During the occupation of the Kherson region, Russians kidnapped Ukrainian journalist Oleh Baturin to force him to become a mouthpiece for Kremlin propaganda.
The journalists of Slidstvo.Info talked to Oleh Baturin, a correspondent of the Kherson newspaper Novyi Den, about his work during the occupation and his Russian captivity. The video has English subtitles.
“THOSE WHO DARED TO LEAVE WERE SHOT”
After 24 February 2022, many Ukrainian media professionals were forced to become war journalists, covering Russian crimes in the occupied territories.
Journalist Oleh Baturin is from Kakhovka, Kherson Oblast, which was occupied by the Russian military in the first days of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
According to the journalist, there were a lot of Russians and military equipment in Kakhovka. The occupiers shot people trying to leave the city at checkpoints.
“There was information that the occupiers were not letting anyone through the checkpoints without passes… Those who dared to leave were shot. It was unclear whether they were shooting everyone or just some people… It was very scary,” the journalist recalls.
Oleh Baturin says that he read in official sources about the abduction of almost 600 people in the Kherson region. However, at the time, he considered this information to be unrealistic, as there was no confirmation.
“My relatives warned me that they (the Russians — transl.) were sending me ‘hello’ through them… I don’t know how to say it, but on 12 March, that Saturday, I still had some kind of gut feeling,” says Oleh.
“WE WILL CUT OFF YOUR HEAD”
Oleh received a call from Serhii Tsyhipa, a volunteer from Nova Kakhovka with whom he had been exchanging information about the situation in their towns since 24 February 2022, and asked to meet.
“We agreed to meet at 5pm at the bus station in Kakhovka. I don’t know, there was some kind of anxiety… I remember that I published the last news that the occupiers were going to hold a referendum… and closed my laptop at about 4:40 pm,” Oleh recalls.
When the journalist arrived at the meeting place, the volunteer was not there. Instead, a civilian car with Ukrainian licence plates was parked on the street.
“It was cold, so I put on a warm winter jacket and went to the bus station. There was no Tsyhipa there… I realised that there was no point in running or hiding somewhere. I just walked quickly… Because there were so many kiosks there, they (the occupiers — ed.) did not notice me right away. I managed to get almost to the end of the platforms,” Oleh says.
The Russians threw Oleh on his knees on the asphalt and did the wristlock to him.
“They handcuffed me, pulled the hood of my jacket over my face. They pressed my head down so that it was also as low as possible. They started beating me, kicking me, hitting me with rifle butts,” Oleh recalls.
After the interrogation, the man was thrown on the floor of the car and taken to the Nova Kakhovka City Council, where the gauleiter (often used in Ukrainian media for the body appointed by the Russian occupational administration — transl.) of Nova Kakhovka, Volodymyr Leontiev, was waiting for him.
“I recognised him immediately, because I had seen his photo before. And he was the subject of my publication… They began to threaten me (Leontiev and another man in military uniform — ed.), telling me how they would kill me,” the journalist says.
Oleh says that Leontiev began to describe in detail how he would kill the journalist: “He said: “I will take a knife and cut off your skin so that you die slowly and in agony, bleeding to death… Then we will cut off your head. We will cut off your arms and legs. First the fingers, the skin of the fingers”. He seemed like a psychopath to me”.
Interrogations were held every day in the cells where the occupiers kept prisoners. The Russians were well aware of Oleh Baturin’s work.
“Everyone knew exactly, absolutely clearly who I was… I have the impression that they didn’t just take people for nothing. They all knew I was a journalist. This Leontiev knew, he said so himself, and he mentioned my publication. The FSB officers were constantly interrogating me: “How are you, Baturin, the journalist?”, Oleh says.
The man told Slidstvo.Info that the Russian occupiers were interested in information about specifically journalists. They tried to find out their names, addresses, and phone numbers.
“DAD WILL DEFINITELY COME BACK”
Oleh’s wife, Nataliia, sat by the window and hoped that her husband would be released.
“We were at home with the child until 9pm. I thought he would come… As they say, they would have a ‘conversation’ and let him go… And that Davyd (son — ed.) would sleep, because he supported me. He was constantly hugging me and telling me that dad would definitely come back,” Natalia says through tears.
While the Russians held Oleh captive, his son Davyd supported his mother and believed that his father would be released.
“I used to say that everything would be fine, that he would not be lost, that we would wait. On the first day, I said: “Let’s wait a little longer, he’ll come back one hundred per cent”. It was hard for me, but I didn’t show any emotions… I knew he wouldn’t die there,” says Davyd.
“COOPERATION” WITH THE FSB
Oleh Baturin believes that he was interrogated by a representative of the Russian special services: “I have the impression that an FSB officer was ‘working’ with me, because his behaviour was very distinctive. I spent about 6 hours in that office with a hood and tape on my head.”
The man was pressured to give out the contacts of the ‘three fascists’ and forced to sign a document on cooperation with the FSB.
“I was forced to sign a piece of paper, it said: ‘I, Oleh Baturin, undertake to cooperate with the federal authorities of the Russian Federation. Baturin O. and signature”, says Oleg.
On 20 March 2022, in the morning, the Russian military entered Oleh’s cell and ordered him to get ready: “They just came into the cell and said: “Pack your things, we’ll take you home”. They put a hood over my face again, tied my hands, but this time not with handcuffs, but with a plastic tie, and took me to Kakhovka.”
Oleh’s wife recalls that when her husband returned home, she did not recognise him: “When I saw him, he could barely walk, and in general… I didn’t even recognise him. He had lost weight and, as it turned out, he had broken ribs.”
“When he came to us for the first time, he was there for seven days… There are some people who were there for two or three months, and he was there for seven days, but it still felt like he hadn’t eaten for a whole year,” says Davyd.
WHO IS THE PERPETRATOR
During one of the interrogations with Gauleiter Leontiev, the journalist was threatened by a man who introduced himself as Otaman Ivanovich. Oleh Baturin decided to identify his offender.
“I was wondering who Otaman Ivanovich from Donetsk was. I was sent several photos, without names. And I was looking at the face of this man who threatened me with a ‘troika’ (an extrajudicial sentencing body in the USSR, when three punishers sentenced people to being shot — ed.)
The journalist found out that the man’s name is Valentyn Motuzenko. He is an adviser to the head of the so-called DPR.
Despite his captivity, Oleh Baturin did not give up journalism. He works at the Crimean Centre for Investigative Journalism and in the international project “Payback. Ukraine Testifies”.
Oleh hopes that all the perpetrators will receive fair punishment for their crimes.
“They should be tried in the same way as the Nazi criminals of the Second World War,” says Baturin.