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You might have also seen this video: a man in military uniform stands among the trees and smokes; he says “Glory to Ukraine”, after which shots are fired – the man falls, and the person off-screen says “Die, bitch”. The deceased’s name is Alexander Matsievsky, he was a sniper of the Chernihiv territorial defense and was considered missing for several months. According to the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Russian military took him prisoner and executed him at the end of 2022, but the recording of the execution only surfaced on the internet in the spring of 2023.
In this video, the extreme cruelty of what was happening struck me first and foremost, but not only that. The execution of the Ukrainian sniper also seemed horribly illogical to me. Why kill a prisoner at all – wasn’t he taken captive to be kept alive? And why film something that is considered a war crime?
So this text came about. In it, I will tell why opponents take each other prisoner during wars, how one should treat prisoners and how they are actually treated, as well as whether anyone is punished for cruelty towards them. And, of course, what happens to prisoners after their release.
In the letter there are more than 27,000 characters, reading it will take approximately 18 minutes.
The text consists of four parts. The first one explains why prisoners were taken in different epochs and how the goals of capturing the enemy changed over time. The second part describes how prisoners were treated during the Chechen wars. The third part is dedicated to the conditions in which prisoners are held in the current war. Finally, the fourth part is about the exchange process and life after it.
Part One. Why are prisoners needed?
Prisoners were always taken in wars. In antiquity, slaves were the main driving force of the economy, so capturing enemies to use them for hard work was one of the main goals of wars during that period.
In ancient Greece and Rome, the treatment of prisoners of war differed. In Greece, it was forbidden to kill a surrendering enemy, and people of Greek origin were often released. In Rome, prisoners were used as gladiators, could be sold into slavery, or killed. Overall, the attitude towards prisoners of war during that era cannot be described as humane. Killings were constantly occurring, and religion also contributed to this. For example, ancient Scythians built sanctuaries where they sacrificed prisoners of war, while ancient Germans offered human sacrifices to the god of war, Völund.
During the Middle Ages in Europe, the situation began to change, and this time is even called the “era of the first signs of modern military law”. Knightly codes of conduct in war appeared, but the requirements for showing mercy were only extended to high-ranking military personnel. Prisoners became a material value: they were captured not for slavery, but to receive rewards.
In modern times in Europe, captives were mainly redeemed or exchanged through private arrangements. The first attempts to regulate this process officially were made only during the war between Spain and the Netherlands from 1566 to 1648. The parties signed the first cartel – an agreement on the conditions of exchanging captives. It contained a “table of equivalents” of ranks and positions of exchanged persons, for example, one sergeant for two privates. Similar documents were created in other countries, but over time, they became a thing of the past – international humanitarian law began to take shape.
The Hague Convention appeared as a result of the Russo-Japanese War in 1907. Formally, this document regulating the laws and customs of land wars was binding on all countries on the planet. It distinguished between combatants and non-combatants, and Article 4 required that prisoners be treated “humanely” and their rights to property, earnings and religious rites be established. By this time, the goals of capturing enemy soldiers had changed again in the United States and Europe. They were no longer needed as slaves or a way to earn money, but as a bloodless way to deprive the enemy of military strength and get their own fighters back. The warring countries were forced to take more and more prisoners in order to exchange them with each other.
“During the First World War, prisoners of war were generally treated fairly well. In western France and Britain, the mortality rate of prisoners was kept at a very low 3-5%,” says Professor Neville Willie of the University of Stirling in Scotland. However, the further east one went, the worse the treatment and the higher the mortality rate. For example, in Russia, every fourth prisoner of war died, and Austrian-Hungarian and German prisoners were exploited on construction sites, the historian continues. Russian prisoners of war in Germany were also often used as free labor. In short, the Hague Convention was not observed.”
The next document that raised the issue of treatment of prisoners of war was the Geneva Convention of 1929, which was created and signed by 37 countries, including the USA and most European countries, after World War I. It described the rules of capture and treatment of prisoners, as well as the conditions of their work. The USSR did not sign the convention, although it regulated the situation of prisoners of war and the wounded during World War II. During these years, according to Professor Neville Willie, the mortality rate of prisoners on both sides skyrocketed to 40-50%. Statistics vary from source to source, but one of the most common Russian studies suggests that about 3.9 million of the 6.3 million Soviet prisoners of war died. According to German studies, 35% of German prisoners of war died in Soviet captivity.
