‘Soldiers without the uniforms’: Kherson couple recall anti-Russia resistance

The Guardian
The Guardian

Yulia and Roma* were a young couple in love when Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February. They saw panic unfold in their southern city of Kherson, as food and medicine quickly disappeared from shelves and cancer patients – including Yulia’s grandfather - died from a lack of essential drugs.

The couple organised deliveries from friends and family, taking food and medicine around the city to those in need – people they found via word of mouth and social media. On their route they saw terrible things. A young teenage boy and an old man, who had died from the wave of an explosion after a strike on a shopping centre, lying face down, with no one who could collect them; a soldier who had been reduced to flesh strewn across the windshield of an army truck.

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Facing the onslaught from Russian forces, the Ukrainian soldiers defending the city were ordered to retreat. By early March, Kherson was under Russian occupation and vehicles marked with a Z, Russia’s wartime symbol, patrolled the streets.

Over the months that followed Roma and Yulia were among those who resisted Russian rule in Kherson by working on the ground for the Ukrainian army. “Before the war, my life was Instagram, coffee shops and trips to Kyiv,” said 24-year-old Yulia. Afterwards, they were “soldiers, just without the uniforms”, she said, miming putting on a helmet.

In mid-September 10 masked men from Russian special forces turned up at the couple’s apartment. They handcuffed 29-year-old Roma on the floor in his underwear and dragged him down the stairwell.

He said: “They put the pistol to my head and said, ‘we know that you were working with the Ukrainians forces, you are from the Right Sector’.” Right Sector was a Ukrainian far-right nationalist movement which no longer exists in the same form but has been making headlines in Russian propaganda.

Roma added: “When they held the pistol near my head, they said ‘everything now is up to you, what you do next will be the decision of your life.’ I just didn’t understand what they wanted and I said ‘OK, OK, guys, we’ll do everything you say’.”

The masked men told him he was going to “the basement”, a term for Russian detention centres. There, they beat him and told him they would send him to a penal colony in Russia unless he talked. They held a gun to his head and pulled the trigger – but there was no bullet in the chamber.
Kherson residents queueing on 19 November around an aid vehicle distributing food parcels. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

Despite the torture Roma did not to tell them about his work for the Ukrainian resistance. “I said I had been interviewed by [journalists] but that we talked about corruption, not any political topics.” Russian soldiers understood that the pressure they were applying was insufficient, he said.

“They put electrodes to my testicles but they didn’t switch on the power,” said Roma. “They asked about what I knew about any partisans [disguised Ukrainian forces behind enemy lines] and I said, ‘guys, I don’t know nothing, you’ve checked all my telephones and computers so just let me fucking go.’”

Roma was put in a cell with seven other men – some of whom had been in detention since March.

“There was no life in their eyes, these were broken people,” said Roma. He said they had all been tortured with electrodes, had not washed and did not have basic means for hygiene such as toothbrushes.

Roma said he heard one of his cellmates screaming for his mother during torture sessions. Meanwhile, he could hear people laughing and children playing just above ground, at a kiosk next to the detention facility. “It was such a cognitive dissonance.”

After his release Roma moved with Yulia to avoid being asked to vote in the sham referendum Russia held in late September – after which Moscow declared Kherson and other parts of occupied Ukraine part of Russia, in a move that was rejected by the international community.


Roma said he barely left his flat between being released and the Ukrainian army retaking the city. The Russians singled him out because of resistance actions that kept happening around him, he said. The extent to which he was involved is something he says he will only talk about after the war.

Just before he was taken to the detention centre there was an attempted assassination at a university near the couple’s apartment block. Since March almost 20 collaborators have been assassinated in the Russian-occupied areas, allegedly by Ukrainian partisan forces acting under instructions from Ukraine’s military intelligence.

Before that, in June, the Russians found guns stored a garage which was in the courtyard of their building.

And in May, said Roma, a collaborator whom he had known since he was a teenager and who had lived in his building was killed by a car bomb. Roma said he did not even know that the man was still living there until it happened. “I was sleeping on our balcony, it was summer, and boom. I saw my mother running in the back yard and my mother doesn’t run for stupid things.”

Roma rushed downstairs and saw Yulia holding the man’s screaming mother in her arms. They pulled the man from the car but he had lost his legs and was already dead, said Roma.

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According to Roma the man had moved to Russia after the 2014 revolution and returned in 2018 as a supporter of Vladimir Saldo, Kherson’s mayor in 2002-12 and 2014-15, who had been a pro-Russian Ukrainian politician. When the Russians occupied Kherson in March they appointed Saldo head of the Kherson region, and Roma’s neighbour the minister of sport of the region, said Roma. Roma believes that his late neighbour was recruited by the Russian security services when he moved to Russia and returned to Kherson to work as one of their agents.

A troop of cars marked with Z letters, and Russian soldiers, arrived at scene of the car bomb attack. “Just imagine that you wake up to a car blowing up in your back yard all [these] Z cars arrive and you know that you have information that could kill you,” said Roma.

While he talked to the Russians about what he saw, Yulia sneaked upstairs and collected all their electronic devices and moved them to a friend’s apartment. “It was really close. We were almost dying a lot of times here [in Kherson],” said Roma.

He and Yulia would not go into details about everything that they did for the Ukrainian cause. They said they were not involved in planting bombs, which was done by Ukrainian special forces. But they said that because of their volunteer work they travelled around the city and were able to pinpoint the exact locations of troops and equipment, including a Pantsir, a Russian missile system that is worth about $13m.

They said they told no one about their communications with the Ukrainian army, not even their like-minded friends. One of the key tactics of the Ukrainian partisans, they explained, was not to meet others who were involved.

“We shouldn’t meet with other persons [who are involved]. When someone takes you to the basement you cannot give information if you don’t have information,” said Roma. “It’s the time of the digital resistance.”

The couple said they did much of their work in the second room of what had been a two-room coffee house in central Kherson. It was owned by their friend who had fled but left them the keys. They had covered the windows to the street with paper from the outside, and it looked empty.

The main room of the coffee shop remained open to customers during the occupation, comprising mostly Russian soldiers. Yulia said that the city, until Ukrainian forces arrived, had been empty aside from the Russian military, so much so that you could sit in the middle of a road and meditate.

“It was the most funny part. They would drink coffee every day behind this wall,” said Roma, smiling and pointing to the wall dividing the two rooms of the coffee shop. One of the Russian commanders whom they served used to call Roma the “funny guy”.

“If you want to cover something up,” Roma said, you should do it within the enemy’s sight.

* Names have been changed for security reasons

Comments / 22


it's nice that Putin's invasion of Ukraine has done the opposite of what he was wishing for. he wanted to show the strength of Russian troops, they are nothing more than scum. he wanted a legacy as a perfect leader, he has become a joke. the list goes on! and he's made NATO more resilient.

Doug Despreaux

boohoo. you could've avoided this show and putting the world people in debt. no pitty from me for Ukraine.


Comments / 0