At 6am each day a bell sounded down the Bryansk prison corridors. It was the signal for the captured Ukrainian soldiers to get off their bunks and sing the Russian national anthem. Guards peered at them though peepholes in the cell doors and beat with batons anyone who did not comply.
The beatings happened all the time. There were beatings for prisoners heard talking and, as Russian was compulsory, extra beatings for those overheard talking in Ukrainian. There were beatings for PoWs who dared to lie down before 10pm and, on some days, at the guards’ whim, beatings for those who dared to sit, with the captives often forced to spend 16-hour periods shuffling in small circles in their cells.
Senior Lieutenant Serhii Strachuk, a marine platoon commander captured in the battle for Mariupol and released ten days ago as part of a prisoner swap, told The Times that even in the hours before they were released, 215 Ukrainian PoWs aboard a military plane were beaten with batons and shocked with electric cattle prods as they sat crammed into the fuselage, hands tied and blindfolded, on their way to freedom.
“They kept hitting us with batons, rifle butts and electrocuting us with cattle prods, all Russia’s favourite toys, throughout the flight,” he said at a rehabilitation centre near the city of Poltava where he is being nursed back to mental and physical health.
Among the men captured in Mariupol were the British fighters Shaun Pinner and Aiden Aslin, both sentenced to death by a Russian court but also freed last month in the prisoner exchange.
The account by Strachuk, 30, is among the first to describe in detail the abuse of Ukrainian PoWs. The head of the UN human rights mission in Ukraine has said such treatment could amount to a war crime. Denied adequate food, held in cells under 24-hour lighting, forbidden to speak their own language, regularly beaten and without any access to books, letters, pens or paper, thousands of Ukrainian PoWs are still being held incommunicado in Russian prisons.
Reflecting on the nightmares which now crowd his sleep, Strachuk, whose weight dropped by almost 5st (30kg) in the Russian prisons, said the most traumatic memories came from the five months he spent incarcerated, rather than the battle in Mariupol. “Neither memory is great. But at least in Mariupol I was fighting to defend Ukraine against Russian invasion, whereas in prison we were treated as criminals, always hungry and often beaten. The flashbacks are always of prison.”
His story, and that of his wife’s desperate search through social media posts to see whether he was still alive, is as much a tale of contemporary war as of violence and abuse.
He first encountered hunger in the battle for Mariupol. His unit, 1st Marine Battalion, 36th Brigade, was sent to join other Ukrainian units defending the city days after the Russian invasion began. With limited rations and dwindling ammunition stocks, his platoon became embroiled in fierce fighting as they sought to block Russian armoured units crossing two key bridges into Mariupol. “We had two big problems,” he said in his room at the rehabilitation centre. “We needed to avoid starving and we needed to survive the Russian attacks. Both those tasks gave us a lot of work.”
His memories of the battle include a showdown with Russian soldiers along a railway line; a stray Belgian shepherd dog that his men adopted; the death of his first marine, aged just 19; the day his exhausted soldiers glutted themselves on a warehouse full of energy drinks — and the final phone conversation he had with his wife, in which he warned her that death or incarceration were the only possible outcomes.
Capture was the bitterest memory of all. Separated from his battalion, encircled, under continual bombardment from tanks, artillery and airstrikes, nine of Strachuk’s 22 marines were killed or wounded before he received an order over the radio in late April to surrender or escape. “I gathered my men and told them we had two choices,” he said. “None wanted to surrender. So we broke into small groups and tried to escape through two sets of Russian encirclements.” After two days spent hiding in an underground tunnel his luck ran out and he was captured.
Declared as missing in action, Strachuk’s fate was unknown until his wife Oleksandra, 29, a major in the Ukrainian army, began an exhaustive study of Russian Telegram posts, checking out video clips and photographs to discover if he was still alive. Knowing the position he had defended in Mariupol, she soon found drone videos showing not only Russian soldiers overwhelming it, but her husband’s adopted Belgian shepherd dog in the company of victorious Russian troops.
She began studying the bodies of dead marines, holding her breath every time she saw a big, bearded man resembling Serhii. “But I knew exactly what his uniform looked like, the precise detail of camouflage, and what type of footwear, Italian Crispi hunting boots or New Balance trainers, he was wearing,” she told me. “In this way I worked out that the bodies I saw were not that of Serhii.”
Then, nearly four weeks after she last heard of him, she saw a clip on Telegram of Strachuk being interrogated by the Russians in which he confirmed the presence of foreigners in his platoon. He had last seen Aslin and Pinner in Mariupol in the chaos of the last days before the survivors of his platoon tried to escape and did not know their fate. “They were both good, disciplined soldiers. We got on well,” he recalled of the British men. “I didn’t see their moment of capture but for the Russians the presence of British citizens in my platoon was of big propaganda interest.”
A chain of prisons followed. First Strachuk was sent to Olenivka, near Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, where he had his head shaved and was beaten with clubs by six guards. At least 53 Ukrainian prisoners died in that prison ten weeks later, on July 29, when a fireball, probably caused by a bomb, consumed their accommodation. Next, he was moved to Taganrog, in Russia, where the Ukrainian PoWs were beaten every day with batons and fed only thin gruel and stale bread. Last, he was transferred to Bryansk, where he shared a cell with ten other PoWs, in a silent regime of constant lighting and beatings.
“The total boredom was the worst aspect,” he said. “Talking was forbidden. There was nothing to do, nothing to read, nothing to write. You could not lie down and sometimes you were not allowed to sit. If a guard came in, we all had to bow at our waists, hands clasped behind our backs. Some men broke down and wept all day at the misery of it. I believed I would survive and that one day I would be free, but as each day passed my hopes began to fade.”
Strachuk has no idea why he was picked to be involved in the prisoner exchange on September 21. Under the terms of the deal, he and 214 other Ukrainian personnel, most of them captured in Mariupol, were freed in exchange for 55 Russians and pro-Moscow Ukrainians. Turkey, the Vatican were involved in negotiating the exchange, which also involved the release of five senior commanders from Ukraine’s nationalist Azov Regiment, and ten foreign captives, including Pinner and Aslin.
Nor did the marine realise that he would be freed at the time until, having been beaten and electrocuted during the flight to Belarus, his blindfold was removed after crossing the Ukrainian border. He is now undergoing a three-week spell of health checks and rehabilitation, and will have a month’s leave — before rejoining his unit. “I am recovering quickly but I feel shadowed by the thought of my marines who were not exchanged and still languish in Russian prisons,” he said, rubbing the welts on his wrists caused by plasticuffs.
A text message to Strachuk’s wife, sent by Pinner after their release, has helped to ease some of that sense of guilt. “Tell him I would follow him to the ends of the earth,” Pinner wrote. “Without his leadership we would have lost far more people. I remember saying to him: ‘not sure we will get out of this one’. He said: ‘I just want to see my wife again’. Well, we did it.”