Last week a familiar figure returned to the main square of the seaside town of Henichesk. Dressed in a three-piece suit, and sporting his familiar goatee and moustache, Vladimir Lenin was back on his pedestal. A statue of the Bolshevik leader had been erected outside the town’s main council building. Flying from the roof were the Russian and Soviet flags. All in time for Lenin’s 152nd birthday on Friday.
Henichesk, however, is not in Russia. It is – or was, until Vladimir Putin’s invasion – a sleepy settlement in southern Ukraine. The town of 20,000 people has a house of culture, a long strip of beach and a Vegas-themed hotel. It also has new imperial masters: Russians. They arrived from Crimea on 24 February in armoured vehicles, rolling past a shimmering landscape of lagoons and dunes.
One woman was unimpressed “What the fuck are you doing here?” she asked an enemy soldier, in an exchange filmed on a phone. “You’re occupiers! You’re are fascists! You came to my land uninvited.” She then tried to hand him a packet of seeds. “These are so sunflowers will grow when you all lie down here. From this moment you are cursed! You are a piece of shit!”
Despite the wishes of its residents, Henichesk may soon become part of a so-called “People’s Republic of Kherson”. According to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Moscow is planning to hold a sham independence referendum in the southern oblast, or province, possibly as early as Wednesday. Grateful local voters will express their desire to “break away” from Ukraine.
That, at least, is the script. It is a model Moscow last used in 2014, when it instigated and armed a pro-Russia separatist rebellion in the eastern Donbas region. It staged pseudo-votes in the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, both of which became “people’s republics”. The Russian army is now seeking to grab further Ukrainian territory and to expand the “republics”.
Putin’s fuzzy war aims evolved last week after his unsuccessful attempt to seize Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. There is now little talk of his original objective: to “de-Nazify” and to “de-militarise” Ukraine and its leadership. Instead, Russian generals speak openly about conquest. The invasion has become a grandiose colonial project to reshape Europe’s map and to steal Ukraine’s coast.
The new apparent goal is to create a land corridor stretching from the separatist east along the sea of Azov to Crimea. This would include the Black Sea ports of Odesa and Mykolaiv, future targets once the battle for Donbas is won. The corridor would link up with Transnistria, a breakaway Soviet-style territory in Moldova that is already home to Russian “peacekeepers”.
In the meantime, the Kremlin is consolidating control in Henichesk and other southern areas. Its tactics are intimidation, and co-option for those willing to serve Russian interests. Ukrainian officials, activists and journalists are being arrested. Some disappear. In the city of Kakhovka hostages are beaten and tortured with electric shocks in a police station, according to Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman.
The new authorities have shut down independent media outlets and turned off Ukrainian TV. They have switched on Russian propaganda channels broadcasting from Crimea. The message: life has improved with the arrival of Russian forces. “We are in an information vacuum,” one resident said. She added that there was no internet for week-long periods.
Meanwhile, a purge of Ukrainian politicians is under way. The mayor of Henichesk, Oleksandr Tulupov, was last seen on 9 March. He and his colleagues posed for a photo in the town park next to a statue of Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s national poet. It was Shevchenko’s birthday. It is unclear if the mayor has shared the fate of other elected officials who have been abducted.
Last month, the Russians hacked Henichesk’s municipal website and announced Tulupov had voluntarily “resigned”. They replaced him with a new mayor, Gennady Sivak, who had lived in annexed Crimea for eight years. In the occupied city of Kherson, Moscow appointed as mayor a Russian deputy from Putin’s ruling United Russia party, Igor Kastsyukevich.
Residents told the Observer there had been a full-blown campaign to erase Ukraine’s national identity. Ukrainian flags have been ripped from civic buildings. In Melitopol teachers are being forced to use Russian and to teach the Kremlin’s school curriculum. The authorities have said some may need to be “retrained” in Crimea. Russian “military police” units have destroyed Ukrainian literature and textbooks.
The historian Anne Applebaum said the Russian government’s methods in Ukraine were darkly familiar. Today’s Moscow is replicating what Soviet forces did in occupied Poland, the Baltic states and the rest of central Europe in 1939, as well as at the end of the second world war. It was an “eerily precise repeat of the NKVD [Soviet secret police] and Red Army’s behaviour,” she said.
She added: “They have lists of people to arrest – mayors, museum directors, local leaders of all kinds. They systematically rape and murder civilians, in order to create terror. They deport other people en masse to Russia, to enhance their own depleted population. They eradicate local symbols – statues, flags, monuments – and put up their own.”
Applebaum said there was “one new twist” in Russia’s takeover of southern and eastern Ukraine, now the scene of a brutal battle for the Donbas. “Because modern Russia stands for nothing except corruption, nihilism, and Putin’s personal power, they have brought back Soviet flags as well as Lenin statues to symbolise Russian victory,” she said.
