The call from her mother Dr Margarita Vorovka on the evening of 13 December 2022 told Olga that her father’s luck had run out. That morning, he had been taken from his home in the village of Tambovka by men dressed in military gear.
A few weeks before this, Olga’s father Volodymyr Vorovka had been stopped at a Russian checkpoint on a little used road in occupied Zaporizhzhia.
The Russians manhandled Vorovka, who had been a professor of environmental and natural resources at Melitopol Pedagogical State University, which, following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last February, became divided, with a part of the university staying in the area occupied by the Russians and another part emigrating to Ukrainian-controlled territory. They shoved him face down on the ground and began searching his car.
After being roughly questioned, Vorovka escaped the fate of Dr Dmytro Shtyblikov, who five years earlier had been stopped on a street in Sevastopol by Russian security forces dressed in black and wearing black balaclavas, pressed face-down on the hood of their car, handcuffed and then shoved into the car which spirited him away to a secret prison.
The 13 December events that Margarita, who learned about them from one of the Vorovka’s neighbours, related to Olga could have come from any one of hundreds of Cold War films.
(Margarita, who is herself a professor of pedagogy, had left Zaporizhzhia last April because she could no longer cope with the pressure of living in Ukrainian territory occupied by paramilitary forces that ostensibly belonged to the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic but, in fact, was a proxy Russian force.)
Margarita told the 30-year-old Olga, who lives in Warsaw, that around 5.30am on 13 December, a black minivan and three black cars stopped in front of his small house in Tambovka, a short distance from Melitopol, which is about 20 miles from the western shore of the Sea of Azov. Men dressed in military gear entered the house.
The men spent two hours searching the four-roomed house, including the room on the first floor and his office in the semi-basement, both of which were filled with books and articles relating to Vorovka’s academic specialty, the littoral area of the Sea of Azov, and the region’s history that Vorovka used in his well-regarded articles on local history. At around 7.00am, Olga told me: “They left with my father.”
After a short pause, she added: “It really reminds me of how people were taken from their homes in Soviet times. From the beginning of this whole story, I thought about how people who were considered ‘enemies of the state’ were usually ‘visited’ before dawn.”
Neither Olga, Margarita, the Office of the President of Ukraine, the government representative of the Office for Human Rights, nor any of the 11 human rights organisations they have contacted – including the Red Cross, the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group or the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union – have been able to find out anything about Vorovka or where he is being held.
In the meantime, Olga waits in fear.
She knows that other Ukrainian professors who have been abducted by the Russians, such as art historian Dr Olena Piekh and professor of religious studies Ihor Kozlovsky, emerged from this latter-day version of what the Nazis called Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog) having been savagely tortured before being tried on trumped-up charges or being made to confess to crimes uncommitted.
Although the Russians brought charges against Piekh and several other professors, tried and convicted them, this patina of legality does nothing to obscure the fact that arrests, detention, torture and ‘trials’ or forced statements of guilt constitute war crimes under international law.
“Russia occupied part of Ukraine in 2014 and again in 2022. International humanitarian law applies in these territories, in particular, the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War,” says Dr Mikhail Savva, an international human rights lawyer and scholar, and member of the expert council for the Kyiv-based Center for Civil Liberties.
“The Russian government in the occupied territories is not only violating international humanitarian law, it is committing one of the most serious crimes. Politically motivated imprisonment of Ukrainians in the occupied territories is a crime against humanity, that is, a violation of Article 7 of the Rome Statute.
“We see the imprisonment of people in violation of the basic norms of international law. These norms are indeed grossly violated by the Russian occupation authorities. Russia violates Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees everyone the right to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal. There are no such courts in the Russian Federation, there is no fair trial.”
Tracking political prisoners
Estimating how many civilians have been kidnapped by the Russians is extremely difficult. Before the 24 February 2022 invasion, says Halya Coynash, a member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG) and journalist who has written extensively on the disappeared, there were thought to be around 300 civilians from the Donetsk, including Piekh, in the hands of the erstwhile Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), in reality a Russian proxy established by Putin’s ‘little green men’ in 2014.
Since then, Coynash estimates that from the Kherson Oblast alone, some 500 civilians have been abducted and she suspects a similar number have been kidnapped in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, one of whom is Vorovka. The figures for the Donbas and the Kharkiv Oblast are even harder to estimate but are likely even higher, she says.
“In areas that fell under occupation on 24 February a lot of civilians disappeared. The Russians either killed them or imprisoned them in the occupied territory,” she told University World News.
Prior to last February, in Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014, there were, Coynash estimates, 120 political prisoners. Two of them are Drs Dmitriy Shtyblikov and Oleksiy Bessarabov who were seized by the FSB (Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, which, like its predecessor the KGB, is headquartered in Lubyanka Square in Central Moscow).
Coynash, who has chronicled these men’s trials, says that while she cannot be more precise, there are many more than 120 civilian prisoners from Crimea in Russian hands now.
Ihor Kozlovsky, professor of religious studies
Kozlovsky, a 63-year-old professor of religious studies, taught in the department of philosophy in Donetsk National Technical University (DNTU) from 1980 until his abduction by Russian-backed agents on 27 January 2016.
The author of more than 50 books and more than 200 articles remained at DNTU after most of the university evacuated to Pokrovsk, 35 miles (56 kilometres) to the northwest, in a part of Donetsk Oblast that remained in Ukrainian hands after the establishment of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in 2014.
Kozlovsky stayed behind in order to care for his older son, 37-year-old Svyatoslav, who had been bedridden since he broke his spine in 1998. “I could not take my son out during the heat of hostilities and was waiting for such an opportunity,” he told University World News. Kozlovsky’s wife Valentina, a senior researcher at an art museum, had relocated to Kyiv with their younger son and his wife.
Kozlovsky, who between 1980 and 2001 headed the department of religious affairs of the Donetsk Region, did not, however, remain silent about the war that split his homeland.
A member of the (Protestant) Church of Christ, a loose coalition of churches that adheres to the sola scriptura (only scripture) doctrine that views the Bible as both inspired and inerrant, Kozlovsky spoke out against the war that had divided the Donbas, even as the cost of bearing witness became more and more obvious as the separatists cracked down on the Churches of Christ. Several meeting houses were seized, one turned into a barracks; one Sunday morning the DPR militia broke up a service and evicted the parishioners from their meeting house in Donetsk City.
“The separatists believe that the one true church is the Russian Orthodox Church. There is no room for difference of opinion, no freedom of thought or expression,” says Kozlovsky. “They see Western missionaries as tools for Western propaganda. They think our churches are full of spies.”
On 27 January 2016, as Kozlovsky was taking out garbage, he was arrested by FSB agents. At the same time, agents entered his first-floor apartment, searched and robbed it, with Svyatoslav looking on helplessly. As the FSB agents pushed him into their car, Kozlovsky’s mind was filled with worry about his son, who “needed care, food and medicine”. Valentina was informed of Kozlovsky’s arrest by one of his students and quickly travelled from Kyiv to care for Svyatoslav.
The car carrying Kozlovsky stopped at the “so-called Ministry of State Security of the Donetsk People’s Republic”, where FSB agents hustled him into the basement, which, but for the men lying on concrete and on the remains of furniture, “is a typical industrial basement”, says Kozlovsky.
He stayed in the basement for more than a month. On a good day, food was brought to the men once. Twice a day, they were led to the toilet – and given two minutes each to relieve themselves.
For the next six months the professor, who had written on such topics as yoga and meditation, the theological principles of the (Protestant) Restoration movement in the first half of the 19th Century in the United States, the Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria (Egypt) and Muslim healers (Hakims) of India, was moved to a regular prison.
There, Kozlovsky, whose efforts at peacemaking earned him both the medal of the Albert Schweitzer Society of Austria and the (Portuguese) Knight Order of the Royal Brotherhood of St Feotonia, was held in solitary confinement for six months before being moved to what he called a “concentration camp”.
Kozlovsky’s torture and imprisonment
As was every other prisoner, Kozlovsky was tortured while being held in the basement of the erstwhile DPR government. His captors sought more than just a confession to espionage, extremism and terrorism. Because of his international notoriety, they manufactured evidence against him using two hand grenades that they said were found behind his bookcases.
