“Vanya went after you.” A Ukrainian man’s bid to rescue his mother from a captured village ends in St Petersburg arrest on espionage charges
Никита Сологуб
“Vanya went after you.” A Ukrainian man’s bid to rescue his mother from a captured village ends in St Petersburg arrest on espionage charges
1 August 2023, 19:45

Ivan Zabavsky. Photo: @ivanzabavsklj / Instagram

A court in St. Petersburg has recently ordered the arrest of Ivan Zabavsky, a 27-year-old Ukrainian, on charges of espionage. Mediazona learned that Zabavsky disappeared a year ago when he ventured into a Russian-occupied village near Kharkiv to evacuate his mother from the shelling in the ongoing invasion. It was only in May that the Ministry of Defence responded to the mother, stating her son was a captive, “detained for resisting the special military operation.” Marina Zabavskaya, Ivan’s mother, learned of her son’s arrest on espionage charges only from Mediazona.

The St. Petersburg City Court was due today to consider an appeal against Ivan Zabavsky’s arrest as the young man stands accused of espionage (Article 276 of the Criminal Code). However, during the hearing, it was announced that Zabavsky had unexpectedly withdrawn his complaint against the June 22 decision of the Petrogradky District Court, which ordered his arrest until August 20. Zabavsky is represented by court-appointed attorneys.

A Mediazona reporter at the court was able to confirm that Ivan Zabavsky is a 27-year-old Ukrainian citizen who was listed among civilians captured by Russia (as had been suggested by Agentstvo). He has now been in detention for one and a half months.

Zabavsky had once completed mandatory service in the airborne troops, then lived in Kharkiv and, according to his relatives, disappeared a year ago while attempting to evacuate his mother, who lived in the village of Tavilzhanka, occupied by Russian troops.

“I waited and waited, but he did not come. Waited and waited”

Russian forces had tried to enter Kharkiv at the very beginning of the war, concurrently with an attack on Kyiv, but by the end of May 2022, it was clear that Ukraine had won the battle for the city. The Russian forces retreated eastwards, towards Kupiansk and Izium. Fighting intensified in this direction in September, and Ukraine was soon able to reclaim these towns.

Despite the success of the counteroffensive, some settlements on the eastern side of the Oskol River remained under Russian control. The Ukrainian Armed Forces liberated the village of Dvorichna in early September, but the village of Tavilzhanka, just five kilometres away but on the other side of the Oskol, remained under Russian control.

On September 25, Marina Zabavskaya buried her elder sister in Tavilzhanka, who had been killed by a shell in her own yard. The village was without water, gas, or communication. “I buried her in the yard, dug her a grave. And I just thought—that’s it, I can’t bear it,” she recalls.

She decided to go to her only son, whom she had raised without a father, 27-year-old Ivan Zabavsky. Her son lived in Kharkiv in a rented apartment and worked in a cafe selling shawarma and hot dogs.

They had last seen each other in August—Zabavskaye said that back then, one could still leave the occupied territory for Kharkiv and return. But after the Ukrainian offensive began in September, the fighting moved closer, and civilians were no longer allowed through.

Staying in Tavilzhanka was becoming increasingly dangerous, so Zabavskaya decided to leave through Russia and Russia-controlled territory. She recalls travelling through Sumy region of Ukraine, undergoing an inspection of her belongings and documents by Russian soldiers, and ending up near Belgorod in Russia. It was only a few days later that she was able to get in touch with her relatives in Ukraine.

“When I managed to make contact, my relatives told me: ‘Vanya went after you, he wanted to take you home’,” she says. “We had no communication, no internet, so he couldn’t tell me that he was coming for me. When I found out, I just didn’t know what to do—there were shellings, you couldn’t return. I waited and waited but he didn’t come, waited and waited—he didn’t come. I searched for him, called acquaintances, volunteers, everywhere, he was nowhere to be found.”

Detained by Russian soldiers and taken to an unknown location

From conversations with relatives and friends in Dvorichna and Tavilzhanka, Marina Zabavskaya found out that her son had set off after her on September 30, the day she had already left in the other direction. Knowing that civilians were not allowed into the combat zone, Ivan borrowed a car from a friend, loaded it with bread, medicine, and buckwheat, and went to Dvorichna as a volunteer.

Ivan Zabavsky. Photo: kambatorel / Instagram

“He bought all this just to be allowed into the danger zone. His only goal was to reach me. He wasn’t planning to volunteer, but that was the only way; they wouldn’t have let him in otherwise,” his mother explains. In Dvorichna, she says, Ivan “left things with some people, borrowed a bicycle from others” as it was impossible to cross the Oskol River by car—the bridge had been destroyed in the fighting.

The woman was unable to find out what had happened to her son, so in mid-December, when the fighting had subsided, she went back to Tavilzhanka (the village is still controlled by the Russian army).

“There I started looking for him myself, walking around to people, to neighbors,” says Zabavskaya. “Very few people are left there. And one neighbor told me she saw him: he was walking with two Russian soldiers on the road. She said that he greeted her, and said his name and surname. I understand that he did this so she would be sure it was him. They took him in the direction of the village centre, and she never saw him again. That is, from our native home, where my son was born, where I was born, Russian soldiers arrested him and took him to an unknown location.”

“Detained for resisting the special military operation”

From conversations with neighbors, Marina Zabavskaya came to the conclusion that her son was most likely detained by the fighters of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. The woman tried to contact its authorities, but could not get a response.

Only in May 2023, the Russian Ministry of Defense responded to her request sent back in December confirming that Ivan was “detained for resisting the special military operation” and “is currenly on Russian territory,” and that “his health condition is satisfactory.”

In June, nine months after her son’s arrest, Marina Zabavskaya left for Kharkiv.

On July 31, Mediazona learned that Ivan Zabavsky’s name appeared in the St. Petersburg City Court docket: an appeal date was set for the decision of the Petrograd District Court, which sent him to a pre-trial detention centre on charges of espionage. It turned out in court that the decision to arrest him had been made as early as June 22.

Zabavsky’s mother was unaware, she learned about her son’s arrest from a Mediazona reporter. Where Ivan Zabavsky was during all these months is unclear. His name comes up in channels that maintain unofficial lists of Ukrainian prisoners; the mother says she has appealed to Ukrainian authorities and various foundations that search for prisoners.

On social networks, there are photos of Zabavsky from 2016 posing in military uniform and jumping with a parachute. The mother says that her son completed his compulsory service in the airborne forces, but later he did not serve in the Ukrainian Armed Forces and made a living making shawarma in Kharkiv and Dvorichna.

When the war began, the mother repeats several times, Ivan “made every effort not to participate in it”: “Ivan was a civilian. He didn’t want to go. I know my son, and I know that he did not resist [the “special military operation”]. We just watched the situation, but we did not interfere, neither I nor him.”

“I’m a mother, I’m not a spy, I want people to live peacefully. I have one goal—to find my son and help him get out of the trouble he got into. Not every mother will fight so hard for her son, and I am ready to swear to God that he is not a spy, that he did not participate in any resistance, as they write, that they are holding him just for nothing. Release him. Hear my heart,” asks Marina Zabavskaya.

Editor: Egor Skovoroda

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