Written Jeffrey Gettleman and Andrew E. Krame
Olena Naumova’s descent into two weeks of terror began in late August, when three Russian soldiers with automatic rifles banged on her door in the occupied city of Kherson. She said they ordered her to turn over her gun. She had no gun.
“‘Don’t lie,’” she said the Russians warned her. “‘We will shock you with electricity. We will break your bones. We will put construction foam in your body.’”
Stunned, Naumova, a kindergarten teacher who had posted some pro-Ukrainian videos, said she felt herself go weightless as the soldiers threw a plastic bag over her head and dragged her to a car. Then they took her to an underground prison where she said she was interrogated, beaten and forced to hear screams emanating from other cells.
As Kherson celebrates its fresh liberation after eight long months of Russian occupation, and as residents pour into its streets with bright smiles and shiny flags, durbing accounts of torture and abuse at the hands of Russian soldiers are emerging as well, with people finally free to talk.
Several residents described being hauled off to underground torture chambers, sometimes just for posting patriotic poems. Others said they had witnessed random outbursts of violence, such as Russian soldiers smashing young men in the face and sending them to the hospital — for no apparent reason.
Anyone suspected of belonging to a partisan underground group or spying on the Russians’ military positions was at grave risk, according to interviews with dozens of city residents as well as Ukrainian military officials.
Soldiers crashed through doors or plucked people off the streets in tactics that seemed to belong to authoritarian regimes from another era. It was all part of the Russians’ failed effort to turn Kherson, force, into part of their motherland.
Ukrainian officials have said the Russians kidnapped more than 600 people and many are still missing. Residents also reported disappearances and killings, consent with war-crime allegations documented in Bucha, Izium and other Ukrainian cities where Russian President Vladimir Putin’s troops swept in, leaving behind smashed homes and mass graves.
But Kherson is now liberated territory.
On Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy arrived for a surprise, triumphant visit, calling the Russian retreat last week “the beginning of the end of the war.”
Outside the imposing regional adminration building that just days earlier had flown the Russian tricolor flag, he told a crowd of hundreds of people, some wrapped in Ukrainian flags, “Step step, we’re coming to all of our country.”
But as in every other place taken back from Moscow’s forces, Ukrainians here now have to reckon with the trauma left behind. Zelenskyy said the Russians had committed more than 400 war crimes in Kherson.
“It was a city of fear,” said Olena Samofalova, an out-of-work salesperson who came to the main square Monday to “feel some of the positive energy.” Like many others here, she seemed in a daze, almost unable to believe that her country’s army and her president were strolling through the same cobblestone square that only recently had been full of glaring Russian soldiers.
Vyacheslav Lukashuk, a lanky, 27-year-old handyman, recalled how a dozen soldiers and officers of the Russian security service had burst into his home and thrown him facedown to the floor, screaming, “Where are your weapons?” and “How do you contact the Ukrainian army?”
Crowds gather for food dribution from a truck in Kherson, Ukraine. (Finbarr O’Reilly/The New York Times)
They kicked him and beat him with rifle butts, he said, and one soldier slipped a plastic bag over his head to suffocate him.
“It’s hard to call it an arrest,” he said. “They just flew in and started beating me. I said goode to my life at that moment.”
His offense? Spray-painting “Glory to Ukraine” on a bus stop.
Naumova was more of a thorn in the Russians’ side, her account and those of other Kherson residents. In February, after Russian troops marched in, she started blogging furiously about the invasion, and took to TikTok to spread patriotic videos.
As the Russian occupation hardened, so did her messages. She called for the people of Kherson to rise up against the Russians. On the morning of Aug. 23, her mobile phone service was abruptly cut. Then the soldiers came, demanding, “Where is your weapon?” She replied, “Are you serious?”
On Monday, she was mobbed friends and supporters as she visited the same main square as Zelenskyy, a Ukrainian flag victoriously draped over her shoulders and a little one painted on her right cheek. Everywhere she turned, someone was waiting to hug her. They looked surprised to see her alive.
“I was really worried about you,” said one woman as they embraced. The woman pulled back and looked into Naumova’s face. “Are you OK?”
