Nearly three weeks have passed since 73 Ukrainian captives walked free and were reunited with their families in the largest prisoner exchange since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014. Besides soldiers, activists, journalists, and an academic returned to Ukrainian government-controlled territory.
That academic was Ihor Kozlovsky, a prominent Donetsk-based scholar of religious studies. When Russia-led separatists seized Donetsk in 2014, Kozlovsky chose to remain in the city to look after his eldest son, who suffers from Down Syndrome and paralysis and could not easily be transported elsewhere.
Then, on on January 27, 2016, Kozlovsky was arrested by representatives of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” for his pro-Ukraine views and spent nearly two years in rebel-held Donetsk’s prisons.
Many Ukrainians followed his fate behind bars. The scholar’s name was even mentioned during the Minsk negotiations, as well as in Poroshenko’s speech before the United Nations General Assembly last September.
And despite the separatists best efforts, Kozlovsky knew about all the people supporting him.
“There was this so-called ‘inmate postal service,’” he told Hromadske in an interview. “If anyone managed to get their hands on a Ukrainian newspaper and there was something about me, or about the events connected to my release, they would pass it on to me. They would pass the information on from different floors, through the cleaners.”
“It is this support that allows you to live through these minutes, hours, days, months and years,” he added.
Kozlovsky spoke with Hromadske about the grim prison conditions in Donetsk, the torture inflicted on prisoners, the fates of other people locked up by the “DPR,” and what needs to be done to achieve peace in Ukraine.
When you were in prison did you know that there were so many people supporting you on the outside? How much can a prisoner know about the outside world?
Hello. I am truly happy to be here. To be here in a state that I’m in right now: all these intense emotions, meetings with my relatives and people close to me. I am open to talking with you; we have a certain history of meetings. I am grateful to everyone who aided with my release: be it some small efforts or bigger ones: flashmobs, letters. Did this information reach me? Yes, it did! First of all, there was this so-called “inmate postal service.” If anyone managed to get their hands on a Ukrainian newspaper and there was something about me, or about the events regarding my release, they would pass it on to me. They would pass the information on from different floors, through the cleaners. So I would get hold of this information. Because, in general, any communication with the outside world was prohibited and they would make sure we didn’t use any phones or anything.
But we received these news and, of course, it was invaluable psychological support. That people remember you and are fighting for you; you realize that it is a long fight, so you collect yourself and all your patience. But it is this support that allows you to live through these minutes, hours, days, months and years. So thank you all!
Well, I can tell you, many were and still are afraid to make too much noise because they don’t know how it may harm [you.] Your name was mentioned during the Minsk negotiations, so the chances [of your release] increased. Or when someone wrote about you or a photograph of you with a Ukrainian flag emerged — this could also affect you in some way. How risky were these things?
On the one hand, yes, it increases your value and [you] become an object for trade, so you could disappear from the list and then reappear on it again. But on the other hand, it was a protective factor, [they see that] someone holds you in high regard. But also, you’re in both the Ukrainian and international spotlight, everyone treats you with more care, they won’t use force against you, this spotlight protects you and your life, and therefore, it saves your life. Because the people who are there with no support can just disappear off the face of the earth.
What do you know about the people who are still there? For example, there are some well-known soldiers like Korinkov and Hlondar. There is also Stanislav Aseev, who is a journalist and a blogger. What happened to them? Maybe there are also some people who we are not aware of yet, nobody heard about them, they weren’t as lucky. How many of them are there?
Yes, there are too many of those, of course! We don’t have reliable information on their whereabouts. But we follow Aseev’s fate, he is one of my [former] students, same as Fomichov. And even when we were there, we did our best to receive information about his whereabouts. He is currently being held at the [old] Izolyatsia factory in Donetsk. There is something of a prison or a concentration camp there and not just for political [prisoners]. It’s under [the DPR’s] “state security ministry,” it’s like their prison. [Aseev] is there now. But there are also other locations like basements that belong to the so-called “state security ministry”. There are many basements and some of them we don’t know about yet.
What conditions were you held in?
Well, it varied. At first, I was at the “state security ministry’s” basement, and those were the most difficult, horrible conditions. Then it got a little better. The first "nice" period was when I was in a little cell, there were some difficulties, but at least you could live there. Later, I was relocated to a place that was formerly used as death row in Soviet times. These days, they hold people with life sentences or those they want to torture in there.
Those were very difficult conditions because the cells were extremely small and you could barely move inside them. You could either sit or lay down; there is a hole in the floor right next to you, which they call a toilet. It was very tough.
How many of those they consider 'political [prisoners]’ were there?
Those who they consider ‘political [prisoners]’? It was just everyone who didn’t agree with their “Russian World” rhetoric, their [“Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republic”] rhetoric, and so on. Basically, everyone who disagreed [with them].
Who were the prison guards? Did you talk to them?
