KHERSON, Ukraine — Iryna Dyagileva’s daughter attended a school where the curriculum included memorizing the Russian national anthem. Teachers ignored this and began to greet students each morning with a salute. “Glory to Ukraine!”
Olha Malyarchuk was a clerk at a taxi firm and was asked by the occupation authorities to pay her bills in rubles. She continued to pay in Ukrainian currency, or the hryvnia.
“It just didn’t work,” Ms. Malyarchuk said of the Russian propaganda that was beamed into televisions and plastered on billboards for the nine months of Russia’s occupation of Kherson. She was seen walking through a park waving a small Ukrainian flag.
One billboard on the roadside proclaims in bold text “We are together with Russia!” Oleksandr, a teenage boy who only gave his first name, was the one who had taken down the sign’s support pole. He said that he was feeling the same way. “Free.”
After February’s invasion by its more powerful neighbor, the Ukrainian Army defied all odds and reclaimed hundreds villages and towns in three major counteroffensives, north of Kyiv in the northeastern Kharkiv area and now in southern Kherson.
But the city of Kherson stands out: It was the focus of an ambitious Russian campaign to assimilate the citizenry and stamp out Ukrainian identity — a goal President Vladimir V. Putin harbored for all of Ukraine had his military been more successful, judging by his assertions that Ukrainians and Russians are one nation.
Kherson banned national songs. Ukrainian speakers could be arrested. Russian curriculums were adopted by schools, and young students were to be informed that they were Russians and not Ukrainians.
In the early days of the city’s liberation, it appears that those Russian efforts were largely futile, at least among those who remained in the city as Ukrainian forces approached.
Serhiy Bloshko, a construction worker, had lived at friends’ houses through the nine-month occupation, fearing arrest for having joined anti-occupation protests in March, soon after the Russian Army arrived. Soldiers did indeed go to his home. They did not find him so they took his television and refrigerator.
However, the Russians detained his friends and they vanished. He claimed.
“They repressed the pro-Ukrainian population,” Bloshko was interviewed on Sunday afternoon in a water line. He spoke out about the cultural assimilation efforts. “What happened here was ethnic cleansing.”
He spoke of the telling way that each army entered his town, one in February and one last week.
“When our soldiers drove in, their machine guns were pointed up, into the air,” According to Mr. Bloshko. “When the Russians drove in, their guns were pointed at the people. That explains everything. And they said they were our liberators.”
Throughout Ukraine, the war has been notable as a time of accelerated cultural separation of Ukrainian from Russian — the exact opposite of what Mr. Putin had sought to achieve.
Bilingual Ukrainians who knew Russian before the war switched to Ukrainian. A museum dedicated to Mikhail Bulgakov was suggested by writers in Kyiv. Bulgakov is a Russian-born native who also wrote in Russian. Czar Catherine, the Great Black Sea City, declared that her statue would be taken down by Odesa mayor.
The conflict began a decade ago after Russia intervened militarily with eastern Ukraine. “de-communization” Russian cultural references have been included in the ban on Soviet-era street and place names. For example, towns are changing the names of their Pushkin Streets in honor Alexander Pushkin, a Russian poet.
Over the weekend in Kherson, residents did not feel any warmer toward Russian assimilation efforts. This is not surprising considering that many residents had fled as the Ukrainians closed in on them and the Russian government encouraged them to flee. Numerous local officials had worked with the Russians.
Three days after the Russian Army had left Kherson, hundreds of Kherson residents still celebrated on a central square.
However, trepidation was also setting in. There were occasional booms from artillery fires in the vicinity of the city, but they did not last long. Russian troops are still close by on the other bank of the Dnipro River.
The taxi driver Ms. Malyarchuk said that the Russian occupiers continued to publish Russian newspapers and broadcast a pro-Moscow local TV news program. Russian soldiers set fire to the TV tower on Thursday as they pulled out. This was so that Ukraine could not receive pro-Ukrainian information in nearby territories.
Ms. Malyarchuk credited the Ukrainian Army’s strategy of patiently degrading Russian forces and launching pinpoint strikes on Russian supply lines and positions in and around Kherson for months with preserving the city itself. That approach, she said, also preserved support for Ukraine’s government.
One strike from a precision guided HIMARS missile, she claimed, had damaged no civilians and struck a Russian garrison within a residential neighborhood about 150 feet from her home. “It was a beautiful explosion,” She said.
“Thank God for America, Canada and Great Britain, and thank God for Grandfather Biden,” She spoke out, pointing out the Western military assistance that had helped Ukraine repel the Russians from her home.
In the city’s center, one Russian base across a street from a hospital appeared hollowed out from the inside by a direct hit. Only the bare remains of exterior walls were left standing. However, the blast did nothing to crack the hospital’s windows.
Dr. Ivan Terpak (a family physician at the hospital) said the strike was worth the risk for patients and medical staff and was necessary to drive out the Russians. “They wouldn’t have left if we didn’t shoot at them,” He said.
“Nobody asked me,” Dr. Terpak stated that “but if they did, I would have said, ‘Go ahead and take the shot.’”
Many buildings are unaffected along Ushakova Avenue, a beautiful boulevard lined with trees that runs through the center of the city.
Ms. Dyagileva claimed that she only sent her daughter into school after ensuring that teachers were secretly patriotic. They would play along with Russian-appointed administrators and not teach the curriculum that was imposed. She said that teachers at other schools had taught the Russian program.
Iryna Rodriguezvanova, a former curator at Kherson Art Museum, stated that the Russian soldiers’ brutality had caused residents to feel disenfranchised and undermined cultural assimilation efforts. After accusing her husband of violating traffic rules, soldiers beat her husband at the roadside.
“I agree with our president,” Ms. Rodavanova stated. “Better without electricity, without water and without heat if also without the Russians.”
Oddly, weeks before retreating, Russian soldiers carried away the bones of the 18th-century Russian aristocrat Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin, removing as they left a potent historical and cultural symbol of the city’s ties to Russia. The founder of the modern city Kherson was Prince Potemkin who was a lover to Catherine the Great.
Father Vitaly, a priest at St. Catherine’s Cathedral, said Russian officers had from time to time through the occupation turned up at the cathedral to visit the crypt holding Prince Potemkin’s bones.
Soldiers arrived in balaclava masks to protect the bones against the Ukrainian attack. Father Vitaly explained that the bones were carried out by two soldiers who had worn balaclava masks and held them in a charcoal-colored bag. The wooden coffin was also taken out by two other soldiers.
“It was the most important relic of our church,” He said. “But it is more important to them than to us. He’s a significant historical figure and a symbol of Russian imperial ambitions.”
Ukraine should ask for the return of the bones, Father Vitaly said, adding, though, that Kherson residents won’t really 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.”
Marc Santora contributed reporting, Kyiv (Ukraine).