Things are disappearing in the Ukrainian city of Kherson at a rapid rate. Some are physical objects. Russian troops are taking away ambulances, tractors and stolen private cars. Cultural things are going too: archives, and paintings and sculptures from the art and local lore museums. Even the bones of Catherine the Great’s friend and lover, Grigory Potemkin, have been grubbed up from a crypt in St Catherine’s cathedral and spirited away.
Russian soldiers are ferrying this loot across the Dnieper river, to the left bank of the Kherson region. They have also been deporting local citizens under the guise of a humanitarian rescue mission. Others have refused to leave. A round-the-clock curfew has been introduced. Nobody knows how many of Kherson’s 300,000 pre-war inhabitants remain. According to relatives of those still there, the city is mostly empty, its ghostly fate likely to be decided over the next few weeks in a series of bloody battles.
Last Thursday, the Russian flag was taken down from Kherson’s neo-classical regional state administration building. The gesture prompted speculation that Moscow was about to abandon the city, which it seized in early March, paving the way for the Ukrainian army’s triumphant return. From a military perspective this would make sense, as the Russian contingent is effectively surrounded. At the same time it seems far-fetched Vladimir Putin and his generals would leave Kherson without a struggle.
Locals are unconvinced by Moscow’s machinations. “It’s probably a trick,” Alyona Lapchuk told the Observer. “The Russians are dressing up as civilians and hiding in houses.”
Lapchuk, who left Kherson in April, said it was more likely Russian troops were preparing for bitter street-to-street fighting over the autumn and winter. If this strategy failed, the Russian army would probably “destroy” Kherson, in much the same way it flattened Mariupol, killing tens of thousands of civilians, she suggested.
Ukrainian officials were sceptical, too, that Moscow was exiting after nine months. They said newly mobilised Russian troops were creating defensive positions on the outskirts of Kherson, at the same time that checkpoints in neighbouring Chernobaevka and Stepanovka were being abandoned. The disappearance of the Russian flag from buildings was an “informational ruse” to lure Ukrainian forces into a trap, they believe.
“We are getting contradictory information. There is a movement from the right bank to the left bank. It’s difficult to understand what exactly is the Russian intention,” Serhii Khlan, the deputy head of Kherson’s regional council said. There were credible reports Russian soldiers had been going from riverside pier to pier, stealing some boats and sinking others. “Good boats are towed and taken away. What they don’t like they chop with an axe,” one local said.
Khlan said the occupying Russian authorities had blown up masts, leaving Kherson with no internet or mobile phone connection. Amid this news blackout, Russian officials were urging locals to leave and warning of imminent “terrorist” acts from the advancing Ukrainian military. Moscow also mined the Khakhovka reservoir further upstream, with the apparent intention of flooding Kherson and causing an environmental disaster should it fall into Ukrainian hands.
Since late summer Kyiv’s armed forces have counter-attacked. They have liberated almost all of Kharkiv oblast in the north-east of the country, and have pushed into rural parts of the Kherson region, a vast steppe. Russia now controls a shrinking chunk of the western bank of the Dnieper. In September Vladimir Putin “annexed” the provinces of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk. Any retreat from Kherson city would therefore be embarrassing.
Nevertheless, a new fallback “border” of sorts appears to be taking shape, with the Dnieper an impregnable natural barrier against future Ukrainian surges. Over the past week, Russian soldiers have evicted Ukrainians from their homes on the river’s left bank. They have then moved in. A defensive line is being established, stretching from the town of Velyka Znamyanka in Zaporizhzhia oblast to Nova Kakhovka in regional Kherson. Russia has shifted its army HQ to the port city of Skadovsk, closer to Crimea.
Telegram posts from the region’s villages tell tales of “orcs” (Russian soldiers) occupying private properties. In Hladkivka, in Skadovsk district, they have placed two rows of concrete triangular pyramids alongside a forest, and have been digging trenches and felling trees, locals say. In Nova Mayachka, they have moved into the council building, bringing with them field kitchens and tanks. Soldiers purchase utensils from shops and carry out training exercises, locals add.
According to Natalia Bimbiratye, a Kherson region volunteer, forcibly evacuated residents are told to take with them only warm clothes, valuables and documents. They are instructed to leave behind chickens, dogs and possessions. “This is a humanitarian catastrophe. Deportations have been going on for two weeks,” she said. “Those who have stayed up until now have mostly been pensioners, or people with sick relatives. We don’t know how many have gone, and how many are left.”
Ukrainian human rights organisations say some forcibly displaced residents have been dumped in freezing sanatoria near Skadovsk. Others have been shipped to Russia’s Krasnodar region, an intermediate point in a journey that ends in Siberia, they claim. Several hundred children sent by Kherson parents to Russian summer schools have not been returned, their location unknown. And 2,000 people are currently in camps in the Crimean city of Yevpatoria, rights groups report, citing Telegram messages.
The Ukrainian army, meanwhile, is closing in on Kherson. It has used long-range US-supplied artillery to wipe out a Russian pontoon crossing over the Dnieper, next to the city’s already cratered Antonivskyi bridge. The goal is to destroy the Russian war machine’s logistics and supply chain, rendering its presence inside Kherson unviable. There have been setbacks too. An attempt to break through Russian defences south of the village of Davydiv Brid was a costly wipeout, with many Ukrainian soldiers killed. With the exception of a handful of collaborators, most Kherson residents are pro-Ukrainian. “Kherson is hell. People are kidnapped and tortured,” Lapchuk, who ran a garage business in the city, said.
She added: “They have the same algorithm. People are beaten up badly, their ribs are broken and then they are raped. Right now there is forced deportation from Kherson. The world needs to know. Russia is destroying Ukraine and Ukrainian people.”
Lapchuk spoke from terrible personal experience. In late March her husband Vitaly – a police colonel and member of Kherson’s territorial defence service – went out with a friend to deliver humanitarian supplies. Russian troops brought him back some hours later, covered in blood, his jaw bruised and nose broken. “They said that we were terrorists,” Lapchuk recalled. The soldiers searched the flat and arrested her, her husband and their teenage son.
They were taken to a police station, with bags over their heads. “They said we were Nazis who hated Russians. I said this was impossible since I was a Russian speaker and Jewish. It was stupid,” Lapchuk said.
She said she grew hysterical when, after an initial “interrogation”, the soldiers took Vitaly to a basement torture chamber. “They told me he was a ‘terrorist’ who had confessed and would be tried in Russia,” she said.
Lapchuk and her son were released that night. She returned home to discover someone had fired a rocket in the living room, blowing off the roof and windows. All the other buildings nearby were intact. She sent desperate texts to her husband’s phone. An FSB intelligence officer answered them, she said, pretending to be Vitaly. She continued to hope he was alive, and might be exchanged as a prisoner of war.
The grisly truth emerged in late May when a local man went swimming in the Dnieper river for crayfish. He spotted a badly decomposed body. A weight had been attached to its legs, which were tied together. A forensic doctor rang Lapchuk and she was able to identify Vitaly by a visible spot on his left forearm. “I was very fortunate to escape Kherson. It was too dangerous to go back for my husband’s funeral,” she said, speaking last week in Kyiv.
Crying, she described Vitaly as an educated man with a PhD in psychology who taught policeman at Kherson’s academy. She recalled their final moments together. “I didn’t realise it at the time. I looked into my husband’s eyes as they put bags over our heads and said: ‘We will survive all this’. It was the last time I saw him.”