Six Days in Russian Captivity – Mayor of Melitopol Speaks Out
At the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Mayor of Melitopol Ivan Fedorov spent six days in Russian captivity. After a first failed attempt, he was then exchanged.
In an exclusive interview with Kyiv Post, Fedorov, talks about his imprisonment by the occupiers and life in the occupied city, in the Zaporizhzhia region.
Kyiv Post: Tell me about the morning of Feb. 24. How did you first hear about the invasion?
Ivan Fedorov: When the war came on Feb. 24, we did not initially expect a full-scale Russian invasion of our cities. In Melitopol, the war came at five in the morning when the Russians started shelling the military base on the outskirts of the city.
From that point, we became immediately immersed in the military situation and our team had two options: to leave Melitopol or to stay. We decided to stay, since the citizens of Melitopol should feel supported and not abandoned. That was despite the Russian military already being on the outskirts of the city by 3 or 4 p.m.
The next day, the city was surrounded and from Feb. 25, it fell under complete occupation. Despite the obvious challenge, we wanted to be there for our people to form humanitarian headquarters and offer help. Life under occupation brings its own challenges and every day there are many problems.
Kyiv Post: Did the explosions wake you up? How did you feel at the moment it started?
Ivan Fedorov: A person living near the military base called me and said the war had started. I didn’t believe it at first and said it must be thunder, so we ended our call. A few moments later, I received a call from the military executive committee of Melitopol, who said that our military base was being shelled.
Kyiv Post: How many people were in the city at that time?
Ivan Fedorov: Usually, the main city is home to 150,000 people, but Melitopol is a regional center with more than 300,000 concentrated around the city.
Kyiv Post: How did the residents react? Was there panic and a mass exodus?
Ivan Fedorov: Many people tried to leave, especially women and children. Men tended to stay in the city. I can’t say that there was a huge queue to leave the city. Still, those who had the opportunity tried to leave because they understood that Melitopol was the gateway to Crimea and of logistical and strategic importance.
As soon as we knew that Russian troops had left Crimea, we understood that they would be on the border of Melitopol within a few hours.
Kyiv Post: How exactly did they capture you? Were you afraid?
Ivan Fedorov: For two weeks, [my team and I] were working as normal. We didn’t work in the main city administration building because Russian troops destroyed it in the early days of the war, so we created a humanitarian headquarters and based ourselves out of there.
The Russians came, held talks, and tried to dictate their rules. We refused to work to those rules because we were elected according to Ukrainian legislation and society – a matter of principle.
The feelings were not exactly fear. It was mostly a lack of understanding about what would happen next, how long the war would last, when the Russians would leave the city, and what would happen to our state. There were a lot of questions but no answers.
Then, the Russians came to our humanitarian headquarters and accused me of having a financial agreement with the far right since 2014. They blamed me for financing the radicals, and therefore took me as their prisoner.
Kyiv Post: They came to your headquarters and officially arrested you?
Ivan Fedorov: When we talk about the Russian military, the term “officially” does not apply.
Kyiv Post: And who was it? The Russian army or the Federal Security Service (FSB)?
Ivan Fedorov: They were special services officers – mostly FSB. Some kind of intelligence unit.
They disguised themselves and wore the chevrons of the [so-called] Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). Still, everyone who has seen DPR troops and special services of the Russian Federation knows how to distinguish between them. DPR fighters do not use uniforms and are of indecent appearances – ragged, shorn and often drunk. That is their image. By comparison, Russian special services are well equipped.
Kyiv Post: Did they speak Russian using a specific accent?
Ivan Fedorov: It’s difficult to say because Melitopol is a Russian-speaking city and 95 percent of Ukrainians in Melitopol speak Russian day-to-day. Of course, there are accents and dialects, but it isn’t easy to distinguish between them at once.
Fifteen people came to capture me, but only one of them spoke. They were special forces who came to fulfill a clear task – to take me prisoner in order to demonstrate to all opinion leaders in the city what would happen if they did not want to follow Russian commands.
Kyiv Post: What happened to you in captivity? How did they treat you?
Ivan Fedorov: They placed a bag over my head and took me by car to a police detention center. I understood where they were taking me because I knew the city well.
Interestingly, before the winter, the regional police chief had appealed to local authorities to repair the heating system in the detention center. So, when I entered the cell and saw new batteries and pipes, I realized where I was. However, it was the first time I had been there.
The way they behaved is a separate story. Firstly, they set conditions I had to fulfill: resigning from my position, dismissing my deputies, and appointing someone else. In return, they promised to let me go immediately. Of course, I could not oppose them and agreed, but they deceived me. The most challenging thing was that I did not understand when I would be released, what the conditions of my release would be, and what I had to do to get out.
When there are between five and ten heavily armed military around you, and when they ask questions and say that if you don’t answer something bad will happen, you just don’t know how it will all end.
When they come to the next cell and break the arms and legs of prisoners so that their screams can be heard throughout the detention center, you understand that, at any moment, they can come to your cell and do the same to you.
Kyiv Post: Were you handcuffed?
Ivan Fedorov: I spent the first day with my hands bound with plastic ties. The first day I even slept with my hands tied. I felt that I could pull my hand free but that it could be dangerous to do so.
Kyiv Post: Did you experience psychological pressure?
