On Wednesday, November 9, as Americans counted their ballots, the Russians announced what everyone in that part of the world knew was coming since August: the Russian army was abandoning Kherson. The southern Ukrainian city, which sits at the mouth of the Dnipro River as it empties into the Black Sea, was once a shipbuilding capital and is still a strategic stronghold, one the Ukrainian army had had in its sights for months.
The city fell within the first week of the Russian invasion and there were rumors that some of its residents weren’t exactly mad about it. This was, after all, a largely Russian-speaking city that felt an affinity with Russia and continued to do so even after Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine the first time, in 2014. But after eight months of Russian occupation, Russia lost the city in more ways than one. When Russian forces arrived in the city, they shot live ammunition at those residents who came out to peacefully tell them they weren’t welcome. People of all kinds began to disappear—activists, journalists, politicians. There were reports of torture. Russia tried to absorb the city by blasting it with propaganda beamed in straight from Moscow, by demanding that schooling be done in Russian and business be done in rubles, not hryvnias.
And all it did was turn the locals against them. By the time the Russians left and Ukrainian forces swept in two days later, on November 11, the city celebrated, late into the night, for days and days. They lifted Ukrainian soldiers off the ground and carried them on their shoulders, they wrapped themselves in Ukrainian flags and sang Ukrainian songs in the city’s squares, they danced in jubilation, showing the entire world how happy they were to be rid of the army that had come in February to liberate them from Kyiv’s supposed neo-Nazis. They had no electricity, no water, no heat, no cell service, no internet connection, one man beamed to the camera, “but we have no Russians and I’m extremely happy! We can survive anything, but we are free.”