Inside Russia’s ‘Kafka-esque’ Mass Kidnapping Scheme

·9-min read
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

Nearly six months into Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, with up to 1.6 million Ukrainians forcibly taken to Russia so far, Ukrainian authorities say Russian forces are now using civilians as cannon fodder on the front line and faking artillery attacks to trick them to cross the border.

Just this week, Ukrainian authorities in Kozacha Lopan, a village occupied by Russian forces in the Kharkiv region, said residents were herded up and forcibly “evacuated” to Russia’s Belgorod region after being tricked to board buses by soldiers who told them they had to leave to escape “intense shelling” in the area. There was no such shelling, authorities said.

In the occupied Luhansk region, authorities say 80 civilian men in the city of Starobilsk were forcibly sent to the front line this week alone, sent to die for the Russian forces who violently took control of the area.

It’s all part of a “Kafka-esque system” Russia has set up to systematically wipe out the Ukrainian population by forcibly “Russifying” hundreds of thousands of citizens, according to a new report extensively detailing Russia’s network of “filtration” camps for refugees.

The Centre for Information Resilience, a nonprofit that uses open source intelligence to track Russia’s activities in Ukraine, has compiled a new dossier—shared with The Daily Beast—on the network of camps and temporary accommodation centers Moscow is using to literally kidnap hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians in plain sight.

“Ukrainian refugees are presented with the illusion of choice from the moment of their capture until their involuntary settlement in Russian territory. They are trapped in a Kafka-esque system working against them. Their forced displacement is just the beginning of the long-term impact of the war on the Ukrainian population. Kept under the watchful eyes of the invading forces from the moment of their capture until their forceful placement in Russian territory, there is no safe way to escape a process in which the wrong answer can cost them their lives,” the report reads.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Screenshots of the video showing heavily armed Russian personnel waiting and escorting refugees arriving in buses at the Bezimenne filtration camp, Donetsk.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty/Centre for Information Resilience</div>

Screenshots of the video showing heavily armed Russian personnel waiting and escorting refugees arriving in buses at the Bezimenne filtration camp, Donetsk.

Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty/Centre for Information Resilience

Throughout five months of war, Russian forces have routinely fired at evacuation buses carrying residents to safety in Ukrainian-controlled territory, have blocked roads to thwart such evacuations, and in other cases snatched up fleeing Ukrainians to use them in propaganda videos for Russian media, the report notes. In one case, a Ukrainian history teacher serving as the driver of an evacuation bus, Mikhail Pankov, was taken captive by Russian forces before appearing, blindfolded, in a segment on Russian television which claimed he’d been detained on Russian territory while supposedly acting as a spotter for the Ukrainian military.

“I’m begging you, please give my papa back. We’re doing very badly without him, we miss him. Please return my papa,” Pankov’s 12-year-old daughter pleaded in a gut-wrenching video on social media after his capture in May.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Evacuation buses covered in bullet holes, civilians waiting for evacuation near Mariupol, and screenshots of video detailing the living conditions experienced by the detained civilians in Bezimenne.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty/Centre for Information Resilience</div>

Evacuation buses covered in bullet holes, civilians waiting for evacuation near Mariupol, and screenshots of video detailing the living conditions experienced by the detained civilians in Bezimenne.

Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty/Centre for Information Resilience

The 30-page report by the Centre for Information Resilience also pinpoints the locations of 11 “filtration” camps in the occupied Donetsk region. While Russia has claimed the camps are simply “checkpoints” for refugees hoping to get to safety, arriving refugees are often surrounded by heavily armed Russian forces and greeted by agents of Russia’s Federal Security Service.

Ominously, footage secretly filmed at one of the camps in Donetsk, which the Centre for Information Resilience geolocated to a school in the village of Bezimenne on the outskirts of Mariupol, showed hundreds of Ukrainian men being held captive despite having passed Russia’s “filtration” process.

A man detained in the same building who shot the footage and shared it on Telegram said the Russians overseeing the captives had been heard saying they hadn’t yet decided whether to use the men to fight for Russia’s army or as “labour for the demolition of the Mariupol rubble,” the report says.

“When in Russian custody many refugees report going through intense interrogation, often with verbal abuse, threats, or actual physical assault. According to reports some people were simply never seen again.”

In many other cases, those who underwent Russia’s “filtration” process described being shaken down for bribes, or of having their phones confiscated by Russian interrogators only to get them back with newly installed programs meant to track their activities.

Journalist Stanislav Miroshnichenko described the process to Current Time TV in mid-June. “A person I was speaking to saw a program on his phone. It was a certain file that was uploaded to his phone via Bluetooth. In my opinion, it was called ‘Eavesdropping of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.’ I asked him if he had tried to delete the program from his phone. He answered that after he left, he turned off the phone and hadn’t used it. He didn’t know how to delete it,” he said.

