Kyiv, UKRAINE — Artillery shells exploded around 56-year-old Orthodox priest Father Mykola Dovgan as he pushed his son, Sergey, in a wheelchair along the empty country road in southern Ukraine.
Gaunt with slicked-back hair and a gray goatee, Mykola had maintained his priestly demeanor when he fled his home in fear of his life.
But on that fateful and terrifying day Mykola told MarketWatch that his normally implacable manner dissolved into desperation. He led his family through an intense barrage of artillery fire between Ukrainian and Russian army positions outside his home in Kherson, a city in southern Ukraine now under Russian occupation.
The fiercely contested battlefront erupted in their path after they had to abandon their car to make the six-mile journey on foot to Snigurovka village, Mykola said.
“After two days of packing and preparing, Mykola and his wife, son and mother-in-law were ready. At 5 a.m., with their most precious belongings stuffed into their 1993 Renault Espace, they set off on a perilous journey to an uncertain future.”
Gripped with fear, Mykola’s 55-year-old wife, Tatiana, and her ailing 72-year-old mother, Yelizaveta, struggled to keep pace with him. Tears streamed down their faces, he said, but they persevered through a hail of flying shrapnel.
Time was their enemy, but it was God who Mykola blamed. He had seen three years of war as a chaplain but still found himself screaming. “It was an explosion of nerves, a scream from my soul,” he recalled, “I screamed at God. How could he do such a thing to me and my family? How could He even exist?”
The same despairing thoughts haunted Mykola 27 years earlier when his son was born with chronic cerebral palsy. The illness meant Sergey, who was blind and unable to walk or talk, would use a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
“For six years, I asked God why he was worse off than other children,” Mykola told MarketWatch. “It was painful, but our son eventually brought us happiness. And this brought me closer to God.”
Sergey’s birth set Mykola on a religious quest that ultimately led to the priesthood. Ordained in 2010, he served as an army chaplain during the war in East Ukraine from 2014 to 2016, before settling into a life as a parish priest in Kherson with his wife, Sergey and their eldest son, Sasha.
Their life remained peaceful until the night of Feb. 24, 2022.
Aware that the Russians knew of his role as territorial army battalion chaplain, Mykola had kept a low profile throughout the occupation, resolving to stay indoors and help his wife, Tatiana, take care of Sergey.
When his fellow Orthodox priest Father Serhiy Chudynovych was kidnapped and tortured, however, the alarm sounded in the local Orthodox community. Chudynovych, the rector of a well-known church in Kherson, was a prominent public figure in the community.
Mykola realized he wasn’t safe, but leaving the city was still the riskier option. When he was tipped off that his name was on a list distributed among Russian soldiers, his risk analysis shifted. He sat his family down and convinced them it was time to leave.
After two days of packing and preparing, Mykola and his wife, son and mother-in-law were ready. At 5 a.m., with their most precious belongings stuffed into their 1993 Renault Espace, they set off on a perilous journey to an uncertain future.
Once a peaceful coastal city
Kherson is — or was — a quiet, balmy coastal city of 280,000 on the west bank of the Dniepr River, about 15 miles from the river’s mouth. An important shipping and shipbuilding base only 80 miles from Crimea, it was a key strategic target for Russia’s invading forces when they arrived on the morning of Feb. 25.
Waiting to confront them at the Antonovskiy Bridge, a key junction spanning the Dniepr River and connecting Kherson to the east, was a small Ukrainian army force supported by Kherson’s territorial army battalion — a group of 500 trained volunteers and veterans armed only with machine guns.
Among them was Mykola. As battalion chaplain, he did not take up arms, but was in the thick of the action, helping to evacuate the wounded and administering to the dead.
The battle for Antonovskiy Bridge was intense and lasted three days, resulting in hundreds of casualties on both sides. Russian forces ultimately prevailed, forcing the smaller Ukrainian army back toward Mykolaev, 60 miles to the west. Kherson’s territorial army fighters lost 50 comrades before retreating to their families and to a new life of enforced anonymity under Russian occupation.
For almost two months, the ever-thickening shadow of Russian rule has enveloped Kherson. Multiple checkpoints erected on all routes out of the city have practically cut it off from the outside world.
“‘Heavily armed Russian police and operatives are sent out in civilian clothing to patrol the streets in cars stolen from Kherson residents. Their behavior is characterized by widespread looting, random acts of violence and summary arrests.’”
The regional administration building has been commandeered by the Russian army and the FSB as a joint headquarters. From there, heavily armed Russian police and operatives are sent out in civilian clothing to patrol the streets in cars stolen from Kherson residents. Their behavior is characterized by widespread looting, random acts of violence and summary arrests. Murders and unexplained disappearances are common.
