“I Want To Live”
In a private message, the journalist from Le Monde informed me that they had chosen not to publish our report on the Russian POW camp, citing the newspaper’s policy of not releasing interviews with people in captivity. His team had really wanted to go there – and not only them. A TV producer from a famous American channel came to me twice, attempting to gain entry. The producer tried to get his name on the ministry’s special list that would allow him entry but was unsuccessful.
What drew so many people to the place behind its high, unwelcoming walls, lined with barbed wire and surveillance cameras? Perhaps it was the opportunity to see real Russian soldiers who had driven tanks through walls, dropped bombs from airplanes, and fired Kalashnikov assault rifles at Ukrainians. Some may have even been guilty of more heinous acts like murder and rape. These were the same soldiers who had looted toilets and defecated on white sheets but had somehow managed to survive.
There is much to discover beyond the intimidating walls guarded by barbed wire and surveillance cameras. There lies the residue of the Kremlin’s imperial agenda, an affliction as immense as Russia’s boreal forest. It’s difficult to admit, but the fascination with Russian prisoners resembles a show where the trainer places his head in a crocodile’s mouth. Without the influence of Russian TV, these prisoners are more or less safe to be around, although they bear the memory of it in their imprisonment. Beyond the fence lay an icon with a Russian inscription in the phone room and a Greek-Catholic church.
It was certainly intriguing to observe the Russian captives. What did they look like now that they were imprisoned? They shuffled along with cropped hair, adorned in blue uniforms with the outdated label „penal colony,“ their eyes downcast and their hands clasped behind their backs. The guards were devoid of firearms, carrying nothing more than rubber clubs.
Every morning, the captive Russians are greeted with the national anthem of Ukraine, the county they detest and refuse to acknowledge. They consume products from the same country they had hoped to plunder, even eating bread from the grain they coveted.
These captives pose no threat individually, but collectively they represent a potential one. With their calloused fingers on the launch buttons of nuclear missiles aimed at world capitals, they persist in believing that they are superior and have more rights to live and consume these products. They are willing to die for the chance to capture someone else’s territory, convinced that their language and national anthem are worth the sacrifice.
The journalists sought to understand the effects of oppression, propaganda, and the imposition of power on people, to witness firsthand the consequences of these forces on human beings.
There’s a certain tragic beauty to these people when they aren’t threatening, and they can even elicit feelings of pity. They aren’t aliens or repulsive-looking in appearance, and their thoughts are sometimes similar to ours. But when they band together and choose a leader, they become like a swarm of locusts: wild, vicious, and driven by rage and greed. They transform into a destructive force.
Even in a seemingly clear-cut situation like theirs, the captive Russians are willing to explain everything through outlandish conspiracy theories. They believe they aren’t being beaten not because the Ukrainians are merciful but because EU cameras are monitoring them. They are also convinced that Russia will lose the war not because they’re up against the plucky Ukrainians who refuse to submit but because they’re at war with NATO. They find themselves in a place that, in their view, shouldn’t even exist since they don’t acknowledge the legitimacy of Ukraine.
A journalist from The New York Times told me that having visited numerous prisons around the world, he regarded this particular one as one of the best, citing the abundance of sunlight and lack of depressing elements. However, despite the pleasant conditions, most prisoners long to return home, with almost no one wishing to stay incarcerated.
A Russian man reached out to the state voluntary surrender line, dubbed “I Want to Live,” confessing through tears that he desired to become a Ukrainian. This would be a significant shift for the average Russian, comparable to a gender change. Meanwhile, an American cameraman captured footage of a prisoner on crutches struggling up a tall flight of stairs, lagging behind his fellow inmates on the way to lunch. The cameraman expressed his discomfort to the journalist, who responded with a jarring question about the Ukrainian women raped, killed, and burned by Russian soldiers during the occupation of their village.
The journalist sought specific interview subjects, including a Buryat, a Wagner Group member, and a military pilot. However, upon arriving at the infirmary, they encountered a young man in his twenties who was on his knees due to leg injuries, exhausted from constantly lying down.
“He is on his knees because he is ashamed of what he did to Ukraine,” someone told me, but it was not true. He hardly felt ashamed.
The journalist observed that the prisoners occasionally gave him piercing looks from under their blue caps. Ultimately, the young man was there because, like many of his compatriots, he had not taken part in the fight against corruption and election fraud in Russia.
When prisoners go through one last roll call before a prisoner exchange, they are then transported to the Ukrainian-Russian border, where a representative from Ukrainian Military Command provides each one of them with small cards that are inscribed with “I Want to Live” and a phone number. “You know what it’s like in our captivity,” the representative explains. “If your great nation forces you to go to war again, you’ll know what to do. Remember this number. Our camp is waiting for you. It may not be as large as your country, but there’s food, no beatings, and you probably already know the Ukrainian national anthem by heart.”
Ultimately, the journalist from The New York Times was not permitted to use the footage he’d acquired. Their lawyers were concerned that interviewing prisoners could lead to legal complications for the newspaper. However, the journalist disagreed with this logic, arguing that interviewing people in Moscow could be viewed as just as problematic since they lack the same degree of freedom as those in the POW camp.
Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan