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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Inside Russia’s Revival Of Stalinist “Filtration Camps”

Though different than concentration camps constructed by Nazis, the “filtration” facilities nevertheless are a return to another brutal history, reopened under Putin, and ramped up since the invasion of Ukraine.

​Mariupol residents flee the city on foot with luggage

Civilians leaving Mariupol on foot

Anna Akage

"It was like a true concentration camp."

This is how Oleksandr, a 49-year-old man from Mariupol, described where he and his wife Olena were taken in by Russian security officers. Speakingto a reporter for the BBC, the couple was fingerprinted, photographed and interrogated for hours, and their phones searched for material that could somehow identify them as “Nazis.”

But there is another name given to these locations, and the process, that have been set up to handle Ukrainians taken into custody in areas occupied by pro-Russian separatists: They’re called: “filtration camps.”

Since February 24, more than one million people have passed through these facilities, facing brutal conditions, passports stripped and sometimes tortured, according to Ukrainian authorities.

Michael Carpenter, U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said "at least several thousand" Ukrainians have been abducted and processed in the camps.

Soviet relic

They are called filtration camps because Russian security officers use them to screen civilians, and those who do not pass the filtering process are reportedly taken to Russia or to occupied territories of Donetsk. Witnesses have told Die Welt that they saw people blindfolded and handcuffed, put on buses and driven away.

Like concentration camps constructed by Nazis, and others, the “filtration” facilities recalls a brutal history. First established by Joseph Stalin in the USSR at the end of World War II, filtration camps received all prisoners of war, prisoners of German concentration camps, all men of conscription age who during the war simply lived in the occupied territories or representatives of local authorities were sent to the camps.

Though there were some good-faith efforts to identify individuals in the immediate post-War chaos, the filtration camps would eventually include brutal interrogations, torture, years of imprisonment, and hard labor in the Gulag camps — that's what awaited those who did not prove their loyalty to the Soviet authorities.

Civilians are taken from bombed-out cities with the promise of being evacuated.

Even before the conflict with Ukraine, there have been other revivals of filtration camps in post-Soviet times. In Chechnya, according to Russia-born human rights group Memorial, at least 200,000 people, one-sixth of Chechnya's entire population, passed through the camps, subjected to beatings, torture, and summary executions.

Image of one of the filtration camps near Mariupol

Satellite image of one of the filtration camps near Mariupol

Satellite images/Maxar Technologies

Psychological and physical torture

In Ukraine, the methodology of Soviet filtration camps began as early as 2014 in the Donbas: from the very moment of the occupation, "suspicious" citizens were summoned for interrogations, and there are many known cases where they were held for months and years in captivity, too often dying of torture and disease.

Thanks to the testimonies of people like Oleksandr and Olena who managed to break free, journalists know the details of life in these camps. Civilians are taken from bombed-out cities, after weeks in hiding, with the promise of being evacuated.

They are forced to sleep on the floor in unheated rooms, sometimes in such tight quarters that it is impossible to lie down. There is very little food and water, and no access to medical care. They are regularly tortured psychologically and physically, facing threats of reprisals against their relatives and demands to turn in their friends. Some have their passports confiscated. Families have been separated.

The filtration camps acquired a massive, organized character after the invasion of Ukraine on February 24. The existence of several camps is known in the area of the besieged port city of Mariupol, with satellite images showing that a camp with at least 30 tents was set up within a week, as well as in several cities in Donbas and Crimea.

Filtration camps are also the place from which Ukrainian citizens can voluntarily evacuate into Russian territory — though most times they are forcibly pushed to do so, with no options to evacuate to Ukrainian territories given.

Anna Voevodina, a Mariupol-born lawyer now living in Barcelona, is helping her compatriots who were brought to Russia using a Telegram group called “Deportation to Russia”, which now has around 900 members, Die Welt reports.

Photo of an ex Soviet military camp in Georgia

Ex Soviet military camp now the largest Chechen refugee comunity in Pankisi Gorge.

Thomas W. Morley/ZUMA

Prove your loyalty

Those who have not proven their loyalty to the Russian authorities are at best sent to forced settlements in remote regions of Russia, while those who remain in Ukraine are forced to work on debris removal, collecting corpses, bagging them, and digging graves.

Russia under Putin looks more and more like the Soviet Union under Stalin.

Such work is often the only opportunity for residents of the occupied territories to receive humanitarian aid for themselves and their families. Also, only after successfully passing the filtration camp can Ukrainians receive passes that allow them to move around the city or region, reports Ukraine’s daily Livy Bereg.

Fear is spreading for those “judged to have an allegiance” to Ukraine, said U.S. Ambassador Carpenter referring to reports indicating that people were transferred to Russian-occupied territories in Donbas, and their traces often lost.

Russia under Putin looks more and more like the Soviet Union under Stalin, and one might be horrified, but not necessarily surprised. The manual for persecution and human control was always right on the shelf.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How Vulnerable Are The Russians In Crimea?

Ukraine has stepped up attacks on the occupied Crimean peninsula, and Russia is doing all within its power to deny how vulnerable it has become.

Photograph of the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters with smoke rising above it after a Ukrainian missile strike.

September 22, 2023, Sevastopol, Crimea, Russia: Smoke rises over the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters after a Ukrainian missile strike.

Kyrylo Danylchenko

This article was updated Sept. 26, 2023 at 6:00 p.m.

Russian authorities are making a concerted effort to downplay and even deny the recent missile strikes in Russia-occupied Crimea.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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Media coverage in Russia of these events has been intentionally subdued, with top military spokesperson Igor Konashenkov offering no response to an attack on Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, or the alleged downing last week of Russian Su-24 aircraft by Ukrainian Air Defense.

The response from this and other strikes on the Crimean peninsula and surrounding waters of the Black Sea has alternated between complete silence and propagating falsehoods. One notable example of the latter was the claim that the Russian headquarters building of the Black Sea fleet that was hit Friday was empty and that the multiple explosions were mere routine training exercises.

Ukraine claimed on Monday that the attack killed Admiral Viktor Sokolov, the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. "After the strike on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, 34 officers died, including the commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Another 105 occupiers were wounded. The headquarters building cannot be restored," the Ukrainian special forces said via Telegram.

But Sokolov was seen on state television on Tuesday, just one day after Ukraine claimed he'd been killed. The Russian Defense Ministry released footage of the admiral partaking in a video conference with top admirals and chiefs, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, though there was no verification of the date of the event.

Moscow has been similarly obtuse following other reports of missiles strikes this month on Crimea. Russian authorities have declared that all missiles have been intercepted by a submarine and a structure called "VDK Minsk", which itself was severely damaged following a Ukrainian airstrike on Sept. 13. The Russians likewise dismissed reports of a fire at the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, attributing it to a mundane explosion caused by swamp gas.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has refrained from commenting on the military situation in Crimea and elsewhere, continuing to repeat that everything is “proceeding as planned.”

Why is Crimea such a touchy topic? And why is it proving to be so hard to defend?

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