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Rape, Electric Shocks, and Threats of Castration: What Four Ukrainian Men Endured Under Russian Occupation

By Yana Korniichuk, Anna Babinets, and Ilya Lozovsky (Lozovsky is a Fletcher alumnus, and writer and senior editor at the Organized Crime and Corruption Project (OCCRP))

When they took him in for interrogation, the Russian soldiers told Viktor Soldatov he would soon be allowed to return home.

He was released nine months later, having endured treatment that drove him to attempt suicide in his cell.

“They threw me on the table, spread me apart,” he recalls. “Four of them held me — two by my arms, two by my legs. They pulled my shorts off and started prodding my buttocks with, I don’t know, a rubber truncheon or something. I was in such a dark state that I didn’t understand anything anymore. ‘Do you know what we’re going to do to you?,’ [they said]. ‘All of us together, and each one individually?’”

Soldatov, an IT administrator for a dock-building factory in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, was detained in August 2022, a few months after the Russians’ lightning advance in the first weeks of the war placed much of the region under their control.

He never fully understood why he was targeted. In any event, he said, his interrogators often seemed more focused on torturing him than on extracting information.

“They weren’t interested in my answers to their questions,” says Viktor Soldatov. “Whatever I answered, it didn’t have any influence on the outcome. What they cared about was the process itself.”

By the time Soldatov was finally released, much of the Kherson region had been liberated in Ukraine’s last major successful counteroffensive. But now, as continued Western support looks increasingly doubtful, the tide of battle is once again turning in Moscow’s favor, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warning of a renewed Russian offensive this spring. And new stories continue to emerge of the depredations endured by those who find themselves at the Russians’ mercy.

Soldatov was one of four men from the Kherson region recently interviewed by OCCRP’s Ukrainian partner, Slidstvo.info, about their detention by the occupying forces. All four were civilians, though one joined a local defense formation after the invasion and two others were active in the underground resistance to Russian rule.

The stories the men told differ in many respects: One was held for just a day, the others for weeks or months. One was let go after his wife paid a ransom for his freedom, another spent months in a Russian prison colony before being freed in a prisoner exchange.

But what unites their experiences is the brutality with which they were treated. All four men described savage torture, their captors subjecting them to stress positions, waterboarding, and frequent beatings. In a phenomenon that has been less frequently aired in Ukrainian society, all four also said they faced sexual violence, including electric shocks to the genitals, penetration with foreign objects, and threats of castration.

“They’re lying to everyone, that nothing happens to the people who land in their jails,” says Serhiy Chudinovich, a priest with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church who was detained and tortured in March 2022. “When they say that their ‘filtration measures’ don’t involve violence? They do. And I’m a witness. … This is information from my own lips. I’m a source. Let the people know. I want them to know.”

Many of the specific details of the men’s accounts cannot be independently verified, though аll four cases have been investigated by Ukrainian prosecutors, who confirmed to reporters that the stories the men told conformed to what they had reported to law enforcement. In one case, a subpoena has been issued for one of the alleged perpetrators, a 23-year-old Russian soldier. The three other cases are still under active investigation.

According to the prosecutors, 101 cases of sexual violence against Ukrainian men by occupying Russian forces have been recorded, including 50 in the Kherson region. But this is almost certainly a vast undercount, since experts say men are often reluctant to report sexual violence.

“Sexualized violence is a tool to let them achieve what they want, and survivors will be uncomfortable talking about it, and they will talk about it as little as possible,” says Ihor Demyanyuk, the head of the war crimes investigations department with the Kherson regional police. “[But] it’s important to talk about this so that the whole world can see what’s happening in the country, what’s happening in the occupied territories.”

“This is what the Russian world looks like.”

The Russian government has broadly denied that its troops commit war crimes in Ukraine.

‘I’m Screaming, Of Course’

Chudinovich, the priest, has long been an activist for an independent Ukraine. As a teenager in 1990, when the country was still a Soviet republic, he says he was arrested for hanging yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flags around his hometown, just over a hundred kilometers north of Kherson.

When the Kherson region was captured by the Russians in 2022, his church in the regional capital became a point of resistance.

“The church turned into a place of exchange for everything: Food, services, medicines, fuel,” Chudinovich says, explaining why he thought the Russians targeted him. “I had no guns in the church and there could never be any. But we did things that they consider too dangerous. … The Ukrainian priest motivates the Ukrainian soldier.”

He was taken from his church, he says, by men who said they were from the “new police” and told his parishioners they were just taking the priest away for a “forty-minute conversation.” Lacking a blindfold, the men put a hat on his head to cover his eyes and took him to the police station on Kherson’s Luteranska street.

Initially, his captors did not treat him too harshly, trying to convince him to lend his authority as a community leader to Russian efforts to win over the local population, using humanitarian aid as a lever.

“‘Isn’t it good to do good?’” Chudinovich says they asked him. “Well, I’m a Christian priest, how can I say it’s not good to do good? I said, of course it’s good. … They said, let’s record a video, let’s do some good, the people are hungry.”

“I’m nodding,” he says, “But I’m not agreeing. … I said, ‘Even if I record such a video, no one will believe me.’ Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. After that, it got harsher.”

His captors beat him until he was black and blue, he says.

“I ask for water — they give me vodka. This five-liter container, he just takes his container under my hat, and shoves it there, where my mouth is, and pours this liquid. I thought it was water, but it was vodka. Not even vodka, but diluted alcohol.”

When he still didn’t agree to collaborate, Chudinovich says, his captors made him undress.

“I’m standing there without clothes, and then they take a baton and start trying to shove it in my anus,” he says. “I’m screaming, of course. It’s all flowing out of my nose, spit, tears.”

