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$12,000, Mad Rage. How One Mother Got Her Son out of "DPR" Concentration Camp
6 May, 2021
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Olena Zakharova and her son one month before the arrest of Ruslan Zakharov from the personal archive of Olena Zakharova

The story of Ruslan Zakharov and his mother Olena is unique from several points of view.

First, Olena Zakharova was able to get her only son out of the “Donetsk people’s republic state security ministry” concentration camp without any help from the security services, the Red Cross, the United Nations, the DPR courts, and prisoner swaps - using merely money and words. In desperation, she took all imaginary and unimaginable steps - from recording all the talks on a dictaphone to addressing Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Secondly, this story shows the work of the "DPR security forces" from within.

And thirdly, Ruslan Zakharov spent two weeks in "Isolation" camp in October 2019, so he is one of the few who witnessed everyday life in this gloomy place relatively recently, and was subsequently released.

Moms have superpowers!

Stories of mothers desperately fighting for their children in prison occur regularly in Donetsk. Mothers look for money and take packages for their children to the colonies on a weekly basis, use any means possible to get to investigators, exchange information with each other, create a kind of mutual aid network and even, on some occasions, stick leaflets against "dishonest lawyers" provided by the “ministry of state security” (MGB). But at the same time, Donetsk mothers still know about the "red lines", rather harshly "drawn" by local security forces.

The story of the arrest of Zinayida Mykolayivna Maltseva, who was later released during an exchange in December 2019, became a legend in the "DPR". Her son Maksym Tymofieiev was arrested in October 2017 as an "SBU spy." The mother fought so desperately for her son that she openly exhausted the MGB investigation and was arrested eight months after her child for "espionage", just during another attempt to get a meeting.

The sick 72-year-old "spy" was transferred to Ukraine during an exchange in a wheelchair, but her son was ostentatiously left in the "DPR" prison. By December 2019, Maksym had already been "convicted" and prepared for an exchange, but still remains in a separate barracks for those who are waiting for the release of "political" and prisoners of war in the 32nd colony in Makiyivka to deter other mothers.

As far away from the war as possible

Olena Zakharova was totally unaware of all these stories because she simply missed all the stages of the evolution of law enforcement agencies and "DPR" prisons.

In the summer of 2014, Olena lived and had a small business in the town of Kostiantynivka in the Donetsk region. Kostiantynivka, Druzhkivka, Kramatorsk, and Sloviansk were still under the control of Igor Strelkov's armed forces in June.

"Since 2004, I have had a store and a summer bar - a 7-by-10-meter tent and two billiard tables, where local men came to play and drink beer," Olena Zakharova tells Spektr. “In the summer of 2014, at night, a neighbor’s fence was damaged. She immediately set the militia against me, on June 10 a whole gang of Chechens came, with one machine gun aimed at my forehead, they threatened: "You will go to Lviv now!" And I shouted at him that I was born and lived here, and I had no idea what the hell brought them to us. He was furious, but I also found people: when I worked at a glass factory, I had a shift with an Afghan, Vitalik Demenkov, he was then one of the leaders of these militias, but now he has fled to Russia."

After the incident with foreign armed men, Olena slept on her thoughts and on June 11 left for the Crimea - to be as far away as possible from hostilities. She stayed there for 1.5 years - where she worked and tried to somehow obtain legal status, but to no avail. Then she moved to northern Russia.

Olena Zakharova, a civil engineer who graduated from the Makiivka Civil Engineering Institute, managed to find a job in her field. Later she received Russian citizenship, a residence permit in Surgut and by 2019 moved to Moscow - where she rented a room in Lyubertsy next to fellow refugees from Donbas.

During all this time, her son lived his own life very close to the demarcation line.

At the time of Ruslan Zakharov's arrest, his profile was quite "dangerous" in the eyes of “DPR authorities”: his mother allegedly had money in Moscow, while he himself was a man without a residence permit in the "republic", during all these years he continued to live primarily in the Ukrainian-controlled territory. but regularly crossed the demarcation line.

