March 3, 2023

“Let’s call Vladimir Vladimirovich,” the man says with a laugh, as he opens the case and slowly uncoils a wire. Vitaliy Alseryuk can see the TA field telephone and he knows what’s coming. He knows, having served in communications in the army, that the machine carries hundreds of volts. He knows that the wire is about to be connected to his fingers, toes or perhaps his genitals. He knows the pain will be excruciating.

The TA field phone was invented by the Soviets in 1950 and was used by their Army in railways and mining. In post-Soviet times, though, especially during the Russian-Chechen wars, it became more useful as a means of torture. If you want to understand Russia’s gradual regression into brutal atavism, examine the changing uses of its field telephone. The Reckoning Project, a team of Ukrainian and international journalists and researchers who record and verify witness testimonies of war crimes and crimes against humanity, has discovered it in almost every detention site they have visited during the Russian occupation of Ukraine.

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While the TA wire is unrolled, Alseryuk is beaten. The 36-year-old construction worker from Balakliya in the Kharkiv Oblast endured this routine for three months. He had joined the army in 2014, after the Russians first invaded — mainly because it was a well-paid local job. And he had given up his commission long before the all-out invasion on February 24, 2022. The fact that he was a veteran was enough for the Russians. Alseryuk was taken from his home in the outskirts of Balakliya and imprisoned in a basement until the region was liberated in September by the Ukrainian troops.

According to the The Reckoning Project’s Kharkiv unit, there were at least 27 detention and torture sites in that region alone. The team interviewed more than a dozen former prisoners and discovered that men and women alike were treated in identical manner: taken from their houses without explanations, handcuffed, blindfolded, and then brought into tiny, cold, wet and overcrowded cells. There, men in balaclavas would interrogate them until they acknowledged their connections to the Ukrainian army.

Then they were tortured.

Their captors were mainly Russian citizens — sometimes the National Guard or FSB would turn up. Generally, though, the guards were poorly equipped, mobilised men from the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics. Sometimes there were no questions; sometimes the prisoners were just tortured. They would be beaten with batons or wooden sticks, shocked with electricity, and sometimes suffocated with gas masks. They would be kept for months without food or medical support. And no one knew where they were. Eventually some were freed — after it became clear even to their fastidiously sadistic captors that they had nothing to say. In truth, they probably realised this early on, but it was never about just information.

After the 2014 occupation of Crimea and the Donbas, Ukrainians knew that it was best for any activists, politicians, and independent journalists to leave the Russian controlled territories. But civilians could stay if they kept a low profile, which many did because they needed to take care of family, usually elderly parents.

This occupation is different. Russian soldiers have gone out of their way to seek out “disloyals”. Their definition is loose. Having a cousin in the army counts — though this doesn’t narrow victims down: according to official statistics around 40% of Ukrainians have a close relative serving in the army or law enforcement. Civil servants are also suspect — a common job in provincial towns — along with firefighters, schoolteachers, NGO workers, or even those who are physically fit and of fighting age. Local collaborators are helping the Russians: flying the Ukrainian flag before the war is enough to get you rounded up.

Things were particularly brutal in the Kherson and Mykolaiv regions. After the Russians invaded, in March 2022, residents would attend weekly peaceful rallies against the occupation. Olga, a 36-year-old photographer and SMM specialist was an enthusiastic participant. She lost her job and started helping local volunteers buy and deliver humanitarian aid to the residents of the city. She attended the rallies and kept Ukrainian symbols at home, as well as raising money on social networks. Shortly before her arrest, she took a photograph of the Antoniv bridge and the pontoon crossing but — crucially — did not supply the photo to the Ukrainian authorities.

On September 29, she was sorting food packages with two other volunteers when five men in military uniforms and balaclavas, carrying assault rifles, broke in and abducted all three of them. They were taken to the basement of building 15 on Pylyp Orlyk street. Olga was held there for 24 days, and subjected to five or so interrogations, during which time, she was shocked and physically abused.

Her captors spoke Russian, but with Ukrainian accents, which led her to believe they were soldiers from the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic. During the first torture, two clamps were attached to her body through which an electric current was passed. The pain was so bad, she cannot say how long the torture lasted. The next day, they showed her postcards and bracelets with Ukrainian symbols on them that they’d found in her house. That day, they had decided simply to toy with her. Her interrogator told her that he wasn’t in the mood to torture her, but she could rely on him tomorrow. “You’re a cunt,” he spat at her as he left.