“In order to give it [my imprisonment] the appearance of ‘legality’, because there was already an international reaction to my arrest, they put two hand grenades in my hands in order to have fingerprints on them.”
The pain of separation from his family, which he was not allowed to contact, was lessened for fleeting moments when other prisoners risked further punishment by using their cell phones to call his family members. “Then it was possible to hear the voices of relatives. I was saved by their love and the fact that I was indebted to this love. And that debt must be repaid,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Kozlovsky kept his body in shape by practising yoga, and his sanity by drawing on his decades of religious scholarship. “I meditated a lot in captivity on sacred texts. It really is trauma therapy.”
As the international outcry over his detention grew to include then German chancellor Angela Merkel and Amnesty International, which named him a prisoner of conscience, inside the walls of Russian prisons, Kozlovsky drew on his decades of ecumenical work with Orthodox, Catholic, Greek-Catholic, Protestant, Muslim and Jewish communities and provided spiritual solace to his fellow prisoners and gave what he calls “lectures in captivity”.
Speaking aloud the words of faith was so important, he wrote in his e-mail, that he continued doing so even when isolated from other prisoners.
“I gave [spiritual] lectures in captivity. Even to rats in solitary confinement.”
On 27 December 2017, Kozlovsky was included in a prisoner exchange. His freedom, he told University World News, was owed to international pressure, which culminated with Miloš Zeman, the president of the Czech Republic, going to Moscow where he convinced President Vladimir Putin to release the religious studies professor.
Dmytro Shtyblikov, Oleksiy Bessarabov and Volodymyr Dudka
On 9 November 2016, coincidentally Shtyblikov’s 46th birthday, he and Bessarabov were each abducted in broad daylight by FSB agents.
Shtyblikov was director of international study programmes at the Sevastopol-based Nomos Center for assistance to the geopolitical problems and Euroatlantic cooperation of the Black Sea Region and published in the Black Sea Security Magazine, until both were shuttered by the Russians following their annexation of Crimea; Bessarabov was an analyst for the same organisation.
On the same day, their friend, Volodymyr Dudka, who, like them, had been in the Ukrainian navy but had, unlike them, remained in it until his retirement, was also abducted and spirited away by Russian agents.
The FSB searched each man’s home.
The following day, Russian media touted the FSB’s success in neutralising a group of Ukrainian spies who were readying terrorist attacks on Sevastopol’s civilian infrastructure and the naval base, Russia’s only true warm water port.
The day after the abductions, wrote Coynash in an article published on the fifth anniversary of their arrest on the KHPG’s website, the FSB reported it had removed “very powerful explosives, weapons, ammunition, special communications devices and other significant evidence of criminal activities, including plans of the sites for the intended acts of sabotage”.
According to the Ukraine-based (online) Virtual Museum of Russian Aggression (VMRA), the ‘guns’ were Airsoft or BB guns. Russian television also showed a Right Sector (far-right Ukrainian nationalist organisation) business card that they claimed implicated the men; the card was the same as one presented two years earlier that provoked a flurry of internet memes, wrote Coynash in an article posted on the KHPG’s website in 2016.
Published the same day, Shtyblikov’s lawyer’s blog entry reads like a page out of Franz Kafka’s absurdist novel The Trial.
“We spent all day in futile efforts to locate the detained Dmytro Shtyblikov … Allegedly, he and his friends are in the detention centre at the FSB station in Simferopol; no trace of him in the FSB station in Sevastopol or the temporary detention centre in the town of Bakhchysarai. The security officers painstakingly check my documents, scribble in notebooks, and drown us in official mumbo jumbo, hiding behind the veil of bureaucracy any information about the case, the detainees and the investigators, thoroughly keeping the lawyers off the case.”
Within days, Russian television was broadcasting each man’s confession; since both Bessarabov and Dudka later recanted their confessions, saying they were obtained under torture, there is no reason to think, says Coynash, that Shtyblikov’s confession was obtained any differently.
The ‘confession’ of Dudka
In a document obtained by VMRA, Dudka tells how he was tortured in a minivan.
“[T]he van pulled over and stopped, the officers tightened the blindfold on my eyes, wound duct tape around my head and attached something to the index fingers … After that, I felt charges of electricity, causing me severe physical pain, suffering, fear, anxiety.”
As his heart started beating erratically, Dudka began to suffocate. He started to scream and he felt his hands twitching; they were then bound with duct tape. Over the next hour, as Dudka screamed in pain and the electrical charges grew stronger, the FSB threatened to kill him, his family and friends if he did not confess. To stop his screams, they gagged the man gasping for breath.
“They promised to end the torture if I gave testimony to the investigator. I was also told that if the investigator did not like the testimony, they would take me back and all this would happen again,” said Dudka.
The ‘testimony’ he agreed to recite before a television camera was given to him by an FSB officer after he was returned to FSB headquarters in Sevastopol.
The conviction and sentence of Dmytro Shtyblikov
In a secret trial held without proper legal representation, Shtyblikov, who had been tortured, did not dispute the charge against him and was found guilty. On 16 November 2017, he was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and fined RUB200,000 (US$2,950).
In their trials, where they did have legal representation, one of Bessarabov’s and Dudka’s lawyers referred to the FSB’s evidence as “worse than the shoddiest detective novel”.
The map that the accused supposedly used to plan their attacks did have their DNA on it – but only on its edges. This made no sense, “if this were . . . really the map that the men were using” to plan terrorist attacks, Coynash wrote in an article published on the KHPG website two-and-a-half years after their conviction in November 2017. The Southern Military District court in Rostov, Russia, ignored such arguments and found both men guilty and sentenced them to 14 years’ imprisonment as well as issuing them large fines.
Shtyblikov’s five-year sentence ended in November 2021. However, he was not released because in December 2020 he stood trial for “state treason” (along with friend Oleksandr Obloha, another former military man). According to Russian media, though a Ukrainian, Shtyblikov could be charged with treason because he had applied for and received a Russian passport when Putin annexed Crimea in 2014.
Although represented by a famous lawyer, Dmitry Dinze, who has represented a number of other Ukrainian political prisoners, Shtyblikov was again convicted. This time, he was sentenced to prison for 14.5 years – meaning that his total sentence since November 2016 is 19.5 years.
The Russian propaganda machine
As the date for Shtyblikov’s expected release from his five-year term neared last November, two Moscow-based newspapers returned to the story. The longest article was published on 22 November 2022 by Lenta.ru. It rehearsed Shtyblikov’s arrest and showed pictures taken from the FSB’s surveillance footage of him walking along a concrete fence “looking around nervously” and even of the FSB pushing him face-down on the hood of the car; the article also repeated the charge that he “personally selected objects for sabotage”.
The author of the article avoids hyperbole and, instead, uses Shtyblikov’s family history against the man the readers already know has twice been convicted, once for treason against Russia. After noting that Shtyblikov was from a military family, the author pushes the buttons prepared by Putin’s propaganda machine that have placed Russia’s victory over the Nazis in the Great Patriotic War at the centre of Russian identity.
In contrast to Shtyblikov, his grandfather and great-grandfather fought for Russia and were awarded medals. The article singles out the elder Shtyblikov, who served in military intelligence and in several major battles, including the iconic Battle of Stalingrad.
Lenta.ru claims that Shtyblikov’s treason went beyond passing information to Kyiv. He was the “head of the operational department of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of [Ukrainian] Defence in Crimea”. In particular, he reported “in detail on the goals and stages of the exercises that the Russian military conducted in Crimea” and that for “recruitment and bribery, large sums of money were handed over to him in cash”.
The KHPG dismisses these claims, with Coynash describing them as “evidently absurd, and on a par with the other grandiose claims (he and other Ukrainians [were] tortured into ‘confessing’)” back in 2014.
To keep Shtyblikov, Bessarabov and Dudka from becoming mere statistics, names on a list of people held by the Russians, Coynash ends each of her articles with a plea for her readers to write to them: “Even just a few words will tell them and Russia that they are not forgotten.”
The plight of art researcher Dr Olena Piekh
For Isabella Piekh, the tension had been building for several days. Her mother Dr Olena Piekh had left Odesa, where the two had moved shortly after the establishment of the DPR in 2014, to check on Piekh’s mother who lived in their ancestral village of Horlivka, where Piekh, before Russian-backed militants established the DPR, was a senior researcher at the scientific and educational department of the Horlivka Art Museum (which houses the largest collection of the Russian symbolist painter Nicholas Roerich’s canvases).