Dangerous business

While his mother worked in Surgut and Moscow, Ruslan Zakharov lived in Kostiantynivka and engaged in the riskiest and most rewarding activity in the Donbas - working as a carrier, moving goods and people across the demarcation line.

"I had my own trusted shops in Horlivka, I stocked up in Kostiantynivka and drove with food and household chemicals through Mayorsk, handed over bags to shops and drove back," Ruslan Zakharov describes his business in 2019 to Spektr.

"Carriers" in the "DPR" are an obvious group of risk, as they consistently provide people for prisoner swaps. Too often, they travel through the checkpoints, communicate with the military at checkpoints, negotiate with everyone, and, by showing the wonders of diplomacy, solve various problems of their passengers along the way.

READ MORE: Why Are Ukrainian Pensioners Dying in Donbas?

In simple terms, for "MGB DPR", "carriers" are obviously suspect "contacts with Ukraine". These people are regularly arrested in the “DPR” for disloyalty or "espionage in favor of the SBU".

Hunting for the "carrier"

Ruslan used his mother's Chevrolet Aveo to transport groceries, in 2019 it was time to return the car to the owner, and he planned to buy his own car.

In the "DPR" there are always plenty of inexpensive cars - people continue to leave and sell property quickly. The main thing for Ruslan was that the car had a "pre-war" Ukrainian registration and it could be driven across the demarcation line. In Donetsk, there are already many old and also inexpensive cars with “DPR” only registration, imported from Turkey and Russia, and consequently banned in the territories controlled by Ukraine.

Ruslan once lent $ 5,000 to an acquaintance, who returned the debt with car after repeated reminders. However, an acquaintance named Mykhailo picked up and bought him a Toyota Camry with registration in the “DPR”. Ruslan exchanged it for a Skoda with Ukrainian registration.

The deals were transparent, everyone exchanged phone numbers. But over time, it suddenly emerged that Mykhailo had disappeared in Russia without settling accounts with the owner of the Japanese car. He turned to acquaintances among militiamen, Toyota was seized from the former owner of Skoda, the intermediary disappeared, but now the hunt for the "carrier" was on the cards... 

Later, it became clear that Ruslan Zakharov was officially listed as a witness in this banal case. But all this surfaced later, and while on September 11, 2019, suddenly after another crossing of the demarcation line in his mother's car, he was detained by operatives of the Kirov District Police Department of the DPR.

Already in the car, the man was beaten and threatened with a lengthy sentence, and was immediately allowed to call his mother in Moscow - to ask for ransom money. As a resident of government-controlled Kostiantynivka, a carrier with a “well-off” mother in Moscow, Ruslan was an ideal and defenseless prey for the security forces in the DPR.

There is a slip in the family archives stating that the regional department has no claims against witness Ruslan Zakharov, he is not in the status of a suspect.

"But for some reason, this document came with a date when my case was taken over by the Organized Crime Control Department, and it became clear that minnows from the police had no chance in hell. "Organized Crime Control Department" and "MGB" are there together - the fat cats!" Ruslan tells Spektr with a smile.

Відповідь на запит адвоката у справі Руслана Захарова з «МВС ДНР»

Response to a request from a lawyer in the case of Ruslan Zakharov from the "DPR" Ministry of Internal Affairs. Photo from the personal archive of Olena Zakharova

"Pin everything on him"

The story was initially as plain as day. The son called his mother in Moscow and asked for help. The mother quickly flew to Rostov-on-Don, from where she went to Donetsk and began looking for her son. And then she found out that those who took him were reluctant to meet anyone.

"I was made to understand that this is no longer about compensation, that the investigator, operatives who abducted my son now also want a “cut”, and everything will not be resolved so easily. I started looking for someone who could release my son from prison,” says Olena Zakharova.

