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Kherson's underground resistance: How ordinary people fought Russia from the shadows

Tetiana Horobstova, 70, and her husband, Volodymyr, on the balcony of their home, where their daughter was talking on the phone when Russian soldiers came to arrest her in Kherson, Ukraine.
Laurel Chor for NPR
Tetiana Horobstova, 70, and her husband, Volodymyr, on the balcony of their home, where their daughter was talking on the phone when Russian soldiers came to arrest her in Kherson, Ukraine.

KHERSON, Ukraine — Tetiana Horobstova, a retired physics teacher born in Russia, did not believe Russians would attack this city founded by Catherine the Great.

"Attack a Russian-speaking city, where people had family and friends in Russia?" she recalls, shaking her head. "No way."

On Feb. 24, 2022, despite warnings from the West that Russia was about to invade Ukraine, Horobstova remembers waking to a beautiful morning and watching the sunrise from her balcony. It turned the sky pink and illuminated green fields bursting with the winter harvest.

"And then I heard the explosions. And then I saw the explosions," she says. "One near the airport, then a second. The third at a gas station that seemed to turn everything red."

She began to cry. She called her friends and family to see if they were OK. Some were packing their bags to flee west. But Horobstova, her husband, Volodymyr, and her youngest daughter, Iryna, refused. Even with their Russian roots, their loyalties were clear.

"We had a Ukrainian flag on our TV, and a poster that says 'Putin Get Out!' " she says. "My poster, by the way."

Their daughter in western Ukraine begged them to flee. But they stayed, along with their youngest daughter, Iryna, who intended to resist.

The Russian army made short work of occupying the city

Kherson was the first major city occupied by Russian forces. With Kherson's deep historical ties to Russia, Moscow did not expect it to be a center of resistance. But the city, like the rest of Ukraine, defied the Kremlin's expectations.

The first days of the invasion in Kherson were chaotic. Serhiy, a soldier from a local brigade, watched in horror as Russian soldiers quickly overran the riverbank on the other side of the Dnipro River.

"Ukraine didn't even have time to mobilize forces," says Serhiy, who won't reveal his last name for security reasons. "It all happened so fast."

Serhiy, a soldier who cannot show his face or reveal his last name as he has family in occupied territory, poses in front of a World War II memorial in Kherson, Ukraine.
/ Laurel Chor for NPR
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Laurel Chor for NPR
Serhiy, a soldier who cannot show his face or reveal his last name as he has family in occupied territory, poses in front of a World War II memorial in Kherson, Ukraine.

Ukrainian soldiers fought to keep Russian paratroopers off the Antonivka Bridge, which crosses the Dnipro River into the city of Kherson. Serhiy wondered why Ukrainian authorities hadn't blown up the bridge on the first day of the invasion.

"It should have been blown up," he says. "That would have slowed down the Russian troops."

Serhiy got his wife and children out of Kherson. Then, as Russian forces took over his city, he turned to a special mission.

"To destroy the enemy's equipment and enemy troops," he says. "And also to find and kill collaborators."

For many, choosing to be a partisan was easy

Many civilians wanted to help the Ukrainian military. Oksana Pohomii, a 59-year-old accountant and city council member, had been warning for years that the Kremlin could not be trusted and says at first President Volodymyr Zelenskyy didn't take the Russian threat seriously.

"I have been having nightmares that Russians were going to invade Kherson since 2014," she says, referring to the year Russia invaded and occupied Crimea and the eastern Ukrainian industrial heartland known as Donbas. "And then my nightmare came true."

Oksana Pohomii, a 59-year-old accountant and city council member who had spied on the Russian forces during their occupation of Kherson, poses for a portrait in the bakery where she now bakes and distributes bread to local residents.
/ Laurel Chor for NPR
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Laurel Chor for NPR
Oksana Pohomii, a 59-year-old accountant and city council member who had spied on the Russian forces during their occupation of Kherson, poses for a portrait in the bakery where she now bakes and distributes bread to local residents.

With her dyed-fire-red hair braided into a rattail, Pohomii looks like a cross between Cyndi Lauper and a Viking. Just before the invasion, she applied to train as a soldier with the territorial defense, but the recruiting office turned her down, saying they were flooded with applicants.

During the invasion, she helped evacuate Ukrainian soldiers and their families stuck on the other side of the river, with the Russians at their heels.

"They hid in shallow parts of the Dnipro River, covered in reeds and mud," she says. "And we organized cars to go pick them up."

After the invasion, she joined protests in Kherson. Locals were angry but cautious.

