 people had moved to Kherson." Sobolevsky is the vice chairman of the regional parliament, and he has just re-entered his old office for the first time. It's on the third floor of the white administrative building that dominates the square. "It's a total mess," Sobolevsky says.

"The People Are Euphoric and in a Celebratory Mood"

In March, when the Russians had just arrived in Kherson, Sobolevsky was among those who organized protest rallies against the occupiers. Thousands of people marched down the main street. The Russians had quickly quashed the military resistance – the Ukrainians hadn't even blown up the Dnieper River bridges before their arrival – but there was impressive civilian pushback. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy awarded Kherson the honorary title of "Hero City." Sobolevsky's regional parliament published a statement of support for Ukraine.

The Russians set up their military command in the parliament building and crushed the daily rallies, and Sobolevsky went into hiding. In mid-June, he was able to sneak out of the Russian-occupied zone. Now, five months later, he is busy setting up support staffs in the city. "People are euphoric and in a celebratory mood," he says. "But at the same time, we have a humanitarian disaster here."

It's a disaster that the Russians deliberately created. Before pulling out, they cut the city's power supply by blowing up an overhead power line further east and the remaining power line across the Dnieper River. Without electricity, water and heat can no longer be delivered to homes. The lucky ones have gas stoves. At the regional hospital, the single generator is no longer enough to keep the dialysis machines running. Some kidney patients say they have already had to skip three sessions. At the market, a half liter of kerosene, sold in mineral water bottles, costs almost four euros, and gasoline is no longer available for purchase at all.

Pensioner Vladimir Serdyuk says he was beaten with clubs and a whip and even worse.

Pensioner Vladimir Serdyuk says he was beaten with clubs and a whip and even worse.

Foto: Emre Caylak / DER SPIEGEL

"To the cellar," people from Kherson say when talking about how the Russian occupiers picked people up and put them in jail. Many people were in the cellar. Vladimir Serdyuk, a retired former track-and-field athlete, now 65, spent three days there. He still has pain months later. It all started on a Saturday at the end of August, he says. Serdyuk was at his son's house, watering flowers and feeding the dog and cat, just like he did every day. His son is fighting in the Ukrainian army, and his daughter-in-law is in Poland. Suddenly, men started banging on the door. They were wearing uniforms of the Russian domestic intelligence service FSB and masks. Fifteen men had cordoned off the street. "Where's your son?" they asked. "They knew he was a veteran of the war in the Donbas. They knew more about him than I did," Serdyuk says.

Residents charge their mobile phones in Kherson at the train station, which has a generator: The Russians deliberately created the disaster in the city.

Residents charge their mobile phones in Kherson at the train station, which has a generator: The Russians deliberately created the disaster in the city.

Foto: Emre Caylak / DER SPIEGEL
A soldier and a Kherson resident: Supporters of Russian annexation are keeping their voices down.

A soldier and a Kherson resident: Supporters of Russian annexation are keeping their voices down.

Foto: Emre Caylak / DER SPIEGEL

The jail they took him to is a two-story building in the Sklotarne district. Serdyuk could see his own apartment building from the window. The prison is empty now, and Serdyuk shows his cell on the upper floor. Eight men had been locked inside. They were forced to memorize the Russian anthem and jump up every time the door opened and shout: "Glory to Russia! Glory to Putin! Glory to Shoigu!" Sergei Shoigu is Russia's Defense Minister. Two days after the arrest, the guards took Serdyuk to the cellar for interrogation. They beat him with clubs and a whip, and his body was red and blue from his buttocks to his knees. Then, he claims, they attached two electrodes to his testicles and connected them to a crank generator. "Sometimes, they turned it fast and you screamed loudly; other times, they turned it slowly and you just feel the current. I was soaked with sweat," Serdyuk says. When they were done, they said. "If you don't remember where your son is, this will continue tomorrow." But the next day, they released Sedyuk anyway.

Kherson is known for its southern climate, juicy watermelons from the surrounding countryside, a rich past and a not so rich present. Abandoned construction projects line poorly paved streets. There's a small historical town center and a large river port.

The most noticeable legacy of the Russian occupation are the many posters and billboards. "Kherson – Forever with Russia" is written on them, or "Russians and Ukrainians Are One People." Historical figures like Alexander Pushkin or city founder Grigory Potemkin are used to promote the annexation, but there are also material promises: "A dignified life for pensioners of the region," "Free Medicine." They also show people in traditional Ukrainian shirts and the Russian flag. If the annexation of Kherson ultimately failed, it certainly wasn't due to a lack of street advertising. Now, most posters are torn down or smeared with paint.

Day care educator Laryssa Resnik saw firsthand how the material promises worked. Resnik was opposed to the annexation. She wears a blue and yellow scarf and insists on speaking Ukrainian, even if some Russian words slip in. Russian is the native language of most of the inhabitants of Kherson. When "Kadyrovites," the troops of Chechen President Ramzan Kadrov, moved into her kindergarten, she began spying on her own workplace. She shows how she did it. "I walked slowly along the fence and kept stopping as if I was sick. Then I looked to see if anything had changed behind the windows." Resnik says she sent the information thus gleaned to her daughter and to acquaintances who had contacts with the security agencies.


You Can't Hear the Voices of Supporters of the Annexation, But They Do Exist

Still, Resnik says the Russians' generous benefits and salaries did have an effect on many others. The basic salary of daycare educators was doubled and an ample child subsidy paid to families. A neighbor who was a friend is now being accommodated in a beach hotel in the Russian resort city of Anapa and once even called to say "how good things are at our place." Resnik found her formulation off-putting. "What does 'our place' even mean when you're in Russia?" Many people took whatever the Russians offered them, she says – "that's part of our Ukrainian mentality: We adapt to the situation. But these people still remain our neighbors and acquaintances."

A destroyed bridge outside the city: a cold, dark, traumatized place

A destroyed bridge outside the city: a cold, dark, traumatized place

Foto: Emre Caylak / DER SPIEGEL

It’s something one must keep in mind when listening to the jubilation of Kherson residents about their liberation. You can’t hear the voice of the supporters of annexation with Russia, because the supporters have either fled to Russian-controlled territory or are keeping their opinions to themselves. But they do exist.

Like the handful of people standing down at the river port waiting for a ship to take them across the Dnieper River into Russian-controlled territory. The autumn sun shines on the mirror-smooth river. Some men can be seen filling canisters with river water. But there isn’t a ship to be seen, save for a half-sunken barge and a Liberian freighter that has been stuck in the harbor since the Russian invasion. Artillery roars nearby.

"I regret not evacuating in time," says Anna, 57, who is wearing a red wool cape. She doesn't want to give her last name. She has a travel bag with her. The woman is from the outskirts of Kherson, where villages suffered during the Ukrainian counteroffensive. She and the others have nothing bad to say about the Russian occupation. "The markets were full, there was meat!" exclaims one woman. "Four-thousand rubles of child support per month! And 10,000-ruble pensions!" interjects another. That is equivalent to between 100 and 260 euros. "And there was plenty of humanitarian aid coming in!"

A Russian propaganda billboard: "Kherson – Forever with Russia"

A Russian propaganda billboard: "Kherson – Forever with Russia"

Foto: Fedir Petrov / DER SPIEGEL

It sounds as if they are talking about the long-sunken Soviet Union, to which their hearts are still attached. Only one elderly man, who wants to take food to his bedridden son on the other side of the river, expresses his skepticism.

"The city came alive," Anna claims. "I'm neither in favor of Ukraine nor Russia. But now I’m doing worse than before." She also has a friend in the Russian resort town of Anapa, where many people from Kherson were taken. She would like to follow her, but it looks as though Anna may have missed the last ship.

The launches that the Russians used to take people out of the city haven't been running for weeks. And the private boats, which you can reportedly take across for the equivalent of 25 euros, are also nowhere to be found. "It's not like anyone expected the city to be abandoned. We have been left behind," Anna says with a sigh. "Watch what you say," says another woman, when a Ukrainian policeman shows up and checks peoples' IDs. "Forget about crossing," he says. "It's far too dangerous. Can't you hear the gunfire?"

Captain Vladimir Gudko: "The Russians were constantly afraid when they were here."

Captain Vladimir Gudko: "The Russians were constantly afraid when they were here."

Foto: Emre Caylak / DER SPIEGEL

"Boats were still making the crossing on Sunday to ferry people across for money," says Captain Vladimir Gudko, whose ship broker's office is located right next to the abandoned passenger terminal. Gudko is a round-built man of 69, with a sailor's cap and coarse humor.

He could watch from his window how, starting in October, the first civilians and then Russian military were taken out of the city. Gudko says the withdrawal didn't look particularly orderly. He doesn’t have much good to say about the Russians anyway after they came to his city uninvited, although he went to university in Russia and worked there, and even met Vladimir Putin personally when he was an unassuming official in the Leningrad municipal administration. Gudko needed his signature for a cargo of non-ferrous metal.


Fueled By Fear

At the very beginning of the occupation, a Russian officer showed up at Gudko’s office. Gudko invited him to tea. The conversation ended in an argument when the visitor discovered the surveillance camera and didn't want to be filmed. "He shouted: 'Russia is here foreverrrrr!' and waved the gun around," Gudko recounts. "I told him: I was a captain of first rank in the Soviet fleet, you're just a lieutenant. What are you yelling about? Why don't you bash your fucking head in and then I'll believe you're here forever."

Gudko believes fear was the reason for the Russian's shouting. "The Russians were constantly afraid when they were here." Big frightening Russia, he says, is actually afraid itself, which is precisely what explains its violence. "What is Russia? A fat woman in a bright red robe with her pockets torn and money pouring out of them, and she's brawling with everyone." He says that only 20 percent of Kherson residents were pro-Russian, and they were mostly elderly. Anna, who is waiting in vain on the shore for a crossing, also says she's in the minority with her views and that young people think differently. "The youth are fleeing to the West, but we have no place to go," another waiting woman says with resignation.

It's not only the living who have left Kherson, but also some of the dead. The occupiers took the bones of the city's founder, Grigory Potemkin, before they left, and Father Pyotr, the provost of St. Catherine's Church, doesn't know where they are now. But he was there when, at 7 p.m. on Oct. 24, visitors climbed into the warm, damp crypt beneath his church and took Potemkin's remains. Apparently they were men from the Russian domestic intelligence service FSB, and they had warned him a few days earlier. Potemkin should be taken to safety "just for a while," they had said. "I told them: 'I'm against it. But I know my word counts for nothing'" says Father Pyotr.

Before they removed the coffin, Father Pyotr and the men said a prayer for the deceased. There is is an empty stone slab now where the coffin stood.


When Russia Left, It Took Heritage with It

For Moscow, Potemkin symbolizes the Russian claim to the city of Kherson. He founded it as the first port of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, and Father Pyotr's St. Catherine's Church can also be traced back to him. The occupiers put up posters of Potemkin all over the city. It is an irony of history that the invocation of historical heritage ended with its removal from the city, as happened with the monuments of other Russian military leaders. In the end, the Russians even damaged St. Catherine's Church. A heavy chandelier fell from the ceiling and windows broke when they blew up the neighboring TV tower.

Father Pyotr's church remained open every day during the occupation, and for the Easter vigil, it was allowed to disregard the curfew. Critics say this was because the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, to which Father Pyotr belongs, is something like Moscow's Fifth Column. Until May, it was still formally under the jurisdiction of the Moscow patriarch – and thus under a man who has explicitly justified Putin's invasion of Russia's neighbor as a battle against evil.

Father Pyotr calls the allegations unfair. "Any person in their right mind can't approve of Patriarch Kirill's words." Three priests in the city of Kherson and the surrounding area were arrested by the occupiers for their pro-Ukrainian positions, he says, and one of them is still missing. Most of his flock fled to the West, not to Russian-occupied territory. Pyotr's son is fighting in the Ukrainian army. "A church can only be with its people. And that is the Ukrainians for us," he says.

For the inhabitants of Kherson, the Russians disappeared in the end as unexpectedly and suddenly as they had come. Even the Ukrainian troops were surprised by how quickly everything went in the end. The Russians managed to completely deceive them.


Almost Exclusively Russian Products

Nowhere is that clearer than at the Antonivka Bridge, the strategically important link between Kherson on the west bank of the Dnieper and the suburbs on the east bank. Since the morning hours of November 11, there has been a gap in the 1.4-kilometer-long bridge, as if someone had cut a piece out with a knife.

The bridge is clearly visible from the small grocery store where Natalia Bespoyasna, 50, works. She returned to Kherson in January after having spent the previous four years cleaning the apartments of affluent Russians in Berlin. In the summer, Bespoyasna found a job as a shop assistant in the grocery store by the bridge. Its customers included Russian soldiers who would pay in rubles for goods that had been imported from Russia. From an economic perspective, the Russification of Kherson advanced quickly. Even now, after the Russian withdrawal, most products on the sparsely stocked shelves are from Russia or Crimea, things like oil, crackers and cans of cola with Iranian labels.

