Kherson survived Russian occupation. Now winter tests liberation.

Noah Robertson/The Christian Science Monitor
Oleksandr Popov holds his young son Yehor outside their apartment building in Kherson, Ukraine, Dec. 4, 2022. In November, their apartment block was shelled, blowing out their windows and forcing the Popovs to sleep in the corridor for a night.
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When Russian troops retreated last month from the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, and Ukrainian forces marched in to liberate the regional capital, the mood among residents was jubilant.

Five weeks on, the harsh realities of life are testing Khersonians’ staying power: Russian artillery units are still bombarding the city, and before the Russians left they destroyed, and mined, as much infrastructure as they could.

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In Kherson, freed last month from Russian occupation, jubilation has turned to determination as residents face winter without heat, light, or running water.

That means electricity, water, and heat are all in short supply as winter sets in. Residents can generally get potable water from tankers that resupply them each day, but they have to go to the river, the Dnieper, for the water they use to wash in.

“This is not normal,” says one local resident. “Everyone is just trying to survive.”

Some residents find it all too much, and have gone to live elsewhere in Ukraine, often with relatives. Others are sticking with it, despite the artillery shells, the shortages, the high prices, and the cold.

“If we were able to survive nine months of occupation, I’m quite sure we will be able to survive this,” says Oleksandr Popov, an IT specialist. “It’s much easier and simpler when our people, our army, are here.”

In Kherson’s central plaza, Oleksandr Popov and his wife Olha tiptoe gingerly back to their car, loaded with diapers and baby food.

Five weeks ago, thousands of Ukrainians celebrated their city’s liberation from Russian occupation in this same plaza, hugging soldiers and waving flags. Today the streets are covered with black ice, the city is largely without power, and the Popovs just picked up supplies from a van distributing humanitarian aid. Without it, they couldn’t provide for their 4-month-old son Yehor, layered in coats, asleep in his mother’s arms.  

“Unfortunately, you can’t get this stuff here in the shops now,” says Ms. Popova.

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In Kherson, freed last month from Russian occupation, jubilation has turned to determination as residents face winter without heat, light, or running water.

The three of them reach their taxi, an old Ford driven by their neighbor, and ride the few miles home. On the way, they pass playgrounds, gardens, and swing sets. They point to broken windows and splotchy holes in the nearby buildings: shell damage, they say.

Eight floors up, their own apartment windows are covered in tarps; an artillery barrage last month blew the glass out. When the shells landed, Mr. Popov was outside with Yehor; he fled into a neighboring building, which he could only get into because there was no electricity to power the lock. Ms. Popova and their 16-year-old daughter ducked for cover outside their apartment. Artem, their 11-year-old son, jumped under a first-floor balcony. One of the shells cratered the pavement where he and a group of friends had just been playing soccer.

These are scenes from a liberated Kherson. On Nov. 11, Ukrainian soldiers arrived in triumph, ending almost nine months of Russian occupation. But the occupiers didn’t retreat quietly across the Dnieper River. On their way out, they cut power lines and destroyed infrastructure. Since they left they have launched regular artillery attacks on the city, particularly the areas closest to the river.

Residents now live without stable access to electricity, internet, water, or heat. As winter sets in, the utility crisis is an acute challenge for the regional military administration, tasked with governing and rebuilding a beleaguered city. Many Khersonians still feel the ecstasy of liberation, even amid the agony of life under Russian fire. But unless the Ukrainian army advances farther east, the conditions will test how long the city can live on liberation alone.

Despite the hardships, Mr. Popov is optimistic. “If we were able to survive nine months of occupation,” he says, “I’m quite sure we will be able to survive this.”

Jubilant last month, leaving town now 

A port city in southern Ukraine, Kherson came under Russian occupation March 2, little more than a week after the invasion. It was the only regional capital to fall, which lent its recapture last month special importance. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a surprise visit, declaring “the beginning of the end of the war.” Residents greeted their army with spontaneous parades in the city center, where a fountain is now draped with the Ukrainian flag.

