KHERSON – When liberation came, many Kherson residents could barely believe the ordeal was over.
Kherson was the only regional capital that Russians managed to capture, back in the first days of the full-scale invasion. A brutal occupation then ensued, with many residents being suppressed, robbed, abducted, tortured or killed.
In late September, Moscow conducted a sham annexation referendum in Kherson Oblast. Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that his country would rule Kherson “forever.” Just six weeks later, Ukraine retook Kherson.
On Nov. 14, three days after Ukraine’s armed forces entered the city to take control from the fleeing Russians, the citizens were out in their thousands to bask in the southern sun, celebrate the return to normal and witness President Volodymyr Zelensky and the soldiers who made it happen.
Speaking to the Kyiv Independent on Kherson’s central Freedom Square, half a dozen locals of varied ages gave a remarkably similar response when asked about their state of mind: “It feels like I could breathe again.”
For a city without power in mid-November, which saw its population reduce from 290,000 to an estimated 80,000 over the eight months it spent under the boot of the Russian military, Kherson was radiant with life and color. The streets were graced with gold, the sun glowing through the autumn leaves and on the Ukrainian flags fluttering from poles and draped over people’s shoulders.
Children ran around the monument in Kherson’s central plaza, as youths scaled it and shouted patriotic call-and-response with the giddy crowd below. People spontaneously broke into cheers and chants. Relief could be read in every laugh or tear of joy.
Despite the regular booms of artillery in the distance, few locals ever flinched or even turned their heads at the sound.
Standing in front of Kherson’s city hall, upon its crowded central plaza, Zelensky officially announced the city’s liberation. He praised the armed forces for their achievement and thanked other nations for their support.
While he warned of a tough path ahead, he also promised victory and liberation for the rest of Ukraine.
"We're ready for peace but peace for our country means all of our country — all of our territory," said Zelensky, clad in his usual olive drab outfit, flanked by senior officials and surrounded by Ukrainian troops.
Asked why he would risk getting so close to the front line, with Russian artillery parked just across the Dnipro River running through the region, Zelensky quipped that he was there for Kherson’s famous watermelons. “I haven’t tried them yet, I really want to. Are there any?”
"No, but to be honest, it's important to be here,” he said, waxing serious. “We are talking about Kherson. It seems to me that we should speak here and support the people of Kherson, so that they see that we don’t just talk about it and make promises but that we really return and raise our flag.”
The president didn’t linger for very long — as he finished answering questions, a ripple of explosions in the distance urged his protection detail to move him along, much to the chagrin of several locals who missed his arrival.
Unlike in Kharkiv Oblast, where Ukraine’s swift counteroffensive induced a chaotic rout, Russian forces had plenty of time to plan their retreat from Kherson. Residents first got wind of Russia’s planned retreat when checkpoints in the city were vacated in the first days of November without a word of explanation.
Starved for information, several residents said the sound of explosions around their city counterintuitively brought hope instead of fear.
“Feeling joy at the sound of explosions, such a thing was only possible in Kherson,” said Oleksandr Vozniak, 44, a meat dealer in Chornobaivka, where the local military aerodrome gained legendary status as Russian equipment and ammunition was struck by Ukrainian artillery over 30 times since February. “We weren’t afraid, we would come out and watch how our guys were giving them hell.”
By the time the withdrawal was officially announced by the Russian Defense Ministry on Nov. 10, locals reported that Russian troops had almost completely left the city. Nonetheless, many still suspected that unpleasant surprises lurked behind Russia’s words.
“I didn't believe it at first,” said Yana Tarasenko, a 16-year-old student who stood on Freedom Square. “I thought there would be heavy fighting, that we would have to sit in our basements, but everything happened so fast, we were so happy.” Only when Ukrainian soldiers entered the city did the celebration truly begin — videos from Kherson showed people dancing in the nighttime streets of the city. On Nov. 14, the troops mingled with the civilians, standing guard, signing flags, and receiving well-earned hugs.
“We met them in our neighborhood as a column of them passed through,” recalled Anastasiia Zhilenkova, 17, a classmate of Tarasenko. “It was pure goosebumps, people were singing songs all down the street. I think I cried for most of Friday.”
