From the Winter 2014/2015 Issue “Europe Under Fire“
And finally to round out our list, we turn to Crimea, where the struggle for independence rages on. Mikhail Vdovchenko, a native of Simferopol, Crimea, is a mild, if somewhat outspoken Ukrainian activist who was taken as a political prisoner and held for nine days by pro-Russian militants. Mike Eckel, a Washington D.C.-based writer, captures Mikhail’s harrowing tale of kidnap, torture, and eventual freedom.
By Mike Eckel
SIMFEROPOL, Crimean Peninsula—The last free person to see Mikhail Vdovchenko before his descent into nine days of Russian hell was the co-owner of a local musical instrument store. For much of the past year, she’s been scared, so much so that she drops her voice to a whisper on the boulevard outside her store when talking to strangers. She glances nervously over her shoulder at passersby. Too frightened to disclose her full name, Natalya is the mother of two teenagers and a four-decade resident of the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia summarily annexed in March, then launched an insurgency in eastern Ukraine sparking the worst crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War. What happened in Simferopol—the Crimean capital where her store is located—and the entire nation has terrified her.
On March 11, she first made eye contact with Mikhail—Misha, his friends and relatives call him—on a sidewalk a few blocks outside the city center, a little before 4 p.m. She was walking home from the bank. Misha was walking toward her, flanked by three burly men with black truncheons, wearing camouflage. One had a red armband, a sign of membership in the “self-defense” groups that had popped up in Crimea in recent weeks. Their mission, ostensibly, was to protect people like our shopkeeper, all ethnic Russians, from Ukrainians like Misha and her own husband, also an ethnic Ukrainian. Misha’s hands were bound in front of him. He looked at her with a terrified, pleading look.
She passed the group near a building housing Russian Unity, a political organization agitating for greater ties with Russia. The men threw Misha onto the sidewalk, then kicked and pummeled him. From across the street, she yelled “Stop it! Enough! Why are you beating him?” Three more men then emerged from the gate and joined the melee.
Now it was Misha’s term to scream. “What are you doing? I’m from Simferopol! What are you doing?” he cried, as the shopkeeper looked on. The men then dragged Misha’s bloody body through the gate, as a blonde woman emerged, a heavy jacket draped casually over her shoulders. “Why are you doing this? How can you do this? What has he done?” the shopkeeper shouted her question at the heavy-set blonde who just glared back, spitting out the words, “He’s a provocateur,” before turning on her heels, slamming the gate shut.
This is a story of one man’s discovery of national pride and his struggle to maintain a sense of place as leaders in distant capitals play geopolitical chess with his homeland. Forces over which he has no control have seized his own and his neighbors’ land, so that he no longer is able to chart the direction of his nation or even of his own private life. Through this Kafka-esque tale emerges a tangible, deeply personal sense of the grim, suffocating reality that Ukrainians, from Crimea to Donetsk, have lived through. And continue to live through, to this day.
NO PATRIOT, NO NATIONALIST
By all accounts, Misha had never been much of a patriot, a nationalist, nor a man of any particularly vocal political leanings. But to his closest friends and his longtime girlfriend, he began to change last November, around the time legions of Ukrainians across the country also began to change. People began massing in the streets of Kiev to oppose the pro-Russian government of President Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych spurned closer ties with the European Union, at Russia’s behest, and for many like Misha, this was the last straw. Thousands of Ukrainians took to the barricades in Kiev, in what came to be known as Maidan, forcing Yanukovych to flee the country on February 21. “I understood the need for a change of government, but I didn’t see a need to go [to Kiev],” Misha told me later. “In Crimea, there wasn’t the feeling, the emotion of Maidan. It was cerebral, not emotional. If I lived in Kiev, maybe I would have been there, fighting on the barricades. In Crimea, we didn’t feel it the same way.”
After Yanukovych’s ouster, camouflaged men with Kalashnikovs and no identifying insignias began appearing throughout Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula whose geography and historic legacy to both Russia and Ukraine staked claims. They were known as “little green men.” Random strangers were accosted, harassed, even assaulted by groups wearing masks, many carrying automatic weapons, some with accents from other regions of Ukraine, of Russia, even the South Caucasus.
