By Monika Andruszewska*
The Ukrainian political prisoners are being called the ‘hostages of the Kremlin’. Those who opposed the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimean peninsula were accused of terrorism or espionage. Putin’s regime convicted them to slave labour in penal colonies where they are being kept with common criminals. Since the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, in Crimea and Russia, almost 200 Ukrainian citizens have been imprisoned. One of such prisoners is a Ukrainian with Polish roots, Valentin Vykhivskyi, the son of the liquidator of the Chernobyl power plant accident.
Father - liquidator
Valentin Vykhivskyi was born in Prypet, a town neighbouring the Chernobyl power plant, once Being called a flourishing industry site, now a “ghost town”. The inhabitants of Prypet were evacuated on 27th of April 1986. It was the same for Valentin’s family, who were living in town at the moment of the accident.
"I was supposed to be at the powerplant, but I switched shifts with my colleague that day. When the reactor exploded, I slept as I was exhausted after my shift. It was only in the morning when I woke up to hear about the accident, my wife told me about it. It appeared that the military was on the streets, the public transport was not working and the phones were switched off. Despite all that I took my bike to get to the powerplant" - says Petro Vykhivskyi, Valentin’s father who worked at the Chernobyl as a chemist.
"On my way to the power plant, a policeman stopped me, he said he can’t let me through as the military exercises are taking place there. I pointed him at the smoke coming out of a ruined power plant, saying that it looks demolished. The policeman was still trying to convince me it was all fine. When I came back home I met a friend, a physician working in the power plant. He said that there was an explosion in the reactor, but he was unaware of the scale of this catastrophe. Nobody knew anything back then. We were not told that anything could harm us. The inhabitants of Prypet believed their authorities and spend the rest of a sunny, spring day outside their houses," Petro recalls.
"In the evening we received an order to prepare for a temporary evacuation. That was the moment I realised how serious it has to be. I told my wife to stay home and left to get to the store. When I passed by the hospital, I saw a man wearing a protective uniform, who was checking the radiation level. I’ve asked the man to tell me what radiation units he can measure with his gear. He told me that it could measure 5 roentgen’s per hour, and when I heard that I was scared to death for the first time in my life. With such radiation levels around us, it was a day or two until we shall die," says Petro.
Back at home, Petro told his family to cover all the windows, because he knew that they needed maximum possible separation from all outside radiation sources. He tried to calm his wife, but informed her to keep out of the windows. He was most worried about the life of his children - Valentin and the youngest, who was born only 3 months earlier.
"We were evacuated after 36 hours. We took only a few of our personal possessions because we knew it was all radioactive. Luckily, we did not suffer any serious post radiation problems apart from sight problems, hair loss and nose bleeding. I myself, when my wife and children were safe, returned back to work in Chernobyl as a liquidator," Petro says.
Petro Vykhivskyi worked at the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone for two years. When asked about the radiation danger there, he shrugs.
"I was a qualified atomic power plant specialist. Such people were badly needed at that time. Amongst the first working crew of the power plant were my friends, such as Aleksandr Akimow, the senior steering engineer, who died in Moscow, two weeks after the accident. How could I leave my friends and duties in such a situation? I knew how to avoid radiation and what was at stake. The situation of those liquidators that had no clue was much worse. I was the guide for soldiers that came to Chernobyl; I was taking good care of them. I was also responsible for monitoring the radiation level to mark the relatively safe places and those that all of us should avoid," he recalls.
"I myself took a dose of around 180 roentgen. It is 8 times more than I should. Our principals were putting false numbers in our documents to make it look as always ready for work. The entire USSR political system was based on lies. We’ve experienced that during the Chernobyl plant catastrophe, and now when my son, who remembers the terrible spring of 1986 is being imprisoned by Russia," said Petro, remembering the conditions of work after the accident.
Son - a political prisoner
Velntin Vyhivskyi was detained by the Russian secret services in September 2014 in the annexed Crimea, where he went to meet a woman who was most likely cooperating with the FSB. They were "united" by their hobby - aviation. As his father recalls, Valentin was fascinated by aeroplanes from his childhood; he belonged to numerous associations of aviation fans.
