This is an interview with Alexey, a 34-year-old born and raised in now occupied Nova Kakhovka in Kherson Oblast. Alexey and his family lived under Russian occupation from 24 February until 3 August, when they found a car and escaped to Ukraine through one of the few green corridors still available for civilians.
Alexey gave us an interview and described everything that was happening in Nova Kakhovka in the last five months, from the day the first Russian columns entered his city, to the moment when Alexey finally reached free Ukraine. He talks about Russian treatment of civilians, the FSB efforts to shut down the internet, the protests that took place in the area in March, and much, much more.
All names, relationships, and workplaces have been amended to preserve the anonymity of Alexey. All video and photo materials were provided by Alexey.
The details of Alexey were passed to us by someone working against the Russians on the Russian VK.com social network. They run a page on VK attracting Ukrainians who try and help fight Russian propaganda.
So, as you said, you were in Nova Kakhovka until 3 August?
Yes. At 5 am on the 3rd August we left in a car, which we agreed with some other people. We went to the Zaporizhye Oblast, as it was the only area with checkpoints through which you can escape with minimal danger of explosions, but it wasn’t immediate either. To reach it, you need to drive for 4 hours to Vasilyevka, Zaporizhye Oblast, which has the final checkpoints until you reach the de-occupied territory.
This is nearly 200km away from Nova Kakhovka. We reached it in 4,5 hours and then had to wait until they [Russians] will decide to let you through. They search all your items, so we only managed to leave the last checkpoint at 8 pm on the 5th of August. The last three checkpoints took us three days.
Are you safe now?
Yes, we are in the northern part of Ukraine now, I never left Ukraine.
You said the checkpoints searched people, were these the Russian checkpoints, and then Ukrainian?
While you are driving through the occupied area, any checkpoint can investigate any men of the conscription age to check documents. Out of 13 checkpoints, I had to get out of the car at 4 of them together with the driver, he is 35 years old, and I’m 34. They checked the documents, searched personal belongings, and once they even looked in my wallet, in every compartment, as if there could be something secret. Our women and children were not searched, but this is a matter of luck – if a checkpoint decided to search them, they would.
The final checkpoints are the scariest in the sense that while the column of vehicles is stationary, they [soldiers] decide whether they want to let anyone through. If they do, they’ll select the first 10 cars for checking, right on the tarmac, and you must take out all your stuff in front of them on the ground. If you have more luggage, chances are they’ll spend more time on you. We took as many items as possible as we didn’t know when the area will be liberated, so we were forced to take out everything, all 11 bags. It was complicated by the fact that on the third day it was raining heavily, and we were lucky to have some film with us to cover our items. The issue is that until the last vehicle in the column of 10 is checked, the column is not allowed in, but it is important to leave before 8 pm and go through two smaller checkpoints. If you don’t, you’ll be returned back to the checkpoint at Vasilyevka and you have to wait the next day.
We were lucky. If we were held up another minute… After this we drove through the grey zone, the grey zone is between the first Ukrainian and the last Russian checkpoints, the territory that is not properly controlled by anyone but is nevertheless under the danger of shelling. It’s a dirt road that turns into a mess after even the smallest rain, meaning you can get stuck. We saw half-destroyed houses with people still living in them, a few unexploded shells sticking out in the road, the same things you see on TV.
Driving through the dirt road area of the grey zone.
You stay in the column from 5 am to 8 pm. If you are lucky they can let you through in this period, so you need to get in the queue. However, you cannot stay there overnight, you must go to the nearest village and find someone who can give you shelter. Then you return in the morning. I have a six years old son so we would get up at 3 am to have something to eat and take a space in the queue. This lasted for two days, and we only managed to get out on day three.
Can you please say how many people were trying to leave? Was that a lot of people?
Yes. When we arrived [at the Vasilyevka checkpoint] on the first day, we were 168th in the queue at 9:40 am. The next day there were even more people. However, the Russians were not letting many through: on the first day it was 30 vehicles, and we became 138th, the next day – 100 cars, and on day three until 3:30 pm they haven’t let a single car through, so that’s how we barely managed to get out.
They check laptops, even after rain you need to go to their van and show the contents of your laptop. They plug in some USB stick and a mouse and quickly check it. People say your conversations can be scanned, there should be no symbols of AFU [Armed Forces of Ukraine], no explosions… It didn’t happen to me, but my acquaintances had their phones checked too. If you have any convos… one person from 10 of our vehicles was nearly detained for some deleted conversation on their laptop. For security, I logged out of all of my accounts, such as Google Chrome, for my laptop to be clean except for some movies and music. There should be nothing that connects you to Ukraine [and its symbols].