The “little green men” were accompanied by an onslaught of Russian propaganda promoting a referendum on March 16 that served to ratify the peninsula’s accession to Russia. Billboards urged “Crimea: Together With Russia,” as posters promised higher wages, higher pensions, and greater benefits. Local television broadcasts became a continuous loop of gauzy, nostalgic propaganda—waving wheat fields and tractor combines, that might have been drawn from Khrushchev-Brezhnev-era Kremlin film archives.
DARKNESS IN SIMFEROPOL
There was a darker element, however. A campaign waged in the shadows, just barely beneath the surface, designed to instill fear, doubt, hesitation, and acquiescence among any who might openly challenge the Kremlin’s intentions. Old tactics were dusted off for a new era, the tools of a police state used with devastating efficiency in past eras—Dzerzhinsky after the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalin in the Great Terror of the 1930s, Beria in post-World War II Eastern Europe, and Putin since 2001.
On March 5, Misha stumbled on a YouTube video about a rally in Simferopol where men and women sported signs proclaiming, “We’re for Peace!” and “Putin: Hands off Ukraine!” In the video, several men, one wearing ribbons associated with pro-Russian activists, grab the signs and rip them up, yelling “Russia! Russia!” and “Fascism Won’t Pass!”
The videos outraged Misha, stirring an upswell of nationalist sentiment and prompting him to tie a blue-and-yellow ribbon to his left breast jacket pocket. After one protest on March 8, he appeared at another the following day, timed for the 200th anniversary of the birth of Taras Shevchenko, a 19th century writer considered the father of the modern Ukrainian language. It was one of the largest demonstrations before the March 16 referendum on the status of Crimea.
Recognizing people he knew from around town, Misha summoned the courage and asked if he could speak. He pointed out the immense enthusiasm at the demonstration. Once people left, he said, they would slink away, taking off their ribbons and hiding their signs. “Wear your ribbons at work, on the streets! Don’t be afraid! Go to stores! Wear your ribbons everywhere!” Misha told the rally. “People aren’t going to shoot their neighbors. Then they’ll see you as people. They’ll see we’re not Nazis. We’re not extremists.”
He decided to sew a Ukrainian flag and make a flagpole. On March 11, he brought it to another rally at the Shevchenko statue, standing off to the side of the scrum of activists and TV cameras. He hummed along as people sang the national anthem and chanted “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the nation! Death to its enemies!”
He was wearing a trademark cap, with ear flaps pulled out, a beige jacket, and army green pants. He held the 8-foot flagpole with the Ukrainian flag on his shoulder. On his jacket, he sported the blue-and-yellow ribbon. “Last week, I didn’t know I was a patriot,” he told me. “I never thought I’d be wearing a ribbon like this. They’ve turned me into a patriot.”
After the rally, around 1 p.m., Misha walked into town, planning to meet his oldest friend, Anton Zavalii, the chief ear, nose, and throat doctor at Simferopol’s Semeshko Hospital. At the corner of Pavlenko and Karl Marx streets, just a few blocks from the main railway station, Zavalii met Misha, accompanied by a man and woman from Kiev, Maidan activists who warned them that it was too dangerous to wear Ukrainian ribbons and to wave Ukrainian flags.
“You’ll be of more use to your country if you’re alive,” Zavalii later recalled them saying. “I’m just trying to show other Ukrainians not to be afraid,” Misha responded. “I’m a native of Simferopol. This is my home.” “You’re wrong,” the activists told them.
Across the street, next to a district military recruitment center, a man who appeared to be a Cossack yelled at them: “You’re provocateurs. Get lost,” Zavalii recalled. “We said back to him, ‘Listen, we respect you. You have to respect us. If you respect us, just leave us alone. Let us decide our way to walk.’”
As Misha and Zavalii walked on together toward the railway station, two strangers approached, asking oddly pointed questions about Misha’s flag. At the station, just after 3 p.m., Misha and Zavalii parted, with Misha promising to come by Zavalii’s apartment later. An hour later, he called and informed Zavalii he wasn’t home yet. Misha’s voice was calm, Zavalii recalled, saying he had met some acquaintances on the street but would call back later. He never did. Zavalii began sending worried text messages. Misha’s girlfriend, Katya, and his cousin, Sasha Ovechkin, both called Zavalii, alarmed.
Misha’s childhood was troubled. His parents were raging alcoholics; his father later was hooked on amphetamines and other drugs. His half-brother died of a drug overdose. His parents were always fighting. He recalls his mother ending up in emergency rooms on more than one occasion after being hit by his father. Both parents disappeared a few years back; he assumes they’re dead. Misha has never touched alcohol or drugs.
