Kherson Was the First Major Ukrainian City Captured by Russian Forces
Almost two years ago, Russian soldiers and armor stormed out of Crimea with their eyes on Odesa. They had a roughly 200-mile push ahead of them, and they’d have to run through two major cities along the coast. They crossed the Dnipro River and captured Kherson after a fight with some isolated Ukrainian police and soldiers.
Kherson was the first major Ukrainian city the Russians captured in the war. Russian forces were stopped around Mykolaiv about an hour north and besieged the city. Months later in the fall, the Ukrainians drove them back down through Kherson and across the Dnipro River toward Crimea, where they remain today.
The scars of this fight are evident today along the road from Odesa to Kherson. At the end of that road, in this city on the Dnipro, the fight rages on with an unseen enemy.
The drive from Odesa through Mykolaiv and to Kherson is about a three-and-a-half-hour trip along the M-14 — which runs along the Ukrainian Black Sea coast, through farmland, and over estuaries and rivers. It’s the same route that the Russians took from Kherson toward Mykolaiv, and the same path they would have taken directly to Odesa if they had their way.
There are checkpoints all along the M-14, and they become more frequent when you’ve cleared Mykolaiv on the way to Kherson.
The physical scars of the war also become more common. The Ukrainians and Russians fought along this entire stretch of mostly flat and open road. The Soviet-style concrete bus stops that line the M-14 — the only semblance of cover along some of these open stretches — are riddled with bullet impacts. You can see why soldiers took cover behind them. I would too.
Each village approaching Kherson is more heavily damaged than the last, and the villages just outside Kherson are completely ruined. In these villages, nearly every home and building is missing a wall, roof or both.
An uneasiness pervades. It’s December and the sky is overcast. Everything is grey with the dullness of most depictions of the former Eastern Bloc in Western movies — everything you wish it wasn’t.
Kherson is the closest to the frontlines as any city along the coast, and the only one within range of the hulking Russian artillery pieces across the Dnipro River. It’s also one of the largest and most populated cities in the country within range of Russian artillery. The story of Kherson is one of artillery.
The Dnipro River is also a key character. The 1,400-mile-longriver is the fourth longest in Europe, and roughly bisects Ukraine in half from the Belarusian border in the north, south through Kyiv and several other major Ukrainian cities before emptying into the Black Sea at Kherson. About 35 miles north of Kherson is the Nova Kakhovka Hydroelectric Dam that was destroyed last year.
The Ukrainians have songs about the Dnipro River and it figures in myths and folktales. Much blood has been spilt in the Dnipro and along its banks over the last two years. The river’s mythos only grows. It’s also one of the few natural fortifications in what is an otherwise mostly flat country. Unless something drastic changes, it’s unlikely a Russian soldier will ever step foot again in Kherson or any other community on its side of the Dnipro. It’s extremely difficult to make a contested crossing, something Ukrainian soldiers know all too well.
But the Dnipro acts a natural fortification for the Russian military as well. It puts Russian artillery guns well out of reach of Ukrainian forces. The hulking Russian 152mm howitzers shell the city with relative impunity up 18 miles away across the bank. Ukrainian gunners engage them with counter-battery fire, missile strikes and drones, but they can’t yet physically push them out of range of the city.
A standard 152mm high explosive shell, model OF-540, weighs around 90 pounds, including just over 15 pounds of TNT. This is real deal artillery. Heavy stuff. The OF-540 shell is effectively the same shell that the Soviet Union used to drive out Nazi Germany from Ukraine more than 80 years ago. There are probably some World War II-era shells still buried around the Ukrainian countryside. Just the concussive blast in front of these guns as they fire could seriously injure you.
You’re probably dead if you’re within 75 yards of a 152mm detonation, and you can be injured from as far away as 165 yards. If a 152mm shell impacted or air burst dead center of 42nd street in Manhattan, anyone standing at the intersections of 40th to 44th street could be injured.
Here is a Russian Ministry of Defense video showing a Russian MSTA-B howitzer team on the left bank of the Dnipro firing at what the Russian MoD claims is a Ukrainian beachhead position on the occupied side of the river:
It seems the Russians are indiscriminately lobbing these shells into the city. They seem to have no regard for where they land, whether that’s on Ukrainian military hardware or on a group of civilians waiting for the bus. Can I say for sure where the Russians are aiming? Only they can. I can say that I didn’t see a single Ukrainian artillery system within the city during our two days there. In fact, I only saw a handful of Ukrainian soldiers here and there, most of them out for lunch or coffee.
What I did see everywhere were buildings and roads pockmarked with the scars of direct impacts and shrapnel impacts. I have a hard time believing this is the aftermath of poorly aimed counterbattery fire against Ukrainian guns. From what I can tell, Ukrainian artillery batteries are outside the city in rural areas and villages. If Russian gunners are trying to hit them, then they’ve got to be completely incompetent, because they’re off by several kilometers.
The typical routine: three or four shells come in, then maybe 10 or 20 minutes of silence, then another few shells. The sound of a shell impact reverberating through the quiet streets could make you sick. You hope that the homes near the impact are abandoned, that no one happened to be walking home with their groceries or waiting for a bus.
On our second day in Kherson, we heard a shell fly overhead but no impact — this means a live and highly volatile unexploded shell just landed somewhere in the city, maybe in someone’s backyard, maybe in the street or in their kitchen. The fuzeis damaged, the round is live, and it could go off with even a slight disturbance. Unexploded ordnance disposal teams are working around the clock in Kherson and its surrounding communities, but there simply aren’t enough of them or the resources to deal with new threats on top of existing mines and unexploded shells.
