Ukrainian Musicians in Russian Captivity Translated by Lesya Lantsuta Brannman

Photo by Robert Klank on Unsplash

Since the spring of 2022, musicians from military bands stationed in Mariupol and the Ukrainian military who defended Mariupol from the Russian invasion have been held captive in Russia. Three military orchestras were stationed in Mariupol at the start of the full-scale war; they were the orchestras of the 12th Brigade of the National Guard of Ukraine, the 36th Brigade of the Navy, and the 56th Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. During the destruction and gradual occupation of the city by the Russian army, the orchestras and Ukrainian defenders of Mariupol were at the outposts of Mariupol’s defense – at the Ilyich Plant and Azovstal – from where they were forced to go into captivity in April-May 2022. As of February 2024, 27 musicians from military bands are still in Russian captivity. Their whereabouts and status remain unknown.

Military bands are military musical units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, whose tasks include the cultural, aesthetic, and ideological education of personnel, as well as improving the moral and psychological state of troops. According to international humanitarian law, musicians of military bands, as non-combatants, should be released by Russia from captivity without any conditions. However, the aggressor country, once again violating the laws of war and the norms of treatment of prisoners of war, illegally detains Ukrainian musicians in prisons and tortures them.

Bring the Orchestra Home!

To raise as much publicity as possible and, with the help of the international community, return the musicians from Russian captivity, relatives and friends of the prisoners of war have joined forces with the Ukrainian government and the human rights community in the Bring the Orchestra Home! initiative.  This movement was founded by Anastasia Yemelianenko, the wife of a captured musician of the National Guard Orchestra of Ukraine.

Participants in the initiative defend the rights of musicians from all three orchestras who were captured in Mariupol. According to Anastasia: “The main mission of our movement is to talk about the unprecedented case of orchestra musicians in captivity. Yes, all three orchestras are military, but each musician’s contract states that they are an orchestra artist – not a shooter or a mortar operator. Many are professional musicians and they have performed at festivals, traveled abroad, participated in competitions, and above all, been playing music.”

Anastasia’s husband is a saxophonist. They studied together at the Donetsk Music College. After the Russian occupation of the city in 2014, they continued their studies at the Kherson Music College and later received their music degrees in Kyiv. Anastasia graduated from the Reinhold Glier Kyiv Municipal Academy of Music, and her husband received his degree from the Kyiv National University of Culture and Arts.

Anastasia’s husband got a job as a musician in a military orchestra in Mariupol in 2020. She indicates that it wasn’t easy to get a job playing music in the city at that time. The military orchestra was the place where a group of talented musicians gathered. While peaceful life continued in Mariupol, the orchestra performed at city events and learned new repertoire – from academic music to pop music and arrangements of Ukrainian folk songs.

On February 24, 2022, the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the musicians, including Anastasia’s husband, arrived, as ordered, at their military units and eventually withdrew to Azovstal [Azovstal Iron and Steel Works, the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol – L. B.] where they spent most of the time during the defense of Mariupol. At Azovstal musicians’ function was to perform humanitarian tasks such as providing food, digging up rubble, and putting the bodies of the fallen into refrigerators. In May, the musicians and the military were taken prisoner, following orders. The health of many had already been severely compromised by that time. Many were injured, and some musicians were killed while defending Azovstal.

According to Anastasia:

“I started to actively communicate with journalists when our musicians, together with the military, were at Azovstal. We tried to do at least something that could save their lives, and we held peaceful actions. I continued to do everything I could to save them from captivity when we managed to leave Mariupol but there was no result – the issue of the musicians in captivity was silenced for some time. I then turned to the Coordination Headquarters [Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War – L.B.] with a proposal to make this issue of musicians in captivity more widely known. We began working on an action plan in February 2023 and now hold regular meetings with the international community. In June, we spoke at a PACE [Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe] meeting, followed by a speech at the UN.

It is very difficult to work with the topic of prisoners. We must talk about them but do it very carefully so as not to harm them. We know that the Russians mock Ukraine’s military and the musicians. One of the artists of the 36th Marine Brigade’s orchestra, a saxophonist, was killed in captivity. When his body was returned to Ukraine, it bore signs of torture. The guy was 22 years old.”

As of this writing, Anastasia’s husband has been in captivity for 20 months and she has not had an opportunity to contact him or find out about his health. She says that representatives of the Red Cross do not have access to the colonies where the prisoners are held. In fact, the only hope to find out about the condition of their relatives is to communicate with those returning from Russian captivity because of prisoner exchanges. However, this hope remains largely illusory because prisoners are often transported from place to place and the chances of meeting a person who has returned from captivity who has met the person you are waiting for in Russian prisons are extremely slim.