So, generally speaking, they are not against people leaving, they have no specific objective to keep everyone in the occupied territory?
Well… conditionally, yes. The nuance is that they are not hurrying, they want to hold you up as much as possible. In essence, to check all ten cars in the column it only takes about an hour, perhaps 40 minutes. In practice, they could let over 100 cars through in a day. But only once I saw them letting 100 cars out.
By the way, after us, no one managed to leave. By the time we passed the grey zone and were met by [Ukrainian] police who escorted us, it was 10-something pm. We were questioned, given food, and then taken for a night at a kindergarten. We couldn’t sleep too well as there were air sirens going off in Zaporizhzhia, and we, taught by the arrivals in Nova Kakhovka when the AFU were striking the ammo caches in June and July, were a bit frightened as there wasn’t anywhere else where to go. But the locals came and said the air defence was operating effectively, and in the morning we found there was an arrival to a neighbouring district of the town, though no one has suffered, thank God.
The next day we left on a train, also while the air sirens were going off.
Are the people still leaving now?
Yes, even more than before. After we left, there were several serious bombardments in Nova Kakhovka on 5-6 August by the AFU. The columns became 200-300 cars long instead of 160. And as we heard from the rumours, the Melitopol [evacuation] direction had twice as many cars.
Do people come back from Ukraine to Russia?
They do. As we were leaving the last checkpoint we saw some cars going the other way, but there were only four or five. From the information that we know, people do come back, but very few. It’s mostly those who couldn’t find a job or have spent all their money, although the living conditions in the south get worse and worse every day, especially considering the recent hostilities.
Driving through the grey zone – destruction all around.
The reason why we went via Vasilyevka was due to fact the that since May we were trying to find out about more or less safe green zones that didn’t see shelling, but there were none. The whole of Kherson Oblast is either a combat zone or… My friends who came to the north in April, they were leaving through Snigeryovka, which was a questionable checkpoint as it was difficult to get through it. They managed to get out, but the column behind them got under shelling from Grads, they barely left unscraped. For us, it would be frightening as we don’t have a car.
If you come back to the very beginning, before you left, you’ve been in Nova Kakhovka for five months…
Yes, I can talk about what was happening from day one. At 5 am on the 24th of February I didn’t wake up immediately, but my wife did and woke me up and said she heard some booms. I didn’t hear them as my sleep was deep, but she got me up and said – “Look at what’s happening, something’s exploding!”. We have a military unit located outside of the city, and we saw from the window something black burning and smoke coming out of it. We started panicking. She said – “Maybe the war has started?”. I said – “Wait, it’s not clear yet, let’s calm down, it can be anything”. We began searching for information, I spoke to my friends in Russia, and we figured the missile strikes started across the whole of Ukraine. They said… it was my friend, he said – “It is your president’s fault”. This friend left to live in Russia, he himself lived in Ukraine for 11 years and then returned. He said – “Hold tight there”, I said “Are you alright?”, we had a bit of an argument immediately, I told him I wished something similar came down on him, two kilometers away, so he also wouldn’t know what to do…
Then, at 11 am… we have community CCTV around the town, even though the town is small, but we could observe the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Powerplant [HPP], the circular highway… Then the information came through via chats that some vehicles were noticed at 11 am on the highway, approaching the HPP. We turned on the camera and saw tanks. We didn’t know these were Russians, we saw Z’s and V’s… Tanks, armoured vehicles simply going forward in a column, like on a parade. We started counting – a hundred, another forty, another twenty… I thought – what was going on? We rang the emergency services, they said “We don’t know what’s happening”. We called the police, the police questioned me, asked who I was, and took my details. This was Kherson police, not Nova Kakhovka.
Russian combat vehicles in Nova Kakhovka on the day of the invastion
After another hour we called again, and asked – “Guys, what’s going on, are these Russians?”. That was 11 am, they were already in the city, essentially capturing it! The police stopped answering at 12 pm. The Nova Kakhovka police vanished at 12 pm, an hour after the tanks appeared on the outskirts, entering the city.
So the civilians were practically left on their own?
Yes! Even more so, we had a unit, a brigade based in the city, which took part in the ATO [anti-terrorist operation; old name for the JFO – Joint Forces Operation] and had its base in the city, but for some reason on the 24th, it was not in the city. Only later do we found that on 19th February it was sent towards Kyiv direction, Irpen. It then took part in combat over there, but we had nobody. The Territorial Defence only had seven traumatic pistols. These weren’t even Territorial Defence, these were basically just volunteers. The city was captured.