He lived with his maternal grandmother for a time. After she died in 2008, he moved in with Ovechkin and rented out his grandmother’s place, which provided a small income. He worked odd jobs as a carpenter, dishwasher, and cook. Carlos Castaneda, the 1970s psychedelic quasi-academic whose works aren’t well known in this part of the world, is one of the authors Misha and Zavalii used to read. “Castaneda had a powerful influence [on] me, like a Bible is for others,” Misha recalled.
Misha’s flag—spontaneous, handmade—was a bold statement of defiance, both a middle finger to the insidious Russian incursion and, in many ways, a representative gesture of a free-willed man.
Fast forward to March 11. After saying good-bye to Zavalii, Misha walked along Karl Marx Street, which runs alongside a military recruiting station. Some 15 men were standing on the sidewalk, most wearing camouflage and ribbons symbolizing the Soviet war effort in World War II. One stopped Misha and asked him about the flagpole he was still carrying. “Stop provoking people,” the man warned him.
An Italian TV crew was filming near the recruiting station. A Russian woman working with them recalled: “We all noticed [Misha]. We thought ‘wow, here’s this guy with a Ukrainian flag and a Ukrainian ribbon walking past a military post.’”
“Yeah. I understood what I was doing, but this isn’t extremism,” Misha said later. “Carrying a Ukrainian flag on a pole and suddenly I’m a terrorist? It’s idiocy.”
As he crossed Tolstoy Street, another group of 30 men, some wearing camouflage, some wearing leather aviator-type jackets, were marching in sync from the opposite direction. The man leading them ordered Misha to step to the side: “Get the hell out of here.” Seconds later, 15 of the men came running back toward him, brandishing bats and telescoping batons. Misha ran into an alley, yelling “I’m a local! I’m from Simferopol.” The men, who he said spoke with distinctly non-Crimean accents, hit him in the knees and legs with their bats, calling him a fascist and a banderovets—an expletive derived from World War II partisan leader Stepan Bandera who, while fighting for Ukrainian independence, allied himself with the Nazis. The men pummeled Misha until the group’s leader ripped the blue-and-yellow ribbon off his jacket, demanding identification.
Three of the men then pushed Misha up Karl Marx Street, poking him, yelling at him to sing the Russian anthem and threatening to rip out his fingernails. It was here that he exchanged his pleading look with Natalya. The group then stopped outside the Russian Unity building at 11 Karl Liebknecht Street. “This is it,” Misha thought. “I’m going to die,” and he tried to run, yelling to bystanders for help. Three more men emerged from the black metal gate that blocked the courtyard, beating him for several minutes, before dragging him inside an adjacent building. A blonde woman with glasses photographed him with a cell phone, gave him water, and dabbed at his bloodied head and face. A guard wearing camouflage and a holstered pistol called the woman the “coordinator for Crimea.” Others called her Alyona, or Alina.
Two more men clad in camouflage entered, with Armenian-sounding accents. One asked the guard “Where’s Misha?” At that moment, Misha recognized one of the men from two widely circulated YouTube clips that showed him beating up a visiting Kiev businessman. “Hey, I saw you in that video clip,” Misha exclaimed. A second Armenian slapped him. The Armenians left as two men wearing the same blue-tinted camouflage, worn by Ukrainian Interior Ministry riot police, entered carrying AK-47s. One barked at him: “Get up. Put your eyes to the floor. Walk forward. Look to either side and I’ll shoot you immediately.”
They pulled his earflap hat over his eyes, then pushed him forward with a gun barrel, into a minivan, onto the car floor, covering him with a blanket. After a short drive, the van stopped, the guards held Misha’s hands behind his back, left the blanket over his head, and led him down 10 steps into a basement illuminated only by flashlights. He was taken to a room, where another guard bound his eyes, feet, and hands behind his back with plastic packing tape. They sat him on a concrete floor against a wall. He could see some shapes and light from under the tape.
Misha realized there were three other men in the room, and the group began talking: “How are you? What’s your name?” A guard entered and taped everyone’s mouths with plastic packing tape. The room fell silent.
It was sometime in the early evening of March 11.
