Illustrated by Maria Granatkina / Mediazona
This summer, camps appeared in the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic in Eastern Ukraine, where Russian contract soldiers who refused to fight in the war were illegally detained. The last of these camps was opened at a former penal colony in Perevalsk, 50 kilometers from the regional capital of Luhansk. It was closed in early August amid highly publicised outrage from human rights advocates and relatives of the soldiers. Many of the contract soldiers returned to Russia.
After two months though the camp was back up and running, now holding conscientious objectors among those drafted during the recent “partial mobilisation.” In Russian bureaucratese, the camp is a “center for maintaining combat readiness;” in reality, the detained soldiers describe unsanitary conditions and duress.
A small room filled with mattresses and other objects, dirty walls painted pink, a ceiling covered with mould, and a barred window—this is where the mobilised Russian men who refused to fight in Ukraine have been kept. A video, published by Astra, a Telegram channel, on October 22 shows these horrific conditions in Rubizhne, a strategically located town near Luhansk that was occupied by the Russian army in May.
“This is how we live, this is how we use the toilet,” the man holding the camera says, lifting the lid of a white bucket, a yellowish liquid visible inside it. He then tells the others to hide their faces if they are afraid to be seen, before continuing, “that’s how we sleep, how we eat. We have just this room, everything is damp, like we’re homeless. That’s life in military detention—everything is wet, dripping.”
While it isn’t clear when the video was shot, two days after posting this clip Astra published another from the same group of men. This one was taken from a basement in Kreminna before the soldiers were brought a few kilometres east to Rubizhne. A dozen men, several of them sitting on the floor, are in a long, narrow room. One of them, whose face is hidden, says the date is October 2. The legs of the photographer sneak into the frame and hang, with the cameraman sitting on a bench or bunk.
“Here we’ve got part of the group of the 3rd battalion, 488th regiment, held for non-compliance with an order… repeatedly sent to the basement of the military unit. We’re all mobilised servicemen of the Russian army, called up by presidential decree,” he says. “On this basis of… of the order of the unit commander, they say. With all kinds of threats and requests, they say they’ll send us back for slaughter, ahem. We refused [to fight]. Here we are, awaiting further decisions from our unit commander.”
According to the Telegram channel, about 20 conscripts were held there, later they were transferred to the former colony in Perevalsk.
“Well, who really wanted to go there? No one did. And when he was already called up, he said, ‘Well, I’m not the one to dodge’,” recalls Anastasia, the wife of 37-year-old Fyodor Trishin, who was called up from Russia’s Far East. Trishin has also found himself at the Perevalsk camp. “He wasn’t supposed to be called up because of his age. We appealed the decision, but so far haven’t gotten any answers from the prosecutor’s office.”
The summons was brought directly to Trishin’s work on September 22, and the same day he was sent to a unit in a neighboring city. According to his wife, there was no medical examination, even though he has health problems, “three fingers that don’t work”. Since his condition was not diagnosed previously, he was unable to confirm this.
15 years ago, Trishin was in the army but with the railway troops, his wife recalls—hence little practical military experience. According to Anastasia, the group of mobilised men spent two to three days at the range, fired once from an armoured fighting vehicle but then it started malfunctioning.
“Initially, they were told that they would just stand guard on the conquered territories, just to guard. But no one told them the truth. They thought, ‘Okay, we’ll stand guard a bit, and then return home’,” Anastasia recalls.
On October 1, Trishin and the other mobilised men were sent to the self-proclaimed LPR, and immediately thrown into battle near Svatove where the most severe fighting in Eastern Ukraine was going on. He told his wife on the phone that there was constant shelling, that they had no cover, that “there was no training at all, but the orders still had to be carried out”.
“They don’t tell us specifics, only that it was just frightening. They say that they are fighting, that commanders have been giving such and such orders lately… That is, there is a clear threat to life. People are not prepared at all, they were not made ready in any way,” says Trishin’s wife.
On October 16, Anastasia’s husband penned a report, refusing to participate in the hostilities. He did this with a few other mobilised men—there were ten who signed reports in total. At first, they were persuaded to return to the front line, but then they began to be “threatened with Wagner,” the woman says. On October 21, they were loaded into cars and told they were being taken “to a rehabilitation center in Luhansk,” and ended up at the former colony in Perevalsk, under the protection of “some people with weapons,” Anastasia laments. According to her, “some Lieutenant Colonel or Colonel” who does not even give his name is conducting interviews with the soldiers.
These same interviews—which are, in fact, attempts to convince the men to return to the front—were conducted in the summer with contract soldiers who refused to fight. From July to August, hundreds of Russian military personnel passed through these informal prisons in the LPR.
At first, the “center” was housed in a school in Bryanka, where conditions were decent. Then the prisoners were transferred to Perevalsk, to a vacant penitentiary known as “Colony no. 19”. According to some soldiers, the prison was guarded by Wagner Group.
