‘I’m staying here’: Kherson residents resist Russian call to evacuate city | Ukraine

Eight months after Russia took Kherson, the first major Ukrainian city to fall when Vladimir Putin’s forces invaded in February, Moscow’s grip on the city appears to be waning as many of those who have opposed Russia’s evacuation orders fear liberation their city wait .

“The city feels a bit deserted. Everyone who was sympathetic to Russia has fled, and the rest are stocking up on groceries,” said Anastasya, an elderly woman who evacuated her son early in the war but chose to stay in Kherson to look after her three cats and two dogs to look after.

The Guardian spoke to six Kherson residents who described a semi-abandoned town looted by the fleeing Russian-installed government.

Kherson was captured by Russia shortly after Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine on February 24. Late last month, the Kremlin sought to further consolidate its grip on the city by annexing the region after staging a widely condemned sham referendum.

But a Ukrainian counter-offensive launched in August has eaten heavily into the Kherson region, leading Western officials to believe that the city of Kherson itself could be retaken within weeks.

The Russian administration of the occupied city earlier this month ordered an “evacuation” of its residents to the Russian-controlled areas across the Dnieper, telling them to take “documents, money, valuables and clothing” with them.

But many, waiting for the Ukrainian army and fearing possible interrogation and arrest if they left the city, chose to stay.

“I have no intention of going anywhere. I’m staying right here to wait for Ukraine to finally liberate us,” said Vladimir, a native of Kherson.

A woman walks past the bas-relief sculpture of Suvorov soldiers in battle in KhersonA woman walks past the bas-relief sculpture of Suvorov soldiers in battle in Kherson. Photo: Alexander Ermochenko/Portal

Pro-Russian deputy authorities now refer to those left behind as Zhduns, roughly translating to “the waiting ones,” after a gray blob with belly rolls, arms and a strange face that became a popular meme among Russians and Ukrainians on the internet in 2017.

“The occupiers are not wrong. I am a proud Zhdun just waiting and waiting here,” added Vladimir.

Vladimir said that with internet and other communication services severely restricted, it is often difficult to ascertain what exactly was going on while the city awaited liberation.

“You hear shelling all the time, but it’s hard to understand what it means. The city is full of rumors and gossip about what’s going to happen,” he said.

As the pro-Russian deputy administration leaves the city, they are reportedly taking with them a range of essential supplies, from medicines and medical equipment to modern buses to be driven into Russian-occupied territory.

Two Kherson residents said they could not find baby formula and “basic medicine” in local pharmacies and drugstores.

Symbolically, Russia has also started grabbing the dead. On a recent night, the bronze busts of Fyodor Ushakov and Alexander Suvorov, two 18th-century Russian generals, disappeared. Local authorities later admitted the statues had been there transported to the other side of the river. Russian-appointed authorities also relocated the bones of Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin, once prime minister and lover of 18th-century ruler Catherine the Great, who persuaded the empress to annex Crimea in 1783.

With the departure of Russian officials and security services, the first signs of dissent have resurfaced in Kherson, a city that hosted a series of pro-Ukraine rallies in March and April that were violently crushed by the occupation authorities.

“There’s a sense of renewed calm and freedom,” said Nikolai, another Kherson resident who stayed behind to care for his aging parents.

Nikolai described how, before the evacuation was announced, the streets were full of Russian police officers indiscriminately stopping and interrogating locals, and he rarely ventured outside his home.

“A few weeks ago we were just whispering to each other about what’s going on. But some of that fear has gone because so many Russians have left,” he said.

A man walks past a closed bar in Kherson.A man walks past a closed bar in Kherson. Photo: Alexander Ermochenko/Portal

Three Kherson residents told the Guardian that some shops in the city have stopped accepting the Russian-imposed ruble, months after Kremlin-installed officials attempted to exchange Ukraine’s currency, the hryvnia.

In a clip circulating online, an employee can be heard telling a customer that she has been instructed by a manager to only accept payments in hryvnia.

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Kirill Stremousov, the Moscow-based head of the region, commented on some stores’ refusal to accept rubles and last week threatened to punish “hustlers who exploit the situation under the laws of war.”

In another video released by Stremousov aimed at intimidating those left behind in Kherson, a 17-year-old boy from the city is being interrogated after he was accused of leaking information to the Ukrainian military.

It remains unclear what Moscow’s plans for Kherson are.

For weeks, Ukrainian forces have aimed to encircle the city on the west bank of the Dnieper, targeting the infrastructure their enemies depend on, including the now largely destroyed Antonovsky Bridge.

Earlier this month, the newly appointed commander of all Russian troops in Ukraine, General Sergei Surovikin, admitted that the situation at the front was “tense”. More importantly, he opened the door to a full Russian withdrawal from the city, saying that “difficult decisions cannot be ruled out” in Kherson.

Losing the city would be another major embarrassment for Putin, who announced last month that Russia would stay in Kherson “forever.”

Ukraine has so far firmly denied reports that Moscow is planning to abandon the city, instead pointing out that the Kremlin is sending more troops to bolster its defenses.

“They are not preparing to get out now,” General Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence service, said in an interview with Ukrainska Pravda on Monday.

“They are preparing for defense,” he added, indicating that he believed Moscow was preparing the city for urban struggle.

However, those who stayed behind in Kherson said there was little evidence the city was prepared for major defences.

One resident, Irina, said she noticed “a few” sandbag fortifications being erected on government buildings to defend the city. “But overall we weren’t told to prepare for war,” she said. “It feels like they left us alone.”

Irina said she was recently approached by three newly mobilized Russian soldiers asking where they could buy cigarettes and alcohol. “They said they didn’t know what they were doing in town. It didn’t feel like they were ready for a big fight.”

In a possible sign that Russia is preparing to dig in, Moscow-installed authorities in Kherson last week announced the formation of a territorial defense unit and urged local men to join in defending the city.

But even Russian soldiers were quick to concede that few residents of Kherson would be willing to take up arms against their own country. “A territorial defense unit in Kherson is a dangerous decision,” said a Russian soldier blogging as “Thirteen.”

“Rather than create a territorial defense unit, maybe we’re just arming the enemy.”