After being arrested by the FSB, Valentin was held in Simferopol for several days and then transferred to Moscow to the FSB detention centre in Lefortovo, where he was forced to confess to Russian espionage charges through torture.
In December 2015, a Moscow district court sentenced him to 11 years in a high-regime colony for allegedly spying on the Russian air force.
"During the investigation, and even on the last day of the hearing, shortly before the sentence, he was offered cooperation with the Russian authorities in the field of aviation. Work on modernising Russian planes, housing, and good earnings was offered. Even now, while the son is in prison, the Russian services still offer him treason to Ukraine. Valentin refuses every time. I consider this a form of psychological torture," says Petro Vykhivskyi.
“They believe that keeping me in poor conditions for so long will make me agree to work for their country. The longer I stay here, the more I hate the Russian totalitarian system with all my heart,” Valentin wrote in a letter to his parents.
Valentin is currently in a penal colony in the Kirov Oblast. As the prisoner's father emphasises, Russia deliberately sends its Ukrainian hostages to penal institutions that are so far away to make it difficult for them to contact their families and receive consular support.
"Even ordinary criminals imprisoned in this penal colony seek transfers to other establishments and usually get permission to do so. And my son has been there for 7 years, for nobody knows what," says his father.
The conditions of Valentin's imprisonment do not meet any international standards, against which human rights groups have protested on numerous occasions. The "Resolution of the European Parliament on Russia, in particular, the situation of environmental activists and Ukrainian political prisoners'' compares the situation of a prisoner accused of espionage to "the times of repression from the 1930s to the mid 1950s, when many citizens of the then Soviet Union were sentenced for such reasons."
Valentin Vykhivsky was beaten many times and brought to a 40-degree Celcius temperature, and left there for several hours. A form of pressure used against a prisoner is also the continuous transfer to solitary confinement for offences randomly invented by the prison authorities. Valentin spent a total of 4 years in a penal cell, although other inmates, according to the Russian Criminal Code, cannot stay there for more than six months. Most of his letters to his family are censored. There is also no right to make phone calls. His father points out that he heard his son's voice for the last time almost five years ago. The Russian prison authorities also confiscate all the money that his parents send him so that he can buy food in the prison canteen.
“When my son fell ill with Covid-19 early last year, instead of showing him medical help and medications, the prison service transferred him to solitary confinement. This is perhaps the best example of how Russia approaches the life and health of its Ukrainian hostages," adds Petro.
“Undoubtedly, the" local Führer "in his madness has already reached such a level of degradation that he does not care about any" humanitarian issues "relating to Ukrainian political prisoners. And I've been rotting in prison for seven years!" - Valentin writes in another letter to his parents.
The only chance for the release of Valentin Vykhivskyi is the exchange of POW’s between Russia and Ukraine, but it is not known when this may occur.
The previous exchange took place on September 7, 2019. It covered 70 people, 35 on each side. Among the dismissed Ukrainians there were, among others, director Oleh Sentsov, who comes from Russia-occupied Crimea and is sentenced to 20 years in a Russian penal colony and 24 sailors arrested by the Russians after the military incident in the Black Sea in November 2018 also regained freedom. However, it is worth noting that since then, Russia has imprisoned at least 33 other Ukrainian citizens, most of them Crimean Tatars criticising the annexation of the peninsula.
"The son's condition is tragic. He does not understand why he was not released as part of the last exchange of prisoners. We suspect that it was due to the fact that Valentin refused to cooperate with Russia. We live in the hope of another prisoner exchange, but we are afraid that it may not happen this year. And Valentin has no moral strength to stay in this hell any longer. He often ends his letters by saying that we will probably never see each other again. He also expresses the hope that when he dies in the Russian colony, we will manage to bring the body to Ukraine, because he would like to be buried in his beloved country. He also regrets that the FSB did not kill him immediately after his arrest. I have no words to describe how I feel as a father when I read such things," sighs Petro.
In the last letter to his parents, Valentin writes that if he is not released at the beginning of summer, he does not see any possibility of surviving another year in the Russian colony.
