Things are disappearing in the Ukrainian city of Kherson at a rapid rate. Some are physical objects. Russian troops are taking away ambulances, tractors and stolen private cars. Cultural things are going too: archives, and paintings and sculptures from the art and local lore museums. Even the bones of Catherine the Great’s friend and lover, Grigory Potemkin, have been grubbed up from a crypt in St Catherine’s cathedral and spirited away.
Russian soldiers are ferrying this loot across the Dnieper river, to the left bank of the Kherson region. They have also been deporting local citizens under the guise of a humanitarian rescue mission. Others have refused to leave. A round-the-clock curfew has been introduced. Nobody knows how many of Kherson’s 300,000 pre-war inhabitants remain. According to relatives of those still there, the city is mostly empty, its ghostly fate likely to be decided over the next few weeks in a series of bloody battles.
Last Thursday, the Russian flag was taken down from Kherson’s neo-classical regional state administration building. The gesture prompted speculation that Moscow was about to abandon the city, which it seized in early March, paving the way for the Ukrainian army’s triumphant return. From a military perspective this would make sense, as the Russian contingent is effectively surrounded. At the same time it seems far-fetched Vladimir Putin and his generals would leave Kherson without a struggle.
Locals are unconvinced by Moscow’s machinations. “It’s probably a trick,” Alyona Lapchuk told the Observer. “The Russians are dressing up as civilians and hiding in houses.”