By Tom Balmforth and Stefaniia Bern
KYIV (Reuters) - In Nova Kakhovka, a city in southern Ukraine occupied by Russian troops five months ago on the first day of its invasion, the signs of creeping annexation by Russia are mounting and some residents fear a return to Soviet times.
A statue of Russian Communist leader Vladimir Lenin, erected in April, stands in the city centre, where the Russian and Soviet flags have been hoisted. On the side of police cars patrolling the streets, the Ukrainian word "politsiya" has been repainted in Russian.
Some shops accept the Russian currency, the rouble, as well as Ukraine's hryvnia. Internet traffic is now routed via Russia. And, with the Ukrainian mobile phone network down, hawkers sell Russian SIM cards on the streets.
Reuters spoke to two current residents and three ex-residents of Nova Kakhovka who said they see clear signs that Russian-installed authorities are seeking to bind the city, and the surrounding Kherson region, to Moscow.
A senior official in the Russian-installed regional government told Reuters it was pressing ahead with plans to hold a "referendum" for Kherson to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. He praised the era before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when Ukraine was one of 15 national republics ruled by the Communist Party from Moscow.
"We've decided - the people of Kherson region have decided - that we need to hold a referendum and vote to join the Russian Federation," Kirill Stremousov, the deputy head of Kherson's Russian-appointed regional authority, said in an interview.
Stremousov did not give a date for the planned plebiscite. He said that, within weeks, the Russian telecommunications network would fully cover Kherson and he hoped to have the Russian rouble in full circulation by early next year.
The efforts at integration with Russia come amid vocal Ukrainian pledges to retake the strategic Black Sea region soon in a major counteroffensive.
Control of Kherson, home to 1 million people before the war, gives Russia a land corridor from its border to Crimea, an arid peninsula that it annexed from Ukraine in 2014. Kherson also includes a canal from the Dnieper river needed to keep Crimea supplied with fresh water.
The White House said on Tuesday that Russia was laying the groundwork for the annexation of Ukrainian territory - including via the introduction of the rouble and the forced use of Russian passports - in a repeat of the tactics used in Crimea. The Russian embassy in the United States dismissed Washington's comments as "fundamentally false".
The Kremlin has said the future of occupied regions of Ukraine will be decided by residents. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday that Moscow's war aims https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/russia-expands-ukraine-war-goals-fighting-toll-mounts-2022-07-21 now went beyond the separatist-controlled Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and included Kherson and neighbouring Zaporizhzhia in the south.
The Ukrainian foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Kyiv has said the planned referendum is a pointless initiative staged by collaborators who will be prosecuted once Russia's troops are expelled.
Russia's invasion has already prompted many inhabitants to flee the city, which had a population of 60,000 before the war.
Some of those who remain in Nova Kakhovka are angry at the disruption to their way of life and feel their hometown is returning to the era of economic hardship and distant authoritarian rule by Russia under the Soviet Union.
A teacher, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals, said her school's administration summoned its 20 remaining staff in late May and asked who would be prepared to teach the Russian curriculum when classes return in September. The meeting was held in Russian, she said.
Just two of them raised their hands, said the teacher, who was present. She told Reuters she would resign if she had to abandon the Ukrainian curriculum.
"I love Ukraine. Why should I teach the kids differently … Can I tell them that the ones killing our people and our kids are doing a great job? My conscience won't let me do it," she said by telephone.
She said only a small fraction of the city's teachers readily accepted the change and it was not clear if it would be implemented. Nova Kakhovka's mayor's office and school board could not be reached for comment.
"My soul hurts. They haven't returned us to Russia like they like to say. They've sent us back to the USSR of 40 years ago," she said.
Stremousov, the Russian-installed official, told Reuters on July 6 that the Kherson regional authority planned to gradually change the curriculum and Russian would now be used in schools as well as Ukrainian.
The 45-year-old lauded the Soviet curriculum and said that, if teachers chose to quit, that was their choice.
Russia's Education Minister Sergei Kravtsov, who travelled to occupied southern Ukraine last month, said that education there had formerly promoted anti-Russian sentiment and the priority would be to teach pupils about "our joint achievements".
His ministry said on Thursday that he had travelled to Kherson and personally presented Russian diplomas to eight school children. New textbooks for use in the region were also presented at the event, the ministry said.
Ukraine has instructed teachers in occupied areas to report to the security services if they are forced to adopt the Russian curriculum.
POOR QUALITY GOODS
Margo, an 18-year-old artist who declined to give her full name, said that Ukrainian goods have largely disappeared from shelves in Nova Kakhovka and the quality of the Russian food and goods brought in from Crimea was poor.
Prices have surged, though the panic buying of the invasion's early days has subsided. Many shops remain closed and unemployment is rife, she said.
Stremousov denied food quality had worsened, though he acknowledged that prices were higher.
The official, who often addresses Kherson's residents in online videos under a portrait of Vladimir Putin, said he believed the region had thrived economically under the Soviet Union.
Margo said that occupation authorities had organised a concert, which she attended, in the city's House of Culture on the eve of a May 9 parade to commemorate the Soviet victory in World War Two.
She recognised no-one in the crowd and found people with Soviet flags and elderly women wearing the St George ribbon, a Russian military symbol often used to express pro-Russian sentiment, she said.
"Before the concert began, the self-proclaimed mayor came out and gave a speech saying 'I think most people in the audience now feel what I do: as if they've recovered from a long illness. Today we'll hear songs that used to be banned. The first one will be Katyusha'," she said, referring to the Soviet-era war song that promptly began to play.
The self-proclaimed mayor could not be reached for comment.
Ukrainian mobile signal and Internet have veered from patchy to non-existent, the current and former residents said. Some people have bought Russian SIM cards to stay in touch with relatives and friends, though they sometimes don't work, Margo said.
The SIM cards have no markings or branding on them and those who buy them have their passports and registration papers photographed by the street vendors.
Reuters was not able to confirm this independently.
Ukraine has urged residents of Kherson region to evacuate because of its looming counteroffensive. In the last fortnight, at least four Ukrainian long-range strikes have hit targets in Nova Kakhovka which, until now, has been spared heavy fighting.
Margo said many Ukrainian residents, especially younger ones, have fled the city. Her friends went abroad or to Ukrainian-held cities and she was planning to leave, too.
Stremousov estimated 60-70% of the region's residents remained. He said that Russian passports were being handed out in the region and there were long queues.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on May 25 simplifying the process for residents of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia to acquire Russian citizenship and passports.
Reuters was unable to determine how many people had fled the city but spoke to the members of four families that had left.
The teacher said she had no plans to depart.
"We're waiting for the Ukrainian army," she said. "I don't know how it's going to happen and where we'll hide and what we'll lose, but we want to be in Ukraine."
(Reporting by Tom Balmforth and Stefaniia Bern; Editing by Daniel Flynn)