In letters from behind bars, Kremlin hostages share what gives them strength and hope.

Editor’s Note

Hundreds of Kremlin hostages have seen nothing but cell and prison yard since 2014. New imprisonments happen every month, breaking records with the absurdity of charges. The only way the imprisoned can address us is via their letters where they tell us about their imprisonment, silent fight, and hopes.

Тoday, 127 Ukrainian citizens are illegally imprisoned in Russia and occupied Crimea for political reasons, and 283 Ukrainians – prisoners of war and civilian hostages – are being kept in horrendous basements in the occupied Donbas. In addition, several thousand Ukrainians have been detained on other falsified cases in Russia since 2014 when open Russian aggression started.

Euromaidan Press has translated some of their letters, following the public reading of prisonersʼ letters by Ukrainian PEN during the Lviv Book Forum on 18 September 2021.

The campaign is held as #PrisonersVoice (formerly #SaveOlegSentsov). The #PrisonersVoice campaign is fighting for the freedom of people detained in Russia, occupied Crimea and Donbas. Strong Western pressure is needed to release them. Campaign volunteers hold public rallies, address appeals and take other action to keep the world’s attention on the issue. The task is to make people live to see the moment of release, prevent torture and provide medical care.

#PrisonersVoice also publishes stories of Ukrainians who have returned from the hell of Russian prisons as well as information on those who remain there. Their mobile app brings together stories of Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia.

“In recent years, the Ukrainian PEN and the Center for Civil Liberties have tried to make the Kremlin’s hostages heard in major Ukrainian cultural events. In previous years, at our Lviv Book Forum marathon we in particular read letters from Oleh Sentsov and Stanislav Aseev. We are glad that today they are free and their new books are being presented here,” – Tetiana Teren, Ukrainian Journalist and Culture Manager said about the event.

One of the prisoners Olexander Kolchenko tells his story for #PrisonersVoice campaign:

Nariman Dzhelyal in 2019. Photo by Anton Naumlyuk

Among the recent cases was the arrest on 4 September of Nariman Dzhelial , Deputy Head of the Mejlis (the representative body of the Crimean Tatars who live along with Ukrainians and Russians in Crimea). He faced charges of “sabotage on a gas pipeline”. Dzhelial wrote us the most recent of all letters. Published by his lawyer, the letter states that Dzhelial’s arrest was revenge for participating in the Crimean Platform summit, held in Kyiv on 23 August 2021.

Friends! My arrest just after returning from the Crimean Platform, where I had the honor of speaking to high-ranking participants and close friends who share my ideas, only proves the vengeful nature of the Russian regime. It continues to demonstrate its readiness to expel and detain people who continue an open fight for democratic values and freedoms in the name of the interests of their people and state. I was ready for such a development and, following the example of the older brothers, I am not going to betray my own beliefs! I will continue the fight by means available to me here in prison.

During a search of my home, the officer who conducted it said, among other things, “Your weapon is a word. And it’s much more dangerous.” So my “weapon” is with me. My word is with me. My word is with you! Do not retreat! Don’t stop! Don’t delay! My people! Do not believe the hypocrite whistleblowers who will argue that the victim of violence is guilty of violence against her! They will say that I was “taking the risk” myself, that had I sat quietly I would be at home with my family. But we are not allowed to behave like that. Eight years ago you, my people, delegated to me the right to represent your interests. I was awarded a high status and responsibility, which doesn’t allow me to remain silent and hide. I chose this path purposely and will not go astray. Next to me is my beloved wife, my close friends, all my people and the whole world. No walls can change that. Do not lower your hands! Let what they do with me not fear you, because this is one of their goals. Our ancestors proudly carried the celestial flag with a golden tamga. We must do the same!”

How Crimean Tatar leader Dzhelyal swelled the ranks of Ukrainian “saboteurs”

Vladyslav Yesypenko. Photo by Crimean Solidarity

One of the journalists arrested in Crimea is a freelancer for Radio Free Europe, Vladyslav Yesypenko . He was detained by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) on 10 March 2021 after participating in a street rally, not political but dedicated to the birthday of famous Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. Now he is waiting for the court’s final ruling, and his letter below is dedicated to the 30th anniversary of the restoration of Ukrainian independence.

“… More than a hundred of us are here: Ukrainians, Russians, Crimean Tatars. We were illegally detained and imprisoned at different times. The FSB has decided we are spies, terrorists and carriers of arms. We are awaiting the court’s verdict. Many of us were tortured, threatened with physical destruction, blackmailed by threats to our relatives and friends. All this so that we confess to what we did not commit, and betray our state.

We resist as we can, refute what we have said under torture, say the truth in the courts and write letters to freedom, so that you know: we are not giving up.