Serhii Mykhailiuk was there.

Because the internet went down in the days before the Russian retreat, Mr. Mykhailiuk was out of the loop and surprised to see cars flying Ukrainian flags one night in early November. Even more surprising were the cheers he heard from people watching them. “How brave,” he thought.

Noah Robertson/The Christian Science Monitor
Serhii Mykhailiuk waits in a humanitarian aid tent for a bus taking him out of Kherson to the city where his parents live, Dec. 3, 2022. He wears a Ukrainian flag ribbon given to him by a little girl a few weeks before.

The next morning his neighbors told him the city had been liberated, and Mr. Mykhailiuk was jubilant. For months he had avoided main roads in the city, fearing arrest by the Russian police, who he said often detained passersby who didn’t have proper documents. One Sunday in June, he too had been stopped on his way back from church, taken to a police station and held for 12 hours.

Now he was free. “I was very happy,” and joined the celebratory crowds in the city center plaza, he remembers. “I was crying.”

Three weeks later, Mr. Mykhailiuk was back at that same plaza, this time sitting in a heated tent set up by the government for residents without electricity, water, and other utilities. A bus to Kryvyi Rih, a city 120 miles north, would leave in half an hour; Mr. Mykhailiuk was taking it to go live with his parents.  

“Now you can see how [the Russians] liberated us,” he says ironically, referring to Russian propaganda that the city had been “liberated” from Ukrainian rule in March. “We have no jobs, no electricity, no heating. Nothing.”

Until last month, Kherson’s electricity supply came from lines running in four directions, says Oleksandr Tolokinnikov, chief of press services for the Kherson Regional Military Administration. When the Russians left, he says, they cut and mined all four – and they have since targeted the grid with repeated attacks.

Mr. Tolokinnikov says 85% of the power system had been restored by early December. But that claim is hard to square with the number of residents who speak of electricity as a rarity, and who often lack water and gas too.

“This is not normal”

The city’s military and civil crises, meanwhile, have become part of daily life for its citizens.

Every morning, Natalia Kuchinskaya keeps an eye out from her apartment window for people gathering at a giant water tank near the city’s theater. A crowd means that she needs to grab her own plastic containers – each holding more than a gallon – and go fill up before the water runs out.

She, her husband, her daughter, and her two grandchildren live together and use water to drink, cook, wash, and flush toilets. The tank in the city center provides potable water, she says. The family collects water for everything except drinking and cooking straight from the river, a 10-minute walk away.

Noah Robertson/The Christian Science Monitor
Natalia Kuchinskaya stands outside her apartment building in Kherson after filling up containers of drinking water from a tank in the city center, Dec. 4, 2022.

“This is not normal,” says Ms. Kuchinskaya, whose apartment last enjoyed electricity and running water a month ago. “This is just a situation that we have to adapt to. Everyone is just trying to survive.”

For the Popovs, survival means buying formula for their baby. Its price rose fivefold during the occupation, and they could afford it only because relatives abroad sent them money.

The issue now isn’t just the price; it’s also availability. Only one supermarket in the city is open, and lines are always long. The Popovs follow channels on Telegram, a social media messaging app, to track sources of humanitarian aid. But Mr. Popov works six days a week, and his wife can’t leave the baby alone while picking up supplies. 

Still, the family isn’t going anywhere. Mr. Popov has lived in his apartment since he was a child, he has a good job in IT, and the grandparents still all live in Kherson. “We were hoping for the best, but then the war happened,” he says. “We just got stuck here. And nobody needs us anywhere else.”

On top of which, “it’s much easier and simpler when our people, our army, are here,” Mr. Popov says, turning to climb the eight flights of stairs to his apartment. He is wearing a bright yellow synthetic puffer jacket. On the chest is embroidered one word: SUPERMAN.

Oleksandr Naselenko supported reporting for this article.

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