Three Men from Kherson
Eyewitness accounts of Russia's war of aggression in Ukraine
Guest Post by Zarina Zabrisky
Kherson is a city of a quarter million people on the Dnipro, ten miles from where it spills into the Black Sea. Its strategic location makes Kherson an important ship-building hub—and a major target of Putin’s occupying forces:
When the Russian Federation army attacked Ukraine on February 24, Aleksey, an international long-distance truck driver with a degree in history, was home in Kherson, recovering from covid-19. Alex, a navigating officer of a commercial ship, and Andrey, a captain of long-distance navigation, were in the city on leave.
From February 24 to March 1, the three men, along with the rest of the Kherson population, sheltered in basements. On the first of March, the Ukrainian Army retreated, and Russian troops entered the city. Several dozen local territorial defense fighters, armed with Molotov cocktails, fought back, but were no match for Russia’s heavy machine guns.
Since March 2, Kherson has been occupied by the Russians. Aleksey, Alex, and Andrey participated in protest rallies almost daily until finally compelled to leave the city on April 11 to evacuate their families.
Shaken, burning with the desire to fight, to defend their families, their city, their land, the three men now want to join the army. They can’t. Their compatriots stand in lines at the military registration and enlistment offices, only to be turned down because they have nothing to fight with. Ukraine is running short on guns and ammo.
This weekend, they talked to me from Odesa. Their message to the world: Ukraine needs weapons. The suppressed rage in their voices is harder to endure than tears.
SHOCKED BY THE VERY FACT OF THE AGGRESSION
Aleksey is eloquent and loves debates and history quotes. He starts the conversation: “I argued with a friend that Putin would never start the war. His elite has assets in Europe, I argued. The next morning, the Russians attacked us, and I realized that the President of the Russian Federation is not a strategic leader but a psychopath and a killer. At the time, I still thought that the majority of the Russian population had no idea what their president had pushed them into. It could be like Georgia in 2008, I thought: Russians came, fought a bit, and left. It proved to be genocide of Ukrainian people.”
THE “RUSSIAN WORLD” ARRIVES
Andrey, the captain, speaks slowly, clearly, and confidently: “Russians anticipated us welcoming them with flowers, not Molotov cocktails. When the Russian Army first entered the city, the Ukrainian territorial defense fighters destroyed a large truck with a grenade launcher and killed a Russian soldier. Imagine—the truck just stood there. The corpse lay on the ground from March 1 until the Ukrainians buried it, for weeks. The Russians leave their bodies behind. Their country does not honor its soldiers. It prefers not to pay the compensation to the families.”
From the first days of the occupation, the Russian invaders looted stores and homes. They stole alcohol, food, clothes, and home appliances like hair dryers, coffee makers, and toasters. They acted as if they were still in the USSR and they had a deficit of everything.
Alex, a man of few words, mostly listens and smiles knowingly. He speaks up, with contempt: “The Russian soldiers looted my parents’ country house in the suburbs of Kherson. They broke the windows and doors, turned the house upside down, pulling out clothes, even dishes. They stole the neighbors’ car—a Volkswagen Passat. They destroyed a guitar. Why?”
In other suburbs, the Russian Guard officers searched houses, slaughtering chickens along the way. The Russians searched Aleksey’s relatives' house and fished out a piece of grey overcoat fabric. It was hard to convince them this wasn’t for military uniforms. In another house, they found a piece of army clothing and kicked the owners out.
“Get used to it! Prepare to use rubles. We are here for a long time. Tell your kids they will soon serve in our army,” they said.
CHAOS AND TENSIONS BETWEEN THE RUSSIAN ARMY SUBDIVISIONS
Forcefully mobilized Ukrainians from the occupied territories is the last thing that the Russian Army, already disorganized, needs.
There are regular troops—“scrawny kids freezing at checkpoints”—and the “elite” forces, Russian Guard officers: “well-equipped, well-fed, and well-groomed.” There are also Chechens fighting on the Russian side: both the so-called “Kadyrovtsy” and just regular Chechen units. There are also “militaries” from the separatist states of Luhansk and Donetsk’s “People’s Republics” (LDNR).
“The LDNR ‘militaries’ are simply armed convicts,” explains Andrey. “They are stuck in the lawless separatist states since 2014 and prohibited from entering either Russia or Ukraine for their previous criminal offenses. Currently, these jailbirds are stationed in the suburbs of Kherson. When you hear about ‘Russian soldiers’ stealing food from civilians, chances are these are LDNR. These are gangs, bandit formations, they do not obey anyone. They are known to shoot at each other.”