Naumova, 57, might seem like an unlikely freedom fighter. For her entire adult life, she has been teaching kindergarten, a special in educating children ages 2-6. She blogged before the war, mostly on children’s topics. She grew up in the Kherson area and never moved far. But when the Russians came, she felt a revulsion boil up inside her that surprised even herself.
“I lived under the Soviet Union and I never want to go back to the Soviet Union,” she said. “It was like prison camp.”
Divorced and living alone, she began raising money, including from Israel and the United States, to give to older people and those with disabilities living in Kherson and suffering under the occupation. Then she started making patriotic videos, first with children’s poems, then with speeches, then directly taunting the Russians.
She had a large audience: 105,000 subscribers on her TikTok channel. Some of her videos have been liked 380,000 times.
“I was making jokes, like ‘My dear Russians and FSB, you won’t take an old lady from kindergarten, will you?’” she said, mentioning the Russian intelligence agency. “My friends asked: Aren’t you scared they will take you?”
In late August, residents said, the Russians began arresting more people. The crackdown seemed to coincide with the Ukrainian army announcing a southern offensive to recapture Kherson.
As Ukrainian forces slowly advanced, methodically choking off Kherson’s bridges and surrounding the city, residents said the Russian soldiers grew increasingly unpredictable.
“It was dangerous to go near them,” said Andrew Kirsanov, a computer programming student. “You never knew what was inside their minds.”
Tanya Lukashuk describes how her son, Vyacheslav Lukashuk, was captured and beaten the Russians for one week for writing pro-Ukrainian graffiti in Kherson. (Lynsey Addario/The New York Times) NO SALES.
Samofalova said that one night in August, Russian soldiers pounced on a group of female nurses and doctors and some men who happened to be sitting near them. Their offense: singing patriotic songs on Kherson’s main square, on Ukraine’s independence day. She said she later learned that the group had been brought to “an underground prison” — several other residents used the same words, “underground prison,” to describe where they or their loved ones had been taken.
Apparently, the Russians had set up a network of them, using Kherson’s Cold War-era bomb shelters as torture sites. Samofalova said that she had spoken to the victims herself after their release and that Russian soldiers slammed their rifle butts into the women’s breasts and kept them in custody for 10 days.
Naumova said her jailers had locked her in a drab, windowless room vacant of anything but two chairs. A Russian officer stood in front of her and barked: “Who is your network?”
“Where did you get the money?”
“Who is working with you?”
Then he pulled back his arm, she said, and slapped her in the face.
“I was scared they were going to kill me,” she said. “I’m a good actress, so I decided to play the role of an emotional and not very smart girl. I was crying all the time, pretending to be weak. If I behaved as a hero, I would have been dead, very quickly.”
One of her friends, a lean man in his mid-40s, gave her a big hug as she told her story in the sunshine of the main square. “This is a beautiful woman with a great spirit,” said the man, Olexander.
Olexander, who didn’t want to give his last name because he feared the Russians could still hurt him, said he, too, had made patriotic videos, including some in which he read Ukrainian poems. He was arrested in June, blindfolded with an old hat pulled down over his eyes and taken to a police station. There, he said, Russian soldiers connected wires to his fingertips with alligator clips and jolted him with electricity.
Civilians shelter in an underground train station after air raid sirens sounded and reports of explosions were made, either from Russian missiles or from Ukraine’s air defense system taking them down, in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Brendan Hoffman/The New York Times)
“How bad was it? I wet my pants. I didn’t want to live,” he said.
He was let go in three days, he said. For Naumova, it was longer.
She said she was interrogated and beaten for four days, then kept in a cell for another seven. Before releasing her, the Russians forced her to make an apology video. In it, she stared glumly at the camera and said she was sorry for calling the occupiers “pig dogs” and saying that Kherson was Ukraine.
The same thing happened to Lukashuk. He was released, after a week, after apologizing on video for the pro-Ukrainian graffiti.
The Russians posted the video online, along with other residents’ confessions, in an apparent effort to shame and intimidate people.
The last thing the Russians did to her, Naumova said, was try to extract the equivalent of a few thousand dollars, way more than she had. She told them she would get the money from friends. Instead, she went into hiding.
On Monday, she seemed happy doing interviews with journals and making the rounds in Kherson’s sun-soaked square.
“I can finally breathe,” she said. “It’s like waking up from a coma.”
Written Jeffrey Gettleman and Andrew E. Krame