The treatment of Ukrainian soldiers in Russian captivity is torture. Russian guards use all kinds of methods to break the Ukrainian soldiers. The Ukrainian journalist and grenadier Yevhen Shybalov described in the Ukrainian bilingual weekly Zerkalo Nedeli / Dzerkalo Tizhnya (Mirror of the Week) the six circles of hell that he discovered in Russian captivity.
Ukrainian POW's on their way back home. Picture Euromaidan Press.
I am writing this text with the same attitude with which a combat medic collects a soldier’s individual first aid kit: God forbid that it should ever be needed!
However, capture, along with death or injury, is one of the risks that are constantly lurking during war. The probability of ending up in enemy hands does not depend on the soldier’s training and motivation. Behind bars together with me, an inexperienced recruit, there were soldiers with enormous experience.
Special forces, scouts, marines, SOF (Special Operations Forces) fighters, veterans of hostilities since 2014... Anyone can become a prisoner of war. A soldier’s luck is a numbers game. Only military servicemen under contract told me about army training on survival strategies in captivity. This aspect is often omitted from the training of mobilized soldiers. I hope that my notes as an ex-captive will at least partially make up for this gap. Still, I really wish that this knowledge never comes in handy for my brothers in arms.
Survive on the way to hell
There are different ways of being captured. The enemy can pick up a wounded soldier at positions taken by storm. It can take a unit of untrained recruits by surprise. Soldiers often run into the enemy when trying to get out of the encirclement on their own. Finally, as in my case, in a disadvantageous situation, the commander can order to lay down the arms.
All these scenarios have one thing in common, namely the high risk of being killed on the spot. Sometimes it happens in the adrenaline rush of battle. They can deliberately kill cold-bloodedly. The latter is most often done by mercenaries of the Wagner Private Military Company, less often by soldiers of regular units of the Russian army.
Once a new person was brought to us in the pre-trial detention center. A gray-haired, thin man, hunched over, with wrinkles and a frozen look.
Then it turned out that he is only 19 years old. Ten soldiers were captured at his position. Nine of them were shot by Wagner soldiers before his eyes. The TT pistol misfired on him twice, after which the superstitious mercenaries said: ‘Well, then God wants you to live.’
You can still die from the lack of medical assistance. For some reason, Russian female doctors show special cruelty to wounded Ukrainian soldiers.
In the cell with me there was one of our soldiers, who was bandaged personally by a Russian battalion commander because the medic flat-out refused to do it. She also said to her commander: ‘Well, why are you messing with him? Finish him and that’s it!’
The commander, a leisurely calm man in his 50s, sensibly remarked on this: ‘This is life. Today he is our prisoner, and tomorrow we are his…’
The first circle. Truth through pain
The first interrogation of a prisoner takes place right on the front line. The set of questions is standard: who he is, from which unit, what task did he perform, where is the unit located, what is it armed with. Almost inevitably, the memory will be refreshed a little with a portion of kicks. However, there is no particularly elaborate torture here. There’s no time. At most, in addition to the beatings, they will be shocked a couple of times with a stun gun.
It gets much worse when the Russian military hands a prisoner over to their special services.
The latter, taking their time, carefully study the prisoner’s entire biography. From birth to today. Interrogation. A few days of pause – obviously, to check what was said. Interrogation again. And one more. And more...
It is at this stage that torture is used actively and without hesitation. Usually, Russian curators entrust this dirty work to local collaborators: operatives from pre-trial detention centers or from the so-called Ministry of State Security of the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR).
At interrogations, they especially like the tapik – the TAP-5 field telephone. Electrodes are attached to the prisoner and the handle of the generator is turned. It hurts a lot, but you don’t need to use your hands and feet. Convenient and practical.
Electrodes are placed on the ears and pass the electric current through the brain. The most persistent have the electrodes attached to the genitals. This method, again, for some reason is mostly used by women working in the LPR special services.
The question is followed by an electric shock. Another question – ‘You’re lying, bitch!’ Electric shock. Then a few more hits, just like that. A question. ‘You’re lying!’ Electric shock...
And so it goes day after day. Sooner or later all the answers will be ‘knocked out.’
In addition to brutal interrogations, there are terrible conditions of detention. The prisoner is mocked by escorts during transportation. Biting bugs, including those carrying encephalitis, are waiting for him in the cell. Lights on 24 hours a day, bad food, lack of medical care, regular shmons (body searches) with beatings, forced choral performance of the Russian national anthem.
Plus, full isolation. No news from outside. No contact with relatives. No walks in the fresh air. Gray walls, gray unwashed rags on the body, gray bedding, gray faces of cellmates. Grayness in the soul.
A warrior yesterday, today he is a prisoner from a fictional caste ‘Germans’ invented by local thugs especially for captured soldiers. It is logically since they are fighting the ‘Nazis’ here...
Finally, there are also cruel jokes from prison guards. Usually about exchange, every captive’s dream. ‘You, you and you! Take your things and get out! You are going to be exchanged!’ Then it turns out that the boys were simply transferred to a nearby cell or to another prison. Prison guards roar merrily. They think it’s very funny.
It got to the point that we argued in the cell about whether they even happen, those exchanges. The lack of facts made it a matter of faith.
Ukrainian POW, before being executed by Russian soldiers.
The second circle. How not to become a ‘war criminal’
Investigators from the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation start working with the evidence obtained at the previous stage.
They do not beat or torture you anyone. The prisoners are treated indifferently, like workpieces on the assembly line. They worked according to the procedure and sign the papers.
However, you should not relax. The investigator is not a friend of the prisoner. The main task of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation is to search for ‘war criminals.’
In the absence of real grounds, falsification of cases is not frowned upon. If someone during the interrogation seems too weak-minded and ready for anything, such a prisoner can easily be ‘convinced’ to take responsibility for a crime he did not commit.
