Secret Prison of the SBU: The Story of a Former Prisoner

Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard


The Russian communist Andrey Sokolov described to the “” publication how, in the “fascist” cell of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) in Mariupol, fate brought him to an orthodox priest – father Feofan. Sokolov also reported how many political prisoners are languishing in “secret prisons” in Ukraine today.

In Ukraine there are “confidential”, or “secret”, prisons where many people, both Russians and Ukrainians, are being held without a court verdict. Human rights activists often speak about it, trying to free illegally detained persons from the hands of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU).

One of such political prisoners is the Russian communist Andrey Sokolov, who spent 3 years in a “fascist” cell in Mariupol. The orthodox priest father Feofan, who was also accused of separatism, shared the same plank beds with him.

Sokolov spoke about all of this in an exclusive interview with the “” publication.

GPS, checkpoint, jail

Andrey, you were considered to be a missing person over three years, but in the end you were able to leave a “secret prison” of the SBU in Mariupol alive. You once said that you have proof that you were kidnapped, and submitted a claim to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Two years have already passed since then. Are there any results?

“My lawyer competently documented everything legally and filed a complaint in the ECHR in 2016 when I was released. But the European Court of Human Rights is such an instance that works very slowly. As is said, conscientiously. If a complaint is considered there for three-four years, this is considered to be a normal phenomenon. Thus so far there hasn’t been any decision concerning my appeal.”

What do you remember most vividly from the time you spent behind bars in a SBU prison?

“I would like to note that in Ukraine everything happened too unconventionally. Earlier, in the 1990’s, I was brought to trial in Russia for participating in a left-wing radical organisation, but back then there were no such ‘adventures’ as there are now in Ukraine.

In our country everything worked in accordance with the law: detention, pre-trial detention center, a lawyer, then court, a jail term, then exiting prison on a conditional early release. But in Ukraine there was a paradoxical situation: under an oral agreement between the SBU and the court, I was released and taken to some exchange, which in the end was disrupted.”

Why did you, as a person adhering to communist views, go to Donetsk in 2014?

“I went to Donetsk as a civilian. My purpose was to meet my acquaintances, one of which is Andrey Yakovenko. At the time he had been jailed in Ukraine ‘for separatism’ on the so-called Odessa case. He still had 4 years left to serve, and here the events of 2014 happened. Because he was imprisoned, I will repeat, including under the article ‘for separatism’, the new authorities released Andrey by the resolution of the government of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR).

I met him, but then, not knowing local roads, the GPS sent me to a Ukrainian checkpoint between Gorlovka and Donetsk, where in December 2014 I was detained as a citizen of Russia.”

Father Feofan was tortured with an electric shocker

The orthodox priest sat in the cell together with you. How did he end up in an SBU? Where did he come from?

“This is father Feofan, who at one time was in Moscow after being released from captivity in 2015. And now he returned to Donetsk and serves in one of the monasteries.

Before the war in Donbass father Feofan was engaged in historical reconstruction and searched for the remains of those who deceased in the Great Patriotic War in the Donetsk region. German weapons — MG-42 machine gun, a Schmeisser, and many others collected for the museum, then served a bad service for him during a search. SBU employees took away for themselves professional photo and video equipment.

As father Feofan told me, the SBU earlier wiretapped his telephone conversations and then accused him of helping the militia. He is an ordinary priest from Donbass.”

Under what circumstances did you cross paths with father Feofan for the first time?

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“I saw father Feofan for the first time when he was brought to a weapons cache turned prison cell — it is a SBU basement in Mariupol. On his head there was a bag. He was pushed into the cell and the door was closed. I and several other cellmates removed the bag and gave him water. A burning smell emanated from him.

We took an interest as to why. Father Feofan showed us his hands – his hair had been burned. The priest had been interrogated and tortured with an electric shocker gun. He had to endure hundreds of electric zaps. This is how they tried to extract from him the necessary testimony about cooperating with the FSB, and then forced him to read the prepared texts.