Shop assistant Natalia Bespoyasna: "I told them that I wouldn't leave."

Shop assistant Natalia Bespoyasna: "I told them that I wouldn't leave."

Foto: Emre Caylak / DER SPIEGEL

After the Ukrainian army received high-precision HIMARS rockets from the United States in the summer, Bespoyasna could hear the Ukrainians puncturing initial holes in the bridge. Before long, it was unpassable for heavy equipment. From that point on, the Russians knew that the supply line for the thousands of Russian troops on the west side of the Dnieper was in danger. By September, not even passenger cars could use the Antonivka Bridge any longer.

When the Russians began bringing civilians over to the eastern side of the river in October, they offered to evacuate Bespoyasna as well. "I told them that I wouldn't leave. This is my home." Instead, the Ukrainian woman watched as the Russians gradually transported military vehicles across the river by ferry. Other residents say the same: Even in early October, Russian soldiers were among the "evacuated" civilians. Two ferries from a local shipyard were used for the operation. The pontoon bridge that the occupiers had set up next to the Antonivka Bridge was likewise unusable since it, too, had been shelled. Pieces of it are still floating like loose Lego pieces next to the ruins of the main bridge.

The mission described as the "evacuation of the civilian population" was in actuality a façade for the Russian withdrawal, which had long since begun. Under the cover of Russian artillery fire, small columns of army vehicles would begin moving out. They left behind white traces in the asphalt out in front of Bespoyasna's shop.

A destroyed house and tanks outside Kherson: a rich past and a not so rich present

A destroyed house and tanks outside Kherson: a rich past and a not so rich present

Foto: Emre Caylak / DER SPIEGEL

By the time General Sergey Surovikin, the commander of Russian troops in Ukraine, announced the withdrawal from Kherson in a clearly rehearsed television appearance with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on November 9, it had already been mostly completed. On the evening of November 10, the final day of Russian occupation, one resident says he saw a battle tank, three KAMAZ military trucks and an armored jeep in the moonlight. The vehicles were on the way to the ferry dock at the bridge.

Just a few hours later, at around 5 a.m., the resident says he heard a loud boom. After the sun rose and the fog lifted, he saw a huge hole in the bridge. The Russians had blown it up, marking the end of their withdrawal. The Ukrainian army was also surprised. "We thought until the final moment that they wanted to draw us into house-to-house fighting," says a scout who was one of the first Ukrainian soldiers to enter the city.

A few isolated Russian fighters presumably remained, likely disguising themselves in civilian clothing. Natalya Bespoyasna says she even thought she recognized a lanky, red-haired young customer in a tracksuit one day. Only later did she remember that she had previously seen the same young man wearing the uniform of the pro-Russian troops from the Donbas.

Now, the Russians are gone, along with all manner of goods they took with them: ambulances, fire engines, the new city buses, computers from offices, the grain stored at the port, cars, even school benches.

The tension, though, has remained. Also for Bespoyasna and her customers, unshaven men with heavy eyelids to whom she sells beer and vodka in plastic cups even early in the morning. She now frequently hears the thundering of artillery, round after round. The front runs along the Dnieper, just a few hundred meters away. From Antonivka, Ukrainian soldiers identify targets on the other side of the river, and then the guns are unleashed. Sometimes, the Russians fire back. Kherson has paid for its liberation by now becoming a city on the front lines. Even mortar fire and snipers can reach the urban area of Kherson, says a Ukrainian soldier. "They are waiting until enough of our troops are in the city, and then they will open fire."

Vladimir Saldo, the Russian-appointed governor of the region, has moved his headquarters 200 kilometers further to the east, to Henichesk on the Sea of Azov. It isn't known where the Russian-installed mayor of the city now is. Nor does anybody know the whereabouts of the elected Ukrainian mayor of Kherson, who the Russians abducted.

From his office at a safe distance from the Ukrainians' HIMARS rocket launchers, Saldo announced that Kherson would remain the capital of the region. Sooner or later, he insisted, the Russians would return. In Kherson, though, nobody believes that.

With additional reporting by Fedir Petrov and Igor Ishchuk

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