Following Piekh’s mother’s stroke, Piekh regularly returned to Horlivka to take her mother to the nearby city of Debal’tseve for medical treatment. For several days Piekh didn’t answer Isabella’s calls, nor did social media platforms Viber and WhatsApp show that she had even signed on. On 9 August, Isabella received a call from an unknown number. She didn’t recognise the name of the man who said her mother was a prisoner.
“I asked him why she was arrested. And he said that he couldn’t say because he was afraid of getting into trouble. He said that she [Piekh] had asked him to ask her [Isabella] for help,” the 31-year-old told me from the safety of a NATO country.
At first Isabella thought it was a joke. “What did he mean?” she recalls wondering. “My mom’s never been involved in something that could get her in trouble like that. Maybe somebody’s trying to take advantage of me.”
She received three more anonymous calls, each asking for US$30,000, US$60,000 and US$100,000, respectively, to free her. Isabella, a university-trained philologist, recognised that some messages that purported to come from her mother were fake. One said, “Bella, Bilochko dear, please forgive me. Help me. Every is bad here.”
“Based on the construction of the sentences, I understood that my mother would not write like that. In difficult situations, she would send a short, maximally meaningful text.”
For three months, Isabella waited, increasingly anxiously. She was unable to ask for help from her family in the LPR from whom she and her mother were estranged. Finally, from a number of sources, she pieced together that the anonymous caller was correct: her mother, accused of “treason against the motherland [Russia]”, had been arrested by the FSB.
On 9 August 2018, armed men had entered the apartment in which Piekh was staying in Horlivka, ransacked it, looked at her documents and said that she had “big problems”. Like Kozlovsky, Shtyblikov and the other professors, a bag was put over her head before she was pushed into a car.
“They really like such showy things – leading [people] with a bag over their head, accompanied by machine guns,” says Isabella.
Over the three months that Isabella searched for news about and the whereabouts of her mother, in an effort to get her to confess to high treason, Piekh was denied medication for her epilepsy and was regularly beaten. At one point, the FSB agents attached screws to her legs and tightened them to the point that her legs and one hip were so damaged she could barely walk.
“Mom had an X-ray of her legs and that was the end of it [medical care] – no injections, no painkillers, nothing at all,” Isabella says.
She was repeatedly tortured with electric shocks and even had a plastic bag put over her head. She endured two mock executions. The night before she and another prisoner were set to face a firing squad, they spent the hours talking to each other through a tiny hole in the wall separating their cells.
His single experience of a mock execution was, the novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, one of the signal events in his life.
Piekh suffered one form of torture not experienced by many other prisoners: her captors yelled ‘Zhid’ at her – Zhid being the Russian slur for a Jew. Once when this happened, the guard reached over and ripped off her necklace from which hung her Star of David, saying that “their long arms reached even to Odesa” – a not-very-subtle threat against Isabella.
Piekh’s suicide attempt
Piekh was tortured so badly, including being raped, that, Isabella told me with her voice breaking, Piekh slit her wrists in a suicide attempt.
“Mom asked for a bowl of water. I don’t know what she told them there, but she found something to cut with,” wrote Isabella in an aide-memoire. Sitting in my office in Ottawa, Canada as I read it, I could hear her anguished tone, the starts and stops of her voice and her apologies for not being able to tell her mother’s story without her emotions showing: “She didn’t even cut but tore her hands to bleed faster. What did it take to convince a person to do that?”
“The ambulance arrived, but it was not allowed to enter the territory of the military unit. Mom’s hands were tightly wrapped with rags. She could [have] died. How many cases were tortured to death?” wrote Isabella.
Through 2019, Isabella frantically searched for ways to help her mother, including contacting the Ukrainian government and members of the European parliament and speaking to journalists to publicise Piekh’s case. In March 2020, with a confession in the prosecution’s hand, Piekh stood trial and was convicted of treason.
