KYIV – In August 2022, five months into the Russian occupation of Kherson, the journalist Ihor Bondarenko attempted to escape. Bondarenko, 45, took a bus from the southern Ukrainian city to the border with Crimea, from where he hoped to travel through Russia and the Caucasus, and on to Germany. But Russia’s federal security service, the FSB, was waiting for him. They showed him a thick file they had compiled about his supposed pro-Ukrainian activism and locked him in a metal shipping container overnight.
The next morning, three masked men with machine guns blindfolded him, tied his hands together with plastic zip ties and loaded him into a van marked with the letter “Z” – a symbol of the Russian invasion. They drove him around for about 40 minutes – he estimated the time by counting the songs on the radio – then dragged him out of the van. When they took off his blindfold, he saw three mass graves. Two of the pits had already been filled in with dirt, but the third was still open. Inside he could see around a dozen bodies. They looked like civilians because they were wearing t-shirts and ordinary clothes.
“They asked me, do you want to join them?” Bondarenko told me recently. “I said no. Then they fired a gun next to my head and hit me between the shoulder blades. I fell to my knees. They started laughing.” They bundled him back into the van and drove him to a makeshift detention centre in Kherson where the real torture began.
For the next five days he was handcuffed to a pipe inside a tiny room and told that if he moved, they would shoot him. At night he was tortured with a taser and beaten. They starved him and would not allow him to go to the toilet. He was held in isolation, but he could hear other prisoners screaming in pain. By the time they had finished with him, he could only crawl on his hands and knees.
On the sixth day a man who identified himself as an FSB captain told him that if he wanted to live he would have to work for them, running a pro-Russian channel on the Telegram messaging platform. “He said, either you work for us or you go back to the hole, but this time there will be no choice, you will just be killed,” Bondarenko told me by phone from Poland, where he now works as a long-haul truck driver.
He agreed to do as the FSB said, although in fact he bought fake followers for his Telegram channel and asked his friends to subscribe so that nobody would read the propaganda. His ordeal only ended when Ukrainian troops reclaimed Kherson in November 2022. “We danced in the street and waved Ukrainian flags,” he said.
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Bondarenko’s experience at the hands of Russian soldiers was not unique. A team of international legal experts that is helping Ukraine’s prosecutor-general to investigate possible war crimes examined hundreds of cases from more than 35 detention centres during the Russian occupation and found that almost half the detainees had been tortured. Their captors’ preferred methods included suffocation, waterboarding and sexual violence.
“Electrocution, especially to male genitalia, was a widespread technique that we saw in most, if not all detention centres in the region,” Lidiia Volkova told me. She’s a legal adviser in the Kyiv office of Global Rights Compliance who worked on the team’s report, which was published on 3 August. The team also found that threats of genital mutilation and rape were common, and in at least one case a detainee was raped while another was forced to watch.
“Even the fact that a person had a Ukrainian flag at home or had a text message conversation on their phone in Ukrainian could make them [a target],” Volkova said. Sometimes the torture took place during interrogation sessions, she explained, as the guards attempted to extract information from the detainees or pressure them to sign false confessions. At other times, it seemed designed solely to punish and humiliate the Ukrainian prisoners.
“We have to understand what impact these techniques have on the population as a whole,” said Maksym Vishchyk, another member of the Kyiv-based team that analysed the cases. “When sexual violence is used as a form of torture it is delivering a clear message: we subjugated your state, we subjugated your society, and now we will subjugate your body.”
As well as torturing their bodies, the Russian soldiers forced the detainees to sing the Russian national anthem and shout pro-Russian slogans such as “Glory to Putin!” War crimes investigators found scraps of paper inside the abandoned detention centres with the lyrics to the national anthem that the captives were made to learn and repeat. It was part of a wider effort, the legal team’s initial analysis indicates, to erase all traces of Ukrainian identity in the occupied territories.
“They renamed the streets, destroyed monuments, shut down Ukrainian media, even eliminated the use of the Ukrainian language in schools,” Vishchyk explained. “This was designed to demonstrate to the wider society that Russia is here now, and everything you knew – your language and your culture – should become Russian.” He said the team was now looking at this pattern of “Russification” as part of their genocide-related investigations.
Bondarenko told me that one of his captors had admitted that they were trying to eradicate the Ukrainian national identity. “I asked the FSB captain what he wanted from me, and from Ukraine,” he recalled, “and he said, ‘It’s very simple – we want you to be with us, or we will kill every one of you.’ ” He paused. “They wanted to make Russians from Ukrainians. That’s how I see it.”
Although he has long since regained his freedom, he told me that the memory of the torture would always be with him. “It changed me,” he said. “I became another person. The only difference between me and the guys in that pit is that I survived, but the guy I was before the capture has already died. This experience will be with me forever.”