“My beloved family, I'd rather die than bear it all the time. In short, I can take a few more months of waiting for freedom without complaining - and that's it! With a quick heavenly express, I will move to the heavenly lands, to the carefree world .. Forgive me Family, my psychic can no longer bear this senseless imprisonment! Please don't waste your time convincing me in letters that it's not worth it (..) I don't want you to worry, but even more so I don't want to deceive you by saying that everything is fine. Everything is very, very bad! Please, get used to my departure in your mind, as it is unlikely that a prisoner exchange will take place this spring. I do not want and cannot continue to exist in these inhumane conditions. I apologise again,” wrote Valentin from the Russian labour camp.
Grandfather and great-grandfather - victims of Soviet totalitarianism
“From generation to generation, our family experiences persecution from Russia. My son's fate is part of the history of the suffering of the male Wyhiwski line for almost 100 years,” emphasises Petro Vykhivskyi.
The Wyhiwski family has Polish roots. It comes from the vicinity of the city of Zhytomyr, which was included in the USSR after the Treaty of Riga that ended the Polish-Bolshevik war.
In 1937, as part of the Polish Operation, an action led by the NKVD against the Polish minority, Valentins's great-grandfather, Franciszek Garbowski and his brother were killed.
Valentins's grandfather, Stefan Vykhivskyi, was recognised by the Stalinist regime as an "enemy of the people'' and survived exile in a labour camp in 1953-1956. He was serving his sentence not far from the prison in the Kirov Oblast, where Valentin is currently being held. He was released from the gulag only after Stalin's death.
"Our family photos are the only souvenirs that I took away from our apartment in Pripyat after the disaster. Of course, I examined them earlier with a dosimeter. This is the most valuable thing we have. The more so because, as you can see, history repeats itself, but Putin took the place of Stalin," adds the prisoner's father.
Support from Poland
Valentin's relatives are in constant contact with the Polish Embassy in Kiev, as well as with Polish politicians. On April 23, the Deputy Marshal of the Polish Sejm, Małgorzata Gosiewska, met with the prisoner's father and other families awaiting the return of their relatives.
“In our embassy in Kiev, I had a very moving meeting with the families of Kremlin prisoners, with people who are fighting for the lives of their relatives - kidnapped, abducted, imprisoned either on Russian territory or in the occupied territories, in the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk republics. These are terrible situations,” said Deputy Marshal Gosiewska in an interview with Kurier Galicyjski.
"We constantly feel moral support from the Polish authorities, as well as the Polish nation. I would also like to find our Polish relatives with whom we have lost contact. I dream about going to Poland after my son returns! I hope these contacts will continue both in our current situation and when my son returns home. This is especially important because I know that he will need both psychological and physical rehabilitation. His health is completely destroyed," says the prisoner's father.
"My mother was a Catholic, due to the repressions against ethnic minorities in the USSR, she had to hide her Polish origin and religion. Therefore, it was great support for us when Deputy Marshal Gosiewska said that she would pray for my son's return. All families of political prisoners need official support because only international pressure on Russia's power can make our relatives come back. However, ordinary human warmth and prayers are also invaluable to us. Thanks to them, we feel that we are not alone" adds Petro.
Petro Vykhivsky also emphasises that letters and postcards sent to prison from other countries are great support for his son. In letters, it is better to avoid Ukrainian national symbols, as well as political slogans that may be perceived as controversial by the prison services. As the father says - it is a sign for the son that there are people in the world who oppose his imprisonment and wish him to return to their families as soon as possible. The required language is Russian.
Letters should be sent to the following address:
Выговский Валентин Петрович, д. Утробино г. Кирово-Чепецк Кировской обл. ФКУ ИК-11 УФСИН Россия 613040
Monika Andruszewska (1992)* - since the Revolution of Dignity, she has constantly been reporting on the situation in Ukraine, especially in the territories affected by Russian aggression. Since November 2014, she has been cooperating with Tygodnik Powszechny, for which reports from the front line. Her work deals mainly with psychological and social issues, taking into account the devastation caused by war in the lives of individuals.