Eight months after Russia captured 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 slipping as many of those who have refused Russia’s calls to evacuate anxiously wait for their city to be liberated.
“The city feels somewhat abandoned. Everyone who sympathised with Russia has fled, and the rest are stocking up on food,” said Anastasya, an elderly woman who evacuated her son at the beginning of the war but decided to stay in Kherson to take care of her three cats and two dogs.
The Guardian spoke to six Kherson residents who described a semi-deserted city looted by the fleeing Russian-installed administration.
Kherson was captured by Russia shortly after Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine on 24 February. Late last month, the Kremlin attempted to further cement its hold on the city by annexing the region after orchestrating a widely condemned sham referendum.
But a Ukrainian counteroffensive launched in August has eaten heavily into the Kherson region, leading western officials to suggest that Kherson city itself could be retaken within weeks.
The occupied city’s Russian administration earlier this month ordered an “evacuation” of its residents to Russian-controlled areas across the Dnieper River, telling them to take “documents, money, valuables and clothes”.
But many, waiting for the Ukrainian army as well as fearing possible interrogations and arrests if they left the city, decided to stay put.
“I am not planning to go anywhere. I am staying right here to wait for Ukraine to finally liberate us,” said Vladimir, a Kherson native.
The pro-Russia proxy authorities now refer to those who have stayed behind as Zhduns, roughly translated as “the ones who wait”, after a grey blob with belly rolls, arms and an alien face that became a popular meme on the Russian and Ukrainian internet in 2017.
“The occupiers aren’t wrong. I am a proud Zhdun, just here waiting and waiting,” Vladimir added.
Vladimir said that with internet and other communication services severely limited, it was often difficult to establish what exactly was going on as the city waited for liberation.
“You can constantly hear shelling, but it is hard to understand what it means. The city is filled with rumours and gossip about what is about to happen,” he said.
As the pro-Russia proxy administration leaves the city, it is reportedly taking with it an array of essential goods, from medicines and medical equipment to modern buses that are being driven over to Russian-occupied territory.
Two Kherson residents said they had been unable to find infant formula and “basic medicine” in the local pharmacies and drug stores.
More symbolically, Russia has also started to snatch the dead. On a recent night, the bronze busts of Fyodor Ushakov and Alexander Suvorov, two 18th-century Russian commanders, disappeared. The local authorities later admitted that the statues had been transported to the other side of the river. The Russia-appointed authorities also moved the bones of Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin, once the chief 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 re-emerged in Kherson, a city that saw a series of pro-Ukraine rallies in March and April that were violently put down by the occupying authorities.
“There is a sense of newfound calm and freedom,” said Nikolai, another Kherson resident who stayed behind to take care of his ageing parents.
Nikolai described how, before the evacuation announcement, the streets were filled with Russian police who would stop and interrogate locals at random, and he would rarely venture out of his house.
“A few weeks ago, we would only whisper to each other about what was going on. But some of that fear has disappeared because so many Russians have left,” he said.
Three Kherson residents told the Guardian that some of the shops in the city had stopped accepting the Russian-imposed rouble, months after Kremlin-installed officials attempted to swap out Ukraine’s currency, the hryvnia.
In one clip circulating online, an employee can be heard telling a customer that she had been directed by a superior to only accept payment in hryvnia.
Commenting on the refusal of some shops to accept roubles, Kirill Stremousov, the Moscow-installed head of the region, last week threatened to punish the “hustlers who take advantage of the situation under the laws of wartime”.
In another video released by Stremousov aiming to intimidate those left behind in Kherson, a 17-year-old boy from the city is seen being interrogated after he had been accused of providing information to the Ukrainian military.
It remains unclear what Moscow’s plans for Kherson are.
For weeks, Ukrainian forces have been aiming to encircle the city on the western bank of the Dnieper River by targeting the infrastructure that their enemies rely on, including the now largely destroyed Antonovsky bridge.
Earlier this month, the newly appointed commander of all Russian troops in Ukraine, Gen Sergey Surovikin, admitted that the situation at the front was “tense”. More importantly, he opened the door for a full Russian retreat from the city by saying that “difficult decisions cannot be ruled out” in Kherson.
The city’s loss would be another major embarrassment for Putin, who last month proclaimed that Russia would remain in Kherson “forever”.
Ukraine has so far strongly dismissed reports that Moscow was planning to give up the city, instead suggesting that the Kremlin was sending more troops to bolster its defence.
“They are not preparing to exit now,” Gen Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence service, said in an interview with Ukrainska Pravda on Monday.
“They are preparing to defend,” he added, indicating that he believed Moscow was readying the city for urban combat.
However, those who have stayed behind in Kherson said there were few signs that the city was being prepared for a major defence.
One resident, Irina, said she had noticed “a few” fortifications made of sandbags constructed at government buildings to defend the city. “But overall, we haven’t been told to get ready for war,” she said. “It feels like they have left us alone.”
Irina said she was recently approached by three newly mobilised Russian soldiers who asked her where they could buy cigarettes and alcohol. “They said that they did not know what they were doing in the city. It did not feel like they were ready for a big battle.”
In one possible sign that Russia is preparing to dig in, the Moscow-installed authorities in Kherson last week announced the formation of a territorial defence unit, urging local men to join up to defend the city.
But even Russian soldiers quickly conceded that few local residents in Kherson would be willing to take up arms against their own country. “A territorial defence unit in Kherson is a dangerous decision,” said a Russian soldier who blogs under the name “Thirteen”.
“Instead of creating a territorial defence unit, we might be just arming the enemy.”