Surrounded by the Russians, 3,000 people were stranded at Mariupol’s Azovstal Iron and Steel Works plant in May 2022.

About a thousand more fallen soldiers were lying in its refrigerators, Ukrainian defender Bohdan Krotevych said.

Of the survivors who had to surrender to Russian captivity that May, nearly a third, or about 700 defenders, belonged to the Azov regiment – a fiercely patriotic and highly effective regiment that Moscow propagandists had found convenient to brand a “terrorist” organization.

And it’s in no hurry to return Azov prisoners of war – instead “sentencing” them in show trials, for prison terms sometimes in the decades.

One of those sentenced is Tetyana Vyshniak’s son.

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Vyshniak said she hasn’t spoken to Artem since the eve of the surrender of the Azovstal plant.

It made her angry that part of the population didn’t even know about the tragedy and sacrifice that happened there.

To change this, Vyshniak had the idea to ​​hold weekly rallies to support POWs from the regiment.

At first, dozens of people joined her. But now, every Sunday, thousands of people with posters take to the streets of different Ukrainian cities, particularly in the capital, calling for the release of all of Russia’s Ukrainian POWs.

Kyiv Post spoke with Vyshniak about her son, his “sentence,” and how the rallies started.

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Artem

“Artem joined the Azov regiment at the age of 19. He wasn't really a big guy – just a normal kid. He got there more probably because of his patriotic spirit. You know, I thought that only in movies could you love your country so much,” Vyshniak said.  

“When people ask me how we raised him like that, I always say, he raised himself.”

In December 2021, Artem saw his parents for the last time before heading off for Mariupol. And he was there when the full-scale Russian invasion began, on Feb. 24, 2022.

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“I heard his voice for the last time on May 9, 2022. And the last message from him was ‘I'm fine, maybe there will be no contact for awhile.’ On May 17,” Vyshniak said.

Now Vyshniak tries to get whatever information she can about her son whenever there’s a prisoner exchange with Russia.

She had feared her son killed in the July 29 Olenivka prison camp massacre in which, according to Ukraine’s Security Services, the Russians detonated explosives inside the Olenivka prison camp, likely killing 53 Ukrainian POWs and injuring 130 more inside.

However, by speaking to some of the Ukrainian soldiers later released in a prisoner swap, Vyshniak learned that he was alive.

In the spring of 2023, she even managed to talk to a man who was in the same cell as Artem in the Donetsk pre-trial detention center.

No prisoner swaps

Vyshniak’s son is now 24 years old. In March of this year, Russia “sentenced” him to 22 years in prison, Russian sources told her.

“He did not attack. He did not come to Russia. Didn't kill there. He was just defending his country, but for Russians, he is a terrorist. Like all Azov [regiment] people. They don’t return them. There has been no Azov regiment [soldier] exchanged for more than a year. For them, this is the most terrible unit,” Vyshniak said.

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“My opinion is that they are probably afraid of them – that's why they don't want to release them. They are afraid that they will return to the front again. But if you don't want that, you have a chance to transfer them to a third country under the guarantee that they will not return until the end of the war. All of their relatives would agree to this,” she said.

Actions in support of prisoners

Actions in support of prisoners take place every Sunday in cities throughout Ukraine.

People from all walks of life come out with flags and posters demanding the release of Ukrainian defenders. In Kyiv, particularly, thousands of activists take to the city streets to show their support.

“I was prompted by a blogger's video,” Vyshniak said of her idea to have a rally.

“He approached people and asked what ‘Azovstal’ was. Who the people of Azov were. Almost no one knew anything. And it was scary. Because we lived in our bubble and didn't even think about it. There is a part of the population that does not know about the heroism that took place at the Azovstal plant. We are demanding help from the world, while our people themselves do not know,” she said.

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So Vyshniak got the idea to do a photo session with flags and posters near the local administrative offices to raise awareness.

It was meant to be a performance involving just a few women. However, Vyshniak noticed that people were shooting videos from the cars passing by, which later went viral on the internet.

So the idea arose to create a living chain with flags and posters as well.

“Our first action was on Dec. 3 [2023] on Independence Square. Then we had one on the embankment. We changed the location each time,” she said.

“At first, dozens of people attended the event, then lots more, and now thousands. At first, it was families, then just ordinary people started coming to show support – then stars, politicians. At first we talked about Azov, because we are the families of the defenders of Azovstal, and then we started talking about all the prisoners,” Vyshniak said.

Vyshniak said that it’s important to understand that the rallies have no impact on Russian decision-making – rallies don’t guilt one nation from stopping the genocidal invasion of another. The Kremlin returns whomever it wants and leaves whomever it wishes to keep.

However, at the same time, the protests draw attention to Ukraine from the world.

Their greatest value is in reminding the population inside the country about those whose lives were put on hold by captivity, Vyshniak said.

They also offer moral support for the families, who often feel that they are left alone with their problems.

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The author of this article, had the opportunity to attend a prisoner exchange on May 31. The rallies came as a welcome surprise to some of those on the bus – learning that they were not forgotten.

How many prisoners in Russia

Currently, there is no definitive figure on how many prisoners are in Russian prisons.

According to the Media Initiative for Human Rights, there are currently more than 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers in Russian captivity. More than a thousand of them are representatives of the Azov regiment.

At the same time, at the beginning of 2024, Ukrainian ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets said that 28,000 Ukrainians are currently in Russian captivity along with civilians.

At first, Russia housed prisoners in the occupied territories or in prisons on the border with Ukraine. Today, human rights defenders are already aware of cases when Ukrainians are moved deep into Russia.

There is a risk that even after the end of the war, when both sides have to return prisoners, a significant part of those whom Russia moved between prisons won’t be found – particularly those whose documents could have gotten lost.

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There’s a risk that some will remain in captivity for the rest of their lives.

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