Where will Kherson’s freedom fighters go next?
By Colin Freeman
- From magazine issue: 26 November 2022
When Vladimir Putin’s troops first invaded Kherson, they marched into Eugene Chykysh’s hipster coffee shop. ‘They all asked for cappuccinos with four sugars,’ Eugene told me. Later, another Kherson resident says that the soldiers who raided his house took ten kilos of sugar from him. Eugene is one of the few Ukrainians in Kherson who even talked to the Russians. Most people I speak to say they simply avoided them, staying indoors as much as they could, and venturing out only to buy groceries from the few shops still open. It was like lockdown on steroids, they say, and with no Netflix to pass the time because the Russians switched off the internet. Putin’s 30,000 troops withdrew a few days ago, but many residents have become so isolated that they’ve only just found out that the soldiers have gone. Fear of collaborators is another reason residents give for spending the past nine months indoors. ‘You had no idea who might be helping the Russians,’ said Olena Arsenevic, a mother of three. ‘It’s best just to keep yourself to yourself.’ She has a point. I covered an anti-government protest once in Russia which was policed not just by menacing riot squads but by local criminals and thugs hired in as extra help. The Kremlin, by all accounts, applied similar tactics here, freeing hundreds of Kherson’s criminals from jail and putting them on its payroll.
Next to a subway in one corner of Freedom Square is a faded poster for September’s ‘referendum’ on whether Kherson should become part of Russia. According to the Kremlin, 87 per cent of people said ‘Yes’. However, Putin’s idea of a free and fair referendum is anything but. Propaganda leaflets warned of the dangers of the ‘artificial borders’ between Ukraine and Russia. Election officials went house-to-house, offering residents the chance to vote on their doorsteps. This was ostensibly to save old babushkas the walk to the polling station, but in practice it let them record the name and address of anyone who refused to vote. Just in case anyone had any doubts on which way to cast their ballot, the poster shows a helpful tick in the ‘Yes’ box.
At a police station on Kherson’s Energy Workers Street, we learn what happened to some suspected ‘No’ voters. Russian secret police commandeered the building and used it as an interrogation centre, torturing anyone thought to have connections to the Ukrainian military, or any nationalist sympathies. KGB officials are well schooled in torture and their preferred method in Kherson seems to have been to use electric shocks. This they do with a ‘Tucker Telephone’ – a device made from an old-fashioned wind-up phone that generates electric current. It gets its name from Tucker Prison in the US where it was first used in the 1960s, although its prolific use in Russia has given it a new name. It’s now called a ‘phone call to Putin’.
Back in Freedom Square, I run into J.K., a British military volunteer I spent a few days with earlier this month. Back then, he and his unit were gearing themselves up for what they expected to be the battle of a lifetime to retake Kherson by force. Now, after the Russians’ unexpected pull-out, they’ve reached the city without firing a further shot. The residents of Kherson surround J.K. and his friends and embrace them, but inevitably there’s a slight sense of anticlimax. ‘It’s not quite how we expected to get here,’ he admits. Also nursing mixed emotions is Bars, a Ukrainian volunteer I first met in June. While he’s delighted at the sight of Kherson’s people cheering him and his comrades, he’s also mourning the death of his battalion commander, killed two days ago by a landmine. The commander, he tells me, took a group of raw amateurs like himself and turned them into a proper fighting force. At the start, they’d get shelled 350 times a day, and felt they were ‘waiting to die’. By the end, even heavy losses on the battlefield couldn’t wipe the smiles off their faces. They believed in the cause of Ukrainian liberation and now they could actually help fight for it. ‘It’s smiles like ours which cause empires to collapse,’ says Bars.
J.K. is now waiting to find out where his unit will be sent next. It may be the eastern Donbas, but it could also be Crimea, which has a land link to Kherson. Many in the West think Ukraine should simply write Crimea off. The peninsula has always had a strong pro-Moscow element, thanks to the number of Russian naval officers who retire there. That contingent has increased considerably since 2014, with hundreds of thousands more Russians encouraged to settle. It’s become a kind of Bournemouth-on-Black Sea, although the days of sundowners in Sebastopol may soon be over, according to Alina Frolova, a former Ukrainian deputy defence minister. ‘Any Russian who came to Crimea after 2014 made an illegal crossing,’ she tells me. ‘If we retake Crimea, they’ll be asked to leave.’
What a vivid, moving, yet exciting article!
Next stop Crimea? Don’t write it off!
according to Alina Frolova, a former Ukrainian deputy defence minister. ‘Any Russian who came to Crimea after 2014 made an illegal crossing,’ she tells me. ‘If we retake Crimea, they’ll be asked to leave.’
