Exchanged Russian Sent to Kyiv Wants to Go Home in Donbas Where He Faces Possible Russian Repression
14 February, 2020
Vasily Derkach (L) walks out of the bus on the day of the prisoner exchange on December 29 near the Mayorske checkpoint in the Donetsk region, Ukraine. Derkach was freed at the end of 2019 but says he wants to return home in the Donbas where he faces another arrest. EPA-EFE/VALERI KVIT

Among the 76 prisoners returned to Ukraine from prisons and colonies of the self-proclaimed republics in the Donbas on December 29, Spektr unexpectedly met a citizen of the Russian Federation. The pensioner with a Russian passport and an apartment in the city of Zuhres in the Donetsk region – currently located in territory not controlled by Ukraine’s government – wants to return home.

During the six years of the Donbas war, Vasily Derkach, who’s almost 80, was unlucky to have been held in the basements of the "Donetsk People’s Republic" twice – in 2014 and 2018. The Russian citizen was supposedly first arrested as a “Ukrainian spotter”, and the second time, he was tried as a “Ukrainian underground fighter”.

However, there is a steady feeling that in both cases the man was not guilty of anything – at first, he was imprisoned simply by mistake, and then for freethinking.

The Ilovaisk Battle and the “Espionage Case”

Long time ago, Vasily Derkach came from his village in the Zaporizhia region to a large city, Makiivka, to study at a mining school. After school, along with his young wife, he went to work in the Arctic Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. Staying in the north, but this time in Russia, Derkach then worked at the Norilsk Mining Industrial Complex named after A.P. Zavenyagin.

He retired in Norilsk, and in 1996 moved to Ukraine’s Donbas, to the small town of Zuhres near the Russian border. As a wealthy northerner, he bought a one-room apartment and completely renovated it.

By that time his children had grown up, his wife died, and Ukraine had become independent. Derkach really does not like the first president of Ukraine Leonid Kravchuk: “He said, ‘In my country there is no ‘North!’” That is, Derkach lost the 80% northern bonus to his pension in Ukraine.

Then, accustomed by the Soviet realities to everyday difficulties and the ability to overcome them, Derkach got creative: he rented an outhouse in the village near the town of Matveev Kurgan in Russia’s Rostov region, received registration there and re-applied for his large “northern” pension as a Russian. Matveev Kurgan is around 20 kilometers and one state border away from Zuhres. Derkach also received a residence permit in Ukraine. Before the war, he could obtain his pension in hryvnia in any Ukrainian ATM with his Sberbank of Russia card.

Vasily Derkach shows his Russian passport. Photo: Spektr.Press

After the war in eastern Ukraine started in 2014, Derkach had to travel to Russia to get his pension, since ATMs stopped working in territories not controlled by Ukraine. And Derkach was arrested for the first time on such a day. Derkach called the information desk of Ilovaisk railway station to find out the times when the electric trains were running to Russia. But there were no electric trains, and a couple of hours after the call four machine gunners burst into his apartment.

“Who knows these people, they were all with machine guns, but not all in uniform. They took me to Donetsk, to the former building of the SBU (Security Service of Ukraine – ed.), and threw me into the basement. And there were cripples and people on crutches, who and for what – I don’t know,” he recalled.

They didn’t explain the essence of the charges but Vasily Derkach assumed that he was considered a spy because he called the Ilovaisk railway information desk on August 24, 2014, when the Ilovaisk battle (one of the most difficult and terrible battles in the Donbas war), was going on.

Probably, Derkach was captured as a possible "fire spotter." But, since the “spotter” was clearly a little too old and too deaf, he was not killed, but sent “to the trenches”.

“They took me from there to the Prydorozhne village to dig trenches. There was such a hornet’s nest there: some roadblocks, some underground tunnels, some cannons. My task was simple – I had to cut firewood from plantation forest to cook food. I’ve already been a prisoner, but they fed us with what they ate, they didn’t offend us in this.”

