A Ukrainian couple traveled to Estonia through Crimea

Priit Pullerits
, vanemtoimetaja
Having arrived in Estonia from occupied Kherson after a stressful and exhausting journey, Viktoria admits that all people who escaped the horrors of the Russian war need the help of a psychologist to continue their lives.
Having arrived in Estonia from occupied Kherson after a stressful and exhausting journey, Viktoria admits that all people who escaped the horrors of the Russian war need the help of a psychologist to continue their lives. Photo: Margus Ansu
  • Occupiers investigate the Ukrainians’ telephones to determine their views.
  • One can buy his way out of the FSB for dollars.
  • The Russians are deliberately creating a humanitarian disaster at the border.

Viktoria, an artist, and her partner, Danil, a programmer, heard every explosion in Kherson since July, when the Ukrainian forces fired from a distance at the Antonivka bridge, along which the Russians were transporting equipment and ammunition to the units which had crossed the Dnieper.

In fact, they actually felt the explosions. Each hit created a shock wave that blew open the doors and shook the windows of their two-story house. Therefore, they had covered the glasses with strong tape, so that if they should break, thousands of shards would not fly everywhere.

Their house is located three kilometers away from the nearly one and a half kilometer long Antonivka bridge.

But it wasn't the constant shooting at a bridge vital to Russian invaders which forced Viktoria and Danil to leave their home at the end of last month. (They asked not to reveal their last name, because some of their relatives remained in occupied Ukraine.) “Incredible accuracy with which the HIMARS shoot – one hole right next to other,” Danil praises the American multiple rocket launchers. Nor did they leave when a piece of an anti-aircraft missile fell on the roof of a neighbor's house and punched a hole in it. They were forced to leave their homes by a referendum organized by the Russians and their collaborators.

This did not inspire popular support in Kherson, which had already been abandoned by more than half of its 284,000 inhabitants. The city, where the main language of communication is Russian, fell under Russian control by March 2. Looting of shops, indiscriminate shooting from trucks and tanks began immediately. “It was horrible,” says Viktoria.

Since the Russians' tactic is to instill fear in order to suppress resistance, their brutal behavior only achieved, according to Danil, that even those who might have been tolerant of the arrival of the Russians began to hate them.

However, there were not many of those who went to the polling stations which opened for the referendum. Although the occupiers organized a propaganda event at the Kherson Drama Theater building, where flags were flying and music was playing, and where people were brought by buses, according to Viktoria, there were still half as many people as before the performances.

According to Danil's description, voting in the referendum therefore usually went like this: two women took a box of ballots and walked with it from house to house, from door to door, accompanied by two men with assault rifles. Whoever opened the door was asked the question: “Are you participating in the referendum?”

If the answer was no, it was followed by: “I recommend you to reconsider”.

When someone asked what would happen if he voted against joining Russia, he replied: “I recommend you to reconsider again”.

“Everything went seemingly politely,” says Danil. As far as he knew, anyone who had resisted or claimed that the referendum was not legal, was picked up the next day and taken away. Taken to the basement, as they say.

Slit his throat

In the basement, as he heard, things happen as follows. You have a bag on your head, no food is given for three days; all you hear is other people's screams; sometimes they come and beat them. Then porridge and water are finally brought and taken to the interrogation. “Speak!” – “What?” And they beat you again. The next time you will receive electric shocks through alligator clips attached to your ears, beaten and asked if you know anyone from the armed or security forces of Ukraine. Or have you served there yourself? One confessed that he had, and then had his throat slit in front of the others. Those who did not confess had to start cooperating with the Russians, including yelling at their orders: “Putin - krasavtsik!" (“Putin - a handsome man!”)

One of Danil's relatives, who was captured by the Russians, ended up in hospital. When Danil went to see him, he saw a person beaten black and blue lying on the bed. His legs had been crushed.

Danil understood well what the announcement of the predetermined results of the referendum would entail. He had studied and worked in Moscow for a long time, had seen the hostile attitude there towards second-rate people, i.e. non-Russians, and realized that after the annexation of the occupied territories in Ukraine to Russia, the fate of the men there would be cannon fodder. They would be given a Russian passport, as well as a Russian military ID, and then they would be recruited into the Russian army, whether they have service experience or not, and sent to the front – even if they are not entrusted with a gun at first, to dig trenches with a shovel.