On the 25th they already came and started putting up their flags. It wasn’t even one day, they came at 11 am and that was it. They marched 80 kilometers from Crimea on foot! Like on a parade.
What about Kherson? Was the situation the same?
No, it was slightly different, there were some formations of Territorial Defence in Kherson in addition to some AFU units, which allowed them to hold off the Russians until 1 March. On 1 March the Russians entered the city. On the very first day, they approached the Antonovksy bridge that is currently under heavy shelling and started attempting to encircle it. But the AFU gave a fight on the bridge, so it didn’t happen instantly. They thought they would enter Kherson the same way as it was a parade. So, they passed the HPP but were stopped by a gun on the other side. They never managed to cross to the other shore on the first day.
And then on days two and three, they began installing Grads in the city, right between buildings, in the evening. You wouldn’t see them during the day, but at night they would show up – it was getting dark early during the winter.
Russian Grads firing from Nova Kakhovka over the river on 28 February 2022
Where were they at night? Outside the city?
Yes, at first they used to appear at Belyi Dom, which is the northern, small part of the city, next to the Dnieper. They took a few buildings there, but that was it. In the first three or so days you couldn’t see them after the curfew which would start at 5 pm. On day three we started hearing launches of Grads, going out from the city. In fact, we could hear them very close to our home, since we live in the very middle of a quiet area of the city, so these fireworks were quite scary… But on the other hand, we could also hear the AFU gun firing from the other side. This continued until 28th February, and then the Ukrainian gun went silent, so the Russians crossed the river and all the hostilities stopped until April.
In April, I cannot remember the day but there was a firefight and an explosion at Tavriyske about 5 kilometers away from Nova Kakhovka. A few people decided to watch it and it turned out to be a firefight between the DPR and the regular Russian forces. Two civilians were casualties.
Right, so it was a skirmish between the DPR and Russians?
Yes! We have DPR here, some of whom speak Ukrainian, or “surzhyk” [a mix of Russian of Ukrainian].
Thanks. Can we return briefly to March, there were loads of videos of protests at the very beginning with Russians bringing out humanitarian aid and people telling them to get out. Was the situation the same at Nova Kakhovka?
Exactly, yes, in the first days of March the Russians started bringing in humanitarian aid. But to start, in the early days, there were crazy queues in pharmacies as some were afraid to open and the mayor tried to arrange with businessmen to stay open and let people get medicines. But the Russian military started coming with assault rifles and moving the queues and taking out all they could, medicines, groceries and leaving. They didn’t care what would happen to regular people.
In March, people started getting together through Instagram and local chats. On 6 March we had a large protest, I took part in this with my wife, I filmed it too. I don’t have much though, as I said I had to delete a lot just in case before crossing the border, as FSB could put you in a basement for something like that.
Video of pro-Ukraine protests in Nova Kakhovka on 6 March 2022.
How long did the protests go on for?
In the active phase, there were several protests in March but then the Russians realised it was becoming a problem and decided to run their own rally [in support of occupation] in early April, with Russian flags. The witnesses said the Russians simply had a few military people change their clothes into civilian clothing, placed snipers on the roofs, and stopped those from our group from approaching. One civilian was detained as he wasn’t happy about the Russian flags.
This is what they call “liberation”?
Yes, of course, liberation from everything Ukrainian. Before they completely shut down any communication and internet in May across the whole Kherson Oblast, they attempted it three or four times, several operators would shut down for a few days but then the comms would come back. Some people had to be on their balconies to catch the signal, just to have some connection with the world.
Right, so at first the Ukrainian operators were functioning, but Russians attempted to shut them down?
They did, several times. But they only had the final victory at the end of May. Right now, there is only a Russian network. Moreover, it’s not a regular operator like Megafon or Beeline, instead, they use some sort of a special data network. When you put in your SIM card your network is called 25/096, so it doesn’t even have its own name, it’s just a code… This network only allows 2G or 3G connection, if you spoke to someone and wanted to go on the internet you’d have to manually find the 4G network and connect to it. That’s the only way, otherwise, the internet will not work. It appears this network was made in a hurry and is not particularly sophisticated.
Russian patrol truck with Z can be seen in the background. People cannot safely take photos of anything in the city.