Finally, in 1949 four more conventions were adopted to fill gaps in international law. Among them was the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War (or Third Geneva Convention), which is still in force to this day. It is applied not only during wars but also during occupation, internal conflicts and situations where one side denies the existence of an armed conflict in principle.
According to the document, prisoners should always be treated “humanely”, without using “physical or moral torture”. If a person refuses to answer questions, they cannot be threatened, insulted, or “subjected to any persecution or restrictions”. The convention also sets out conditions for detention: people are prohibited from being placed in prison facilities, and living quarters for prisoners “must be completely protected from moisture, adequately heated and illuminated”. In the camp, it is necessary to organize trade stalls where food, hygiene products, and tobacco can be purchased. At the same time, prisoners should have the opportunity to be outdoors and engage in sports. The convention also specifies the rights of prisoners: respect for their persona and honor, correspondence, and complaints about the conditions of detention.
The USSR ratified the convention only in 1954, and even then with reservations. According to the first one, the country refused to admit neutral observers to its prisoner-of-war camps. And according to the second one, it did not recognize as prisoners of war individuals “convicted under the laws of the country where they are in captivity for committing war crimes and crimes against humanity”.
Russia, as the successor of the USSR, remains in the same position. That is why, according to Professor Willie, the International Committee of the Red Cross – the main monitoring body in military conflicts – has almost no access to Ukrainians in captivity. In December 2022, it became known about visits that organization employees were able to make, but they were not able to talk face to face with the prisoners. Observers do not disclose details of what they saw. “We never announce publicly what we learned during this visit,” said ICRC representative Alexander Vlasenko, refusing to even answer the innocent question of the number of observer visits.
Part two. Does Russia have its own “traditions” of dealing with prisoners of war?
One of the most numerously contested wars in terms of the number of prisoners of war in the history of modern Russia were the Chechen wars. Their peculiarity lies in the fact that neither side kept lists of prisoners of war. Instead, this was done by representatives of the Memorial Human Rights Center.
According to Kit, an employee of the organization and human rights activist and journalist Alexander Cherkasov, during the first prisoners exchange in 1994, the Chechen side simply released them after holding them captive for several days. On the Russian side, exchanges only took place at the initiative of GRU employees, who “pulled out their fighters” and followed the principle of “not abandoning their own”.
A couple of months later, the situation escalated. “At first, the Chechen side gave away prisoners for free, demonstrating humanitarianism and using it for self-promotion. However, then there was an exchange of prisoners on the border with Dagestan on January 27, 1995. The federal side (that is, representatives of the Russian government – ed.) gave away those who were held in the filtration camp in Mozdok (a city in North Ossetia – ed.) – and the prisoners were in terrible condition. They tried to feed them a little [before the exchange], make them look presentable, but it didn’t work out. Their appearance and stories led to the fact that on the same day, the “federal” prisoners in Grozny were beaten. The cruelty of one side does not contribute to improving relations with the other,” he explains.
The exact conditions under which Russia held Chechen prisoners are unknown. However, it is evident that their treatment was, to say the least, inhumane. According to the Memorial report on the First Chechen War, “Among those requested for exchange by the federal authorities, dozens, or even hundreds, of people could be found alive. Among those requested by the Chechens, there were hardly any survivors. They were usually held in pits or illegal ‘filter points’, interrogated, tortured, and then killed and their bodies hidden.”
Just like in the current war in Ukraine, the Russian government at that time tried to portray the situation as an “operation.” Meanwhile, the Chechen side insisted that it was an international armed conflict and took on corresponding obligations regarding the treatment of prisoners. In December of 1994, the Parliament of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria adopted a document stating that prisoners of war must be held in camps that meet international standards, have the right to correspondence, and receive packages.
However, in reality, these obligations were not fulfilled. “Stages, poor nutrition, appalling living conditions, forced labor, beatings, and bullying led to physical exhaustion of prisoners and high mortality rates among them,” the position of the captured “federal” is described in the report of “Memorial.”
The Russian government did not engage in the exchange of “ordinary” prisoners – only relatives searched for missing soldiers. It was not until July 30, 1995, after negotiations between Russia and the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria under the auspices of the OSCE, that agreements were signed providing for the release of prisoners and the creation of a group to search for them. However, it is still unknown how many people were taken prisoner in the First Chechen War – neither federal nor Chechen authorities kept statistics. “The deceased are often listed as prisoners, and prisoners are listed as” voluntarily leaving the unit,”” noted “Memorial.”
The last prisoners of the First Chechen War were released on September 26, 1996 – a month after the end of hostilities. However, the fate of hundreds of prisoners is still unknown. Alexander Cherkasov summarizes: “In the Second Chechen War, compared to the first, there were very few prisoners. But the attitude towards them remained the same [bad].”
Part Three. How prisoners of war are treated in the current war
In November 2022, a video appeared on social media showing Ukrainian soldiers allegedly capturing Russian soldiers. The latter come out of a house one by one and lie on the ground. The question “Is everyone out?” is heard, and a person suddenly appears on the screen. Gunshots can be heard, and then the video cuts off. In another recording, apparently taken a little later in the same place from a drone, the bodies of the dead Russian soldiers with traces of blood around them can be seen.
Pro-Kremlin Telegram channels spread this video as evidence of Ukraine’s war crimes – allegedly, the soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine shot unarmed prisoners. In turn, the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine insisted that the shooting was due to Russian military personnel pretending to surrender in order to open fire on the Ukrainian side. Nevertheless, the department initiated a criminal case under the article on violation of the laws and customs of war to establish the circumstances of what happened in detail and give a legal assessment of the “actions of all its participants.”
Such videos repeatedly spark heated ethical discussions, as journalist from Meduza Dmitry Kuznetz, a military expert, notes. Who counts as a prisoner of war, and who doesn’t? What should one do when the enemy surrenders, but someone nearby clearly has no intention of doing so? There is no clear “correct” answer to all these questions, just as it is difficult to investigate such incidents. After all, violence against prisoners occurs either on the battlefield or in special prisons that are inaccessible. There are also no resources for investigation – all efforts are focused on the “hot” war. So any form of cruelty – be it murder or torture – creates a stable background of conflict.
One can understand how systemic this problem is from the report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, published in November 2022. Employees of this international organization interviewed 334 prisoners of war: 159 Ukrainians who were held captive by Russians, and 175 Russian citizens who were detained by Ukraine. The main text of the report is dedicated to the treatment of prisoners of war specifically in the Russian army, because almost all the UN citizens of Ukraine who were surveyed reported that they had encountered torture or cruel treatment.
Most of the surveyed Ukrainians reported that they were not subjected to severe physical violence during their capture, but their personal belongings (including money and bank cards) were taken away and they were sent to prisons for prisoners of war. Often they were transported in overcrowded vehicles without access to toilets or drinking water. Prisoners were held wherever space was available: in correctional colonies and investigative isolators, on military bases and in police cells, in garages, barns and factory buildings. Conditions varied from poor to terrible: no bedding or hygiene items were provided, and they were not allowed to go outside, being forced to sit in overcrowded and cramped cells.
Such living conditions themselves become a means of humiliation, without any torture, according to UN experts. Take food, for example. More than 80% of Ukrainians surveyed complained that they were poorly fed and the food was of low quality: half-cooked bread, porridge with sand, stale cookies, water with insects. Hunger, as observed by some UN respondents, was one of the toughest challenges in captivity. And one admitted that he thought about food all the time – even when thinking about his family.
As for torture itself, it was applied to Ukrainians both for obtaining valuable information and simply for humiliation or intimidation. The most common forms of torture mentioned in the report are beatings with hands, batons, or wooden hammers, kicks, and electric shocks. In addition, those questioned reported that they were stabbed and strangled, dogs were set on them, they were threatened with firearms, hung, burned with cigarettes, and threatened with sexual violence – the list is incomplete, the report contains numerous examples. And if in some places prisoners of war were tortured primarily during interrogations, in others they were systematically and without any purpose.
Some Russians also told the UN that they were tortured: stabbed with knives or beaten with electric shocks, beaten on camera and not allowed to sleep; beaten during capture and transportation, in captivity and during interrogations. One respondent reported that on the way to the camp, the car that was carrying the prisoners stopped at seven or eight checkpoints: “At each one, the escorts accompanying us offered to let the military beat us. Some agreed and beat us.”
Documents like these, containing concentrated evidence of torture and cruelty, seem to suggest that the attitude towards prisoners of war during wars has not changed at all in recent decades – they can still be treated however despite all international norms. But this is not entirely true, Dmitry Kuznetsov from “Meduza”* emphasizes. “It can be safely said that in this war, there is probably no universally accepted brutal treatment of prisoners of war that would lead to mass deaths,” he believes.
