Today is the one-year anniversary of Russia’s brutal, unprovoked, full-scale invasion of Ukraine. To mark the occasion, Kyiv Post has collected 17 stories to try and convey the breadth and scale of the loss caused to Ukrainians caused by the Kremlin’s aggression.
I left Kherson for Kyiv in 2005. Back then, I felt a little cramped and bored in my hometown. The capital attracted me with its cultural diversity – from Kyiv, Kherson looked like a somewhat slow and even depressing city.
But for me, it will always be the place of my childhood and youth – wide and branching Dnipro, bright summers, quick winters, picnics in nature from spring to late autumn, the nearby sea, and, before 2014, the starting point of many trips to Crimea. It was the city where many friends remained and where my mother lived. Before the war, I visited Kherson several times a year.
On the morning of Feb. 23, a year ago, my first call was to my mother. She did not immediately understand my words “the war has begun” – she had yet to hear about the already destroyed Ukrainian helicopter base of in Chornobayivka. We agreed to call each other back in two hours. During the first three days of the war, I called my mother in Kherson every few hours and, after that, at least once a day for the next five months.
I was physically in Kyiv. But most of my attention was on Kherson. And every event in my hometown resonated with me. In the first days, the Russians destroyed the largest shopping mall in the city with artillery. On weekends, it was one of the most popular places for family time – game rooms, fitness centers, movie theaters, mini-zoo, McDonald’s, and various shops. My mother and I had bought a new gas stove there just a few months before. I still remember the video from the early days of the invasion, where confused people found on the street a lone, equally confused llama from that mini-zoo.
I remember another video: a Russian soldier tries to open the door of a home appliance store with a machine gun – there we were, buying a washing machine for our home, which is very close to this store; the Russian soldier failed to open that door. I remember almost all the videos from the city – hundreds of them. Two Russian soldiers are near a small church in Kherson: one is crossing himself with an orthodox crossing, and the other is doing a Muslim Salah – it is 15 minutes from my mother’s home. Another video: the Kherson Orthodox priest blesses the street a few minutes from my mother, trying to protect it from invaders. A day later, Russian armored vehicles surrounded by Russian soldiers pass on the same street. Sitting here in Kyiv, I watched almost live on hundreds of videos how the Russian invaders captured my hometown. Throughout my life, many different feelings were associated with Kherson, and for the first time, it was pain.
But over time, pride began to add to the pain – after the first small rallies against the occupiers, after a march of thousands by the city streets, after many hours of conversations with my mother, understanding that she and the people around her were holding on and not giving up; after the famous “Kherson is Ukraine” swept across the country.
The Kherson of my childhood was a very Soviet city. All the locals knew they lived in the city of sailors, with one of the largest shipyards in Europe, one of the biggest cotton factories in the world, and a huge cannery processing a record number of vegetables year after year. And if you see watermelons somewhere else in Ukraine – they are definitely from Kherson. On the coast of the Black Sea, 80 kilometers from the city, there are various boarding houses, sanatoriums and children’s recreation camps.
Then the Soviet Union collapsed. We welcomed Ukrainian independence with hope. All factories and plants of the Soviet era either closed or significantly reduced production. Although not very wealthy, Kherson lived. The Orange Revolution almost passed the city by – the main events took place in Kyiv, and in Kherson, the Revolution was supported cautiously and not by large crowds. During the next Revolution – the Revolution of Dignity – Kherson became one of the first cities where a monument to Lenin was toppled. And in its place, a memorial to the Heroes of the Heavenly Hundred was erected – right there, on the central Freedom Square, where last year the most massive rallies in the city’s history took place – against the Russians.
Before the full-scale war, Kherson seemed even greener than usual and much more interesting than 20 years ago. The fashion for third-wave coffee reached it, and some bars were as good as European ones. There were more concerts of modern Ukrainian music and festivals of modern art, and a restored airport was about to open with plans to attract some international low-cost air companies – in their everyday life locals demonstrated their Ukrainian and European choice.
Today, a year after the start of the invasion, Kherson is empty. The way to Crimea – the Antonivsky bridge – has been destroyed. It’s better not to approach the wide Dnipro because the Russians are on the other side. Almost all my friends have been evacuated somewhere. Mom came to Kyiv in August. After the liberation, the city experienced mortar and artillery shelling every day. And I feel pain again about my home.
It’s quite dangerous to visit Kherson today, but I want to – more than ever. To walk along the central avenue from the train station to the river, to drink coffee on the main pedestrian street, to meet my friends in their homes or under the Antonivsky bridge at night with some jazz music, to spend a few days in my childhood flat, where old audio cassettes with the music I grew up with are still on the shelves, and there are albums in the cabinets with old photos of our family.
And I know one day, I will return and be met by an empty, crippled, but free Ukrainian Kherson. Meanwhile, I just look at pictures or watch more videos of the consequences of the shelling, measuring the distance from the fresh explosion to the house where I grew up.
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