If you want to call to Ukraine, it depends on if you are lucky, it’s not consistent and it costs money. Topping up the account is not easy either, Russians started asking for your passport details just to buy the SIM card. You can have up to five numbers on one passport and some people made this into a little business by selling their allocation, which is more expensive but allows you to have a SIM card without showing your documents. This is how we bought it.
Can you tell me why didn’t you leave earlier? Why did you only decide to leave in August?
Look, the situation was as such: I lost my job on the very first day as my job is related to trading, and I needed constant connection with Kherson, Odesa, Kharkiv, and Kyiv. This link has stopped. Until June, we didn’t even have regular buses to the occupied Kherson. You can only move around the Oblast using your own transport, having to cross a bunch of checkpoints. So, my job was over.
Same with my kid’s kindergarten, it closed. My wife kept the state-run job that Ukraine paid for until July. They didn’t change the owners until that month, so Ukraine would transfer payment to the bank card, and we had to find people that could cash out hryvnas from the card, and that’s how we had to live.
So at first, aside from not being able to talk about Ukraine, it was liveable at the start, but then they started bringing Russian produce. But also, it was genuinely scary to leave due to a lack of green corridors. So we lived somehow, the kid had online Ukrainian kindergarten classes… so we survived. The wife attempted organising chats to promote the Ukrainian position, but with time the FSB took over the city around a week after the occupation, and they slowly started pushing, scanning the chats, and sending threats, some people ended up in basements in June and after.
There was one time in June when we went to the beach at Dnieper, there were some military guys sitting behind us. And we had Svetlana Tarabarova [Ukrainian singer from Kherson] playing on the speaker. We put the music louder to see how the Russians would react… Five minutes later, they didn’t like something and left quickly. And some time later my wife received a threat on Viber saying they know her details and she is being monitored by the local FSB. If she doesn’t want to go to the basement she needs to shut up and not say anything in chats about Ukraine.
How did they know it was her?
Well… You see, the city has snitches who slowly transitioned to support Russia, especially after the protest in March-April when people realised that protesting is dangerous. So the people started leaving, as I said some go through Sniheryovka, or Davydov Brod, all with a danger of getting killed by Grads… Also through Zaporizhzhye Oblast… It’s up to everyone’s personal risk, if people have a car, have money, they are more likely to leave. Since our income is quite low, we don’t have a car. That was another problem.
So someone must have snitched on her, especially since her job also had snitches, unfortunately. But as I said, in Nova Kakhovka the leadership team until July was Ukrainian, and the Russians didn’t bother them much. They would sometimes bring a wounded soldier, or visit a morgue, but it wasn’t too bad. In July they assigned their own head of the location, as well as a new chief officer who decided to collaborate with them. They said at a company meeting that the AFU does not exist anymore, almost everything is destroyed, and now only the Americans are fighting [for Ukraine], Russia is here forever, and people should get ready to receive Russian passports or they won’t be getting paid.
My wife went on annual leave in July. On 11 July the huge explosion at the ammo cache happened, you must have heard of it, where sodium nitrate went up in the air. We had to hide in the bathroom for two hours, we were so afraid to go out as the explosions were absolutely massive. We were only 1,5 kilometers away from the explosion. Even our balcony got partially damaged, for your understanding.
Yes, I wrote about the Russian reactions to this explosion…
I don’t even read their channels anymore, I had so many arguments with people, including my acquaintances. Some people are just blind, they take their position and you can’t convince them otherwise. Even more so, here in the north, the relationship is also quite different since this area saw almost no combat, the locals don’t even react to air sirens! They walk calmly on the streets, to me this is wild, I still have the memory of those five months, I still think there might be consequences and the “arrival” can be real, and there will be nothing left of me if I don’t run.
I understand… So, in July your wife went on annual leave and you made a decision to escape?
Yes, after this huge arrival we began thinking about how to get out, what information we needed, and which paperwork to prepare, find money, and find someone to transport us for a bit cheaper since it’s not free either. Some people who provide transport let you have luggage, others don’t. It was complicated by the lack of internet. For your understanding, since the Russians shut down the internet, people don’t want to use the Russian network as it barely works, and people search for places that have WiFi. Those who have a wired connection brought in through Crimea can have WiFi, such as in cafes. Also outside some people began sharing free WiFi. So citizens in the afternoons gather on the streets in groups just to check the latest news or download something from YouTube to watch at home. I could use WiFi at my wife’s work.
Right, so some people make money from transporting people back and forth?