“This sure was the case until very recently,” adds Aleksey. “Now, in the separatists’ states, they forcefully mobilize just about anyone, including really murky types, so it is a hodgepodge. These guys act even worse than regular troops. And yet, guess who committed the atrocities in Bucha and Irpen? Regular Russian Armed Forces battalions. Russian people from Khabarovsk.”
All the Russian Armed Forces personnel wear white hand bands for identification, but the similarities end there. Each unit has its own hierarchy and leadership. There is no coordination, subordination, and, for the most part, communication or sympathy between these units. The lack of rapport, though, might not be the major debilitating factor.
“The Russian Federation is a corrupt state in which the resources are being stolen at every level, from the bottom to the very top,” says Aleksey. “Add a tradition to provide the boss only with the information he wants to hear—and voila, you have the army with severely depleted resources and a clueless government. The soldiers are hungry and cold. The authorities don’t know about it.”
If this is not enough to make your head spin, consider yet another, rather macabre, unit:
ABDUCTIONS AND TORTURE
“We were not shelled like Kharkiv, Chernihiv, and Mariupol, but it was nerve-breaking. People were kidnapped and tortured,” explains Andrey. “They brought the special unit of the Russian Guard, known by its former title SOBR (The Special Rapid Response Unit), infamous for torturing people during the interrogations in Bucha, Irpen, Gostomel, and Chernihiv region. SOBR raided homes of the former Ukrainian secret services, activists, ATO, journalists, and arrested them. Every day and night they came for someone. They knocked the doors off frames if they couldn’t open them. No locks could stop them. They would blow up the entrance doors in high-rise buildings. And then, they would ask those arrested, ‘Why don’t you love us?’ Recently, they have set up more block-posts and checked the conscripts from 18 to 60 years old. My wife was on the verge of a nervous breakdown from all this.”
LIFE UNDER OCCUPATION
Life under Russian occupation is stressful enough without daily abductions.
“Every day, you have to search for food and stand for hours in queues at pharmacies and food markets. Kherson needs a green corridor to deliver medicines and humanitarian aid,” says Aleksey. “To withdraw money from the ATM machine, you have to stand in line for seven hours—that is, if you have any money. Not everyone has savings, and, for those who do, the savings are running out. The job market is not looking good, either. We would have a much more serious situation in the city, but people are trying to support each other as much as they can, exchanging medicines and sharing food.”
“The Russians destroyed the biggest shopping center that employed about a thousand people as soon as they entered Kherson,” Alex reports. “This was done on purpose so that people get desperate and start cooperating with the invaders. Ukrainians, however, do not want to cooperate with the invaders. Farmers in the occupied territories travel to Kherson to buy flour, cigarettes, and containers of fuel, even though it is more expensive. To force one woman to buy gas from them, the Russians threatened to shoot her fuel tank.”
“I had to take my wife and a young child to Slovakia, a safe place,” Alex continues. “I’d go crazy if I knew they were still in Kherson, and I was at work or fighting.”
RALLIES: “UKRAINE IS NOT RUSSIA”
“Unfortunately, there are few photos from the rallies. We went around with push-button phones and left smartphones at home because the Russians stopped us at checkpoints and search our phones for photos,” explained Andrey.
“We participated in peaceful protest rallies in Kherson to support the Ukrainian state and government almost daily,” says Aleksey. “We didn’t throw stones at the Russian military like the children in Aleppo. We tried to protest peacefully. In Ukraine, if authorities do something wrong, we protest. When the mayor of Kherson failed to sprinkle salt on the icy road to protect residents from falling, we came to his office and dragged him onto the road to see how slippery it was. In Ukraine, politicians do not rule for years like in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. If something goes wrong, we don’t re-elect them. Our taxes pay their salaries. We say and think what we want.
“Ukraine is not Russia. We have no fear. When the Russian military was trying to attack a protester or shoot at someone, people would fight back fearlessly and not let them detain anyone. Of course, drop by drop, they try to squeeze this courage out by abducting and torturing Ukrainians.”
RALLIES: “KHERSON IS UKRAINE”
On March 13, the anniversary of the liberation of Kherson from the Nazis, during a big pro-Ukrainian rally at the Freedom Square, the Russians tried to hold a pro-Russian, separatist rally to support a sham “Kherson People’s Republic.” They bussed in about sixty people from somewhere out of town and put them in the Fregat hotel. Over 10,000 people headed over to this “rally,” at the Park of Our Glory.
“We were met by a convoy of the Russian armored vehicles. People confronted the invaders, ‘What are you doing here? Why? You are invaders!’ and openly laughed at them,” says Andrey. “‘Well, bros, it ain’t beating up grandmas in St. Petersburg!’ As we all entered a narrow lane, the Russians had to press their backs against the wall. I could see them close. Only one looked with hatred, the rest had fear in their eyes. They didn’t know what to do. They simply wouldn’t have enough bullets for all of us. They started firing into the air out of fear. The sham rally failed, just as their sham referendum will.”
