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In Kherson

The Russian occupation of a Ukrainian city

Viktor Timofeev, Card V. 2020, ink and graphite on paper. 12 × 16”. Courtesy of the artist.

I was in Kherson, in southern Ukraine, from March 18 to March 21. In order to get there I had to cross the front line twice. On March 26, I published my report on Kherson in Novaya Gazeta; what follows is an edited and abridged version. Since the first weeks of the war Kherson has seen a number of offensives from the Russian army, as well as counteroffensives from the Ukrainian armed forces. On April 25, the Russian military occupied Kherson’s city council building, and the following day it appointed a new regional head and a new mayor. Not long after, the newly appointed governor, Vladimir Saldo, announced that preparatory work had begun on a referendum focused on the Kherson region’s entry into Russia. On July 9, Irina Vereshchuk, Ukraine’s minister of reintegration of temporarily occupied territories, called on the residents of the occupied territory of Kherson to evacuate, in order to facilitate the Ukrainian army’s efforts to retake the territory. On July 10, the Ukrainian armed forces launched a missile attack against a Russian National Guard command post.

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The Russian army occupied Kherson on March 3. The troops first took the outlying villages and Kherson International Airport, in Chornobaivka. Then they entered. How did they do it?

“Idiocy or betrayal, or maybe both,” says Andriy Gordeev, a former governor of the Kherson region.

Gennadiy Laguta was the governor when Russia invaded Ukraine. As his colleagues tell it, as soon as war broke out he placed his keys on the mayor’s desk and said, “I’m not going be involved in this.” He left the region on the first day of the war. The police top brass, the office of the prosecutor, and the courts all left with him. The Security Service evacuated their staff soon after.

The battle for Antonivsky Bridge lasted two days. The Ukrainians trained the Tochka-U missile system on the bridge and made two attempts to blow it up. One person died in the destruction of another of the region’s bridges, the Henichesk Road Bridge. Vitaly Skakun was an engineer with a marine battalionhe had stayed behind to set off the explosives. Volodymyr Zelensky declared Skakun a Hero of Ukraine, the nation’s highest honor for a civilian.

Meanwhile the Russian tank column was looking for a way around. Naturally, it found one.

“The war starts,” Gordeev says, “and we haven’t even got any checkpointsnot one! Everyone wants to do something, no one knows what to do. There’s nobody in charge. I show up at the Teroborona1 brigade commander’s office, and I’m like: Dima, seriously? He didn’t even have a map of Kherson on his desk. Right? The volunteers all rushed over to the recruiting office and just hung around outside all day, no idea what to do with themselves. Nobody even came out to talk to them. Around 7 PM they finally got bused to Dnipriany, where there was supposed to be a Teroborona base.

  1. The name for the volunteer corps formed as a subunit of the Ukrainian army, which serves as a kind of militia, maintaining the peace and defending strategic points. 

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