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Moment that mattered: Kherson is liberated by Ukrainian troops

Local residents hug a Ukrainian soldier as they celebrate the liberation of Kherson, 13th November 2022

Local residents hug a Ukrainian soldier as they celebrate the liberation of Kherson, 13th November 2022. Photo: Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images

“This is the beginning of the end of the war,” Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky told the crowd. As Ukrainian soldiers paraded through the streets of Kherson – a city in south-east Ukraine that was one of the first occupied by Russian troops in the invasion of 2022 – wide-eyed locals hugged them, cheered and threw flowers at the passing convoy.

“People were ecstatic, they were just so happy – completely euphoric,” says Tim Judah, a journalist and author who watched Zelensky deliver his surprise speech on Kherson’s main square. Just three days earlier, on 11th November 2022, Ukrainian troops had hoisted the country’s blue and yellow flag above the city hall. Zelensky’s arrival made it official. After almost 260 days of occupation, the city of Kherson had been liberated. “Ze-le-nesky, Ze-le-nesky!” the crowd chanted.

Judah has reported on Ukraine since 2011 and is author of the 2015 book In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine about the separatist conflict in Ukraine’s east that erupted in 2014 after the Maidan revolution in Kyiv. When Kherson was liberated, Judah was among the first reporters allowed inside the city by Ukrainian forces. When he arrived, Ukrainians were busily removing all traces of the occupiers’ presence. “There were these posters that they [the Russians] had put up, crude pictures showing a mother in a smock clasping her daughter – it was meant to be Mother Russia embracing Ukraine. It had a caption saying: ‘To the future with Russia’. The Ukrainians were just ripping these posters down,” he says. Many of those who had supported the Russian troops had fled with them. “Someone told me that a [pro-Russian] woman who worked at the shop across the road from her had shown up the day the Russians left and gathered all her stuff at high speed – she hadn’t seen her since.”

Ukraine had been on the offensive throughout the spring and summer of 2022, and in May Russian forces were driven out of Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, which is 280 miles north-east of Kherson. But the surprising speed of the Russian line’s collapse in Kherson led to fears that it could be a trap. Experts speculated that the retreat was a ruse or, worse still, that the Russians planned to blow up the nearby Dnieper dam. If they did so the river, which divides the city in two, would have burst its banks, causing massive flooding.

Fortunately that didn’t happen. But the area surrounding Kherson had already been devastated by the fighting. “On the road in from Mykolaiv [a city 40 miles north-west from Kherson], there were a lot of villages where there had been fighting since March,” says Judah. “That’s where the front line was. And some of those villages had been totally flattened. They were completely unliveable. The people there were wondering whether it was even worth rebuilding them because of the extent of the destruction. It was like the remake of the film All Quiet on the Western Front. There were trenches and camps that the Russians had been living in and these villages that had just been razed.”

For most of the Russian occupation the residents of Kherson had been trapped inside the city by the fierce fighting. “In the early days it was still possible to get to Ukrainian territory by road via green corridors. But as time went on it became harder and harder to get out,” says Judah. “The people who stayed just spent months absolutely terrified. They told me that the city was pretty deserted in the afternoons. In the mornings people would go and do the essential things they needed to do and then they would just stay at home. They didn’t want to bump into any Russian soldiers that were moving about and get in trouble. They were really frightened.”

In September 2022, Russia carried out a sham referendum in Kherson and the other Ukrainian areas under its control, asking whether they would like to be incorporated into the country. “Soldiers were going door to door with plastic see-through boxes, telling people to vote,” says Judah. “A lot did, because even though they didn’t believe it was a real referendum, they were afraid of being shot.”

Compared to the villages on the road into Kherson the city centre had remained comparatively intact, says Judah. “There wasn’t obvious damage, at least not on that scale. But before they left, they [the Russians] sabotaged the infrastructure. Telecommunications were down, there was no electricity or running water. By the time I arrived the Ukrainians had set up a phone mast on the square so there were crowds of people waving their phones around trying to get a connection to call family and friends.”

As well as cutting power lines, the Russians also looted Kherson of millions of dollars worth of valuable antiquities as they withdrew. Some 10,000 works were taken from Kherson’s art museum, including pieces its curators had spent decades tracking down after they were stolen by the Nazis during the German occupation of the city from 1941 to 1944. Also plundered by the retreating Russian soldiers were the bones of Grigory Potemkin. An 18th century statesman, Potemkin founded Odesa and Kherson and persuaded his lover, Russian empress Catherine the Great, to formally annex Crimea in 1783. He also sought the creation of NovoRossiya – ‘New Russia’ – a swathe of territory in what is now southern Ukraine along the Black Sea.

Judah was shown Potemkin’s empty crypt by Father Ilia at Kherson’s Cathedral of St Catherine. “He took us down through these two massive trapdoors into the crypt – it was directly below a tombstone and memorial for Potemkin. Father Ilia said that during the occupation of Kherson the Russians were drawn here ‘like bees to honey’. And he also said, ‘For us it’s history but for them it’s ideology’. Because of course Potemkin had this idea about NovoRossiya and that’s essentially what the Russians are now trying to create. I think what this shows is that in the west we tend to view this war very rationally, but for the Russians, or at least for Putin, this is an ideological war. It’s about this idea of recreating Russian greatness and the Russian Empire. It’s totally irrational but that’s why they took Potemkin with them.”

But the Russians haven’t gone far. Since retreating from Kherson they have taken up positions on the Dnieper River’s east bank. At its closest, the Russian line is a mere 700 metres from the city, which has come under a near-daily barrage ever since.

After Kherson they realised they could defeat the Russian army. With western weapons and their own determination, they could win”

According to Ukrainian officials the city has been hit more than 1,800 times since it was liberated and at least 75 people have been killed. “It’s gone from being occupied to being on the frontline,” says Judah. Indeed, despite the initial jubilation at Kherson’s recapture many of the city’s residents have since headed west to safer areas of Ukraine.

Currently, it’s estimated that only around ten percent of the port city’s pre-war population of 300,000 remains. For those who have stayed, life is precarious. Days are spent sourcing food, firewood and water. Nights are passed in cold, damp basements sheltering from Russian artillery fire.

With a fresh Russian offensive having started in early 2023, the future of Kherson still hangs in the balance. But Judah says that a series of triumphs over Russian forces, including the liberation of the port city, have bolstered the morale of Ukrainian forces. “The retreat from Kherson is vital but it mustn’t be seen in isolation,” he says. “First you have the Russian failure to take Kyiv and its retreat from Kyiv. Then you have the collapse of the Russian lines around Kharkiv. And then you have Kherson”.

In January, Judah visited Kupiansk, a city close to the Russian border and currently also on the frontline that snakes through Ukraine’s east. “I was speaking to some Ukrainian commanders there,” he says. “Of course everyone was talking about this Russian offensive that had just begun, but they were completely unfazed. They said: ‘We’ve lost our fear of them’.  After Kyiv and Kharkiv and then Kherson they realised they could defeat the Russian army, the second largest in the world. With western weapons and their own determination, they could win. Whether or not they do remains to be seen. But the point is for Ukrainians and Ukrainian troops that the psychological landscape has totally changed because of this string of victories. They have realised the Russians are not invincible.”

We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #49 of Delayed Gratification

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