Denounced, arrested four times, expelled, deported. Ukrainian medical student Serhiy Hulko’s ordeal in Russia and beyond
Елизавета Нестерова
Denounced, arrested four times, expelled, deported. Ukrainian medical student Serhiy Hulko’s ordeal in Russia and beyond
22 May 2024, 3:22

Photo courtesy of Serhiy Hulko

24-year-old Ukrainian Serhiy Hulko came to Moscow from Odessa several years ago to study at the Faculty of Fundamental Medicine at Moscow State University. He was due to defend his thesis this summer. However, in March, other students reported him and handed over two-year-old screenshots of Hulko’s posts about the war in Ukraine to the authorities. As a result, he was detained, sent to administrative arrest three times, expelled from the university, and deported. Now safe, Hulko spoke to Mediazona about his experience with Russian law enforcement, being urged to go to war, and the border guards who denied him entry into Georgia.

On March 19, I was informed that someone was planning to report me to pro-war groups online or file a police report. I don’t know this person personally, but I’m very grateful.

There were screenshots of my old Instagram stories and a chat with one of the groups, stating, “We accidentally stumbled upon a Ukrainian Nazi at Moscow State University. This ‘wonder’ is in his 6th year at the Faculty of Fundamental Medicine,” and suggesting something should be done about me. I immediately had a suspicion about who specifically did this, but I couldn’t find confirmation until I noticed their Instagram profile photo on one of the screenshots. It was my classmate Alexander Borisov, who, by the way, is a future anaesthesiologist-resuscitator.

The day after I was warned about what was being prepared, first-year students were asking my classmates about me. We found out from one of them that these first-years had visited the Investigative Committee to file a report against me. In the evening, I called this student and asked if they could withdraw the statement. They replied that they had already tried, but were not allowed to do so. Apparently, the guys managed to realise they had made a mess.

The author of the screenshots—Alexander Borisov—and I initially had a strained relationship. I didn’t like how rudely he spoke to other participants in our general study chats, particularly to girls, and subsequently insulted both my nation as a whole and me personally.

Who could be behind the denunciations of Hulko

The screenshots of Serhiy Hulko’s posts were taken by his classmate Alexander Borisov—Mediazona studied those screenshots and visually confirmed that they were taken from Borisov’s account.

In a statement compiled by an employee of Center E, the police counterextremism unit, stated that Hulko “called for the bombing of Moscow.” The Instagram screenshot features a post with an image of Russian military equipment and the caption “We will not forgive. Never. #saveukraine #warinukraine #славаукраїні #prayforukraine #разомдоперемоги.” In another post, above a photograph Hulko standing in a picket with a banner reading “The University is out of politics”, there is a geotag “Рідна Мати Україна,” or “Ukraine, the Motherland.”

In conversation with Mediazona, Borisov insisted that he personally did not pass the screenshots to the security forces: “I consider it unacceptable for myself to discuss anyone behind their back. Once again, I draw your attention to the fact that I did not send any statements about Hulko or screenshots to the police. Therefore, I do not know what screenshots are being referred to.”

Borisov describes the conflict with the Ukrainian student as follows: “Hulko is offended that I, both to his face and publicly, expressed indignation that a person who is in Russia and in Moscow collected money for the Armed Forces of Ukraine and called for the bombing of Moscow. This is clearly not an anti-war position.”

None of the first-year students Serhiy mentioned responded to messages from a Mediazona reporter.

First arrest. “At least they allowed me to leave the Ilizarov apparatus behind”

I was returning to the Moscow State University dormitory on Lomonosovsky Prospect after classes and preparing for a surgical Olympiad. I had a model of a lower leg and an Ilizarov apparatus with me, which is used for aligning bone fragments. Near the dormitory, I saw a police car. When I approached, the officers asked for my documents. I immediately showed my passport, after which they told me to follow them to the police station. I asked to get some warm clothes, as I was only wearing a T-shirt, but they refused. Fortunately, my dormitory roommate lent me his. At least they allowed me to leave the Ilizarov apparatus behind.

In this case, they charged me with “resisting arrest,” although the arrest was carried out in front of cameras and witnesses. Still, they wrote that there was resistance and an alleged attempt to escape. The judge stated that there were police reports which there was no reason to distrust, and the officers themselves had no motive to slander me.

