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‘Often a Russian mother has a television for her brain’: Ukrainian YouTuber films prisoners of war calling home | Ukraine

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For some, he is exposing Russians to the truth about Vladimir Putin’s war, while for others he is trampling on the Geneva conventions by parading prisoners of war on the internet.

Volodymyr Zolkin, 40, a pre-war amateur video blogger, became a hit on YouTube in Ukraine and elsewhere for his more than 50 interviews with captured soldiers and pilots, which he says are an attempt to break censorship to inform Russian families about the fate of relatives.

“You [only] I have to believe the facts,” Zolkin told the Guardian in an interview via Skype from an undisclosed location. “Russia does not give or show anything. We immediately created an honest YouTube channel. We show everything here – photos, videos, all data. We show real people calling their parents. You don’t need to trust anyone, believe the facts.

There is little doubt about the reach of the videos. The most popular ones have been viewed over a million times, and the average is 400,000-500,000 views.

An hour-long conversation with a Russian pilot, Major Alexander Krasnoyartsev, involved in the bombing of civilians in the besieged city of Chernihiv, even had English subtitles.

Lawyers have suggested, however, that making and sharing such recordings is likely to violate the Third Geneva Convention, designed to protect prisoners from humiliation and risks to their safety.

“These people are crying and thanking us for what we do,” Zolkin said in response. “Sometimes people ask me if we are violating the Geneva Conventions. He says – you can’t make fun of prisoners. Please tell me where the Geneva Convention says you cannot do a humanitarian and peacekeeping mission.

It all started, he said, with frustration at the lack of information reaching people in the Russian Federation. With the help of a friend, Victor Andrusiv, an adviser to the Minister of the Interior, he began calling relatives and friends of Russian soldiers who had sought information through a Ukrainian government Telegram channel set up to let them know. of the fate of their loved one. those.

Volodymyr Zolkin’s interviews average 400,000-500,000 views – but lawyers have expressed concern. Photography: YouTube

Zolkin called relatives live on camera and questioned them about the behavior of the Russian government.

“But the Russian special services (FSB) started sending fake phone numbers and fake soldier and spam data,” Zolkin said. “I was calling the mothers but after three days I started listening to the standard responses – we don’t care about politics, we don’t know anything and everything. I realized that the mothers were being pressured by Russian special services.

He added: “I said [to the government]give me the opportunity to communicate with the prisoners and let them call their mothers.

His first such interview was on March 18 with a 20-year-old soldier, Pavel Kravchenko, who said he went to war without understanding Putin’s reasons.

“We were in a convoy,” he told Zolkin. “When we crossed the border, we asked the commander: ‘What is it for?’ He said, “Don’t ask useless questions.” We were surrounded, we didn’t even fire back, we immediately surrendered. The convoy was immediately destroyed. I didn’t want to die. I wanted to live.

Zolkin now interviews about 10 Russian POWs a day in locations across the country, only some of which have been aired.

Pale, obviously nervous prisoners are asked to confirm that they have accepted the interview and its broadcast, before being asked to report on their military background and the events leading up to their capture, as well as their thoughts on the war. YouTube has blocked interviews when there is lack of evidence that the interviews are voluntary.

Prisoners are then asked to call family and friends at home. The reasoning is that mothers of captured soldiers would really listen to what their sons were saying about the truth about the war, Zolkin said.

The majority, he says, are like the first interview he did with Kravchenko. “To be honest, I didn’t know how to prepare for these interviews,” he said. “I came and saw a child in front of me. Of all the people I’ve spoken to, 80% are actually children. Some of them left unarmed. Some of them have never been shot or shot in their lives. No combat training.

He added: “Often a Russian mother does not ask her son to inquire about his health, but immediately tells us about the propaganda that has been told to her on Russian television. They have a television instead of a brain.

Zolkin is not aggressive with prisoners, although he says he personally believes that Krasnoyartsev, who shot a farmer who had tried to take him prisoner after he was shot above Chernihiv, is an “assassin of mass”.

But he added: “I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I saw that these Russians were actually children. But on the other hand, I saw Ukrainian civilian children who did not have attacked no one and they are killed. [The Russians] destroy entire houses. You must understand.”