If we’re not talking about the “state security ministry,” but about those places where people serve obediently, those who work in detention centers and prisons, most of them only work there because they have nowhere else to work. Some of them stay there because they’ve been working there for a long time. And you can’t say that they have some sort of stance or strong political views, no. These are the people who want to survive. Many of them reminisce about the times when – as they say it – “we still had Ukraine” because they are worried about their financial status. And, of course, they are worried about the amnesty process. They give out hypothetical prognoses to what will happen when Ukraine arrives [to Donetsk] and what will happen to them individually. Starting from the basics: will their work experience be counted towards their pensions, or maybe they will even be held accountable for carrying on working [after the occupation]? Yes, they’re worried; of course, they’re worried! And regarding the attitude of the guards – the ones who are just ordinary people – well, there’s no animosity whatsoever.
And these people in the “state security ministry”: who are they and what are they like?
They’re just doing their job. They’re in a condition where there’s no going back. The problem is that if you speak with the civilians, with the potential civil society, those who are just serving obediently, who take part in this repressive machine – they will not back down. They will push the idea that once “Ukraine arrives,” there will be problems and they scare the rest of the society with that. There are many people in the “state security ministry” who used to serve in Ukraine’s State Security Service (SBU). There are people who are being curated by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and you can just feel FSB’s presence in there. There are people who used to serve in the militia, roughly speaking, they traded their oath and moved to a certain establishment. They know that they’re under threat. All of their names are in the Myrotvorets database, which is their biggest fear. These people have a problem, and they’re considering either fleeing to Russia or forming guerrilla groups [if they stay.] They are scared of Ukraine.
You said that the FSB’s presence can be felt there. How does it manifest itself?
First off, the “state security ministry” is curated by the FSB. It’s practically an open secret, everyone knows about it. Even the local "DPR" administration cannot influence the “state security ministry” because the “state security ministry” comes to the FSB directly and you can feel it. Any office you go in, you will find portraits of Stalin, Putin and then Zakharchenko.
Can you say that anything has changed in Donetsk over the last years? Of course, the last two years you were in prison, but from what you know and what you saw, what is there to mention?
The moods are changing, of course. I had an opportunity to find this out from the ordinary prisoners who were detained for criminal cases and then sent onward to the prison colonies. Just recently they were on the outside. They have a feeling of futility. Everybody says that the region is not viable. Factories stop working, the majority of the mines don’t operate anymore. People look for easy money, everything that could have been stolen has already been stolen, and all the metal parts in the city have been looted.
So what’s next? How do we live? Those who have a stable job find their ways to survive. There are whole regions where people had industrial jobs. They worked in the factories, mines, and other establishments. So what is to be done? To leave. Mostly to Russia. If they have relatives, they push them to move to Russia. Or to Ukraine, but, of course, this is done with more caution.
And then there are rumors that the people from Donetsk are not wanted in Ukraine, that if they go back they will be pariahs there. They really believe this and pass these stories on to each other. These cases really do exist. But all people are different, some are hot-tempered, we should understand that. But people see what they want to see.
Ihor, you already mentioned and we know that you’ve been tortured, these are very painful memories for you. These people absurdly accused you, a scholar, of possessing grenades. When they interrogated you, did they actually believe the accusations or was it just for show?
You can call it a show that’s been acted out many times. When they point a gun at you and say they’re going to play Russian Roulette and then spin the cylinder. Or when they just fire at you – there are many [such cases.] Some were tortured with electricity. That, of course, was horrible. The torturers knew that they just needed to extract a confession. Primitive and unprofessional. They have a task. And this task is very simple: to force charges upon people, extract a confession. and then they pass this case on to the investigator and then on to court and so on. They need this to be done fast, they have other things to do. They torture everyone with hatred and shout “We are the Russian World, that came here.” I did not see them, I had a sack over my head but all these times I imagined these Boschian characters. Those strange characters with plague doctor masks. That’s the image I had in my mind.
You said that this torture is the same as what was used by the NKVD, [the secret police in Soviet times].
Yes, and they didn’t try to hide it. [They said,] “you realize that we are the successors, the direct successors of the NKVD, of the KGB. And not of some feeble SBU.” That was what they shouted while torturing us. “You won’t come out of this alive, you know this,” they said.
They managed to break some people.
We can’t blame [these people]. Every person has a limit, a limit of resistance. That’s why I told them “you realize that the more you push me, the more I will resist? It’s just part of my nature.” And they responded, “You are the exception, most people break really fast.”
I understand that they’re only human. We’re all living things, prone to psychological damage and our nervous systems have a limit too. There’s a threshold of pain, a threshold of feeling, a threshold of fear of what will come next.
When they told me “we’ll carry on with you tomorrow,” they carried me in a sack and into the basement, I wondered whether I’m afraid of death. And I thought “no, actually I’m not.” I realized I had no fear, that was the first time in my life I realized that. The thing that I’m afraid of the most is that my family and my close ones will suffer. This is the threshold they took advantage of. And they threatened me.
They’ve threatened you when they detained you. Can you tell us more about that?