I was naive then—I tried to explain everything in detail to the court. I even unlocked my phone for the police at the station, showing them my banking apps and all the transactions to prove there were no transfers to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. I was deeply upset about missing the Olympiad, but my guys still managed to win prizes.

Chronicling the arrests

Serhiy Hulko lived in the Moscow State University dormitory on Lomonosovsky Prospect. On April 3, police officers detained Serhiy and drew up a protocol against him for disobeying the police. The court sentenced the student to 10 days of arrest, which he served in a detention centre in the village of Sakharovo, near Moscow.

Upon release from the detention centre, Serhiy was detained again. This time, the court sent him to the same detention facility for another 12 days for posting the phrase “Glory to Ukraine!” on VK. Hulko was due to be released on the evening of April 25, but he was detained for the third time and taken to the Tverskoy police department, where he spent the night.

The following day, the Tverskoy District Court ordered the student to leave Russia within three days under threat of criminal liability. At the same time, the court sentenced him to a new 12-day arrest for an Instagram story. The protocol drawn up by an officer from Center E stated that Hulko had “called for the bombing of Moscow.”

Hulko told the court that he had written the posts in the first months of the war when he was in an emotional state: “They were bombing my city, bombing my country, and as a result, people close to me were dying.”

On May 7, Serhiy was detained for the third time upon leaving the detention centre in Sakharovo. After another court hearing, he was transferred to the Temporary Detention Centre for Foreign Citizens (TDCFC, Russian abbreviation is TsVSIG) located in the same area. He remained there for 8 days until his departure from Russia.

On May 14, Hulko had been expelled from the sixth year of the Faculty of Fundamental Medicine at Moscow State University.

In Sakharovo: “They urged us to go to war, claiming we would be treated ‘on par with Russians’”

There is a difference between the block for administrative detainees and the block for foreigners in Sakharovo. Serving an administrative arrest is better primarily because of the food—the quality seems slightly better than what foreigners receive, as it is brought in plastic containers and the portions are weighed. Foreigners are given metal utensils, and portion sizes are determined by chance. However, in the Temporary Detention Centre for Foreign Citizens (TDCFC, Russian abbreviation is TsVSIG), they accept vegetables in care packages, for instance. The delight of having tomatoes after so long is indescribable. I spent the first three terms in the administrative block and then in the block for deportees—in the TDCFC.

In the latter case, all foreigners who arrive in Sakharovo on the same day are initially placed together for one night in a cell designed for 12 people, without even mattresses. 64 other people and I spent our first night in such a cell. Only the next day were we distributed among the different blocks.

A wonderful morning after an equally wonderful night began with a visit from military draft office employees, urging us all to go to war. They told us we would be treated carefully, “on par with Russians.” Three people were persuaded to sign a contract.

The reason some agree or even want to go to war is that they face persecution at home. One detainee wanted to sign the application form. I asked him why, and he said, “I have children, and at home, I’ll be imprisoned for 15 years. What can I do for my child from there? He won’t even know what I look like.” I asked what he would do for his child if he died or became disabled. I suggested he ask the others around him for advice. They explained in their own language that I was right, and he shouldn’t do it. He signed the paper anyway.

Generally, the TDCFC staff treated me adequately, although there was an incident when they said, “Well, well, an extremist and a terrorist? Tell your journalists not to come meet you with their cameras anymore, or we’ll put you in a cell with the guys going to the ‘special operation’. They’ll practice on a khokhol in advance.”

Photo courtesy of Serhiy Hulko

There was also an incident in the medication queue. A prisoner pointed out to the medical staff that he had been given medicines contraindicated for his type of diabetes and that he felt ill after taking them. The response was, “What, you think you’re the smartest one here? Fine, write down that he’s refusing the medication.” Of course, I wanted to mention Federal Law 323 and the responsibility of doctors and medical workers for patients’ lives, health, and well-being, but I decided it wasn’t the right place to discuss medical ethics.

Overall, the staff’s attitude in Sakharovo was mostly reasonable. No one insulted or beat me, at least. There were rumours among other deportees about the use of force by TDCFC employees, particularly regarding stun guns. However, I gathered that if you follow all the rules, there shouldn’t be any problems.

There was also an amusing situation when a TDCFC employee addressed me in Ukrainian: “Hey, man, where are you from?” I replied, “From Odesa, and you?” He said, “Oh, I’m a Muscovite!” And continued in Russian, “I just bought a Ukrainian dictionary in case of a change in power!” I laughed heartily—it made my day.

