Interview with former Ukrainian POW from Battle of Krasny Partizan

Mazur: What happened in captivity?

Stepanov: Knowing how they treat other POWs, we landed in presidential apartments. We lived in a building which was heated, we slept on mattresses. Since I was wounded, I got the VIP spot — I was on the bed.

Mazur: Did they give you medical treatment?

Stepanov: Yes. Once every two or three days. They fed us morning and evening. That is, the conditions were more than sufficient.

Mazur: Do you know anything about the conditions in which others were detained?

Stepanov: As far as I know, the guys who end up with the “Cossacks” and the Chechens are kept in a regular pit outdoors, they give them a loaf of bread for 10 people a day. Plus, they abuse them physically and mentally. We had only mental abuse. Each one would come up to us and say there “Ukropy, ukri [lit. “dill weeds,” pejorative name for Ukrainians—The Interpreter]…I won’t continue with what other interesting words were said about what we were, and what they thought about us.

Mazur: Did they threaten you?

Stepanov: Well, they didn’t threaten us that badly, but they did mock us. Like, “we’re come to your house, if you do the same thing.” That sort of thing. That is, they psychologically pressured us.

Mazur: Who was there?

Stepanov: I won’t say. They were all dressed essentially almost alike. They didn’t have written on their foreheads whether they were Russian or not Russian. I didn’t look at their faces in particular and I didn’t particularly listen to their conversation. It wasn’t the place or the conditions to do so.

I know one medic came to visit me who was totally in a Russian uniform. And his accent was far from Ukrainian. Even the Ukrainian Russian language was very different from his accent. It was obvious that the man was from Russia. I won’t be surprised if it turns out that he is from somewhere outside of Moscow, because his speech was very similar.

I didn’t see Buryats, for example. Understandably, information gets around. I had a friend who was laying in the next ward, he told me: they were ambushed, they took fire, and lost some men. But in fact, they took a small number, 20 Russian soldiers, into captivity.

. . . .

Mazur: What functions does their “zampolit” perform?

Stepanov: At first he came to visit us, he was just interested in how we felt, whether we were abused mentally or physically. We ourselves began to ask him what news there were, so as to somehow orient ourselves in space. Because you’re sitting inside the four walls. Yes, you seem to have your own guys with you, but each one is thinking to himself how he acted, correctly or incorrectly, well, you understand.

So we began to ask him, and he began to bring some information. Usually, the news was just from one side — just theirs. The only important thing that he said — it was possible that soon there would be an exchange, that only the wounded would be exchanged, but he warned us that he didn’t want us to get our hopes up yet.

Mazur: Maybe you can recall what he said at the very end, when he left?

Stepanov: Usually, they just kept pulling him away. That is, he would come visit us, bring some sort of news, tell some sort of stories of his own, that he was a civilian or something, that he couldn’t stand the outrage of the Ukrainian junta, and that he went and became a fighter. Like, he would tell us his life story. At the end of each visit someone would call him and he would supposedly have to get somewhere right away.

Mazur: That is, it was purely informational influence — he would come, he would ask how you were, then he would say, I’m so-and-so, how are you, and then load up on information?

Stepanov: Yes, yes, yes!

There were manipulations of sorts. “Look who you’re fighting against, everyone here are civilians, there are no fighters here.” He would say things like, “When you get out of captivity, the SBU will work you over.” the hint was, “Guys, it’s not worth fighting any more.”

All of those who came to visit us would ask the standard questions, and say the standard slogans. I don’t know how to say it correctly — whether it was an incubator or not, where he was a clown or not.

Mazur: What questions? What slogans?

Stepanov: I can’t reproduce them exactly. It was like, “Why did you come here, who are you fighting against? This is the civilian population here, women, children. You’re shooting at Donetsk.” It was like we were the first to take up arms, and we were the first to start killing people.

Mazur: How did you answer these questions?

Stepanov: Well, how could we answer? We were mobilized, we were given a command, and we are military people — they gave us a command and we moved out.

Mazur: How did they react?

Stepanov: Each one in a different way. Some of them started to get mad. Some of them were understanding, because a soldier is a soldier.

I can say that they have expressed aggression toward such battalions as Right Sector and Aidar.

Mazur: That is, to the volunteers?

Stepanov: Yes. They tried to push this information on us ,that the guys from there had started to rape girls, to cut off their nipples, to blow foam…I don’t believe it.

There were foul balls, that we shelled Donetsk…I personally saw, when we were at Maryinka, how they shelled the center of Donetsk from Petrovsky District. I personally saw how two separatist Grads fired a whole cassette in the direction of the city. Their location was not visible — it was behind the slag heaps, but I saw how a Grad was firing at the center of Donetsk. And then the news would go out that Ukrainian forces were shelling the city, and civilians and so on.

Mazur: Can you already analyze now to what extent the news that the zampolit was bringing you was true?

Stepanov: I didn’t gotten involved in analysis yet. For now, I’m trying to forget everything that happened in Krasny Partizan, in captivity.

But it was apparent that they were all working “from a textbook”. That was what really made me sick — the same questions over and over, sometimes you didn’t even feel like answering. This was in order to convince a person that he really was wrong, that he was fighting for some sort of incomprehensible junta, for fascism, for America…And convince him once again that really he was killing the civilian population. If a person was mentally weak, then it would eat away at him inside, and fester, and finally it would turn out that he would get home and he would start fooling around with alcohol or something even worse — he would start abusing his wife or his kid. That is, they work a person over so that when he gets out to civilian life, he will no longer be functional.

Mazur: What can you do? How can you resist this?

Stepanov: I don’t know. I’m the kind of person, for example, that doesn’t absorb a lot. I saw it, I was there. I will work all this over inside and then forget it. I discard excess information. Yes, for some people it is hard to talk about this, it is hard to remember. I can remember it and talk about it. At this point, I am dealing with it easily.

War is of course awful, but when you have to defend your family, your country your city — whether you like it or not, you have to. I am an opponent of war, an opponent of deciding issues by fists. It is easier for me to just talk with a person. You can punch somebody in the face at any time, but to talk with a person, understand why something is going on — that’s more interesting.