“I pray to God”: Desperate relatives of Russian prisoners of war denounce the lack of official help
Elvira only discovered that her son, a soldier serving in the Russian Armed Forces, had been taken prisoner when she received a phone call from a Ukrainian security guard.
“I was really shocked when the Ukrainian security services called me to say that my son was in captivity,” Elvira told the Moscow Times, recalling the moment a few weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.
Despite dozens of prisoner exchanges between Russia and Ukraine over the following year, her son remains held in a Ukrainian prison, with no sign of his imminent release.
“I pray to God everyday to help me bring him home,” said Elvira, who broke down in tears several times in a phone interview.
“All I want is for my heart to keep beating so I can get it out.”
His son is one of thousands Russian soldiers have been taken prisoner by Ukraine in more than 13 months of fighting, with the families of many imprisoned men alleging that Russian authorities are not doing enough to bring them home.
In some cases, relatives said they located captured soldiers on their own – or with the help of Ukrainian YouTube. chains and social networks groups – and then had to lobby the Ministry of Defense to officially register their relatives as prisoners of war, a designation that makes them eligible to be included in a prisoner exchange.
However, the Kremlin’s criteria for requesting that prisoners be included in an exchange are unclear, and the lengthy negotiations over such exchanges – which often take months — are systematically accompanied by mutual accusations of dishonesty.
Alina Maksimovskaya, the girlfriend of a Russian POW, told the Moscow Times that she discovered her boyfriend Andrei Zavyalov had been taken prisoner in Ukraine when she saw interviews he had given to Ukrainian TV channels of captivity.
After that, she appealed to the military authorities to add him to the official list of prisoners of war.
“I knew every moment counted,” Maksimovskaya said. “We didn’t know if he was still alive or not and what happened to him.”
She said it was difficult for her to reach representatives of the Russian Defense Ministry or the Red Cross. “It was hard to get someone on the hotlines,” she said.
Zavyalov was eventually released in a prisoner exchange at the end of October.
Other relatives of Russian prisoners of war have made similar complaints about the Russian authorities – and the difficulties in drawing attention to the plight of their loved ones.
“Until I personally appeal to the President of the Russian Federation…my son has not been added (to the official list of prisoners of war),” Irina Chistyakova, the mother of a prisoner of russian war, said in an online video in December.
His son, Kirill, was enlisted shortly before the invasion and, according to Chistyakovadisappeared last March in the Ukrainian region of Kharkiv.
As part of her hunt to find out what had happened, she went through numerous photos of dead soldiers and visited a military morgue in the city of Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia.
Finally, she spoke to a freed Russian prisoner of war who said him that Kirill was a prisoner in Ukraine. Kirill remains in captivity in Ukraine.
Just as Russia does not release statistics on its military casualties in Ukraine, there are no official data on the number of Russian soldiers who have been taken prisoner.
The Ukrainian Coordinating Headquarters for Prisoners of War claims earlier this month that nearly 10,000 Russian troops tried to surrender via a special hotline.
While the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told the Moscow Times that it does not release information on the number of prisoners, ICRC spokesman in Ukraine Alexander Vlasenko said in December that there were “thousands” of prisoners of war held in the two countries.
Since the start of the war, Moscow and kyiv have organized at least 38 prisoner exchanges, according to Ukraine, in which more than 2,700 prisoners were exchanged.
Little is known about the secret negotiations between Russia and Ukraine that preceded the prisoner swaps – although Russia’s negotiations are carried out by the Ministry of Defense with the assistance of Presidential Commissioner for Human Rights Tatiana Moskalkova.
The mother of a Russian POW, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told the Moscow Times that her son was exchanged after less than six weeks in captivity.
Others, like Elvira and Kirill Chistyakov’s son, have been waiting for more than a year.
According to Ukrainian officialsRussian officials regularly request that soldiers with sought-after military skills be included in exchanges.
But there is also evidence of political interference.
In a particularly controversial prisoner exchange – heavily critical by some pro-war commentators – the Kremlin released 215 POWs, including captured foreigners and senior Ukrainian commanders of the Azov regiment, in September in exchange for at least 55 Russian POWs and friend Viktor Medvedechuk close and ally of President Vladimir Putin.
And Yevgeny Nuzhin, a prison inmate recruited to fight for the Wagner Mercenary Company, was apparently released by Ukraine during an exchange at the end of last year. Shortly after, he was executed by Wagner in what many believed was a punitive murder for a pro-Ukrainian interview he had given in captivity.
Neither the Russian human rights commissioner nor the Defense Ministry responded to requests for comment from the Moscow Times.
Much of the concern expressed by relatives of Russian POWs centers on whether their loved ones face violence or mistreatment at the hands of Ukrainians.
The United Nations human rights mission in Ukraine, which interviewed 175 Russian prisoners of war for a November report, said prisoners told them of “summary executions and several cases of torture and mistreatment. treatment, mainly when captured, interrogated for the first time or transferred to transit camps and places of internment.
However, some former Russian POWs said they were treated well by their captors.
Freed Russian prisoner of war Mikhail Radygin said in December interview on local television that the conditions of captivity were “normal” but that some prisoners had been beaten.
“They’re following the Geneva Convention there,” Radygin said in the video, which was later deleted after gaining widespread attention online.
According to Maksimovskaya, her boyfriend Zavyalov was not abused in captivity, but she said “other (released POWs) told stories of violence”.
As the two sides remain mired in a static war in the east of the country, many expect there to be fewer surrenders in the coming months.
The Kremlin also took legal steps to dissuade soldiers from surrendering – last year Russia introduced prison terms of up to 10 years for “voluntary” surrender.
In the meantime, hundreds of Russian families are still awaiting the release of their relatives held in Ukrainian prisons.
Elvira said her son passed messages to her through other Russian prisoners of war released in prisoner exchanges.
“He’s asking for help,” Elvira said. “I just want my son to come home.”