Kherson defiant as Russia seeks to tighten its grip on occupied Ukraine

The Lenin statue re-erected in Kherson’s main square is a symbol of how one of the centers of Ukraine’s resistance to Moscow’s invasion is now back in Russian hands.

The spontaneous demonstrations that erupted in February have dried up as Moscow’s forces have tightened their grip, rounding up dissenters and imposing a shadow Russian state in the occupied southern territories.

A former pro-Russian MP, Volodymyr Saldo, has been appointed regional governor, while a new collaboration administration, backed by Russia, has begun to introduce the ruble to replace Ukraine’s hryvnia. Teachers have been told to adopt the Russian curriculum and language when classes resume after the summer.

Internet connections have been partially rerouted through Russian-annexed Crimea, allowing Russian censors to monitor and control communications. Even a statue of Lenin has been re-erected in Kherson’s main square.

Meanwhile protesters have been detained in “filtration camps”, after being picked up off the streets or in their homes by occupying Russian forces.

“People are being detained, soldiers, men of military age. They put them in filtration camps. A lot of them didn’t return, ”said Serhiy Rybalko, a local politician and head of a big farming business near Kherson, speaking from outside the region.

Ivan Antypenko, a journalist who fled Kherson but remains in touch with friends and colleagues there, said people had been abducted in Kherson as well as the occupied cities of Melitopol, Berdyansk and Enerhodar. Military and security personnel were taken as well as ordinary Ukrainians, he said.

“They’re abducting ordinary people after pro-Ukraine rallies. I know of at least 100 incidents of abduction, ”he said. “Some were released, some are still in detention. They were interrogated, tortured. ”

Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, said the government in Kyiv had received reports of rapes and atrocities in four southern towns under Russian control.

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Ukrainian officials say Russia is trying to cement its control of occupied territory in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions and introduce elements of Russian statehood there to erase Ukrainian identity and reinforce its historical claims.

They believe Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is seeking achievements to celebrate when he commemorates the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany on May 9.

The restoration of Russian statehood would fit with Putin’s distorted narrative that Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions belong to Russia – an area labeled Novorossiya – having been part of the Russian empire in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Arestovych said Moscow had intended to declare a “Southern Russia governorship. . . an independent statelet with historical boundaries ”.

Before that, it wanted to extend its occupation to the full administrative boundaries of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions, just as it was attempting to do in the semi-occupied regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. But strong Ukrainian resistance meant it had failed to make its anticipated territorial gains, he said.

He said Kyiv did not intend to leave the southern regions in Russia’s arms for long, insisting that when Ukrainian forces counter-attacked they would seek to retake Melitopol and break the land land between Crimea and the occupied Donbas.

Antypenko said that despite the repression, Russia would struggle to enforce their writings in the south, where there was almost no support for Moscow, unlike in Donbas or Crimea. “Whatever narratives Russia tries to impose, people know they live in Ukraine,” he said.

As an example, of the many teachers he knew through his work on media literacy projects, very few were willing to comply with the curriculum demands, he said.

People living in the occupied south still had access to Ukrainian television and mobile communications, with operators restored after a break of a few days.

Locals were refusing to use the ruble, but there was not enough Ukrainian cash to pay pensions, said Rybalko. One of the reasons for rerouting fixed-line internet through Crimea was to block payment terminal transactions in hryvnia, he said.

Life has become much harder, with shortages of medicines and groceries, which now must be shipped in from Crimea. The public protests have dwindled, said Inna Green, a local government employee who left Kherson when the war broke out.

Instead, she said: “The people of Kherson have decided to put up a silent resistance, hanging yellow and blue ribbons around the city, drawing a yellow ribbon [on walls]putting up leaflets and messages to the occupiers that they’re not happy here. ”

Meanwhile thousands of residents of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia have fled, sometimes waiting days to pass through Russian checkpoints where they face lengthy interrogation. According to Oleksandr Starch, governor of Zaporizhzhia, in some parts of the region, half of the residents have left.

Antypenko said the Russian forces were allowing men to leave because they wanted “no active pro-Ukrainian people in the city who can fight back when the Ukrainian army counter-attacks”.

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