Nine Months of Fear: What Life Was Like During the Russian Occupation of Kherson

February 15, 2023
Kherson was under Russian occupation for almost 9 months. During this time, the invaders destroyed Ukrainian books, looted museums, and abused locals.
Photo credit: Media platform Vhoru

The Russian army seized Kherson in early March. It was the only regional capital in Ukraine that the Russians were able to occupy during their full-scale invasion. The people of Kherson were under occupation for 9 months, until the Ukrainian military liberated the city on November 11.

The occupation of Kherson began with strong resistance from local residents. Without any organizers, simply following their hearts, people held rallies against the Russian invaders. People carried Ukrainian flags and chanted “Kherson is Ukraine!”

Unfortunately, these peaceful rallies were eventually dispersed by the Russian military by force: they shot at people, and threw tear gas and stun grenades. Over time, the Russians tightened their control and placed their own people and local collaborators everywhere.

They began patrolling the Kherson market with assault rifles, raiding the homes of activists and soldiers, and taking people away for questioning. As a result, many people have physical and psychological trauma, others have died, and still, others remain unaccounted for to this day.

The fake referendum in Kherson

Three weeks before the liberation of the city, on September 23-27, the occupation authorities of Kherson held a so-called "referendum" on the entry of Kherson Oblast into the Russian Federation.

After the de-occupation, UkraineWorld spoke with people from Kherson State University who had remained in the city all these months. They said that during the fake referendum, armed invaders went to people's homes and forced them to vote. Photo credit:

Of course, it was scary to choose the "No" option in front of armed soldiers. On the day of the referendum, many people tried to leave their homes somewhere so that they would not be found and forced to vote.

According to Russian propagandists, 87.05% of voters supported Kherson Oblast joining Russia. In reality, the polling stations were almost empty.

Was it possible to evacuate?

Evacuation from occupied Kherson was not easy. People were thoroughly checked at Russian checkpoints, while some cars were taken away by the Russians or shot at.

"My daughter-in-law and her child managed to leave the city on the sixth attempt. She was under a lot of stress from not being able to leave because sometimes her car came under fire. Sometimes they spent the night in a field, and sometimes the Russians simply did not let them out for some reason. In the end, they left Kherson thanks to the Yuzhnyi Express bus service: first to Crimea, and then to Georgia. Although she wanted to evacuate directly to Ukraine, the only option was to leave via occupied Crimea," said Valentyna Danchenko, an employee of the Kherson Central City Library.

Valentyna herself did not leave Kherson, although she thought about it from time to time: "I understood that I work in a library, that this was an ideological institution, and that I am the deputy director. Some of our employees became collaborators, started going to work, and convinced me that Russia is here forever."

Despite the offer to start working, Valentyna was in no hurry to do so, because she didn’t want to work under the occupiers. However, she didn’t speak about it openly and kept postponing her return to the library. She was afraid to categorically refuse, lest she is taken for interrogation and tortured.

Ultimately, Valentyna promised the library staff that she would definitely go to work in November. Fortunately, Kherson was liberated by the Ukrainian Armed Forces that month.

Confiscation and destruction of Ukrainian books

Valentyna also remembers how she passed by her library and saw garbage bags full of books. The Russian occupiers took all Ukrainian books from the library’s collection and prepared them for destruction. It was painful for her to look at these books, but it was too dangerous for her to go and take them for herself.

One worker from the Dniprova Chaika Kherson Oblast Children's Library told UkraineWorld about an attempt to destroy Ukrainian books: "After Kherson was liberated by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, the library was checked for bombs, and I finally went there. In the book depository I found two large boxes on which was written "literature of dubious content." There were books about Ukrainian statehood, the Holodomor, the history of Ukraine, the EU, and so on."

It is interesting that even though this library used a high-quality, expensive microphone for Zoom conferences in a large hall, it was left behind, while the Russian occupiers took two refrigerators. Many computers and other pieces of equipment were damaged.

Ukrainian resistance during the occupation

Despite the risks, the people of Kherson tried to show that they were still Ukrainian even during the occupation.

"We organized patriotic hashtag campaigns, and filmed pro-Ukrainian videos," said the head of the Humanitarian Department of Kherson State University, Andriy Yaryomenko, "Since my house in Kherson was not far from the Antonivskyi bridge [which was constantly struck by the Ukrainian army as a key Russian military artery - ed.], I lived with friends in a house in Stepanivka. Every day, I went to Kherson and back through a Russian checkpoint. When my colleagues sent me the videos, I had to be in the village. There, I rewatched it all, posted on the Facebook and Instagram pages of our university department, and then deleted it from my phone, because the Russians thoroughly checked me every time."

While stopped at checkpoints, Andriy was most afraid that he could receive a message that would arouse suspicion at exactly the wrong moment. Fortunately, this never happened.

The Russian invaders opened their own university on top of Kherson State University. For its "rector", the occupation authorities appointed a collaborator from Kherson, Tetiana Tomilina, who had always held pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian views.

Even before Russia’s full-scale invasion, Tomilina promoted Kremlin propaganda about "US bio laboratories in Ukraine," so it is not surprising that the occupiers appointed her to head the educational institution. However, in September, shortly before the liberation of Kherson, Ukrainian partisans attempted to eliminate her. There was an explosion in Tetyana's apartment, and she was seriously injured.

When, after the de-occupation, Andriy Yaryomenko first entered the university's assembly hall, he saw posters with the words "Russia is here forever" and "Kherson together with Russia." Volodymyr Saldo, other collaborators, and Russian occupation officials held their meetings here. Of course, when fleeing the city, the Russian invaders looted the university and took as much equipment as they could.

In addition to equipment and other valuables from universities, libraries, museums, and theaters, the Russians also took all buses, ambulances, and fire engines from Kherson. Buses provided by Ukraine’s European partners are currently running in the city.

But the worst thing is that the invaders also took people to the occupied part of Ukraine and probably to Russia. Many Ukrainian children are still in Crimea, and it is not yet possible to return them.

Despite all the difficulties, problems with city communications, and ongoing Russian shelling, Kherson holds on. It is an unbreakable city with brave people who believe in the best and believe in victory.

This article is produced within the project «EU Emergency Support 4 Civil Society», implemented by ISAR Ednannia with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Internews Ukraine and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.

To learn more about the Russian occupation of Kherson, you can listen to our podcast and watch a documentary about Kherson:

Olha Tatokhina
Analyst and Journalist at UkraineWorld