Inside a POW Camp for Russian Soldiers in Ukraine

Russian prisoners of war build patio furniture
Russian prisoners of war build patio furniture for 29 U.S. cents a day at a POW camp in western Ukraine in November 2023 (Katie Livingstone/

LVIV REGION, Ukraine -- From the outside, it did not look like a prison. The tall cement walls surrounding the compound matched similar gates and gardens across the small community in western Ukraine, a few dozen miles from the Polish border.

But the camp inside was filled with Russian prisoners of war in identical dark blue jumpsuits adorned with the words "Educational Colony" stamped on the back.

The men slept in large rooms with bunk beds covered in checkered blankets, each spot labeled with the name and photo of its occupant. A regimented schedule divided their time in the former low-security local prison -- a 6 a.m. wake-up call, meals at regular intervals, and free time outside in the courtyard or in front of the TV in the recreation room.

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None of them knew how long they would be at the camp, or forced to walk through hallways adorned with Ukrainian historical figures and national slogans in direct opposition to the propaganda fueling Russian President Vladimir Putin's narratives about the war.

As the full-scale war has dragged on for almost two years, a growing number of captured Russian forces and a freeze in prisoner swaps have led to more and more POW camps like this one popping up across the country. While the official number of Russian POWs in Ukraine is not public, experts estimate that thousands of soldiers have been captured over the course of the war.

An injured Russian POW reads on his bunk in a hospital
An injured Russian POW reads on his bunk in the hospital dormitory he shares with dozens of other prisoners in Ukraine in November 2023 after being captured on the battlefield (Katie Livingstone/

To better understand the Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine and get a glimpse of their current lives as POWs, toured one of the largest camps in the country and interviewed several prisoners last month.

"We have nothing to hide there, and you can see that the conditions are good," said Petro Yatsenko, the spokesperson for Ukraine's Coordination Center for the Treatment of Prisoners of War.

POWs constitute a unique class of people whose freedoms are severely restricted but who maintain more rights than typical prisoners. Ukrainian military officials in charge of running the facility toured are adamant that they adhere to all aspects of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which outline special rules for overseeing the treatment of POWs. Most importantly, the laws state that POWs "must at all times be humanely treated" and "protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity."

Each POW who was interviewed was asked for consent before talking with, and spoke out of immediate earshot of nearby guards. To protect the identity and dignity of the POWs interviewed in this piece, per international law, and to respect requests from Ukrainian officials to maintain operational security, the faces and last names of prisoners will not be shared along with any information indicating the facility's location.

Inside, prisoners balance work opportunities while biding their time, seeking out Coca-Colas and Snickers candy bars in the small commissary, the monotony broken up by monitored calls to a loved one a couple of times a month.

When visited, a lean, tall prisoner with a buzz cut and bright blue eyes was bent over a table, nimbly folding a paper bag before placing the finished product on a pile. Vitalyi, 33, and his peers were busy constructing the bags for a large and popular Ukrainian company that outsourced the work to the camp. Thousands of bags in various stages of production were stacked around the cluttered room as a couple dozen prisoners chatted at their overcrowded workspaces

The prisoners are not required to work but can opt into the program to fill their time. They earn "one-fourth of one Swiss franc for a full working day," in adherence with the Geneva Conventions, or about 29 U.S. cents per day at current conversion rates. The men at this camp can choose this task or opt to construct patio furniture in another workshop.

Vitalyi is from Donetsk and had joined the Russian infantry in 2014 after the Maidan protests began in Kyiv. A coal miner trying to support a wife and young children before becoming a soldier, he said he had believed the stories that Russian propagandists promoted at the time about Kyiv gearing up to attack the region. He signed up with Russian recruiters when asked to protect his family.

Captured several months ago near Avdiivka on Ukraine's eastern front after being injured during an attack late last year, Vitalyi largely refrained from speaking poorly of his experience in the Russian military, but said his unit had to buy a lot of its own gear and his last few salary payments never came. His capture and subsequent treatment by the Ukrainian military has been "fine."