FEAR AND LOATHING
The days that followed were painful and frightening. “Absolute hell, like Guantanamo, only in Crimea,” Misha recalled later. The prisoners could tell time only by the changing shifts of the guards, or by drafts blowing cold air in pre-dawn hours. Sitting on the concrete floor, Misha and the others were questioned every 10 minutes day and night. A man carrying a gun and a flashlight would enter, rip off the tape on their mouths, then shout at them: “Who’s paying you? Who paid you to organize the meeting? Who’s helping you? Who’s your supervisor?” If someone asked for something to eat or drink, a guard would kick or slap him. Misha’s shoulders ached from his hands being tightly bound night and day. He guesses he slept maybe eight to 10 hours in total over nine days. “How do you get any sleep when they’re beating you, or people are screaming in the next room?” he asked.
The guards taunted them, saying “We’re here, defending our land from Nazis and banderovtsy. We’ll interrogate you. Then we’ll give you to the Chechens.” Once, as he dozed off, Misha jerked awake with a violent twitch. A guard jumped up, grabbed his gun, loaded a cartridge, then swore, “What the fuck were you thinking? I could’ve killed you.”
The smell was horrific—unwashed bodies, guards smoking constantly, potentially corpses in his midst. “I thought it was dead bodies or something. Later I thought maybe it was just piss,” Misha continued. There were no toilets. “We were just made to hop into the corner of a room nearby” to urinate. Guards would cut their prisoners hands free of tape, then re-tape them as they hopped back into the main room.
“After a couple days, we thought maybe they’ll just kill us, and that was it, and they’ll just do what they want, dump us in the woods, like during the war. They interrogate you, they get what they want, and they dump you in the woods. I thought that was going to happen,” he said.
For the first few days, there were three to five prisoners in the room with Misha at all times. The hours were filled with the sounds of interrogations, yelling, moaning, and often screaming. One of the other prisoners told the guards he had participated in a military training program in the United States for scuba diving. The guards used that as pretext to beat him repeatedly, calling him “NATO guy.”
On the night of what seemed to be the second day, the guard brought the prisoners into another room, down the corridor, one-by-one. One of the guards asked his superior officer: “Do we need him? The NATO guy?”
“Take him to the pool,” the officer responded. A few minutes later, the sounds of blood-curdling screaming were heard. Later he learned from other prisoners it was electric shocks. Ten minutes after the screaming finished, the guard came back and told the remaining group: “That’s all, he’s dead. After we cut his throat, there was blood everywhere. He twitched for a bit.”
Misha listened carefully to the banter of the guards, who referred repeatedly to a man they called “Mikhailovich” and appeared to have some authority. Thinking he’d been abducted because of his speech at the March 9 rally, Misha asked to speak with him. His feet taped together, Misha hopped down the corridor to a room tiled like a shower stall. From under the blindfold tape, he could make out a man behind a table, wearing camouflage, military boots, a hunting knife in his belt. He spoke in a clipped professional military tone.
Misha explained his March 9 speech to the officer. “I just felt this patriotic urge. I wanted to express my opinion. I just showed up at the meeting. No one paid me to speak. I’m not an extremist.” When he finished, Mikhailovich seemed exasperated. “I knew someone like you once. He liked to express his opinions too. I shot him.” Another guard suggested, “Maybe I should bring the electric chair?”
“No need,” Mikhailovich replied. As Misha hopped back down the corridor to the main room, he told the guard, “I have a request. Please don’t cut my throat. Just shoot me.” The guard laughed.
Misha hopped into a different room and was pushed onto a pile of burlap sacks. Three others were already there. Misha understood that they weren’t about to kill them. The exercise was staged to scare them into revealing whatever information they allegedly possessed.
On the third day, Misha and the others were brought to yet another room, and pushed onto a wooden bench in what appeared to be an anteroom for a sauna. He drifted in and out of sleep, propped against the wall, trying to loosen the tape on his hands. Doors banged constantly; guards talked about how much more money they would make once Crimea was part of Russia.
There were two levels in the hierarchy of their prison overseers. Local volunteers from Crimea stood direct guard over them, punching and slapping them, taping their hands, legs, eyes, and mouths, and escorting them hopping around the basement. Their accents were recognizable, their conversations were amateur, lacking the cadence of military speech. Many of them chatted casually with Misha or the others, talking about where they lived in Simferopol. One guard told Misha they both lived in the same district.
Then there were superior officers, whom local guards referred to as spetsy, short for spetsluzhba, or special forces. Their accents were not local. At one point, the local guards talked about how great it was that “the Russians showed up and starting giving us weapons.”
