“A city with a Russian history,” proclaim billboards across the Ukrainian city of Kherson, occupied by the Russian army since the first days of March. Others display the Russian flag, or quotes from Vladimir Putin.
Over the past five months, Moscow has appointed an occupation administration to run the Kherson region and ordered schools to teach the Russian curriculum. Local people are encouraged to apply for Russian passports to access pensions and other benefits.
The next stage of the Kremlin’s plan is a referendum, to add a dubious sense of legality to these facts on the ground, and create a pretext for bringing Kherson and other occupied parts of southern Ukraine into Russia, using an updated version of the 2014 Crimea playbook.
In a series of telephone interviews, people in Kherson reported minimal enthusiasm for a referendum, and described a nervous, unpredictable atmosphere in the city.
Residents remain unsure about what the next few months might bring: a swift Ukrainian counteroffensive to regain control, a protracted battle that turns the city to rubble, or Russia carrying out its sham referendum and annexing the territory.
“You have to remember there was never any talk in Kherson of a referendum; no one thought about it before the war. Now it will be a referendum at gunpoint,” said Kostyantyn, who worked in the IT sector before the occupation.
Even those who described themselves as largely apolitical said they were firmly opposed to voting in a referendum or joining Russia.
“I will not go to the referendum, of course. I don’t know anyone who will. I am not a political person and don’t have strong opinions on politics but it is clear to me that a referendum is not right,” said Svitlana, a former beauty salon employee who is now selling food items on the street to make ends meet.
Russian authorities have used intimidation to crush public opposition to their rule. A series of pro-Ukraine rallies that took place in March and April petered out after Russian soldiers shot stun grenades into the crowd and began detaining organisers at their homes.
In late May, the city’s internet was rerouted through Russian servers, and all local media has either been shut down or stuffed with pro-Russia content.
Now complaints about the Russians are reserved for whispered conversations in kitchens. Residents describe the formerly bustling city of 300,000 as a “ghost town”. The official curfew begins at 10pm, but few people go out after five.
The noisy protest rallies have been replaced by an underground partisan movement. Posters and flyers surreptitiously placed around the city under cover of darkness threaten death to those who collaborate with the occupiers. In June, an official from the puppet authorities was killed in a bomb blast while on his way to work.
Others help Ukraine by sharing information. One person with whom the Guardian spoke said he had responded to a Facebook post back in March, seeking people living in occupied areas, and now regularly shares information with a contact from the Ukrainian security services.
“I am not involved in any way in any underground organisations. I just pass on the information I see … which factories are working with the occupiers, troop movements, Russian banks I see opening,” he said.
The Kremlin reportedly plans to hold the referendum on 11 September. In June, the Russian-language news outlet Meduza cited three sources close to the Kremlin detailing a plan to hold referendums in four Ukrainian regions – Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson – and subsequently turn them into one new region of Russia.
There is a possibility that Russia will stall, hoping for military victories that bring the four regions under full control. Ukraine still holds major cities in the Donetsk region, such as Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, as well as Zaporizhzhia city.
According to some reports, however, ballots are already being printed. In late July, the Russian administration in Kherson invited people to put forward their candidacy as electoral officials.
In Zaporizhzhia, the chair of the regional parliament, Olena Zhuk, said she saw “many signs” that the Russians were preparing for a referendum soon in the occupied parts of the region. “Let’s start by saying any referendum would be illegitimate by Ukrainian law, by Russian law, by any law,” she said in a telephone interview.
Formally annexing more Ukrainian territory may not have been in the Kremlin’s war plans from the beginning. Putin’s goal appears to have been a lightning march to Kyiv and the installation there of a pro-Russia puppet government, which would have kept Ukraine as a nominally independent state in Russia’s orbit.
That plan failed, and the focus moved to annexing larger chunks of southern and eastern Ukraine. In the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, the Russians appointed Volodymyr Saldo and Yevhen Balytskiy, former Ukrainian MPs, as the nominal heads of their administrations.
Saldo fell ill a month ago, and was reportedly airlifted to Moscow in a coma, amid rumours of poisoning.
In Zaporizhzhia, Zhuk said she knew Balytskiy personally and was “shocked” that he had decided to collaborate. She predicted, however, that the Russians would soon have little use for him. “Nobody likes betrayers. It is a rule of life,” she said.
“These people are sent to the square in the first few days to say: ‘Russia will help us. We are all brothers’. But then in one or two months, when the people have been pacified a bit, other people will come and take real power.”
Lower down the chain, the Russians have struggled to find Ukrainian officials to fill the ranks of their occupation administrations, particularly while the future is so uncertain.
“No one wants to work for the Russians. They know it is a one-way ticket to hell,” said Kostyantyn, the former IT worker. Russian television sometimes blurs the faces of officials to ensure they do not become targets for attacks.
One of the most visible figures of Russian rule in Kherson is Kyrylo Stremousov, a former anti-vaccine blogger who stood for mayoral elections in 2020 and received about 1.5% of the vote.
While there have been disappearances and reports of torture, the situation in the occupied Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions is different to the full-scale terror that Russian forces unleashed in Bucha and other occupied areas closer to Kyiv back in March. Here, the Russians have tried to launch something of a “hearts and minds” operation in parallel to the intimidation.
In one recent meeting in a park in the village of Mykilske, Stremousov told a crowd, most of whom were pensioners, that Russia was here to solve their problems, promising an improved economic situation and also using Kremlin rhetoric about so-called “traditional values” in opposition to the decadent west.
“We want to return to the world where there is a real understanding of the word ‘family’ and not a perverted form of it, where everyone can feel like part of one whole,” he said.
The Russians want to open schools on 1 September using the Russian curriculum, and have placed adverts seeking teachers from Russia to “retrain” Ukrainian teachers.
The new administration has also renamed the Kherson National Technical University, dropping the word “national”, and has promised free tuition for anyone of any age who wants to study.
“We are doing everything to make sure we can open our doors on 1 September and our first students can start their lives in comfortable surroundings,” said the Russian-appointed rector, Halyna Raiko, in an interview for a pro-Russian television station in which she appeared visibly nervous and uncomfortable.
While nostalgia for the Soviet period and appeals to conservative social values may work on a segment of the older population, many people who remain in Kherson are hoping fervently for Ukraine to regain control over the city.
“When we hear explosions, everyone rejoices – it means Ukraine is coming closer,” said Olena, a 45-year-old mother, but she conceded that this prospect also comes with its own set of fears.
“We are waiting for the Ukrainian army, but of course we hope civilians don’t die during the liberation. We love our city and don’t want it to be turned into Mariupol,” she said.
There is a fear, though, that if the Kremlin succeeds with its referendum plan and formally annexes the territory, a Ukrainian counteroffensive would become harder and more dangerous, and a Russian crackdown would be on the cards.
“Everyone knows that Russia will fake the referendum results,” said one person who runs an anti-Russia Telegram channel from inside Kherson, who asked not to use his name. “They will feel even more empowered and start rounding up everyone who voted against.”