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Russian soldiers in Melitopol on July 14, 2022

‘Shut his mouth, or you’ll all be shot’ How Russian occupation forces transformed the Ukrainian city of Melitopol into ‘Europe’s largest prison’

Source: iStories
Russian soldiers in Melitopol on July 14, 2022
Russian soldiers in Melitopol on July 14, 2022
AP / Scanpix / LETA

Russian troops entered Melitopol at the very start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Since then, report journalists at iStories, the city has become a center of partisan resistance and simultaneously “the largest prison in Europe,” where Russian soldiers kidnap and torture residents with impunity. Meduza summarizes this latest report on Ukrainians’ lives under Russian occupation.

According to a new report by iStories, abductions by Russian occupation forces in Melitopol became widespread as early as March 2022. This is when Ukrainian activists launched the “Kidnapped Melitopolians” hotline to collect information about disappeared locals. 

A woman named Natalia who works at the hotline told iStories that Russian abductions initially targeted people who worked in local government bodies. By the fall of 2022, soldiers moved on to school administrators and teachers who stuck to the Ukrainian curriculum. “Then came the farmers. There was a period when they kidnapped a lot of veterans of the [2014–2018 Donbas War]. And a lot of businessmen — they kidnapped them for ransoms,” explained Natalia.

Staff at the “Kidnapped Melitopolians” hotline have documented 311 abductions. More than 100 of these people are still in the Russian military’s custody, and 56 have gone missing entirely. Volunteers suspect the true number of kidnappings could be 3–4 times higher.

Landscape designer Maxim Ivanov and his girlfriend Tatiana Bekh were abducted in April 2022, near the outset of the invasion. 

“We left the house, and I had a [Ukrainian] flag on my car. An armored personnel carrier was driving nearby, and I grabbed the flag and waved it around, shouting, ‘Get off our land!’ They stopped, about 10 guys surrounded me, and they threw the flag to the ground and stomped on it. They said, ’Now we’ll take you to reeducate you,” recalls Maxim Ivanov. He says he and Tatiana were taken to the local military police, where they joined other people arrested for pro-Ukrainian agitation or curfew violations. Soldiers beat Ivanov with rubber batons, forcing him to scream, “Glory to Russia!” The couple was released two days later after being pressured to sign a document stating they had no complaints about their detention.

Maxim and Tatiana were arrested again in August when they were caught posting leaflets for Ukraine’s Independence Day. Soldiers confiscated the flyers and searched Maxim’s mobile phone, finding messages he’d posted in a chatbot where he reported information about the movements of Russian troops and military equipment. Later that day, Ivanov was beaten at the police station and suffered multiple broken ribs. The next day, Russian soldiers moved him to a garage under a bridge, where they brutally assaulted him again. 

“I realized that they might kill me right there and then. I asked for my phone so I could call my parents and say goodbye. And they told me: You’ll make due. You’ll croak, and nobody will know. Then they brought me to the garage and left me. I opened my eyes, and blood was gushing out everywhere. Everything around me was covered in blood,” Ivanov told iStories.

After five days, Ivanov and several other prisoners were taken to bathe. “There was just a hose with running water, but we were thrilled because it had been so long since we’d washed. I undressed, and [the guards] watching whispered to each other and said, “This one’s ready. Let’s take him away.” They probably saw that my back and ribs were all black and blue and decided I’d had enough,” recalled Ivanov.

All this time, Tatiana Bekh was confined to a tiny shipping container (smaller than seven feet by seven feet) parked on the military police compound. The couple was eventually transferred to a city police department, where officials continued to torture Ivanov, even using electric shocks.

Russian troops later released Tatiana but held Maxim for another month, continuing to beat him regularly. In late October 2022, they sent him away to Ukrainian-controlled territory, but he had to walk the 25 miles himself from Vasylivka to Kamianske, navigating a “gray zone” where artillery fire was ongoing: 

I thought about asking someone for a bed for the night, but the village was dead. There was nobody there, and all the homes were destroyed. I went into an abandoned gas station and spent the whole night there. It was late October and cold. I found a piece of fiberglass and threw it over my legs. And the artillery fire was constant. It hit nearby, and I heard the earth crumble from the explosion. I thought that gas station would become my tomb.

Russian occupation forces also kidnapped a 23-year-old schizophrenic man named Leonid Popov, whose condition was in remission thanks to medical care, though doctors warned his mother that stress could jeopardize that progress. The first time occupation troops arrested Leonid was in May 2022. They held him at a military police center for three days. Leonid’s mother told iStories that “drunk Kaydrovites” (Chechen soldiers) tortured him, tying him to a wall, mocking him, throwing knives at him, and subjecting him to electric shocks. She says her son never understood why they even detained him.

Around the same time, Russian soldiers also abducted Leonid’s brother, Yaroslav, who said he was forced into a cramped jail cell with another 30 detainees. The guards later added a “drunk or mentally ill person” who didn’t stop screaming, and the men were told that they’d all be shot if they didn’t “shut his mouth,” Yaroslav told his mother:

And then this crowd of frightened prisoners started to beat the man. And when he started shouting, they just began strangling him, just to stop him from yelling. And the man died.

Yaroslav’s mother says she asked him what he did as this happened, and he told her that he turned to the wall and prayed to God for the first time in his life.

In April 2023, Russian soldiers abducted Leonid Popov again. Three months later, they dumped him at a hospital where he was treated for extreme emaciation. Nearly six feet, five inches tall, Leonid now weighed less than 90 pounds. His father was later granted permission to bring his son home, but troops again took him away that same day. Leonid Popov’s whereabouts are currently unknown. iStories doesn’t say what became of his brother Yaroslav.

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