Some musicians have been released from captivity since the final occupation of Mariupol by Russian troops. First, were some of the seriously wounded. Serhiy Aleksun, a soldier of the 12th Operational Brigade of the National Guard of Ukraine, was one of the musicians released from captivity. He and Anastasia performed a duet together in Strasbourg at a PACE meeting, Melody [in A minor] by Myroslav Skoryk with Serhiy playing a French horn and Anastasia playing a piano.

“You go to talk about your pain, and you also try to get people interested in hearing your pain. It’s scary. The world has become so calloused that you must look for interactive ways to make people hear about your tragedy,” said Anastasia.

One or two orchestra members have returned to Ukraine in nearly every exchange since the issue of captured musicians began to be raised with the international community. According to Anastasia: “We are doing everything we can to bring our guys back alive. We are not even talking about their health since it is unrealistic after two years of captivity. Longer physical and psychological rehabilitation is expected for prisoners held captive for longer periods. Psychologists say that one month of captivity requires three months of psychological rehabilitation. Our guys have been in captivity for almost two years, which means that six years of rehabilitation will be needed to bring a person back to a normal social state.”

“We fought back in prison”: the story of a musician released from Russian captivity

Volodymyr Tsema-Bursov, a musician of the military orchestra of the 56th Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine was released from Russian captivity on January 3, 2024 and has recently begun his rehabilitation journey. Volodymyr’s entire life has involved music in its most diverse manifestations. At a music school in his native Mariupol, he learned to play the accordion while, at the same time, playing bass guitar in an amateur band. He graduated from music school with a degree in bassoon and received his diploma at the Mariupol branch of the Donetsk Conservatory, specializing in musicology. For almost 20 years, he worked in the orchestra of the Palace of Culture of Metallurgists and, at the same time, played in the brass band of the Mariupol Philharmonic. He was also a show band musician on a cruise ship for two years, playing bass guitar. In 2020, after the start of the pandemic, he got a job as a tuba player in a military band.

Before the start of the full-scale Russian invasion, the brigade’s non-combat units, including the orchestra, were at a permanent deployment point. On February 24, 2022, they switched to barracks mode, and later found themselves on the territory of the Ilyich plant. On April 12, the orchestra musicians, together with the military, attempted to break out of the besieged Mariupol, but were captured due to the dense siege of the city.

Volodymyr, along with his prison colleagues and comrades-in-arms, was taken from one prison to another during his 20 months of captivity, incarcerated in prisons located in Olenivka, Sukhodolsk (in the Russian-occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions), and the Russian city of Vyazma [Russia, Smolensk region – T.N.]. Volodymyr’s home was burned to the ground during the Russian occupation of Mariupol. He lost more than 40 kilograms of weight in captivity, acquired numerous diseases, and endured physical and psychological torture. Despite the horrors of Russian captivity, the musician retained an ironic smile and faith in the future.

Volodymyr Tsema-Bursov

About the functions of musicians during the defense of Mariupol

According to Volodymyr Tsema-Bursov’s narrative:

“We went on patrols, stood at the gates, and checked entries and exits. Since we were non-combat units, we occasionally ended up in the kitchen. Our job on Azovstal’s territory was to be on duty at observation posts and report on the movement of enemy equipment. We made shelters on our own, because the observation posts were constantly being hit. Like clockwork, every day beginning at 4am a Russian plane would start firing on the city and from 8am to 11am we would be covered with all kinds of bombshells. Sometimes you would sit and hear a bullet suddenly whizz over your head and you would think that if you were standing, it would have hit you in the head. Or a shrapnel could fly by and cut branches on a tree. You would realize that if it had flown a little lower and you had been standing a little to the right, it would have been your shrapnel. The last one.

At the Ilyich plant, I received a shrapnel wound to my knee after another mortar attack. In the hospital they said that it was encapsulated there, so we shouldn’t touch it, because if we went there, we would tear half my leg apart. The shrapnel usually enters easily but comes out hard – with large cuts. So, while being treated in the hospital, I was out of action for three or four days, and then I limped for a week. I still have this shrapnel in my knee but now I hardly feel it. When we arrived at the prison as prisoners of war, the “valiant” prison guards forced us to squat many times, and the shrapnel scratched my joint very noticeably.