Eight months of terror
All across Kherson, gaudy billboards plastered up by Russian occupation authorities meet the eye. Photos of smiling families and children in folk outfits are emblazoned with slogans like “Kherson: forever with Russia,” and “Russians and Ukrainians are one people.” Some have been removed or torn to shreds, but many remain on display. Unsurprisingly, behind the paper-thin propaganda facade lies a dark chronicle of oppression and violence under Russian occupation. When asked by the Kyiv Independent how many war crimes took place in Kherson, Zelensky estimated that it could be “hundreds.”
Early testimonies merely scratch the surface, but just as in Kharkiv Oblast, residents tell of mass kidnappings of those suspected of pro-Ukrainian activity or sentiment. These people, often detained without obvious pretext, invariably faced time in Kherson’s own network of Russian torture chambers, according to the locals the Kyiv Independent spoke to.
Many residents knew someone who was abducted and tortured, like Svitlana Shvets, whose nephew was taken with a bag over his head. After 11 days of confinement, barely fed and given water every other day, he was brought to the edge of the woods and released.
“He barely got home,” said Shvets. “He was so broken. But he’s holding on. He’s so strong.”
Local doctor Natalia Levinska’s husband, Victor, was tied to a radiator and beaten “until he lost consciousness” by people who came to Kherson from Donetsk and Luhansk occupation forces, she said. “He came back all purple.”
Despite this brutal repression, Kherson residents from all walks of life resisted Russian occupation by any means possible. In the earliest days of the occupation, viral videos out of Kherson showed locals coming out to protest with Ukrainian flags in the face of Russian soldiers and equipment. Resistance continued long after the protests were put down by force. Oleksandr Vozniak said that for months, he would feed information on the location of Russian military equipment around Chornobaivka.“We never stopped fighting on our own front,” he said. “We were constantly handing over information, and you can be sure our people on the other end made good use of it.” Ukrainians fought their battles on many different fronts, even the psychological one.
“My neighboring vendor (in the market) would put out a slab of salo (cured pork fat) with two knives sticking out, one yellow and one blue,” recalled Oleksandr’s wife Tetiana, 41, who refused to accept payment in Russian rubles at her market stall throughout the occupation. “And I would call out to the Russians mockingly, saying ‘Come and try a delicious slice of pork!’”
Celebrations aside, the many threats still looming over Kherson are palpable. The new battle for the Dnipro river rages outside the city limits, and the sound of outgoing artillery is continuous.
Nonetheless, the enemy still fires back occasionally. On the road back to Mykolaiv, dark gray smoke rises high from where a Russian shell hit in a field nearby.
Electricity and phone signal is yet to be restored after Russian troops systematically destroyed infrastructure on their way out. According to Zelensky, from 70,000 to 80,000 people live in Kherson, now dealing with these outages.
"They shoot and destroy everything that lives so they were able to destroy the entire network and power supply, our services are struggling (but) all life will return," Zelensky said.
Long after Zelensky left Freedom Square, hundreds continued to gather around recently-installed Starlink terminals with their phones, trying to catch the first signal they’d had in weeks and update their loved ones.
In the eyes of Kherson residents however, these dangers and inconveniences pale in comparison to the elation of liberation. Nina Vorotyntseva, 47, held back tears as she waited for a hint of phone reception on the square. “We don’t have anything to fear anymore,” she said. “Kherson is Ukraine. These are our lands and we are their masters.”Intentionally or not, Vorotyntseva’s next words echoed those of President Zelensky in one of his most memorable addresses to the nation back in September, after Russian missiles first targeted electricity infrastructure in Kharkiv. “We don’t have water, we don’t have electricity, we don’t have signal,” she said. “But the most important thing is that we don’t have them.”
Note from the author:
Hi, I'm Francis Farrell, who wrote this piece together with Igor Kossov from on the ground in the beautiful and quintessentially Ukrainian city of Kherson, only three days after it was liberated by Ukrainian forces. From Zelensky's historic visit to the continued outpour of emotion on display everywhere, today was a truly special day for the city and for Ukraine. However, liberating Kherson also means more shelling, more torture chambers, more mass graves, and we will continue to report from the ground as soon as possible to keep our readers updated. Please consider continuing to support our reporting.
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