By sundown, the streets are mostly empty because at night, the drones and missiles start coming in too. The Russian Air Force gets involved as well and drop their guided bombs on the city. It’s been this way for 15 months, and some, days it’s been even worse.
During one 24-hour period last May, the Russians fired an estimated 539 shells, rockets, loitering munitions and missiles at Kherson. They killed 23 and wounded 46. Who knows when the next big attack will come? This is always a possibility.
The Ukrainian military in the fall pushed across the Dnipro and established a beachhead at great cost, in part to take out those artillery guns. The Russians have turned the flat expanses of farmland on the left bank into a hellish fortress of minefields, trenches and traps that run miles deep — nearly all the way to Crimea. Ukrainian officials said recently there were 70,000 Russian troops on the left side of the Dnipro, and pushing into that is about as nightmarish a task as you could imagine.
But until they push them out, the Russian guns will fire. The shells will fall. The buildings will burn. The people will die. The survivors will weep.
The whole thing feels incredibly personal. This is not like a hurricane or a tornado — it’s not an act of nature outside the bounds of human control. Someone made the decision to send every shell, drone and missile. And they could stop if they wanted to. They don’t know who you are, but it still feels like they’re specifically trying to kill you.
It’s hard to wrap your head around it at times. We’ve come to accept that people are killed during a war, but it feels like one big crime when you’re on the receiving end. Will the artillery team that fired that shell, that killed that woman waiting for the bus in central Kherson ever be held accountable? I doubt it.
The reality of life on Earth is that if you’re unfortunate enough to live in a certain place and a certain time, you’re fair game, simple as that. It doesn’t matter if you have nothing to do with it. One day you wake up and the laws of peacetime simply don’t apply anymore.
But Kherson is just safe enough that a lot of people choose to stay. This isn’t a city like Bakhmut or Adviivka. Those cities have been leveled and they’re all but uninhabitable. Only a handful of people refuse to leave their homes and the rubble.
You could even say that Kherson is in a state of “low-level” fighting compared to those cities in the east. One soldier I met in Odesa told me that staying in Kherson is a nice break from the frontlines, from being “in the asshole” of the fighting.
This situation forces a difficult decision for everyone there. Every day you play the lottery with your life as collateral. Will today be the day that a shell lands on my home? That I die freezing in the rubble before anyone can get me? That I lose a brother, sister, mother, father, husband, wife or friend?
From the outside, this may not even seem like a question at all. Of course you leave. Take all your things and get out. But it’s not so simple. Leaving may be a one-way trip for many people. They think about what will happen to their homes after several months or years without maintenance. They feel guilty. They think of their city, neighbors, their friends, their elderly family who can’t go.
If I leave here, I may never get to come back.
So every day you stay is a day you make the choice not to leave. Every day you weigh the odds of being killed or maimed by Russian explosives against what you know could happen if you leave. Kherson is a big city, so what are the chances it’ll be you? Plus, are you really going to let anyone drive you from your home? No, you’re going to stay.
We met Svetlana in her once-quiet neighborhood near the river, just by the husk of a university library. One day around 11 am just a few months ago, a shell directly impacted her home and destroyed everything in one shot. She was staying barely 20 yards away at her godmother’s home across the street at the time. This is where we met her handing out donated Christmas gifts to children and mothers of the neighborhood.
She brought over a handful of shell fragments to show, saying, “look how many.” She and her neighbors filled a large basket with fragments they gathered in the gardens and courtyards of their homes over the last year. For some reason, she smiled.
She said we should move quickly when we cross the street to her old home because we could be spotted by a Russian drone.
Her kitchen and bathroom are now debris-filled rooms with twists of pipes at the walls. Her living room is recognizable, but destroyed. The roof has separated from the walls. The house is beyond saving. She will tear it down, she said.
Her husband of 24 years and his childhood friend were killed by a shell just this week — in early February. It was probably the same kind of shell that destroyed her home. They were driving in a car, though I’m not sure where. There’s almost nothing left of them.
So much has been taken from the people of Kherson over the last two years. So much has been taken from so many people everywhere. But despite the efforts of those across the river, life goes on.
Kherson’s people are locked in a struggle against an enemy for which they have no kinetic answer — no counterpunch to the hail of shells, aerial bombs and other explosives gifted to them by their unseen enemy.
The Ukrainian military fights the war, but the rest of the people seem to fight the idea of war itself, pushing back against the universe’s attempts to keep them alone and afraid.
They go to church, out for lunch and laugh with the waitresses and bartenders. They stroll the aisles of the city’s only remaining open supermarket, kept by employees clean, bright and stocked.
They gather in a theater’s basement for poetry readings and performances — the main theater is empty because it’s too vulnerable to bombardment. But who can complain? The basement a place to get together. It’s one of the few places in the city proper where I felt completely safe. The theater troupe puts on performances for children. They meet Santa, tell them what they want for Christmas and sing songs. Some of the young ones don’t know what to think of him. Scenes that wouldn’t be out of place anywhere in the world.
Are they escaping reality? Or do they defy it? It could be either. It could be both. It’s not for me to say, anyway. What I can say, is that for as much as has been taken from them, they have retained so much.
For the time being, it’s of course good that people adjust and find ways to deal with the situation. You can’t run around in panic all the time. You just wouldn’t survive.
This is a matter of survival for them and for so many others in the world, but there is no excuse for those of us that are safe in our homes to become complacent with these situations. Why should we ever accept that people can do this to others? What myths do we have to tell ourselves to allow it? What sort of world have we allowed that a child shows more fear of a man in a Santa costume than she does of 90-pound artillery shells whizzing overhead?