‘I Just Wanted the Whole Thing to Be Over’

Victoria Obidina’s account of her mistreatment in the Russian prison system is just one of thousands of reports of war crimes in Ukraine.

An illustration featuring a grainy black-and-white image of Victoria Obidina, a Ukrainian paramedic who was held as a POW in Russia
Getty; The Atlantic

Victoria Obidina realized that she was in a Russian prison only when the blindfold was removed from her face. There was paperwork for a DNA test before her. She read “Taganrog,” the name of a Russian town in the Rostov region, immediately east of Ukraine, where Ukrainian prisoners of war are registered before being shuffled around prison colonies across Russia. Two middle-aged male interrogators ordered the 27-year-old Ukrainian paramedic to strip naked, she told me recently, then they took photographs of her from the front and back.

Prison authorities may conduct intimate searches, but Obidina regards her experience not as a legitimate security measure but as coercive sexualized humiliation. If established, that would, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, be a violation of Article 13 of the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war, which orders that prisoners “must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.” But after months of harrowing captivity, Obidina was too exhausted to think about what her rights might be.

The Russian military captured Obidina in the ruins of her hometown of Mariupol on May 5. Together with dozens of other medics and wounded soldiers, she had been hiding from Russian shelling in a bunker at the Azovstal plant, which had become the Ukrainian defenders’ last holdout in the city. Obidina’s detention separated her from her 4-year-old daughter, Alisa, who has since been evacuated to Poland. Mother and daughter would not speak to each other again for six months. By then, Obidina had been moved from prison to prison three times.

When, on October 14, she underwent that ordeal of stripping for photographs, she “did not care much,” she said. Nor did she ask why the prison officials had demanded nail parings and locks of her hair for DNA records. She was exhausted and broken. “I did not care if I was naked before their eyes,” she told me. In fact, she was just days from release, thanks to a prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia. “I felt numb and just wanted the whole thing to be over,” she said. In Taganrog, she said, the guards “made us bend over while walking, like supplicants, when they moved us around that prison … and if we tried to straighten up, they forced us to bend with rubber clubs.”

During her earlier incarceration in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine, she said, she was severely beaten by her interrogators. “I thought they broke all my ribs when they beat me in Donetsk, it was so painful,” she told me. “They questioned me about our military forces, but I have never been a combatant.”

The instances of abuse that Obidina alleges are a few among thousands reported in Ukraine against civilians during the nine months of the war. Even before the prisoner-taking resulting from the conflict, abuses in the Russian Federation’s penal system—such as abduction, torture with electricity, beating, and sexual assault—were well documented, notably by the Memorial Human Rights Center, which, since 1989, has been recording crimes against Russia’s prisoners. The group’s Moscow office was closed down late last year by court order, on the pretext of violating foreign-agent rules and supporting “terrorism”; in October this year, Memorial shared the Nobel Peace Prize for its work. I spoke recently with the organization’s chair, Alexander Cherkasov.

“The special services now use the same violent methods against POWs in Ukraine, ranging from electricity to genitalia to asphyxiation, that we documented during two wars in Chechnya and in Syria,” he told me. Lacking redress through Russia’s own judicial system, Russian Federation citizens had, in 2020 and again in 2021, filed the largest number of complaints—nearly a quarter of all reported violations—received by the European Court of Human Rights from any member nation. Earlier this year, Russia withdrew from the European Convention on Human Rights, ending the court’s jurisdiction in the country.

The sheer scale of Russia’s violence in Ukraine, its destruction of Ukrainian towns and civilian lives, has outstripped that record of alleged violations. According to Ukraine’s Office of the Prosecutor General, more than 39,000 reports of war crimes have been registered since the invasion in February. The Ukrainian government is determined to collect all available evidence of forced immigration, summary executions, torture, rape, and other abuses, but the scale of the task is overwhelming. In practice, much of the work of gathering evidence and witness statements is falling to nongovernmental groups, both local and international.