Stubborn people are sent back to the bone-crushers from the ‘Ministry of State Security.’ After the investigation is over, the case is expeditiously considered in the local court and the sentence is passed.
It was on this circle of hell that the human rights defender Maksym Butkevych, with whom I was in the same pre-trial detention center, was unlucky. He got 13 years of imprisonment.
I was more fortunate. After learning about my extraordinary pre-army biography for an ordinary soldier – 15 years in journalism and 8 years in the public sector – they began to accuse me of cooperating with Ukrainian and foreign special services. This meant two more weeks of interrogation for me with the procedures described above.
The sentence was avoided at the cost of several new scars on the soul and body.
Third circle. Psychologist hackers
It does not end with torture and investigation. Other people start working with those who passed the previous rounds.
Now it’s completely different.
A staff rest room in the pre-trial detention center. Soft sofas. It’s clean and warm.
They speak politely. Treat you with tea and cigarettes. As an incentive, they may allow you to call home and talk to your relatives.
They even threaten very delicately and subtly: ‘If you and I do not find common ground, Yevgeniy, I will, with great regret, have to return you to those people who worked with you before.’
They carefully follow all your reactions with cold eyes.
I don’t know who they are. They do not introduce themselves. But they are obviously very professional psychologists.
In contrast to the old-fashioned bone-crushers with a tapik, these try to really ‘hack’ and ‘reflash’ the captive’s psyche. Their demagoguery skills are, as gamers say, at ‘level 80.’
Here is a fragment of one of our conversations:
‘Yevgeniy, do you agree that people in Donetsk and Lugansk are citizens of Ukraine? You agree. As a military serviceman, to whom did you give an oath? To people of Ukraine! So, if you come forward with weapons in your hands to defend these people, it will not be a violation of your oath…’
At this stage, the infamous videos of interrogations of prisoners are recorded.
In some cases, they are simply forced to voice a text written in advance by someone. Not the worst option.
The worst is when the prisoner’s true thoughts are used against him. ‘You said that your commanders abandoned you? Said that you were simply left without communication and help? Did you say you don’t want to fight anymore? Now repeat it on camera!’
This creates a strong psychological hook. The prisoner is afraid that after returning home he will have to answer for these words. Because he really wasn’t lying.
Therefore, some succumb to persuasion and write a refusal to exchange. They are afraid that they will be imprisoned in Ukraine for these desperate statements recorded on video. We were all constantly convinced of this during interrogations.
In addition to refusal, they may offer to transfer you to the service of the enemy. This also happens. Prisoners who have relatives in the occupied territories usually agree to this.
I myself, in the cell, took a long time to talk with a boy from Nova Kakhovka, captured by the Russians, out of this move. He believed that after refusing the exchange, he would be released and allowed to return to his family.
Another man, a fighter of the Luhansk border detachment, did write a statement agreeing to serve in the ‘LPR police.’ However, he was not released and is still imprisoned.
Ukrainian POW back home. Picture Ukrainian Government Press Service
The fourth circle. Torture with the unknown
After the previous stages, the prisoners are transferred from the pretrial detention center to the penal colony.
After everything they had experienced, it feels almost like heaven on earth. They are allowed to walk in the courtyard of the barrack without restrictions. They are fed much better. They take books from the library. They are allowed to watch TV. They are provided with medical care. What’s more, the combat medic from our barracks was even given an office and allowed to treat his comrades on his own.
They give out warm clothes – black prison peacoats. They don’t beat you, don’t humiliate you.
If they allowed you to communicate with your relatives, one could even say that the Geneva Convention is fully observed here.
But all the previously suppressed thoughts and emotions pile up on the captive.
The longing from complete obscurity begins to torment him. Ordinary prisoners sitting in nearby barracks know the time they are serving and can distribute internal forces.
The prisoner, a.k.a. ‘German,’ doesn’t. They may take him for exchange tomorrow. They may do it in a year. Or he may have to sit there until the end of the war...
The fifth circle. Back home on wooden legs
Exchange is always unexpected. They wake you up at night and tell you to pack your things.
Blindfolded, hands wrapped with tape. They drive somewhere for a long time. Then you go by plane. By bus. The escorts do not answer questions. Or again they make silly jokes like ‘don’t be afraid, you're going to be shot!’
Finally, the blindfold is removed and in front of you is Ukraine!
The inscription on the border sign looks both familiar and weird at the same time. You cannot believe it. The legs, numb from the shock and an uncomfortable position on the road, do not obey you.
With great difficulty you take one step, then another.
Then comes the belated realization. Finally! It’s all over! I’ve done it! I’ve survived!
The sixth circle. The end is the beginning
I’m not talking about the fact that everything you experience later returns in night terrors. Although it does come back.
The biggest shock for a released prisoner is the news that, according to the law, captivity is not a reason for demobilization. Although you will be unfit for service for at least half a year, both mentally and physically.
I don’t know how many discharged soldiers would voluntarily remain in the service if there was a choice. I think a lot. But the lack of choice is a great stress.
Because that’s what scared us there. ‘Do you think they will exchange you and that’s it? They will give a couple of weeks for rehabilitation and send you back to the trenches!’ You are silent, you clench your teeth and say to yourself: ‘You are lying, scumbags! I will endure it, I will return home, and everything will be over!’
And it turns out nothing is over yet. The scumbags do not lie; they mix the truth with deception.
Yevhen Shybalov is rifleman grenadier in the 241st Separate TRO Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Before his service in the Ukrainian army, Shybalov was a professional journalist and ZN.UA's permanent correspondent in Donetsk.
This essay was originally written for, translated, and published by the bilingual Ukrainian weekly Zerkalo Nedelyi / Dzerkalo Tizhnya.