They threatened me when they detained me, and they threatened me when they tortured me. I always dreaded the moment they turn to my family and my loved ones. They use our soft spots, and for many, it's their families. There is this one [guy], he’s still in [the Donetsk region], so I won’t mention his name. He is doing quite well because he hasn’t got anyone. It’s easier for him to cope because he hasn’t got a soft spot. Everyone knows this; it’s a mechanism that has been used since the NKVD times.
You’ve said that many turned to you [in prison], you talked to many people there. You did some yoga, you prayed.
Yes, the breathing exercises helped me, it’s the regiment I turned to. I tried to stay in shape, I gave out advice and recommendations, I helped people. In those conditions, it’s important to not shut down, you can’t just stay in your own bubble, socializing is crucial. Some prisoners wanted to talk to me, they wanted my advice specifically. They shared their stories, they cried. And I listened to them.
Were there any separatists from the so-called “DPR” in prison? What were their cases?
They openly say that the “DPR” is culling its ranks. These are mostly the people who went to war in 2014-2015. Some of them regret fighting. They claim it was because of peer pressure: “Everyone does it, so I will too.” Or, for example, they were offered free drugs in exchange and so on. The majority of them ended up on the outside: some turned to theft instead, some started living normal lives. But they were removed from the “DPR’s” ranks. Some of them were set up. They shared various stories, of how they fought in Illovaysk, in Debaltseve. They said that it was mostly the Russian army there, and the [DPR] was just doing the sweep operation afterward. They shared a lot of insights.
Tell us, how we can all help. You talked to the people who have just been released. Yes, they were welcomed. But what’s next?
Indeed it was a very warm reception, I am very grateful for it. It's an inspiration to this day. I talked to [the other released prisoners], we still talk over the phone, everyone was shocked in a good way. Thank you Ukraine, thank you everyone who welcomed us so well, but this wave is already gone, and now we’re on the coast. It’s a sandy coast, there's emptiness, the families are reuniting. What’s next? There are no jobs, no accommodations, no money, no essentials even. Some don’t even have clothes. They wear hospital clothes. What’s next? Some even try to stay in the hospital for a bit longer so that they have something to eat and can escape the condition they used to be in.
People need a roof over their head, a substantial diet; [they need] time to adapt, to find their place in society, to find a job. They persisted, they returned – with losses, with really big losses: psychological, physical, material, emotional. But they need [our help].
When you were in prison, what were the things you wanted to do the most upon your release?
I want to speak the words of love as often as possible. In this fast-moving life, we often forget to declare our love. It is very important to speak about it.
Ihor, the question of returning the Donbas. The Minsk process has largely stalled. What should we do?
The longer it goes on, the longer this process will take. One thing is absolutely clear: we should never and under no circumstances give up our territories. It would be a terrible precedent. No way. It’s our land, and that’s clear-cut. It’s not a subject for discussion – no matter what anyone wants or says. And it’s not just a territory, it’s also the people, our residents with Ukrainian passports, with their mindsets and opinions. Yes, they’ve been subjects to ideological propaganda of the so-called “Russian World.” We need to fight for these people too, they are human beings.
It’s hard. And with time, it becomes even harder. We’ve already lost a lot of time. What you said about the Minsk process, that it dragged on for so long, it’s baffling. And [the self-proclaimed Donetsk leaders] use this to their advantage, to stretch their roots even deeper. It’s like a cancerous tumor; it metastasizes further and further. I’ve been told that part of the nation supports the resolution of the conflict by force and another part wants dialogue, a peaceful resolution. As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle. We need both kinds of efforts. We need to strengthen the Ukrainian army, to make it more powerful. It needs to be defensive in its nature. We don’t want to attack, but it still requires a lot of work. On the other hand, we need to use force. We need to stand by our borders and restore them. The other thing we need is for the powerful and healthy society to finally mature. As I said, they have different stances, but they should have one goal – the sovereignty and unity of Ukraine. We know that, for Ukraine to develop and flourish, we need a civil society. The other thing is that I think our society lacks maturity, hence why there are polar tendencies. Why is there a need for a civil society in this case? To establish a connection with the people on the other side of the demarcation line. Many retain family and friendship ties with them. We just need to meet [these people], to talk to them, to calmly explain our position.
One prisoner’s mother – we spoke with her before his release – said that she wants to apologize for the country failing to achieve what her son dreamt of while he was fighting in Debaltseve. Former prisoners might feel disappointed when they return to Ukraine.
I always tell my students that in order to not get disappointed [in people], we need to not make idols. I will not get disappointed [in anyone] simply because I love people the way they are. I love my country the way it is. Yes, Ukraine has corruption, and yes, there are many other problems, but we chose the right direction to move in, to the global society. In spiritual practices, there is this idea that the road is also the destination. What is enlightenment? Enlightenment is a process. It’s when you walk in the tunnel, and as you walk, you see more and more light. We’re still walking in this tunnel but we’re walking in the direction of the light, and demanding for all of the light to come at once is too big a demand. But should we still demand it? Yes, we should.