Since the start of the full-fledged war in Ukraine in February, Russian forces have abducted hundreds of Ukrainians and placed them in the Russian incarceration system. Many of the people that have been seized are civilians, including children.
Viktoria Andrusha, a 26-year-old math teacher from Brovary, in the Kyiv oblast, was one of the Ukrainians unwillingly taken to Russia. After the start of the war, she stayed with her parents in Staryi Bykiv, a village 60 miles east of Kyiv that was soon occupied by Russian troops. Andrusha began sending Ukrainian intelligence information on the numbers and movement of Russian machinery she saw from her parents’ home.
On March 25, Russian soldiers searched houses on Andrusha’s street. “We found her,” they said to one another after finding her phone. They told Andrusha they had been informed about her and lectured her parents for doing a bad job raising her. They took her for questioning, and within days she was taken to Russia. She spent roughly half a year there, first in a prisoner of war camp and later in a regular detention center held separately from Russian detainees. She was physically and psychologically abused.
The Russians left her village less than a week after they took Andrusha, leaving her family to search for her. Her case became widely publicized, with Human Rights Watch writing about it as well as media all over the world. At the end of September, Andrusha became one of the prisoners swapped in an exchange with Russia and she finally made it home.
According to the international laws of war, civilians can be taken into noncriminal detention if they are believed to be a threat to the detaining authority. However, the way that Russia swept Andrusha and others into the Russian incarceration system and refused to acknowledge their detention is a crime of enforced disappearance under international law, wrote Human Rights Watch in June.
Since September, more than 800 Ukrainian prisoners have been released through negotiations between the government and Russia. Many of them have experienced abuse, ranging from malnutrition to beatings. Andrusha’s story gives a glimpse into what it was like to be a prisoner of war in Russia.
PassBlue connected with Andrusha through a person who was assisting Ukraine in finding Ukrainian war prisoners held in Russia. This conversation took place in two sessions over Zoom in late November. The interview was translated from Russian and edited for clarity. — ANASTASIIA CARRIER
PassBlue: In the months leading to the invasion in February, there was a lot of talk about the growing Russian presence near the Ukrainian borders and concerns that there might be a war. Hearing all this media coverage, did you think Russia would invade Ukraine?
Andrusha: We had heard that an invasion was possible, but we all thought it couldn’t be. Many were saying that we needed to prepare a “worry suitcase” [an emergency bag with necessities], but I didn’t make one. No one believed that the war would actually happen.
PassBlue: Do you remember where you were and what you thought when the war started?
Andrusha: Early in the morning, sometime before 5 A.M., the city woke up to the sound of an explosion and car alarms going off. We went online and soon learned that these explosions were happening in many towns across Ukraine. We realized that the invasion had started. The same day, I left Brovary for Staryi Bykiv village to stay with my parents. On Feb. 27, a large convoy of Russian machinery entered our village. They occupied houses, destroyed shops and shot down the council building — it was painted in Ukrainian flag colors and Russians hated it. On the very first day of their presence, they grabbed several people on the streets and killed six civilian men. My family knew some of them. Months later, I learned that they were tortured — Ukrainian investigators exhumed the bodies and found knife cuts, broken ribs and damaged hands. People who lived near the place of torture said they heard screams but were too afraid to leave the basements of their homes.
PassBlue: All the news coverage about your case says that you were sharing information on the Russian military with Ukrainian forces. How did you start doing it?
Andrusha: I had an acquaintance who worked for the Security Service of Ukraine and she knew I was staying at the village; she knew I saw how and where Russian machinery was moving. She put me in touch with a person who was collecting this information and I started sending them updates. I also shared information with other people in the Ukrainian forces. This was done through texts.
PassBlue: How long was it until the Russians came for you because of your intelligence sharing?
