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‘Like Wagner’s meat’ In the occupied Luhansk region, Russian soldiers who refuse to fight are imprisoned without a trial and pressured back to the frontline
In the summer of 2022, it emerged that Russian contract soldiers refusing to fight in Ukraine and trying to get discharged from the military were being imprisoned in specialized detention camps. Hundreds of soldiers may have passed through these camps by now. The army command speak of these facilities euphemistically, calling them “centers for the recovery of combat readiness.” Since the start of mobilization, these “centers” have become places of detention for new conscripts, many of whom also refuse to fight in the Ukrainian war. This article is a nutshell version of an investigation published by Mediazona and talking about one such facility, discovered near the Ukrainian city of Perevalsk.
Late this October, the Russian media project Astra published a video of Russian conscripts who were being forcibly kept in a basement in Rubizhne, a city in Ukraine’s Russian-annexed Luhansk region. The reason they were detained was that they had refused to return to the frontline.
Astra and its journalists reached out to the soldier’s relatives, and learned that these conscripts had been sent to the combat zone without any training. They soon came under mortar fire. When they returned to their unit, the officers in charge ordered them to get back to the frontline — “without a clear objective or the things needed to achieve whatever it was,” as one of their friends described the situation. When they refused, their weapons were taken away, and the soldiers themselves were locked in the basement.
Later, they were dispatched to the Rubizhne military commandant’s office. According to one of their friends who spoke with Astra,
at the commandant’s, everyone was placed in a cell completely unsuitable for keeping people. After 10 days, some staff from the prosecutor’s office came in and presented them with an ultimatum: either they return to the frontline, or they all get 10-year prison terms in a high-security penal colony.
About 20 conscripts were then moved to a facility near Perevalsk, which used to be a penal colony. Among them was a 37-year-old man who had received his draft letter on September 22. Mediazona spoke with his wife, and learned that Fyodor (not his real name) was drafted and sent to a unit on the same day, without a medical attestation. His training boiled down to “two or three” day trips to an army base, and “firing a BMP once — before it broke down.” Within days, the new conscripts arrived in the Luhansk region. By early October, Fyodor and his unit found themselves near Svatove.
On the phone, Fyodor often told his wife about being under fire. He said that they had no cover, and “no preparation at all” — but still had to follow orders. On October 16, 10 conscripts, including Fyodor himself, filed reports about refusing to participate in further combat operations.
His wife says that, at first, the officers in charge tried to talk the “refuseniks” into returning to the frontline. Later, they began to pressure and intimidate them. Several days down the line, officers told them that they were being moved to a “rehabilitation center in Luhansk” — but instead, they were delivered to the former penal colony in Perevalsk.
Mediazona was able to find out what it’s like to be imprisoned in Perevalsk, by speaking with contract soldiers who had been there before. Here’s what one of them remembered:
They’d feed you once daily. Sometimes, there’d be no food at all. No personal hygiene items, no first necessities like bedding or underwear. We slept on metal bunks without bedding; there weren’t enough of those, and some people slept on the floor, on top of a mattress.
Their captors made soldiers load and move weapons, and kept insisting that they should return to the frontline. Some were taken back to the front by force; others got locked in basements. One of the contract soldiers wrote to his father that he had seen “some guys after they were in the pit.” They’d been severely beaten,
all blue, with blue backs and totally blue legs. They’d throw them into vehicles, drive them away, mess them up, bring them back. They’d put black tape around their heads so they couldn’t see.
Fyodor never told his wife about beatings, but she thinks that he couldn’t have spoken freely in front of his captors, since the detainees cannot talk on the phone privately. “When they stand next to him, he says nothing, just ‘I’m fine, how is everything, how are you?’,” she says.
If I try to ask him questions, he sort of wanders off. But when he called me from another number, around October 25, no one was around — and he told me that he was at the colony, that the conditions were revolting, that no one tells them anything and there’s no documentation, only psychological pressure — and they’re being forced to write some reports exactly as they’re told. “If you don’t agree, we’ll bring you to the frontline by force” — like Wagner’s meat, in other words.
The spouse who describe this also says that, when they refused to take part in combat, the conscripts expected that they’d have to face some kind of responsibility — but that it would also be lawful. “They were ready to be tried, under the law. None of them knew that they’d be sent to some camp, and treated in this way.”
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