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“If you don't go to war, they’ll put you in a pit”: A secret prison for Russian soldiers who refuse to go to war

As we learned on July 21, Russian contract soldiers who have refused to wage war in Ukraine are being sent to a specialized facility for “balkers” in Brianka, Luhansk Region. The Insider has established contact with one such serviceman, who arrived at Brianka on July 22 and managed to hide his phone.

Ivan (the name has been changed) shared that he’d written a report on his refusal to participate in combat action for moral reasons. Around 200 of his peers did the same. As Ivan says, some were sent home, while others, including himself, were less lucky and ended up in Brianka.

“After submitting our refusals, we changed three facilities: there was the first camp, then there was a prison cell, and then they brought us here.”

Ivan also points out that a written refusal doesn't guarantee you won't be sent to the front line. Some “balkers” are still taken there forcibly.

“There were rumors of others who were taken to a remote location ‘for processing’. There have been accounts of a basement and a pit. Some escaped and were never seen again.”

Upon arrival to the Luhansk Region, soldiers aren't told where they are being transferred. As Ivan says, they are threatened with disciplinary battalions, construction battalions, and prison camps. In Brianka, soldiers are told they will have to pass a psych eval and sit down with their commanders, who will decide their fate.

“Here's what I was offered: ‘You have two options: you can either proceed to the front line or refuse, but if you do, you’ll be put in a detention center.’ That's what they call the pit. I plan to refuse. I might still be able to get away with it and leave. I could also return to my unit.”

The report that landed Ivan and his comrades in Brianka wasn’t their first one. When they were writing a similar report back in Russia, they were threatened with jail.

“Military shirking is a punishable offense. As members of the military, we are obliged to perform all duties that are assigned to us. I couldn't refuse because I didn’t want to go to prison.”

Before ending up in Brianka, Ivan had spent three months in the combat zone. He says the most horrendous things he witnessed were the death of his comrades and the treatment they got from their commanding officers.

“Deceit and manipulations are business as usual. They tell us: ‘We go there, get the job done, and go back home.’ We comply, and two days later, they send us further ahead. Many soldiers die because of their own stupidity and inexperienced commanders.”

Ivan is now in touch with his parents, who are trying to set him free. The situation is complicated by the ban on communication for Brianka prisoners. The incarcerated soldiers use phones secretly from their captors. “We have to hide. If they find a phone, they’ll smash it.”

Earlier, The Insider reached out to the families of two contract soldiers who are being kept in Brianka. One of them shared that “balkers” abounded. The commanders are hesitant to let them go, fearing that other contract troops will follow suit.

The father of another “balker” agreed to speak with The Insider, sharing that Russian contract soldiers were promised a leave after three months of service and permission to refuse from participating in combat activities. However, when they decided to leave Ukraine, submitting their refusals, they were detained and brought to Brianka, where they have spent over a month in custody.

According to the interviewee, the incarceration conditions are abysmal: “Some sort of pits, torture, and the like. These are the accounts of people who returned from there.” At the psych eval, they are told things like: “You're a coward! A disgrace to the Russian army, betraying your motherland in its darkest hour, when fascists are at its borders!” “How can you abandon your comrades?” “If it weren’t for you and others like you, we'd already have conquered all of Ukraine.” Despite all this, contract soldiers are reluctant to return to the front line.

“They’d rather die than go back. They don't want to be neck-deep in the blood of their friends and close officers. A Russian soldier may suffer, may be in pain, but he won't go there. I haven't heard of anyone returning to Ukraine.”

Anna Titova

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