‘You shake at the smallest of noises’: Russian soldier tells of life as a PoW
Anton, released by Ukraine in a prisoner exchange, says he is only now registering the toll captivity took on mind and body
The aftermath of the battle between the Ukrainian and the Russian armies, Mykolaiv, Ukraine, 29 March. Photograph: Louai-Barakat/Sipa/Rex/Shutterstock
Pjotr Sauer Thu 26 May 2022 05.00 BST Last modified on Thu 26 May 2022 05.11 BST
Still getting used to the feel of his gun and military fatigues, Anton suddenly found himself surrounded by Ukrainian forces as bullets flew by, with one striking his arm.
- “It was our first confrontation with the enemy; we hadn’t even fired a shot. They ambushed us, and we couldn’t fight back. We had to surrender,” said Anton, a 21-year-old Russian serviceman, in an interview with the Guardian.
Anton was taken captive by Ukrainian forces near Mykolaiv on 2 March with five other soldiers from his unit, as Russian forces were staging an offensive on the strategically important shipbuilding city near the Black Sea.
Anton, who asked not to be identified with his real name, would spend the next 45 days in Ukrainian captivity. He was eventually released in mid-April after Moscow arranged a prisoner exchange with Ukraine, and spoke to the Guardian from Russian territory.
- Anton’s story is a very rare account of a Russian PoW who has since been exchanged, as both Russia and Ukraine have released very little information about the fate of the hundreds of captive Russians.
Moscow does not publicise the names of its service people captured in Ukraine. However, during his captivity, Anton was interviewed as a Russian prisoner by a prominent Ukrainian vlogger. He was also named as a captured Russian soldier on websites close to the Ukrainian authorities.
I was sent to Ukraine completely unprepared
One of Anton’s family members further confirmed to the Guardian that he was captured in Ukraine and then exchanged. The Guardian was not able to verify all the details of his story.
- Anton, who comes from a small, remote city in Siberia, said he signed a contract to join the military last December, shortly after graduating from vocational school.
In hindsight, he said, he should “have done everything” to avoid the army.
Anton’s unit was first transferred during the last days of December to the Russian-annexed Crimean peninsula, where he was told he was taking part in a “one-week” training course.
By that point, he claimed he had received practically no military training that would adequately prepare him for a full-scale war.
A man cycles past a destroyed hotel in the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv. Photograph: Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty
As weeks went by in Crimea, Anton said some members of his unit started to worry they would be sent to war, a prospect he still considered to be completely “absurd”.
“Many of the young guys couldn’t even imagine that we would go to war. They told us at the very last moment about this, the night before the invasion,” he said.
“Ultimately, it is really not fair how the Russian authorities treated me. I was sent to Ukraine completely unprepared.”
Anton’s account, which depicts a military unit that was kept in the dark about the invasion, echoes a number of other Russian soldiers who have similarly said that they did know they were going to war until they crossed into Ukraine. Military experts have argued that the decision to not tell a large number of its troops about the invasion is one explanation for Moscow’s halting military campaign.
On 25 February, the day after Russian troops entered Ukraine, Anton’s unit was ordered to cross into the country from Crimea.
He said they were driven in armoured vehicles to the outskirts of Mykolaiv, which was under heavy attack from Russian forces in the early days of the war.
As they continued on foot, part of the unit split from the main group and was ambushed by Ukrainian forces on 2 March, less than a week after entering the country. Anton said he was hit by a Ukrainian bullet while being captured, fracturing a bone in his hand.
We were constantly told that Russia is finished, that we belonged to the bottom of society. They’d threaten to starve us
Soon after, Ukrainian forces put a bag on his head as he was transferred to a prison cell, the location of which he said he still does not know.
At first, life in captivity was dominated by fear. “You shake at the smallest of noises. Every day you hope that this won’t be your last and you will not be killed,” Anton recalled.
He said that he was not physically assaulted during his time in captivity but alleged that Ukrainian guards would mentally torment him and other Russian soldiers.
- “We were constantly told that Russia is finished, that we belonged to the bottom of society. They would threaten to starve us.”
- Anton added that while some guards looked like “they wanted to hurt you”, the majority remained calm and “would not let their animal instinct set in”.
- Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk, who is in charge of negotiating prisoner exchanges, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Under the Geneva conventions, the detention of PoWs after capture should not be seen as a form of punishment but as a means to prevent further participation in a conflict.
But it was the daily boredom that soon emerged as the biggest challenge, Anton said.
- “If we were lucky, we would be given something random to read. Sometimes they let us watch Ukrainian propaganda on television.
“Most days we would just stare at the walls in front of us,” he said, adding that he was moved three times during his captivity.
At one point, he was asked to record an interview about his capture with a prominent Ukrainian vlogger.
Ukrainian officials have given journalists and vloggers access to interview their Russian PoWs. Such videos have been watched by hundreds of thousands of people on YouTube, but they have also faced criticism for violating the Geneva conventions.
“In such a situation, as a prisoner, you understand there isn’t really a choice to say no. You agree despite them saying that you could refuse,” Anton said.
Eventually, in early April, Anton was told that he was going to be exchanged for a Ukrainian soldier.
While Russia and Ukraine have engaged in several prisoner swaps, both countries have released almost no details on the mechanisms behind the exchanges. On 4 April, Ukraine said that it held about 600 Russian military prisoners of war. Russia does not release exact figures, but in late March its human rights ombudswoman said there were more than 500 Ukrainian PoWs in Russia.
That number has since grown significantly after at least 1,000 Ukrainian fighters, including members of the Azov battalion, were transferred to Russian-held territory when the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol was taken by Russian forces last week. Ukraine has said that the Azovstal fighters would be involved in a prisoner swap, but some Russian officials have said they could be tried or even executed.
According to Anton, he was part of a one-for-one swap involving 17 other Russian soldiers, which took place near the Ukrainian city of Melitopol.
As soon as he was back in Russia, he was intensely questioned by the security services about his time in Ukraine.
“They wanted to know if they could still trust me. It was standard procedure,” he said.
But it was only days after he was discharged from a Russian hospital that he felt the full toll that his time in captivity had inflicted on his mind and body.
“During my captivity, I blocked most of my emotions. I just tried not to think about my life,” he said.
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“But now, I have terrible dreams, I can barely sleep. I have gained a lot of weight,” he said.
Anton said the authorities had given him about £2,000 as compensation for his injuries. According to Russian military law, service people do not receive any special compensation for being held as a PoW, and Anton was expected to return to service once he had recovered from the injuries.
But after his experience in Ukraine, Anton is now looking for ways to quit the military for good.
“I just want to go back home, man, that is it. All I want is to go home.”