The east bank of the Dnipro River is still partially occupied, and the west bank is constantly under fire from Russian soldiers, yet locals still think about the day when the whole of Kherson Oblast will be liberated and they can resume the lives they had before the full-scale invasion.
Yuliia Kyselova is an entrepreneur who, throughout the invasion, occupation by the Russian army, then liberation and constant shelling, has managed to continue running her coffee shop and aid center in Kherson.
“The coffee place works, just about,” Yuliia, 39, said. “Most people left Kherson, and those people who stayed have to face the new reality – there are people who can buy coffee and a croissant and people who need humanitarian aid.”
Wearing a Kherson T-shirt and beautiful make-up and hair, it’s hard to believe Yuliia lives in a frontline city. The day we spoke to her, Russian soldiers launched 121 attacks on the region, firing almost 700 shells, killing two people and injuring eight. Fifteen shells were fired on the city of Kherson.
Yuliia, who also worked as a photographer, has owned her coffee shop since 2018 and organized events there. After the full-scale invasion, she turned it into a humanitarian hub where people could get food and medicines.
Yuliia and her team started by distributing the milk in their reserves and then decided to share all the varenyky, manti, and dumplings they had in their freezers. Her friends across the world helped with donations or humanitarian aid during the occupation.
There was a period when it was not safe to work as a volunteer in Kherson. Russian forces were actively looking to recruit collaborators, and those who didn’t want to work for them risked persecution and violent attacks.
Yuliia and her team still wanted to help people and came up with a workaround – they put price tags on all the items in stock but people knew they could take anything they needed free of charge.
“Sometimes someone [from the Russian forces] would come to us and ask in Russian, ‘Are you a humanitarian headquarters?’ We would reply no, this is a store,” she recalled. “They would ask why the price tags were not in rubles, and I would answer ‘Is there a large circulation of rubles?’ People had neither rubles nor hryvnias.”
In August 2022, a few months before the liberation of Kherson, she heard Russian forces were searching for her, so left the city.
“Volunteers who did not agree to work with the occupiers had their ribs, arms, and legs broken, especially the boys, the boys came to us blue,” Yuliia said. “It was simply too dangerous to work and I left.”
After several months living abroad, she returned to Kherson. The first two months after liberation there was no water and electricity, but they continued working, switching from desserts to semi-finished products which were easier to store.
Yuliia’s business is one of the few resilient places in Kherson which withstood the occupation and still holds on under constant shelling.
“It is difficult to work, difficult to develop a business, when you are waiting every minute for the arrival of a shell,” said Oleksandr Tolokonnikov, a spokesman for the Kherson Regional Military Administration. “We recently calculated that every day, every 2-3 minutes, a shell hits the territory of the liberated Kherson Oblast.”
He said the problems caused by the security situation have been compounded by the resulting shortage of people and power outages.
“Cafes are opening, shops are opening little by little, but in order for city-supporting businesses and enterprises to open, the security situation needs to improve,” he said. “Until the constant shelling stops, people will not return, people will not open businesses.”
Another challenge for the Kherson region is the thousands of mines left by the occupiers. The Ukrainian authorities have asked their international partners to help with de-mining in rural areas so more farmers can sow seed.
“Our farmers also need help with seeds and sowing material,” Tolokonnikov said. “A lot of agricultural enterprises were destroyed along with their equipment, including combines, tractors, and planters, which will also be very necessary.”
And it’s not just farmers facing an uphill struggle. A year after the partial liberation, access to many networks critical for businesses and everyday life is still inconsistent.
“When the Russians fled from the right [west] bank, they destroyed power grids, substations, gas pipelines, and other critical infrastructure,” Oleksandr Prokudin, head of the Kherson Oblast Military Administration, said in an interview with Interfax Ukraine. “Our specialists have been restoring everything from scratch, it’s a complex and long-term process.”
The prosecutor’s office has also recorded more than 18,000 criminal offenses against peace, human security, and international order in the liberated territories of the Kherson region.
Yuliia, who makes free coffee for military personnel and police officers, as well as emergency and utility workers, says her main hope is for the liberation of the rest of Kherson Oblast.
“I am waiting for the de-occupation of the left [east] bank, we have a lot of friends there,” she said, before contemplating whether she might expand her business. “Other coffee places? I don’t know – time will tell,” she said.
Yuliia is also thinking about changing the name of her coffee shop, which is currently named after Sergei Yesenin, a Russian lyric poet of the early 20th century. His writings were banned by the Kremlin, and there’s a theory he was killed by the secret police, so he may not have been surprised at the behavior of Russia’s soldiers in Kherson almost 100 years after his death.
Elina Beketova is a Democracy Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), focusing on the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine. She worked as a journalist, editor, and TV anchor for various news stations in Kharkiv and Kyiv, and currently contributes to the translator’s team of Ukrainska Pravda, the biggest Ukrainian online newspaper.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.