‘Russification’ erodes Ukraine’s sovereignty in occupied Kherson

In the early days after Russian forces occupied Kherson, Ukrainians sought to cling on to the vestiges of their old lives. They kept on using the hryvnia, retained their existing telephone numbers and schoolchildren continued to learn remotely from the same text books.

But with the war dragging into its sixth month, the infrastructure of the Ukrainian state has slowly been eroded as “Russification” of the southern city has taken hold.

In recent weeks, the last bank dealing in Ukraine’s currency has been shut down, the few spots where a Ukrainian phone signal could be picked up have dwindled to none and local shops now stock groceries from Russia and the annexed peninsula of Crimea.

One resident compared the head-spinning reorientation of daily life to pop dance, or accidental travel, a form of science fiction popular in Russia where the protagonist is transported to a fantastically different world or time.

“It’s like you fell asleep and woke up in George Orwell’s 1984,” he said. Like almost all of those in Kherson who spoke to the Financial Times by phone this week, he declined to give his name because of safety fears.

A city view of Kherson, Ukraine
Kherson has gone from being a city known for shipbuilding to the centerpiece of Russia’s latest efforts to annex Ukrainian territory © Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

Kherson is the only major Ukrainian city captured intact by the Russian military since its full-blown invasion of Ukraine on February 24 and the only territory occupied by Russia west of the Dnipro river.

The creep of Russian control has grown stronger even as Ukrainian forces plan a military offensive to free the once-prosperous city of 300,000 people. Ukraine recently bombed two of the three bridges connecting the city to Russian positions east of the river.

Kherson’s journey from a regional capital known for shipbuilding to the centerpiece of Moscow’s latest efforts to seize and annex Ukrainian territory is expected to culminate in a referendum. Many already view the vote that could come as early as next month as a sham.

The model of occupation deployed in Kherson has been used before in Crimea and in the eastern provinces wrenched from Ukraine over eight years of hostilities: roubles, loyalists, passports, groceries, television, internet and propaganda. Most recently, this has included road signs exhorting Ukrainians to believe they are “One People . . . With Russia”.

“They put their people in straight after winning the city — collaborators — to form their own parallel government,” said Dmytro Butriy, a Kherson city official now living in exile elsewhere.

“Those collaborators don’t have the experience of running a city, they’re not interested in economics, in ordinary people. All their actions are about destroying Ukrainian identity.”

Local residents visit a street market in Kherson, Ukraine
Around 100,000 people have remained in Kherson, which was previously home to about 300,000 residents © Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

Early protests against the invaders have given way to a sullen silence on the streets, although the bombardments remind Ukrainians that they have not been forgotten by their countrymen.

“While the rest of Ukraine shudders from the sound of shootings and bombings, in Kherson we get nervous when it’s quiet,” said a school teacher in the city. A local plumber said when he hears Ukrainian artillery, “I get a sense of hope and faith that we’re going to be liberated”.

For most of the 100,000 or so people who have remained in Kherson, daily life has been reduced to a battle of attrition, adaptation and — where possible — small acts of resistance.

When cash machines ran out of Ukrainian currency, a black market emerged charging as much as 15 per cent for government employees to convert their salaries, which are still being electronically deposited by Kyiv, into cash in furtive street corner transactions.

When Ukrainian phone networks were turned off, even the elderly learned to use VPNs so they could watch the Ukrainian news. Residents have got used to deleting the Telegram channels they follow, as well as photos and messages, to ease their passage through the random checkpoints that have sprung up.

One teacher of Ukrainian literature now spends her idle time tracking the city’s misfortunes from the window of her high-rise apartment.

She has watched as “traitors who seem to have been waiting for this for a long time. . . suddenly became the big bosses”, noting how the principal of her school was forced out and replaced after refusing to introduce a new Russian curriculum.

“This is our daily routine, to observe the events around us and at the same time to force ourselves to live normally,” she said.

Russia runs its occupation through allies in positions both powerful and mundane, according to several interviewees. Vladimir Saldo, the former Kherson mayor, now controls Russia’s administration over a much wider region, while rubbish collection has been taken over by a local manager with loyalties to Moscow, one resident said.

“They [the Russians] go to cafés in civilian clothes but they’re very different from ours,” said one resident. “It’s immediately noticeable they’re Russian, plus their dialect makes it very clear who they are.”

For others, run-ins with Russians are more traumatic, especially at checkpoints or the so-called filtration camps, where those seeking to leave are extensively questioned, sometimes for days.

Others have had Russian soldiers ransack their homes. “I feel hatred towards them,” said the plumber, adding that eight armed Russians had come to his house and rummaged around looking for drugs and weapons.

Hundreds of people have vanished, according to residents, with the sudden disappearances marked by posters of the missing put up by their families.

Three Ukrainian soldiers in uniform with artillery in Kherson, Ukraine
Ukrainian artillerymen prepare to go to the frontline in Kherson © Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Residents who crave a return to their prewar lives are worried about the mooted assault by Ukrainian forces to take back the city. Those who can have started hoarding water and food in anticipation, said Serhiy Rybalko, who runs a local farm company.

“They know heavy fighting will come,” he said, voicing anxiety that Kherson could face the same fate as other cities targeted during the war.

“They know liberation takes time,” he added. “But they also worry that when Kherson is liberated they’ll face the same shelling as Kharkiv.”

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