Some do, but the majority just want to get out and pick up others for a small fee to cover their expenses, but this fee can range quite a bit. There was also free transport, but to get on that you had to sign up a month and a half in advance, but you couldn’t take anything with you aside from one bag per person.
Does the shutdown of the internet in May mean you’ve been in some form of informational isolation throughout this time?
I was looking for WiFi in any way possible in the city, I also used to go to my wife’s work as they had WiFi via Crimea, we would use VPN to access Privatbank which paid for my unemployment. We were looking for any way to collect some money and get the information!
I just wanted to add something. My father comes from Russia. His mother is from Russia. My mother’s family line is all Ukrainian, dad’s is half Ukrainian, half Russian, but mostly Russian. Therefore, I am at least one-third Russian. My native language from my birth is Russian, I studied in a Russian school and college. As for the Ukrainian language, I speak it alright, I can read it fine, but my mother tongue is Russian. My child is still Russian-speaking even though he has been here for a month! And I don’t understand why this all [war] happened.
I was born in Nova Kakhovka in the USSR, it’s my motherland, as much as I tried to leave it I still feel much more comfortable there.
What about the locals, is there any way you could indicate how many people in Nova Kakhovka support Ukraine and Russia? I realise there is never anything black and white, but could you give an approximate percentage number for the support of both countries?
Well, initially, in the first 2-3 months the support for Ukraine was high taking into account those who don’t mind either. It was probably just a few percent for Russia. But now, given that over half of the city has left…
So only the pro-Russian people have stayed?
Actually, no, not at all. If only those supporting Russia have stayed, the AFU wouldn’t be so careful and accurate with their strikes. My wife still has some contact with pro-Ukrainian people who stayed, those people continue helping the AFU, some help with adjusting strikes, and others are simply communicating with each other, happy about new arrivals on Russian positions, or taking photos of them.
Some of my family members are still in Nova Kakhovka, they support Ukraine despite being Russian. They don’t even know Ukrainian too well. They were forced to get humanitarian aid as they had no money for anything after the post office in Kherson was captured by Russians and the pension from Ukraine stopped coming. Internet banking was also blocked. You cannot cash out easily. They are trying to adapt… but they are waiting for Ukraine to return. They say it is fine if they get bombed, they haven’t much to lose. It’s both sad and joyful, on the one hand, you are scared for them, but on the other…
Does that mean you can generally say that people are waiting for Ukraine to return?
Yes! Right now, I think the ratio is about 50/50, since what started happening recently is that all this Russian propaganda began affecting people, and Ukraine has been gone for a while, so even if people get the smallest thing, it comes from Russia. Some people are losing their minds.
For your understanding, since June you have had to use a VPN for almost everything. To access Viber, you need a VPN. For YouTube, you need a VPN. This started slowly, but one after another these programs get blocked. Just Telegram and Whatsapp remain. Facebook, Instagram, you need a VPN. Even if I want to send a message through Viber, having found a WiFi spot, I still need a VPN! And the VPN I’ve been using for two years stopped working in July, it is blocked now. I had to search for other VPNs, some only work for 5-10 minutes, and others are completely non-functional. We had to fight with this all the time.
Can you tell me about the opposite, about the treatment of locals by the Russian military? You mentioned threats and such…
Sure, the situation was that in the first few weeks the military was raiding the city. From their position in the north of the city, they were raiding all farms and dachas. They took out everything in the area, everything, including kettles, and microwaves, all they deemed wanted. A few vehicles were stolen.
There were several families who didn’t stop when requested by the Russians, these were most likely attempting to flee via the HPP, two families were shot point blank. After that, the FSB entered the city, caused a stir for the military, and from what I know, gave them an ultimatum – either you treat civilians properly, do not steal from them, or you will be sent to the frontline. Since then, shootings and looting have decreased dramatically.
However, the FSB began their own work, they started figuring out how the mobile network is operating, and how to suppress it, and already on the 28th of February, there was the first attempt to shut it down.
Do you know who of the Russian military was present in the city? I’m not talking about units or divisions specifically, mostly about nationalities. Were they from mainland Russia, or Crimea, or elsewhere?
Yes, absolutely, we used to walk around town all the time, whether to visit my wife at work or simply go to the shop… They hang out in places like banks and shops all the time. They had all the nationalities that they show on TV! Buryats, Dagestanis, Chechens, I don’t know if any of them were Kadyrovites as I can’t distinguish between uniforms… We definitely had DPR people, Rosgvardia, and Military Police. Those who decided to collaborate with them were made police and wore regular Russian police uniforms. This is what we saw.