In their interactions with Misha and the others, the spetsy officers, which included Mikhailovich, seemed more professional. Conversations were curt and brusque, occasionally threatening. Like the local guards, the spetsy used code names. One was “Doc,” another “Maestro.” A few days into their captivity, Misha was asked if he wanted to eat something. Misha asked for something resembling cole slaw. Doc offered to supplement it with canned meat, telling him, “You can eat a real meal of a Russian military officer.”
Doc appeared interested in building a rapport with Misha, chatting about classic Soviet films. Later on, the rapport turned cold. A night or two before his final release, Doc asked Misha if he would have voted in the referendum. Misha said no. “You’ve seriously disappointed me, more than anyone else,” Misha recalled Doc telling him. “Of everyone that was down here, you’re the only one I would shoot.”
Physical punishment ranged from mild—slaps to the head and face while blindfolded—to borderline sadistic. One guard bragged about buying a new air pistol especially for the prisoners. He shot Misha three times in the knees and, on the third day, in the calves “just for fun.” Another prisoner, Maxim Krividenko, was shot more than 200 times after guards found a photograph on his cell phone that showed him wearing a badge suggesting he’d battled with riot police at Maidan.
Yet another prisoner was wrapped like a mummy entirely in plastic tape as he struggled and swore at them: “I’ll kill you all! I’ll rip your balls off and feed them to you! I’ll fucking kill your mother! I’ll kill your grandmother!” Shot repeatedly with the air pistol until he couldn’t walk, he was then handcuffed to a radiator.
Then there were the electric shocks. Andrei, a teacher at a Ukrainian cultural center, told Misha and the others after their release that he had been stripped naked and forced to sit on a chair. A man with a Caucasus accent, possibly Armenian, told him, “I’m going to cut out your liver and feed it to you.” Guards then attached a wire to Andrei’s wrist, another to his back, and plugged the wires into the wall, shocking him until he passed out and fell off his chair. Guards interrogated him, probing for connections to Ukrainian nationalists. Misha had never heard someone scream like that.
COMPASSION, THEN DESPERATION
Captors sometimes showed unusual compassion. Two prisoners—Andrei Schekun and another defiant Ukrainian—wore gold crosses around their necks, a symbol of being baptized. Early on, the local guards took an interest in the gold jewelry to be pawned. The guards gave Andrei a choice. “Either we take off your ear or we take the cross off your neck—your choice.” Andrei handed over his cross. Later, men who sounded like Russian agents—possibly military intelligence—apologized to the two whose crosses had been stolen. They gave the men small wooden crosses on strings to wear.
On the fifth day, the guards ordered the group, numbering six by now, to scrub themselves. One-by-one, still bound, the men hopped down the corridor to a room with a sink. Their hands and eyes were un-taped, and the men could splash water on themselves. Misha’s eyes were infected from the tape, and a doctor examined him, then told the guards to stop using tape. The guards took the Ukrainian flag hidden in Misha’s pocket, blindfolded his eyes with it, and pulled his hat down. Guards then ordered the group, each man re-bound, out of the room. They hopped down the corridor, up the basement stairs, and into a minivan. What light Misha could see, blindfold and seated on the floor, made it feel like evening. They seemed to be driving north into Ukraine. The guards talked among themselves about a prisoner exchange, with members of Berkut, a widely reviled, now-disbanded special police unit. Many Berkut members ended up fleeing to Crimea.
After a few hours, the van pulled onto the shoulder and stopped. Misha later guessed it was near Chongar, marking Crimea’s border with the Ukrainian mainland. They waited for more than an hour. Then the van drove back to the original location. The guards re-taped everyone’s eyes, hands, and legs and returned them to the foul basement space that had become their entire world.
“We were desperate. We thought we were going to be released. And then nothing,” Misha said. “We all assumed we were going to be killed.”
On March 16, one of the commanders brought bottles of vodka into the basement, and they could hear the guards drinking, toasting, and singing. They were celebrating the referendum vote. Misha said he and the other prisoners tried to be quieter than normal. “There’s nothing more frightening than a drunk Russian soldier,” he recalled. “They’ll put an apple on your head and use you for target practice.” The guards extolled Russian history, lecturing the prisoners on how great it would be to join Russia, and also cursing the group, using the Stalin-era epithet: “You’re all enemies of the people.” Later on, drunken guards forced Maxim to join along as they sung the Russian national anthem.
