When Vladimir Putin’s troops first invaded Kherson, they marched into Eugene Chykysh’s hipster coffee shop. ‘They all asked for cappuccinos with four sugars,’ Eugene told me. Later, another Kherson resident says that the soldiers who raided his house took ten kilos of sugar from him. Eugene is one of the few Ukrainians in Kherson who even talked to the Russians. Most people I speak to say they simply avoided them, staying indoors as much as they could, and venturing out only to buy groceries from the few shops still open. It was like lockdown on steroids, they say, and with no Netflix to pass the time because the Russians switched off the internet. Putin’s 30,000 troops withdrew a few days ago, but many residents have become so isolated that they’ve only just found out that the soldiers have gone. Fear of collaborators is another reason residents give for spending the past nine months indoors. ‘You had no idea who might be helping the Russians,’ said Olena Arsenevic, a mother of three. ‘It’s best just to keep yourself to yourself.’ She has a point. I covered an anti-government protest once in Russia which was policed not just by menacing riot squads but by local criminals and thugs hired in as extra help. The Kremlin, by all accounts, applied similar tactics here, freeing hundreds of Kherson’s criminals from jail and putting them on its payroll.
Next to a subway in one corner of Freedom Square is a faded poster for September’s ‘referendum’ on whether Kherson should become part of Russia. According to the Kremlin, 87 per cent of people said ‘Yes’. However, Putin’s idea of a free and fair referendum is anything but. Propaganda leaflets warned of the dangers of the ‘artificial borders’ between Ukraine and Russia.