Fearful Kherson residents remain indoors until they have to go out for food or medicine. One of them, Oksana, agreed to speak to MarketWatch on the condition her surname be withheld.
An NGO worker and fundraiser for volunteer groups in Kherson, Oksana spends most of her time at home with her 9-year-old boy who attends school online. “A week ago, I met a friend in a park,” she said. “But that’s a rare treat, because even having meetings in public is dangerous.”
Economic activity has all but ceased in the city, Oksana said from Kherson over Signal Video. “Supermarkets are empty, but people can buy vegetables in street markets. The problem is finding cash. Exchanging cash from credit cards is now a big business, but everything is twice or three times the normal price and queues are really long. I had to wait three hours this week just to buy milk.”
Services such as water, electricity, and public transport are working but any sense of normal life, according to Oksana, is an illusion.
“The Russians couldn’t find any pro-Russian fanatics within the city administration to run it for them,” so for two months the Mayor and his team remained in the city’s administration building. That changed on Tuesday, when the Russians took over the building and replaced the Ukrainian with the Russian flag.
The self-declared new “deputy-head” of the Kherson region administration, Kirill Stremousov, declared that the region would “move into the Ruble zone.”
Fearing that this change in currency is another step towards holding a “fake” referendum to declare Kherson an independent republic, a couple of hundred Kherson residents protested in the city’s centre square this week, and were dispersed with stun grenades and tear gas.
Meanwhile, Oksana recalled, the Russians have concentrated their efforts on trying to root out and neutralize members of the Ukrainian police, secret service or territorial army, all of whom are hiding at home with their families. They’ve had limited success with this, according to the regional prosecutor’s office, which has reported 137 people, including several journalists, abducted by the Russians in the city. Their fate remains unknown.
“‘The problem is finding cash. Exchanging cash from credit cards is now a big business, but everything is twice or three times the normal price and queues are really long. I had to wait three hours this week just to buy milk.’”
Every night, flashes from distant artillery explosions light up the horizon, Oksana said, and the loud rumbling that follows is a reminder both to Kherson’s civilians and to its occupying Russian forces of the battle that may engulf the city.
Recent reports suggest the Ukrainian army is gaining the upper hand. If true, retaking the city, the first to be fully occupied by the Russians, would mark a stunning victory for Ukraine.
Territorial army troops in Kherson are waiting for the Ukrainian army to advance closer to the city so they can make their move. Hidden in plain sight, embedded with their families, masquerading as civilians, they have concealed their weapons but kept them nearby.
One of them spoke to MarketWatch under a pseudonym, Alexey, to protect his identity.
“We all stay at home, but are constantly in touch with each other and with the Ukrainian army, sharing information on Russian positions and movements around the city,” Alexey said via Signal. “We also have hidden cameras outside the city, so we know a lot about the enemy’s behavior, its strength and weaknesses.”
Following the destruction of a Russian military command post near Kherson on April 22, volleys of incoming artillery explosions moved closer to the city’s boundaries over the weekend. “Last night was one of the loudest in weeks,” Alexey said. “This gives us hope that our liberation is coming soon.”
Having spent almost two months indoors, he is excited by and fearful of the prospect of another battle. “All of us have fear. It’s natural. It’s stupid not to be afraid,” he said. “But we’re more frightened of being abducted and tortured than of dying on the battlefield.”
Threat of torture looms
The threat of torture looms over Kherson like a toxic cloud. According to Ukraine’s Human Rights Commissioner, Liudmyla Denisova, the Russians have established torture chambers for Ukrainian abductees in the city.
“With over 140 people missing, everyone in Kherson fears the worst,” Oksana said. “That’s why so many of them left the city when the atrocities of Bucha were revealed.”
Escape from Kherson, meanwhile, is available only to people with a car or those who can afford to pay $300 to a driver with links to the Russians.
The notoriously dangerous route to the nearest Ukrainian-controlled town, Mykolaiv, follows a warren of back roads via Snigurovka, crossing 10 Russian checkpoints as well as the fiercely contested battlefront.
The twisted remains of shot-up, burnt-out cars discarded outside the city point to a grim fate that could face anyone trying to leave. Most don’t even consider it.
Mykola’s journey was perilous, and he and his family almost didn’t make it. “I learnt from one of the drivers which checkpoints were less likely to have the list, and started plotting our trip,” the Ukrainian battalion chaplain said in a phone interview with MarketWatch after he reached safety.
“‘Every car that passes is stopped and searched. Sometimes drivers and passengers have to hand over their phones, so the soldiers can check their messaging apps. They’re looking for people who send locations of Russian army positions.’”
