I spied on the Russians – with a little help from a ‘Negroni’

To the occupying forces, Anastasia ran a popular cafe bar in Kherson – but little did they know she was monitoring their every movement

IN KHERSON. 3 March 2023

For the Russian soldiers occupying the Ukrainian city of Kherson, Anastasia Burlak’s cafe-bar was a popular place for R&R. The pizza was tasty, the booze flowed, and their hostess – a smiley, tattooed 30-year old – was always welcoming.

Yet, as they downed Scotch by the bottle, and tried to flirt with Anastasia and her waitresses, the heavily armed customers relaxed a little too much for their own good. None realised that when her eye occasionally lingered on their uniforms, it wasn’t out of admiration for the men wearing them.

For as she plied them with drink, Anastasia was spying on her patrons for Kherson’s pro-Ukrainian partisans. Details of any officer with high-ranking uniform badges would be relayed to her military handler, helping the guerrilla campaign that brought Kherson’s occupation to an end last year.

“I remember the first time some Russians came in, my hands were literally shaking as I served them, I was so scared,” said Anastasia. “But I was also angry – how dare they come to our land and try to decide our affairs for us? I passed any information I could – how many soldiers there were, how many vehicles, and any details of commanders.”

It was dangerous work. Anastasia communicated with her handler via private messages on her Instagram feed, which otherwise showed pictures of cats, holiday snaps and nights on the town. She choose a codeword to send if Russian FSB agents ever came knocking at her door: “Negroni”. It would signal she was now in jail, and for her handler to erase all traces of their contact. “If the Russians start torturing you for information, they can break the strongest person,” she said.

Irina Kabycheva, who spied on Russian troops while out walking with her son,  holds a cerficate of congratulation she received from Ukraine's armed forces
Irina Kabycheva, who spied on Russian troops while out walking with her son, holds a cerficate of congratulation she received from Ukraine’s armed forces CREDIT: Colin Freeman for The Telegraph

Vladimir Putin’s forces captured Kherson a year ago last Wednesday, making the port of 300,000 the first major Ukrainian city to fall to Kremlin control. During eight months of occupation, thousands were arrested and jailed, with hundreds more killed and many still missing. The Ukrainian flag was finally hoisted in the city again in November, after a counter-offensive that owed much to tip-offs from informants such as Anastasia.

The euphoria that greeted the city’s liberation has proved short-lived. Having retreated to the far side of the River Dnipro, Russian troops now simply shell Kherson from afar. Random mortar fire now peppers the streets 24 hours a day, claiming 90 civilian lives in the past three months. The city is even emptier than it was during the occupation, when two-thirds of the population fled. Freedom Square, where huge street parties took place in November, is deserted.

Partisan spies

Yet, for Anastasia and many others who acted as partisan spies, there is still the consolation of knowing that they did their own small bit to win Kherson’s freedom back. Most, like her, were not trained espionage agents. Instead, they were ordinary residents: cafe workers, hoteliers, taxi drivers and housewives, who all lived in daily fear of getting caught. Even now, only a few are willing to talk – and still have no idea who else was involved.

“It wasn’t a system – most of us acted just on our own initiatives, and that’s why the Russians could not stop it,” said Anastasia.

Prior to the invasion, Anastasia took little interest in politics, and was convinced that if Vladimir Putin’s invasion did go ahead, he would content himself with taking a small slice of extra territory in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas. “I just saw Russians as my neighbours and cousins – I now feel ashamed that I didn’t pay more attention,” she said.

That made the shock of Kherson’s fall all the greater – especially when Russian soldiers first entered her premises one day and ordered coffee. “The whole bar went silent,” she said. “They were trying to be friendly, though: they asked if they could pay in roubles, and when I said no, they didn’t get angry.”

Kherson’s new overlords did not stay on their best behaviour for long. Despite their claim to be “liberating” the city, Anastasia had already heard of friends being arrested around town. By April, reports of atrocities were also emerging from Bucha, the Kyiv suburb that suffered the brunt of Russia’s assault on the capital. “That news made me really angry – I had to do something,” she said.

Among those already on the run from the Russians was her friend “Vlad”, a member of Kherson’s territorial defence force. He warned she would be taking a “big risk” by spying on her Russian customers. But their increasingly boorish behaviour in her bar banished any second thoughts.

“They would come in, drinking a lot, sometimes with prostitutes,” she said. “They didn’t like to wait long for service, and once they told a waitress that if she didn’t hurry up, they’d take to her to an underground prison. I had to say, ‘please don’t threaten my staff’. I was scared I’d end up in jail with the waitress myself.”

Oksana Pohomii, 59, a member of a pro-Western party on Kherson's city council, passed on information about Ukrainians she suspected of collaborating with the Russians
Oksana Pohomii, 59, a member of a pro-Western party on Kherson’s city council, passed on information about Ukrainians she suspected of collaborating with the Russians CREDIT: Colin Freeman for The Telegraph

At other times, she found herself defusing rows between the Russians and local Ukrainian customers, who would sometimes make a point of speaking in their national tongue. One Russian officer, who was refused service when he walked in just after closing time, threatened to shoot everyone who was still in the bar. “I was so angry: I just said: ‘Why are you frightening people?’ and he backed down.”

Anastasia never found out what her Ukrainian handlers did with her information, nor did she really want to know. “I hope it was helpful but I wanted a simple life,” she said. “I didn’t really want to take responsibility for people’s deaths.”

Simply being an informant was stressful enough. Journeying to and from work, she would constantly check she wasn’t being followed. She also found herself developing a nervous tic. Asked how she coped, she replied: “Alcohol helped.”

