Doubts About The Evil Of Putin's War? The Torture Chambers Of Melitopol Are A Chilling Reminder
Melitopol, Ukraine has been occupied by Russian forces since Feb. 2022, and the occupiers have set up prisons where residents are routinely tortured. Russian independent news site Vazhnyye Istorii/Important Stories spoke with people who have escaped these nightmarish prisons.
In Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia region, the city of Melitopol has been under Russian occupation since the beginning of the full-scale invasion in 2022.
The city has transformed into a hub of partisan resistance, while also becoming the largest prison in Europe. Russians have kidnapped and subjected hundreds of local residents to torture. These are the stories of some of the residents who have survived.
On Feb. 25, 2022, Russian military forces entered Melitopol, Ukraine. Initially, residents resisted the Russian invaders, demanding that they vacate their land. As one resident, Maxim Ivanov, a 29-year-old landscape designer from Melitopol, recalled, "The first week [the Russian military] reacted with restraint. They didn’t fight. When people asked: 'Why are you here? Get out of here!' they lowered their heads and looked away in shame. But then they began to bear their fangs, they brought in the special services, opened commandants’ offices and torture chambers. And then they started taking people away."
Russian occupation of Melitopol
Maxim and his girlfriend Tatyana Bekh were among the first to be kidnapped in early April 2022.
"We left the house,” he said. “I had a [Ukrainian] flag with me. An armored personnel carrier was driving nearby, I took out the flag, waved it and shouted: 'Get off our land.' They stopped and about 10 people surrounded me, threw the flag to the ground, and forced me to the ground. They said: 'Now we’ll take you to be re-educated.'"
When I said that I wouldn’t shout this crap, they started beating me with rubber batons.
They were held overnight at the local commandant's office, where other detainees were also held for pro-Ukrainian sentiments or violating curfew.
"[The Russian military] said: 'Did you shout 'Glory to Ukraine'? Now shout: 'Glory to Russia.'” Maxim recounted. “When I said that I wouldn’t shout this crap, they started beating me with rubber batons." Two days later, they were pressured to sign a document stating they supported Russian leadership and were eventually released.
In March, such abductions became widespread, prompting the launch of the Ukrainian hotline "Vikradeni Melitopoltsi" (Kidnapped Melitopol Residents). This hotline provided guidance to people reporting the abduction of their relatives, offering advice on what to do next and connecting them with psychologists for support.
Natalya, a call center employee, said that initially the Russians targeted individuals from local government bodies. As the occupation continued, school directors and teachers who resisted teaching according to Russian programs were also kidnapped. “They took away veterans who had fought in 2014,” she said, “And a lot of businessmen were kidnapped for ransom."
Since the start of the full-scale war, hotline workers have documented 311 abductions, with 107 people still in captivity, and 56 individuals whose whereabouts remain unknown. The Vikradeni Melitopoltsi hotline estimates that the actual number of abductees may be three to four times higher.
Russian security forces, especially during the initial year of occupation, tried to compel residents of Melitopol to cooperate with the occupation authorities through kidnappings and abuse.
Sergei, a businessman in Melitopol who worked on equipment repair, refused to collaborate with Russia from the outset. He was persistently pressured to change his stance.
"I refused to work with Russia from the first day,” he said. “They told me that I could be useful to them, but I refused. I wanted to sit quietly until my release, but they didn’t let me."
In Sept. 2022, Sergei was abducted and taken to what had once been a school. According to him, Russian Guard personnel occupied the first and second floors, while torture chambers were set up in the basements, warehouses and gym.
"There was a room with chains inside,” he said. "Next to it there was a small gym in which they kept people. They sat on the floor in the corners with bags over their heads."
Sergei endured several hours of beatings, during which he was subjected to false claims propagated on Russian television. He resisted these claims, insisting that there were no Nazis in Melitopol, where he had lived his entire life. For each "incorrect" response, he faced further punishment and threats against his family's safety.
An individual identifying himself as an "FSB colonel" later arrived and issued an ultimatum: either Sergei accepted a job within the new administration or left the "liberated territories" within two days. To seal this arrangement, the "FSB colonel" demanded $6,000. Sergei complied and handed over the money, and within days, he and his family left the city.
Melitopol's police HQ, where Maxim Ivanov says he was tortured for two months.
On the morning of Aug. 22, landscape designer Maxim Ivanov and Tatyana Bekh ventured out into the streets to distribute leaflets in support of Ukraine's Independence Day (Aug. 24). Their efforts were cut short when they were apprehended by what Maxim described as a "squad of so-called policemen."
The police found the leaflets and other incriminating messages on Maxim's phone, leading to their second detention at the police department on Chernyshevsky Street. Tatyana believed that someone from the local community had reported them, stating, "There are people who will turn you in. If they call the Russian police and report you, they can earn money."
Occupation authorities in some areas launched Telegram bots, encouraging people to report information about "saboteurs." Those whose reports resulted in detainment were promised a reward of 500,000 rubles ($5,000).
Maxim admitted to sharing coordinates of Russian equipment movements via a Ukrainian chatbot on Telegram. He understood the risks but felt compelled to resist the Russian occupiers in some way. He recounted his ordeal, explaining that during his initial interrogation, he was beaten at the police station and ended up with multiple broken ribs. The following day, he endured further severe beatings.
