Mother tells of Ukrainian civilian’s torture, starvation and despair at the hands of a cruel enemy
October 30 2023
After months of torture and starvation in Russian captivity, Leonid Popov had just enough time to describe his horrific experiences before he was again seized by President Putin’s forces and driven away to an uncertain fate. “I was in hell,” he told his mother during a short telephone call. “Remember how you used to tell me about hell when I was a child and we went to church? Mum, now I know what hell is.” Popov, who turns 23 on Tuesday, grew up in Melitopol, a city in southern Ukraine. He was diagnosed with a form of schizophrenia when he was a teenager but his condition improved dramatically after being prescribed medication. He moved to central Ukraine with his mother in 2019 but returned to Melitopol to visit his father, Ihor, last year, shortly before Russia launched its full-scale invasion. “He was a wunderkind,” his mother, Anna Makhno, told The Times in Kyiv. “I suspect he was misdiagnosed and is, in fact, autistic. He has a phenomenal memory and can recall precise facts and dates about any event. I call him our Rain Man,” she said, a reference to the 1988 Hollywood film about a reclusive genius, played by Dustin Hoffman, with autism.
Three months after Russian forces had seized Melitopol, Popov was abducted by soldiers as he stood waiting for food at a streetside café. He spent three days in a makeshift prison in the Russian-occupied area, where he was tortured with electric shocks. He was later released but refused to flee Melitopol because his father was in hospital after a traffic accident. “I begged him to evacuate but he said ‘no, this is my city. Why should I leave?’” Makhno said. In April, Popov was taken captive once more, beaten, and thrown into a cell with hardened criminals. They tortured him relentlessly, while Russian soldiers stood by. The prisoners also stole his food. A local who saw Popov in the cell told his mother that her son had spent most of the time lying on the floor, whispering: “I want to eat, I want to eat …” After three months in custody, Popov was admitted to hospital in Melitopol for treatment for emaciation. He is 6ft 5in and before his detention he had weighed about 11 stone. By the time he was taken to a hospital ward, he had lost almost half his pre-war body weight. His ribs stuck out sharply and he walked with difficulty, according to video that was sent to his mother by a fellow patient.
He also appeared to have lost touch with reality, smiling weakly even when he was beaten by a Russian soldier who stood guard over him at the hospital. “His illness got a lot worse during his time in custody,” Makhno said. “He regressed to the developmental level of a ten-year-old. He needs medical and psychiatric help. Instead, they tortured him. He told me they beat him so badly that he couldn’t go to the toilet for four days.”
In August Popov was discharged again — but he never made it home from the hospital. As he was returning with his father, just before they reached their house, Russian soldiers drove up and handcuffed him after first forcing him to put a bag over his own head. He has not been seen or heard from since.
No one knows exactly how many civilians are being held in brutal Russian prisons in occupied areas of eastern and southern Ukraine. Alice Jill Edwards, the special rapporteur on torture for the United Nations, told The Times in September that beatings and sexual abuse of Ukrainian civilians by Russian soldiers was so widespread that it amounted to Kremlin policy.
In October Makhno saw that her son’s Telegram account had suddenly become active. She wrote a message in Ukrainian and then, in Russian, she added: “Maybe it’s not you? Is my son still alive?” A reply flashed up: “No.” After she had sent a flurry of furious messages demanding answers, she received another terse message. “Go f*** yourself,” it read. No further messages were forthcoming. Russia’s defence ministry has not acknowledged that Popov was taken captive by its forces and no charges have been brought against him. A man who identified himself as a Russian military police officer told Makhno that her son was suspected of taking photographs of military vehicles and sending them to the Ukrainian armed forces. He later stopped communicating with her and she has heard nothing since. Makhno said any suggestion that her son was a scout for the Ukrainian military was absurd. Ukraine’s SBU security service told her that it has no information about her son’s whereabouts. While exchanges of soldiers are common between Kyiv and Moscow, there are far fewer cases of civilians being freed.
Makhno’s younger son, Yaroslav, 21, was also held by Russian soldiers after he and a group of other young people were caught trying to get messages to relatives elsewhere in Ukraine. He was thrown into a crowded cell where a fellow detainee had a panic attack and began shouting. Russian soldiers threatened to open fire on the prisoners if they did not silence him. In the chaos, the distressed prisoner was suffocated to death, Yaroslav recounted. He fled Melitopol after his release but was beaten and threatened with execution at a Russian filtration camp before he managed to get away. He is now living in Germany.