“DENAZIFICATION”: THEY CALL US “NAZIS” FOR OUR DESIRE TO KEEP OUR IDENTITY
“The Russians keep talking about some ‘Nazis’ who hijacked the power in Ukraine and do not allow the country to develop, appropriating everything and other such nonsense,” Andrey says. “My aunt in Russia is convinced that everyone in Ukraine is a Nazi. What Nazis?! What oppression? There was no such thing! We lived well. The Russians call our president Zelenskyy ‘a clown’ because he is a professional actor. Our president is a true leader of our nation. In fact, politicians who are trying to please Putin act like clowns. Together, we all are one people, united, undivided in our desire to be free and independent. Our Armed Forces and the territorial defense fight against the invaders.”
Aleksey adds, “The Russians who apply fascist methods to everything from propaganda to military operations and to retaliation against the opposition. And, they present themselves as an army of ‘liberators from fascism.’” He quotes Ignazio Silone (1900-78), an Italian novelist and anti-Mussolini political leader: “The Fascism of tomorrow will never say ‘I am Fascism.’ It will say: ‘I am anti-Fascism.’
“We are Ukrainians. We have the right to our own language, our own culture and our own statehood—how does it translate into killing other ethnicities? They call us ‘Nazis’ for the desire to keep our national identity.”
“RUSSIAN PEOPLE BELIEVE WE ARE ‘NAZIS’”
“Almost everyone in Kherson has relatives in Russia,” says Aleksey. “These relatives justify the Russian army’s atrocities. They give us identical, cloned answers: ‘Lies! Our soldiers cannot possibly kill you! We bring peace to you. You bomb yourself. We are fighting not with you but with NATO!’ The most stubborn ones say, ‘It’s your own fault. You have bombed the Donbas for eight years.’ It’s just wild—when relatives, people with whom you lived, repeat these propaganda clichés, we understand how brainwashed the Russians are. They trust the TV more than their loved ones.”
Andrey says sadly, “Something happened abruptly, right before the war. My aunt lives in Russia, near Moscow. She told me, ‘Don’t worry, our guys will strike at the military infrastructure only and will just change your government. Putin is mad, but we are just common people and can’t do anything.’ And literally twenty days later, she is foaming at her mouth, screaming, ‘Enough already! Everyone’s against Russia! We need to destroy every one of you! You are controlled by NATO! They want to destroy Russia! Kherson should be spared but the rest of Ukraine should be razed to the ground. I’m worried about you, but everyone else should be destroyed.’”
Visibly angry, Aleksey says, “The European leaders claim that it is necessary to distinguish between the Kremlin elite and the Russian people. Wrong: it was not Putin who killed and raped in Bucha, Irpen, Gostomel. These were Russian soldiers. Ordinary Russians. The silent majority in Russia made it possible. I believe that all Russians are accomplices in these crimes, in this war for the total destruction of Ukraine as a state. We have seen enough. We must fight back mercilessly to end the invasion.”
“I stood in line for gasoline for half a day and heard this guy talking about experimenting with a Russian TV channel. In two days, they got into his head,” says Aleksey. “Imagine what happened to the Russians in thirty years? And that was an educated person! How does it act on people who are uneducated? That’s how zombies appear.”
He adds: “The Kremlin propaganda dehumanized Ukrainians and the majority of the Russian population, especially those with a low level of education, want to destroy Ukraine.
“The Kremlin flip their narratives constantly. When we win — and we will definitely win — the Russian leadership will say, ‘We didn’t lose to Ukrainians. We fought against NATO!’ They are already talking about it, justifying their defeat.”
“WE NEED MORE WEAPONS”
“It’s true that many Ukrainians thought that Europe and NATO would fight for us. Here is a simple truth—we have to fight for our freedom and independence ourselves. There is no other way but to fight, bear losses, suffer and see our relatives and friends die. No NATO will fight for us,” says Aleksey.
“We need more weapons and more sanctions imposed on the Russian Federation. Our weapons depots have been blown up by Russian drones, and we have nothing to defend ourselves with. Otherwise, the whole country would already be fighting, men and women. We evacuated our families, and we are ready to fight. We just need the weapons,” echoes Andrey.
No negotiations. No retreat, no surrender. This is our land, our country. No division. To victory.
—Zarina Zabrisky is an award-winning American author of five books published internationally, including the novel We, Monsters and three short story collections. Currently, she reports on the Russian war in Ukraine. Her expertise is in Russian information warfare. She is a regular contributor to Byline Times and other publications.
Photo credit: One of the men interviewed. Government building in Kherson.