You said some locals are helping to adjust Ukrainian artillery. We often read in the past few months about resistance in Nova Kakhovka and Kherson, including sabotage groups of the AFU. Have you heard about this at all?
I did, but… it wasn’t very clear whether those were just some locals working with partisans, or if certain groups operated in a specific area, but it wasn’t obvious. The danger was that in Nova Kakhovka they began constructing headquarters of the 49th Army, as far as I know, so it was really dangerous. Outside the city, possibly, there were rumours.
There were some explosions in the city after the first few days when the Russian military moved on, but those were mostly from demining efforts. They’d bring mines in large numbers and detonate them for several hours a day, several days in a row. They used areas outside the city to launch helicopters, such as in a big factory with lots of open spaces, they used the city for coverage. The city still has hangars containing their vehicles, with the hangar’s door literally 50 meters away from residential buildings in the southern part of the city. The danger still exists for civilians, and the AFU know it is not safe to strike those. That is how the Russians cover themselves.
Photos of ammo cache explosions in Nova Kakhovka in June.
When the ammo cache in Rayskoye in June was struck, which is just a few kilometers from the city, it was so severe my friend’s house was shaking and trembling from explosions. Since then, the Russians rapidly began transferring all the remaining vehicles into the hangar on the outskirts of the city.
Right, so the AFU are trying to be careful with what they attack?
Yes. I think the AFU didn’t know exactly about the nitrates at the stockpile they took out on 11 July, and some people were frightened and really mad at the AFU, this is how large the explosion was. But that’s just a part of the population, and while we also got scared, we still understood what was going on.
The first time I really began thinking it was time to leave was when on 28th June, on Consitution Day, a missile was taken down over Nova Kakhovka which resulted in one person killed with their dog. That missile was flying very low considering the frontline was far away… in fact, a day before, the Russians were driving around the area warning the locals to stay away as the AFU were preparing to carry out a provocation, a shelling of the city. It was very suspicious. And when I saw the photos of that, and another five days later had a walk in the area, I saw the crater and realised – the war is now here, and every day since then I was afraid of arrivals whenever I left the house to see my wife. I was afraid the rocket might hit me and none of my close ones would know since there is no internet. Since 29th June, this thought never left my head.
I’m genuinely curious, it appears to me you are able to keep this positive outlook given this whole terrible situation, is that true?
I don’t know, I think my state of mind is bordering hysterical, and this positivity is just a way to protect myself… After I’ve spent five months there I remain in this sort of dissonance, not just shocked when people do not react to air sirens where I am right now. The shops must close by law when this happens but people don’t seem to understand. It’s a peaceful life here, but when I read Telegram I keep reading about that non-stop shelling in Kakhovka, and how the AFU are trying to knock them out, but these Russians like rams they keep bringing in vehicles, more and more and more… I don’t know if my relatives will survive, some of them left Kherson very recently, but many of my friends stayed in Kakhovka. Some have become completely desensitised, they don’t care anymore, they were surprised when I told them I was leaving! I said – “What is there to do? My son needs to go to school, do I need to wait for them to flood his brains with propaganda, that Ukraine doesn’t exist, that Ukrainians are nazis?”. Am I a nazi too, if I support Ukraine? Just because of that? While being a Russian speaker?
When it comes to the Ukrainian counter-offensive, they are advancing along the whole Kherson Oblast frontline, but you someone you know managed to escape a few days ago. As I understand, there still are green corridors.
No, they escaped on a ferry a day before the counter-offensive, and since then the Antonovsky bridge was shelled so bad that it completely stopped operating. They just made it. By the time of the operation, they were already on the other side. Russians do let through people with disabilities or frail people a bit quicker, those don’t have to wait unless they need to stay overnight until the checkpoint in Vasilyevka opens.
But before the ferry stopped going, you had to wait for it for six hours to get from Kherson to the other shore, since Antonovsky was practically dysfunctional. My friends stayed in Nova Kakhovka, but they don’t seem to care. Don’t seem to care to get a Russian passport, to get drafted into the Russian mobilised forces… I told them – “This is not Ukraine, you’ll be sent to the frontline like the DPR people, untrained”. But it doesn’t matter.
So it’s harder for people to leave now?
Look, we still have a Telegram chat for the people trying to escape. After the Kherson crossing was attacked, it is impossible now to get out of Kherson. There is nothing to cross the river with, neither via the Antonovsky bridge nor through the HPP, there’s no way. I mean, you can still escape from Nova Kakhovka since Vasilyevka is on our side, it’s more dangerous, and it’s very difficult, and it’s the only way. The danger is that the Russians are using Vasilyevka as a living shield since the AFU cannot advance through there without endangering civilians.
