The Tragedy of Kakhovka Reservoir

Ukraine in Focus

On 6 June, 2023, Russian troops blew up the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant dam, which had been seized on 24 February, 2022. As a result, all the water –– a capacity of 18.2 km³ stored in the Kakhovka Reservoir, itself with an area of about 2,155 km²––began to flow uncontrollably, flooding  the settlements downstream one by one and endangering the cooling of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant units. Within a few days, Nova Kakhovka and Kherson were flooded, and Oleshky and Hola Prystan were almost completely submerged. The rivers flowing into the Dnipro turned their currents and began to flood the settlements of Mykolaiv region and Mykolaiv itself. A total of 45 settlements were flooded (31 on the right bank of the Dnipro and 14 on the left). Shocked residents of Odesa watched houses from Kherson floating among the trees; furniture, and even live animals washed up on the shore. The flood waters caused human casualties. The Kakhovka Reservoir ceased to exist. This was another tragedy that has historical roots.

The construction of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant and Reservoir, completed in 1956, was intended to provide irrigation and electricity generation. The need for marketable grain in the 1920s and 1930s completely changed the economic image of the South of Ukraine. If before the revolution the population chose grain production because it was profitable, now they were forced to do so by being herded into collective farms.  In the South, there were not enough water resources to plant forests and forest belts that could protect against hot winds, and there was not enough water for irrigation. Collectivization, and the ensuing struggle against the desire of Ukrainians to resist the totalitarian regime led to the terrible crime of the Holodomor genocide of 1932–1933. It was not related to climatic conditions, only to the desire to subdue the population of Ukraine by starvation, to force them to produce grain for the state without receiving anything in return other than the chance to not die of starvation.

In addition to the production of marketable and food grain, the Kremlin leaders were equally concerned with the world revolution and the provision of the army. Cotton was of strategic importance. It was used for many purposes, primarily for military ones, and the USSR had a lack of it. Therefore, a plan to grow cotton in the South of Ukraine was put into action. It should be noted that it had not yet been proven that it was possible to do this on an industrial scale in the South of Ukraine due to its climate. However, attempts continued apace. It seemed that the South of Ukraine was about to become a powerful new cotton-growing region. The final step was taken after the end of the Second World War, when the Ministry of Cotton Growing of the USSR initiated the building of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant and the Reservoir known as the Kakhovka Sea. This marked the beginning of the construction of a gigantic cascade of reservoirs on the Dnipro.

The building of the reservoirs meant flooding huge areas. With many historical and archeological sites, including both ancient burial sites and graves from the recent war. Newly formed archeological expeditions immediately started working in the areas that were to be flooded. Ukrainian writer and filmmaker Oleksandr Dovzhenko experienced the work of such an expedition at Kamyana Mohyla. The mounds of the Scythian kings, the memory of Velykyi Luh, the Zaporozhian Cossacks, and the connection between the past and the present, namely the destruction of the past for the sake of the future, are all reflected in his script for the film A Poem about the Sea (1958). It was addressed to those who suffered from the loss of their home and their family history, and experienced tragedy yet again, having so soon after the destruction and loss of the Second World War and famine in 1946-1947. 

This film, along with other journalistic and fictional works, served as a Soviet model of collective historical memory. At the time of its release for the construction of the Dnipro hydro cascade, 3,000 villages and towns, as many schools and libraries and about 2,500 churches were flooded; additionally about 3 million people, and more than 10,000 cemeteries containing 5 million graves were resettled. At that time, the Kherson region was devastated by the war and famine, sparsely populated, and depressed by a second wave of collectivization, and Crimea was affected by the deportation of Crimean Tatars. It was therefore necessary to ensure the inflow of people to the South and North of Crimea. People were resettled there from the flooded areas of Central Ukraine, mostly to rural areas in the steppes. The cinematographic images of new towns such as Nova Kakhovka, along with calls for resettlement, were meant to attract migrants from all over the USSR. 

The state denied responsibility for the tragedy, refusing to shoulder the moral burden. But all this came afterward. Prior to that, the residents of the Kherson region moved from the flooded areas to the coast of the Kakhovka Sea, where they were forced every day to contemplate the places where their homes once were. The residents of Central Ukraine arrived in the arid steppes, where they had to build irrigation canals, plow fields overgrown with weeds, and build new buildings. As a result, the population of the Kherson region grew significantly, and thanks to years of hard human labor, state and collective farms could grow not only grain but also vegetables, which brought in much more income. The terrible history of the region began to be gradually forgotten. But now, it rears its head again.

After mass migrations in 1954, a new chapter of its history was written with the dramatic destruction of the settlement by Russian troops in March 2022. Dovzhenko’s film contained no mention of the graves of parents; instead, it talked about ancient kings who left no memory but gold in their mounds. Therefore, it was a real shock for the residents of one village in the Nikopol district who were watching their dearly paid-for sea disappear, where mussels in agony left their last traces on the drying sand, when the graves of their ancestors were discovered with the receding water. Over the decades of being underwater, the thin topsoil had been washed away. And it turned out that all this time their skulls, overgrown with barnacles, had been looking at us from under the water.

Pylypenko, I., & Malchykova, D. (2023). Der Kachovka-Stausee Wirtschaftsmotor und Kriegsschauplatz OEZeitschrift Osteuropa, Volume 73, June, issue 1-2, 53-60

The Kherson cotton or a failed Soviet experiment (2021). The first series; Second series:; The third series:; Episode Four: