Azov fighter Ravlikovskyi about leaving Azovstal and being captured: "We had to save our wounded"
After making the difficult decision to leave Azovstal, Bohdan Ravlikovskyi, like other Azov fighters, was taken prisoner by Russia, where he spent almost a year of his life, but in June 2023 he finally returned to Ukraine
In the second part of the interview, Bohdan Ravlikovskyi tells Espreso about leaving Azovstal, almost a year in Russian captivity, returning to Ukraine, and future victory.
Read the first part of the conversation here.
Photo: Bohdan Ravlikovskyi
Was the decision to leave difficult for you?
The decision was made jointly in the bunker, it was not a unilateral decision by the Azov commander. We discussed the conditions and how we would do it. But we immediately put the question as follows: if we are not given the command to stop the Mariupol defense, we will not leave, we will stand until the end. However, if they give us such an order, then we will surrender on joint terms. We had a lot of wounded, they were dying. We were just forced to do it. The entire command understood the risks, and I understood the risk that I might face. We realized that we, as commanders, might not return from captivity. But in order to save the soldiers who were dying, we had to make this decision.
Regarding captivity. We hear very often how Russian invaders are fiercely opposed to Azov, let's even say they hate it. What was their attitude towards you, given that you are not only an Azov man, but also a Lviv resident?
I was the last to leave. We destroyed all personal protective equipment, weapons, communications, and optics, and then I left the command bunker. At first, the attitude of the "administration" was, let's say, relatively adequate. There were certain conditions, Redis told them, they told us. It was an old inactive colony. At the beginning there were no mattresses, then they gave them. The food, of course, was bad, the water was from a lake somewhere, and there was a feeling of mold or earth. Interrogations started. After that, I was put in a disciplinary isolation ward, and there my relations with the administration got worse. The disciplinary isolator was guarded not by Russians, but by DPR residents, and their attitude was much worse than the Russians. And the Russians were worse than the Caucasian people.
It seemed that the Russians would be the worst offenders...
I understand that representatives of the so-called DPR-LPR feel somehow offended. You know, they are now "neither here nor there". That is, they are neither Ukrainians nor Russians, but somewhere in between, and neither Russia nor Ukraine likes them. This is how they manifest their inadequacy, their lack of understanding of the situation, their stupidity, their anger.
Photo: Bohdan Ravlikovskyi
You were in captivity for a long time, a year actually. What helped you to stay strong? How did your days pass?
At Olenivka there was some communication, but in the detention center, it was completely different. In September, I got to Taganrog. The days passed monotonously: check in the morning, eat, sit all day until lunch, have lunch, check, have dinner, and go to bed.
And what were the constant checks for? What else could they be looking for?
They were very afraid of us, and Azov members were not taken out of the cell without special forces protection. I was taken out by four men: one opened the cell, the other took me away, and two more led me. We walked like this, with our heads down, arms up, in a position where we could not see anything, with our eyes closed. They were very afraid that we would not organize some kind of sabotage, that we would not attack them. Their propaganda works well. They behaved as if they had taken us prisoner themselves, and we had not come out voluntarily. And they shouldn't forget that they didn't take us, they didn't break us. We came out because we wanted to save our guys, not because they intimidated anyone.
Did you receive any information from the outside during your captivity?
In Olenivka, we still had communication, we had a few hidden phones, we were communicating with free Ukraine, and we had nothing in Taganrog. There were only rumors here. Let's just say that if you were sent for interrogation and you had a more or less adequate interrogator, you could ask him what was happening in Ukraine. It is clear that they mostly said, "What's left for you there, one or two days" and so on. But there were also those like the one I met. He was from Rostov, he worked in the police, and he was just assigned to this detention center to carry out interrogations. He said that the situation in Ukraine at that time was relative. Neither the Armed Forces were moving, nor were the Russians. Only locally, someone put pressure here, someone conceded there. It was around October 2022. In September, when I was taken for my first interrogation, they said the following words: "We have almost taken Bakhmut". Yeah, I thought, that's great, so much time has passed and they haven't taken it yet. And on April 26, 2023, I was told again: "Our people have almost taken Bakhmut". I thought: oh, things are not going well for you. I mean, we got various global news.