His history shows the complexity of identity for many in the Ukrainian regions that border Russia. Born in the Soviet Union, raised in Ukraine, and fighting for Russia: Vitalyi said that his father is Russian and, as a result, he has always seen himself the same way. Vitalyi cannot wait to get home to his loved ones but has no indication of when he may be chosen for a prisoner exchange. He has already been at the camp for almost a year, he said. And he fears being drafted and forced to return once again after he does finally get home.

About 10 men were lined up outside the telephone room where they would be allowed to make their biweekly phone call to a loved one. The calls play on a loudspeaker so they can be monitored by a nearby guard. One prisoner's wife could be heard sobbing on the line as her husband told her for the first time that he had been captured and was being held in Ukraine. "They deceived me. But it will be OK. I will call you when I am in Russia," the man said, wiping away his own tears while trying to calm her.

Zanda, 40, was waiting toward the end of the line. He was captured outside Kherson after serving as a medic and infantryman for more than four months. Originally from the Republic of Kalmykia in southern Russia, Zanda was a Buddhist from the Kalmyk Mongolian ethnic group that migrated from northern China to the region centuries before. He had been recruited from his jail cell after serving one year of a three-year sentence -- ironically, he had been a prison nurse before getting arrested for taking a bribe. He said he joined the military because the recruiter told him that his remaining sentence would be commuted but also because they promised to clear his record of the crime after he completed service, something he wanted so that his criminal history would not hold back his children's futures.

Several men recounted the same story: A military recruiter came to their prison, where they were serving time for theft, bribery, murder or other crimes, with the offer of zeroing out their sentences in exchange for just six months' fighting in the war. Although the survival rate for new recruits in the Russian forces is notoriously low, the men believed at the time it was a good deal. Sitting in identical blue jumpsuits hundreds or even thousands of miles from home, they each seemed to now regret the decision for similar reasons.

Zanda is a father of three, and his eldest was about to turn 18. He said he was terrified that his son would be drafted but knew that he could do nothing about it from the POW camp. If it were not for his family, he said he would not go back to Russia even after the war ends. "I am afraid they will discriminate against me for being a POW, or enlist me again," he said.

Although both countries have been criticized for their treatment of POWs by international watchdog groups like Human Rights Watch and ICRC, the complaints and situations of soldiers held in each country vary greatly. Ukraine has allowed international human rights monitors from the United Nations and International Red Cross, along with journalists, to enter these facilities and speak with prisoners. Several Russian POWs have been charged with war crimes by Ukrainian courts, and some have already been tried and convicted. At the same time, Russia has repeatedly blocked foreign media and international groups from accessing its POW camps holding captured Ukrainian soldiers -- in violation of the Geneva Conventions, of which both Ukraine and Russia are signatories.

The two most common complaints cited by Russian prisoners speaking to investigators in a widely circulated U.N. Human Rights report included being beaten by Ukrainian troops at the time of capture and not receiving enough food during their imprisonment. Many Ukrainian prisoners of war who spoke with investigators after being released by Russia shared experiences of beatings and a lack of food, in addition to suffering from regular torture sessions, psychological abuse, inhumane living conditions and other abuses.

The rooms at the Ukrainian detention facility toured by were lit by the light coming from large windows -- unbarred -- along the walls of the sprawling facility and occasionally patrolled by roaming guards, none of whom carried a deadly weapon. Captured Russian military officers are mostly kept separate from noncommissioned soldiers, in adherence with international law. Captured women are placed in different quarters too, although this facility has had only one case of a female POW since last year, Yatsenko said.

The Ukrainian military treats Russian POWs well in the hopes that Russian troops will do the same to Ukrainian POWS in their care, he said.

"In Ukraine, a European country, we keep prisoners of war in a humane way -- despite the fact that they are trying to kill us," Yatsenko said.

He ate lunch alongside journalists in the prison's dining hall, a meal cooked and served by the prisoners. While ample in size, all the dishes were missing one important ingredient: salt.

Yatsenko explained that this untasty policy was for the health of the POWs, who can suffer from a range of digestive ailments that are exacerbated by salt when behind bars.

"Can I make a joke?" Yatsenko asked.

"This is revenge for Bakhmut," he said with a grin, referencing the currently occupied city in eastern Ukraine -- once known for its prolific rose gardens -- that has become a symbol of Russian brutality since it was turned into a hellscape by air attacks last winter, costing thousands of Ukrainian lives.

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