Isabella rails at the injustice. At the trial, which was held by video link, Piekh’s Ukrainian documents and her love for her country, evidenced by the writings that include articles such as “Life and Work of Semen Lazeba”, a famous Ukrainian engraver, were held against her. (Piekh’s essays which had been published by Gorlovka Art Museum have been removed from its website.) When asked, “What country are you a citizen of?”, she answered “Citizen of Ukraine.” After a pause, Isabella said, “My mother was sentenced to 13 years for having a Ukrainian passport!”
Piekh is now in a penal colony in the DPR where, despite her infirmities, she is required to work. Now and again, Piekh is allowed to call Isabella: the guards ensure that they speak in Russian so they cannot pass secret messages back and forth. Still, Isabella can tell that her mother, whom she described as a “tough nut”, is weakening.
“She sounds smart. She’s a clever woman. But her reactions, her emotional reactions worry me. Sometimes she sounds a bit unreal. She sounds so stressed. Something has happened to her mental health.”
When I asked Isabella how she managed to cope, she said in an emotion-filled voice, “It feels like a nightmare that will never end. It’s like always continuing, continuing and it’s always disparate. I don’t know what to do with my dreams. .. I just start to hope in them and my hope is killed by the circumstances. All I know is that my mom should be here”.
Business professor Oleg Moskalenko
Oleg Moskalenko’s not-yet-finished ordeal began on 7 March, 11 days after the Russians invaded and appeared to be sweeping towards Kyiv from the north-east. Three days earlier, an exploding shell that badly damaged a neighbour’s home convinced Moskalenko that it was not safe to stay in their village near a small city that was not yet famous for war crimes: Bucha.
After driving his wife and 20-year-old daughter to safety in Poland, he drove back to his village to retrieve some papers and, more importantly, with the intent of joining the Ukrainian army. Near 3.30 pm, as he drove down a back road towards his village, he saw a Russian roadblock and slowed to a stop. Ten or 12 Russian soldiers pointed their machine guns at him. He was a civilian professor of logistics at the International Institute of Management in Kyiv and part owner of an auto parts distribution company named Exist.ua.
“Py opy!” (Hands up!) yelled the Russian soldier closest to Moskalenko’s car. As he lifted his hands, they asked him what he was doing driving on a back road. Moskalenko told them he was a civilian driving home; they accused him of being a Ukrainian soldier out of uniform, scouting Russian positions. Moments after he got out of the car, they put a bag over his head and the beatings with the butts of their machine guns began.
The Russians tied him to a tree where he was left for two days in -16°C cold, save for the times they took him to a pit and beat him with their machine guns’ butts. They gave him neither food nor water – and wouldn’t for another six days – and provided no way for him to relieve himself.
The Ukrainian flag on his right sleeve was like the one he showed me: it enraged the Russians. “Ah, you are a nationalist. You are Ukrainian,” they said. He replied, “Yes, I’m living in my own country.” Ignoring his identification that showed he was a professor, when he didn’t confess to being a soldier out of uniform, they beat him more.
At one point, a Russian soldier used his army knife to amputate two fingers and the thumb of his right hand and half of both his left forefinger and pinkie. The amputations were not swift. Instead, the Russian used his knife to cut around and around each finger. The pain and shock caused Moskalenko, who is a big, strong man, to lose consciousness.
When I asked if he was given any first aid, Moskalenko looked straight into his computer’s camera with a sardonic smile that bespoke his disdain for the Russians. After a moment or two, he said, “It was cold enough for my blood to congeal.”
The professor, who had spent countless hours teaching about supply chain issues and distribution systems, was brought to a basement where there were other men, all standing in stagnant, stinking water. There, his frost-bitten feet began to show the first signs of gangrene, as they turned black and began to stink. He slipped in and out of consciousness. The only way to stay partially dry was for the prisoners to take turns lying on the stairs. There was no food or potable water.
Two days later, he was moved to another basement. The humidity was so high that its floor was black with mold. At one point the Russians handed the prisoners a food box, one for several men.
On the second day, Moskalenko, reached the point Peikh had when she slit her wrists. Painfully, he climbed the stairs and banged on the door until a Russian came and said to him to either kill him then and there or give him some medicine for his festering wounds.
Two hours later, the Russians took Moskalenko and another man, Pavel, out of the basement, put bags over their heads and drove for a little less than an hour. When the stopped, they ordered Moskalenko and Pavel to go.