Once I asked him: ‘You suffer for your beliefs, like in old times?’ He answered: ‘No, I am for the Motherland’.”

Father Feofan was fond of military archeology. Is this how you became close?

“Yes. I was also involved in search work, I participated in excavations at the place of military operations that took place during the Great Patriotic War and I found the remains of Soviet soldiers. But he is a priest, a believer, and I am an atheist. In the religious sphere, as you understand, we don’t have a lot in common.”

Have you already communicated with him outside of prison?

“Yes, about a year ago. I found him through mutual friends who I met in captivity. We phoned each other. Father Feofan stated that everything is normal with his health. Although I will repeat – he was tortured very severely in prison.

If it is possible to say, the only thing that he was lucky in is that he didn’t have to wait as long as I did for an exchange – just about a month. And in my case the exchange was disrupted, and the SBU didn’t know what to do with me afterwards. And I sat in jail for another half a year in a room of the former Mariupol shooting gallery.”

Concerning the pressure being put on the clergy for receiving autocephaly, how far can the authorities of Ukraine and the SBU go in terms of their repression?

“In 2014, when martial law hadn’t been officially imposed in Ukraine, I communicated with soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (UAF) who had been jailed for embezzlement or the illegal storage of weapons. And so they said that in most cases during mobilisation non-professional military personnel were enrolled according to such a scheme: at first they were given paper to sign concerning bearing responsibility for evading service, and on the basis of this they were later blackmailed, saying ‘we will put you in prison’ and frightening them. All of this was illegal.

But now, after the introduction of martial law in 10 regions of Ukraine, mobilisation can happen on legal grounds, and the Ukrainian authorities impose criminal liability for refusal to obey. Now they can officially detain people and hold them for some time without giving them a lawyer and  allowing them to communicate with the investigator. Thus, they will be able to ‘lawfully’ extract testimonies.

It turns out that this status of ‘basements’ has now been legalised.”

Priests for the SBU are special “live goods”

You once mentioned that you have the addresses of secret SBU prisons. How many, according to your information, are there now in Ukraine?

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“The main prisons are in Mariupol, Bakhmut (former Artemovsk), and Kharkov. By the way, once in Kharkov a whole comedy was staged, when 60 of the prisoners who were being kept there were taken out of the cells, and journalists and human rights activists were shown that the prison cells in the SBU were empty. I know about this from the people who were there.”

According to your data, how many political prisoners are now being kept in the prisons of Ukraine?

“I don’t think that there are that many, because the active military operations that happened in Donbass in 2014-2015 have now ceased. In addition, many were released or exchanged. If at that time there were about 3,000 prisoners, then now I think that 300-400 people remained.”

Are there many representatives of clergy among them?

“Priests for the SBU are special ‘live goods’. They try to exchange them. It is possible to exchange two-three militants for one priest. And as was the case with father Nikon, he was exchanged for 16 UAF soldiers and volunteer battalion militants.

For them it is a big trump when a priest is detained. And now, during martial law, they are in general given a free hand, Ukrainian law enforcement can officially detain everyone and confiscate property, including from the church of the Moscow Patriarchate.

By the way, I remember curious details from when I was kept in a basement in 2016. On a shelf near the iron table where I was forced to sleep, I saw church brochures of the Moscow Patriarchate and small icons. It is clear that there was a priest here before me. I still haven’t found out who it was – father Nikon or Feofan. However, SBU employees have thrown all of this away.

I will note that many priests, being on an equal footing with us prisoners, even held nourishment ceremonies in prison consisting of pastoral care for salvation, spiritual mentoring, and prayer.”

Do you consider that the churches that don’t share the position of the Ukrainian authorities will be persecuted within the framework of martial law?

“If the Ukrainian authorities will really start to repartition the church property that belongs to the Moscow Patriarchate, then many, of course, will protest against it. So it means that, of course, many will be detained. And on the basis of the law on martial law, these excesses can acquire a mass character.

