By Anna Vlasenko Global News
Published November 18, 2022
4 min read
KHERSON, Ukraine — The first yellow and blue flags went up in Kherson at about 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, as the Ukrainian army was on its way to end the Russian occupation.
It had been 256 days since Ukraine’s flag had flown over the city.
During that time, residents were forced to hide their Ukrainian identity from the soldiers sent by President Vladimir Putin to annex Kherson and make it a part of Russia.
They lived under constant fear, and even avoided speaking Ukrainian, said Olena Poliakova, a 21-year-old student who remained in Kherson throughout the occupation.
“Ukrainian language and symbols started to be forbidden in the city,” she said in an interview.
“No one was happy to see Russians here.”
Poliakova experienced the suppression first hand. Russian soldiers inspected her phone no less than four times, she said.
“They checked all my messages, photos. They looked for any connection with Ukraine.”
She was “very scared” when they first took her phone, fearing they would find the Ukrainian songs she listened to, she said. “Thankfully they didn’t open that app.”
The mood changed as soon as the Russians departed last week, ordered by the Kremlin to withdraw across the Dnipro River in the face of a Ukrainian advance.
The Russian signs erected following the invasion were quickly torn down, and locals dug up their Ukrainian flags and gathered at Nebesna Sotnya square.
Four days later, people were still pouring into the square, waving small hand-held flags and wearing larger ones over their shoulders. They hugged the soldiers and took photos of them.
The victory was hard-earned.
Olena Litvinova said five of her friends were taken from their homes with bags over their heads. The Russians held them for for 48 days and beat them, she said.
“They said one of them was a military spotter,” she said.
The conflict with Russia has shadowed Litvinova. She moved to Kherson when the Russians took over Ukraine’s Donetsk region in 2014, she said.
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After the Russians rolled their tanks into Kherson, she said she felt the pressure to suppress her Ukrainian identity.
“At the beginning we didn’t hide anything, but when soldiers started walking into buildings and searching, we took our gold, documents and Ukrainian flags to a safer place,” she said.
Those days are over now. Walking in the city this week with her husband and daughter, Olena Yankovska proudly wore a Ukrainian ribbon on her bag.
She made it herself out of one her daughter’s ribbons “to show my support for our liberation,” she said.
During the months of occupation, the family steered clear of the Russians. To avoid getting dragged into a sham referendum staged by Moscow, they did not show their passports or disclose their surnames.
“We didn’t take Russian SIM cards. If we took them, we will need to leave a copy of our documents with them, which we didn’t want to do,” said Olena’s husband, Oleh.
In order to collect pensions, social benefits or humanitarian aid, residents had to give the Russian administration their personal information, which was later used during the referendum on joining Russia, he said.
“From our circle, no one went to vote. And the referendum happened unexpectedly for us. We received information that it would happen only one day before,” he said.
The Russians tried to introduce their currency, the ruble, in the city but had little success aside from at the larger shopping centres. As soon as the Russians announced their retreat, the ruble was removed from price tags.
“We believed that Kherson would be liberated,” he said. “Yes, it was hard for us, especially during last months, when it was almost not possible to withdraw (Ukrainian) hryvna or pay with it.”
Between 80 to 90 per cent of the couple’s friends lost their jobs because of the occupation, and a 60-year-old woman was detained because two of her sons were police officers, he said.
“When she came back, she didn’t say anything about what they did with her,” he added.
Olena said that since liberation, she had never seen as many happy faces.
Mykola Lysytsyn, who came to the city centre with his girlfriend to celebrate, said his brother Leonid was the first to raise a Ukrainian flag in the square last Friday.
It was Leonid’s birthday, and the flag raising was “the biggest present to my brother,” he said.
“I am proud that I was among eight people who removed Russian flags,” Lysytsyn said. “It’s rags.”
He said that for a time, Ukrainians had been forced to comply with the Russians and “dance to their tune, but it won’t happen anymore. Our soldiers in the city.”
“We can be free again,” he said.