“It was late afternoon,” Moskalenko told me, “And I could not walk long distances because of my feet. I told Pavel to go on without me. He refused. And over two hours we walked a short distance. Finally, we saw a house in the forest.” And, equally importantly, in the deserted house they found matches and enough furniture to burn for warmth.
The next morning, Pavel found a windowless, beat-up car that, as is Ukrainian custom, had the keys in the ignition in case someone happened on it and needed help.
“What,” I asked, “did you feel when the engine started?” A grin crossed his broad face and he said with his eyes wide, “Oh, unbelievable.”
Twice, they had to negotiate Russian roadblocks. When the Russians asked what they were doing driving, Pavel pointed back at Moskalenko and said, “He’s more than 50% dead,” and the Russians waved them through.
On Kyiv’s orders, to confuse the Russians, the nation’s road signs had been taken down, so Pavel did not really know where he was headed. After about two hours, however, they came to a Ukrainian checkpoint. The troops there quickly arranged for an ambulance.
On 17 March, Moskalenko was flown to Germany where doctors amputated most of his gangrenous toes and operated on the stubs the Russians had left.
To this day, Moskalenko does not know why he was kidnapped. Perhaps, he says, he was so savagely tortured because he was a professor.
What thoughts in his pain-befogged brain can he recall?
What kept looping through his mind is something similar to what many prisoners of war I’ve interviewed tell me about struggling to keep a certain detachment that cushions them from both physical and psychological agony.
“The idea which I remember about these times is me asking every minute, ‘Why’? ‘What’s going on? A couple of minutes ago I was an absolutely normal guy. A guy who is driving his car down a road. And now some Russian soldiers come and would kill me. ‘Why?’”
As did Isabella, Olga struggled with the decision about whether to go public about Vorovka’s kidnapping.
“It’s kind of a tough decision because we don’t know what is better. If we make noise on Facebook and elsewhere, they might think he’s some kind of very important person and they should interrogate him more intensely. If we don’t make noise, if we don’t try to get organisations (such as the Red Cross) involved, then probably his case will be forgotten.”
For the 10 months after the Russian invasion began, Olga exchanged short messages with her father about once a week. She would say, “I’m alright”, and he’d reply, It’s tough. It’s tough to be around all these Russian military people.” Olga told me such messages made her think of 2014 when Russian-backed insurgents seized control of the city nearby, the now destroyed city of Mariupol, some 70 miles (112 kilometres) to the east, when “there were military cars going here and there”, and of the general fear that the militias would expand further.
Though proud Ukrainians, Olga’s parents vetoed her desire to set aside her plans to return to Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland for the 2014-15 academic year and remain with them in Ukraine. At the end of the academic year, during which she finished her MA in business communications, the family decided she should remain in Poland. She choked up when she added that the main reason for staying in Poland was, “I might be potentially more helpful for my family.”
It was, tragically, a prescient decision, for, from the safety of Warsaw, she can coordinate efforts to find out about Vorovka, a world-renowned marine biologist.
As were Isabella and Kozlowsky, Olga was forthright when I asked in our Zoom call how she copes from day to day. She told me that following the invasion in February, she saw a psychologist and life coach.
“They helped me put this whole thing together. It’s difficult but nobody said it would be easy. I learned to evaluate the situation from different perspectives, even when it’s getting worse and worse and you are struggling with the whole thing. I have to be appreciative of what I have.”
By way of example, she said, “Every time I’m coming in to work or leaving work, I’m looking up to the sky and thinking that there could be a nuclear attack right now – when there is not. So, you know, it kind of helps.”
A campaign against intellectuals
The kidnapping of professors and their arbitrary detention, torture, trials on trumped-up charges and long prison terms are more than just war crimes suffered by individuals.
Together with, as of this writing, the 93 missile, drone and artillery attacks on universities in Kharkiv, Melitopol, Chernivtsi, Kyiv, Mykolaiv and Mariupol, all of which are war crimes, the abduction of professors amounts to a campaign against Ukrainian intellectuals and civic leaders that recalls the destruction of Ukraine’s teachers, professors and writers by Stalin in the 1930s when some 80% of the nation’s intelligentsia was destroyed.