Those who do pass are reportedly then transported deep into Russia, where they report additional interrogations before being met at temporary accommodation centers by Russian state media urging them to praise Moscow’s supposed humanitarian efforts toward refugees.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Location of the known filtration camps in Donetsk, pictures of a pickup point for civilians fleeing war zones just outside Mariupol, and a screenshot from the drone footage of the filtration camp in Bezimenne from May 2022 (left) and satellite image of the area from 2019 (right).</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty/Centre for Information Resilience</div>

Location of the known filtration camps in Donetsk, pictures of a pickup point for civilians fleeing war zones just outside Mariupol, and a screenshot from the drone footage of the filtration camp in Bezimenne from May 2022 (left) and satellite image of the area from 2019 (right).

Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty/Centre for Information Resilience

Russia’s Voronezh, Rostov, and Krasnodar regions are said to have served as the settling point for most of the deported Ukrainians, who are often promised work opportunities, payments, and housing that they never get—or “free land” that turns out to be deep in the wilderness and dense with trees and swamps.

“Trapped in a system that forces them towards Russia whilst presenting the illusion of choice, most will not have the money, connections, or even the mobility to attempt an escape,” the report notes.

Many refugees also find that their new accommodation in Russia comes with heavy strings attached. While Russian authorities give out 10,000 rubles (about $175) to arriving Ukrainian families, if they want to stay, they have to fork over more than half of that.

“They complained that they get a one-time payment of 10,000, and pay 6,000 for the [mandatory] Russian language exam,” one Russian woman who works with refugees told The Daily Beast.

“Of all [the families I’ve worked with], only one supported Putin,” she said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Perhaps worst of all, thousands of children have been swept up in Russia’s mass kidnapping scheme—many of them dubbed “orphans” and adopted out to new Russian families, a fact which both Vladimir Putin and his children’s rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, have openly gushed about.

While Russian state media has provided glowing coverage of the Kremlin’s supposed “humanitarian” efforts to take in Ukrainian children they claim were rescued from orphanages near the front line, Ukrainian authorities have said the so-called “orphans” they snatched up, particularly in Mariupol, were actually ripped away from their families.

“Among those taken to the Russian Federation, there are new orphans who lost their parents as a result of the war, and children from families that got separated. We know of cases where children were simply taken away from their parents,” Pyotr Andryushchenko, an aide to Mariupol’s Ukrainian mayor, said in late June.

“We are certain that this is just part of ‘denazification’ aimed at getting as many Ukrainian children out of the Ukrainian population as possible. We understand perfectly well, after what happened in Mariupol, that if children are put through the adoption procedure in two or three years, given the age they are at, it will be very difficult to find their parents, and they themselves will not remember them,” Andryushchenko said.

The independent news outlet Verstka reported in late June that hundreds of unaccompanied Ukrainian children were taken to a sports complex in Taganrog, in Russia’s Rostov region. Some of those kids were later moved to the Moscow region, where they were handed over to Russian families.

The Centre for Information Resilience geolocated the makeshift temporary accommodation center where children were being held in Taganrog, identifying it as the Dvorets Sports Complex. In mid-March, a third of refugees being held at the center were between the ages of 3 and 10, according to their report.

The families of thousands of Ukrainian children who went missing during the chaotic early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion are still searching for their kids months later.

Tatyana and Yelena, two grandmothers from Mariupol, are among the most gut-wrenching examples. Their toddler granddaughter, Nastya, vanished along with both of her parents when the city came under heavy shelling on March 12, according to Verstka. The building Nastya lived in with both parents—the daughter and son of Tatyana and Yelena—burned up after taking a direct hit, but none of their bodies were found in the wreckage.

Five months later, Tatyana told Verstka, she spotted a little girl she was sure was Nastya being described as an “orphan” in footage aired by Russian state media last month that showed Ukrainian kids being taken in by their new adoptive Russian families near Moscow.

She recalled her husband searching the house for a sedative to calm her down. After sending Yelena the footage, she too agreed it was the missing granddaughter.

But after weeks of haggling with Russian authorities to verify the little girl’s identity, a long-awaited meeting proved disappointing, Tatyana said. Though Russian authorities would not agree to bring the girl in person, they provided pictures and video of her that were inspected by friends of the family who knew her well.

“It’s not Nastya. They could not make a mistake. It’s not her nose, not her big blue eyes,” Tatyana was quoted saying.

She and Elena now continue their search for both their children and granddaughter, who Tatyana recalls had always refused to pick flowers like other kids, believing that both the flower bud and flowers were meant to stay as one whole family.

“She thought that both the mother would be hurt, and the children— the flowers—would be hurt. If they are separated, the buds would wither and die.”

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