Deportation. “The issue was postponed in favour of enjoying kebabs”

On the morning before my last administrative court hearing, I was ordered to leave the country within three days and then given a 12-day arrest. The argument that it was physically impossible to comply with both requirements simultaneously didn’t sway the court—they said it counts as a “valid reason” [to comply with in succession]. After those 12 days, I was transferred to the TDCFC for deportation.

I had to stay for another eight days due to the May holidays. The issue of my deportation was postponed in favour of enjoying kebabs. Immediately after the holidays, they bought me a ticket to Georgia and showed it to the migration inspector. I gathered my belongings in the cell and handed in my plate, spoon, and mug—they had become so dear to me. Then, I was taken to the airport in handcuffs, which I also wore at the airport. I think I know what I definitely won’t want to experiment with in the future.

The officers took me to customs control, accompanied by a local police officer. After passing through customs—without handcuffs and still escorted by police—I was led to the plane. My passport was given to the flight attendant, who said I could collect it upon arrival.

And so, after a total of 34 days of administrative arrest and another 8 days in the TDCFC, I left the Russian Federation.

When we landed in Tbilisi, Georgia, my passport was immediately given to the Georgian border guards—I didn’t even have time to walk from the back of the plane. I was told to approach one of the border guards, who was in plain clothes. He took me to an interrogation room, where I recounted my story. In response, I heard, “Yeah, those who write denunciations will go far.”

I waited for about an hour, and then they brought me a refusal of entry to Georgia, stating that I would be sent back to Russia in the morning. At that moment, my world collapsed. I explained again that I had been deported and would face criminal prosecution if I returned to Russia. I presented the court decision, and they allowed me to buy a ticket to another country.

Support. “Hold on, the truth is strength”

It’s difficult to plan my life at the moment, as I’m completely without my belongings—my luggage is stuck in Georgia. I definitely intend to continue my education, though I’m unsure where. I’m considering Kazakhstan or possibly the Emirates. Or perhaps directly to the United States, as my ultimate goal is to specialize there. I really want to join the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York—an advanced clinic for traumatology and orthopaedics.

I don’t regret enrolling at Moscow State University, and I’m very grateful to my faculty. I believe my choice to pursue the best education was the right one. I met wonderful people and great doctors who are truly passionate about their work, inspiring students and igniting a fire within them.

After Sakharovo, I truly felt the taste of life. I highly recommend it! A great retreat. Five stars. I walked out smiling like a child, surrounded by grass, greenery, and sunshine. And the music was thrilling. In Sakharovo, I mostly spent my time reading—I read nine books, in addition to textbooks.

I also received a great deal of support there. Even if someone was pro-government, they never said anything bad to me. They might say, “We understand, this is your country.” Some would say directly, “Hold on, the truth is strength.”

Overall, the support was immense. After the deportation order, I was invited to nearly all the CIS countries—Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Armenia. People said, “I have a house there; you can come and live normally, and we’ll find you a job.”

Friends from Russia and Ukraine also helped a great deal. Some were supposed to meet me in Georgia, they rented an apartment, cooked homemade food, bought fruit—everything one needs after the delicious Sakharovo cuisine. They recorded a heartfelt video about how they anticipated meeting me. I watched it while on the plane after being denied entry to Georgia, and it was very touching.

At my final destination, a good friend helped me rent a hotel room and paid for a taxi with her foreign card, as I only had a Russian card with me.

I am very glad this story ended positively for me. There were challenging moments, like when I spent three days in a solitary cell at the Ramenki district police station after the first term and before the next trial.

The cell reeked of urine, and there was no shower, toiletries, or natural light. I didn’t know the time, although I could determine the time of day through a small 4×4 cm window in the iron door by the reflection of light on the cabinet. Many of the staff were reasonable, but for some, I had to knock on the cell door for hours to relieve myself.

These were moments when I was astounded by how people can treat others. To me, it’s insanity and savagery. Fortunately, there were few such harsh days, although loss of freedom is generally perceived as painful.

Despite everything, I joked and tried to smile more—a sour face definitely won’t make things better. It’s hard to describe how immensely grateful I am to the people who supported me during such a difficult time—both loved ones and strangers, Russians and Ukrainians, Armenians, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kyrgyz people, a Moldovan guy, and even an Ethiopian. I sincerely hope that brighter times will come and that people in Russia will not be persecuted for expressing their thoughts.

Editor: Egor Skovoroda

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