LYMAN, Ukraine — As dusk gathered on Sunday, Elena Kharkovska stood in the courtyard of her apartment block in eastern Ukraine, contemplating what she had just learned: She had lived in Russia for a day.
President Vladimir V. Putin decreed on Friday that four regions of Ukraine including Donetsk, where Ms. Kharkovska’s home city of Lyman is located, would be absorbed into Russia and that its people would be Russian citizens “forever.” The Ukrainian Army recaptured Lyman, a critical rail hub, the next day.
Without electricity, radios or access to the internet, half a dozen residents said in interviews, they had no way of learning about the grandiose ceremony at the Kremlin that had welcomed them into Russia, even as Russian soldiers were fleeing from their city.
Ms. Kharkovska greeted a question about having briefly lived in Russia — at least according to the Russian interpretation of events — with a blank stare. Told that Mr. Putin had on Friday declared her town part of Russia, the retiree laughed.
“I didn’t hear anything about it,” Ms. Kharkovska said, as she kept an eye on a kettle of buckwheat that was simmering over a campfire, a necessity after months without cooking gas. “I’m in shock,” she said. “Nobody told us anything” on Friday or Saturday as the town changed hands.
“It’s funny to me because it recalls a saying: ‘Without me, they married me,’” she added.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine and Western leaders say the Russian annexation is illegal and therefore meaningless — that the territory has been and will remain Ukrainian. The swirl of events in Lyman, though, are sure to resonate far beyond its surprised residents.
The Ukrainian army’s swift capture of Lyman in the hours after Mr. Putin’s speech highlighted the Russian leader’s precarious hold on annexed territories. Mr. Zelensky said Saturday that the Russian retreat from Lyman demonstrated that Moscow’s attempt to illegally annex much of the country was an “absolute farce.”
In a hasty withdrawal, the Russians abandoned military vehicles in streets and bodies of soldiers on the roads into town. It was clear on Sunday afternoon that Ukraine was determined to rid the town of any trace of its previous occupiers, as soldiers and police patrolled the streets searching for any stragglers.