It was supposed to be a romantic meeting, a first date of sorts for two online lovebirds who had never before seen each other in person.
On August 24, 19-year-old Pavlo Gryb departed the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv to spend an afternoon in Gomel, Belarus with a girl he had met online. First they had chatted on the popular Russian social network VK. Then, they had talked on Skype. Everything seemed normal.
Pavlo was supposed to return home that same day. But he never came back. Soon, his father, Ihor Gryb, had departed for Gomel to find his son. What he discovered there has shocked Ukraine.
Pavlo, a pro-Kyiv activist and blogger in social media, was apparently detained in Belarus and deported to Russia to face terrorism charges. What’s more, it appears that Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) may have used Pavlo’s female friend to lure him across the border where he could be arrested.
Blogger or Terrorist?
Pavlo Gryb’s story came to public attention on August 27, when his father — a former Ukrainian border guard and current military chaplain — published a post on Facebook describing his search for his son.
In Gomel, he managed to discover that Pavlo was wanted in Russia under article 205 (“terrorist act”) of the Russian criminal code, a charge that was initiated by the regional FSB office in Russia’s southwestern Krasnodar Kray.
Photo credit: Ihor Gryb facebook page
Ihor also appealed to Belarusian border officials, who are known to detain individuals on the Russian wanted list and deport them to Russia. However, they claimed to have no idea where Pavlo was. The Gomel border service chiefs declined to meet with him, Ihor wrote on Facebook.
“Pavlo didn’t take part in the armed conflict in Ukraine’s east,” he wrote, “and he couldn’t serve in any military organization because of health problems.” For this reason, it remains unclear how Pavlo could have committed an act of terrorism in the Russian authorities’ eyes.
In his Facebook post, Ihor Gryb made one accusation that, on the surface, seemed outlandish: the FSB had used Pavlo’s online female friend to lure him to a place where he could be detained. However, that accusation increasingly appears true.
On August 29, the Ukrainian television news channel 1+1 found Pavlo Gryb’s female friend, a 17-year-old from the Russian city of Sochi, using social networks. In a telephone interview, she told the journalists that the FSB had blackmailed her into going to meet him in Belarus.
“They also pressed charges against me,” she said. The girl insinuated that the charges may have resulted from her discussions of nationalism with Pavlo. However, she declined to say anything further because she had “signed a non-disclosure document” with the FSB.
Today, Hromadske also contacted the girl. She introduced herself as Tatiana, but declined to provide information on the FSB’s exact role in her meeting with Pavlo. “I can’t talk about [that], because it could make things worse for him and for me,” she said.
Tatiana also said she is speaking with journalists because “you need to know that I’m a real person, that I’m not an FSB agent...I simply want people to know the truth.”
In chat logs seen by Hromadske, Tatiana — who reportedly has Ukrainian roots — spoke in Ukrainian. Oddly, she asked Pavlo not to use the the Ukrainian letter “zh” or the exclamation point symbol to demonstrate that it was actually him talking with her.
Pavlo and Tatiana attempted several times to meet in person. Because Pavlo refused to visit Russia, he suggested they meet on the Ukrainian-Belarusian border. Finally, they agreed to meet in Gomel. Tatiana was supposed to come there with her mother, and she sent Pavlo an online map indicating where they would meet.
But not everyone believes Tatiana’s story. Pavlo’s sister, Olga Gryb, stresses that it is not clear exactly who the girl speaking to the press is. Even if it really is Pavlo’s friend, her statements “could be beneficial to her handlers in the FSB.”
“From my point of view, we shouldn’t believe this source of information...I think it's a kind of game,” she told Hromadske.
Where is Pavlo?
Currently, Pavlo’s whereabouts remain unknown. Yesterday, Belarus’s Euroradio reported that its anonymous sources claim Pavlo is being held in the regional FSB office in Krasnodar. However, officials in Krasnodar declined to confirm this.
According to Olga Gryb, both the Belarusian and Russian authorities have denied that Pavlo crossed onto their territory — despite the fact that both the Ukrainian border service and the driver of the shuttle Pavlo rode to Gomel confirm that he indeed successfully crossed into Belarus.
Photo credit: Gryb family archive
Currently, the case is being investigated by several Ukrainian state bodies, Olga said. She believes it represents a forced disappearance, a violation of international law.
“This is the first case when a citizen of Ukraine is kidnapped from the territory of Belarus,” she added. “This is very important.”
But there is very little certainty in the case. Where is Pavlo Gryb? Exactly how was he detained? Why? — all these questions remain unanswered. The only person who seems remotely certain is Tatiana.
In two previous cases, Ukrainians have been detained in Russia or on the the territory of the Crimean peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014, while visiting female friends. They were both subsequently sentenced to lengthy prison terms. But Tatiana believes that won’t be Pavlo’s fate: even if he’s sentenced to prison, it will be for significantly less time.
How does she know? “I know a bit more about him than other people, but I can’t say more about this,” she said. “He’ll certainly return, but for now it’s impossible to say when.”
/by Matthew Kupfer, Nataliya Tikhonova and Yevgeniy Savvateev