When you crossed the river and made it to Ukraine, what did you feel?
Well, at first, you know, imagine this – how long you’ve been using your mobile network? The network first started appearing in the car column, it was Vodafone. The signal was poor, but it still emerged around 15-20 kilometers away from the end of the grey zone. Next, I was able to make a call via the second phone which we used as a router with the Russian SIM card. That’s the only phone we used to call previously. But suddenly, you are able to make calls from your regular phone, you can use banking without a VPN, it’s like turning from a Neanderthal back into a regular person. I could use NFC, use my regular bank card…
When we made to our location, the prices were twice as cheap, except for vegetables, but it was all of good quality, since everything that Russia is bringing to Kherson, such as canned foods, and alcohol, it’s all terrible. Unless it was something from the occupied territories – they used to bring ice cream from Melitopol during the summer, and that was fine since it was a Ukrainian factory. But everything else from Krasnodar, from Crimea, was nearly twice as bad in terms of quality. It was “as long as you don’t die” type of food.
Only the canned foods were decent… in fact, the only way we managed to preserve ourselves in the three days while travelling, since we never bought anything local while in the column, was by having a bunch of Russian canned food with us, these are the only foods that were alright. And you need to eat in the column since it’s an empty road with nothing but fields around you, and some villages ahead.
I see. So as I understand, compared to Ukraine the situation in the occupied territories is close to a nightmare.
It’s getting worse and worse, like in the nineties. We didn’t have a mobile network back then, and while we do now, it’s terrible, like it’s from the early 2000s when the network was just being established. Before the war, it wasn’t amazing but you could still make a call easily outside and inside, but now you have to get lucky. If you have an older smartphone it is simply not connecting to mobile data, you need wired Crimean internet.
The other thing is that the Russians are forcing locals to pay more of the home bills, while in fact both gas and electricity are provided by Ukraine through the Zaporizhye NPP, yet they keep pressing the population to pay them for electricity. One that is provided by Ukraine!
I still can’t get used to normal life. The only problem is that if you want to call someone here, you’ve got the connection, but… you have no one to call. It’s a bit of a stupor, you’ve got everything but everyone important you left behind. I have friends in Ukraine, but it’s just a few people. I cannot call anyone just to have a chat.
So you are after all hoping to come back, right?
Yes, I really want to go home. But I want the home to be Ukraine. I don’t want this damned “Russian world”. I’ve seen it now. It’s sh*t. It’s unbearable, like the nineties.
I just don’t get how it works! Just so you understand, our city has a beach with a green belt around it, we have water springs with one you can swim in, the water is like mineral water. They used to clean it regularly for your comfort. Likewise, the beach would be cleaned from algae, new sand would be brought to the beach. Nothing is being done now. Nothing, at all. There are no lifesavers we used to have every year. Nothing. They need nothing, they don’t care, they’ve put up their rugs during the May holidays, the tricolours with Soviet flags, “70 years of Great Victory”, and that was it, that’s all they need. They closed all the grocery stores, found some entrepreneurs who agreed to collaborate and took over the supermarkets, and brought in much more expensive products than before. We used to be able to buy cheap foods, but now to do shopping we need to walk around the whole district just to find some cheaper bits here, cheaper bits there, or to find anything at all.
Same with cash, they introduced rubles in May, but there are so few that only now they started having the same value since there are no jobs. Only when you get some humanitarian aid does it come in rubles. Many still exchange them for hryvnas. People want hryvnas as they hope and believe Ukraine will return.
The Russian military still walks around the city, and you can easily spot them. During the summer, our temperatures rise up to 40 degrees in the shadow. All locals dress very lightly, and you can see Caucasians walking in full sports clothing like in the nineties. No locals do that.
Right… Is the situation quite similar in Kherson and surrounding towns?
It’s similar, but from what I know there aren’t that many military people in towns, mainly the FSB operating and doing all the dirty work such as throwing people into basements for having a pro-Ukrainian position, this started in June. It’s like back in the USSR, you can only have discussions in the kitchen.
In smaller villages where no FSB is present, anything can be happening. They rape and take away people’s houses. If you are wealthy they’ll demand payment or take away your home, or even shoot you. Literally, anything can happen.
Have you heard about people from Mariupol, any rumours of life in that city?
In Mariupol? Well, what I can say… from what I know, it’s sad. What they say in Ukrainian channels is mostly true. The Russians even tried bringing those resettled back to Mariupol. People left Mariupol just to not live in slums, since Nova Kakhovka was not bombed so badly, mainly windows have been blown out, but not everywhere.
But the Russians try to find and bring them back. It was wild. We now hear more from those in Kherson, if someone wants to find a job, Russians offer a job in Mariupol to clean up rubble in the city. If you want a job – go to Mariupol. You’ll suffer there.
I don’t know, I’m trying to remember. I used to ring SBU when we arrived here as my wife had some names of collaborators she brought with her on a USB stick which we hid while travelling to Zaporizhzhia. We called the SBU, and reported to them, hoping this will help somehow. I also went to the local enlistment office, if a request comes to be sent to the war, I’ll go to the war. If it’s needed, I will do it. Maybe I don’t have perfect health, I haven’t been in the army, but I’m ready. And I want to go to the south.
Are you not worried that during the counter-offensive, the city will suffer severely?
I know it. I told everyone – to leave, because nothing may remain of this place. I said – “dead don’t need properties”. They understand it, but not everyone has the means to leave.
Thank you. What do you think… will everything work out?
Yes. It’s just I’m worried about how long it might take, and what will be the consequences. I really want to go home. Perhaps it’s my local patriotism, but… For your understanding, we’ve gotten a bit wild here, since previously we’ve been forbidden from using Ukrainian symbols and such, but now we bought a bunch of pins in support of AFU, “Good evening, we are from Ukraine”. Funny thing, my wife told me to not buy anything as she’d pop into the shop later, but the next day it was empty, it was all sold out! The locals bought everything!
Where you are, now, is far from the frontline, but do you experience unity in Ukraine?
Here the people are united, “Russian warship go f*ck yourself!” is popular, they have stickers, flags… On 1 September we took our kid to the school, kids came with blue and yellow balloons. Some wear “vyshyvanka”.
When we arrived here we spoke Russian at first, yet no one cared. People of the older generation, fifty or older tend to speak almost always in Russian. Only youngsters more or less speak proper Ukrainian. At home, we almost fully switched to the Ukrainian language due to this, out of principle, to be able to communicate with locals easier. I’ve heard of a few cases when people hassled others for the language, but in general, it’s fine. I found a job here in a similar position, I speak in “surzhyk” here but all the locals do too. In shops, people tell me I speak Ukrainian better than they do! Certainly, it’s tiring after over 30 years of speaking only Russian, especially when it comes to more technical language, but I’m still trying, it has become my principal position.
I wanted to speak to you in Ukrainian too, but since it’s easier for you to talk in Russian, that’s fine. I’m from the south, we have an international city, we’ve got Armenians, Assyrians… we didn’t have Chechens or Dagestanis, but we do have Greeks who lived here for several generations, ethnic Germans who founded villages here in the 19th century, we have ethnic Swedes. There is one village 20 kilometers away, they have more than 40 nationalities living there for generations! And who cares?!
I used to live in the Donbas, near Mariupol, which is why this city’s history is now painful for me. I saw the city, it was a fine, fully Russian-speaking city. I’ve been there, it was great. I was actually quite scared when Crimea was overtaken in 2014 that we ended up too close to the border with Russia. Before 2014 I felt very well about Russia. I thought, if I never lived there, I can’t really judge, and couldn’t believe the news.
Even when the anti-terrorist operation started in 2014 it wasn’t as straightforward, I had a friend from Donetsk who served in the DPR, got injured, left to Russia and we lost contact. My position was not so clear-cut. I was more neutral than pro-Ukrainian. When the war started I made sense of everything which happened in the Donbas, it was eye-opening to me. I’ve been watching some pro-Ukrainian channels that showed the true situation in the Donbas, and I came to understand how it really was. My world changed on 24 February for the first time, and then again after watching and living it. And I started hating it.
But it’s not hate towards Russians, but to the Russian authorities who zombified the people. The majority of their population are searching for ways just to get by and survive, meanwhile, they are brainwashed like the Germans before the Second World War – “We are the great nation, and all the rest are nothing, and Ukrainians are actually Russians. There is no Ukraine”.
Alexey, thank you for giving us this interview, we really appreciate this.
That’s fine. I think I have some kind of an “occupational syndrome”, I want to talk and share, just for the people to open their eyes to what is happening in the south, since the people here initially didn’t believe we’ve had protests. But I was there, with my wife. People started leaving because of this. But it was all true.