Ukrainians who told Russian warship to ‘f*** yourself’ still in jail
Snake Island became a powerful symbol of Ukraine’s resistance. But the prisoners’ families say they feel forgotten
The words “Russian warship, go fuck yourself” quickly became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance in the early days of the invasion.
It was the final message from a border guard on Ukraine’s besieged Snake Island to a Russian missile cruiser, and it reverberated around the world. But confusion reigned over what had happened to the Ukrainian personnel serving on the Black Sea island, which was attacked and captured by the Russian military on 24 February – the first full day of the invasion.
At first, it was reported that all 13 of the Ukrainian border guards stationed on the island had been killed.
Later, it emerged that nobody had died, and that a much larger group of people – not just border guards but marines and civilians stationed on the island, plus the crew of a ship sent to rescue them – were in Russian captivity.
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Now, in partnership with Ukrainian news outlet Graty, which has had unprecedented access to relatives of captured personnel, openDemocracy can tell the story of what happened next.
In this abridged version of Graty’s investigation, the relatives say that 48 Ukrainian soldiers serving on Snake Island are still in Russian captivity more than six months after Ukraine regained control of the island – and they are worried that they have been forgotten.
“Everyone has a T-shirt and a sticker on their car with the phrase about the ‘Russian warship’, but I still meet people who think that there were 13 people on the island, that they all died, or that they were all exchanged,” said Lyubov Lungu, the 21-year-old daughter of captured marine Olexander Lungu.
“Snake Island needs attention. Because these are the people who were captured on the first day of the invasion.”
‘They were all alive’
Eighty Ukrainian citizens were initially captured on Snake Island after it was attacked by military jets and Russian warships, including the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s flagship Moskva cruiser.
Among them were 28 border guards, a garrison of 50 marines stationed on the island, and two civilians including the director of the island’s lighthouse.
Two days later, on 26 February, a further 21 people were taken prisoner when a Ukrainian rescue ship, Sapphire, approached the island – to retrieve the bodies of the border guards its crew mistakenly believed had been killed.
That evening, relatives of the Snake Island soldiers received the first news that their loved ones might still be alive. Svitlana Krivitska, the wife of a Snake Island border guard, saw a report on a Russian TV channel about how captive personnel had been brought to Sevastopol, in Russian-occupied Crimea.
“We recognised everyone. They were all alive,” she said. “There weren't even any wounded. One guy had twisted his leg. They showed them getting off the ship and boarding buses.”
Karina Paliyenko, the wife of another border guard, adds that in the Russian TV report, a Russian military official said that the defenders of Snake Island would soon return home.
Together with the other wives, Paliyenko called the border guards’ headquarters in Izmail, near Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, to ask if they had seen the report.
“They didn’t believe us at first. We each had to confirm we had seen our husband in the video,” Paliyenko said.
The border guards’ wives took screenshots of their husbands from the news channel, printed out the pictures, and showed them to Ukrainian officials as confirmation.
In the meantime, the crew of the rescue ship was also brought to Sevastopol. Father Vasyl Virozub, a Ukrainian Orthodox priest who accompanied the rescuers on Sapphire, says they were loaded into police cruisers at the port. From there, they were taken to a Russian navy guardhouse.
“Interrogations, interrogations, interrogations began. Three or four interrogations a day,” he added.
The Sapphire’s crew spent 11 days in Sevastopol. On 12 March, Virozub, plus two other priests and a doctor who had been on board, were moved to a different building. Here they were placed in a room with several dozen captured soldiers.
“When we saw our Ukrainian comrades – hurrah!” Virozub recalled.
They were marines who had been stationed on Snake Island, from Ukraine’s 35th Marine Brigade. Their chaplain, Olexander Chokov, was one of the priests accompanying Virozub.
“The marines said that they had been bombed and that the Moskva cruiser had fired several salvos. What were the boys to do?” said Chokov. “They had nothing to fight with, only machine guns and small arms.
“The commander made a decision, took responsibility in order to save the lives of the 80 people who were on the island. They raised the white flag and surrendered.”
That evening, the Ukrainian prisoners were transferred to Simferopol airport and loaded onto an Il-76 military aircraft. Virozub counted about 200 people on board – the Snake Island personnel, the Sapphire’s crew, plus Ukrainian soldiers who had been captured in the Kherson region.
