Gordey Dyachenko, a businessman from Kherson, the southern Ukrainian city that has been occupied by Russian troops since early March, is blunt when asked what life is like under Moscow’s rule: “You can be shot any moment, for any reason, at any one of the Russian checkpoints.”
Kherson fell early in the war, the first Ukrainian provincial capital to end up in Russian hands. Around the city, fierce fighting continues: In recent days, Ukrainian forces have made advances in parts of the Kherson region.
But the city of Kherson — home before the war to nearly 300,000 people — remains occupied. Its location matters: For Russia, Kherson is a critical stop along a potential land bridge linking sections of the eastern Donbas region and Crimea, territories that have been under Russian influence since 2014.
Already, Moscow claims it has restored water supplies to Crimea via a canal in the area that had been blocked by the Ukrainians. Meanwhile, there are signs that the Kremlin is planning to formalize its occupation by annexing Kherson, possibly via a referendum. “The Kherson region’s admission into Russia will be complete, similar to Crimea,” a senior Russian lawmaker wrote in a recent report, according to the Moscow Times. Ukrainians say any such referendum would likely be a sham.
Against this backdrop, Russia has already started imposing its writ in the region — both in the real world, where it has introduced its own currency in the area, and in the virtual one, with the Kremlin rerouting online traffic from Kherson to go through its communications infrastructure. Russian occupying authorities are also pressuring teachers to ditch the Ukrainian curriculum, substituting Russian-language instructions and history textbooks, according to local reports.
A pro-Russian local administration has been put in place, headed by two Ukrainians: Volodymyr Saldo, a former mayor of Kherson, and, Kirill Stremousov, a one-time anti-vaccine blogger. Both men are wanted for treason by Ukraine.
Although it is unclear how many Russian troops are currently operating in and around the city, the Kremlin’s influence is currently estimated to stretch across vast swathes of eastern Ukraine. This includes the previously occupied regions of Crimea, most of the self-declared separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, and now the region around the city of Kherson as well.
Perhaps the most important and impactful element of the occupation in the Kherson region has been the plundering of local resources; Russians have seized grain that was harvested in Kherson before the war and exported it to Russia.
The overall policy seems clear: to transform Kherson — a thriving Ukrainian port city before the war — into a Russian colony.
Dyachenko, who sold sports equipment before the war, has watched this project to Russify his hometown unfold before his eyes.
For three months, he tried and failed repeatedly to leave, despite promises from the Russians that they would allow safe passage for civilians trying to flee the fighting.
“I tried to leave with my girlfriend when the occupation started,” he told Grid. “We tried to leave by road. We knew we would have to go through a Russian checkpoint, but we thought we would be able to get out. We had no reason to think otherwise.”
The reality was not only different — it was gruesome. Waiting in a long line of cars on the outskirts of the city in the early days of the war, Dyachenko watched from behind the wheel as Russian soldiers went car to car, interrogating those ahead of him. “I saw them drag out drivers who were in the line and then take them to the side of the road, into the bushes,” he told Grid. Then Dyachenko heard gunshots. “They never returned.” Fearful for his own life, Dyachenko promptly turned and headed back into Kherson.
Elena, another Kherson native, didn’t even make it to the city limits. “We actually wanted to escape just as the war began, but my elderly father who lives with me and my toddler didn’t want to leave,” she said. Grid has changed her name because she spoke on the condition of anonymity; she said she fears reprisals from Russian forces.
By the time Elena’s father agreed to leave, in early March, it was too late: Exit routes were choked with traffic, and fuel was hard to come by. “The traffic was very heavy because everyone was trying to escape, but we did not have enough fuel in the car,” she told Grid.
Stranded in their homes in Kherson, both Elena and Dyachenko say they have witnessed the brutality of Russia’s rule: Anti-Kremlin protests have been met with gunfire, and locals who spoke to Grid said it was common to hear of innocent civilians being shot at random. “Walking down the street, it is not uncommon to stumble upon pools of blood,” Dyachenko told Grid. “There is never any explanation for why it is there or what happened.”
Dyachenko finally managed to escape with his girlfriend in early June. He is not alone: Local officials estimate that some 40 percent of the population has fled the city of Kherson since the war began.
Elena and her family remain in the city, however, still unable to get out. And still in fear of Russian soldiers.
When Russian forces come knocking
Elena’s concerns are well founded, based on reports emerging from the region. Hundreds have been arrested for raising their voices against Russian rule in the region. In a claim that cannot be verified, Ukrainian authorities have accused Russian forces of holding some 600 people in Kherson in “torture chambers.”
Private residences aren’t safe, according to Dyachenko, who told Grid about a visit from the occupying forces in March. He was at home with his girlfriend and father when six Russian soldiers came knocking, asking to check their papers.
After studying Dyachenko’s national ID documents, they asked him about the situation in the Donbas region, where Russian forces have been present in smaller numbers since 2014. “They asked me if I knew anything about the killing of Russian-speaking people in the Donbas,” Dyachenko recalled.
When he said that he didn’t think any such killings had taken place, the Russian soldiers told him politely but firmly that he had been misinformed. “At one point, my father got worried and asked the soldiers if they could leave me alone,” he said. “They told him that they only wanted to talk with me about the situation in Ukraine. They said they did not want to fight.”
Then the soldiers began to school Dyachenko and his family.
“They told us that there is Nazism in Ukraine. That maybe it hadn’t reached Kherson yet, which is why I might be misinformed, but that it had taken hold in Kyiv,” he told Grid. “They said that terrible things were happening in Kyiv. That there were Nazi processions in the streets. That Ukraine was banning the Russian language. They asked me how I felt about it all.”
It was, Dyachenko told Grid, “emotionally humiliating.” He tried to answer, telling them they were wrong, but ultimately he felt he could only say so much. “They are men with guns,” he said. “They have the power here now. And they can use that power.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.