EDITOR’S NOTE: Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian media outlet, suspended its operations on March 28 in order to protect the newspaper and its staff. Before then, it reported on the war in Ukraine and had a correspondent, Elena Kostyuchenko, on the ground to document the invasion and its impact on Ukrainian civilians. The Nation wanted to show our solidarity with independent media and Novaya Gazeta by publishing a translated and slightly shortened version of Kostyuchenko’s vivid first-hand account from Kherson, a large Ukrainian city under Russian occupation.
How was Kherson taken? “Stupidity and betrayal, or, perhaps, both,” the former governor of the Kherson Oblast, Andrei Gordeev, said.
We have four lines of defense. First, the waterway between Kherson Oblast and Crimea. We meant for it to be fully filled with explosives. Then, a week before the word “war” could no longer be used, in accordance with new Russian censorship laws, I was told the mines had been removed.
The next line of defense is the borders, but the border patrol’s aim isn’t to enter ground combat. It’s to warn of the war’s beginning, to signal to us.
Then it comes down to the city’s irrigation system. It was created by the Soviet Defense Ministry and the Soviet Agriculture Ministry. The system’s structure doesn’t accommodate any kind of transport. It’s supposed to make it harder for vehicles to go over it. The logic behind this was as follows: We bomb the bridges; the enemy’s vehicles stop; then our artillery strikes them.
The third line of defense: the Dnipro River. The Dnipro was meant to hold until the very end; the Antonovsky bridge would get bombed and Kherson would be left outside of the reach of the combat, no bridge, no nothing, just us protecting out waterways. Who the fuck could cross the Dnipro?
Then comes the last line of defense: the Khakhovski lodge. While New Kakhovka gets evacuated, people leave their homes and the lodge stands. There they would be building redoubts, forts. We would have a full 24 hours to do all this. For those 24 hours, we needed to keep them out of the region. We failed.
According to his colleagues, during the very first day of the war the current governor, Gennadi Laguta, put his keys on the mayor’s table, said, “I want no part of this” and left the region.
Alongside him, on the first day of the war, the police, the prosecutors, and the court’s administrators left. Later, the Security Services evacuated the area.
The “wartime administration” of the city occupied the Kherson Oblast Council. The civilians weren’t informed about their new wartime officials, not even their names. Signed by nobody, information about a curfew and a moratorium on demonstration has been shared through the local Telegram channels—over and over again. Igor Kholykhaev carries out mayoral duties. I met him in the council building. “I can’t do an interview right now. We’re in war, you should understand. Kherson’s still under Ukrainian jurisdiction. My No. 1 goal—it’s for the city to stay alive.”
Kholykhaev continues: “They haven’t presented us with any demands. I asked for the arms and the military vehicles to not be transported through the city, for the people, activists, living here to not be kidnapped.”
This city council belongs to the Ukrainian government. This Oblast Regional Council has been occupied by the Russians. They’re on the same street—it’s our central Ushakov street. They’re only 500 meters apart.
The Kherson Oblast Council adopted an appeal in which it announced that there would be no KPR—“Kherson People’s Republic”—along the lines of the LNR (Lugansk) and the DNR (Donetsk). “Deputies of the Kherson Regional Council of the VIII convocation will never recognize attempts to create a ‘people’s republic’ on the territory of the Kherson region and seize part of Ukraine.” Deputy Regional Council Yuri Sobolevsky explained how, since the building of the Regional Council was occupied by the Russian military, they voted through Zoom with only 50 out of 64 people being able to connect. Forty-four voted against the KPR.
Above the abandoned administrative buildings fly Russian flags.
The curfew starts at 8 pm and ends at 6 am.
Two-hour-long lines gather by the ATMs.
The trolleybuses operate for free.
There’s no petroleum or gas in the city but only diesel left.
On the third day of the occupation, Russian television began broadcasting in the Kherson region. Those with a TV connection through an antenna can still access Ukrainian channels. The city-based media outlets effectively ceased their work. The citizens now get their information through various independently run Telegram channels.
There are no police in Kherson.
The head of the police department left Kherson during the first days of the war. The other police officers were told to change into civilian clothing and evacuate on their own.
The municipal security and self-organized volunteers carry out police duties.
Essentially, the city’s under a blockade. The Russian military controls all exits out of the city.
The biggest issue for the civilians is medication. There’s no heart or blood pressure drugs in the pharmacies. L-thyroxine, a life-saving medication for those without good thyroid function, disappeared as well. It’s not available anywhere in Ukraine. Insulin was delivered through contraband pathways, and it was given to the hospitals. The pharmacies have lists of missing medications hanging in the windows, each with 40 to 50 points. Most of these drugs need to be taken on a regular, daily, basis.
There are no chemotherapy drugs.
There are no antipsychotic drugs.
Finding food takes two to three hours.
Every day those in need of humanitarian aid gather by the railway station. The aid comes from Russia—Ukrainian assistance isn’t allowed in the city. Today the line seems short: It was already announced there won’t be any aid until tomorrow. Around 30 people decided to stay, just in case. They’ve been here since 6 am already.
When speaking of those killed, the city officials say there are about 300 bodies inside the city’s borders. The head of the Kherson Regional Bureau, Natalia Filenko, believes this number tracks. However, there are many more casualties in the region. There’s no available information on the victims. The Healthcare Ministry simplified the procedure to access the bodies once collected due to “war conditions.” Now one can take the body for the burial with only a notice of death, given by any doctor, without dealing with the coroner’s office. Because of the war, people bury the dead by themselves, where they can.
The demonstrations against the war happen daily, around noon, in the city’s Freedom Square.
The demonstrations happen on Sundays.
People gather across the street from the Oblast Council, next to the “Ukraine” movie theater. There are about 500 attendees, and the crowd continues to grow.
The Ukrainian flag serves as their main symbol, and there’s a lot of them. People hold them, raise them toward the sky, wrap them around their shoulders. The women braid blue and yellow ribbons into their hair.
There’s a painting of a flowery field drawn on the pavement. A priest holds an icon of Saint Vladimir. An elderly couple unravels a homemade banner. The kids write, “We Won’t Sell Our Homeland For Buckwheat” on a poster. Two loudspeakers blast their way around the crowd.
“One! United! Free Ukraine!”
The people sing the anthem and hold their right hands to their hearts.
Across the street the protesters see two Russian soldiers detaining a young man in a brown jacket.
“Hey! Let him go!”
The people climb over the barricades and run across the street. The military vehicles with the letter Z markings drive out of the Oblast Council gates and onto the street. Part of the crowd splits away to block the path for the cars; the cars move backward. The people stop by the anti-tank rails. There’s about 80 meters between them and the soldiers. Nobody crosses the imaginary line.
In response, the soldiers start blasting the Soviet Union anthem.
The protesters find a speaker, too. The Ukrainian anthem begins to play.