According to Derkach, in the basement where he and other prisoners were kept, he heard other people's screams – they were tortured.

“In front of my eyes, a young girl... She was lying on her knees... And he, this police officer, breaks her arm with his knee, can you imagine?” said Derkach.

Human Rights Activist Kudinov and the First Release

Spektr learned about Vasily Derkach from Oleksandr Kudinov. The two met in prison. Kudinov became known as a human rights activist before the war. In 2013 he defended the only Ukrainian fisherman who survived after the Russian border guards drowned a fishing boat.

Kudinov was one of the most successful volunteers who, in the chaos of the first years of the war, dealt with the search for the missing persons and their release. On September 22, 2014, he was captured and put into the same basement of the former SBU building.

READ MORE: Ukraine’s Troubled Search for Missing Persons (DOCUMENTARY)

“On September 22, 2014, I was lucky to get captured: I spent 32 days in the basements but turned out to be like a goat in a cabbage garden – they threw me into the cell, and there were four people whom I was looking for and  about whose fate I knew nothing,” Kudinov told Spektr with a smile.

“In the cell where they threw me, [Oleksandr] Zakharchenko's (the then so-called head of the self-proclaimed “DPR” who died in the explosion in 2018 – ed.) bodyguard – a famous kickboxer in the city – was killed four days earlier. The drunk shift guard supervisor with the call sign “Shakhtar” beat him to death, he died in the arms of a man from my village whom I knew well,” told Kudinov.

“Of course, they tried to hide this death, but the killed man was previously detained for violating the curfew, he was with friends, so they could not hide it. Soon Zakharchenko himself arrived, the whole group of guards was kicked out, and "Shakhtar" went to jail, where he still is, by the way. And the fighters who fought in the Sloviansk battles became the new guards. They were not fond of torturing people, and the prison happened to get a new head as well.”

Human rights activist Oleksandr Kudinov. Photo: courtesy

By that time, Derkach had already managed to spend time in a torture vault and work “in the trenches” for almost a month. 

“They threw me in to spend the night in the fourth cell, where I met Oleksandr Kudinov. He saw all this, heard me and knows everything about my fate,” says Derkach.

Kudinov decided to help the pensioner at least with money – to start with. 

“The cells were pretty bad: old dried blood, rotting wounds on people, trash – it got to the point where the guards got squeamish about doing skin-searches on us,” Kudinov said. 

“There was a certain amount of money that was seized from me, and the very first night in the cell I found some form, and on its snippet, I wrote a statement addressed to the new head of the prison at 52 Shchorsa Street: 'From the amount of money seized from me, I ask you to give Vasily Derkach 500 hryvnias ($20.8), since he needs to get to Matveyev Kurgan to get his pension, and the militants robbed him.' In the morning I managed to hand over this paper, and I was soon taken out to meet with the perplexed prison authorities.

He tells me: what money? It has been seized. So, as a lawyer, I explain to him: seized does not mean confiscated, it is simply not in my possession, this is not your money, this is my money, and I want to dispose of it that way. Or let's write a report about the militants who took away three months’ pension from the elderly Vasily Derkach, a Russian citizen. Then, in my presence, they took out a bag with my money, offered to write an acknowledgment for 500 hryvnias ($ 20.8) and  one could say  I regained control of my money and began to give out something to everyone who was released,” Kudinov recalls.

The meeting with Kudinov coincided with the release of Derkach and the payout of money for his journey. Nonetheless, the pension stolen from him was never recovered. 

“They never returned my money, they didn’t know who and when stole it. I don’t remember what my pension was back then, but before the second arrest it included a polar surcharge: 23,000 Russian rubles ($ 367)!” says Derkach.

Unreleased memoirs about Crimea, the Interior Ministry and the second release

Derkach was arrested for the second time on April 16, 2018. Four machine gunners burst into his house again and took him to a pre-trial detention center. When he got there, Derkach immediately wrote a statement asking him to arrange a meeting with human rights activist Kudinov and complained about a violation of his rights.