But sometimes it is very difficult. Very. There is no greater humiliation than reducing a person to an animal without any rights. There is no greater hell than from day to day, from month to month, and so for six months already, sit within four walls, leave the cell on command to grab a breath of fresh air, and enter the cell again, unable to change anything.

We try to fall asleep as soon as possible. Because only in dreams can we return home, hug family and friends, and take our children in our arms. And we open our eyes in the morning, and again – like a butt hits the head, we understand that we are in captivity. The only thing left is to wait.

This powerlessness is worse than insanity. And only one thing saves us – faith and hope that our mother Ukraine has not turned away from us. We, political prisoners, feel your support and see your struggle. And this gives us the strength to live on, when it seems there is no more strength. We believe that our country will get freedom for us.

We believe that the occupation will end, and the ridiculous customs of a foreign country will disappear on the border with the peninsula. We believe that Crimea will return to Ukraine. Happy Independence Day, my darling Ukraine.”

Not only human rights activists or journalists have been arrested. Among the Kremlin’s hostages are those who ended up in a Russian prison by accident. This once again proves that in conditions of war every Ukrainian is unprotected.

Victor Shur and his paintings. Source: khrg

In December 2014, Viktor Shur was detained while crossing the Russian-Ukrainian border. He was accused of violating the rules of the checkpoint, later reclassified as treason and cooperation with the secret services of a foreign state. He was sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment. Victor Shur is a jeweler, the son of a Ukrainian collector of rare icons. The following letter from Viktor was sent to a Ukrainian woman in Latvia who writes letters to Ukrainian Kremlin hostages.

Good afternoon, Vera!

A letter came from you on 24.08.21. You write that you printed postcards and you liked my gift, namely the picture. I’m glad you like it. Sometimes I do not like what I draw when I finish my work… I am burning with the desire to start drawing with watercolors, but I need watercolor paper and watercolor paints… How to bring it all to the colony, because for this you need to talk to the Colony’s Administration? I already have experience, when Elena Ilina sent a magazine about rock music and architecture of Germany, Austria. They approved initially but when the magazines arrived, they issued an Act of Destruction. That’s why it is unlikely to happen…for now, I’ll paint with what I have. A ruler, an eraser, a pencil and a ballpoint pen.

Vera, I understand that it’s better to draw from nature what I see, but here is no such diversity as in freedom… Summer has faded, it is cold and rainy. We do not have trees in the colony, only brick and concrete buildings around. So I cannot observe nature and appreciate it. Only on TV and from you in letters when you write what happens with nature. You perfectly described everything, but I cannot see it, unfortunately: how the leaves turn yellow, how the flowers of autumn asters, dahlias, and gladiola fade.

Yes, you write about mini-markets, about melons, watermelons, courgette, squash – all that I like, but I do not despair, in freedom I will see it all again…

You, Vera, write about peaches and I have a lot of them in the backyard garden too. And so large that they cannot get through the opening of a three liter jar for canning. If we are alive and well, then you will try it directly from a tree, it is a completely different taste, not to compare with something that is sold in the markets…

Thank you for sharing with me all your knowledge of the beautiful. And the love of beauty makes people kinder. That’s right. Take care of yourself, I wish you health and good luck!

A painting by Victor Shur. He draws by a pen and pencil in his cell.

After the occupation of Crimea in 2014, all independent media was either shut down or forced to move to mainland Ukraine. But some people, public activists, decided to pick up their phones and begin recording what was happening on the peninsula. They became the only source of truth about Crimea, known as voluntary journalists. Many of them were imprisoned and called terrorists by the regime. The next letter was written by voluntary journalist Server Mustafayev to his three-year-old daughter.

Najie, daughter, you have already grown up. You are already walking, talking, eating on your own, you are constantly in search of new knowledge about this temporal world. It so happened, by the will of Allah, that I did not see these moments. I didn’t smell your scent, I didn’t hear the first words spoken by you, I couldn’t support you in your first steps. Many more events happened during this time without my participation. You, too, did not have the opportunity to bask in your father’s arms, to hear his teaching, to be brought up next to him.

Compared to your older brother and sister, you don’t remember anything at all. Due to the long distance, we could not see each other during the trials either, but I believe that you know about me and recognize me from photographs. I have not been able to know your temper, your desires and interests, but I am sure that they are in accordance with our religion and customs.

I am sure that when you become an adult, you will understand and accept the path that I have chosen for myself and, despite the lies and slander spread today, you will accept it as the truth. Our worldview prompted me and other compatriots who are now imprisoned to take the path of struggle. I could not find a reason to be inactive, for the sake of the peace of my family and children, to leave children like you without paternal care, not help women like your mother, who were left without husbands and not provide support to grandparents, who have lost their sons. I thought that if everyone does not do this, then what is our future? Today, in spite of all the difficulties, I also will not take any other path.

