KIEV, Ukraine -- Before the revolution in Ukraine, Olena Maksymenko devoted herself to writing short stories and fairy tales, modeling for fashion agencies and hitchhiking around Mongolia, Siberia and Europe. But months of protests on the Maidan Square in Kiev changed the lissome 28-year-old’s way of thinking, made her more interested in Ukrainian and international politics. After she saw reports of Russian troops occupying Crimea, Maksymenko genuinely believed it would be patriotic to become personally involved by traveling to the peninsula and sharing her views of the Euromaidan goals with local people. She had her ideals, like so many in the Maidan. But she had no idea what waited for her near the shores of the Black Sea.
A few days before the referendum in which the people of Crimea voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, Maksymenko decided to take the trip. Without telling the truth to her parents about her real destination, she joined up with a group of her male friends, some of them reporters and some of them, like her, young professionals-turned-activists sympathizing with the revolution. On March 9th, they packed an SUV with a few laptops, cameras and sleeping bags and drove from Kiev towards the peninsula some 800 kilometers (500 miles) away.
As they approached a checkpoint near Armyansk, just after entering Crimean territory, Maksymenko and her friends Oles Kromples and Eugene Rakhno came across armed men next to a white Citroen with a pink roof. Maksymenko recognized the uniforms of the Berkut, the Ukrainian riot police defeated in battles against protesters in Kiev last month and disbanded by the new government. There also appeared to be a few Cossacks and Russian-speaking militia. The men had machine-guns trained on two young women whose hands had been tied and who’d been forced to kneel on the ground. “It was too late for us to turn around,” Maksymenko told The Daily Beast. “A few minutes later we were detained and also forced to our knees.”
The other two women were Oleksandra Riazantseva, 29, and Kateryna Butko, 25, activists from a movement called AutoMaydan that began last December with a car procession to then-President Victor Yanukovych’s residence to protest against his refusal to sign the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement. They, too, had decided they needed to see pro–Russian Crimea with their own eyes.
That evening, Riazantseva’s parents, who are residents of Crimea, expected her and her friend for dinner. Instead they began three long nights and days searching for the disappeared detainees.
In the past few weeks, armed men in Crimea have picked up several Ukrainian activists. Earlier this week, seven more people from AutoMaydan were released after being held the better part of a week. Amnesty International (PDF) and other human rights groups have urged the new administration in Crimea and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to stop the practice of abductions and disappearances, which are a new phenomenon for Ukraine.
In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, the young women detained near Armyansk described in detail what was done to them. The treatment was brutal, though not as savage as they feared, and it revealed a lot about what might be called the organized disorganization of the security forces in newly Russianized Crimea.
Butko, who normally works in public relations and wears her fiery red hair in thick curls, said she was shocked when she was forced to the ground. “Cars were passing by. I could not believe that Berkut was beating us, humiliating us, cutting our hair off and threatening to kill us in broad daylight, right next to a public place.” She pointed to Maksymenko, whose delicate, gamine features make her seem especially frail. Her head was all but shaved. “You lost more hair than any of us,” said Butko. But the men held with them suffered far worse: a series of mock executions.
Maksymenko and Butko said it was terrifying to see their male friends stripped to their underwear and forced to lie on the ground as guns were fired next to their heads. At one point, one of the men whispered the address of his girlfriend to Maksymenko so she could find her and tell her if he got killed. “That was when I realized we were going to die,” said Maksymenko. “In my mind I was saying goodbye to everybody I loved, telling myself that if I survived I would always tell my parents the truth about my whereabouts.”
In fact, none of the five detainees were hurt seriously. They lost cameras, cell phones, laptops, tents and sleeping bags but all their limbs were in place. “I was still happy to have my ears, after all the threats about cutting them off,” said Maksymenko.
That same night they were picked up they were taken to a Russian navy base in Sevastopol and each was put in a separate cell. The women recalled loud arguments in the hall. The Berkut arrived demanding the five “Maidanovtsy,” but the Russian officers, to the enormous relief of the detainees, did not turn them over. The former cops from a former force appear to be under nobody’s control. “There are about 3,000 Berkut feeling betrayed by president Yanukovych right now,” said Maksymenko. “Some of them might be following us even in Kiev.”
Every day the Russian military questioned the detainees about their involvement in Euromaidan protests. “Unlike Berkut and the Cossacks, the Russian military treated us with almost exaggerated respect and care,” Butko pointed out. “I was having long political discussions with my polite interrogators,” she added.
On the third day of detention, the Russian military commanders went so far as to let the AutoMaydan activist Butko walk freely around Sevastopol together with two Russian journalists. Their calculated idea was that later, on her return to Kiev, the activist could tell her friends about Sevastopol’s genuine willingness to become a part of Russia.
“I thought about running away,” said Butko, “but after three days in jail, I was too dirty and unkempt, and besides, I did not have any documents or money with me.” By then the Russian military had already read her cell phone contacts, studied her text messages and searched out details of her life online.
The women told The Daily Beast that by the third day a Russian colonel and two young draftee soldiers armed with machineguns escorted all five detainees back to the checkpoint and convinced the Berkut to allow the Ukrainian activists to leave in their cars. Looking back on the lessons she had learned from her experience, Maksymenko said, “I would not advise any activists to go to Crimea these days.”