Olena's cousin had a dacha in the Tekstylnyk neighborhood in a Finnish-style house for two owners with neighbors being the parents of Rinat Gainutdinov, a senior investigator with the Organized Crime Control Department.

"Before the war, he worked in the regional prosecutor's office, and now in the Organized Crime Control Department. He’s up to his elbows in blood, he took part in hostilities, and is an important man in the ‘DPR’," Zakharova briefly described this influential man.

They turned to him for help. He was a predator, much bigger than the police of the regular regional department.

"I talked to him, and he told me at the first meeting: ‘Now everything will be pinned on him. His release will set you back $5,000!"  I paid up, and he was released the same day, on September 17. Then, through Rinat, we agree to remove the tracking device at the entry-exit checkpoint - I meet with him and his brother, and he says: "No sweat! Let him leave" - and we pay another $300 to the head of the checkpoint in Mayorsk. My son sets off the following day, and he is detained there again in Mayorsk and arrested again, taken to the Department of Internal Affairs, and there they indicate to Ruslan that they want another $3,000!" the mother comments on “DPR” pricing.

"I call this Rinat Gainutdinov and say that for the money I paid, my child deserves to be carried to the border! Let him go, what are you chasing him for, as if it’s a hunt!" Zakharova recalls those days with anger.

READ MORE: How Moscow and Occupied Donbas Strengthened Financial Ties

Getting someone out of the “DPR” is always quite a feat. There are many stories of releases and illegal crossings across the demarcation line. But Olena Zakharova added two more options to this collection: through acquaintances in the tank regiment, they were offered to take the guy beyond the line of bases by tank and leave him there in front of the Ukrainian minefields "almost free of charge." Or without any security guarantees for $5,000 just to walk him through the fighting in the area of H​orlivka. It seems that the active "mother from Moscow" was perceived as a solvent "client" according to local estimates.

Though that was not the case - she spent all her savings and for the next "tranche" had to go to Russia, take a loan from a bank in Taganrog, money was also collected by Ruslan's friends in Kostiantynivka, both his grandmothers helped too.

On September 28, Olena Zakharova went to work in Moscow again, and on the 30th, her son called her and said that he had given the money to the Organized Crime Control Department and was due to leave in the coming days.

"I didn't owe anyone anything at all, but I gave the demanded over $7,000 to this Rinat, and even suggested paying more to be guaranteed not to be bothered at the checkpoint," Ruslan told Spektr.

He gave $ 7,100, and on the morning of October 1, he drove his mother's car to the Oleksandrivka checkpoint... and disappeared without a trace.

"There were 18 people in our cell..."

"... I saw three armed men in military uniform moving quickly towards me from the checkpoint. At first, I did not suspect anything, but they walked past everyone in the line, approached my car and, opening the driver's door, forcibly pulled me out of the car. Without providing any reasons, they pressed me to the car and handcuffed me. When I asked what happened, they didn't explain anything, forced my arms behind my back and took me to the checkpoint module. My right arm was dislocated, it hurt a lot."

From the testimony of Ruslan Zakharov for a lawsuit to the European Court of Human Rights.

Ruslan Zakharov was awaited, he was targeted by a group from a special unit - the so-called "DPR Organized Crime Control". He was taken out of the checkpoint, first beaten in a basement, and then taken to the “Isolation” concentration camp.

"In ‘Isolation’, as I understand it, I was not the first such ‘passenger’ from the Organized Crime Control Department, from whom they pumped money out," Ruslan Zakharov tells. “There were 18 people in our cell. We were kept on the ground floor, taken to the basement for torture, in ‘caps’: some had a sack over their heads, some had a plastic bag - whoever got what. There was another ‘carrier’ in the cell with me, he had been sitting for three weeks, but they took him away from me - they gave him a sheet of paper and told me to write that “he has no claims and no physical force was used against him.” He, of course - fearing for his life - did as told, and he was taken out. Maybe they let him go? The rest were all from Donetsk, some from Artemivsk, some from Mariupol."

