On the evening of April 24, Mariupol cinematographer Olga Novikova wrote in a Facebook post that her son, Alexey, had been taken prisoner — and that his captors were demanding 5,000 euros ($5,356) in return for his release. The kidnappers had contacted Novikova through Alexey’s Facebook account and sent her a video of him being interrogated. They promised to kill Alexey if they didn’t receive the money “by tomorrow.” Meduza spoke to Olga Novikova.
— Did the kidnappers call you?
— Yes. They’re demanding a ransom, and if I don’t pay up, they promised to kill him and send me a video of the execution.
The bottom line is that there’s no guarantee they’ll let him live even after I pay the ransom. The kidnappers are keeping him in isolation and not with the larger group of POWs. I think publicity might be able to help: we need to act right now to make sure the Russian side won’t dare shoot him like they would if he were just another person to them.
As for the Ukrainian side, they already put him on the exchange list today. I got in touch with the group who handles communication with prisoners’ relatives. They’re not part of the military or the SBU (the Ukrainian Security Service), but their lists go to [Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister and head of POW exchanges Iryna] Vereshchuk.
They added him to the exchange list — so now I need to get through to the Russian side so we can get him out of the hands of those blackmailers, because who knows what they might do to him.
I think they’re just trying to make money right now. It’s just a business they’ve set up. And their commanders probably don’t know about it. And I need publicity so I can make sure they don’t dare shoot him.
— Who contacted you, and when?
— Today [April 24] at around 2:00 p.m., they contacted me from my son’s Facebook account. A man I’d never heard before sent a voice message asking me to send him my phone number: “Send the phone number for your Telegram account — we have your son.” But they didn’t end up calling me on the phone, so I didn’t get the kidnappers’ numbers. They called me on Facebook Messenger — again from my son’s account — and bluntly said, ‘We’ll give you 15 minutes to think — if you make an offer that interests us, we’ll let your son live; if not, we’ll shoot him.”
Fifteen minutes later, they called me back, and I told them I didn’t know what offer I could make that would interest them; I’m a refugee and I don’t have anything. “We need money.” How much? “5,000 euros by tomorrow.” How am I supposed to get that? Do you understand how much money that is? “That’s not our business. If you don’t manage to get it, we’ll send you a video of your son being killed.”
They promised that if they get the money, they’ll send him to the [Russian military] commandant’s office, where he will, and I quote, “work with all the rest of the prisoners in the interest of the Soviet Union.”
Then they started jeering and shouting into the microphone, “Glory to Ukraine!” Like it was a circus! You’re discussing my son’s life with me — why play these kinds of games?
— Did the captors let you speak to your son?
— They didn’t let me talk to him, but they sent me a video that showed them saying he’d been kidnapped on April 23 and that he’s a part of the Territorial Defense Forces. Although he didn’t have anything on his person proving that he’s served. Only a student ID card from Mariupol State University — he’s a first-year political science student — and his passport with his Mariupol residence registration.
Most likely, they forced him to say he served in the Territorial Defense Forces.
— Were you able to learn anything about the kidnappers?
— The person who was talking to me was alone. I couldn’t get him to introduce himself. He stayed in control of the conversation the whole time, yelling into the phone that “we’ll kill your son if you say a word out of turn, so just listen to our conditions.”
It's possible they're from the DNR [Donetsk People’s Republic]. They spoke Russian, but not with Russian accents — they spoke the way someone from the Donbas might. They also said to send the money to a [Ukrainian] PrivatBank card.
— In the video the kidnappers sent you, Alexey says he doesn’t need medical assistance. What do you know about the actual state of his health?
— They said they haven’t touched him: “We only hit him once.” Of course he told the camera that they haven’t been beating him. I have no idea what’s actually happened. They could have beaten him, threatened to cut off his fingers, or anything else.
It’s difficult to glean much from the video — it’s dark, he’s sitting in some basement somewhere. He doesn’t have visible injuries; he’s dressed in a hat and a jacket. Evidently he found some clothes somewhere before he left and put them on. They’re not his clothes.
And he’s clearly tired, because he had to walk for a long time.
— Were the kidnappers able to prove to you that the video was taken today [April 24]? That they have direct access to Alexey?
— All they sent was that video and a single photo of his documents — his student ID and his passport. I don’t know when they filmed it. It could have been yesterday.
— What conditions did they give for your son’s release?
— Just money. They immediately requested 5,000 euros. I’m collecting the money on Facebook — I asked people for help. And even then, they didn’t promise to release him, but to give him up to the [Russian military] commandant — and who knows what will happen then.
They gave me “until tomorrow” — but it’s unclear whether that means “by midnight” or “by the morning.”
And they told me not to even think about calling the police.
— And you’ve left Mariupol yourself?
— I left the city on March 18. I took my whole family: the grandmothers, my daughter-in-law, our friends. There were seven people in our car — we went to Zaporizhzhia. That’s when there were still humanitarian corridors — now there aren’t any, and it’s impossible to evacuate from the city.
When we left, they had already bombed the drama theater. There were a lot of ruins in the city center. The streets were covered in wreckage. There were huge craters from aerial bombs. The city was hard to recognize.
— When did you last talk to your son?
— Mariupol lost connection very quickly [after the war began]. I didn’t hear from him for a long time. Then, on April 14, he got back in touch for a bit — and that’s how I learned the situation in Mariupol was critical and [the city’s defenders] weren’t getting any assistance.
They’re bargaining with me over my son’s life — and they’re not giving me any guarantees. It’s unclear what will happen to him.
Translation by Sam Breazeale