Prisonersvoice - 3 steps for Ukrainian Kremlin Prisoners

Тoday, more than 100 Ukrainian citizens are illegally imprisoned in the territory of Russia and occupied Crimea for political reasons, and several thousand  people are detained on other falsified cases. In addition, more than 200 Ukrainians – prisoners of war and civilian hostages – are being illegally kept prisoner in horrendous conditions in basements in the occupied territories of Donbas. Oleksandra Matviychuk, the chairwoman of the Center for Civil Liberties, spoke about their plight during the presentation of #PrisonersVoice, an augmented reality (AR) mobile application created to share their ordeals witht the world. During the presentation, experts spoke about the conditions of detention of Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia as well as about the role of Ukraine, civil society organizations, cultural institutions, and everyone who cares about the release of these prisoners.

Discussion on #PrisonersVoice – Three Steps for the Kremlin’s Prisoners, Kyiv, October 20 

Coronavirus and conditions in Russian prisons

The Covid 19 epidemic has done even further harm to the rights of Ukrainians illegally imprisoned in Russia. “Because of the corona crisis, Russian penitentiary institutions have been closed off from the outside world”, says Serhii Davidis, Head of the Program for Supporting Political Prisoners and board member of the Memorial Human Rights Center. “This undermines the prisoners’ rights even more because their lawyers have no access to them, all while failing to protect  against the coronavirus”.

However, even before the epidemic, the conditions of detention of Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia were intolerable. “For his entire period of imprisonment, my nephew was kept in a punitive isolation cell or in cell-type premises, even though he was sentenced to a general detention regime”, said Liudmyla Shumkova, the aunt of activist and  military service member, Oleksandr Shumkov. Oleksandr is serving a term in a Russian prison after an illegitimate court sentence.

Discussion on #PrisonersVoice – Three Steps for the Kremlin’s Prisoners, Kyiv, October 20 

Moreover, Ukrainian political prisoners are not allowed to see their relatives, and the services provided by Russian lawyers are very expensive. “Some lawyer visits were paid for by Memorial, and some families of political prisoners have received support in the amount of 100 000 hryvnias since 2018, but the expenses are incomparably higher.  They include care packages, money transfers, lawyer’s fees, and more”, Shumkova said.

The main difference between imprisonment in occupied Donbas and imprisonment in Russian penal institutions is the practice of systematic torture. “Whereas in Russia, 20 people out of 100 are tortured – I am giving a very rough estimate now – only 10 out of 100 people are not tortured in Donbas”, says Stanislav Asieiev, a Ukrainian journalist who was kept prisoner by fighters from the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic and freed as part of prisoner exchange.

Stanislav Asieiev, Ukrainian journalist, former political prisoner

Stanislav compares the things that he saw during his detention in a secret DPR prison within the Izoliatsia [Isolation] center to a modern concentration camp. “When a person who gets there is merely beaten, he is said to be very lucky”, Stanislav Asieiev recollects. “People were kept in the Isolation for a year, two or two and a half years, and they were still tortured. A person could be taken away at seven in the evening and then brought back bearing electric burns in the morning”.

#PrisonersVoice application

The #PrisonersVoice application was designed to draw global attention to these urgent issues. The application was created with AR-technology to share with the world the voices of the prisoners most widely-recognized prisoners released so far, including Oleh Sentsov, Oleksandr Kolchenko, and Volodymyr Balukh. They share the experiences and feelings they had as they were arrested and transported to a prison colony under guard. All three stories are dubbed in English. The application was developed by NGO Internews-Ukraine with support from the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation, in cooperation with the Center for Civil Liberties.


“We hope that people in  creative industries will be inspired by our ideas and develop other initiatives to tell the world in a creatively different way about the problems and success stories of Ukraine,” said Andrii Kulakov, Program Director of the NGO Internews-Ukraine.

Andrii Kulakov, Program Director of NGO Internews-Ukraine

State support

Representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine (MFA) promise they will provide all possible support to the #PrisonersVoice initiative through their own channels of communication. Since the very beginning of the occupation of Crimea and parts of Donbas, Ukrainian officials have been educating the world on how the rights of our compatriots are being violated in these territories.

“We do this through bilateral meetings at various levels”, said Eduard Fesko, Deputy Director General of the MFA Political Department. “The issues of Crimea and of political prisoners are always on the agenda. More specifically, our goal this year, just like last year, is to ensure that the political prisoners issue is included into a human rights resolution in the UN General Assembly”.

Ukraine not only promotes awareness of its citizens’ mistreatment, but  also provides consular support to Ukrainian political prisoners held in Russia. “In occupied Crimea, we are not able to provide consular services because they can be provided only in the territory of a foreign state, while Crimea is Ukrainian territory”, Eduard Fesko explained. “At the same time, our consuls work actively in Russia”. This year, they visited Ukrainians imprisoned in Russia more than 400 times, while 75 were made to political prisoners. The last such visit took place in September.