Serhiy Rylsky, who was in charge of the lighthouse on Snake Island, recalls that the plane landed in the Russian city of Kursk, where the prisoners were taken to a tent camp. Virozub says the camp was in the village of Shebekino, in the Russian border region of Belgorod. After a week in the camp, the prisoners were sent to a pre-trial detention centre in the city of Stary Oskol, in Belgorod.
‘Please bring dad home’
It was a matter of weeks before the first prisoners were released. Rylsky, the lighthouse director, spent a month in Russian captivity, returning home on 24 March. He estimates that 30 people, mostly civilians, were exchanged on that date. The group included the crew of the Sapphire – but not the priests and the doctor who accompanied them.
Olexander Mutichko, senior assistant captain on the Sapphire, says they were exchanged for the mostly Russian crew of the tanker Millennial Spirit, who had been captured by Ukrainian forces in late February.
Three days after the exchange, Volodymyr Zelenskyi was asked in an interview about previous reports that the defenders of Snake Island had all been killed. This time, he said that only some of them had died, and that the remainder had just returned home.
“Russia came out with this proposal. We exchanged them without hesitation. That’s all. Those who died are, frankly, heroes. And those who survived – we exchanged them,” the president said.
In fact, almost all the defenders of Snake Island remained in captivity at the time.
In March, following Zelenskyi’s statement, the prisoners’ relatives received calls from Ukraine’s State Information Bureau, which collects information on captured soldiers.
“I was told that Russia had confirmed that my husband was on their territory,” said Karina Palienko.
Two groups of captured soldiers were returned in exchanges the following month. Bohdan Hotskyi, captain of the border guards, returned home on 19 April.
The doctor and two of the priests who had been on board the Sapphire were also exchanged in April. But Virozub, the priest, was only released in May, after 68 days in captivity.
According to Hotskyi, the border guard captain, 19 members of his border guard team are still in captivity to date.
“I hope they are released. I ask all the competent authorities to get involved in this process, because they [the defenders] have been in captivity for more than six months,” he said.
Relatives of the captured defenders were invited to Kyiv on 5 September to meet officials at the Coordinating Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War, which has overall responsibility for Ukrainian POWs. After the meeting, relatives told Graty that 29 marines remained in captivity – until 29 October, when one of them was released via a prisoner exchange with Russia. Today, 47 Snake Island personnel are in Russian captivity.
For the past eight months, most of the prisoners have had hardly any contact with their families.
“My son and his wife recently had a baby boy. He was six months old when his dad went to the island,” said Tetiana Mykolaivna, mother of marine Olexander Kardashev. “He doesn’t even know that the child has taken his first steps, that he is starting to speak, that he has had his first teeth.
“My granddaughter [Kardashev’s other child] screams all the time: ‘dad isn't there’. He’s gone. It’s very hard to wait. I wish they would come back soon. To see their little children, hug them – and so that we could hug our children too.”
Tetiana Mykolaivna says that she has appealed to several different official bodies in Ukraine for help, and that their answer is always the same: “Wait.”
Lyubov Lungu, the 21 year-old daughter of marine Olexander Lungu, said she and relatives of her father's colleagues spent two months trying to get the marines from Snake Island granted POW status in Ukraine. She only received the corresponding document in May.
One of her father’s comrades returned from captivity in April. He told her that her father had been brought along to Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia to be exchanged, but that at the last moment, the Russians had changed their minds and sent some of the personnel back to detention.
“I can’t imagine what he felt,” Lyubov said, adding that her younger brother and sister often ask: “Why doesn’t Russia want to return dad?”
Lyubov was informed that her father had written a letter home. It was delivered three days later.
“Father wrote by hand, which made us very happy. He said that everything was fine with him. He wrote: ‘Stay strong and wait for me.’”
The family have written a reply, sending it to the Ukrainian office of the Red Cross, but have yet to hear back.
At the end of September, to remind the public that their relatives had been in captivity for eight months already, the families published a video in which children call for their fathers to return home.
“Hi, my name is Sasha, I was named after my father, who was on Snake Island,” says Olexander Lungu’s young son, holding a photograph of his father.
“Please bring dad back home.”
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