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Some in Ukraine’s Russian-occupied southern cities take to the streets in show of defiance

“We have become braver and stronger than on the first day,” said Vanda Chernyshova. “We want to show that Kherson is Ukraine.” 
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Russian soldiers occupy Vanda Chernyshova’s hometown of Kherson in southern Ukraine. Now she and other residents are determined to show where their loyalties lie.

Chernyshova, 28, was among the hundreds who faced off with the Russian invaders to protest the war. Videos shared on social media last week and verified by NBC News showed crowds marching in Kherson, as well as in Nova Kakhovka and Melitopol in Ukraine’s south, carrying flags and shouting “go home” to the Russian troops. 

“It was scary,” said Chernyshova, who works stints as a receptionist on international cruise ships, of the protests in which she has taken part. “You just don’t know what to expect from them.”

A military tank is seen on a street of Kherson
A tank on a street in Kherson, Ukraine, earlier this month.Video obtained by Reuters

She was among the protesters who took to the streets in Kherson on Monday. She said the crowd marched toward the city council building now under Russian control, stopping within about 550 yards of the Russian soldiers. The Russians, who she said were armed and masked, did not move although some filmed the protesters, she added. 

Such protests strike at the heart of Russia’s stated reason for invading Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin has used the pretext of protecting Russian speakers from what he termed “genocide” and oppression by the government in Kyiv to justify his invasion of Ukraine. 

Chernyshova, a Russian speaker, and others were angered and alarmed by reports in the Russian state media suggesting that the residents of Kherson — a city of almost 300,000 that is a two-hour drive from Russian-annexed Crimea — welcomed the invading troops. This allegation shocked and angered many in the city who fear Russia will try to annex the region, where many people are bilingual but speak Russian as their first language.

Protests are now being planned every day in Kherson, Chernyshova said, and she plans to attend more in the future, although she understands the risks of showing her allegiance to Ukraine in a city full of Russian troops. 

“We have become braver and stronger than on the first day,” she said. “We want to show that Kherson is Ukraine.” 

The danger to protesters like Chernyshova becomes clearer every day. 

On Wednesday, Kherson Mayor Ihor Kolykhayev said the Russian forces have been tightening their control over the city. 

They had detained pro-Ukrainian activists and seized Kherson’s TV towers, giving them control over what information gets transmitted, he said. With food and medical supplies dwindling, he said the Russians have moved in humanitarian aid and some locals have started taking it out of desperation. 

People gather for a ceremony to mark Unity Day in Kherson, Ukraine, on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. (Brendan Hoffman/The New York Times)
Citizens gather for a ceremony to mark Unity Day in Kherson, Ukraine, on Feb. 16. The holiday was created by President Volodymyr Zelensky to mark the day that U.S. intelligence said could mark the start of a Russian invasion. Brendan Hoffman / The New York Times / Redux

He added that the Russians had also been trying to persuade residents that the only safe way for them to avoid catastrophe was to go to Crimea, which is controlled by Russia, while not allowing exit corridors into Ukrainian territory. 

Ukrainians throughout the country have taken strength from the show of defiance, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy

“In the south of our country, such a national movement has unfolded, such a powerful manifestation of Ukrainianness that we have never seen in the streets and squares there,” he said in a video address Monday. “And for Russia, it’s like a nightmare.”

Some 130 miles east of Kherson is another largely Russian-speaking city —  Melitopol in the Zaporizhzhya region — now also occupied by the Russian troops.

Ukrainian officials said Saturday that Ivan Fedorov, the mayor of the besieged city, was captured by Russian forces and later large crowds gathered to demand his release.

Unlike Kherson, the city has been spared and homes not shelled, resident Diana Karavai, 20, said by phone Tuesday. Still, she said, she’s had to hide in her bathroom with her family in case shelling begins at night. There are severe food shortages in the city and looting is commonplace, she said. 

Like Kherson, though, residents of Melitopol have declared their allegiance to Ukraine.

Videos verified by NBC News showed people in the city yelling at the Russian military to leave and physically pushing Russian military vehicles as if to keep them from moving. The city has been holding daily pro-Ukrainian rallies, which Karavai, a nail studio owner, also attended. 

She said it was important to her to make her position known because she wants her old life back. 

“Imagine strangers coming into your town and telling you it’s actually theirs, not yours — even though you have lived here all your life, you had your children here, you built your business here, you had your friends here,” Karavai said. “That’s why we take to the streets — we don’t want to fight, we want to be left alone. We want things to be as they used to be.” 

She said her city does not need protection from Russia.

“This is our country, this is our motherland,” Karavai said. “We don’t need to be rescued.”