In a detention center in Kyiv, an entire floor has been set aside for Russian prisoners of war. There are 16 cells, each holding two to four inmates. On the day of our visit, 17 captured Russians were waiting for their fate to be determined. The number of people on the floor keeps changing. Prisoners come and go whenever there is an exchange between Ukraine and Russia.
In one of the cells, three of the four prisoners agreed to speak to Geneva Solutions about the fateful times that led them into captivity and their hopes of returning home one day.
At 37, Sergei Galkin is a staff sergeant and unit commander under contract. Its formation was stationed in the Russian city of Samara, about 1,000 kilometers southeast of Moscow. On January 31, Galkin and his troops were sent west for a military exercise in Belarus. They were waiting their turn in the forests of the Bryansk region, bordering Ukraine, when they learned of their true destination.
“On February 23, in the afternoon, we learned that we would cross the Ukrainian border. Everyone was made aware of this,” Galkin recalled. “At first, we couldn’t believe that was what happened and where everything was going. We talked about it among ourselves, but no one understood and believed it.
A day later, around noon, Galkin’s convoy entered the Ukrainian region of Chernihiv from the Russian region of Kursk. His unit had to escort a number of trucks. Galkin didn’t know where they were going and why, he said. During transport, one of the trucks broke down. Galkin and eight soldiers traveling in the convoy remained to fix it, but it did not move. The men decided to backtrack and find another truck to jump on, but that one also malfunctioned and got stuck in the mud. The men set it on fire and continued on foot.
“We slept in the forest, avoiding populated areas, so as not to be noticed,” Galkin recalled. “On March 1, we entered a village. We were surrounded by the homeland defense forces, who stopped us by shooting in the air. We had a wounded sniper with us, so the battalion commander decided to surrender and he received medical help.
This is how Galkin and his men ended up in captivity. Conditions are good, Galkin said. They receive three meals a day, showers and walks. During the visit of representatives of the Red Cross, prisoners of war can write to their families and receive letters in return.
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When asked if they had a choice on February 23-24 – when Russia began its full invasion of Ukraine – Galkin replied: “We knew what we were doing. It wasn’t a choice. Galkin and his three cellmates are now awaiting a prisoner exchange. He said: “We hope that God will give us a second chance, and we will be exchanged for Ukrainian prisoners in our territory and can return home.
“Because it’s an order”
Andrey Chebotarevski is 20 years old. His military unit was based in the Moscow region. He signed a contract with the Russian army after serving in a tank regiment. Chebotarevskiy’s dedication to the military is unwavering.
“I’ll stay [in the armed forces] if i can come back [to Russia]. But I won’t come back [to Ukraine] again,” he said.
Before the invasion, Chebotarevskiy and his comrades had a premonition that they would cross into Ukraine. “We were so close anyway,” he said. It was not until February 23 that the suspicions were confirmed.
“We didn’t believe it at first, but we thought, ‘This is an order, so we have to comply’,” Chebotarevskiy explained. “When we signed the contract, we all knew what we were doing. We had the chance to say no, but none of us did.
When asked why, Chebotarevskiy snapped: “Because it’s an order.” When asked if he would obey any order, even if it went against his values and beliefs, his response was more nuanced.
“It depends,” he said. “If we were ordered to kill civilians and destroy houses, no one would obey. . . . Well, most of us wouldn’t, at least. But crossing the border is in the interests of my country. Me, as a soldier, I have to obey. I don’t know what my country’s interests are. But if things are as they are, then there are interests.
On February 24, at around 6 a.m., the Chebotarevskiy division crossed the border from the Russian region of Belgorod. Three days later, the tank convoys came under heavy shelling.
“There was a settlement about five kilometers from us,” he said. “We were at a crossroads waiting for the guys to return on a reconnaissance mission. A missile hit our tank and the gunners were killed. I managed to escape on my own. I saw our division commander – his head was injured, but he was alive. I carried him to another vehicle and left him there. I promised I would come back.
Chebotarevskiy said he then hid in a forest. The next day he went back to see the commander.
“They were waiting for me, sitting in an ambush,” he said. “The shooting injured my leg. I began to retreat through swamps and forests. On March 1, I realized that I would not arrive in my unit. There was no nothing to eat and snow instead of water. I didn’t want to die in the forest.
It was then that Chebotarevskiy noticed a repair company with tractors nearby.
“I thought, ‘Well, if they kill me, at least my body will be brought home.’ I went there and said I was a Russian soldier and needed help with an injury. They gave me water and bandaged my leg. Then the Territorial Defense Force came and took me away.
Chebotarevskiy spent the next four months in a building of the Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU. From there he was taken to the detention center in Kyiv, where he now hopes to be exchanged.
He says he knows what happened in Bucha, Irpin, Borodyanka and other towns and villages in the Kyiv region, but he is not sure if it was the work of the Russians. When asked if he believed the Ukrainians did it to their own people, he wasn’t so sure either.
“I don’t know,” he said. “If it was our people. . . no decent human would agree to that, even if there was an order. I just don’t believe it. We feel that it is wild and therefore we do not believe it.
Life in Russia
At 36, Nikolay Matveyev is a staff sergeant. His military unit was based in Novosibirsk, more than 3,000 kilometers east of Moscow. He told how on January 20, his formation was sent to the border with Ukraine, convoy by convoy. They had to have exercises, they were informed.
“We had no idea this would happen,” he said. “Maybe our commanders did, but the regulars didn’t even dare mention it in their conversations. We spent 10 days on the road and then we set up camp. No smartphones are allowed on the territory of Russian military bases, so we had to use old-fashioned phones with buttons.
He remembers calling his wife on February 23 to tell her he would be back soon. But later in the day, at lunchtime, the order to equip and arm went through.
“Our detachment of 60 people specializes in reconnaissance. I, as head of communications, was responsible for communicating with management,” he said.
He did not know exactly when his convoy had crossed the Ukrainian border. The battle began before lunchtime and the vehicle carrying him was shelled.
“I couldn’t even see the enemy. I was in an unarmored vehicle,” he said.
All the soldiers are unharmed, except for Matveyev, who has a broken leg.
“The guys pulled a tourniquet on my leg,” he said. “I asked to be seen by doctors.”
But no one came to help. He decided to get out of the car with his gun loaded. He saw Ukrainian tanks and retreated to a forest. Later, he climbed about five kilometers with an injured leg, fainting from time to time.
“I was hoping that I would end up meeting my own units,” he said. “Then I saw an electrical substation: I knocked and said I was a Russian soldier. They put me on a mattress, gave me water and made a phone call. Then I was taken to a police station in Chernihiv. They interrogated me on camera and took me to the hospital. The doctor said they couldn’t save my leg and amputated it.
Matveyev remained in hospital until early March, when he was sent to Kyiv detention center. He thinks about his future. “I’ll go home and see then,” he said. “My wife and two children are waiting for me. Life in Russia is not so bad, despite what they say here. We don’t know why we invaded and what the interests of the state are.
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This article originally appeared in Geneva Solutions and is republished under the Creative Commons BY 4.0 license.
Olha Holovina is a reporter for Geneva Solutions.