"I remember this boy with an amputated leg in the central market," she says. "He played the guitar and sang the Ukrainian national anthem. It was really brave. We would gather around him and sing along quietly, like bunnies."

Just as quietly, an underground resistance formed. Hundreds of civilians secretly became partisans, forming espionage cells reporting to the Ukrainian military and security services. Pohomii joined one. Her job was to document who was collaborating with Russian forces and to send her findings to Ukraine's security services via the secure messaging app Signal.

"I saw there were three types of people in Kherson," she says. "Those who will die for Ukraine. Those who will die for Russia. And those who do not care, who are like, 'Ukraine is OK, Russia took over, and that's also OK.' "

Pohomii took photos and videos of suspected collaborators and eavesdropped on conversations, then passed on the information to Ukraine's security services.

The suspects included some of her fellow city council members, a prominent doctor who helped the city survive COVID, and even a childhood classmate who was a teacher of Ukrainian history.

"Many teachers quit," Pohomii says, "but she decided to work with the Russians."

Kherson's amateur spies went to work

Pohomii's close friend, Olha Chupikova, a 48-year-old landscape designer, also became a spy.

She lives near the Antonivka Bridge and served, she says, as "the eyes and ears of the Ukrainian military."

"I told them everything I saw about Russian troops — where they live, where they put their vehicles," Chupikova recalls, adding that she followed them wherever she could.

Olha Chupikova, a 48-year-old landscape designer who spied on the occupying Russian forces, poses inside the bakery where she now helps to bake bread to distribute to local residents in Kherson, Ukraine.
/ Laurel Chor for NPR
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Laurel Chor for NPR
Olha Chupikova, a 48-year-old landscape designer who spied on the occupying Russian forces, poses inside the bakery where she now helps to bake bread to distribute to local residents in Kherson, Ukraine.

"Sometimes I'd pretend I was going to the grocery store or waiting for the bus, and I tried to change my clothes as often as I could," she says. "I'm not saying I'm Agent 007. I just did whatever made sense to me."

Chupikova was hard to track, in part, because "I do not look like a threat," she says. With her pixie cut and bright blue eyes, she looks like a Minnesota soccer mom about to offer you a freshly baked apple pie.

"They wanted us to look average, unremarkable, not easy to remember so we could work undetected," she says, "as if we were moving between drops of rain."

She recruited her husband, Valerii Chupikov, to work with her. They used Google Maps to find coordinates of Russian convoys and sent them via Signal to a contact of Olha's in Ukraine's military.

When the internet was out and cellphone service was weak, she would climb to the roof of her house and throw her phone up in the air, hoping for a signal to send her messages.

"I was really scared the first time I was on the roof," she says. "We're not professional spies. We are amateurs. But if not us, then who?"

The danger for Kherson's partisans was constant

Russian troops seemed to be watching everyone closely. Olha Chupikova says residents were getting arrested for simply giving Russian soldiers dirty looks.

"I was worried that Olha would get arrested too," her husband says. "She had such a hard time hiding the hate in her eyes for them."

Tetiana Horobstova, 70, and her husband, Volodymyr, on the balcony of their home, where their daughter was talking on the phone when Russian soldiers came to arrest her in Kherson, Ukraine.
/ Laurel Chor for NPR
/
Laurel Chor for NPR
Tetiana Horobstova, 70, and her husband, Volodymyr, on the balcony of their home, where their daughter was talking on the phone when Russian soldiers came to arrest her in Kherson, Ukraine.

Tetiana Horobstova, the retired teacher who watched the invasion from her balcony, worried about her daughter Iryna.

She says Iryna spent months driving all over the city, giving rides to nurses and doctors secretly helping injured Ukrainians.

"She also spent all of her money buying medicine to distribute to people here," Horobstova says.

On May 13, Iryna's 37th birthday, two cars pulled up outside the house.

"There were 11 guys, armed to the teeth, with their faces covered, wearing military fatigues and waving machine guns and pistols," Horobstova recalls. "Six went upstairs to our apartment and right to her room. She didn't deny anything. She said, 'Yes, I'm a Ukrainian patriot, and I hate you.' And they took her away."

The armed men confiscated Iryna's phones, laptop and memory stick, and Horobstova's laptop, too, which she says was only filled with lessons for her physics classes.

"They even took my husband's binoculars and his power bank," she says. "But we didn't care. We cared that they took our daughter."

One of the armed Russians grabbed at the Ukrainian flag on her TV and kept yelling, "You've got a breeding ground here!"

"And I kept saying 'a breeding ground of what?' " she says. "I said, 'This is the flag of our country, where I live and where my daughter lives. You also have a country, and you have your own flag.' He just kept yelling."

The Russian occupiers were known for their brutality

Hundreds of other residents disappeared, including the elected mayor of Kherson, Ihor Kolykhalev, who was arrested in June.

By the end of summer, several members of Oleksandr Diakov's espionage cell had also been arrested.

Diakov, a shy, bearded apartment manager, had spent months spying on Russian-installed politicians for Ukraine's security services. He suspects the Russians may have found a way to listen to partisans' conversations. But he says Russians also got information about cells by torturing captured partisans.

Oleksandr Diakov, a Kherson resident, poses outside the facility where he was detained and tortured by Russian forces during the occupation of the city.
/ Laurel Chor for NPR
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Laurel Chor for NPR
Oleksandr Diakov, a Kherson resident, poses outside the facility where he was detained and tortured by Russian forces during the occupation of the city.

"I knew that sooner or later, the Russians would find me, too," he says. "They arrested me when I was at a friend's house."

They covered his head and drove him to the city jail. He remembers it being full of fellow Khersonians he recognized.

The torture began almost immediately. His hands shake as he recalls four long torture sessions, three of them especially brutal. They electrocuted him and beat him with clubs, metal pipes and their boots. They asked him about a man in his espionage cell.

"And I would say, 'He's a very nice person,' " Diakov says. "And they would beat me some more."

The screams of tortured partisans filled the jail. Natalya Havrylenko, another imprisoned partisan, remembers hearing Russian soldiers rape a man in a corridor.

"And you're listening to this cruelty, listening to his screams, and then all of sudden they're forcing him to sing the Russian national anthem or 'Katusha,' this old Soviet song," she says. "Insane things. The fear and psychological pressure were enormous."

Collaborators were numerous and at times unexpected

After two weeks of detention and torture, Oleksandr Diakov could barely move. His Russian captors kicked his left leg so badly that it broke and got infected. He pleaded for a doctor.

On Sept. 2, Russian soldiers loaded him into a van and drove him to what looked like the outskirts of town.

"I thought they were taking me not to the doctor, but to the forest" to be executed, he says. He had heard in prison that others there had died that way.

Oleksandr Diakov, a Kherson resident, sits in his home and shows scars on his leg from when he was tortured by Russian soldiers during the occupation of the city.
/ Laurel Chor for NPR
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Laurel Chor for NPR
Oleksandr Diakov, a Kherson resident, sits in his home and shows scars on his leg from when he was tortured by Russian soldiers during the occupation of the city.

But the Russians did end up taking Diakov for medical care. He had two surgeries. Over the next several weeks, he recuperated with Russian soldiers stationed outside his door.

By the end of September, the Russian-installed government organized a referendum to pave the way for Russia to annex Kherson.

Oksana Pohomii, the city councilwoman and partisan on the lookout for suspected collaborators, saw a list of locals who helped organize the referendum and recognized many names, including the son of her former classmate. She says that classmate also forced residents to vote, driving them to the polls herself.

"She was a teacher of Ukrainian history and yet, here she was, proud to be part of this referendum organized by the butchers," Pohomii says, referring to the Russians. "She didn't even try to hide it."

Pohomii laughs when she recalls the referendum results, which showed nearly everyone who voted wanted to join Russia. She says even the Russians knew it was a sham and that it made Russian President Vladimir Putin look desperate.

"The Russians lost the day they decided to attack us," she says.

By fall, Pohomii and the rest of the underground resistance had helped weaken the Russian hold on Kherson.

Politicians installed by the Russians were assassinated. When Ukraine got sophisticated missiles from the U.S., military officials say the partisans helped Ukrainian troops target sites like the Antonivka Bridge, which cut off Russian supply routes.

Finally, the city is liberated

On Oct. 24, when a doctor helped Oleksandr Diakov escape from the hospital, Russian forces were already looting the city and starting to evacuate. Russian-installed officials even removed the bones of Grigory Potemkin, the 18th century Russian commander, from St. Catherine's Cathedral.

By November, Ukrainian forces had pushed the Russians to the other side of the Dnipro River. The Russians left behind tanks, trucks and ammunition.

A building damaged by a strike in Kherson, Ukraine.
/ Laurel Chor for NPR
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Laurel Chor for NPR
A building damaged by a strike in Kherson, Ukraine.

Diakov was hiding at a friend's house when he heard a convoy of cars on the night of Nov. 10.

"They were blasting Ukrainian music, and I realized our guys were entering the city," he says. "Every day we were waiting for this. When I was tortured, I kept imagining the day when the Ukrainian soldiers would come home, and all our work would mean something."

