We Cannot Condemn Crimes We Do Not Name

Oleksii Polukhin’s 64 days in detention began when Russian soldiers stopped him at a checkpoint. They found that he’d been gathering information about Russian military positions to share with Ukrainian forces; they also discovered he was gay. Mr. Polukhin gave a detailed account of his detention to Projector, an Odesa-based human rights organization. He also confirmed the details to me in a series of interviews.

It was May 2022, just 10 weeks after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Mr. Polukhin lived in Kherson, a southern city of around 250,000 people that the Russians conquered with blinding speed in the war’s early days. Mr. Polukhin, rail-thin and then 22 years old, was on his way to take pictures of a May 9 “Victory Day” parade organized by the occupying forces, which he planned to send to a network sharing information from occupied territory. He had been keeping close track of the locations of Russian checkpoints, he said, but this new one caught him by surprise. He was forced to unlock his phone for the soldiers, where they discovered L.G.B.T.Q. Telegram channels, including one that he ran.

Mr. Polukhin recalled one of the guards calling him an anti-gay slur and forcing him to strip naked on the street. (This is a common practice by Russian forces, nominally to search for nationalist tattoos.) After he was dressed again, Mr. Polukhin said that the soldiers took the opportunity to humiliate him further, calling over a random passerby to ask what should be done with gays in his city.

“I think that all of them should be killed,” Mr. Polukhin said the man responded.

Once they’d had their fun on the street, Mr. Polukhin said the soldiers forced him into a vehicle and beat him, called him homophobic names and demanded he give up the names of other queer Khersonians. They drove him blindfolded on a roundabout route before dumping him at a detention center, which Mr. Polukhin guessed had been a Ukrainian police station. He said he was left to stew for a time in a holding cell with four other prisoners, who told him the guards had said he was gay.

A Russian soldier soon appeared with a red dress. “Wear it or we will beat you to death,” Mr. Polukhin recalled the soldier saying. He did his best to act unafraid, asking the soldier if he could also have a pair of matching high heels. Then he was taken for questioning, the first of about five times he would be interrogated during a detention that lasted just over two months.

The beatings weren’t the only form of inhumane treatment Mr. Polukhin was subjected to. Once, he said, Russian soldiers forced him to swallow pieces of a Ukrainian flag several days in a row. The Russians demanded he name other pro-Ukrainian and L.G.B.T.Q. activists; he said they had several names of L.G.B.T.Q. activists they’d already identified and wanted him to give up their locations. Mr. Polukhin said that they pressed him for the location of the offices of L.G.B.T.Q. organizations, one of which was raided two days after he was taken into custody.

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