eEight months after Russia occupied Kherson, the first major Ukrainian city to fall when Vladimir Putin’s forces invaded in February, many refused Russia’s calls to evacuate. Moscow’s hold on the city appears to be waning as it anxiously awaits its liberation. .
“The city feels somewhat abandoned. Everyone who sympathized with Russia has fled, and the rest are hoarding food,” Anastasia said. She evacuated her son at the beginning of the war, but she is an elderly woman who decided to stay in Kherson to look after three cats and two dogs.
The Guardian spoke with six residents of Kherson to describe a semi-no-inhabited city looted by a fugitive Russian-installed regime.
Kherson was captured by Russia shortly after Putin ordered an invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Late last month, the Kremlin sought to further cement its control over the city by annexing the region after organizing a widely condemned sham referendum.
However, the Ukrainian counteroffensive launched in August has eroded the Kherson region so much that Western officials have suggested that the city of Kherson itself could be recaptured within weeks.
The Russian government in the occupied city earlier this month ordered the “evacuation” of residents to Russian-controlled areas across the Dnieper, ordering them to take “documents, money, valuables and clothing.” .
However, many decided to stay, not only waiting for the Ukrainian army, but also fearing possible interrogation and arrest if they left the city.
“We are not going anywhere. I am here to wait for Ukraine to finally release us,” said Vladimir from Kherson.
Pro-Russian proxy authorities are now calling those left behind: Zudunsloosely translates to “the one who waits,” after the gray blob with the bellyband, arms, and alien face that became a popular meme on the Russian and Ukrainian internet in 2017.
“The occupier is not wrong. I am a proud Zudun.
Vladimir said internet and other communication services were so severely restricted that it was often difficult to pinpoint exactly what was going on while the city awaited its release.
“You hear constant shelling, but it’s hard to understand what it means. The city is full of rumors and gossip about what’s to come,” he said.
As the pro-Russian proxy government leaves the city, it is reportedly bringing with it an array of necessities, from medicines and medical equipment to the latest buses bound for Russian-occupied territories.
Two residents of Kherson said they were unable to find powdered milk or “basic medicines” in local pharmacies and drugstores.
More symbolically, Russia also began to take the dead. One recent night, the bronze busts of Fyodor Ushakov and Alexander Suvorov, his two commanders of 18th-century Russia, disappeared. Local authorities later admitted that the statue had been stolen. carried across the river. Russian-appointed authorities also removed the remains of Prince Grigory Alexandrovich Potemkin. Prince Potemkin was the chancellor and mistress of 18th-century ruler Catherine II, who persuaded the Empress to annex Crimea in 1783.
With the departure of Russian officials and security forces, the first signs of dissent reappeared in Kherson. In Kherson, a series of pro-Ukrainian rallies were held in March and April and were violently suppressed by occupation authorities.
“There is a new sense of calmness and freedom,” said Nikolai, another Kherson resident who left home to care for her aging parents.
Nikolai explained that before the evacuation was declared, the streets were full of Russian police who stopped to interrogate locals and rarely left their homes.
“A few weeks ago we were just whispering to each other about what was going on. .
Three Kherson residents told The Guardian that some of the city’s shops stopped accepting the Russian-imposed ruble after months of attempts by Kremlin-installed officials to exchange Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia. said.
In one clip circulating online, an employee can be heard telling a customer that he was instructed by his boss to only accept payments in hryvnia.
Commenting on some shops refusing to accept rubles, Kirill Stremsov, head of the Moscow-based region, said last week that he would punish “hustlers who take advantage of the situation under the laws of war.” threatened.
In another video released by Stremsov, aimed at intimidating those stranded in Kherson, a 17-year-old boy from the city is seen being interrogated after being accused of providing information to the Ukrainian army.
It remains unclear what Moscow’s plans are for Kherson.
For weeks, Ukrainian forces have aimed to besiege the city on the west bank of the Dnieper, targeting infrastructure on which the enemy depends, such as the now largely destroyed Antonovsky Bridge. .
Earlier this month, the newly appointed commander of the All-Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine, General Sergei Slovikin, admitted that the situation at the front was “tense”. More importantly, he opened the door for Russia to completely withdraw from the city, saying in Kherson that “difficult decisions cannot be ruled out.”
Putin declared last month that Russia would remain in Kherson “forever”.
Ukraine has so far strongly denied reports that Moscow plans to abandon the city, instead saying the Kremlin is sending more troops to bolster its defenses. suggests.
“They are not preparing to withdraw now,” General Kirillo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence agency, said in an interview with Ukraiska Pravda on Monday.
“They are preparing for defense,” he added, indicating that he believed Moscow was preparing for urban combat.
However, those remaining in Kherson said there were few signs the city was being prepared for a large-scale defense.
One resident, Irina, said she noticed “some” fortifications made of sandbags built on government buildings to protect the city. “I feel like they left us alone.”
Irina said she was recently approached by three newly mobilized Russian soldiers who asked her where she could buy cigarettes and alcohol. “They said they didn’t know what they were doing in the city. It didn’t feel like they were ready for a big fight.”
In one sign that Russia may be preparing to dig in, Moscow-installed authorities in Kherson last week announced the formation of a territorial defense force, asking local men to join them in defending the city. urged.
However, even Russian soldiers were quick to admit that few Kherson locals were willing to take up arms against their country. “The Kherson territorial defense unit is a risky decision,” said a Russian soldier who blogged under the name “13”.
“Instead of creating a territorial defense force, we may just be arming our enemies.”