Daughter, do not be ashamed of those accusations and slanders that are spread against us by corrupt people. I did not violate the rights of anyone, did not kill anyone, did not steal anything and always avoided forbidden acts. These challenges and prisons are temporary, according to the will of the Almighty. I love you and, despite the distance, I embrace you with strong fatherly arms.

Dmytro Shtyblikov and Oleksiy Bessarabov are political prisoners who were authors and editors of the Black Sea Security magazine. They were already writing about the situation in the Black Sea region during the Russian-Georgian war and also predicted that in the future there may be a Russian offensive against Ukraine. They were arrested and imprisoned in 2016, along with their comrade Volodymyr Dudka. He was a Ukrainian sailor, captain of the 2nd rank of the Ukrainian navy reserve, commander of the Simferopol command ship. All of them were accused in the case of the so-called “Crimean terrorists”. The charges were “sabotage preparation.”

Voices for Freedom – Show Kremlin hostage Volodymyr Dudka and Russia he's not forgotten

Ukrainian sailor, captain of the 2nd rank Volodymyr Dudka

The following is a letter by Volodymyr Dudka :

My health condition changes from time to time. I move, I talk – and thank God for this. It is hot, stuffy here, but this is not a big deal, I’m a person used to everything. Although it is impossible to get used to captivity. Freedom is freedom. Not many appreciate it. Live the way they are accustomed to. And many do not want anything, if only it is not getting worse. That’s how the majority thinks.

The homeland must be loved for its very existence. And you don’t have to make it better, more beautiful to love. Young people are the future of the country, they have everything in their hands, all the decisions on how to live further.

Sorry, I can’t express my thoughts on paper, I never liked to write essays. Ukraine is the best! Glory to the nation!

We are quarantined again here, no long meetings again. And I wanted to meet my son. But everything is postponed again. Well, God’s will is for everything. So it is necessary, the time will come – I will come to Ukraine. So, no place for grief. That time will come… Glory to Ukraine!

Businessman Olexander Marchenko was detained in December 2018

Businessman Olexander Marchenko was detained in December 2018 by the so-called “DNR”. Since then, he has been charged with various offenses – “working as a foreign citizen without a work permit”, “disobedience to a lawful request of a police officer” and espionage. His following letter was written to wife Catherine.

During my stay in the punishment cell, I have read a couple of books. One by A. Dumas and the second about the French king. Generally, a good work, but Dumas, at the end of one and the other story, finished everything too quickly, let’s say a quick happy end… There are many books here, but mostly detective stories or science fiction…

By the way, they finally promised that I would undergo a medical examination. I hope that I will be tested for thyroid hormones and the further required dose of the hormone substitute will be clear. I also want to finally examine my back, ideally do an MRI of the spine, so that I understand what the problem is. In order to move normally, I have to warm up my lower back…

Just imagine, two and a half years have already passed since my disappearance and the most difficult thing is not to see, not to hear you, mom, kids. Two years as there were no visits. And the saddest thing is that you won’t be able to come to me for a visit. When will this nonsense finally end? I still can’t believe that all this is happening to me, or rather, to us.

So the days pass imperceptibly and senselessly. It is very sad that all this time is spent far from home, and most importantly without you my darling. There is no way one can return relatives and friends. And I want to believe that this year, finally, a miracle will come true. Denis said that so far there is no news about exchanges and, in general, movement in this direction… And also, reading the article, I got a little upset about the uncertainty about the “exchange list”. Are our officials trying to take advantage of this too?

Please do not take offense that I have not written to you for a long time, but there is a reason for that. Denis probably already told you that in the punishment cell, where I first spent five days and now another ten days, there is no opportunity to write letters. A punishment cell is a room where the beds are fastened to the wall for a day, and at the time of lights out, they are unfastened from the wall. No TV or radio, but here is an opportunity to read books and do sports all day. Here is a washbasin and a toilet. So my sweetie, don’t worry too much. Unlike the conditions of detention in the DNR basements, here there is no bag over your head and they give food three times a day… Eat only what they give from the kitchen, no other options. Here is a wonderful dish of fried pasta. Value it! And also a funny boiled herring! How do you like that! In general, my little one, your sweets, which you pass on to me through Denis, are just delicacies. And thank you very much for your concern that you care and worry about me so sensitively and tenderly. I feel everything even at such a long distance from you.

All letters were written in Russian – any other language will not be sent either to or from Russian prisons. Translated here are fragments of the originals.

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