They were then transferred closer to the area of fighting and coerced with threats of violence to return to the front. Those who did not agree were sent to a camp.
“Meals arrived once a day. Some days, we weren’t fed at all. We were not provided with personal hygiene products or basic necessities, including sets of bedding and underwear. We slept on iron beds with a bare mattress, and those without a bunk just slept on the floor with a mattress,” one of the contract soldiers said when describing conditions in Perevalsk to Mediazona.
The soldiers were forced to load ammunition and persuaded to continue fighting, if not as part of the regular army, then as part of Wagner Group. Some were taken to the front line by force, others were sent to basements, or “pits”, as the military called them, where they were beaten.
“The guys we saw return from ‘the pits’ were just fucked up. They were black all over: black backs, black legs. They were thrown in a car, taken away, roughed up, and brought back. They had black blindfolds on their faces, so they wouldn’t see anything,” another contractor who refused to return to the front line wrote to his father.
Fyodor Grishin’s wife says that the camp is holding about 40 mobilised men. Ten of them, including Grishin, arrived at the end of October, while the other thirty arrived at the beginning of the month. These were likely the men reported about by Astra channel.
According to Maxim Grebenyuk, a lawyer who represents Trishin as well as another mobilised Russian soldier from the Far East, the Russian Defense Ministry calls the prison in Perevalsk a “center for maintaining combat readiness.” The reality is quite different, Grebenyuk explains on his Telegram channel. “These are cells in the barracks of the pre-trial detention center with multi-level insurmountable barriers with barbed wire,” he wrote, noting that the soldiers are deprived of freedom of movement and kept in unsanitary conditions.
Grebenyuk says that in theory, a criminal case can be initiated against objectors for non-execution of an order in wartime. They may face up to three years in prison for this violation. “But there should still be appropriate procedures. There should be an arrest, a detention order, a protocol on gross disciplinary misconduct for disciplinary arrest,” the lawyer emphasises. “If this is not the case, then we are certainly seeing an abuse of authority. Even if they are criminals, this is excessive. Kidnapping and imprisonment are illegal.”
Anastasia Trishina says that her husband and the other mobilised men understand that they may face a prison sentence.
“They haven’t stopped filing their reports. They thought everything would be according to the law, that there would be convictions. They were ready for this, as long as everything was legal. That is, no one knew that they would be put in these camps and would be treated as they have been,” the woman recalls with frustration. “They’re telling them: ‘Do everything according to the law. We don’t mind, take us to the prosecutor’s office, we will testify, we’ll even sign a confession’.”
Grebenyuk, Trishin’s lawyer, has already sent appeals to the Military Prosecutor’s office and the Military Investigative Department with a demand to immediately release the soldiers and initiate cases of abuse of power by their commanders, as well as abduction and illegal imprisonment. However, the investigator who received the application failed to register it in the register of crime reports. The lawyer will have to appeal this in court.
“The [Investigative] department is associated with one’s place of residence, but they are still obliged to accept and return it [the appeal] in accordance with the jurisdiction,” Grebenyuk explains. “We don’t really know which specific military investigative department should be looking into this colony in Luhansk. This is the problem of the investigating authorities—to forward the appeal in accordance with the jurisdiction within three days. But they won’t even do that. They registered it simply as a citizen’s appeal, which is a gross violation of the Criminal Procedure Code.”
The lawyer notes that he has not yet received a response to previous applications. He also doesn’t know how his appeals about the illegal imprisonment of contract workers who were held in the centers of refuseniks in the summer ended. Regarding these, he says that the military prosecutor’s office responded with a short notice, “insisting that these were centers for maintaining combat readiness,” therefore claiming that there had been no violations. The Military Investigative Department also didn’t provide a response.
“I will make additional inquiries when get direct addresses. Then we can resume this work,” Grebenyuk says.
Fyodor Trishin’s wife says that occasionally he is allowed to call home, for a few minutes at most, but she is sure that during conversations someone is standing by and controlling “every spoken word.”
“When there’s clearly someone around, he doesn’t say anything. Just, ‘Everything’s fine. How are you at home?’ You start asking some questions, and he leans away from them. But when he called on the 25th [October] from another phone—that is, there was no one nearby—he said that he was on the [prison] grounds, that the conditions were disgusting, that no one was saying anything, and no paperwork was filed. Only that they were under duress, forced to write reports word by word,” says the woman. “[They threatened:] ‘And if you do not comply, we will take you to the front forcibly.’ Like, roughly speaking, you’ll be ‘Wagner’s cannon fodder’.”
According to her, the mobilised are also forced to work in the camp, unloading ammunition. Her husband did not complain about physical abuse. “But when they stand next to him, and I ask him [about abuse], he says supposedly there’s none. When he called from another number, he also said none. Well, that’s it for now. They have, in fact, only been there for ten days. Prosecute them already,” Anastasia says, outraged. “The article does not even imply detention. And anyway, it’s better to go to prison than to die in the war.”
Editor: Maria Klimova
Translation: Jack McClelland
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