Elvira learned about the fact that her son, a soldier of the Russian Armed Forces, was captured only when a Ukrainian security guard called her.
“I was very shocked when the Security Service of Ukraine called me and told me that my son was in captivity,” Elvira told The Moscow Times, recalling the moment weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.
Despite dozens of prisoner exchanges between Russia and Ukraine over the next year, her son remains in a Ukrainian prison — with no sign of an imminent release.
“I pray to God every day to help me bring him home,” said Elvira, who broke down in tears several times during a phone interview.
“I just want my heart to keep beating so I can pull it out.”
Her son is one of the thousands of Russian soldiers captured in Ukraine during more than 13 months of fighting, with the families of many of the prisoners claiming Russian authorities are not doing enough to bring them home.
In some cases, relatives said that they found captured soldiers on their own — or with the help of Ukrainian YouTube channels and social media groups — and then had to pressure the Department of Defense to officially register their loved ones as prisoners of war, entitling them to be included in a prisoner exchange.
However, the Kremlin’s criteria for demanding prisoner swaps are unclear, and such swaps are painstakingly negotiated, often take months — usually accompanied by mutual accusations dishonesty.
Alina Maksimovskaya, the girlfriend of a Russian prisoner of war, told The Moscow Times that she found out that her boyfriend Andrei Zavyalov had been captured in Ukraine when she saw an interview he gave Ukrainian TV channels from captivity.
After that, she appealed to the military authorities with a request to include him in the official list of prisoners of war.
“I knew that every moment was important,” said Maksimovskaya. “We didn’t know if he was still alive or not and what happened to him.”
She said that it was difficult for her to call representatives of the Ministry of Defense of Russia or the Red Cross. “It was hard to get anyone on the hotline,” she said.
Zavyalov was eventually released in a prisoner exchange at the end of October.
Other relatives of Russian prisoners of war expressed similar complaints about the Russian authorities – and about the difficulty of drawing attention to the plight of their loved ones.
“Until I personally appealed to the President of the Russian Federation… my son was not added [to the official list of prisoners of war]”, — Irina Chistiakova, mother of a Russian prisoner of war, said in video online in December.
Her son Kirill was military service shortly before the invasion and according to Chistyakovdisappeared in March last year in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine.
As part of her hunt to find out what happened, she looked at numerous photos of dead soldiers and visited military morgue in the city of Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia.
Eventually, she spoke to a freed Russian prisoner of war who told to her that Kirill was in captivity in Ukraine. Kirill remains in captivity in Ukraine.
Just as Russia does not publish statistics on the losses of its servicemen in Ukraine, there is no official information on the number of Russian servicemen captured.
Ukrainian coordination headquarters for prisoners of war argued Earlier this month, nearly 10,000 Russian soldiers tried to surrender through a special hotline.
While the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told The Moscow Times that it does not disclose information on the number of prisoners, ICRC spokesperson in Ukraine Alexander Ulasenko said in December that both countries held “thousands” of prisoners of war.
Since the beginning of the war, Moscow and Kyiv organized at least 38 prisoner exchanges, according to Ukraine, during which more than 2,700 prisoners were exchanged.
Little is known about the secret negotiations between Russia and Ukraine that preceded the prisoner exchange — although Russia’s negotiations performed The Ministry of Defense with the assistance of the President’s Human Rights Commissioner Tatsiana Moskalkova.
The mother of one Russian prisoner of war, who asked not to be named, told The Moscow Times that her son was exchanged after less than six weeks in captivity.
Others, like the son of Elvira and Kirill Chistyakov, have been waiting for more than a year.
According to Ukrainian officialsRussian officials regularly ask to include in the exchange military personnel with the required military skills.
But there is also evidence of political interference.
In one particularly controversial prisoner exchange – strongly criticized according to some pro-war commentators, in September the Kremlin released 215 prisoners of war, including captured foreigners and senior Ukrainian commanders from the Azov regiment, in exchange for at least 55 Russian prisoners of war and Viktor Medvedchuk, a close friend and ally of President Vladimir Putin.
And Evgeny Nuzhin, a prison inmate, recruited to fight against Wagner’s company of mercenaries, was apparently released Ukraine as a result of the exchange at the end of last year. Shortly thereafter, he was executed by Wagner in what many believed to be punishment for a pro-Ukrainian interview he had given while in captivity.
Neither Russia’s human rights commissioner nor the Ministry of Defense responded to The Moscow Times’ request for comment.
Much of the concern expressed by relatives of Russian POWs centers on whether their loved ones are suffering violence or mistreatment at the hands of Ukraine.
The UN Human Rights Mission in Ukraine, which interviewed 175 Russian prisoners of war for its November report, said that the prisoners told them of “extrajudicial executions and several cases of torture and ill-treatment, mainly when they were captured, first interrogated or transported to transit camps and places of internment.”
However, some former Russian prisoners of war said that their captors treated them well.
He announced the released Russian prisoner of war Mikhail Rodygin in December an interview with local television that conditions in captivity were “normal” but that some prisoners had been beaten.
“They are following the Geneva Convention there,” Radygin said in the video, which was later removed after it gained widespread attention online.
According to Maksimovskaya, her boyfriend Zavyalov was not bullied in captivity, but she said that “other [released PoWs] told several stories of violence.’
With both sides still mired in a static war in the east of the country, many expect fewer surrenders in the coming months.
The Kremlin has also taken legal steps to keep soldiers from surrendering — Russia did last year introduced up to 10 years of imprisonment for “voluntary” surrender.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Russian families continue to wait for the release of their relatives who are in Ukrainian prisons.
Elvira said her son was passing messages to her through other Russian prisoners of war released in a prisoner exchange.
“He’s asking for help,” Elvira said. “I just want my son to come home.”