Beatings and electrocution: the horrors of Russian “filtering” of Ukrainians
People’s phones are confiscated and their social media accounts are examined. Anything that seems suspicious may result in beatings or even electrocution, civilians say. Many are forcibly sent to Russia.
Andrei watched anxiously as Russian soldiers attached his phone to his computer – seemingly to recover deleted files. Andrei, a 28-year-old marketer, tried to leave Mariupol in early May. He deleted from his phone everything he thought might seem suspicious to the Russian military – text messages about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and pictures of his hometown, destroyed by Russian artillery in weeks of shelling.
But the internet in Mariupol – once a bustling port city in southern Ukraine – was cut off during the Russian siege, and Andrei did not have time to delete some of the social media posts. He recalled reposting several anti-Russian posts and speeches by Vladimir Zelensky in the early days of the war. “I’m screwed,” he thought.
The military, Andrei told me afterwards, had already paid attention to him by then. He had queued up for filtration in the village of Bezymennoye, east of Mariupol – and at the same time one of the Russian soldiers had noticed his beard. The soldier saw it as a sign of belonging to the Azov regiment, formerly a militia battalion affiliated with extreme right-wing circles. “Are you and the brigade the ones killing our guys?” – Andrei was asked. He replied that he didn’t serve in the army, but went to work immediately after graduation. “They didn’t want to hear that,” he says.
Andrei’s phone was checked on his computer and his social media posts containing President Zelensky’s appeals were found
The soldiers went through Andrei’s phone to find out his political views. He was asked what he thought of Vladimir Zelenski. Andrei replied that Zelenski was “normal”, and one of the soldiers asked him for a more detailed answer. Andriy told him that Zelensky was an ordinary president, not too different from the previous ones, and that he himself wasn’t particularly interested in politics. “Just say so – ‘not interested in politics’,” the military man told him.
Andrei’s phone was left with the soldiers and he was told to wait outside the door. He returned to his grandmother, aunt and mother, with whom he had come. They had already been given papers to leave the occupied territory. A few minutes later, Andrei says, he was ordered into a tent where Russian FSB security officers were conducting further checks.
Five officers were sitting at the table, three of them wearing balaclavas. They showed Andrei a video that he had posted on Instagram – an address by President Zelensky dated March 1, signed by Andrei: “A president we can be proud of. Go home with your warship!”. One of the staff spoke first. “You told us that you were not interested in politics, but that you yourself supported the Nazi government,” Andrei recalls him saying. “Then he punched me in the throat. In fact, he started the beating.”
Andriy says the military found out about the posts with Zelensky’s speeches by checking his phone on his computer.
Another Ukrainian, Dmytro, says his phone was also confiscated at a checkpoint when he was leaving Mariupol in late March. The 34-year-old history teacher says the Russian military found a message on his phone to a friend containing the word “Rashist” (a play on words that conflate “Russia and” and “fascist”). Dmitriy recounts that the soldiers started beating him, including kicking him, and that “it was all because I used that word”.
Dmitriy recounts that he was taken to the former police station in the village of Nikolskoye, which had also become a filtration point. “A senior officer punched me in the face four times,” he says. – It seemed part of the procedure”.
The soldiers who interrogated him said that teachers like him were involved in spreading pro-Ukrainian propaganda. He was asked his opinion on “the events of 2014”, when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula and began supporting pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk. He replied that this conflict was known as the Russian-Ukrainian war. “They replied that Russia had nothing to do with it and asked if I agreed that it was a civil war in Ukraine,” he replied.The officers checked his phone again, and this time they found a picture of a book cover with a clearly visible ‘G’ in the title. “Gotcha!” they exclaimed. Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that his war in Ukraine was an operation to “denazify” the country, and the soldiers, Dmitri says, thought the book was about Hitler.
The next morning, Dmytro and two women were transferred to a prison in the separatist-controlled village of Starobeshevo in the Donetsk region. He counted 24 people in a cell with four double-decker beds. Four days later and after another detailed interrogation, he was finally released and eventually made his way to Ukrainian-controlled territory. That was a few weeks ago. Dmytro still does not know what happened to his cellmates.
Some of those sent to Russia have managed to leave for other countries, and in some cases to return to Ukraine. Exactly how many of these people are unknown. Vadim, with the help of his friends, moved to another European country – where exactly, he would not say. He said that he had partially lost his eyesight, and doctors believe it was due to blows to the head. “I feel better now, but recovery will take a long time,” he said. I asked him about the filtering. “They separate families. People ‘disappear’,” he says. – It’s pure horror.”
The Russian defence ministry did not respond to several requests for comment on the allegations. The Russian regime has previously denied committing war crimes in Ukraine.
According to Andrei, his mother was told he was being “re-educated”.
Andrei and his family now live in Germany. He also had to visit Russia. Recalling the incident, he says that the occupiers used the filtering mechanism to show their “absolute power”. The soldiers behaved as if it was “a form of entertainment” and “ego satisfaction” for them.
I told him about another Ukrainian I had met, Victoria, 60, who had worked as an engineer before her retirement. A Russian military officer had seen a Ukrainian flag on her Facebook profile with the words “Ukraina pohnad u tse”.
She says the soldier pointed a submachine gun in her face and started threatening: “you will rot in the basement!” Then, Victoria says, the soldier kicked her. She does not understand why he behaved this way: “What have I done? What right do they have?”.
Andrei says he can’t explain the military’s behaviour. “I even try to justify it somehow. To convince myself that there was some logic in it,” he says of the filtering.
But “there is no logic”.