Putin tried to assimilate a Ukrainian city. It backfired

Serhiy Bloshko, a construction worker, had lived with friends during the nine-month occupation, fearing arrest for taking part in anti-occupation protests in March, shortly after the arrival of the Russian army. Soldiers went to his house. Since they couldn’t find him, they ran off with his television and refrigerator, he said.

But the Russians found some of his friends, who were detained and disappeared, he said.

A Ukrainian soldier is hugged in the main square in the recently liberated city of Kherson, Ukraine, on November 13, 2022.Credit:Finbarr O’Reilly/The New York Times

“They oppressed the pro-Ukrainian population,” said Bloshko, who was interviewed in a line for water on Sunday afternoon. Of the cultural assimilation efforts, he said, “What happened here was ethnic cleansing.”

The way each army entered its city, one in February, the other last week, was telling, he said.

“When our soldiers drove in, their machine guns were pointed up, into the air,” Bloshko said. “When the Russians drove in, their guns were pointed at the people. That explains everything. And they said they were our liberators.”

Across Ukraine, the war was notable as a time of accelerated cultural separation of Ukrainian and Russian — the exact opposite of what Putin had been trying to achieve.

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Bilingual Ukrainians who spoke Russian before the war switched to Ukrainian. Writers in Kiev suggested closing a museum dedicated to Mikhail Bulgakov, a resident of the city but one who wrote in Russian. The mayor of Odessa, the Black Sea city founded by Tsar Catherine the Great, has said her statue will be torn down.

What began a decade ago, after Russia intervened militarily in eastern Ukraine, as a “decommunization” policy to ban Soviet-era place and street names, has extended to Russian cultural references. Cities, for example, rename their many Pushkin streets, named in honor of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.

There were no residents in Kherson this weekend who might have felt more warm to Russia’s assimilation efforts, which was not surprising given that many had been evacuated as Ukrainians approached and the Russian government encouraged residents to leave. Many local government officials had worked with the Russians.

Three days after the Russian army left, several hundred Kherson residents were still celebrating in a central square.

But there was also concern. Throughout the day there were occasional booms of artillery attacks in or near the city, and Russian troops remained nearby, across the Dnieper River.

Malyarchuk, the taxi attendant, said that despite the failures of the assimilation program, the occupiers persevered, publishing Russian newspapers and broadcasting a pro-Moscow local television news program. On Thursday, as they withdrew, Russian soldiers blew up the television tower to prevent Ukraine from now broadcasting pro-Ukrainian news to the nearby occupied territory.

Malyarchuk praised the Ukrainian army’s strategy of patiently demoting Russian forces and launching razor-sharp attacks on Russian supply lines and positions in and around Kherson for months while preserving the city itself. That approach, she said, also retained support for the Ukrainian government.

An attack by a precision-guided HIMARS missile, she said, had hit a Russian garrison in a residential area about 140 meters from her home, with windows blown out, but no civilians injured. “It was a beautiful explosion,” she said.

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“Thank God for America, Canada and Britain, and thank God for Grandfather Biden,” she said, pointing to Western military aid that helped Ukraine drive the Russians out of her city.

In the center of the city, a Russian base across a street from a hospital looked hollowed out from the inside by a direct hit. Only jagged remains of outer walls remained. But the blast didn’t even break the windows in the hospital itself.

dr. Ivan Terpak, a general practitioner at the hospital, said the strike had been worth the risk to patients and medical staff, and was needed to expel the Russians. “They wouldn’t have left if we hadn’t shot at them,” he said.

“Nobody asked me,” Terpak said, “but if they had, I would have said, ‘Go ahead and take the picture.'”

Along Ushakova Avenue, an elegant tree-lined boulevard that runs through the city, most of the buildings were undamaged.

Dyagileva said she sent her daughter to school only after making sure the teaching staff secretly remained patriotic, playing with Russian-appointed administrators, but not teaching the curriculum that was mandated. Teachers at other schools did teach the Russian program, she said.

Iryna Rodavanova, a retired curator of the Kherson Art Museum, said the brutality of Russian soldiers had alienated residents and undermined efforts for cultural assimilation. Soldiers beat her husband along the road after accusing him of a traffic violation.

“I agree with our president,” Rodavanova said. “Better without electricity, without water and without heating, as well as without the Russians.”

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Strangely enough, weeks before retreating, Russian soldiers took the bones of 18th-century Russian aristocrat Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin, removing a powerful historical and cultural symbol of the city’s ties to Russia. Potemkin, a lover of Catherine the Great, was considered the founder of the modern city of Kherson.

Father Vitaly, a priest at St Catherine’s Cathedral, said Russian officers had come to the cathedral from time to time because of the occupation to visit the crypt that contained Potemkin’s bones.

Soldiers arrived in balaclava masks and said they would protect the bones from the Ukrainian attack. Two soldiers carried the bones, which were in a charcoal-colored cloth bag, and two others carried the wooden box they’d been in for two centuries, Vitaly said.

“It was the most important remnant of our church,” he said. “But it is more important to them than to us. He is an important historical figure and a symbol of Russian imperial ambitions.”

Ukraine should ask for the return of the bones, Vitaly said, adding that Kherson residents won’t mind if they don’t come back.

“We don’t need the bones,” he said. “Maybe the next generation will even forget they were ever here.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.