Inside the occupied towns and cities of Ukraine, where Russia is trying to scrub any hint of their history

·4-min read
Inside the occupied towns and cities of Ukraine, where Russia is trying to scrub any hint of their history
A woman with her child walks past a Russian soldier at an embankment of the Black Sea in Kherson, Kherson region, south Ukraine, Friday, May 20, 2022.
A woman with a child walks past a Russian soldier in Kherson, Ukraine.AP Photo
  • Russia has seized much of eastern Ukraine in its invasion of the country.

  • It is changing life and removing references to Ukraine there, introducing Russian passports and money.

  • People have been interrogated in their homes and are afraid to go outside.

Russia is determined to scrub references to Ukraine in the areas of the country it has seized.

Russia, which launched its invasion on February 24, failed in its early goals to quickly take over the capital, Kyiv, deciding in late March to regroup and focus its efforts on the east instead.

For those living there, that means fear, intimidation, and changes to their ways of life, from their money to their internet access.

Russian troops guard an entrance of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Station, a run-of-the-river power plant on the Dnieper River in Kherson region, southern Ukraine, Friday, May 20, 2022, during a trip organized by the Russian Ministry of Defens
Russian troops guard an entrance of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Station on Dnieper River in Kherson region, Ukraine, on May 20, 2022.AP Photo

Making Ukrainians Russian

In the southern cities of Kherson and Melitopol, which was the first major city Russia took, Russia started giving people Russian passports.

Ukraine's foreign ministry reacted to this in May by calling it "a gross violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, norms, and principles of international humanitarian law."

It said this "illegal passportization" was taking place in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, Crimea, and occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk, the separatist-run regions that Russia recognized as independent states before invading.

Ukraine said the passports were further evidence of Russia's goal to be "the conquest of Ukrainian territories for their further occupation and integration into Russia's legal, political and economic space."

In May, Russian President Vladimir Putin also approved a system to fast-track Russian citizenship for people living in occupied Ukraine.

Russia has also introduced the ruble, its own currency, to the Kherson region and other cities in the east and south, in an effort to replace the Ukrainian hryvnia.

Changing politics

Russia has also replaced Ukrainian mayors.

It said earlier this week that it had detained the mayor of Kherson. In March, it also installed a new mayor in Melitopol after abducting the incumbent.

An official in Kherson's new, Russia-backed administration also told Reuters that preparations had begun for a referendum on whether the region should join Russia.

This was a scenario that Western intelligence officials had long worried about, with the US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe warning in May that it could give further Russian annexation a "veneer of democratic or electoral legitimacy."

Fear of torture

People remaining in the cities report a heavy Russian troop presence, and people who had left said they were tortured after they spoke out about Russian occupation.

People in Russian-occupied areas also fear going outside as they are afraid of the soldiers, the BBC reported.

And reports from Ukrainians in Russia-occupied Ukraine are becoming less frequent as Russia imposes brutal new laws, interrogates people, and takes over the internet, imposing its own surveillance and censorship.

But such changes had been taking place since early in Russia's invasion.

The Guardian reported in March that protests against Russia were shut down, with one resident of Nova Kakhovk, in Kherson Oblast, telling the paper that Russian authorities threatened to cut off water and electricity supplies if there were any more demonstrations.

People wave Ukrainian flags during a rally against the Russian occupation in Svobody (Freedom) Square in Kherson, Ukraine, Saturday, March 5, 2022.
People wave Ukrainian flags during a rally against the Russian occupation in Svobody (Freedom) Square in Kherson on March 5, 2022.AP Photo/Olexandr Chornyi

Culture targeted

In April, Russian officials in occupied areas started replacing Ukrainian media with its own, turning off Ukrainian news programs and turning on pro-Russian content instead, the BBC reported.

The month before, Russian soldiers in the southeastern city of Berdyansk patrolled the city, and local radio stations started playing Soviet ballads and pro-Russia propaganda, The Guardian reported.

The Russians also detained 50 employees of a Ukrainian news outlet located in the city for five hours that month, the BBC reported.

One journalist told the broadcaster that Russia threatened them to reveal the details of pro-Ukraine activists and soldiers in the area, as well as to put Russian propaganda on their stations.

A school principal told CNN in April that they searched her home for Ukrainian school textbooks, holding her daughter at gunpoint in the process.

For those left in Russia-occupied Ukraine, this is the new way of life.

Many of those who remain are there as they cannot leave, as Angelique Appeyroux, head of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Ukraine told Politico in June.

"Many of the people who have remained in their homes even as the fighting approached simply had no way to leave."

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