The Pit and the Pendulum

A Russian medic sent to a ‘punishment battalion’ for treating Ukrainian POWs shares his story

The Pit and the Pendulum

Illustration: Novaya Gazeta Europe

A Russian combat medic who deserted the army after being sent to apunishment pit for providing medical care to Ukrainian prisoners of war shares his testimony of war crimes he witnessed on and off the battlefield.

In early March, Ukrainian paramilitary units entered the Russian border regions of Belgorod and Kursk, engaging in fierce fighting with the Russian soldiers stationed there. One of the villages that saw the heaviest fighting was Kozinka, located just a short distance from the border with Ukraine.

One of the few to survive the battle was Ivan, a 25-year-old Russian soldier from St. Petersburg who is better known to his comrades by his call sign Stalker. Despite only serving for six months at the front before deserting, as a combat medic regularly sent into battle, Ivan claims to have witnessed numerous war crimes committed by his own commanding officers — from keeping soldiers in “punishment pits” to executing prisoners of war.

‘They tricked us’

Ivan was shocked when he first heard about the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. By his own account, he harboured no ill will towards Ukrainians and had always sought their friendship, particularly appreciating what he called “their love of freedom”.

In late 2023, a member of Ivan’s family suffered a medical emergency. Unable to pay for the necessary medical procedure and rejected by the bank when he applied for a loan, Ivan came across an advertisement for military enlistment that promised a signing bonus of 1 million rubles (about €10,000) to all volunteers. After weighing up his options, Ivan opted to join the army, seeing the bonus as a lifeline for his family’s finances.

Advertisement for military service, St. Petersburg, 6 April 2024. Photo: Anatoly Maltsev / EPA-EFE

Advertisement for military service, St. Petersburg, 6 April 2024. Photo: Anatoly Maltsev / EPA-EFE

“Standing there were a bunch of equally stupid people who fell for all this. At the recruitment office they tricked us just like everyone else,” Ivan says.

As he had the necessary medical qualifications and wanted to save lives, Ivan applied to be a paramedic. He was assigned to an evacuation group within the 41st Motorised Rifle Regiment and tasked with evacuating wounded soldiers from the battlefield. He was given the call sign “Stalker”.

Most of the other volunteers Ivan met had also enlisted due to financial hardship. Many complained, however, that they hadn’t received anything like the promised “golden handshake” they had been promised within the agreed timeframe. But filing an official complaint wasn’t an option for any of the servicemen, as it was widely known that doing so would result in being transferred to a Storm-Z unit, a “punishment battalion” made up of convicts that was given only the deadliest combat missions.

According to Ivan, some of the soldiers he met only realised after deployment that their contracts would run indefinitely until the war was over.

Most of the other volunteers Ivan met had also enlisted due to financial hardship.

“Some of them even committed suicide as they weren’t prepared for anything like this. Especially when they first saw the war, what it was like. I wasn’t just a witness. I was the one who cut the soldiers down from the rope they were hanging from,” Ivan says.

‘I saved both Russians and Ukrainians’

Following his initial combat training, Ivan was deployed to Markivka in eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk region. One of his first combat missions took him close to Ukraine’s second city Kharkiv, where he sustained his first shrapnel wound while evacuating injured soldiers from the battlefield. Despite this, his commanding officer refused to send him to a military hospital — to avoid having to pay him compensation for his injury, Ivan assumes.

Despite strict orders from his superiors not to rescue wounded enemy soldiers, Ivan says that he attempted to help 19 soldiers in total, both Russians and Ukrainians. He says that only 15 ultimately survived, with four of them succumbing to their injuries. He said that in some cases terrified Ukrainian soldiers had torn the epaulettes off their uniforms, fearing capture or even execution due to their rank.

“They reprimanded me for saving both Russians and Ukrainians,” Ivan recalls, adding that his commanding officer had been displeased as only healthy Ukrainians could be exchanged for Russian prisoners, while Ivan was saving those who had serious injuries.

According to Ivan, every Ukrainian that he rescued ended up being taken prisoner and was sent to an area far back from the frontline.

Traitor to the motherland

After a few days Ivan was sent back to Markivka. This time, he was permitted to treat Ukrainian POWs as they were being prepped for an exchange. Ivan recalls that while he tried to treat the soldiers as best as he could, it was often a hopeless endeavour due to the terrible conditions in which they were being held.