"Who do I tell that I don't agree with this?" asks Danil. (At the beginning of the war, he wanted to join a Ukrainian territorial defense unit, but because he had not completed his military service, he was not accepted.)

By the early morning of Friday the week before last, Viktoria and Danil and Viktoria's brother with his bride packed warm clothes in bags, took all the documents with them and left home. The house inherited from Danil's grandfather was left behind, and Danil and Viktoria had put a lot of effort into repairing it: they had replaced the windows, installed new insulation. The bathroom was currently being renovated. The materials for this had already been purchased.

First it was necessary to get to the opposite bank of the Dnieper. They could not use the Antonivka bridge. It was under fire. During the day, the Russians tried to repair the bridge, but during the night, the Ukrainians attacked it. Heavy equipment has not crossed the bridge for almost the last month and a half.

The Russians have been using rafts and pontoons on the Dnieper to transport ammunition and supplies, and have also taken civilians on board. But crossing the river like this is life-threatening because, as Danil confirms, the HIMARS can also hit them with amazing accuracy.

A walk like in a concentration camp

Viktoria and Danil reached the left bank of the Dnieper by a ship which carried about two hundred people. “Fortunately, nothing happened,” says Viktoria.

There they sat in a Mercedes-Benz minivan, which took them to Armyansk towards Crimea. The ticket cost one thousand hryvnias (27 euros). There were destroyed houses and smashed vehicles along the road. The road surface was full of holes from bomb hits. During the one and a half hour journey, there were about a dozen Russian checkpoints, which they passed through without stopping – probably because the driver of the Mercedes was familiar to the Russians from before. Those stopped by the Russians must surrender cigarettes, canned food or dollars to redeem passage.

But in Armyansk... “It started happening there,” says Viktoria.

Armyansk is located on the Perekop Isthmus, which connects the annexed Crimea with the rest of Ukraine. Danil describes the road along the isthmus as a tunnel: surrounded by combat vehicles and large rockets. For an hour and a half, they walked step by step along a corridor fenced off by barbed wire, like in a concentration camp, according to Viktoria, until they reached the passport control. It was known that all the men were interrogated there by employees of the Russian security service FSB.

But they had not anticipated that the FSB men would also send Viktoria for questioning. “I was afraid,” she admits. Danil noticed it too: her face turned pale, her lips and hands began to tremble.

The interrogators are interested in the contents of the phone, which should give a clear picture of who the owner is. Just in case, Viktoria had bought a new phone in Kherson for 150 euros and put a Russian SIM card in it, as well as uploaded previous pictures so that the thing would not look suspiciously new.

Danil's situation became critical. In March, after the Russians arrived in Kherson, he gave an interview to television at an anti-Russian rally, where he said that Kherson belongs to Ukraine and that no one there wants to join Russia. “I had the feeling that I would drive right into their arms and end up in the basement,” Danil says. “I thought it was all over.”

Fear of death

“Did you go to the referendum?” asked an FSB employee in a tiny room with a metal door, where there was only a table and two chairs.

“No, I was in the cottage,” replied Danil. He knew that he had to remain calm and firm when answering. (Women can play naïve, says Viktoria, because the Russian military like fools.) “But if you had gone, how would you have voted?” another question followed.

“I do not know, I haven't thought about it.”

At the same time, Russian President Vladimir Putin's speech appeared on the cell phone screen, where he announced the annexation of four regions of Ukraine. The interrogator raised his gaze to Danil to see how he would react. “Our president,” said the FSB man. And added: “Now your president too.”

The interrogator then took Danil's iPhone and left the room. It usually took ten minutes to check the contents of the phones. But the FSB man did not come back even after half an hour. He did not return even after an hour.

As a programmer, Danil had carefully cleaned his phone of all data. But he did not know what technical capabilities the FSB has.

“I got the feeling that they were restoring my data,” he says, “and that now I'm a dead man.” He had managed to notice that a young man who also had an iPhone had been waiting for it for two hours. And when the interrogator finally came, he did not give the phone back to the young man, but took him with him.

“Now that's all,” Danil had thought. “I was mentally prepared to be taken to the basement.” However, he had a back-up plan in case of the worst scenario. He had agreed ahead of time with three family members that if he did not pass the inspection, they would continue on their journey, while his friend would try to contact the Russians to buy him out. The amounts were supposed to start from a thousand dollars, but also reach up to 5,000 dollars.

