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Senior Sergeant Mykhailo Dianov after his release from Russian captivity. September 22, 2022

‘Who are the fascists here?’ Free from Russian captivity, Azovstal defender Mykhailo Dianov tells his story

Source: Meduza
Senior Sergeant Mykhailo Dianov after his release from Russian captivity. September 22, 2022
Senior Sergeant Mykhailo Dianov after his release from Russian captivity. September 22, 2022
SBU / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

On the night of September 22, Ukraine and Russia conducted the largest prisoner swap since the start of Russia's invasion. Ukraine released 55 Russians and Pro-Kremlin Ukrainian opposition politician Viktor Medvedchuk in exchange for 215 Ukrainian soldiers, many of whom defended the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works in Mariupol when it came under siege by Russian forces in the spring. One of those soldiers was marine Mykhailo Dianov, whose face was seen around the world after he was photographed by his fellow serviceman Dmytro Kozatsky in the Azovstal plant. After the prisoner exchange, Dianov gave an hour-long interview to the Ukrainian media project Front 18. Meduza summarizes his account of his time in captivity.

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Senior Sergeant Mykhailo Dianov was stationed outside of Mariupol with Ukraine's 36th Separate Marine Brigade. On March 10, Dianov was injured and sent to Mariupol for treatment in the city’s Hospital No. 61, where an external fixator — a device that entails rods being screwed into one's bones — was put on his broken arm. Two days later, Dianov learned that Russian forces had begun besieging the city. Around the same time, the hospital was hit by an airstrike.

I lay in the surgical ward. There were about seven people around me. There was a loud boom at Neptune [a building housing a pool next to the hospital] and it shook our facility. “Looks like they’re aiming for the hospital,” I said. But why would they hit the hospital? They’re Russians. Sure, there are some separatists there, but they’re Russians, they’re professional soldiers — they should understand. And as soon as I say that, a shell hits the surgical ward.

Dianov said he pulled a blanket over himself to avoid being hit by flying shards of glass. After that, he sprang up and ran to the door. When he looked into the hallway, he saw a “bunch of 200s,” using a military code referring to dead soldiers.

The injured patients spent that night in the hospital basement. The next day, they were transferred to the nearby Azovmash manufacturing plant, where they spent almost a month. In April, the military decided to send the patients to the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works in two groups. Only one of the two cars made it to the facility.

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Dianov spent two days in the Azovstal plant before his wound got infected and he was sent back to the hospital. Later, during an air raid, he fell on his external fixator, causing it to bend. As a result, his bone healed incorrectly; he would later have to get the fixator removed while in captivity.

Despite his wound, Dianov continued to go to his combat post, where he eventually broke the fixator completely: “All of the screw threads were stripped. The fixator was no longer serving any purpose. I needed to take it out. My wounds were constantly open because of the pines sticking out; everything was festering,” said Dianov.

In mid-May, the soldiers received orders to surrender. In the days that followed, about 2,500 Ukrainian soldiers laid down their weapons. Dianov and his fellow servicemen soon found themselves in a prison colony in the Russian-occupied Ukrainian village of Olenivka.

In late July, Dianov managed to get representatives of the self-proclaimed “DNR” to let him have the external fixator removed from his arm. Dianov was brought to Donetsk, where a doctor removed the device.

The doctor came in. He says, “Well, Misha, should we get your fixator out?” I look, and he’s laying out a set of automobile wrenches. The wrenches didn’t fit, so he started twisting [the fixator] with rusty pliers. I go, “Could you at least give me some kind of painkillers? They actually usually put people under for this.” “We’ll give you some ketorolac,” he said. He injected it and then immediately continued.

On the morning of July 29, an explosion on the territory of the Olenivka prison colony killed more than 50 people; Russia blamed Ukraine. Dianov was still at the Donetsk hospital at the time, and prisoners injured in the explosion soon began arriving there as well. According to Dianov, all of the witnesses reported not to have heard any incoming strike; the blast, they said, came from within the prison. Dianov believes the explosion was caused by Russia to disrupt the second stage of the prisoner exchange. He noted that another explosion occurred on September 18, the day before the exchange, killing two people.

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While in Russian captivity, Dianov said, Ukrainian prisoners were regularly tortured: their captors beat them with batons, shocked them with electric currents, and inserted needles under their fingernails.

He [the guard] would decide that we’d done something wrong; it could be anything at all. Maybe you looked in the wrong direction or lowered your head too far… I got beaten most often when I was taken to the investigative committee. An assault rifle to my head. [They’d say] I’d turned my head the wrong way, lowered it in the wrong way, or not raised my hand. I’d tell them I couldn’t raise my hand. First they’d hit me twice, then they’d say, ‘Oh, you can’t raise it…’ And then [they’d hit me] a third time.

Dianov said that while in captivity, he and his fellow servicemen were fed animal feed — and given only 30 seconds to eat it.

You can cut someone, beat someone, but any [of that] pain can be endured. But hunger… that’s different. It’s just awful. When you close your eyes, all you see is food. You don’t see your family, you don’t care whether Ukraine is free or not, nothing interests you. If you want to morally and physically destroy someone, just don’t feed him.

They intentionally gave us just boiling water and stale bread. You couldn’t keep up, physically. You run there, you run back. And on either side, there are prison guards with German shepherds. Who’s the fascist here?

On the morning of September 20, the prison operators started preparing for the exchange. Nothing was explained to the prisoners. After being searched, they spent about five hours waiting outside. When military trucks arrived, the Ukrainians’ eyes were taped and they were loaded into the vehicles. According to Dianov, they were packed in so tightly that it was difficult to breathe. Six hours later, the prisoners were put onto a plane. After they landed, they were transferred to buses.

We start to go, and I’m looking through my right eye. I can tell it’s about 5:00 pm. The bus stopped and the guards got out. Then someone got in and said, “Glory to Ukraine.”

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