Three years ago this month, on July 19-22, 2019, I was in the southern Ukrainian port city of Kherson as an international observer to the Verkhovna Rada elections. Throughout my career at the U.S. Helsinki Commission, I had often visited Ukraine – including as an international observer to every national election but one since 1990. Yet I had never made it to Kherson until 2019.
For most visitors to Ukraine, Kherson was somewhat off the beaten path. I certainly had not known much about the city, or Kherson Oblast, considered to be the “fruit basket of Ukraine.” I was pleasantly surprised at how much the city and region appealed to me. I liked its physical appearance, the architecture, the wonderful outdoor market.
I liked the people – they were calm and friendly. Pro-Russian sentiment was nil. They were unmistakably Ukrainian in their identity and loyalties, despite being largely Russian speaking out of habit. When I addressed them in Ukrainian, they would invariably switch – and their Ukrainian was beautiful. While never a hotbed of Ukrainian nationalism for various historical reasons, I learned that the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) operated an underground cell in Kherson during World War II resisting, from August 1941 to March 1944, the German occupiers, then afterwards, the Soviets. Indeed, one of the OUN leaders in the Kherson district was Mykola Bandera, brother of OUN leader Stepan Bandera.
One of my fondest moments during my brief stay in Kherson – a reprieve from our intensive elections-related schedule – was taking a boating trip down the widening Dnipro as it approaches the Black Sea and swimming in its refreshing waters on a picture-perfect warm sunny day. I have been to many places and experienced much in my life, but for some strange, intangible reason, that experience stands out.
Three years later, I find myself often thinking about Kherson, now suffering due to Russia’s brutal war on Ukraine. Russian forces have been occupying the city – and much of the oblast early in the war and have been terrorizing its people since. Kherson is the only oblast center captured by the Russian forces since the start of the all-out invasion. Kherson Oblast, which borders Crimea, is of critical strategic importance, vital to Moscow’s ability to control access to the peninsula and to potentially holding Ukraine’s Black Sea coast.
As they have elsewhere in Ukraine, the Russians invaders have shown their true colors in Kherson, exposing themselves for the savages that they are. Ambassador Michael Carpenter, in a recent speech to representatives of the 57 countries of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), put it succinctly: “The Kremlin’s pre-planned, multi-faceted campaign to absorb Kherson lays bare the truth of its vision of a subjugated, Russified Ukraine. Kherson is the Kremlin’s laboratory of horrors.”
The Russian occupiers are responsible for numerous egregious human rights abuses, including killings, kidnappings, torture and sexual violence.
Local civilians are rounded up in “filtration points” and interrogated for any connections to the Ukrainian government or independent media outlets. Russian occupiers have reportedly detained some 600 people in the region – local officials, civil society activists, journalists – in what have been described as “torture chambers.” Some cite higher numbers of “disappeared.” Many of the detained are horribly mistreated. Graphic accounts of torture by survivors are nothing short of chilling.
Residents are beaten in their homes or on the streets and subjected to humiliating identity checks, and God forbid if you have Ukrainian symbols tattooed on your body or if your iPhone has anything perceived as pro-Ukrainian on it.
Many Khersonites are being forcibly deported to Russia. The puppet authorities are reportedly settling all those whom they consider to be loyal Russian citizens into the homes of those forcibly deported.
Russian soldiers have looted shops and stolen property. Prices have skyrocketed. Supplies are short. Medicines can only be bought on the streets. Many people have lost their jobs. The hryvnia is being replaced by the ruble and internet services and Ukrainian mobile phone providers have been cut off.
It is little wonder that more than half of the city’s residents have left, according to some estimates.
The Russians are taking active measures to bring Kherson under their administrative control, detaining the Ukrainian mayor, destroying its democratic Ukrainian governing structures and replacing them with their puppets and proxies. Free Ukrainian media have been supplanted by Russian propaganda. There is a wholesale attempt to Russify and isolate the population. And Moscow seems to be gearing up for a referendum to annex Kherson to Russia, possibly in September.
We see “passportization,” with Russian President Vladimir Putin issuing a decree expediting the process for Kherson residents to receive Russian citizenship. Given the reluctance of inmates, the Russians were forcing passports on people at a correctional colony in Kherson. Other residents have been told that they could not get pensions or start a business unless they obtain a Russian passport. Oh, and children in Kherson Oblast born after February 24 are automatically made Russian citizens.
Ukrainian state symbols have been removed. Gone are the large banners I saw three years ago on the municipal building that proclaimed, “Kherson is Ukraine,” and, in Ukrainian, “Glory to Ukraine” and “Glory to its heroes.” A Russian curriculum is being introduced in schools – you can bet that it will present a highly distorted view of Ukrainian history and culture. The use of the Ukrainian language is discouraged; there are plans to ban the circulation of documents in the Ukrainian language. A leader in the so-called Kherson “military-civil administration” recently said that education in schools and institutions of higher education will be conducted in Russian but offered that Ukrainian language classes can be formed if parents so request. How generous of him.
As much as the story of Kherson is one of brute repression and Russification, it is also one of remarkable courage and resistance.
Despite the cruelty and climate of fear that pervades it, the people of Kherson city and oblast refuse to be cowed. We see resistance and partisan activity take many different forms, ranging from killings of pro-Russian figures and acts of sabotage to the refusal of average citizens to cooperate with the Russians, including educators and health-care workers. Initially, we saw pro-Ukrainian street protests, but these have been quashed. Several attempts to organize referendums on joining Russia have not taken hold due to the refusal of citizens to cooperate. The resistance of the population and growing insurgency is mounting a strong challenge to Russian attempts to consolidate their control.
Most Khersonites are resisting obtaining Russian passports, despite pressure, or, reportedly, even monetary incentives to do so. Ukrainian flags and pro-Ukrainian symbols, graffiti and leaflets appear in the city. Partisans release videos calling on the occupying Russians to save their own lives and leave. Indeed, partisans have helped the Ukrainian military target Russian forces. In May, the puppet Kherson governor appeared at a meeting with teachers in a bulletproof vest. That was probably a smart move on his part, as Kremlin-approved local leaders and Russian soldiers have been attacked and killed with increasing frequency in shootings and car bombs.
Ukrainian fighters have been carrying out counterattacks in Kherson Oblast, slowly regaining control. They are getting close to the city and may be readying for a counteroffensive to liberate the suffering and terrorized inhabitants of the city and region which is so key to the strategic stability of Ukraine. The growing supply of weapons that the U.S. and its allies are providing will help in achieving this goal.
My dream is that I will someday once again visit a liberated, free, Ukrainian Kherson, take a boat ride down the Dnipro and swim in its cool waters where I did so on that sunny summer day three years ago, a special place where the Dnipro and two of its tributaries, Stare Dnipro and Kosheva, meet. May someday soon the sun cast the warm rays of freedom, peace, justice and truth upon Kherson and all of Ukraine.