“Ukraine is becoming a model for the future on how to collect evidence and investigate war crimes during an ongoing war,” Janine Di Giovanni, the executive director of one such group, the Reckoning Project, told me. Her organization consists of about 15 Ukrainian monitors, plus two Syrians with experience collecting information on war crimes; most of them are journalists by training, as is Di Giovanni herself. They aim to respond quickly when areas are liberated from Russian control, to survey and record details of any suspected torture sites. After the city of Kherson was recaptured by Ukrainian forces in November, residents told journalists about one such site, which they said the Russians called simply the “hole.” “It was a sobering-up station in Soviet days, which Russians turned into a torture chamber,” a human-rights monitor named Teriana Popova, who had interviewed locals and filmed inside the site, told me. “It was just 10 minutes by taxi from the center of Kherson.”

Another group, Truth Hounds, uses methods similar to the Reckoning Project’s of deploying human-rights professionals quickly to collect evidence. An additional Nobel Peace Prize winner, the Kyiv-based Center for Civil Liberties, also does significant work documenting suspected war crimes. Di Giovanni’s focus is on ensuring that her monitors receive proper training and are effective in verifying victim statements. “It’s very important that we do it right: Every step is important, from recording a statement to verifying it with sociologists, political scientists, open-source intelligence groups,” Di Giovanni told me. “And once they verify the evidence, we deliver it to prosecutors in Kyiv. We are building cases for the future international trials.”

Human Rights Watch, too, has been reporting on the torture of prisoners of war with electricity in occupied Kherson. “To suppress protests, Russian special forces in occupied Kherson tortured POWs by connecting electric wires to the victims’ fingertips, genitalia, or ear lobes,” the group’s senior researcher in Ukraine, Yulia Gorbunova, told me. “The victims said they were blindfolded for the entire duration of their stay in jail, beaten, then taken to a basement. And the same process repeated after a while, after the victim was ready to say anything just for the torture to stop.

“The accounts I have collected are quite consistent,” she concluded. “There was definitely a pattern.” This was something also noted by Di Giovanni. “We check and compare patterns of war crimes in Bucha, Irpin, Kherson, and Kharkiv region,” she said. “Our team members work on meticulously verifying every little detail; it is an incredible process.”

Moscow has rejected accusations of criminal violence against civilians in Ukraine and prisoners of war, and countered with its own allegations of war crimes. When video footage emerged in November of Russian soldiers allegedly shot at close range by Ukrainian forces, a spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, demanded “that international organizations condemn this egregious crime and conduct a thorough investigation into it.”

International organizations do in fact condemn and, when possible, investigate war crimes—regardless of what country is the accused party. But even nonpartisan, independent groups such as the Red Cross are not generally granted access to Russian-occupied territory. Last month, Germany called upon G7 ministers to make war-crime investigations a top priority. The United Nations has deployed investigators from the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine to 27 Ukrainian sites to gather evidence of suspected violations for possible prosecution according to international law. In September, the Commission confirmed that “war crimes have been committed in Ukraine,” after UN investigators had inspected “sites of destruction, graves, places of detention and torture” in Kyiv, Sumy, Chernihiv, and Kharkiv.

In Russia, the state-owned media propagandists acknowledge the potential legal jeopardy—if only by way of preparing talking points about war-crimes prosecutions as a form of victor’s justice. “We are all going to be guilty … so the existence of the country is at stake, as well as the existence of every citizen of the Russian Federation,” Olga Skabeyeva said recently, hosting the 60 Minutes TV talk show on Rossiya-1. “So to avoid the Hague Tribunal, criminal cases, compensation, reparations, we need to accelerate combat action; we have to push and push so much that they would turn to us for a truce or to establish peace.”

Obidina is still recovering, weeks after her release, in a hospital—initially in the city of Dnipro and now in Truskavets, near Lviv. She is haunted by her months in prison, where the women were so packed in their cells that they had to take turns to lie down to nap. In the stifling summer heat, they helped one another to breathe through tiny holes in shutters on the windows. Because of her physical privations and psychological trauma, Obidina said, she had not had a menstrual period for six months. The doctors aiding her rehabilitation are helping her learn to sleep again.

“I am not ready to stand in court yet,” she told me. “I have given detailed accounts, statements to the Security Service of Ukraine.” She does not know if any criminal case based on her testimony has been opened yet, she said, “but I would like to see everybody who tortured me on trial.”