Mykola said he was nervous as they approached the constellation of concrete blocks, sandbags and rusting tank traps at the first checkpoint. The Russian soldiers asked a few questions, glanced in the back of the car and waved them on.
“Every car that passes is stopped and searched. Sometimes drivers and passengers have to hand over their phones, so the soldiers can check their messaging apps,” said Mykola, who wiped from his phone all incriminating messages and photos before the journey. “They’re looking for people who send locations of Russian army positions or anyone who simply expresses Ukrainian patriotism.”
“I was lucky because my son was sprawled on a mattress in the back of the car,” he added. “I pretended that I was just delivering him to a hospital in Mykolaiv.” Progressively fine-tuning this story, he drove through another eight checkpoints without incident.
Then they came across a checkpoint manned by Chechens. Chechens are the best equipped in the Russian army. Mykola was surprised to see them, but knew it meant this was the final checkpoint before the front line. They surrounded his car.
“I served in the Soviet army, so I knew how to talk to these guys,” recalled Mykola. “One of them looked inside the car, saw Sergey, then turned to face me. I held his stare while telling him the same story I told the others. He listened politely, then waved us through.”
The family proceeded through Snigurokva. The village was purged of any life, he said, an absence explained by the pulverized trees, road craters, and single-story homes razed to the ground. Signposts had been removed from the crossroads at the far end of the village as part of a nationwide campaign to confuse the invaders.
“Mykola and his family proceeded through Snigurokva. The village was purged of any life, an absence explained by the pulverized trees, road craters, and single-story homes razed to the ground. Signposts had been removed to confuse invaders.”
Mykola, an unintended victim of this missing signpost strategy, stopped the car, unsure of which turn to take. After a while, a Jeep approached them and took the right turn. Mykola decided to follow it. The Jeep hurtled out onto the vast steppe at breakneck speed. Mykola pushed the Renault Espace to its limits to keep up.
Four miles along the road, Mykola and his family heard the first artillery explosions. Two miles later, they saw part of a field to their left explode in a fireball. Then the Jeep stopped, turned around and raced back towards them, passing them by at high speed.
Up ahead was a sign warning that the road was mined. Mykola noticed a row of Russian soldiers lying down in a shallow trench near the side of the road. Two of them stood up and ran up to him.
“There was no conversation. They just told us to get out of there quickly, unless we wanted to be shot up by a tank,” Mykola said. “I reversed the car to turn it, and the gearbox broke. I tried to fix it, but there was nothing I could do except drive away in first gear.”
A few minutes down the road, the car’s radiator collapsed. Steam gushed out from the bonnet and the car stopped. “At this point, artillery was pounding all around us, on both sides of the road. In a second, I decided we couldn’t stay in the car.”
They abandoned the car and half their belongings, strapped Sergey to his wheelchair, and started walking back to Snigurovka.
“We could see the artillery shells flying above us,” Mykola said. “Many of them landed really close. It felt like they were aiming at us. During the battle for Antonovskiy bridge, I saw helicopter gunfire tear my comrades apart. That was frightening, but not as bad as this. I told the others if one of us dies, we’ll have to leave them behind. All we could do was keep walking. The most frightening part of it all was that there was nothing we could do. God was the only one who could help us.”
After an exhausting three hours, they made it back to the crossroads outside Snigurovka and tried to hitchhike to Mykolaiv. “There were four of us, a wheelchair and six pieces of luggage. My wife must have stopped 20 cars but none of them had any room. We knew it would be dark soon and the artillery battle would intensify.”
Finally, a white van pulled over. The driver, Yaroslav, 37, a pharmacist from the nearby town of Skadovsk, was on a medicine delivery run to Kherson. He had space. “When Yaroslav dropped us off in Mykolaiv, we embraced and I cried. His kindness saved us,” Mykola said.
Speaking to MarketWatch from the sanctuary of a Baptist church outside Warsaw, Mykola has had time to recover, relax and put his whole ordeal in perspective.
“But [Yaroslav] wasn’t the only one who showed us kindness,” he added. “There was an American Baptist who met us at Mykolaiv and brought us to the train station in Odessa. There were people on the train who helped us. There were the Poles who took care of us at the border. We met so many amazingly kind people on that journey.”
He has finally had a moment to reflect on his treacherous journey. “We lost our car, and half of our belongings, but that’s all we lost. The value of our material goods are nothing. The only things that really matter in the world are people and God.”
Now on his way with his family to Germany, where they will be taken care of by the local Ukrainian Orthodox community, Mykola sees a metaphor in his own experience that is relevant to what his city and his country are going through.
“God has given me and my family many challenges, but he’s always helped us through in the end,” he said. “He must has a plan for me.”
Johnny O’Reilly is a writer and filmmaker based in Ukraine.
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