JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — As Vladimir Putin castigated the West Friday and celebrated what he said was a decision by four Ukrainian states to join Russia, a Johnson City woman born and raised in one of them said the vote process was not just a sham — it was marked by threatening demands that people vote pro-Russian.

“People never went to this referendum, and they hide,” Yevjeniia Hrebenkova, who grew up in the Kherson oblast, or state, where the Dnipro River flows toward the Black Sea. They never came in the place where they kept special boxes for this paper,” Hrebenkova said. “Old people were afraid and stay at home, and Russian soldiers came to their house with weapons and said, ‘you need to put marks here.'”

Yevjeniia Hrebenkova (WJHL photo)

It wasn’t just the elderly who were being intimidated, she said. A friend of Hrebenkova’s relayed an account of a woman who still lives in Kherson and operates a small family store.

“They came to her with weapons and put papers and said ‘you need to put marks here,'” Hrebenkova said. “She said ‘I don’t want to put ‘yes I want to go to the Russia,’ and they said, ‘do you want to be alive, and do you work here?'”

A report from TASS, the Russian news agency, says nearly 80% of Kherson region residents voted and that 87.1% voting in favor of joining Russia — seven months after the country attacked and took control of the region.

While Putin touted the supposed decision by voters, Hrebenkova said the thought that an overwhelming majority of people there would vote to leave Ukraine is ludicrous. At the same time, she admitted the event, sham or not, fills her with some concern for her in-laws in the Kherson region and people across Ukraine despite her conviction Ukraine will ultimately win the war and maintain its territory.

“We don’t know his next step,” said Hrebenkova, who moved from Kyiv to the U.S. six years ago but grew up in the town of Beryslav north of Kherson’s main city. “We don’t know how his brain works and what he will do next, if he wants to use nuclear bombs.”

Hrebenkova and her husband Vlad have heard several firsthand accounts of the referendum. Putin claimed Friday that Donetsk and Luhansk, two eastern regions that were the sight of low-level conflict for eight years leading up to the war, voted to become Russian territories along with Kherson and Zaporizhia. Together the four oblasts make up nearly a fifth of Ukraine’s land mass.

Vlad’s parents still live in Beryslav. They had internet service on Sept. 23 and were able to tell him and Yevjeniia that Russians had come by their home about the referendum, but they were away.

A park in Beryslav, Ukraine, where Johnson Citian Yevjeniia Hrebenkova was born and raised photographed during her last visit there several years ago. Russian leader Vladimir Putin said Kherson region, where Beryslav is located, was among four Ukrainian states that have voted to join Russia. (Photo courtesy Yevjeniia Hrebenkova)

Their neighbors were home, though — and they experienced a visit from Russian troops, something that’s being reported across the embattled territory where Hrebenkova was born and raised and where Russia had its earliest successful victory in a large city (Kherson city).

A TASS article notes that the Sept. 23-27 voting included mobile election commissions touring schools, theaters and residential areas and conducting “door-to-door balloting for security reasons amid the ever-present danger of Ukrainian shelling.”

Hrebenkova said she thinks Putin’s decision to hold the referendum was “a spontaneous step.” In August, the Russian president announced the votes would be held on Sept. 11. Then a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive began and that date passed, but it wasn’t long before the votes went forward.

“I watch a lot of information about (the war), and he cannot do nothing,” she said. “He lose his army, he lose everything.

“The second reason I think he did this, because Russian people support him, but they understand the situation that happened before in Kharkiv (where Russia fled before advancing Ukrainian forces in mid-September) and everybody understand he lose this war.”

Vlad Hrebenkov’s parents are staying put in Beryslav, despite the danger. Hrebenkova said she and her husband know they can’t convince them otherwise, but they worry — about the imminent arrival of cold weather and the daily risk of shelling.

“We’re afraid about bombs. Bombs came every day in this region where our parents live. And we’re afraid they stay without energy, without internet, and now we will have wintertime and it’s very cold winter in Ukraine.”