The next morning, it was clear that Ukrainian troops controlled Kherson. Residents poured into the streets and cheered. Diakov, unable to walk, cheered from his bed.

Pohomii, the city councilwoman, helped replace Russian flags with Ukrainian ones.

The former classmate, the teacher of Ukrainian history who had helped Russians try to annex Kherson, tried to stop her.

"She said, 'What are you doing? Maybe the Russians will come back?' " Pohomii recalled. "But soon she realized that we would make sure that Kherson is Ukraine forever. So she left for Russia. And many others like her left, too."

Kherson is back under Ukraine's control but still vulnerable

More than three months after liberation, Russian forces remain across the river — less than a mile away.

They hit Kherson every day with rockets, missiles and artillery. More than 80 civilians have died. Only a fifth of the city's prewar population of 300,000 remains.

Serhiy, the soldier from the local brigade, is back in Kherson. He runs reconnaissance missions to the left bank of the Dnipro and is in touch with partisans there who tell him where collaborators and traitors are hiding.

"I know people who did a lot of harm, who are guilty in the death of Ukrainians," he says, "and they're still alive."

Serhiy, a soldier who cannot show his face or reveal his last name as he has family in occupied territory, poses in a park in Kherson, Ukraine. He had used information given by local civilians to target Russian forces during the occupation of Kherson.
/ Laurel Chor for NPR
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Laurel Chor for NPR
Serhiy, a soldier who cannot show his face or reveal his last name as he has family in occupied territory, poses in a park in Kherson, Ukraine. He had used information given by local civilians to target Russian forces during the occupation of Kherson.

Serhiy says he heard about Kherson's liberation while fighting in the Kharkiv region in northeastern Ukraine. His brigade had helped free parts of that region in September. But he says his commanders told him they couldn't help with the liberation of their hometown.

"I guess they were nervous and afraid that we would seek vengeance on traitors and collaborators," he says. "I felt bad not to be there. But I understand why I wasn't."

Oksana Pohomii now runs a volunteer bakery with her friend Olha Chupikova, the landscape designer who used to spy on the Russian military near the Antonivka Bridge. Just outside the bakery, a missile strike has left a huge crater.

On a recent morning, they are dusted in flour as they stack the warm loaves they call "Kherson Undefeated Bread." The bread is free. Pohomii says they deliver it to stressed residents.

"We never try to force anyone to stay because not everyone can take it," she says. "I know people who don't leave their homes. I know people who could handle the shelling at first but then something broke inside them after the shelling killed people. They stopped eating and drinking. And I said, "It's time to leave.' "

She often telephones Ukrainians trapped on the left bank, including the partisans there.

"They ask me, 'Oksana, are you going to leave Kherson?' and I always tell them 'No, no, no. No way!' " she says. "I tell them that as soon as we free them, I'm going to bake bread for 24 hours straight, load the loaves onto a motorboat with the Ukrainian flag, cross the Dnipro River and bring it to them personally."

The cost of defending Kherson remains high, and the future is uncertain

Chupikova says Russian sympathizers remain in Kherson. Some homes have the word "collaborator" spray-painted on a wall or door.

"You can always recognize them, because they're angry and aggressive, because they chose Russia and now everyone knows they're traitors," she says.

She's still in touch with the Ukrainian soldier she worked with during her spy days. He's in Bakhmut, where the fiercest fighting of the war is taking place. She says she worries about him and looks back on the work they did together with pride – and bewilderment.

Two women walk past a building damaged by a strike in Kherson, Ukraine.
/ Laurel Chor for NPR
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Laurel Chor for NPR
Two women walk past a building damaged by a strike in Kherson, Ukraine.

"It was like a crazy adventure," she says. "But we did it because we knew we had to do it."

Many partisans are still missing, presumed to be somewhere in Russian custody. Tetiana Horobstova's daughter Iryna is among them. Horobstova hasn't spoken to her daughter and isn't sure where she's being held, though there's evidence she's imprisoned in Russian-occupied Crimea.

"I worry that she is cold, because when they took her away, she was only wearing a summer top," Horobstova says. "She has no change of underwear, no hygiene pads, nothing."

Horobstova is pleading with her fellow ethnic Russians to free her daughter. She says her Russian roots are now a deep source of heartache.

"I feel ashamed," she says, and starts to cry, "as if it was me personally who started this terrible war."

Hanna Palamarenko contributed reporting from Kherson, and Julian Hayda from Kyiv. Editing by Mark Katkov and Pam Webster. Chad Campbell produced a version of this story for broadcast.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.
Polina Lytvynova