Andrusha: A little over a week. On March 24, they started to search houses. Three young soldiers searched our home and found nothing. A few minutes later, a car arrived with more than 10 people. A man in charge walked into our home like he owned the place. He started yelling and cursing. They called us separatists and Nazis. He put my father on his knees and they started questioning him. They turned around everything in our home and found my phone. He didn’t even check the phone, just clicked on some things. He said, “That’s her, we found her, let’s take her.” They told me to dress warmly. They told my parents they would return me in three to four days after questioning. I spent the first night in the basement of a private home. My uncle was already there, his hands tied. They questioned him because they thought he might have been a member of the forces or a sniper. He wasn’t. The next day they tied our hands and covered our eyes and drove us to a neighboring village where they put us in a boiler room of a community center. There were more people there already. That day, on March 26, they brought in a man who was shot in the hand. The next morning, a soldier found a pocket knife and sanitized it with fire and wiped it with sanitizing tissues. Then the soldier handed me the knife and said, “You do it,” meaning I would be the one getting the bullet out.
“I’m not a doctor, I’m a teacher. I’ve never done this, especially with a knife,” I said.
“Today will be your first time,” he said.
We gave the man anti-inflammatory pills, and I fished out the bullet with the knife. The man asked to keep the bullet as a reminder if he survived this. Months later, I learned he was executed.
PassBlue: When did the Russian forces move you to Russia?
Andrusha: On March 27, they took me and another man, and by March 28 we were already in a prisoner of war camp in Kursk oblast in Russia. They took me straight into questioning — they had already questioned me in Ukraine and even recorded a video. In Russia, they told me I was a spy and teaching was just my cover. It lasted for hours. When we arrived, there were people who yelled that we were Nazis, that they would kill us and torture us the same way Ukrainians allegedly treated Russians. Later, during the questioning, they showed me videos that I believe were parts of Russian propaganda with people being tortured, like shooting people in kneecaps or beating people up. They said these were Ukrainians torturing Russians.
PassBlue: Do you think they believed that Ukrainians were brainwashed, as Russian propaganda said, or did they question it themselves?
Andrusha: I think they believed it. I told them, “You haven’t seen what I’ve seen.” And they said that Russian soldiers would never do what I told them they’d done. In Ukraine, there were soldiers who were curious and asked questions. Sometimes they hesitated after they heard some of the things, like the men who were killed on the first day, the personal cars of civilians that were taken or the drunk Russian man carrying a gun that harassed women and kids. But they didn’t trust us. They found excuses. After the soldiers left our village, my mom’s colleagues at the village council found notes in their office from soldiers with apologies for being in Ukraine. “I don’t want to be here; I don’t want to be doing this. We know this is all a lie,” one note said.
PassBlue: How was the conditions at the prisoners of war camp?
Andrusha: After the questioning, I was led to a tent where I lived for two weeks. It was a tent for about 12 people, but I was the only one there. They had camp cots from the Soviet times and some blankets, but it was still really cold and I walked around the tent all night to stay warm. Then they brought me wood and matches for a little heater and instructed me to have it on all the time. I had to wake up every half an hour or so at night to throw more wood in.
PassBlue: Where did they take you after the camp?
Andrusha: On April 8, they took prisoners from our camp to a Russian detention center. They kept us apart from the regular prisoners there — we were forbidden to communicate or even look at each other. Among other war prisoners, I got to know a married couple who was with us. There was no reason for the Russians to keep them for long, especially considering that the woman had health issues. We exchanged information and agreed that they would find my family to let them know what happened to me. This was how Ukrainians learned about my whereabouts — once the couple was released, they found my family and told the Ukrainian coordination office tasked with collecting information on the war prisoners about me. After that, more than one lawyer came to inquire about me, but the Russians refused to confirm that I was held at the detention center.
PassBlue: The Russian incarceration system is notorious for its poor conditions and human-rights abuses. What was life at the detention center like for you?
Andrusha: After arrival, they sent us to be questioned again and our hands were twisted in the most painful way. I heard screaming from other rooms. The questioning lasted a long time, and they made me sign documents saying that I was treated well, that I received food and medical help, and that I wasn’t abused. I understood that I was signing documents that stated I was treated well even before I knew how they would be treating me later. After the questioning, I had to go through an “acceptance process,” meaning a beating. They took people to a corridor where there were no cameras and beat people using batons, legs and electroshock. The beating was strong, but I held on to the idea that it would be over. After, they took me to shower, and I changed into prison clothes. There were times when I lost consciousness after the beating. I don’t remember how they took me to get my fingerprints or much of what happened when they took me to the cell — I remember sliding down the wall in the cell, tears pouring down my cheeks as I repeated my mantra, “It will end soon, it will be fine.” Other women in the cell were shocked to see how badly they beat me. I received no medical help. I kept losing consciousness for a few minutes or seconds for a week after the beating; I suspected I had a concussion. When my cellmate tried to ask the guards for help, they would joke that they could “energize me,” meaning beat me up again. So I told them I was feeling just fine. I also had a back injury and for a month after the beating, I could barely move it.