Those Ukrainians who have managed to escape from Russian-held territory describe the systematic mistreatment of anyone suspected of harbouring pro-Ukraine views, as well as those who refuse to accept Russian passports.
Natalia, who spent more than a year under occupation in a village in the Kherson region, in southern Ukraine, was assaulted and warned that she would be killed after Russian soldiers discovered that she had been acting as a scout for the Ukrainian army. “They put me up against a wall and kicked me. When when they realised they wouldn’t get any information from me, one of the soldiers took a bullet out of his gun and put it on a table in front on me. ‘Think now,’ he said. ‘This is your life.’” When she refused to speak, they made her sign a suicide note and said that the next time they took her in, they would drive her to a nearby forest and hang her. Soldiers also threatened to torture her four children, aged 15, 13, 12 and 9. “The soldier who interrogated me said his job was to shake up people’s souls,” Natalia said, “It looked like he enjoyed his work. He was smiling all the time.”
After unexpectedly being allowed to go home, Natalia contacted a group of volunteers who evacuate people free of charge from the Kherson region. “They asked me how quickly I needed to get out and I told them: ‘Right now’.” She was also assisted by a Russian woman, Irina, who fled to Europe at the start of the war and now helps Ukrainians get out of occupied territories.
After questioning at a Russian army checkpoint, Natalia, her husband, Oleksandr, and their children were allowed to leave. They undertook a five-day journey through Russia and Belarus before re-entering Ukraine in the north of the country. “I don’t know why they let me go,” she said. “Maybe they didn’t have time to send my name to the checkpoint? If we hadn’t got out, my husband and I would be in prison and our children would be in a Russian orphanage.” Natalia and her children are now living in Odesa and her husband is serving in the Ukrainian army.
Back in Kyiv, Makhno hopes that her son is still alive and that the replies she received were a form of psychological pressure aimed at making her give up her search. “When he got out of the hospital, he said: ‘Promise me, Mum, that I will never go back to that hell.’ I told him, ‘Never, never, I’m coming to get you’,” Makhno said, before breaking down in tears. “I have to stay strong,” she said, “because good will triumph in the end, right?”
Ukraine orders evacuation of children in Kherson
Ukraine has announced the mandatory evacuation of children from frontline towns and villages in the Kherson region as Russia steps up its missile attacks. However, not everyone wants to leave. The region is being shelled relentlessly by Russian forces, who are entrenched on the left side of the Dnipro River. Russia has dropped dozens of powerful aerial-guided bombs in the area in recent weeks. Officials have said that more than 800 children must leave their homes in the worst-affected areas. A similar number have already left.
However, Asya, the mother of a 12-year-old boy, said that she would not abandon her home in the village of Sadove, despite daily shelling. “My son isn’t afraid at all,” she said. “I tell him to stay home but he goes fishing. When he hears heavy shelling, he packs up and comes home. When the police came round, I told them I’m not going anywhere. I’m used to living here. I think the war will end soon, anyway.” Officials say they have organised free accommodation with board in the west of Ukraine, as well as financial support that comes to about £160 a month for a single parent and child. However, many locals are suspicious. “We are trying to persuade people to take their children to safety. There is shelling and drones flying in these villages. But some people are hiding their children,” said Oleksandr Tolokonnikov, a spokesman for the regional administration. “It’s really difficult to understand people who refuse to move their children to safer regions, despite the danger. I guess they justify this to themselves somehow.”
Natalia, a local, said police often refused to let children through checkpoints if they left their villages. “But they try and come back all the same. People just don’t trust the government to look after them.” Many of the children have only been evacuated as far as the region’s largest city, Kherson. Although the city is not on the list of areas subject to mandatory evacuation, it also comes under frequent attack.
On Friday, when The Times visited, the centre of Kherson was struck by one of the most powerful missile attacks for months. Soldiers who were relaxing in a café dived to the floor to take cover as the city’s streets shook with the force of the blast. “That was the loudest yet,” said a waiter. A number of people were injured.
Ukraine has also ordered the evacuation of hundreds of children from the eastern Donetsk region, where Russia is trying to capture the town of Avdiivka, as well as the town of Kupyansk, in the north of the country.
Marc Bennetts has been covering Russia and the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine, for The Times and Sunday Times since 2015. He has reported from all across Russia, from Chechnya to deepest Siberia. He has also reported from Iran and North Korea. Marc is the author of two books: I’m Going to Ruin Their Lives, about Putin’s crackdown on the opposition, and Football Dynamo, about Russian football culture. He is now writing a thriller, set during the polar night in Russia’s far north.