The journalist acknowledges that the majority of cases of cruel treatment are not captured on video or reported by international organizations, so we will never know about them. Nonetheless, he believes that torture is more likely the personal initiative of soldiers on the ground rather than a general order from one side of the conflict or the other. “Authorities rarely approve the use of violence against prisoners of war. If we’re talking about important prisoners like the soldiers of Azovstal, then of course their treatment could be sanctioned from above. But if it’s just ten ordinary soldiers, then it’s unlikely that they will call from the Kremlin and say ‘torture them’,” he explains. This is the difference with wars of the past, according to the journalist: “It’s clear that during World War II, the Germans were more brutal on the Eastern Front, in Yugoslavia and Italy. According to orders about commissars and commandos, prisoners could be shot on the spot.”
When it comes to the poor conditions of detention specifically for Ukrainian prisoners, it is possible that it is not even a matter of Russia’s unwillingness to comply with international norms. Simply put, prisoners are the same as convicts, and in Russian tradition they have always been treated cruelly. The conditions in Russian colonies and the process of transporting prisoners there can be considered torture – it is not surprising that the system for holding prisoners of war inherits these practices. According to employees of the International Red Cross who managed to visit some Ukrainian soldiers in Russian captivity, the conditions of their detention “often” resemble pre-trial detention centers. The aforementioned UN report states that the “reception procedure“, has become widespread in relation to Ukrainians – it has long been applied to ordinary civilian prisoners in Russia. This is when upon arrival at the place of detention, a person is beaten, stripped, forced to adopt uncomfortable or painful positions, and attacked by dogs – all in order to break and achieve maximum obedience.
Is it possible to punish someone for cruelty towards prisoners of war? Military analyst Yan Matveev calls such an outcome almost impossible – at least until the country is defeated in war, and decisively, as it was with Hitler’s Germany. “States are not ready to disclose information about their army. Even defeated, even criminal,” he explains.
His words are confirmed by the head of the legal department of “Memorial,” Natalia Sekretareva, who explains that responsibility for war crimes is usually borne by specific individuals – but how to get Russia to extradite those who torture prisoners? In turn, the head of international practice at the International Human Rights Group “Agora,” Kirill Koroteev, adds that if the state has not lost the war and is not going to extradite or prosecute those accused of war crimes on its own, the only chance to hold them accountable is to arrest them on the territory of a third country (where the person, for example, came on vacation).
So the observance of the Geneva Convention essentially lies on the conscience of the countries themselves. Matveyev calls this document a “gentleman’s agreement”: “NATO does not have an airborne division that will land on the Kremlin and make Putin fulfill his obligations. This is absolutely the same as the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, which Russia refused to fulfill. The ECHR will not come on a tank and force them to do it either.”
It is impossible to force Russia to allow representatives of international organizations to visit places of detention of captives. The UN report notes that all the interviewed Ukrainians who were held captive in Russia say that human rights defenders and observers never came to see them – neither locals nor foreign ones. The Russian side itself does not conduct any investigations into cases of cruel treatment of captives – this is also unknown with a high degree of probability.
Moreover, Moscow does not allow international organizations to investigate cases of prisoner deaths. In July 2022, more than 50 people died in the colony in Yelenovka, where captured Ukrainians were held. Russia blamed Ukraine for the incident, alleging that it had hit the colony with a HIMARS missile system. Kiev insisted that the Russian side itself had blown up the building. Both countries announced that they had begun investigations, and Moscow promised to allow international experts into Yelenovka, but never did. In early 2023, the UN disbanded its mission to investigate the incident due to “lack of security guarantees.”
Chapter Four. How Prisoners Are Exchanged
In early April 2023, a video of just under three minutes appeared in public and Telegram channels dedicated to life in Sayansk, a small town in the Irkutsk region on the banks of the Oka. In the video, seven men in military uniforms take turns telling their story. They are soldiers from Russia and the self-proclaimed DPR and were taken prisoner by the Armed Forces of Ukraine on April 1st. Most of their faces are covered in bloody scratches, and one of the heroes of the video – the youngest with a split lip – speaks with a trembling voice due to fear. Someone off camera orders the men to name the cities they came from to go to war: Sayansk, Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk are mentioned.
A few days later, the mayor of Sayansk, Oleg Borovsky, commented on the situation in his Telegram channel: “Dear Sayants! Regarding our guys who were captured. They have been included in the exchange lists, and the command is dealing with this issue!”. However, he did not specify when the exchange could occur, or any other details.