He described one particularly gruesome incident: "A bag over my head, they took me out. They threw me down and started beating me with metal poles and wooden sticks. I felt it all in my ribs, in my back. Then they put a metal bucket on my head and started hitting it hard with something. I began to lose consciousness.”
The beatings persisted over several days, with Maxim and fellow detainees eventually being allowed to shower, which came as a welcome relief.
Kidnappings are common in Melitopol
Another resident, Alexey, who had been living in a village near Melitopol, was also captured.
He faced extreme physical violence and threats, including an attempt to break his finger with pliers.
"I had been driving home, and the Russian military stopped me. They asked my name, I answered, and they immediately pulled me out of the car and laid me on the ground."
By this point in Nov. 2022, abductions had become so commonplace that Alexey was not entirely surprised. He believed that a fellow villager may have tipped off the authorities about his pro-Ukrainian sentiments, though he had not openly expressed them. Following his arrest, he was taken to an apartment where a search was already underway. Despite not being a Ukrainian partisan, they accused him of having ties to the underground resistance.
During his 36 days in captivity, Alexey endured three interrogations. He was asked the same questions over and over about other pro-Ukrainians, weapon locations, and his Telegram messages. He faced extreme physical violence and threats, including an attempt to break his finger with pliers.
He managed to secure his release after his friends and relatives, who lived outside the occupied territory, drew attention to his disappearance. Negotiations led to his eventual release, albeit at a high financial cost.
In their quest to apprehend spies and partisans, the Russian military resorted to abducting individuals who had no connection to the resistance movement.
One such individual was 23-year-old Leonid Popov, who had initially come to Melitopol from the Poltava region to celebrate the New Year in 2022 with his father. As the occupation unfolded, Leonid began documenting his observations in a diary, sharing some of the grim details with his mother, Anna.
His entries chronicled the constant gunfire, people's descent into madness and the looting of grocery stores. He even witnessed a man shot dead on the streets. Despite Anna's persistent pleas for him to evacuate, Leonid insisted on staying, believing he was needed in the city. He used the money his mother sent him to aid needy Melitopol residents and refugees from Mariupol.
They tied me to the wall, laughed at me, threw knives, and tortured me with electric shock,
In May 2022, Leonid was abducted for the first time. He was forced into a vehicle and taken to the commandant's office, where he endured a horrific ordeal of interrogation and torture over three days.
"Drunk men working for Kadyrov tied me to the wall, laughed at me, threw knives, and tortured me with electric shock," he said.
In Melitopol, Zaporizhzhia Oblast
In another incident, Leonid's younger brother, Yaroslav, was among several Melitopol residents who fell victim to mass kidnappings when mobile communications became unavailable in the city in May 2022.
Yaroslav and others were detained for venturing out after curfew, and they were all crowded into a cramped cell. They shared the cell with a man whose incessant screaming provoked threats from the military. The man ultimately died from the abuse.
He had gone without food for days and was given minimal water.
Following his initial kidnapping and torture, Leonid chose to remain in Melitopol for an entire year. Only in April 2023 did he agree to leave the city with volunteers, but two days before his planned departure, he disappeared once more.
Leonid's father reported his disappearance to the police, where he was reassured that his son was likely undergoing a two-week check. However, weeks turned into months, and Leonid was not released. Despite promises from civilian and military police representatives to locate him, Anna only learned of her son's fate from one of his cellmates.
In June, an individual contacted Leonid's father, revealing that Leonid was being held in the commandant's office basement alongside the caller's son. Leonid was in a dire condition, severely malnourished, and suffering from harsh treatment. He had gone without food for days and was given minimal water. Anna was deeply concerned for her son, as he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 17, and stress could have a severe toll on his mental health.
Leonid's health deteriorated significantly during his captivity. Three months after his abduction, he was brought to the gastroenterology department weighing just 40 kilograms.
After Maxim and Tatyana endured electric torture, Tatyana was released, but Maxim continued to be subjected to beatings for another month. Maxim's condition deteriorated to a critical state. "I couldn’t walk anymore,” he said. “I was literally crawling on all fours and was leaving streaks of blood everywhere I went."
In late Oct. 2022, Maxim was deported to Ukrainian-controlled territory. When he reached the Ukrainian checkpoint and saw the Ukrainian flag, he felt an overwhelming sense of relief..
Both Tatyana and Maxim now reside in Zaporizhzhia. Tatyana found employment at a factory, while Maxim, still grappling with the physical and psychological aftermath of torture, is unable to work. He experiences excruciating pain from his ribs and toes, which have not yet fully healed.
Alexey, who was released a month after his brothers paid a ransom on his behalf, described his emotions upon regaining his freedom. “I was overwhelmed,” he said. At the same time, he felt “disgusted by friends who had collaborated with the occupation authorities. I no longer wish to see them.”
Anna Makhno, Leonid's mother, remains in the dark about her son's whereabouts. Five months have passed since his abduction, but she still has not received any news.These harrowing accounts underscore the grim reality faced by individuals caught in the conflict in Melitopol, where torture and abuse are key tools for Russian occupiers to assert their authority.
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