Kherson, Ukraine — At dawn on the second day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, car parts salesman Vladislav Nedostup spotted a Russian tank emblazoned with the letter “Z” on the street in his hometown of Kherson. Beneath the amber gloom of the streetlights, soldiers marched in formation with their war machines.
“It was like the tentacles of the Russian monster were entering our city,” he said. “driving their armored vehicles slowly along the roads, with darkness enveloping them.”
That’s when 28-year-old Nedostup decided he would become a partisan and join the city’s underground anti-Russian resistance. According to his own words, a man who had never fired a gun before would soon become a murderer.
“I am not a trained guerrilla or an assassin,” he told NBC News during one of several lengthy interviews he conducted over two trips to Kherson. “I just wanted to destroy them with my own hands.”
‘On Assignment With Richard Engel – Ukraine’s Secret Resistance’ airs Fridays at 10 p.m. ET on MSNBC
Kherson was the first major city to fall in Russia after its army invaded on February 24, 2022. Russians violently suppressed residents protesting against the Kremlin-appointed government for more than eight months, until the Black Sea city was liberated in November.
When Nedostup initially joined Kherson’s civil defense in the early days of the invasion, he was handed a rifle and sent to various positions to defend the city. But with the Ukrainian military quickly overwhelmed, the Civil Defense units were disbanded.
With Ukrainian forces unable to enter the city, Nedostup and the rest of the resistance fought back as the Russians became more surrounded. He contacted the Ukrainian intelligence service and became a conduit to deliver information that could help the Ukrainian Armed Forces in their push to retake the city.
Nedostup knew he couldn’t do it alone, so he paired up with two old friends who had stayed in town: Mykhailo Kuanov, an affable taxi driver, and Nastya Burlak, an easy-going bar manager.
Together, they developed a system for spying on and targeting Russian troops in the city and passing information to the intelligence services.
Kuanov would drive around the city interacting with Russian soldiers among his clients, obtaining information on their movements.
“Taxi drivers like to talk,” Nedostup, 30, said during several interviews. “Mykhailo is an expert in this.”
“People were so careless that they didn’t even try to hide their whereabouts,” Kuanov said of the Russians. “I was picking them up from point A and bringing them to point B, and I knew they obviously weren’t alone at point B, that there were quite a few of them.”
Kuanov said that over the summer he had received a tip that the Russians were stockpiling equipment inside a huge warehouse that was also used as a shopping mall.
“Instead of running straight to Vlad and yelling, ‘Vlad, there are tools! ‘” I thought I should go for a drive,” Kuanov said.
Taxi drivers have the advantage of being able to drive anywhere in the city without raising suspicion, so Kuanov scoped out the site to confirm that Russian equipment, mostly vehicles, was being stored inside.
After receiving information from Kuanov, Nedostup went to Google Maps, highlighted the shopping mall and sent the screenshots and coordinates to Ukrainian intelligence. Other partisans in the city also targeted the building, and in September the building was destroyed by Ukrainian airstrikes.
Nedostup and Kuanov said they did not know if anyone was killed in the attack.
Kuanov said that he would not be sorry if the Russian invaders died if they helped make the airstrikes possible.
Kuanov said, “I can’t say I wish him dead, but wait a minute guys, I didn’t ask you to come here and ‘free’ me.”
Keeping an eye on Russian customers
Meanwhile, Burlak, the bar manager, was keeping an eye on her Russian customers.
To bluff the invaders, Burlak, 30, and other employees would sometimes intentionally mix up their pizza orders or sell them on more expensive drinks.
But despite the hijinks, he and his staff had to remain careful and focused.
“The Russians in the bar were very brutal,” Burlak said, describing how soldiers would come to his bar in the middle of the day, order whiskey by the bottle, eat plates of crayfish and have fun with prostitutes.
Burlak said that the soldiers could turn on him or his staff in an instant.
“You had to think carefully so you didn’t leave anything out and accidentally provoke them,” she said. “The prospect of ending up in a dungeon scared me the most because that’s where people were tortured and women raped.”
He also noticed that the soldiers were lethargic, getting wasted and sometimes forgot their weapons at times.
Such information was useful to Nedostup and would lead him to take his most aggressive action yet.
One night, Nedostup said he saw a lone Russian soldier coming out of another bar.
The cop was about 25 years old, slightly intoxicated, unarmed and wearing headphones, making it easy for Vlad to follow him as he walked in the dark. Vlad followed him past an old playground, around old Soviet-era apartment blocks, until they were on a dark path beside a row of low brick school buildings.
Nedostup said that when the soldier crawled up behind him, grabbed him by the neck and stuck a knife into his back on the right side of the spine.
“I wanted to pull the knife out but instead I turned it inside,” Nedostup said.
As the soldier screamed and tried to fight back, Nedostup covered his mouth with his hand. The soldier bites him as a last resort before dying.
NBC News could not independently verify Nedostup’s account of the murder, but other partisans in his group said they were aware of his actions. In separate interviews, other partisans said that Nedostup had told them about the location and manner of the assassination, but were comfortable sharing these accounts only after Kherson was liberated.
In January, NBC News visited the site where Nedostup said the murder took place. He was clearly trembling, trembling to relive the memory. But when asked if he had any regrets, he nodded “no”.
“What helps me not to repent or suffer is that I was right,” he said. “They’re destroying us. They’re killing my loved ones. They’ve conquered my city.”