Ruslan Zakharov spent exactly a fortnight in the cell of the Isolation concentration camp - from October 1 to October 14, 2019.

Шевроле «Авео» зі спущеним колесом — автомобіль Олени Захарової на службовій стоянці «УБОЗ МВС ДНР»

Chevrolet "Aveo" with the deflated tire - Olena Zakharova's car in the official parking lot "Organized Crime Control Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of DPR". Photo from the personal archive of Olena Zakharova

"There were 18 people in the cell with me, I didn't have time to get to know everyone, and the guys weren’t talkative, they were afraid to discuss anything, because there was video surveillance and, it seems, eavesdropping in the cell. And after interrogations, some just stared at one point.

One was in Ukrainian uniform - Stas, about 35-38 years old, from Sumy, in captivity for two years (he was a senior in the cell). Volodymyr Cherkas, this is a call sign or a surname - I don't know, he is 59 years old, he is from Maryinka, in captivity for one year. Ruslan, 35-38 years old, carrier, was driving from Mariupol, has no index finger on his left hand, tattoos on his chest, and has been in captivity for five months. Andriy Perepelytsia from Donetsk, 28-30 years old, was taken out of the cell in my presence, I don't know what became of him. Roman, 40 years old, Donetsk (his Audi-A8 was confiscated), held captive for five months. Oleh Syzonenko, 40, Donetsk, a week later, when I was brought in, he was taken away. From Artemivsk (now - Bakhmut) a man in his 60s, everyone called him "Nemo", thin, gray, with a gray mustache. There was another man, his name was "Baden-Baden", 55-60 years old, he was there for six months, and everyone said that he would soon go to jail. And Oleksiy Lexus, an employee of the “DPR State Security Service”, a 35-37-year-old resident of Donetsk, was sent to the basement for divulging a state secret and has been there for a year.

Everyone except me (because I had just been admitted) was taken away for almost a whole day to unload military vehicles. The cell had bunk iron beds welded to the floor, a mattress, a pillow and a blanket, a TV and a radio, a toilet and a washbasin in the corner of the cell. There were several cameras.

Women were kept in the adjacent cell. Women were raped, they were not even taken out for a few minutes, there were screams and requests not to be touched at night, our cell was woken up by screams."

From the testimony of Ruslan Zakharov for a lawsuit to the European Court of Human Rights.

"For my death, I blame…"

"We waited until late in the evening on October 1, and on October 2 my cousin called me and got hysterical," says Olena Zakharova. "According to him, Ruslan was arrested by ‘intelligence of the Organized Crime Control Department’ for transporting sabotage groups in his car. He shouted that they could come to his dacha with a search, that maybe Ruslan had buried something in his garden. There was, in a word, a terrible hysteria. Rinat Gainutdinov told him about the sabotage groups and asked to tell me not to rerurn from Moscow back to Donetsk, otherwise I would be arrested too! And Ruslan will then be exchanged as a prisoner of war."

Despite the great fright, the cousin told Olena very important information: he found her car that was just standing in the official parking lot of the "Organized Crime Control Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the DPR" building in front of the "Metallurgist" stadium.

Already on October 4, Olena contacted the SBU call center from Moscow, officially addressed the UN missions, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the OSCE, organized an application for the disappearance of a person to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, and managed to get an official response from the “DPR MGB” that they do not have anyone that goes by the surname Zakharov. She applied to all international missions in person in Donetsk, where she arrived on October 7. Nobody confirmed Ruslan's arrest - her son was officially missing.

In one of the international missions in Donetsk, an angry mother with a Russian passport suddenly received unexpected help - a security guard with an MGB ID card volunteered to help her, for free.

"He told me, 'My friend will come now and we will try to do something.' This man also fought, but he was ideological, with a conscience," Olena told Spektr.

