The Russian soldier was captured just 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 followed 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 with New York Times reporters just hours after his capture. A Ukrainian soldier sat in the next room during the interview.
For an hour, the prisoner provided a rare account of the invasion of Ukraine from a Russian perspective, a view that rarely appears in Western news media and which the Kremlin is trying 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 unharmed, and his eyes were covered with tape and gauze. His hands were tied. The restraints were removed by his captor upon our arrival.
For journalists, interviewing any prisoner of war occurs under a peculiar set of circumstances, even with the prisoner’s consent. During 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 identifies 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.
The United Nations found ill-treatment of prisoners – including executions, beatings and torture – on both sides of the war, although Ukrainian reports of Russian detention point to far more widespread and severe abuses by Kremlin 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 two-and-a-half-year prison sentence. He had previously spent several years in prison after accidentally killing someone while drunk, he said.
The interview below is condensed and annotated with analysis of his comments from The New York Times. The International Committee of the Red Cross is considered leadership regarding the release of information about prisoners of war.
Merk: “I served the first term of five and a half years. Was released on parole. Then I did not appear for entries. I was put back for two and a half years. Full expression.”
Before Merk was imprisoned, he worked in a machine factory, and then worked briefly as a manual laborer 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 more than half of his prison population had already volunteered to fight with the private mercenary group Wagner before he returned to prison in March.
“They came, the Defense Service. To ‘the colony.’ They said: ‘Do you want a new life? Want to start with a blank slate? Come on, there’s enough work for everyone.’ They said: ‘There is enough work for everyone. You can build houses there.’”
Merk explained that he interpreted the offer as a way to become a military construction worker. He said his only understanding of the war came from the television in prison. He said he didn’t realize early on that he would be sent to battle.
“They didn’t say anything about it — that there would be shooting, war. We were told, ‘We will have to build Ukraine.’ This is 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 on the plane under escort. And we left. We were brought into the hangar. We signed the contract – when we read it, we already understood.”
Merk unwittingly joined Storm Z company, a Russian military unit filled with inmates. It was created in recent months in the image of the Wagner inmate program, which was widely used in eastern Ukraine.
He assumed 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 the option of an extension, 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 not me? I am indeed a man. I thought I would serve my time. But I didn’t know where to go after that. My sister didn’t let me in the house. I thought if I went here I would at least build something. At least I will earn some money, buy myself a room. I will live I would make a family, find myself one, at least I would be with a family. Well, I wanted a life. I thought it would be a clean slate. I will find a woman with a child, at least I will 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 scant medical training. His commanders were also former prisoners, and gained their rank simply by longevity, he guessed.
“We trained to dig trenches. Learned how to disassemble and reassemble an automatic rifle. How to evacuate on a stretcher. How to flip someone over so they don’t get hurt. They showed what to do when you get shot in the neck, and how to use an injection that kills pain.”
When Merk got a rifle, he knew he was going to the front line, unlike some of the other inmates who were sent to work in the base’s mess hall.
“Then I understood everything. I’m going to die. They would point with the finger: ‘You, you and you are going to dig.’ They gathered us, 25, 30 people each. They said you go to the shooting range to learn how to shoot. And instead of the shooting range, they brought us straight here. We had two portions each – and there was no water. Some soldiers were hungry. They were just forced to dig, dig, dig, dig, and that was it. Day and night. We received an order. We were new; we just walked in. They told us: ‘You will enter as meat.'”
Merk 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 surrendered near Bakhmut. The town, captured by the Russians in May, sits mostly on low ground.
“They brought us at night. At night, no bushes there, just a clear sky. Almost in a field. Well, there are trees, ditches and greenery. We found a place, lay down to pass the night and start digging in the morning. The morning came – there were only corpses from before. Corpses, just corpses. It was after everyone 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 along with him. Four were captured. He doesn’t know what happened to the others.
“We thought we were going to be sent to work, but they just sent us to die.”
Reporting was contributed by Oleg Matsnev, Riley Mellen, Dmitry Khavin and Anatoly Kurmanaev.