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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘Dig, dig, dig’: A Russian soldier’s story

A captured Russian soldier known by the call sign Merk during an interview.

By Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Natalia Yermak

The Russian soldier was captured only days after arriving on the front line in eastern Ukraine. He had little training. But he knew how to disassemble and fire his rifle and where to put a tourniquet.

The soldier, who went by the call sign Merk, was lured into the hands of Ukrainian soldiers near Bakhmut last month when he heard cries for help from a comrade, he said.

With permission from his Ukrainian captors, Merk, 45, agreed to an interview by New York Times journalists just hours after his capture. A Ukrainian soldier sat in the next room during the interview.

Over the course of an hour, the prisoner provided a rare account of the invasion of Ukraine from a Russian perspective, a viewpoint that rarely emerges in Western news media and that the Kremlin tries to define for the world in its effort to sway public opinion.

We met Merk on a bloodstained floor in an otherwise tidy and well-lit basement in the Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk. He was mostly uninjured, and his eyes were covered by tape and gauze. His hands were bound. The restraints were removed by his captor upon our arrival.

For journalists, interviewing any prisoner of war takes place under a peculiar set of circumstances, even with the prisoner’s consent. Throughout the process — from deciding whether to participate in the interview to what he might say during it — he is most likely weighing the reaction of his captors, or the prospect of physical violence or other miseries.

The Times is identifying Merk by his call sign to protect his identity for security reasons, including the possibility that he could be harmed if he is returned to the Russians in a prisoner exchange. The Times verified his identity through court documents and social media accounts.

The United Nations has found ill-treatment of prisoners — including executions, beatings and torture — on both sides of the war, though Ukrainian accounts from Russian detention point to far more widespread and severe abuses by the Kremlin’s forces at every level.

Merk was an inmate-turned-soldier, he said, having joined the Russian army’s newly formed Storm Z prisoner unit after serving two months of a 2 1/2-year prison sentence. He had previously spent several years in prison after killing someone unintentionally while intoxicated, he said.

The interview below is condensed and annotated with analysis of his comments by the Times. It takes into account the International Committee of the Red Cross’ guidance regarding publishing information about prisoners of war.

Merk: “I served the first term of 5 1/2 years. Was released on parole. Then I wasn’t showing up for check-ins. I was put behind again for 2 1/2 years. Full term.”

Before Merk was imprisoned, he worked in a machine factory, and then worked briefly as a handyman before his second term. After two months in prison, a man in a “green suit” from the Russian Ministry of Defense arrived, looking for recruits. Merk said that more than half his prison had volunteered to fight with the Wagner private mercenary group before he returned to prison in March.

“They came, the Defense Service. To ‘the colony.’ They said: ‘Do you want a new life? Do you want to start with a blank sheet? Come, there is enough work for everyone.’ They said: ‘There is enough work for everyone. You can build houses there.’”

Merk explained that he had interpreted the offer as a way to become an army construction worker. He said his only understanding of the war had come from the television in prison. He said he did not realize early on that he would be sent to battle.

“They didn’t say anything about that — that there would be shooting, war. We were told, ‘We will need to build up Ukraine.’ That’s it. They put us in a car, took us to the airport. In a police car. The plane was waiting for us. There were about eight cars of prisoners. They put us under escort into the plane. And we departed. We were brought into the hangar. We signed the contract — when we read it, we already understood.”

Merk had unknowingly joined a Storm Z company, a Russian military unit filled with inmates. It was created in recent months in the image of Wagner’s inmate program, which was used extensively in eastern Ukraine.

He guessed he was recruited with about 300 other prisoners. He was given no form of personal identification. But when he signed the six-month contract, with an option to extend, there was a photocopy of his passport so he could get a bank card and receive his salary. At the time of his capture, Merk said, he had yet to be paid.

“I was a fool. Everyone went here, and why wouldn’t I? I’m a man, after all. I thought I would serve my time. But I didn’t know where to go after that. My sister wouldn’t let me in the house. I thought if I would go here, I would at least be building something. At least I’ll make some money, buy me some sort of a room. I’ll live. I’d make a family, find myself one, at least I’d be with a family. Well, I wanted a life. I thought it would be a clean slate. I’ll find a woman with a kid, at least, I’ll live.”

Merk arrived somewhere in eastern Ukraine in late May and was stationed at a training camp. There, he learned how to use a rifle and received sparse medical training. His commanders were also former prisoners, and had gained their rank simply through longevity, he guessed.

“We trained to dig trenches. Learned how to disassemble and reassemble an automatic rifle. How to evacuate with a stretcher. How to turn someone over so they don’t get injured. They showed what to do when one gets shot in the neck, and how to use an injection that kills pain.”

When Merk was handed a rifle, he knew he would be going to the front line, unlike some of the other inmates who had been sent to work in the base’s mess hall.

“Then I understood everything. I am heading for death. They would point the finger: ‘You, you and you go digging.’ They gathered us together, 25, 30 people at a time. They said you are going to the firing range, to learn how to shoot. And instead of the firing range, we were brought straight here. We had two rations each — and there was no water. Some soldiers were starving. They were just forced to dig, dig, dig, dig, and that was it. Day and night. We were given an order. We were new; we had just come in. They told us, ‘You’re going in as meat.’”

Merk had spent only a few days digging and had no idea where he was on the front line when he was captured. Ukrainian soldiers said he had surrendered near Bakhmut. The city, captured by the Russians in May, sits mostly on low ground.

“They brought us in at night. At night, no bushes there, just clear sky. Almost in a field. Well, there are trees, ditches and greenery. We found a place, laid down to get through the night and start digging in the morning. The morning came — there were only corpses from before. Corpses, only corpses. It was after everybody was killed there. The trenches that were there were blown up. We had to dig new trenches. We were looking for a place to dig somewhere.”

Merk said that when the Ukrainian attack began, there were nine soldiers digging alongside him. Four were captured. He does not know what happened to the others.

“We thought we were going to be sent to work, but they just sent us to die.”

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