A mass of restrictions of rights and freedoms has now been introduced. Today in Ukraine it is possible to officially detain someone else’s car under the pretext that it is needed by the army, or to enter somebody’s apartment and to turn it into a weapon emplacement and confiscate everything.”

For the OSCE and UN prisons turn into … a depot

Observers from the OSCE and the UN remain deaf concerning information about secret prisons existing in Ukraine where prisoners are cruelly tortured?

“They don’t know about it. Thus, I will describe a case from my experience. I was transferred for two weeks from prison to a rental apartment, where I was also kept in severe conditions. All of this was done so that it wasn’t illuminated for representatives of the UN Commission on Human Rights, who examined prisons (the premises of a former shooting gallery and weapons cache). SBU employees removed all my things and erased the inscriptions I had made on the walls with a metal brush. And they brought old computers and boxes to the room, pretending that it was some depot, and not a prison.”

This is how they veiled reality?

“Yes, especially since those who carried out checks couldn’t arrive without giving prior warning. After all, this is the zone of the so-called ATO in Ukraine. And knowing that inspectors will arrive, they could take away and hide any objectionable and guarded person, and then return them when it is necessary. All secret places can be disguised.”

How, in your opinion, will the conditions of keeping and the lives of prisoners in secret prisons change in connection with the introduction of martial law in Ukraine?

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“It for sure won’t become easier for them – rather on the contrary. After all, now everything will be legalised. If before it was possible to choose the legal way of resistance, trying to leave prison, then now, in my opinion, it is useless.

I will repeat, today people can be held without a lawyer and without access to communication with relatives on legal grounds in Ukraine. At least for some time. I wouldn’t want a repetition of the situation that happened to me four years ago.”

You couldn’t be exchanged at the time?

“Yes, the SBU wanted to exchange someone for me there, but something didn’t glue together. But it is for the better. Thanks to this my measure of restraint was changed, and SBU employees were then obliged to push me out without documents to the DPR through a checkpoint.

Now I, as a citizen of Russia, wouldn’t qualify for an exchange. As far as I know, citizens of the Russian Federation were withdrawn from the last exchange, 20 people were brought back to the pre-trial detention center. And there were no military personnel among them, all of them were civilians …”

Ukrainian prison is a place where it is easy to get alcohol and drugs

When you were being kept in a “secret prison”, did any of the detainees die?

“When I was in jail there was only one case when a Ukrainian militiamen [DPR/LPR – ed] died. His kidneys had been damaged due to torture, and the pre-trial detention center couldn’t give qualified medical care. He was taken to hospital, where he died.

People there were mainly tortured with water and beaten with sticks and metal rods. And if something happened to people, we might not find out about it – after all, there are thousands of ways to hide this.”

Andrey, what are you engaged in today?

“Today I have the same work that I had before 2014. I am a lathe operator, I work in a workshop in Moscow.”

How is your health after spending three years in prison?

“The matter is that when I was in a pre-trial detention center, I tried to keep afloat not only morally, but also physically. I did exercises – in other words, I watched over myself. I am somewhat more relaxed now that I am free.”

How would you briefly describe a Ukrainian prison?

“It is a place where it is easy to get both alcohol and drugs. Criminals feel free there. I didn’t afford myself anything, but on the contrary – I will repeat, I did press ups and pull ups, and went for walks. By the way, I tried to do the same also in the basement.

Employees of the SBU, having seen this picture, joked, saying to me: ‘You are preparing for the Olympic Games…’ I adhered to the motto: ‘A sound mind is in a sound body’. This helped me. And I didn’t fall into despair.”

What kind of response to your complaint in the ECHR will satisfy you?

“The ECHR doesn’t change the decisions of national courts. The only thing that the European court can do is to establish facts of violations and oblige to pay the victim some sum as moral compensation. Taking into account what is now happening in Ukraine, I think that it is impossible to find those law enforcement officers who detained me. That’s why from the Ukrainian side I expect only financial compensation for illegally depriving me of my freedom.”

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