For an American, the war in Ukraine is difficult to comprehend. Though the United States has often been involved in wars, the experience of warfare on American soil has been extremely limited. The last large conflict to be fought on United States territory was the American Civil War, which ended over a century and a half ago. Much is made in geopolitical literature about American exceptionalism. This is particularly true when it comes to warfare within the United States’ current borders. For instance, in both World Wars I & II, where the United States was heavily involved in the fighting, Americans managed to sidestep the visceral and violent experience of having their land torn asunder by fighting on home soil with all the attendant horrors that come from invasion and occupation. That is why so many Americans, this author included, find the violence inflicted upon Ukraine by Russia difficult to comprehend and almost impossible to imagine.
The war seems like something from another world. One that is incredibly foreign and not for the obvious reasons of differences in culture, language and location, but because of the violence which has tended to recur in Kherson with frightening frequency. I was reminded of this while researching the history of Kherson, a city that is in the cross hairs of both Ukrainian and Russian forces as they prepare for what is sure to be one of the most consequential battles of the war. While trying to learn more about Kherson’s past, I came across information that acted as a reminder of just how tumultuous its history has been at times. This is especially true for the first half of the 20th century when Kherson went through a series of wars and chaotic occupations that is right in line with what is happening in the city today.
Repeating history – Ukrainian War crimes investigators at a grave in Kherson Province (Credit: Office of Prosecutor General Ukraine)
Tragic Irony – A Succession of Catastrophes
Less than a week after the invasion of Ukraine, Kherson was occupied by Russian troops. It has been suffering under a capricious and violent occupation ever since. This has led to the evacuation, both voluntary and forced, for most of its civilian population. Sadly, occupation and heavy-handed rule in both peacetime and war have occurred in Kherson on numerous occasions. To give but two of numerous examples consider the following. During the latter years of the Russian Civil War, famine spread across parts of southern Ukraine and Russia. This caused the population of Kherson to plummet from 75,000 to 41,000 from 1921 to 1923. There was yet another famine with the Holodomor in the early 1930’s. These catastrophes occurred in a well-watered region well known to have some of the most fertile agricultural land on earth. The tragic irony of starvation in what should have been a land of plenty underscores the chaos and calamity which affected Kherson during the 20th century.
Someone born in the city prior to World War I would have spent the first forty years of their life under military occupation from Tsarist Russian, Imperial German, French, Greek, White Russian, Soviet and Nazi German forces. If that same person managed to survive those occupations and made it through to the end of the 20th century, they would have lived in the Russian Empire, Russian Provisional Government, Ukrainian People’s Republic, Ukrainian State, Soviet Union, Reichskommissariat Ukraine, Soviet Union and Independent Ukraine at different times. That withering array of polities, the majority of which were either authoritarian or totalitarian, does not include the different administrative entities imposed upon Kherson during numerous military occupations.
Ready for war – Launch of a Russian Imperial ship in 1914 at Kherson
A Violent Trajectory – From Chaos To Calamity
To say that the First World War sent Kherson and Ukraine on a violent trajectory is to vastly understate the matter. Calamity begat chaos from 1914 forward. The same might now be said of the effect that the Soviet Union’s collapse is having on Kherson. This is a delayed reaction where the violent aftershocks have arrived thirty years after the fact. The current war might portend another period of instability and upheaval for the city. It is just as likely that the opposite might occur. History is nothing if not unpredictable, especially in Ukraine. The best-case scenario for Kherson is that Ukrainian forces take back the city with minimal damage to the urban environment. They could then begin repatriating citizens and repopulating the city.
More likely is that the Russians will do everything they can to destroy the city’s infrastructure. There is also the growing potential for urban warfare which could leave a large part of the city in ruins. Oddly, despite the horrific excesses that regime after regime visited upon Kherson’s citizenry during the 20th century, the city itself survived the World Wars relatively unscathed. The same will not be said of the current one. Russian occupation forces have already stripped the city of monuments celebrating prior imperial excesses. Reports have also surfaced of rampant lawlessness and looting. Civilians are forced to leave most of their belongings which are then looted by Russian soldiers.
Closing in – Ukrainian troops raise the flag over a newly conquered area
Living Proof – The Final Days of Freedom
The future of Kherson is precarious. Judging by its history this has often been the case. For much of the 20th century Kherson was on the edge, not just of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union or Ukraine, but also destruction. This was one of the few fates the city managed to escape. Better days would eventually arrive, even if they did not last. In retrospect, the period between December 1, 1991, when nine out of every ten voters in Kherson Province cast their ballots for Ukraine’s independence in a national referendum and March 2,2022, when the current Russian occupation began, may be looked upon as a time of unprecedented peace when the citizens of Kherson enjoyed freedoms that had otherwise been lacking during the city’s troubled history.
The reaction by some of Kherson’s citizenry to the Russian occupation at the beginning of March offered proof of this. There were spontaneous public protests where the inhabitants sung the Ukrainian national anthem and proudly waved the Ukrainian flag. Citizens confronted Russian soldiers, making it clear that they wanted them to leave. This was heartening to see, but with the gift of hindsight we now know that these were the final days of freedom. Russian officials soon instituted onerous restrictions, harassed civilians, arrested anyone they suspected as a threat and turned Kherson into a nightmare for those who ran afoul of the authorities. That nightmare could soon be over if Ukrainian forces manage to take the city. Only then will Kherson be free again.
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