When. Not if.
I’ve probably posted this before, but anyway.
My Wife told me how it was in the old days of ussr, when you went to visit a friend, after you had used the toilet, you were asked if you had washed your hands.
Not for hygiene reasons, but because you could either have soap or sugar in your tea.
What a world, soap or sugar!
I didn’t mean soap in your tea, I meant soap to wash your hands.
“Putin’s 30,000 troops withdrew a few days ago, but many residents have become so isolated that they’ve only just found out that the soldiers have gone. Fear of collaborators is another reason residents give for spending the past nine months indoors. ‘You had no idea who might be helping the Russians,’ said Olena Arsenevic, a mother of three. ‘It’s best just to keep yourself to yourself.’ She has a point. I covered an anti-government protest once in Russia which was policed not just by menacing riot squads but by local criminals and thugs hired in as extra help.”
I can’t help but wonder if this is part of why Liudmila didn’t want to meet me? If she’s concerned there’s a collaborator in her mother’s neighborhood? I don’t know exactly where she’s staying, but I think it may be south or southeast of Kyiv. Unfortunately, all I can do is guess, and if it’s not actually as bad as that, I don’t want someone to be harassed or resources wasted on a nonexistent threat.
It’s hard to guess anything concrete about Lyudmila, Mac. But, I think you can discount the fear of collaborators as a reason for her behavior.
Thank you. I feel like I’ve been grasping at straws trying to understand it. I think maybe she’s leaning into the hope that the war will end sometime this winter or spring, and that she wants more time to properly get ready for the move.
She had described something about the difficulties she would have to go through when she has to leave her life behind and go with me to America. It’s because of this, that I’ve considered maybe moving to Ukraine, but I don’t think she would want that either, because I’m guessing she fears losing me to the war.
I had just thought about this, but if she fears the russian missiles or bombings, then she needs to understand those would probably continue for a short time after, even if Ukraine retook ALL of its rightful territory today. I’m embarrassed to say this, but the russians do seem to have a similar trait of mine, in the stubbornness. Though mine is for much more noble reasons.
She is planning on leaving with you to America and you’ve not even met her yet? I wouldn’t put the cart before the horse Mac. Just meet her some time and see what happens. Its nerve wracking at first but it will work out. Who knows what will happen when you meet? I’d suggest being ready for anything and be guided by your heart not your head.
Thanks. I’m trying to be rational about this. I figure that since she’s a lawyer herself, then she’s probably wanting a guy who’s logical. Though it’s assuming that she’s not trying some weird trick to scam me in some way I don’t understand.
“…but it could also be Crimea, which has a land link to Kherson. Many in the West think Ukraine should simply write Crimea off. The peninsula has always had a strong pro-Moscow element, thanks to the number of Russian naval officers who retire there.”
So, Ukraine should write Crimea off because it has a bunch of retired mafia officers. What a piss poor reason to surrender a part of your own country.
No, Crimea will be liberated like every other Ukrainian oblast. The pro-ruskies on the peninsula must accept the rule of national and international laws. They must leave if they don’t want to be with Ukraine. They have a huge country to go to called mafia land. If they want ruskie mir, they can find plenty of it there.
That’s not the author’s position facts; he’s simply referencing the despicable “land for peace” mantra that unites turds both on the far left and far right.
I know, Scradge. I was referring to those very same individuals, who think like that. No reasoning is too far-fetched or ridiculous for them to justify letting that criminal sack of shit win.
Not long ago you were in that camp too bro 🙂
I was in that camp when putler’s Holocaust broke out in Feb 24; right up until the atrocities were first confirmed. After that I changed to the position I have now: the same as yours.
An offer (allegedly) was made recently to putler and was reported in MailOnline (not a reliable source), which I published with a health warning.
It involved total putinazi withdrawal, but allowed them to keep Crimea, but only if it was demilitarised.
I considered that to be at least something that could be discussed, but in any case, putler responded with a genocidal attack on energy infrastructure and on people’s homes.
I now support 150% the Zelensky 10 point formula. There is nothing else to discuss.
But Zel is dependent on a very weak US president to enable them to get to that point.
If it is Biden’s immutable position that he will not provide fighter planes, Abrams tanks, ATACM’s or long range ballistic missiles under any circumstances, then it is up to Poland and the U.K. to do so.
If they refuse also, then this horror really will go on for fucking ages.
At the moment, Germany is even squabbling with with Poland as to whether to provide Patriots to Ukraine.