Russian soldiers are shocked by the 'horrible reality' in Ukraine and often regret going, says YouTuber who spoke to more than 200 after they were captured

Volodymyr Zolkin
Volodymyr Zolkin interviews a prisoner of war, Yury Mikailhovich, in YouTube video published on September 14, 2022.Volodymyr Zolkin
  • Volodymyr Zolkin interviews hundreds of Russian prisoners of war on his YouTube channel.

  • He told Insider that there are common themes among captives: ignorance and regret.

  • Zolkin said some captives want the publicity to assure their families they are alive.

Russia likes to portray its soldiers fighting in Ukraine as "strong and brave warriors," Ukrainian Youtuber Volodymyr Zolkin told Insider.

"But we are disclosing the truth," said Zolkin, describing his YouTube channel where he interviews prisoners of war captured by the Ukrainian army.

"We are showing soldiers who are lost, who don't know what they are fighting for, or where they were going. We are sharing their stories," he added. "No other project brings as much damage to Russian propaganda as ours."

Zolkin, a former lawyer, became a YouTube hit last March when he started posting interviews with captured Russian soldiers.

The interviews, usually around an hour, show Zolkin and his friend Dmytro Karpenko talking to Russian soldiers about why they joined the war in Ukraine and how they were captured.

Interviewing captured soldiers is regarded as ethically questionable — they are being held against their will, and have strong reasons both to talk (from their captors) and not to (from their commanders back home).

Nonetheless, POW interviews quickly became a mainstay in the no-holds-barred propaganda war around the invasion of Ukraine, and offer a seemingly raw look at those on the sharp end of the conflict.

Speaking to Insider, Zolkin appeared to pre-empt some of the ethical concerns. He told Insider he is independent of the military, though he uses contacts in Ukraine's Ministry of Internal Affairs and intelligence services to facilitate the interviews.

He said he always asks the Russian soldiers, on camera, if they want to be interviewed beforehand. Hundreds have turned him down, he said.

Some captives want the publicity, Zolkin said, to assure their families they are alive, and help pressure Russian officials into including them in the regular prisoner swaps between Russia and Ukraine.

'They start regretting'

Zolkin told Insider that many of the Russian soldiers regret that they went to Ukraine, saying they had a completely false impression of what it would be like.

"Unfortunately, they are all in the vacuum of Russian propaganda, and nobody tells them what is actually going on," Zolkin told Insider.

"And when they get here, when they see the horrible reality, when they see death, they do not perceive war as anything romantic as they used to see in the movies. Of course, at this moment, they start regretting."

It's an impression that has been widespread among Russian fighters, some volunteers and some of whom were conscripted.

Soldiers have previously said that, before the invasion, their commanders promised they would face little resistance and be welcomed by the locals, as the Associated Press reported last month.

Intercepted phone calls have also shown soldiers ruing their decision to fight, while video messages personally directed to Russian President Vladimir Putin show them pleading to go home.

Fighting Russian propaganda

Zolkin started the project in March 2022, in the early weeks of the war.

He said he was spurred to act after seeing social-media posts Russians in denial about what was happening.

(As Insider's Mia Jankowicz reported at the time, many Ukrainians struggled to convince even their own families in Russia that they were being attacked.)

With help from his official contacts, Zolkin obtained the phone numbers of the relatives of Russian soldiers and then filmed himself speaking to them over the phone.

But, he said, many people still refused to believe — so he decided to film the conversations face-to-face.

His first such interview was on March 18 last year, in which a 20-year-old Russian soldier called Pavel Kravchenko admitted he went to war without understanding why.

The video went viral and sparked a surge in followers. At the time of writing, he has around 1.3 million subscribers on his main account YouTube and more than 100,000 on his English account.

Other interviewees include a soldier who said he joined the military to pay off debts he got from online gaming. Another said he was happy to surrender to avoid getting killed in battle.

For Zolkin, the YouTube channel has become more than just an attempt to cut through Russian censorship.

"We want to create a tool for enhancing the exchange of the prisoners of war," he told Insider.

He said many of the Russian soldiers he interviewed have also since been brought back home. It is not clear what happened to them next, or if they faced any repercussions for speaking to him.

"Russians, they don't want to give Ukrainian POWs back, but when they see their soldiers exposed, they have no choice."

Translations by Vira Slyvinska.

Read the original article on Business Insider