PassBlue: What did you do all day in detention?
Andrusha: I was there from April to September. Every morning we had to sing the Russian anthem. We also had to learn songs glorifying Russia, the Russian army and the Russian president — songs they thought would teach us that Russia was good. The first month was really hard. I hated everything, I hated their songs. I wanted to hide in a corner so no one would bother me. They told us they wouldn’t beat women again and said, “See how humane our society is?” Instead, they put a lot of psychological pressure on us. There was a lot of questions. They told us that there might be no family or Ukraine to go back to. Whenever the time for inspection came and we had to walk out of the cell and stand, I would start trembling. It was a trigger; I couldn’t come down. Then word came that there might be a prisoner exchange and the attitude towards us changed. They stopped beating up male prisoners. In May, they called me in and said that an investigation found that my actions providing information to the Ukrainian forces didn’t lead to any casualties, so all charges were dropped and that I would be exchanged at the first opportunity. When the time came, they took about 60 people for an exchange but not us. We were hysterical. They watched us from afar to make sure we wouldn’t attempt to kill ourselves. At some point, we just started to live the life we had there. We knew that our only task was to keep our sanity through this experience because there were times when we fell into depressive apathy. We tried to occupy our minds in any way we could.
PassBlue: When did you realize you would be exchanged after all?
Andrusha: On Sept. 20, they relocated us to a women’s colony. In four days, they brought us back. We didn’t know why it happened — we suspected it was because of an inspection or simply by a mistake. On Sept. 25, they told us to pack our things again. We saw that the people who would be transporting us were the military police; it was a sign of a possible exchange. They kept us in another detention center closer to the Ukrainian border for another four days. On Sept. 29, they woke us up and told us to pack again. They put us on a bus with our eyes untied. This time, we knew it could mean an exchange. Around noon, the bus stopped and showed us the road we should walk to get home. We walked until we got to the point where we could see a sign, like a Hollywood sign, saying, “Ukraine.” People met us there and said, in Ukrainian, “Welcome to Ukraine, welcome home.” We asked for phones to call our families. I called my mother and said, “Mom, I’m home,” but she couldn’t hear me because the connection was bad. “Mom, it’s Vika, I’m all right, I’m in Ukraine,” I said again. My mom was overwhelmed.
PassBlue: Russian forces have left your village, but the war in Ukraine continues. How are you adjusting to a more or less normal life?
Andrusha: In the first days, I couldn’t believe it was real. I realized I was surrounded by Ukrainian speakers, that I was in my motherland, but I felt like I would wake up in the detention center, that I was still there. It was hard to process all the news that I’d missed during the half a year I was gone. I didn’t know that my story became well publicized and it was strange when people came up to me on a street and asked, “Are you that math teacher?” Later, I started to read articles online and I realized my family engaged different organizations to get me out and that there was a lot of information on my case globally. Now, I’m going through rehabilitation for my back injury left from the beating. It’s a monthslong process, but doctors think we could do it without surgery. On a psychological level, I’m also working through the experience to make sure the trauma wouldn’t come out later.
I think everything happens for a reason. I lived through this experience, and it means I have a mission. I’m cooperating with a Ukrainian human-rights organization, Center for Civil Liberties [which won a Nobel Peace Prize], and we tell stories of how civilians are disappearing from the streets. We communicate internationally that Russians are committing war crimes in Ukraine. People who returned from detention in Russia tell their stories. We support initiating a trial of President Vladimir Putin in an international court. Russia is committing genocide against Ukrainians and we want people to know the truth.
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Anastasiia Carrier is a Detroit-based freelance reporter. She earned an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and her work has appeared in Politico Magazine, The Wire China and The Radcliffe Magazine.