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SLOVYANSK, Ukraine – On the morning express train to Eastern Ukraine, Pavel Yurov is scared. The last time he was in Slovyansk, on his way home to Kiev, it was meant to be a six-hour layover. It turned into a 70-day nightmare.
Like many young residents of the capital, Yurov, a 34-year-old theater director, was an early supporter of the Maidan Revolution, which favored stronger ties to Europe instead of Russia. And five months back, he was interested in seeing what life was like in his home region, under control of pro-Russian separatists. So he made a stop in the rebel stronghold of Slovyansk.
In July, the Ukrainian government retook the city, after it experienced some of the heaviest fighting of the five-month conflict. And Yurov decided to return earlier this month to see if the propaganda that vilified Kiev and its supporters had left a permanent mark.
“They claim that this is a people’s movement, and I wanted to check if people are really into it,” said Yurov. “Because ... I don’t believe Russian propaganda.”
A bad movie
Walking through Slovyansk's main square, Yurov recalled how downtown was deceptively peaceful the day he was taken captive.
Yurov is an active member of Kiev's vibrant avant-garde cultural scene, as is his friend Denis Grischuk, a volunteer at the "Mystetskyi Arsenal" art center, who was his companion that day. Killing time in Slovyansk, the two friends got into a heated public argument in a cafe with a Russian TV crew about whether Russians were occupiers or protectors. They got up to leave in time to catch their train, when they heard some yelling. Yurov turned around and saw two men.
“One with a gun and another one with a Kalashnikov, and just kind of pointing at us,” Yurov remembered. “‘Just get down on your knees. Stop and get down on your knees!’ And we’re like, ‘OK, we’re getting down.’”
The two friends were taken to Slovyansk’s secret police building – a former KGB site – that was in control of pro-Russian separatists.
“It looks like the place where you can torture people,” Yurov said. “It was awful.”
Guards broke Yurov’s nose, but that was just the start. When the separatists found pictures and videos on his friend's iPad from the Maidan, Kiev's central square and the heart of the political protests earlier this year, they really got mad.
“They were hitting us. They [were] like, ‘Did you scream 'Glory to Ukraine'?’ And we’re like, ‘No,’ and they hit us again,” Yurov said.
But the separatists didn’t stop. At one point, Yurov said one guard put his knife to his ear, another poured gasoline on his head and a third pointed a gun at him.
“I was thinking, ‘You’re going to burn me? You’re going to cut my ear and you’re going to shoot me at the same time?’” he said. “I mean, it was scary, of course, but at the same time, it was like a situation [from] a bad movie.”
During the two weeks Yurov was kept in that basement cell, he was forced into stress positions, repeatedly beaten and given little to eat.
In April, pro-Russian separatists proclaimed areas around Donetsk and Luhansk in Eastern Ukraine as independent “People’s Republics," and the ensuing conflict has left more than 3,000 dead, reports the U.N. – not including the victims of downed Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. Hundreds of thousands fled; an estimated 30 percent of Slovyansk emptied out when the fighting began.
Between late August and early September, pro-Russian armed groups in eastern Ukraine “continued to terrorize the population in areas under their control, pursuing killings, abductions, torture" with "a sharp increase in detentions," according to the latest monthly report from the U.N. Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. In the report's most disturbing detail, the U.N. monitors heard evidence that pro-Russian separatists in the city of Druzhkivka were operating a firing squad. Locals named at least five people who were executed in a nearby forest. (Updated to reflect the most recent U.S. report.)
“They used Stalin-era law like the death penalty, imitating Stalin’s 1941 martial law declaration,” said Evhenya Zakreskaya, a Kiev human rights attorney who now represents Yurov and a dozen other former prisoners. “They used torture.”
In Slovyansk, under separatist rule, even speaking Ukrainian could get you in trouble. Victor Butko, a local publisher, went for a walk with his wife one day when a woman overheard them using the language. According to Butko, she then ran to the separatists’ barricade where she denounced him. His wife warned him not to speak Ukrainian again in the streets.
But that didn't stop Butko from getting in trouble. Someone in the neighborhood later overheard him scoffing at the separatists' claim that they saved people by giving an advance warning of a mortar attack, saying only they could have instigated the bombing. Butko was promptly arrested.
“They stuck machine guns in my back and took me to the ‘Russian Gestapo,’” Butko said. “I was lying there on a concrete floor for two days getting re-educated.”
It was the same basement cell where Yurov was incarcerated for two weeks. Butko managed to get out after two days, thanks to the pleading of his daughter. When Ukrainian forces re-established control of Slovyansk, Butko was there when investigators dug up 14 corpses next to a children's hospital, victims of the separatists who were hastily buried, many from a local Protestant church.
It was real fascism and it came from the Soviet Union. This whole evil comes from there – from that distant past.
Former prisoner of the separatists
“How could it happen that living people, who had dreams and plans, who have family, were just shot?" he said. "It was real fascism and it came from the Soviet Union. This whole evil comes from there – from that distant past.”
Meanwhile, Yurov’s friends in Kiev were mounting a public campaign to set him and Grishchuk free. They enlisted the help of Ukrainian cultural figures and organized a petition, which was signed by artists from Moscow to New York. Yurov said it got the rebels’ attention, and when their bruises healed, the separatists said they were moving them to a hotel. The two men were taken to the main police jail, which was so much better than the basement cell that the friends later jokingly referred to as “Hotel California.”
But even here, Yurov still shared a tiny cell with three other prisoners. Captured Ukrainian soldiers were forced to dig trenches for the separatists on the front lines and report on the advance of the Ukrainian army. They all heard the battle getting closer.
Yurov said he ended up staying in that cell for more than six weeks, pacing the tiny area hundreds of times a day, counting the kilometers he walked by moving matchsticks. It reminded him of a cell in a monastery, he said, showing us how he would read the New Testament by the sunlight streaking through the barred window. And he pointed out the cross he drew on the wall, made up of the same Russian word over and over.
“That’s love, love, love, love, love,” he said. “I’m glad they left it.”
On July 4, the separatists fled in a hurry when the Ukrainian army encircled Slovyansk. They tried to enlist Yurov in their cause, but the prisoner declined. As their captors fled, the two friends freed themselves.
Writing the story
Unlike Slovyansk, Yurov’s hometown of Anthracite is still under rebel control. His mother fled and is staying with her kids in Kiev.
“Everyone who was for Ukraine or who was working escaped,” she said. “It’s not our government there. It’s a foreign power… I don’t want it.”
On this recent trip to Slovyansk, residents now openly supported the Ukrainian government, although it's hard to say whether this reversal is a true change of heart, or just a vote for the victors. Yurov's views, on the other hand, have only hardened as a result of his ordeal. He's currently reshaping what he calls the hypocrisy of the separatists into a play.
Yurov says he's heard many of them push the idea that there’s one huge Slavic nationality, which should inhabit a single Slavic world. He's also heard them insist that they're offering safety from evil, such as “the demon America and gay European Union.” It's all material for his new work.
“Our answer to that is quite simple,” Yurov said. “Do your Russian world in your Russia and that’s it.”
Like many in Kiev, Yurov looks toward the West for inspiration, a connection formed years ago when he was an exchange student in North Carolina. He remembered returning home and wondering why Ukrainians couldn’t live as well as Americans, both materially and in terms of what he considered their more positive community spirit.
“I’m not idealizing the United States. I know there are troubles there,” he said. “But we can try our own way of creating our own democracy – Ukrainian democracy – and that’s basically what this story is about right now.”