Ukraine removed its Lenin statues in 2014, in the wake of the Maidan revolution. Monuments vanished from squares in Kharkiv, Kyiv and elsewhere. Communist slogans were banned under “decommunisation” laws passed by Ukraine’s parliament. Henichesk and other occupied areas are now seeing forced “recommunisation”. Or, put another way, they are going back to the USSR.
Yurii Sobolevskyi, a first deputy chairman in Kherson’s regional council, said the Russian “orcs” were putting up communist-era memorials and “moving to the past”. This was taking place against the backdrop of a worsening humanitarian crisis, the strict suppression of dissent and a clampdown on anyone who expressed a pro-Ukrainian political stance, he said.
He added: “Their motive is absolutely transparent. They try to parasite on the nostalgic sentiments of the population. The problem is that these almost don’t exist in the [Kherson] area. Our people live in the present and have a very real and successful future. But the occupiers don’t understand. Therefore, the ‘USSR show’ will go on until Ukraine’s armed forces liberate our territory.”
Marina – a woman living in the occupied southern port of Berdyansk – said the city’s new overlords were planning to stage a Red Square-style victory parade on 9 May. “It’s like a terrible dream. I was a pioneer and in the Komsomol [communist youth organisation]. I don’t miss Lenin,” she said. “It’s the same scenario here as in the Donbas eight years ago. They’ve come up with nothing new.”
Within hours of arriving, the Russians had seized the local TV station and taken over its newspaper, she said. They raided the passport office and stole personal data. Soldiers demanded documents at checkpoints. Russian armoured vehicles marked with a Z drove past regularly, she added. Food was available, but Berdyansk was practically out of medicine. Humanitarian deliveries from Ukrainian-controlled areas had ceased.
Most southern residents opposed Russia’s takeover, she said. Nonetheless, the Kremlin has found some locals willing to collaborate. The new “mayor” of Mariupol is a veteran politician from the pro-Russian Opposition Bloc party. Vadym Boichenko, the real mayor, said his counterpart had advised the Russians which infrastructure targets to shell.
Collaboration, however, can be dangerous. On Wednesday, Valery Kuleshov, a pro-Russian activist and blogger, was shot dead in Kherson. He had left his apartment block at 8.15am and climbed into his grey Mazda. It’s unclear who raked the front of his car with automatic gunfire. Valery Kim, the mayor of Mykolaiv, said it was impossible to stop patriotic citizens from taking out “traitors”.
For now, residents can attempt to travel from Russian zones into Ukrainian-controlled territory. There is no guarantee they will escape. Yulia – a woman from Berdyansk – said soldiers took her uncle from his car and threatened to shoot him in the knee. “They said he was a Nazi,” she said. The doctor husband of a friend of hers was taken away at a checkpoint, she added, and disappeared.
Yulia said the popular “mood was against Russia”. This was especially true among younger people. She conceded, though, that Russian TV was beginning to have an effect on pensioners who grew up in the Soviet Union. “My husband’s grandfather told us the Russians weren’t bombing Kharkiv. He watched Russian news. It was difficult to convince him this was a lie,” she said.
It seems the Kremlin is not planning to leave southern Ukraine any time soon. A new stamp being used by Berdyansk’s “military-civilian administration” says the port is part of “Russia”. There are plans to replace the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, with the rouble – and, ominously, to forcibly conscript men to fight on the Russian side against Ukraine’s army.
In his latest video address, President Zelenskiy urged residents in occupied areas to “cause trouble” and said they should not take part in Moscow’s voting “show”. Initially hundreds of pro-Ukrainian protesters took to the streets of Kherson, waving blue and yellow flags. One man stood in front of a tank. Acts of resistance continue. In Melitopol a passer-by tore down a Russian flag.
More recently Russian soldiers have violently dispersed rallies with teargas and live rounds. The protests have become fewer. It is only a matter of time before the “green corridors” allowing locals to flee occupation are closed down. The Russian army has reportedly mined the main road leading north of Kherson, to prevent a Ukrainian counter-attack.
Back in Henichesk, the Lenin statue looks set to stay. His unlikely comeback speaks to the ideological vacancy at the heart of Putin’s imperial project on the borderlands of Europe. In an essay last summer, Russia’s president blamed Lenin and his associates for creating Ukraine by making it in 1922 an autonomous socialist republic – an act which deprived Russia, he said, of its “historical lands”.
“They don’t understand what they are doing,” Marina from Berdyansk said of her Russian occupiers. “Our local chats were flooded with an invitation to a cultural event celebrating Lenin’s birthday. We didn’t go.”