Ivan Fedorov: The psychological pressure was constant. There were guards on duty near my cell around the clock. They were forbidden from talking to me because the Russians feared I would try to negotiate my way out.
Kyiv Post: How many days did you spend in captivity?
Ivan Fedorov: Six days in total. And if you were to ask if I would change something during that time, then looking at the situation I would do the same again.
Kyiv Post: How did the exchange process go?
Ivan Fedorov: There were actually two attempts.
On the first day, they came to my cell in the morning and said they were taking me for prisoner exchange. Upon asking where we were going, they said Vasylivka. I knew this place and it was close. However, after an hour of driving with my hands tied and a bag on my head in an armored car, I realized that I was not being taken to Vasylivka.
They drove for over an hour – maybe two, three, or four. We stopped somewhere and then drove again. It began to get dark outside, and I could not understand anything at all. I began to think that I was being taken somewhere to be killed, but the guard who was sitting next to me said that if they had wanted to kill me, we would not have been driving all day.
When it started getting dark outside around seven o’clock, the group leader said: “There will be no exchange today. Your state does not want to take you.”
I was expecting everything to be over and I would be back on Ukrainian territory, but they kept telling me that we were going back. I told them I did not want to go to the detention center again. “We don’t ask what you want” was the reply.
Two days later, on the evening of March 16, they took me away again. They brought me to Vasilievka, which was a quick journey, although the last five kilometers took two hours. It was the first time an exchange had taken place, and the parties did not trust one other, so they tried to pressure each other to make the first step.
Finally, the exchange took place, and the most difficult was the last hour when I realized that nothing depended on me and I could do nothing to influence what was going to happen next – only pray.
Kyiv Post: Did any of your employees or colleagues take the enemy side?
Ivan Fedorov: I am proud to say there are almost no such people in the city of Melitopol – not a single deputy mayor, nor a single head of department. Only one of the 12 heads of municipal enterprises agreed to cooperate, but not a single school or kindergarten director/principal.
The city of Melitopol is a Ukrainian and pro-European city. In the first days of the occupation, despite the significant number of Russian military forces, between three and five thousand Melitopol residents declared their pro-Ukrainian position at the risk of their lives, and two people were wounded.
When we talk about collaborators in Melitopol, we’re talking about losers who could not find a place for themselves within the Ukrainian government. Today they believe they are the authorities but they can’t manage the city properly.
Kyiv Post: How many people are in the city now? Are they safe?
Ivan Fedorov: Occupation does not go hand in hand with security. Today, no one can guarantee safety in the temporarily occupied territories. According to our estimates, a little less than half of Melitopol’s residents remain in the city – around 50,000 people.
The whole of Melitopol now serves as a continuous military base that the Russians have chosen as an administrative and logistics center. They are accommodated in apartments, houses, kindergartens and schools. In the basements of schools, there are warehouses with ammunition. So the liberation of Melitopol is a strategic task for Ukraine.
Kyiv Post: What does the life of an ordinary Melitopol resident look like? For example, is it safe to walk the streets? What currency is circulating in the city? Have the Russians introduced special rules for residents, especially as they will understand that the residents are against them?
Ivan Fedorov: The city is so pro-Ukrainian that, a few days ago and after nine months of occupation, a video emerged from the center of Melitopol where pro-Ukrainian residents risked their lives to remove the Russian flag. It is a clear manifestation of the current mood in Melitopol.
The Russians are trying to introduce the ruble but locals are sabotaging the process. Today there are two currencies – the ruble and the hryvnia, but the hryvnia is valued more highly.
If we evaluate life in Melitopol more generally, it’s a life without rules and laws; without work and salaries; and at the same time unpredictable and dangerous. The Russians think that if they make our people beg, it will be easier to negotiate with them. We are seeing this trend unfortunately, which is extremely difficult.
Kyiv Post: Are food, heating and water supplies available in the city?
Ivan Fedorov: Today there are almost no problems with food. Of course, people don’t have the same assortments as in Kyiv or Zaporizhzhia for example, but essential food is available and affordable. Medicines are a more complicated matter because they are harder to find and cost four to five times more than anywhere else.
As for municipal infrastructure, the most difficult situation is with electricity. The Russians have taken full control over the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and it does not currently produce electricity. So they connected the occupied part of the Zaporizhzhia region to the power grid of Crimea. Due to lack of capacity, there are often power outages. The Russians are trying to organize the heating supply at the moment.
Kyiv Post: What damage did the Russians do to the city’s infrastructure?
Ivan Fedorov: It is challenging to estimate today in numbers, but we are talking about dozens of houses. More importantly, equipment has been stolen from dozens of enterprises, including warehouse stocks and technologies.
The worst losses are human resources. Many people have left, and around 500-600 have been kidnapped. More than 100 people are in captivity today. This substantial human potential is also our most profound loss.
Kyiv Post: What is your forecast for the liberation of the city?
Ivan Fedorov: Today, everyone understands the strategic importance of Melitopol. If we talk about the missile terror of Zaporizhzhia and Nikopol, it can be avoided by liberating the city of Melitopol.
The Russians are shelling Zaporizhzhia with S-300 missile systems, and Nikopol is being shelled with artillery from Enerhodar. Today it is important to move the front line by 30-50 kilometers to ensure security in Zaporizhzhia and Nikopol. We believe this is on the agenda of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and we should all do everything we can to help them.