“I know how corruption works,” says Danil, referring to his long life experience in Moscow. “Money buys everything in Russia.”

Arrogant border guards

However, this knowledge was not needed. Finally, at five o'clock in the afternoon, Danil got his phone back with the documents from the FSB.

“If only you had seen how quickly we left there,” says Viktoria. But the bus which was supposed to take them through the Crimea, over the Kerch bridge and from the side of Moscow to Estonia or Latvia had already left. The next bus with refugees left at midnight. 12 of the 48 seats remained unoccupied.

A bus with a Russian license plate traveled to the Baltic countries for two nights and one day. The drivers from Yalta made a stop every three to four hours at gas stations so that the passengers could go to toilets or eat. Everywhere, the Ukrainians could feel how Russians, whether cleaners or cashiers, despised them. “We were looked at as if we were nobody,” says Viktoria.

During the trip, the bus drivers inquired by phone which Russian border crossing with Estonia or Latvia has the shortest queue. It turned out that Ludonka, which is northwest of Velikiye Luki. They arrived there by 11 o'clock last Sunday morning. There was a long queue of cars, hundreds of people on the side of the road. The weather was gloomy, the clouds moved low, cold wind was blowing. “A nightmare,” says Danil.

New facts soon became apparent. There were no benches to sit outside. Not a single room to go to for warmth, either. There were no litter boxes; the wind was blowing garbage here and there. Not even a toilet. The forest was full of shit.

“Horrible,” says Viktoria. “A humanitarian disaster,” adds Danil.

And the Russian border guards – pointing at the Ukrainians and laughing at them. They shout orders, and if someone doesn't immediately understand what is being asked, they shout: “Don't you understand normal Russian, do you?” They humiliate you and behave arrogantly when they ask questions about the trip: “Do you think someone is waiting for you there [at the other side of the border]? Well, look at yourself, what kind of work are you doing there!” According to Danil, the Russian border guards look at people as if they were criminals.

Before the evening, Viktoria and Danil heard that they could buy seats in the bus of an Azerbaijani for the night, so that they could sleep. One place cost 1,500 rubles, about 30 euros. They had to pay, because the temperature dropped to four degrees, the wind which had died down during the day rose again, it started to rain. “This bus saved us,” says Danil.

For many, it was out of the question to afford a night bus seat. Their savings had been spent on reaching the border. Since they could not sleep anyway, because waiting in line made them nervous, Viktoria and Danil gave up their place to others on several occasions so that people could get a little warm. One of the young men had already been taken away by ambulance – it was said that he had a stroke.

Out of the Russian hell

The next morning, when the line reached Viktoria and Danil – much faster than at other Russian border crossings, where people stood and froze in the queue for two, three, even four days – they realized the reason for the slow progress: passports and belongings were checked by only two workers. When Danil asked why there weren't more of them, because people were suffering and children were crying, he got the answer: “We are not obliged to do anything for you.”

“These dirtbags - there's no other way to call them – force people to wait there for days,” says Danil. When they finally got out of Russia, feelings were unleashed: Danil and Viktoria and his brother and his bride hugged each other with tears in their eyes.

In a quarter of an hour, they got through the Latvian border crossing checkpoint and took the bus heading for Poland, to reach Rezekne, two hours’ travel away. Gallery owner Raul Oreškin, who had met Viktoria at an exhibition organized in January, sent his friend to meet them in a minibus, who brought the group of four to Tartu late on Monday last week, where they settled in a small room in Aparaaditehas.

“We were very lucky, very lucky,” says Danil. “Estonia is a beautiful country.” “And how many galleries there are here!” Victoria wonders. There was only one in Kherson for a long time, and the second was opened only two years ago.

”But I still want to go home,” admits Danil. “I already told my wife on the first night that if I could, I would drive back immediately.”

But they cannot do it yet. First, the Ukrainian army needs to free Kherson from the Russian occupiers.

Until then, Viktoria is happy to be able to go out in the city at night without worries. In Kherson, which fell under the Russian rule, the streets were deserted already at five o'clock in the evening. People locked their doors and even if someone was screaming desperately outside, no one dared to look out to find out what happened.

“Everyone understands that Russia is the worst,” says Danil.