A military recruitment office, 5 October 2023. Photo: Alexey Sukhorukov / Sputnik / Imago / Scanpix

A military recruitment office, 5 October 2023. Photo: Alexey Sukhorukov / Sputnik / Imago / Scanpix

The prisoners were held in “punishment pits”, unfinished trenches where rubbish was dumped, Ivan recalls. “Many of the prisoners had open wounds, and they were standing up to their knees, or even up to their waist, in dirty water. Their wounds are festering from constant moisture and dirt. In such cases only amputation in a normal hospital would be able to help,” Ivan says.

While he treated prisoners, Ivan said he would also share his rations and cigarettes with them, as well as giving them antibiotics, in some cases even befriending them.

But his compassionate actions didn’t go unnoticed by his comrades and were soon reported to Ivan’s commanding officers. Dubbed a “traitor to the motherland” for sympathising with the enemy, Ivan was placed into a similar pit to the one where the Ukrainian prisoners were held.

When Ivan was released five days later, he saw that the pit where the Ukrainian soldiers had been held had been completely buried. He claims that the prisoners were executed, alleging that the leadership feared the Ukrainian side wouldn’t accept seriously injured prisoners in exchange, so they decided to eliminate them to make room for new prisoners. Novaya Gazeta Europe was unable to independently verify this claim.

After Ivan found out about what had happened, he reacted with violence. “I was already a bit on edge after the pit,” Ivan recalls. The details of the encounter are murky, but Ivan says he got into a physical altercation with a military policeman standing near the dugout, injuring him severely.

As punishment, Ivan was sent to the Belgorod region and forced to join a so-called Storm-Z detachment, units made up of soldiers who had been caught drinking, prison inmates granted early release and insubordinate soldiers, and who are often used for the most dangerous and lethal assaults undertaken by the Russian military.

No regard for human life

During an advance by Ukrainian forces in the Belgorod region, Ivan and his comrades were sent to the village of Kozinka. His mission was once again to evacuate the wounded.

Ivan claims that the soldiers were sent to Kozinka knowing they would die. With the village under heavy shelling, many soldiers wanted to leave but felt trapped, fearing severe punishment if they attempted to desert.

During the operation, the Russian command gave the order to strike the entire village, without paying any mind to civilian lives, Ivan says, adding he got badly injured fighting to get people evacuated.

“They didn’t want to evacuate civilians. Why? Because if there was an evacuation then the people in Belgorod would start to panic,” Ivan says, adding that he and only one other soldier managed to survive the battle.

Russian servicemen in Ukraine, 3 November 2023. Photo: Valery Melnikov / Kommersant / Sipa USA / Vida Press

Russian servicemen in Ukraine, 3 November 2023. Photo: Valery Melnikov / Kommersant / Sipa USA / Vida Press

Man of honour

Ivan threatened to go public about the shelling of Kozinka, only for his commanding officers to respond by sending him on another combat mission to the village of Ohirtseve near Kharkiv.

One of the men in his unit, “an honourable man” according to Ivan, was transferred to a Storm-Z unit alongside Ivan for “expressing sympathy for Ukraine”. Their commander, whose call sign is in Novaya Gazeta Europe’s possession, was ordered to fire on civilian areas, Ivan recalled.

“He understood that if he violated the order he would be sent to prison. He could either obey the order or not. He chose the third option and killed himself.”

As the unit rapidly descended into chaos following its commander’s suicide, Ivan saw his chance to escape. He managed to get in touch with Get Lost, an underground NGO that assists Russian soldiers to desert, and was able to leave Russia with their help.

Ivan’s sick relative ultimately got their much-needed treatment, thanks to one of Ivan’s former comrades, who helped pay for the surgery after receiving compensation for an injury he sustained.

Ivan is in touch with his father, who is a priest. Ivan himself finished Sunday school and even tried to enter a seminary in St. Petersburg before the war, but got rejected. Now, he is revisiting his religious roots.

One of the men in his unit, “an honourable man” according to Ivan, was transferred to a Storm-Z unit alongside Ivan for “expressing sympathy for Ukraine”.

“My father told me: let your escape become a pilgrimage,” Ivan says. He is now saving up money to travel to France and seek asylum there.

Ivan is now applying for refugee status in France and hopes one day to become a Catholic priest there. His idea is no pipe dream: in 2023, the French authorities officially allowed Russians fleeing mobilisation, as well as deserters, to be granted asylum.

“I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. But it’s like the Bible says: don’t worry about what you will wear. And I’ve noticed that if I stop thinking about it, if I don’t try to fixate on it, there are always kind people who can help me.”

To corroborate Ivan’s story, Novaya Gazeta Europe obtained photos and videos, copies of his military contract, and his military ID. However, independently verifying every aspect of his testimony is simply not possible. Ivan’s name has been changed in the interest of his safety. We would like to thank the Get Lost project for their assistance in securing this interview.

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