READ MORE: 'Car-Sharing, Donetsk style': How Business Works in Occupied Donbas

The classic Russian saying "the greed did him in" can be applied to our case. Ruslan Zakharov disappeared at the checkpoint, was in an unofficial concentration camp, and his arrest was denied by all "DPR law enforcement agencies." But Olena Zakharova's modest car was in the usual (not an impound) official parking lot for the personal cars of the “DPR” Organized Crime Control Department and clearly indicated who was responsible for the disappearance.

Olena with a Russian passport and with the high-profile scandal filed an official petition about the disappearance of her son and the theft of the car in the "Leninsky regional department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs" (territorially responsible for the site near the "Organized Crime Control Department").

"The Organized Crime Control Department in the ‘DPR’ is a separate empire, they obey only Minister Alexei Diky and are at enmity with the MGB," Olena said, explaining why she was being helped by operatives from the competing secret service.

Over the course of several days, Olena traveled via Russia to Ukrainian law enforcement in Bakhmut, where she quickly restored all the documents for her car. From Russia, she got through to the mobile phone of Rinat Gainutdinov from the Rostov number.

I shouted at him: "Where is my son ?! What did I pay you $12,500 for if my son is in the basement of the Organized Crime Control Department?!" He sounded frightened, and after hearing me out, hung up. I recorded all the conversations, he knew it, and immediately called his father! I talked to his father and loudly called out all the amounts for which my son was now being crippled, killed in some unknown place! I shouted: "I won’t hold back, I will write to [Vladimir] Putin! I will appeal to the FSB, I will destroy you all for my son!!!"

The conversation with the old Tatar Shamil, Rinat Gainutdinov's father, took place on October 13, 2019. And the next day, October 14, Ruslan Zakharov was taken out of "Isolation" and sent to the usual state official remand prison, to a place where he was at least not being tortured.

At the time, Zakharova had indeed written statements with all the names and sums addressed to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov, and Russian Investigative Committee Chairman Alexander Bastrykin.

"If something happens to me (arrest, murder or accident) I ask you to hold the following responsible: ‘the head of the DPR’ Pushilin D.V., ‘Minister of Internal Affairs of the DPR’ Diky A.A., the head of the ‘Organized Crime Control Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the DPR’ Sheptura A.V. , the investigator of ‘Organized Crime Control Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of DPR’ Rinat Gainutdinov," thus reads one of the final sentences of the statement.

From the Administration of the President of Russia, the mother later received the answer that the case is under the purview of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation.

"And what about Rinat? I was told by him that another $7,000 was expected from me to have my son back alive,” says Olena.

Олена Захарова з сином вже після звільнення і втечі до Росії

Olena Zakharova with her son after his release and flight to Russia. Photo from the personal archive of Olena Zakharova

The Release

What to do with her son was being decided until the last day of his new official administrative arrest lasting 30 days.

Ruslan was released on November 13, after a few days spent in their apartment, his mother and Ruslan, accompanied by friends, left Donetsk and moved towards Russia.

"When Ruslan was taken to the regional department on the day of his release from the Organized Crime Control Department, the investigator wrote in an accompanying document that my son had spent 14 days with a friend in an unknown place with his phone turned off, and made it clear that this was best for everyone. I was told that a relative of Minister Diky works in the FSB, and I had already stepped on their toes too much - that I should beware!"

In Russian Lyubertsy, Olena rented a three-room apartment together with her compatriots from Toretsk, Donetsk region, and a guy from the Crimea. Thanks to a lucky chance, when a policeman came to search for the Zakharovs, accompanied by two people in plainclothes, they were not at home, the "guests" were received by fellow countrymen-neighbors. Already well-trained, the mother and son immediately left for Belarus in a rented minibus, and from Minsk by the earliest plane - out of the country.

Ruslan Zakharov now works in Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine and is in touch with lawyers. Olena Zakharova is hiding in Europe - after such a reckless fight for her son, her fear for herself set in.

/With the support of the Russian Language News Exchange