Discussion on #PrisonersVoice – Three Steps for the Kremlin’s Prisoners, Kyiv, October 20 

In the near future, the MFA is planning to launch an institute to educate foreign public figures about the civic journalists illegally detained in Russia. The objective of this project is to involve well-known politicians, government officials, journalists, and writers so that they can facilitate information sharing about Ukrainian political prisoners using their public platforms.

According toStanislav Asieiev, the state has to talk more about the prisoners and the prospects for their release. “When you are in prison, and you have at least some possibility to hear information about your release -- you listen for every sound, literally”, he said. “When I was in prison, we were visited by the so-called DPR Ombudsperson, and she told us openly that they saw us as political commodity. That is why if no one had been talking about me, about Sentsov or Kozlovskyi, I would still be sitting in those basements”.

Civil society initiatives

The augmented reality application that was presented will be part of a larger #PrisonersVoice project. In the beginning, this information campaign was called #SaveOlegSentsov, but after Oleh Sentsov was released from the Russian prison, the initiative was renamed. According to Oleksandra Matviychuk, whose organization started this campaign after completing a similar project called #LetMyPeopleGo, the project was joined by people in nearly 40 countries.

Stanislav Asieiev, Oleksandra Matviychuk, Alim Aliiev (left to right)

The Center for Civil Liberties has been engaged in protection of the rights and freedoms of Ukrainian citizens in the occupied territories and in Russia since the beginning of annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas. “First of all, Russia uses political prisoners as weapon in its information war in order to create the image of an enemy for their citizens”, Matviychuk explained. “Second, the brutal torture of  Ukrainians in the occupied territories in 2014 were used to push the active majority out of the region and to frighten those who stayed behind. Third, Russia is holding Ukrainians illegally as a means of blackmailing and exchanging them for their citizens imprisoned by Ukraine for crimes committed on its territory”.

The illegally-detained Ukrainians are also supported by the Russian Human Rights Center Memorial, which has kept track ofall political prisoners in Russia, including citizens of Ukraine, for more than ten years. According to Serhii Davidis, the Russian Federation needs political persecution of some categories of people, such as Crimean Tatars, to stifle civic activism and solidarity, to intimidate Russian society, and to create a certain picture of the world by demonstrating these repressions to them. 

“As of today, 66 citizens of Ukraine are recognized as political prisoners on our lists”, Serhii Davidis shared. “There are apparently more, but we are a little bit behind because it takes us a lot of time to check up on all the information we receive”. According to him, Crimean Tatars are currently the most persecuted ethnic and religious group in Russia in relation to their numbers.

Role of cultural institutions

Culture and creativity have always existed to ensure understanding and development. “The state has to take all possible steps to support these important initiatives that give voice to those who need it”, argues Yulia Fediv, Executive Director of the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation. “I am very happy that cultural understanding has been expanding in the context of not only supporting creative initiatives but also in supporting such socially important topics as the plight of Kremlin prisoners”.

Alim Aliiev, Yulia Fediv, Andrii Kulakov (left to right)

Voices of  free Crimea and of Crimean political prisoners have to be more elevated through media initiatives, as well as through cultural, academic and civic programs worldwide. “A person’s individual freedom and dignity is one of the biggest threats for authoritarian regimes”, stresses Alim Aliiev, Deputy Director General of the Ukrainian Institute. For this purpose, his organization is currently developing several art and science projects to draw attention to both the topic of Crimea and to Ukrainian political prisoners in general.

Alim Aliiev reminded the audience that there are hundreds of thousands pro-Ukrainian people living in Crimea. Despite the fact that they are often isolated by the Kremlin’s  machinery of repression, they develop important culture and art initiatives, including those for children. Ukraine has to support their development.

Three steps for  Kremlin prisoners that everyone can take right now

  1. Step 1. Download the free #PrisonersVoice application. To get a complete understanding of what the Kremlin’s prisoners survived, it is enough to talk to those who were able to get out of Russian prisons. We developed an augmented reality (AR) application that makes it possible to feel and go through the experience of Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia.
  2. Step 2. Sign the #PrisonersVoice petition  Today, hundreds of illegally imprisoned Ukrainians are in danger in Russia and in the territories it has occupied. The pandemic has even further worsened their situation – they are kept in unsanitary conditions, in overcrowded cells, without medical assistance, and without the chance to to wash their hands. Sign the petition to help to involve international organizations in the cause of releasing the hostages held by the Kremlin.
  3. Step 3. Become volunteer for #PrisonersVoice. The experiences of Sentsov, Balukh, and Kolchenko proves that support is critical for every prisoner of the Kremlin. From letters that help them survive in the prison colonies’ inhumane conditions to campaigns aimed at raising awareness of international actors that put pressure on Russia through sanctions. Only by united actions will we be able to bring Ukrainian political prisoners back home.



The #PrisonersVoice project is implemented by the Internews Ukraine with support of the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation CSO in cooperation with the Center for Civil Liberties and other partners. The opinions of the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation may not coincide with the idea of the authors.