The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

90 days in Russian prison: A Ukrainian teen’s tale of terror and hope

Vlad Buryak, 16, was kidnapped by Russian soldiers as he tried to escape his hometown of Melitopol in early April. He was reunited with his father on July 7. (Video: The Washington Post)
6 min

On his first day in a Russian prison, the 16-year-old boy said, he heard the agonized screams of other Ukrainians. Sitting in a 6-foot-by-6-foot cell with a broken toilet, Vlad Buryak wondered if he would be next.

Buryak, the son of a high-ranking Ukrainian government official, was kidnapped by Russian soldiers as he tried to escape his hometown of Melitopol in early April. His case became one of thousands: The growing but impossible to track toll of abducted or forcefully disappeared Ukrainian civilians.

But his story is different from most. Vlad came home.

His improbable release offers a beam of hope during a dark time. With the war in its 20th week, bitter fighting continues along the front lines in Ukraine’s east. Russian rocket attacks kill more civilians each day, Ukrainian officials say, and allegations of atrocities have piled up. Many of the disappeared thousands never reappear, representing a special challenge for war crimes investigators.

Vlad’s case opens a rare window onto the experience of the legion of Ukrainians still detained in Russian-occupied territory, in facilities inaccessible to international rights monitors or independent journalists. In an interview with The Washington Post shortly after his safe return, the teen recounted the 90-day saga for the first time in an English-language publication.

According to Vlad and his father, Oleg Buryak, Russian troops took Vlad to a prison in Vasylivka, a city in the occupied part of Zaporizhzhia province in the country’s southeast. For the first few days, they kept him in solitary confinement, he said.

Sitting in his prison cell, Vlad could not make sense of what has happening. “Why am I in this place, and when will I return back home?” he thought.

But the initial shock quickly turned into pure terror.

Less than a week after he arrived at the prison, Vlad said a man in his early 20s was moved into the same cell. He heard the young man being beaten and electrocuted, the torture sometimes lasting up to three hours at a time, he said.

Soon, the man said he could no longer bear it. He would rather “leave this earth than keep being tortured,” he told Vlad. He had a final wish: for Vlad to tell his story.

Vlad said the man then reached for the lid of a tin can and cut his wrists.

The teenager sat by his side, holding his hand as he slowly drifted away. But before he took his last breath, Vlad said, a guard came and called a medic, who took him away.

Vlad never found out whether the man, who said he had a wife and a child, survived.

The Post was not able to independently verify Vlad’s account. But Ukrainian human rights groups tracking forced disappearances said Vlad’s testimony is in line with that of other victims who have been released, and they said torture is “common practice.” The United Nations has also reported numerous cases of Russian soldiers torturing civilian and military prisoners.

And U.S. officials this week accused Russian forces of forcibly detaining or disappearing thousands of Ukrainian civilians, and said many of them are tortured.

Russia has repeatedly denied any claims of torture or other war crimes.

After the horrific episode, Vlad, alone in his cell, felt isolated again.

To pass time, he filled his days with menial tasks, preparing his own food, reading and sleeping. He said he was also forced to clean the room where other prisoners were tortured, where he would often find medical supplies that were soaked in blood, an endeavor he carried out with a pragmatic, almost militaristic mind-set.

“I had no emotions,” he said. “I have bottled them all up. I was acting like nothing had happened. I showed no aggression, so they won’t do the same thing with me.”

No matter the horror he witnessed — along with beatings and electroshocks, prisoners had needles pushed under their nails — Vlad remained detached.

“I understood that at that moment, I was also saving myself,” he added.

But inside: “I was extremely scared. I was shocked. Like everything inside me was burned down.”

Some moments were too jarring to process. One day, for instance, he said he entered the torture room and found a man hanging from the ceiling, his hands tied down with cables. A Russian soldier sat near the severely beaten-up prisoner, and, seemingly unfazed, took notes.

At home, Vlad’s father was engaged in a frantic, detective-like pursuit of his son. As head of the Zaporizhzhia Regional Military Administration, Oleg Buryak leaned on his government connections, desperate to set up a prisoner swap. Nothing was working.

After nearly seven weeks in the Russian prison, Vlad was transferred to a facility with better conditions, where he could bathe regularly and call his father.

Unsure if he would ever see him again, Vlad kept repeating two phrases, like a mantra.

There are no situations that cannot be solved.

I will get out.

On July 4, Buryak took a call from a Russian negotiator, who told him he was ready to set Vlad free. There are some details of the delicate exchange that Buryak said he could not disclose; some, he said he still does not understand. Vlad would be part of a three-person prisoner exchange, he said, and he’d be transferred back to Ukrainian territory in a civilian evacuation caravan.

Two days later, Vlad called his father.

“Dad, they’re saying I’m coming to you tomorrow.”

The final few hours were agonizing for father and son.

Buryak greeted Vlad on the side of a road, near line zero, where Ukrainian and occupied territory converge. Clad in camouflage body armor and blue jeans, Buryak flagged down a van. Vlad stepped out of the side door, and the two embraced. Finally.

Buryak rested his forehead on his son’s shoulder while he held him. His police escort had to remind him that they were standing in a war zone: “Oleg, let’s go,” they said. “Let’s go, let’s go.”

“When Vlad was kidnapped, it felt like a piece of my heart was torn away from me,” Buryak said. “And when I hugged him, I felt like that piece came back.”

But the country is still at war. The trauma of Vlad’s confinement will linger long after his release. The sounds of torture, the fear of being taken again and the smell of the blood-soaked cleaning rag have kept him awake and on edge. He said he feels at least five years older.

In an interview less than a week after his return, Vlad adopted the same stoic, determined manner as his father. He said he now spends his days volunteering for the war effort, handing out humanitarian aid and sharing his story. His jaw set, he said he wants to continue reliving what he saw, even the worst parts.

“I don’t want to forget any of that,” he said, “so I can tell others and make sure people know.”

Irynka Hromotska contributed to this report.