It was in the days when it was still possible to travel between Ukraine and Belarus. On August 24, 2017, 19-year-old student Pavlo Hryb arrived by bus from Kyiv to the city of Homel in the south of Belarus. He wanted to meet his Russian friend. He chose Belarus because Russia was no longer safe for Ukrainians. He still tells about what happened to him and warns others.
He did meet the girl in the city, but he did not get on the bus back to Kyiv. His father Ihor waited for him at home in vain, his son did not even respond to calls and text messages on his mobile phone. On the day that Ukraine celebrates as Independence Day, Pavel Hryb was surrounded by members of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), stuffed into a van and drove away.
“They kept claiming that they arrested me. They didn’t arrest me, they kidnapped me. They couldn’t officially arrest me in Belarus, so they staged it as if I had come to Russia in the Smolensk region, which is on the border with Belarus,” the 25-year-old Ukrainian recalls today in an interview for online newspaper Aktuálně.cz. Hryb recently arrived in Prague as a member of the Ukrainian Platform for the Release of Political Prisoners, a movement that advocates the release of Ukrainians captured by Russia or deported to Russia.
Hryb was then taken to a detention center in Krasnodar, where he was informed of the charges. “They read to me that I was charged under Articles 251 and 205 of the Russian Legal Code. Of preparing a terrorist act with the intention of killing people. But I did not commit anything and refused to plead guilty,” says Hryb. “These are not our methods, we do not kill innocent people.
But the prosecution claimed that during the conversation he encouraged his Russian friend to build an explosive device and detonate a bomb at a school in Sochi.
The situation was also complicated by the fact that the Ukrainian consul in Rostov-on-Don did not receive information about Hryb’s detention in Russia until two weeks after he was taken into custody.
Two years in a Russian prison
As a very young man, Pavlo Hryb took part in the protests in Kyiv in 2014, known as Euromaidan. On social networks, he declared himself Ukrainian patriotism, and on the VKontakte communication platform he used the name of the former commander of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army Roman Shuchevych, a fighter for Ukraine’s independence against the Soviet regime, as a pseudonym.
Pavlo’s father Ihor participated as a soldier in operations against Russian soldiers and pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass in 2014.
During the trial, the Russians called Hryb a far-right nationalist. The sentence was six years in prison. In total, he spent two years and two weeks behind bars in Russia.
He was released on March 7, 2019 in a major exchange. The Russians together with him released, for example, the well-known Ukrainian film director Oleh Sentsov.
It later became clear that the Russian girl Hryb met in Belarus was coerced by the FSB into cooperation.
“I was in prison in different places in Russia. Actually, there were never many ethnic Russians with me, they were often people of many nationalities,” he says now years after the Games. “The Bachars treated me differently, they were not all the same. But it didn’t even matter to them themselves – whether they liked someone or not. The prison management decides how they treat the prisoners. What and how the prison director wants, that’s how it is Yippee.”
Heroes and traitors
The game was released before the Russian invasion, which began last February and has not ended to this day. According to him, thoughts about Ukraine’s victory in the war are premature. “Victory is not close. I’m no military expert, but I can see that we’re short of men, and that’s a problem. There’s little time to prepare. But I didn’t expect us to rally so much and push them back. Some people have shown heroism, but the traitors also showed up,” he says about the current situation.
He doesn’t really want to look back on how he spent the last year and is rather brief in his answer. “Of course it was very difficult. But we live and fight for our existence.”
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