How an American Survived Hiding From the Russians in Kherson for 8 Months

Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

KHERSON, Ukraine — He stayed indoors to evade Russian patrols, watching movies on his laptop. On sunny days, he strolled in a small, walled courtyard. Afraid to be seen, he peeked cautiously from behind curtains, watching as Russians moved in across the street.

He is Timothy Morales, an American English teacher, who hid from the Russian military and secret police through the entire eight-month occupation of the city of Kherson in southern Ukraine, afraid that his nationality had made him a target. He emerged in public only after the Ukrainian Army liberated the city last week.

“I had fleeting moments of despair,” Mr. Morales said in an interview in a central square in Kherson, where he now walks openly with ribbons in yellow and blue, the Ukrainian national colors, tied to his tweed coat. “But I knew at some point this day would come.”

The thud of artillery fired toward the city from Russian positions across the Dnipro River still rattles windows, and Kherson remains a grim and dark city, without electricity, water or heating. Most of its residents fled months ago, and the retreating Russians took with them anything of value they could carry.

Beginning at dawn, many of the remaining civilians form gigantic lines to get bread or to fill plastic jugs with water. Not until Tuesday did the first convoys arrive with humanitarian aid, their trucks parked in the square to hand out boxes of flour, soap, wipes and goodies like instant milkshake mix.

But for Mr. Morales, 56, a former college professor, the worst was behind him — no more anxious cat-and-mouse games with the Russians. Raised in Banbury, England, he had lived for years in Oklahoma City teaching English literature, and had opened an English-language school in Kherson before the Russian invasion in February.

The city of Kherson in May.
In the chaotic, early days of the war, as Russian tanks battled with the few Ukrainian troops in the region and a scrappy but quickly overrun volunteer defense force, Mr. Morales became trapped behind Russian lines.

He tried once to escape on a highway to the north, he said, but turned back when he saw tanks firing on the road ahead. He managed to send his 10-year-old daughter to safety, traveling with his former wife, but could not make it out himself.

He had done nothing illegal, under the laws of any nation. But the Kremlin has cast the United States and its allies, which are arming Ukrainian troops, as the real enemy in this war, blaming them for its battlefield setbacks. Mr. Morales feared that Russian troops would detain him merely for being American.

He became a survivor of — and furtive witness to — Russia’s assault, its harsh occupation and its failed effort to assimilate parts of Ukraine and root out any opposition.

The Russians swept into Kherson in early March, and soon soldiers patrolled the streets and officers of the Federal Security Service, the main successor agency to the K.G.B., searched for members of a pro-Ukrainian underground guerrilla movement.

Russian soldiers patrolling Kherson in May.
Credit…Associated Press
Life for Mr. Morales contracted to two apartments — his and his former wife’s — furtive walks between the two sites, and the courtyard, a pleasant space with cherry and walnut trees behind high walls, hidden from view from the street. For two months, he said, he didn’t dare venture beyond the courtyard.

Relatives of his former wife, who is Ukrainian, brought food, and sometimes he shopped at a grocery store where he knew the clerk, a teenager he trusted would not betray him because of her pro-Ukrainian views. The shopping trips were an exception to his generally cloistered life.

There was a close call. In September, he stepped into the courtyard and saw Russian soldiers pointing rifles through the wire mesh of a gate. He dashed back inside, locking the door behind him.

Soon, a search party arrived. A neighbor yelled through the door that he had no choice but to open up. He did, and came face to face with an officer from the Federal Security Service, also known by its Russian initials, F.S.B.

Mr. Morales, who speaks Russian but not well enough to pass as a local, told the officer that he was an Irishman named Timothy Joseph, taught English in the city and had lost his passport. The secret police left. The neighbor, an older woman, helped with the ruse, telling the secret police they had no reason to suspect him.

“That sort of changed my perspective,” Mr. Morales said. “Before, I was careful. Then I became paranoid.” The questioning by the F.S.B., he said, was “the highlight, or the lowlight,” of his ordeal. He said he escaped only because “they weren’t the cleverest people in the world.”

He fled to another apartment and did not return to the site of the search until after the city’s liberation, lest the secret police return.

A burned-out Russian military vehicle in Kherson, near the destroyed Antonivsky Bridge across the Dnipro River.
Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

He passed the time watching several hundred movies he had downloaded onto his laptop before the invasion.

When he walked the streets, he feared meeting acquaintances, particularly among older people, who seemed less keenly aware of the danger of the Russians and who would sometimes yell out friendly greetings — putting him at grave risk. No friends or neighbors betrayed him.

From hiding, he managed to resume teaching English online, using the internet connection of a neighbor to connect with students elsewhere in Ukraine and other countries. “It kept me sane,” he said of being able to work online, though he had no means to receive payment.

He became worried when he saw a Russian, perhaps a civilian administrator in the occupation government, move his family into an apartment abandoned by fleeing Ukrainians in a building across the street, raising the risk that he would be discovered.

But over time, he also noted something that was becoming obvious to other residents of Kherson: The Russian Army was unraveling. Discipline was breaking down, soldiers were appearing more disheveled, and more often they were driving stolen local cars rather than military-issued vehicles.

“Over time, they got scruffier and more hodgepodge” he said.

In the final month, he noticed that soldiers who had stolen expensive cars, like BMWs or Mercedes-Benzes, had taken these vehicles by barge away from Kherson, farther from the front line. The disappearance of the expensive looted cars, he said, “gave me hope.”

In the week before liberation, he was cut off from news after the electricity went out. On Friday, he saw a car drive by with a Ukrainian flag flapping from an antenna. “I knew the Russians were gone,” he said.

Mr. Morales joined the celebration in the city’s central square on Friday, greeting the Ukrainian soldiers as they entered the city without a fight, driving pickups and jeeps. However happy he is for the city’s liberation, he said, he plans to leave now.

“I need to put some space between myself and what happened here,” he said.

Mr. Morales, glad to be free, plans to leave the city.
Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

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