“Well, they almost tore a part of my body, when one of them managed to say: ‘Will you sign a paper of cooperation?’ I said, yes, yes, I’ll sign.”

Before releasing him, his captors made Chudinovich record a propaganda video, forcing him to say that he had met with the Russians willingly and faced no physical or psychological pressure.

He was only held for one day, but the torture he endured still haunts him. “As soon as I hear the Russian language, my heart rate goes up,” Chudinovich says. But he has not had to collaborate with the occupying forces as he promised. He fled occupied Kherson after his release, driving his car through fields to avoid Russian checkpoints.

‘They Broke Me Psychologically’

Oleg, a 33-year-old entrepreneur who did not want to reveal his full name for this story, had a longer ordeal, enduring 17 days of captivity.

Like Chudinovich, he had drawn the Russians’ attention with his pro-Ukrainian activism. As the owner of a local cafe, he had provided water and other supplies for marchers who were protesting the occupying forces’ “Russification” efforts in the Kherson region. He was taken by Russian soldiers from the cafe one day and immediately subjected to a two-hour beating, he says.

Oleg’s captors kept demanding that he identify the organizers of the anti-Russian demonstrations. “I kept screaming that … I didn’t know anyone, and I really didn’t,” he says. “I asked them to let me go home, because I had a little child. And I asked them to keep my car as a ransom.”

But the Russians’ suspicions were raised by a credit card terminal they had confiscated from his cafe. The device had a “Made in the USA” sticker on the back, and this, Oleg says, convinced them it was a piece of spy equipment. “So for several days I had to explain to them, again and again, how it works to do bank payments through a terminal.”

Meanwhile, they continually threatened Oleg’s family, saying they would rape his wife in front of him if he didn’t reveal the names of the protest organizers. “They also kept threatening that they would throw my little son into the Dnipro River. Or put him in a Russian orphanage.”

One day, Oleg says, he was tortured for an hour and a half with electric shocks to his genitals.

“They didn’t even really ask questions, just tortured me,” he says. “And then they threw me off that chair. And, still naked, they put me on the table. … Then they called in one of their terrorists, who they called simply ‘The Pervert.’ He flew into the room, this really eccentric, rude guy.”

“He immediately called me his whore, and things like that. His girl. And he tried to rape me. He moved his genitals around by my buttocks, tried to pet me and things like that. This was all accompanied by laughter. His, and everyone else. For about 15 minutes he tried to do it. And then he got angry that he couldn’t do it. And just started kicking me on the buttocks, on my genitals, saying, ‘I can’t fuck this black ass.’ My whole body was covered in black bruises.”

Then, Oleg says, his abuser took a ballpoint pen, shoved it into his anus, and used his foot to jam it inside. “After that they just threw me off that table and dragged me into my cell.”

On the seventeenth day of his imprisonment, Oleg was released: Taking the advice of some friends, his wife had offered his captors 100,000 Ukrainian hryvnia ($2,700) to let him go. He, too, was forced to film a propaganda video before being released.

“They broke me psychologically, and I still can’t be the same person I was,” he says. “I keep having nightmares where I’m being chased by people in uniforms and masks.”

But he gave several reasons for sharing his story: First, he said, he wants the perpetrators punished. Secondly, he wants the world to know what happens under Russian occupation.

“And another reason why I’m explaining what happened to me in such detail: I want others who also lived through something like this … to speak up as well. Because it makes our voices stronger.”

‘It Happened Almost Every Day’

Volodymyr, who likewise did not want to reveal his full name, spent nearly a year in the hands of the Russians.

Along with many others, the former policeman joined Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces on the day of the invasion. But Kherson fell quickly, and he spent the next month hiding weapons and observing their troop movements from underground before being captured.

He tried to escape, but was caught and beaten until he was barely conscious. The Russians wasted no time.

“They used some kind of forceps or something,” he says. “They squeezed my genitals in them, threatening to cut them off. And they threatened to use a pen to sexually violate me in an unnatural way. Using criminal jargon the whole time. That was in Kherson, in the first days after my detention. In the first hours, even.”

A month later, Volodymyr was taken first to Russian-occupied Crimea and then to a detention facility in the Russian city of Voronezh. There, too, he said, in addition to regular beatings and threats, the spectre of sexual violence was ubiquitous.

“They constantly threatened sexual assault. That they’ll rape you, or force you to perform oral sex, or rape you with a pen, or with a truncheon,” he said. “It was so widespread that it happened almost every day.”

Asked why he thought he was treated this way, Volodymyr attributed the torture first of all to its effectiveness — “that’s how they tried to intimidate you” — but also to a culture that respected only violence and power.

“It’s a country with these values, where in order to show your toughness, you have to show that you can make a helpless person of the same gender perform sex acts. It’s just a complete gulag. The history of how they built their country, it’s just a complete prison, with the corresponding mentality.”

“It’s Russia,” he says. “What can you say?”

The Restoration of Dignity

Anton Drobovich, head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, emphasizes the importance of investigating war crimes even when the prospect of justice still seems far off.

“Specific cases of specific people should be investigated,” he says. “Criminals must be found and brought to justice. And the survivor must know that the specific perpetrator and the specific perpetrators have been punished. This is the restoration of justice, the restoration of dignity.”

Thanks to Oleg’s recollections, Ukrainian prosecutors have identified several Russian soldiers suspected of taking part in his mistreatment.

But when reporters from Slidstvo.info contacted two of them, they denied any involvement in torture and hung up the phone.

(This post is republished from OCCRP.)

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