On the attitude towards musicians in Russian captivity

At first, they did not believe me to be a musician.  At the next prison location, in Sukhodolsk, Luhansk region, I was summoned for interrogation. Two men were conducting this interrogation. “According to our information, you are an Azov instructor,” they said to me. I told them that this was not true, and that I am a musician by profession. “You can be registered as anyone by profession, but we know that you worked abroad and studied there,” they said.  I denied it many times, but how can you prove to the people there that you are telling the truth? Should I add that our conversation was accompanied by hits under my ribcage and on my legs? Finally, one of them said: “Well, if we give you a guitar now, will you play?” I played, of course. They took me somewhere and eventually we ended up on the stage of an assembly hall. There was a drum kit, a bass guitar, and a guitar. The guy who was leading me said in a second: “Okay, let’s go on stage”. Obviously, he saw my reaction that I didn’t tremble and didn’t get confused in front of the musical instruments. So, he just took me to the investigator, who took my testimony.

I spent most of my time in captivity in Vyazma. We were treated very cruelly there. Again, no one believed me that I was a musician. One of their employees, maybe a prison guard, went to all the cells, opened the window for food delivery and started talking to the prisoners. He asked everyone what their profession was. It was our cell’s turn. The window opened, we turned our backs to the exit and stood there. It started. He asked me: “Who are you?”. I answered that I was a musician. “So, you can sing?”  he asked. “Yes, I can,” I answered. I understood that singing meant just singing a melody, but not like a professional singer on stage. “Sing” he told me. I was standing there confused, not knowing what to do. The first thing that came to mind was the song In the Winter Park the Poplars Are So Sad. “Let’s sing another one,” he said. I started another one. Somehow this stopped after a while. The next morning, he walked around the cells again and said: “Where is that singer? Come on, sing!” I thought: “What have I done?”. He made me sing so that the whole prison could hear. Later I got nicknames like Zavklub, Singer, Maestro. The prison guards liked songs from the repertoire of the bands Lyube and Gaza Strip [Soviet and Russian rock bands; Lyube members support Russia’s war against Ukraine – T.N.]. I had to sing. It saved me: other prisoners were beaten a lot and forced to squat and jump. When it came to our cell, we sang (I started and my comrades sang along), and they didn’t touch us.

I was also saved by the fact that I had read a lot before captivity, including historical books. In prison, we had morning checks, and they asked tricky questions. For example, what Stalingrad is called now, Lenin’s name, where he was born, how many sons Stalin had, and all that stuff from the history of the USSR and the Russian Empire. If you didn’t answer, they would beat you. I was often saved by the fact that all this information was still in my head after reading books. That’s how I managed to avoid beatings.

About living conditions, food and treatment in captivity

There were six of us in my first cell, where I spent six months. I was then transferred to another cell of the same size but with eight of us. Some cells held 12 and even 15 people. Those who have been in such cells said that sometimes it was very hard. There were also cells with four people, but I was not lucky enough to be in one of those. In the cell where eight of us lived, the table was designed for four people. During meals, we were not allowed to sit for long. As soon as the food was distributed, we were immediately sent to take it away. It was like this: four of us sat at the table, and the rest of us made ourselves comfortable wherever we could. You couldn’t sit on the bed during the day. We were constantly standing, 16 hours a day. We could sit down only during meals. We ate and stood up.

There was a surveillance camera hanging on the ceiling. If someone leaned on the bed with their elbows, the warden would shout into his intercom and force them to squat 100-200 times, either only the person who leaned on the bed or everyone in the cell.

As for the food, from the first to the last day, there were three stable ration schedules that did not change, just alternated. The quality of the food changed. At first, it was just slop, there is no other way to call it – a few spoons of some kind of grain soaked in warm water, without salt, without seasoning, and even more so – without any fat. Sometimes I would eat and feel as if the food did not reach my stomach, dissolved somewhere along the way. They gave us 70 grams of tea. It was better to drink from the tap than that colored water. Over time, the quality changed a little: small pieces of meat and chicken skin appeared, and the bread ration increased. But the portions were of size to feed cats, not people. Before captivity, I weighed 96 kilograms. I was released from captivity at 55 kilograms. Others could see every bone in my body.

The Russians were sincerely surprised that we were losing weight. Sometimes they took us to the corridor to be examined by a doctor. The doctor who examined me once said: “Oh, why is he so thin?”.

I did not say anything about my injury. Given the way we were treated in the early days, I realized that if I said that my left knee hurt, my right knee would start hurting too. The doctors and administration “treated” us with their feet, rubber sticks, or tasers. I endured the pain and squatted and jumped as they ordered. I thought it was better to endure it in silence, because otherwise it would be even worse. It also depended on who you ran into when you told them what hurt you: sometimes they would grunt and take note; sometimes they would beat you very hard somewhere in the corridor. That’s why my knee healed on its own, out of fright.

In Vyazma, we had people come to us who introduced themselves as Red Cross workers. We doubted whether they were really from the Red Cross or a fake organization. We didn’t see any improvements after these visits, – no humanitarian aid, and no food. When there were external checks in the prison, the Russians stopped swearing at us and started feeding us a little better – but only temporarily.

On communication with relatives and news from Ukraine

We had only one opportunity to write a letter to our relatives. I wrote a letter to my wife about three months after I was captured. It reached her eventually. It was not an informative letter – we wrote it according to a template. I did not deviate from the template, because otherwise it would not have been sent. The main thing was to let her know that I was alive and well.

Six months before I was exchanged, I received a letter from my wife. I learned from it that it was not the first time she had written, even though I received only that one letter from her. The main thing for me was that my family was doing well.

Information about events in Ukraine came to us in fragments, and very cropped. Sometimes our captors would turn on some news from the so-called DPR or Russian news. Mostly these news pieces talked about the valor of Russian troops, while cutting off dates and places of combat operations. Since there were people from different brigades and different units among us, we could put together a general picture. We were not told that Ukraine was on the offensive or that Russia was suffering heavy losses. On the contrary, they told us that half of Ukraine was already under the Russian Federation, the other half was taken by Poland, that half of Kyiv was destroyed, Zelensky bought a castle in England, and such things.  All of this was accompanied by the words that Ukraine was suffering enormous losses, and that Russian precision weapons were only targeting “Bandera nationalists,” not civilians. In short, they were filling us with their propaganda and disinformation. This was done so that we, sitting there in isolation and completely unaware of what was happening in the world, would fall into depression.

Volodymyr Tsema-Bursov

About what helped you to stay in captivity and what was the first feeling when you returned to Ukraine

I can’t name anything specific that helped me stay in captivity. My body was there, and my thoughts were somewhere very far away, next to my family, in memories, and in fantasies. We were allowed to read fiction and sometimes I immersed myself in reading. The day passed and thanked God that I lived through it somehow. Of course, bad thoughts often haunted me. Mostly, I was worried about my family. I didn’t know if they were alive, if they had left Mariupol – it was such a meat grinder there. I tried to drive my thoughts away like annoying flies.

The Russians manipulated our feelings. Each time we were taken to the next prison, they told us that it was because of a prisoner exchange. However, each time we arrived only at the next prison and were not exchanged. This final time I had a feeling that it was most likely an exchange. This was evident in the way we were treated. Earlier, when we were being transported around, our hands were in plastic ties and our hats were pulled up to our noses and taped. This time there was no such thing. In previous times we were addressed with long swearing, this time there were no such words. We were not beaten or tased. This gave us hope that the exchange would take place.

When we were brought to Ukraine, I felt like I had turned into a “vegetable”. I had no emotions, but I don’t know why. There were no tears and no joy. Physically I was free in Ukraine but, in my mind, I was still in prison. I was in a stupor. Maybe that’s a good thing. The inhibition system in my head kept me from going crazy. I just sat there and watched what was happening around me. They told me to get up – I did, they gave me something to eat – I ate it. It seems that my body turned on such a protective reaction. I only gradually realized later what was happening.

About his native Mariupol in the light of Russian propaganda

Now, unfortunately, we can only see the Russian point of view. There aren’t people living in Mariupol who can show us what really happened. All the Mariupol residents who were in the city during the siege clearly saw that the planes and shells came from Russian troops.

In contrast to Russian propaganda, I could show my apartment in Mariupol, which burned to the ground. I could show the houses they demolished with their artillery. Until February 24, Mariupol residents lived in a luxurious city. What is it now? The Russians destroyed the factories, and there is no work there. They destroyed the city, killed it. I feel very sorry for Mariupol. I’ve seen footage of the ruins, but I try to avoid such sights now.

On plans

Of course, my desire to play music hasn’t disappeared. It’s unrealistic, but when the opportunity arises over time, I would like to work on a ship again during a cruise. It’s not even a job, it’s a pleasure. I won’t give up music. It’s just that everything I’ve acquired through hard work, all my instruments and equipment, has burned down. Now I have no instruments, no place to store them, and no car to transport them. I have nothing. So, I need a little time to figure out where I am and who I am. I will slowly acquire guitars and equipment again. In the meantime, if the war continues, I hope I will be of some use here – as a musician or as a non-musician.

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