Over the course of lengthy and various interrogations, Olga was beaten across the head and ribs, smacked around the head, and electrocuted. They were asking the same questions over and over: “Did she ever go to Ukrainian-controlled territory? What did she buy there? Where did she get the money?” They also forced her to strip to the waist and were about to place clamps on her nipples and earlobes, until one of her captors decided it might kill her. She believes she was kept in detention — unlike other volunteers, who were released — because of her frank pro-Ukrainian position and the photos of the bridge and the pontoon in her camera. For the occupiers, this was a “crime” more serious than volunteering. Taken again to the basement for questioning, they put clamps on her fingers and the electrocution lasted longer than ever. She vomited from the pain.

The Russians weren’t fussy about who they tortured. They even brutalised priests. They took the Abbot of Kherson’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church one day after he was falsely accused of inciting hate speech. Six or so men arrived at his church and spirited him off. During the interrogation, he was asked about everything from church hierarchy to the contacts in his phone. Then, his interrogators beat him, put a cap over his face and wrapped it with tape, making it almost impossible to breathe; later his hands were taped so tightly that he lost all feeling in his fingers. The abbot was shoved across a table and beaten on his knees with a hammer, and then on his chest with a baton. He fell in and out of consciousness. At the end of the interrogation, he was told that Ukrainian media had already reported his death. Eventually, he was forced to write a statement agreeing to cooperate with the Russians, and freed.

When I arrive in Kherson, the Russians have gone from the city, but are shelling it constantly and viciously from across the river. In an apartment, just off the city centre, I meet Oleksandr Diakov, a 48-year-old entrepreneur. He limps across the small living room to greet me — a problem with his leg was significantly worsened after his capture by the Russians. He is clearly traumatised and exhausted — though anger at his treatment seeps through as he recounts his ordeal.

He, along with five friends, had been passing information to the Ukrainian security services. And the Russians had got wind of it and were tracking them down. Two were captured first. And Oleksandr managed to evade them until he was eventually caught, along with another two, after the Russians bugged the apartment they were meeting in. “I was taken to pretrial detention centre, which is where the torture began,” he tells me, starting to silently weep. “The head of the centre had the nickname ‘Evil’ — he was totally sick. He would get drunk and torture people just for fun.” Evil used electricity. He would ask people if they knew the Russian national anthem,and if they didn’t, he would shock them. Every time he switched on the electric current, he made people shout “glory to Russia”, “glory to Putin”, “or glory to [Russian Defence Minister] Shoigu”. They would be electrocuted, denied food, cigarettes and sleep. Whatever took Evil’s fancy.

There were 21 cells in the centre. Most of them were designed only for three people but the Russians generally kept six or seven in each one. Diakov’s cell number was 19. He starts to cry again as he forces himself to relive the torture. “I counted 17 days there, sleeping on the floor without a mattress. It was so humid that many people have since developed lung problems. There was not enough air to breathe. One of the other prisoners was a policeman who was also tortured with electric shocks. He had two wounds from where they attached the cables that started to rot and develop abscesses.”

The FSB were especially brutal. They were angry at Oleksandr for giving information about not only military targets, but also where FSB were sleeping and living. Two men in balaclavas would interrogate him — one always sitting. They put a thick hat on his face so he couldn’t see them. That was taken off for the torture, when they would cover his face with a wet T-shirt and start on it with the electricity. And then they would beat him, taking care to pay particular attention to his bad leg. So bad was the beating, he started bleeding internally and by the end he couldn’t walk down the stairs.

Toward the end he prayed it would end; that he would die and so not suffer anymore. “I never lost hope that Ukraine would come and release us,” he says. “We could hear the Ukrainian artillery. But they took longer than we expected.” Eventually his leg got so bad his captors took him to a hospital. There, he had surgery and spent a month recovering. The Russians gave him back his phone and told him to install Telegram and to be online constantly so they could track him. They also warned him that if he tried to escape, they would find him quickly. But he slipped out of the hospital and hid for several weeks until the Russians left the city.

Oleksandr’s story — like Olga’s and the priest’s — is not unique; it’s not even uncommon any more. With every territory that is liberated from Moscow, more of these types of stories emerge, variegated in their details, alike in their brutality. The truth is simply that this is life under Russian occupation. This is what the Russians do everywhere they go. This is what they do to their own people inside Russia.

It is just one reason why the Ukrainians refuse to surrender. They know what will come if they do. They’ve seen it too many times already. The war raging in Ukraine is over not only national sovereignty, but also the very essence of decency — for the right to live unmolested and unabused. They can never stop fighting.