After March 16, the atmosphere in the basement relaxed. The prisoners, while still bound, could talk to one another without fear of being slapped or punched. An older man named Anatoly Kovalsky, who had been in captivity since before Misha had been kidnapped, was asked to sing a Ukrainian folk song while a guard recorded it for his own mother on his cell phone. “Imagine this. We’re in a basement, wrapped up like pieces of meat, listening to Ukrainian folk songs,” Misha said. “On the one hand, it was totally absurd. On the other hand, it probably saved us. You don’t know what day it is. You’re starving all the time, don’t know how long you’re going to live. You go to the toilet maybe once a day, [and] the smell is overwhelming.”
The following days, Anatoly was asked to sing other songs. One guard made a request that he sing a mournful 19th century Ukrainian folk song: “What a Moon There is on This Night.” The room fell silent as Anatoly sang. The guards, who usually only half-listened, were quiet. Misha’s eyes filled with tears that ran down his cheeks under the blindfold. He heard another guard sniffling. “You’re in prison. You’re thinking about your loved ones, your girlfriend, your family. It was the most incredible feeling. That I’m stuck in a basement, listening to this music. It was the only moment when I had such an emotional feeling; my eyes were pouring out. After that, I thought ‘I feel stronger, that I might actually live.’ The song gave me hope, gave my soul hope, that I might actually make it out alive.”
By March 18, three more men were crowded into the room, making 10 prisoners in all. One said he was a former Soviet military officer. He wouldn’t stop talking, so guards taped his mouth shut. The other was more articulate, but was convinced of the prisoners’ treasonous behavior, and insisted he didn’t want to talk in the presence of the banderovtsy. The guards taped him up as well.
The prisoners sensed a growing impatience among the guards and their superiors. Interrogations became infrequent. There were fewer physical punishments or torture. It seemed that no one knew what to do with them.
DESPERATION, THEN FREEDOM
One evening, some days after the referendum, the guards brought two of their own into the room, reeking of liquor. Bound with packing tape, the two drunks started yelling. “What are these next to me? Banderovtsy?! Cut me loose, and I’ll take care of them myself!” A few hours later, another superior officer entered their room. Misha said he threatened the entire room, convinced that the group had secret information: “You have one hour to think about your answers. Otherwise, I’ll be back, and we’ll do this in a very different way.” The hour passed without incident.
Sometime toward dawn, the officer returned and told the guards to cut the prisoners’ legs free of tape. Misha and six others were marched out of the basement, blindfolded, and into another minivan. They sat on seats this time, instead of the floor, their hands raised and their heads bowed. The minivan drove for a couple hours to Chongar. One of the guards took off their blindfolds, one-by-one, then videotaped them as each gave their first, middle, and last names. After that the group was pointed toward a Ukrainian checkpoint about 100 yards away, and the minivan drove off.
The Ukrainian guards greeted the group smiling, apologizing for not having any hot water for coffee or tea. A man wearing civilian clothes escorted them into another minivan. Misha assumed he was from the Ukrainian security agency, the SBU. “We were all seeing light for the first time in days, saw one another for the first time,” Misha said. “Standing in the open field, the fresh air, what an incredible feeling after all this ordeal. It was like being born again.” The group drove to another mainland town, and the SBU agent passed around a cell phone to each group member for them to call friends or family members. He gave them each 200 hryvna, about $18. The next morning a group of volunteers drove the former prisoners to Kiev.
It was March 21, 10 days after Misha was abducted.
11 KARL LIEBKNECHT STREET
A week before the referendum and days before I met Misha, I happened by chance to visit 11 Karl Liebknecht Street, the Russian Unity building. I walked into the building, and the first person I met was a blonde woman, wearing glasses and a jacket thrown over her shoulders—the same woman who accosted Natalya after she tried to intervene while Misha was beaten mercilessly on the sidewalk, the same woman who took Misha’s photograph with a cell phone after he was brought inside. I asked her for information about Russian Unity. She gave me some newspapers and leaflets, and told me her name was Alina.
On April 3, weeks after Misha had been released and moved to Kiev, I went back to House Number 11. A woman who answered the intercom at the door said she didn’t know anyone named Alina, and hung up after I introduced myself as a reporter. I knocked on the black gate next door, and a man wearing military-style boots and camouflage pants refused to either open the gate to talk to me or answer any questions. “No questions. Go away.”
