‘The Russians said beatings were my re-education’
Andriy watched anxiously as Russian soldiers connected his mobile to their computer, trying to restore some files. Andriy, a 28-year-old marketing officer, was attempting to leave Mariupol. He had deleted everything he thought a Russian soldier could use against him, such as text messages discussing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or photos of the devastation in his city caused by weeks of relentless shelling.
But the internet in Mariupol, a once bustling port in southern Ukraine, had been cut off as part of the siege imposed by Russia, and Andriy had not been able to take down some of his social media posts. He remembered the first days of the war, when he had shared some anti-Russian messages and speeches from the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky. “I’m screwed,” he thought.
The soldiers, Andriy said, already had their focus on him.
On that day in early May, when he first joined the queues for what is known as ‘filtration’ – the process of scrutinising civilians wishing to leave Russian-occupied territory – one of the soldiers noticed his beard. He instantly assumed it was a sign Andriy was a fighter with the city’s Azov regiment, a former militia which had links with the far right. “Is it you and your brigade killing our guys?,” Andriy was asked. He replied he had never served in the army, he started working directly after graduating, but “they didn’t want to hear it”.
As the soldiers went through his phone, they turned to his political views, and asked his opinion of Zelensky. Andriy, cautiously, said Zelensky was “okay”, and one of the soldiers wanted to know what he meant by that. Andriy told him Zelensky was just another president, not very different from those who had come before, and that in fact, he was not very interested in politics. “Well,” the soldier replied, “you should just say you aren’t interested in politics.”
Five officers were sitting behind a desk, three wearing balaclavas. They showed Andriy a video he had shared on Instagram of a speech Zelensky had given, from 1 March. With it was a caption written by Andriy: “A president we can be proud of. Go home with your warship!” One of the officers took the lead. “You told us you’re neutral to politics, but you support the Nazi government,” Andriy recalled being told. “He hit me in the throat. He basically started the beating.”
Like Andriy, Dmytro had his phone confiscated at a checkpoint as he tried to leave Mariupol in late March. Dmytro, a 34-year-old history teacher, said the soldiers came across the word “ruscist”, a play on “Russia” and “fascist”, in a message to a friend. The soldiers, Dmytro told me, slapped and kicked him, and “everything [happened] because I used that word.”
Dmytro said he was taken, with four other people, to a police station in the village of Nikolsky, also a filtration point. “The highest-ranking officer punched me four times in the face,” he said. “It seemed to be part of the procedure”.
His interrogators said teachers like him were spreading pro-Ukrainian propaganda. They also asked what he thought about “the events of 2014”, the year that Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula and started supporting pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk. He replied that the conflict was known as the Russo-Ukrainian war. “They said Russia was not involved, and asked me whether I agreed that it was, in fact, a Ukrainian civil war.”
The officers checked his phone again, and this time found a photo of a book which had the letter H in its title. “We got you!” the soldiers told Dmytro. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, claims his war in Ukraine is an effort to “de-Nazify” the country, and the soldiers, Dmytro said, believed he was reading books about Hitler.
The next morning, Dmytro was transferred with two women to a prison in Starobesheve, a separatist-controlled village in Donetsk. He counted 24 people in the four-bunk cell. After four days and another detailed interrogation, he was finally released, and eventually reached Ukrainian-held territory. Weeks later, he still does not know what happened to his cell mates.
“I wondered what would be better,” he said, “to lose consciousness and fall down or tolerate the pain further.”
At least, Andriy thought, he had not been sent somewhere else, away from his family. Ukrainian officials say thousands of people are believed to have been sent to detention centres and camps set up in Russian-controlled areas during filtration. In almost all cases, their relatives do not know where they are being held, or why. “I [was] very angry about everything,” Andriy said, “but, at the same time, I know it could’ve been much worse.”
His mother tried to get into the tent, but was stopped by the officers. “She was very nervous. She later said they had told her that my ‘re-education’ had started,” Andriy said, “and that she shouldn’t be worried.” His ordeal, he told me, continued for two and a half hours. He was even forced to make a video saying “Glory to the Russian army!”, a mockery of “Slava Ukraini!”, the Ukrainian slogan.
The final question, Andriy said, was whether he had “understood his mistakes”, and “I obviously answered yes”. As he was being released, officers brought in another man, who had previously served in Ukraine’s military and had several tattoos. “They immediately pushed him to the ground and started to beat him,” Andriy said. “They didn’t even talk to him.”