Codeword – ‘Negroni’

That Anastasia never had to resort to codeword “Negroni” may have been due to the old-school attitudes of the Russian army, a blend of chivalry and chauvinism. They tended to view only men as a threat, and seldom stopped and questioned women in the street.

Even if they had done, they would have probably ignored Irina Kabycheva, a 42-year-old housewife who was another member of the spy network. When walking around the city on reconnaissance missions, she would take her 10-year-old son Timur with her, looking the picture of motherly innocence.

“I’d take him out to his judo class, sometimes with my husband as well, and we’d just look like a family going for a walk,” she said. “Nobody suspected us at all.”

In reality, she was monitoring various hotels and goods yards, noting any requisitioned by the Russians as barracks or vehicle depots.

One of her tips was that Russian officers were using the Don Marco, a restaurant also popular with Ukrainian locals. Her handler told her it would not be targeted, because of the risk to civilians. But a hotel called the Ninel, she said, was hit by a US-supplied Himars rocket in October, killing several Russian officials living inside.

The informants did not just keep their eye on Russians. Oksana Pohomii, 59, a member of a pro-Western party on Kherson’s city council, passed on information about Ukrainians she suspected of collaborating with the Russians.

Some were fellow members of the 54-strong council body. Others were seen attending pro-Russian demos, or helping organise September’s Kremlin-rigged referendum to become part of Russia. “I passed the information via a Signal chat group – just an inner circle of a few people,” she said.

Oksana herself went into hiding in May, after Russian troops came looking for at her house. She continued to post videos denouncing the occupation via a closed Facebook page, having “unfriended” anyone whose loyalties she was unsure of.

As the months passed, the spying campaign yielded results. Several officials in Kherson’s Kremlin-installed administration were assassinated. The tip-offs also helped the Ukrainian military pinpoint targets for its Himars missiles, destroying the supply bases the Russians depended on.

Ruthless game

When Ukrainian-flagged military convoys first appeared again in the city on November 11, many feared at first it was a Russian trap, designed to see who would come out to cheer. It was not until the following days that Anastasia and her family celebrated with champagne and cake.

Irina’s handler later emailed her a certificate of congratulation, thanking her for “timely provision of important information about the enemy”. Oksana’s Facebook friends, meanwhile, messaged to thank her for the speeches she’d posted. “They said they’d been too scared to tick ‘like’ on them before,” she said.

Anastasia would also later learn how she had become a bit-player in a very ruthless game. “Vlad” disclosed that one night, he’d followed a drunken Russian soldier out of another bar and stabbed him to death. It wasn’t quite the shock she expected. “It felt absolutely normal to hear that,” she said. “I know the Russians are human, but after all this time, I hate them.”

The graffiti outside 74-year-old Valentina Haras' home denounces her as a 'Ruscist' - a Ukrainian play on the words Russia, racism and fascism
The graffiti outside 74-year-old Valentina Haras’ home denounces her as a ‘Ruscist’ – a Ukrainian play on the words Russia, racism and fascismCREDIT: Colin Freeman for The Telegraph

Neither Irina nor Oksana have troubled consciences either. During eight months of Russian rule, they too lost any empathy for the occupiers. As Irina’s husband put it: “They are not human, they came and took our property, torturing people, kidnapping people. I remember seeing a father being taken away at a checkpoint, and his young son just sitting there alone for two hours. What do you think was going through that child’s mind?”

The hatred wasn’t just born of the serious human rights abuses, but petty indignities. At checkpoints, Russian troops would stop and search entire busfuls of residents if they didn’t say good morning cheerfully enough.

“Sometimes, the soldiers would scroll through the photos on someone’s phone and find sexy photos that they’d made for their partner,” added one Kherson resident. “Then they’d show the photos to the other soldiers. That kind of thing really angered people – it was just so humiliating.”

Locals collaborating with Russians?

The bitterness lingers. For while the Russians have now moved on, many locals who were accused of collaborating remain. Some are even suspected of directing the mortar fire that now rains on Kherson daily.

Just a few doors from Irena’s home is a house spray-painted with the “Z” symbol used by Russian forces. The graffiti also denounces the occupant as a “Ruscist” – a Ukrainian play on the words Russia, racism and fascism.

Living there is Valentina Haras, 74, a neighbourhood cleaner accused by several locals of supporting the Russians when they came.

“She was walking around with the Russian flag in her hand and accepted Russian humanitarian help,” claims Irena. “She has now painted Ukrainian flags next to the Z’s, to try to show she’s a patriot, but she has always supported Russia.”

Had she really? Asked by The Telegraph, Valentina insisted the graffiti had been put there by a neighbour with a grudge. “I’m not pro-Russian – I have a daughter who lives in California,” she said. “I’ve nothing to be ashamed of.”

To prove her point, she even brandished a small American flag. She confirmed, though, that Ukrainian police had visited her and taken her phone for investigation. “They asked if I made lists of local people for the Russians – I did, but only so the elderly people could get humanitarian help.”

Whether the police deem Valentina guilty as charged, or just the victim of malicious gossip, remains to be seen. Such is the rancour in Kherson right now, however, that many minds already seem made up.

“She was collaborating for sure,” said another neighbour stood on a street corner with two other men, who nodded in agreement. “She should be punished by the process of law, though, not by the neighbours.”

Might they, as neighbours, then forgive her? With the same certainty that they had just nodded, all three shook their heads.


  1. Great article about astonishing heroism. What those filthy savages might have done to her if caught doesn’t bear thinking about. I hope she is very safe now.
    I also hope that Colin Freeman cleared this article with Ukrainian security before posting it.

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