Ovechkin gave me the name of Vladimir Gubar, the detective of the district police precinct where he had filed his missing person’s report after Misha’s disappearance. At the time, Ovechkin told me, the detective had openly sympathized with him, and made clear the police knew exactly what was happening. When I showed up at the Zheleznodorozhny district precinct, I asked for Gubar. A duty officer named Vitaly refused to put me in contact with him. I then asked for the precinct commander, but was instead told to contact the press service for the regional Interior Ministry. After a half-dozen phone calls to the press service, I left a voice mail. I never heard back.
I asked Ovechkin to show the place where, by most accounts, the prisoners had been held. I drove with him to Simferopol’s northwestern outskirts, to 152 Kievsky Street, site of the regional military recruitment center. The compound was located behind a gas station at the end of a short road lined with shrubbery. Behind a gate a man in camouflage, carrying an AK-47 and sheathed bowie knife strapped to his chest, introduced himself as Sergei. He’d been a crane operator until the turmoil hit Kiev in February, then joined the self-defense units in Simferopol. He smelled as if he hadn’t showered in a week, and had been drinking that entire time as well. The Russian flag, he said proudly, had been raised over the guardhouse that morning.
I asked him about kidnappings and prisoners held in the compound. In an expletive-laden response, he denied it. He refused to contact any of his superiors to relay my questions. He then spewed invective against the “Nazis” and “fascists,” who he insisted had taken over the country. “I’m happy to be a mere fleck of dirt on Russia’s boot. I’m happy to serve, to protect my children, my family, and to protect the honor of my father, who fought the fascist invaders during [World War II],” he said. “The long and short of it is now I won’t have to be a slave to Ukraine. I will be a citizen of a great nation, like Russia.”
Exile isn’t a wholly accurate description of Misha’s current condition. He now lives in Kiev, yet he is still a legal resident of Simferopol, where it would be most dangerous for him to return. In most of Crimea, not to mention Russia, the peninsula is now considered a constituent part of the Russian Federation. No other nation has recognized the annexation. If Misha chose to return to Crimea, he would face the decision whether to retain his Ukrainian passport and citizenship, or, like many Crimeans have opted, to apply for Russian citizenship. If he returned to Simferopol, but retained his Ukrainian passport, the local authorities would consider him a foreigner. Given his recent experiences, he would disappear. Most likely for good, he suspects.
The better question, though, is why return to a place where a person can be abducted in broad daylight, ostensibly for demonstrating his patriotism by walking through town with the national flag? Life and livelihood in a police state is arbitrary. A person’s right to live and to function is subject to the demands of the state. Misha hardly fits into this equation. But he has no interest in testing this hypothesis again. He is resigned to a new life in a nation that is his own, but in a city far from the one he had known for much of his life.
In the weeks after Misha fled to Kiev, he lived along with his girlfriend Katya in her boss’ apartment, sleeping on an un-insulated balcony, on a single cot, their meager belongings jammed into a hall closet. Katya, who was working toward a doctorate, earned a small salary as an analyst at the National Bank of Ukraine. Misha worked on the campaign of an obscure presidential candidate during the May election. Eventually, the two found an apartment of their own, got married, then decided to move into a dormitory for university students to save money. Misha now earns the equivalent of around $400 a month, working at a furniture factory, but the sharp decline in the Ukrainian currency means there’s less work than before. “But all’s quiet for us. No adventures,” he said.
A few years ago, when the notion that the Kremlin might unilaterally redraw the map of Europe and throw into question the fate of millions of people was fanciful, Misha read a book whose significance now seems as relevant today as it was when it was published nearly 50 years ago—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle. A semi-fictional tale about prisoners laboring in a state factory during Stalin’s reign, the novel carries the themes of much of Solzhenitsyn’s writings—an exploration of human fortitude amid the crushing power of the state, the struggle to persist, or resist, in the tiniest way possible, and avoid state-sanctioned oblivion.
“It was so plausible, so realistic,” Misha said. “So beautifully written, and so real.”
In his examination of Soviet history, Solzhenitsyn called the events he focused on “knots,” or turning points, in history. Were he still alive today, he might very well recognize what has happened in Crimea—or Russia—as yet another knot that has snarled lives and fates, and turned history in an unknown direction. At the mercy of political and diplomatic forces over which they have no control, Crimeans remain pawns in a larger but very real game of thrones, with little hope that they will ever be able to embrace the world they once knew.
Mike Eckel is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and editor who has reported from around the former Soviet Union for more than a decade.
[Photo courtesy of James Rea]