It is unknown if the men in the video are actually included in the “exchange lists”. However, the exchange of prisoners between Russia and Ukraine in the current war has already become a common occurrence. In March, the Verstka publication calculated that since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion, Moscow and Kiev have conducted at least 38 such procedures – and these are only the ones that were publicly discussed. As a result, Ukraine got back 1943 of its captured military personnel, while Russia got back 1324. The last known prisoner exchange took place on March 7, when Ukraine returned 130 servicemen, and Russia – 90.
In general, exchange is the main way to get released from captivity in this conflict. Sometimes, soldiers manage to escape – such as the Ukrainian marines, for whom the escape plan was developed by Azov Battalion defender Artem Dyblenko, who himself had been in Russian captivity. Another option provided by the Geneva Convention is the return of severely wounded prisoners without any trade. It was precisely based on this international norm that Ukraine handed over several seriously injured soldiers to Russia in March 2023.
Russia and Ukraine have been conducting exchanges since the end of 2014, according to agreements reached by the Minsk Trilateral Contact Group involving Russia, the self-proclaimed DNR and LNR, Ukraine, and the OSCE. Formal exchanges are supposed to take place “all for all,” but formalities are not always observed. “The group worked comparatively effectively in large part due to personal agreements between representatives of the countries,” notes journalist Pavel Kanygin in conversation with Kit, who has been in captivity of the self-proclaimed DNR twice.
Sometimes France, Germany and Turkey were involved in the negotiations. Dmitry Kuznets from “Meduza” explains that “using intermediary countries is a common practice when the confrontation between warring countries is high and they do not want to communicate directly. Before February 24, international organizations (such as the International Red Cross) also participated in exchange organizations, but now their participation is minimal.”
As a result, the exchange process has become much less transparent. “The only honest answer to the question ‘How are exchange lists compiled?’ – we do not know. Usually, it happens at the level of intelligence services [of both countries], plus there is an additional channel [of communication with the Ukrainian side] at Wagner PMC, which has its own ‘exchange fund.’ There are separate channels also with Kadryovtsy. As far as I know, they organized the first exchange,” says Dmitry Kuznetsov.
Thus, prisoners have become not only a resource for returning their own, but also almost the only way of diplomatic communication between warring states – any other negotiations between Moscow and Kiev have long ended. At the same time, it is reliably unknown how many prisoners there are on each side, there are only estimates. For example, according to the Ukrainian human rights commissioner, as of December 30, 2022, 3,392 Armed Forces of Ukraine soldiers were in Russian captivity, but information about Russians in Ukrainian captivity was not announced. “There are no exact figures on how many prisoners there are on each side, but there are definitely more Ukrainian prisoners – primarily due to the [captured by Russia] Mariupol,” says Kuznetsova.
This is confirmed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who stated that Russia has more Ukrainian prisoners than Ukraine has Russian ones. Therefore, according to him, it is important for the Armed Forces of Ukraine to take as many soldiers as possible prisoner to replenish the “exchange fund”. Perhaps it was to put this process on track that the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine called on Russians to surrender to drones. In the instructions, which were distributed on social networks at the end of 2022, the process of surrendering to captivity is maximally digitized: allegedly any Russian in the combat zone can write to a special Telegram chat to receive geographic coordinates for a meeting with a drone and voluntarily go into captivity, hoping that captivity and exchange is the shortest way to freedom.
However, captivity does not end after liberation. The higher the level of isolation and the more violence a person has experienced, the more severe the psychological consequences may be. According to a 2003 American study, the risks of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (which we have detailed here) increase by 35-50% for people who have been in military captivity. Symptoms of depression are three to five times more common among them, with the most acute cases among those who have been in captivity at a young age and subjected to the most severe treatment.
Psychologist Anastasia Zhichkina, who runs a Telegram channel about complex post-traumatic stress disorder and has written a book about it, compares being in captivity to the experience of slavery. “The most common consequence of captivity is the feeling that being in captivity is normal. In captivity, consciousness changes and the ability to simultaneously hold opposite beliefs emerges: a person suffers from being in captivity and considers the reality they have entered to be normal and even good [because they have survived],” she says.
According to Zhichkina, by sparing the feelings of loved ones, many military personnel do not tell them about the circumstances of their captivity, which only exacerbates the alienation and isolation of the person. “Even after several decades, insomnia, nightmares, and psychosomatic disorders are possible. These symptoms are stronger in former prisoners of war than in those who avoided captivity,” she summarizes.