Written by Andrew E Kramer
Iryna Dyagileva’s daughter attended a school where the curriculum included memorizing the Russian national anthem. But teachers ignored it, instead quietly greeting students in the morning with a salute: “Glory to Ukraine!”
Occupation authorities asked Olha Malyarchuk, a clerk at a taxi company, to settle bills in rubles. But she kept paying in Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia.
“It just didn’t work,” Malyarchuk said of the Russian propaganda that was beamed into televisions and plastered on billboards for the nine months of Russia’s occupation of Kherson. On Sunday, she was walking in a park, waving a small Ukrainian flag.
One roadside billboard proclaimed in bold text, “We are together with Russia!” But a teenager who offered only his first name, Oleksandr, had shinned up the supporting pole and was tearing the sign to pieces. Asked how he felt, he said, “Free.”
The Ukrainian army, defying the odds after its much more powerful neighbor invaded in February, has reclaimed hundreds of villages in towns in three major counteroffensives north of Kyiv, in the northeastern Kharkiv region and now in the southern Kherson region.
But the city of Kherson stands out: It was the focus of an ambitious Russian campaign to assimilate the citizenry and stamp out Ukrainian identity — a goal President Vladimir Putin of Russia harbored for all of Ukraine had his military been more successful, judging by his assertions that Ukrainians and Russians are one nation.
In Kherson, national songs were banned. Speaking Ukrainian could lead to arrest. Schools adopted Russian curriculums, and young students were to be told that they were Russians, not Ukrainians.
In the early days of the city’s liberation, it appears that those Russian efforts were largely futile, at least among those who remained in the city as Ukrainian forces approached.
Serhiy Bloshko, a construction worker, had lived at friends’ houses through the nine-month occupation, fearing arrest for having joined anti-occupation protests in March, soon after the Russian army arrived. Soldiers did go to his home. Not finding him, they made off with his television and refrigerator, he said.
But the Russians found some of his friends, who were detained and vanished, he said.
“They repressed the pro-Ukrainian population,” said Bloshko, who was interviewed in a line for water Sunday afternoon. Of the cultural assimilation effort, he said, “What happened here was ethnic cleansing.”
The manner in which each army entered his city, one in February, the other last week, was telling, he said.
“When our soldiers drove in, their machine guns were pointed up, into the air,” Bloshko said. “When the Russians drove in, their guns were pointed at the people. That explains everything. And they said they were our liberators.”
Throughout Ukraine, the war has been notable as a time of accelerated cultural separation of Ukrainian from Russian — the exact opposite of what Putin had sought to achieve.
Bilingual Ukrainians who spoke Russian before the war pivoted to Ukrainian. Writers in Kyiv suggested closing a museum dedicated to Mikhail Bulgakov, a native of the city but one who wrote in Russian. The mayor of Odesa, the Black Sea city founded by Czar Catherine the Great, has said her statue will be torn down.
What began a decade ago, after Russia intervened militarily in eastern Ukraine, as a “de-communization” policy of banning Soviet-era place and street names has extended to Russian cultural references. Towns, for example, are renaming their many Pushkin Streets, named in honor of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.
In Kherson over the weekend, any residents who might have felt more warmly toward the Russian assimilation efforts were not in evidence, hardly surprising given that many had evacuated as the Ukrainians closed in and the Russian government encouraged residents to leave. Many local government officials had collaborated with the Russians.
Three days after the Russian army left, several hundred Kherson residents were still celebrating on a central square.
But trepidation had also set in. Throughout the day, booms from artillery strikes in or near the city rang out occasionally, and Russian troops remain close by, on the opposite bank of the Dnieper River.
Malyarchuk, the taxi clerk, said that despite the failures of the assimilation program, the occupiers pressed ahead, publishing Russian newspapers and broadcasting a pro-Moscow local television news program. On Thursday, as they pulled out, Russian soldiers blew up the television tower, lest Ukraine now beam pro-Ukrainian news into nearby occupied territory.
Malyarchuk credited the Ukrainian army’s strategy of patiently degrading Russian forces and launching pinpoint strikes on Russian supply lines and positions in and around Kherson for months with preserving the city itself. That approach, she said, also preserved support for Ukraine’s government.
One strike by a precision guided HIMARS rocket, she said, had hit a Russian garrison in a residential district about 150 yards from her home, blowing out windows but harming no civilians. “It was a beautiful explosion,” she said.
“Thank God for America, Canada and Great Britain, and thank God for Grandfather Biden,” she said, noting the Western military aid that helped Ukraine repel the Russians from her city.
In the city’s center, one Russian base across a street from a hospital appeared hollowed out from the inside by a direct hit. Only jagged remnants of exterior walls remained standing. But the blast did not even crack windows in the hospital itself.
Dr. Ivan Terpak, a family physician at the hospital, said the strike had been worth the risk to patients and medical personnel, and was needed to drive out the Russians. “They wouldn’t have left if we didn’t shoot at them,” he said.
“Nobody asked me,” Terpak said, “but if they did, I would have said, ‘Go ahead and take the shot.’”
Along Ushakova Avenue, an elegant tree-lined boulevard that runs through the city, most buildings were undamaged.
Dyagileva said she had sent her daughter to school only after ensuring that the teaching staff remained secretly patriotic, playing along with Russian-appointed administrators but not teaching the curriculum that was imposed. Teachers at other schools did teach the Russian program, she said.
Iryna Rodavanova, a retired curator at the Kherson Art Museum, said the brutality of Russian soldiers had alienated residents, undermining the efforts at cultural assimilation. Soldiers beat her husband on a roadside after accusing him of a traffic violation.
“I agree with our president,” Rodavanova said. “Better without electricity, without water and without heat if also without the Russians.”
Oddly, weeks before retreating, Russian soldiers carried away the bones of 18th-century Russian aristocrat Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin, removing as they left a potent historical and cultural symbol of the city’s ties to Russia. Potemkin, a lover of Catherine the Great, was considered the founder of the modern city of Kherson.
Father Vitaly, a priest at St. Catherine’s Cathedral, said Russian officers had from time to time through the occupation turned up at the cathedral to visit the crypt holding Potemkin’s bones.
Soldiers arrived wearing balaclava masks, saying they would protect the bones from the Ukrainian attack. Two soldiers carried out the bones, held in a charcoal-colored cloth bag, and two others the wooden coffin they had lain in for two centuries, Vitaly said.
“It was the most important relic of our church,” he said. “But it is more important to them than to us. He’s a significant historical figure and a symbol of Russian imperial ambitions.”
Ukraine should ask for the return of the bones, Vitaly said, adding, though, that Kherson residents won’t really mind if they don’t come back.
“We don’t need the bones,” he said. “Maybe the next generation will even forget they were ever here.”