The response of the so-called “DPR” Ministry of the Interior to Derkach’s complaint

Operatives of the “DPR” MGB drew up a protocol on “administrative arrest” for 30 days for Derkach according to a resolution of the so-called Council of Ministers of the “DPR” entitled “On urgent measures to protect the population from banditry and other manifestations of organized crime”. Such resolutions existed both in the “DPR” and “LPR”. On their basis, people are put into custody for 30 days without trial and investigation – according to Donetsk justice and up to 60 days according to Luhansk “law”. The so-called deputy minister claims there were no complaints from Derkach about the conditions until mid-May. Thus, there was no violation of human rights.

Derkach’s second arrest was most likely due to the fact that he decided to write memoirs about Crimea for his children. He brought his notes to copy and bind to the store closest to his house in Zugres.

“I wrote a manuscript about the fate of Crimea, the Crimean population,” the pensioner explains innocently. “Everyone has fallen out! We ourselves, Russians, are pushing Ukraine into the arms of NATO! I'm against it! I never condemned ‘DPR’ or ‘LPR’ there. Just look at the suffering of the Crimean population: the [Crimean] Tatars, others ... Ukraine turned off the gas supply, blew up electricity [infrastructure], blocked the railway, disconnected the water,” Derkach says.

The manuscript was kept in the store for a week and returned without photocopying and binding. However, Derkach claims that later one of the pages of his manuscript appeared as a leaflet at a bus stop.

Shortly after the arrest, Derkach was sent to a psychiatric hospital. Later, in September 2018, an investigator at the local prosecutor's office somehow refused to support the prosecution against him. But they never let him go. Another seven months later, in March 2019, the Khartsyzsk city court convicted Russian citizen Derkach.

Kudinov told Spektr that a sentence was read out to Derkach at the trial: three and a half years in prison. But Derkach has no court documents – before he was sent to Kyiv for the exchange, the sentence and part of the notes on Crimea were seized from him.

He only had two diary notebooks left on him, including the response of the deputy minister of the Interior Ministry to the pensioner's complaint and a hand-written certificate of release.

Certificate of release issued to Vasily Derkach

Derkach was charged with “acts aimed at inciting hatred or enmity, as well as humiliating the dignity of a person or a group of persons on the grounds of gender, race, nationality, language and origin”, as well as “illegal acquisition and sale, storage, transportation or carrying of firearms.” On top of that, Article 100 is also mentioned in the certificate – this is compulsory detention in a psychiatric clinic.

From the same certificate, it follows that Derkach was sentenced to two years and six months in a penal colony, but at the court hearing, he was given a different term – three and a half years. It is now difficult to determine and explain these discrepancies: most likely they came simply a result of a muddle during the organization of the exchange in the "DPR".

In the end, Derkach spent one year, eight months and eleven days in custody. And he claims that when by the end of 2019 he agreed to an exchange with Ukraine as a prisoner, he was not aware of any upcoming large-scale swap.

He was invited to the administration and asked to write a petition for pardon. But for some reason, they said that the release documents would only be issued to him in Horlivka, Donetsk region. Such was the procedure, they said (Makiivka is much closer to Zugres than Horlivka – Spektr).

The certificate of release was very important for Derkach – all this time, while he was in custody, he did not pay utility bills for his apartment. He would not get an instalment plan for the debts accrued without such a document.

It was already in Horlivka that the pensioner found out about the upcoming exchange with Kyiv. Then, according to Derkach, he was told that since he had already served twice in the “DPR”, he was not immune from the third arrest in Zugres. Whereas in Kyiv he would definitely not be imprisoned.

READ MORE: The Cost of Freedom: Who Was Exchanged in Occupied Donbas Prisoner Swap?

/This is an adapted story by Spektr