But you had no opportunity to communicate with your family?
There was none at all. No Red Cross, no OSCE, no communication with relatives, no correspondence, nothing.
Did you know in advance that you were going to be exchanged?
No, I didn't. It happened at night, the cell opened, they called my name and said: "With your things to the exit". I realized that I was going somewhere for a stage. But I did not realize where. The cells on the floor were isolated, but I heard officers and commanders being taken out. I thought we were going somewhere else. We were taken to a box, there were mostly officers and commanders. We started talking about where we were going. No one knew, maybe an exchange, maybe further. And then we heard that they brought women. They were Azov women from the pre-trial detention center. We realized that it was most likely an exchange. Because women and men are not taken away together for no reason. This was confirmed when we got on the plane. We were tied up and blindfolded, but the pilot or someone from the airplane crew said the following words: "The worst is over for you." That's when I realized that this is it, this is the exchange.
Returning to Ukraine
And what are your first feelings when you come home?
You know, I talk to everyone, and everyone wants to hear some kind of "wow". To be honest, I have no impressions. Just no impressions at all. I mean, I'm glad to be back, but I realize that there are still guys there who I need to work with. And let's just say I exhaled because it's over for me. Why? Because I was a commander and they wanted to incriminate me with various articles. First, they wanted to attribute responsibility for the port to me, as if I had tortured the Russian crew of the ship I was talking about. Later, I was allegedly holding civilians hostage in a bunker at Azovstal. That we were stealing gold, torturing prisoners... It came to all sorts of nonsense. I just exhaled, because you are constantly sitting in such tension that they will tell you again why they are taking you for interrogation. Sometimes they even used physical violence. And you never knew what to expect tomorrow.
Photo: Andriana Stakhiv
As for the prisoners, there are still quite a few of them. We held various actions in support of the captured Azov soldiers and soldiers of other brigades. At the time, different opinions were expressed. On the one hand, they said that it was necessary to draw attention, and on the other hand, that it could be harmful. What is your opinion on this?
There is no single right answer. What can be harmful? The fact that a certain price is set, for example, the price for the Azov soldiers. But on the other hand, if no one mentions it, then probably no one will do anything. So the question is twofold. But we need to talk about it. Because we need to understand that Russia is not fulfilling its obligations, they are not letting anyone in. We do not know what is happening there now. When I was still there, I understood what was happening. Since then, I don't know anything. No international organizations are allowed there. Everyone is allowed to visit Russian prisoners here. Some consuls and church patriarchs. Everyone is watching the Russians being in prison in our country. And no one understands what is going on there, in Russia. This must be made public in order to draw the world's attention to the fact that the country waging war does not adhere to any international rules of warfare. They keep people in prison, transport people wherever they want, interrogate and judge them as they want. Do you know how it is going on there? There is no evidence. Everything is just someone's word. They tell you that you killed someone there, and "that's it, we're going to put you in jail." This is wrong, the world should understand that it is better not to have anything in common with them, to impose as many various sanctions on them as possible so that they would just disappear.
After rehabilitation, do you return to service?
How can a soldier not return? I will return to service, and the commander will decide where I will be most useful, and I will be there.
How do you see the Ukrainian victory?
I think it will be difficult to achieve it by force, very difficult. This is more of a diplomatic way. I think diplomacy wins in any war. But diplomacy only on our terms. Because we are the party that suffered. The aggressor country must be punished on our terms, on the terms of peace. Not only Ukraine should set conditions, but also the world, because the land-lease is working, foreign money is being spent. This is not only our war, it is the war of the whole world. Everyone has claims against Russia now. It has to compensate a lot. I don't know what kind of reparations they have to pay, but they have to regret what they did. And it should be obvious to the whole world that an aggressor country that violates international rules of war, and international borders, must be punished.
But there was still a long struggle ahead.
A long one. You need to understand that we are all waiting for the war to end, but it will not be soon. Even if we regain all our borders, there will still be a problem with rebuilding Ukraine, identifying those "rotten" elements of society, so to speak, and building a great independent Ukraine. You know, we had the Orange Revolution, the Maidan, and now we finally have to put an end to all this, put a big point, and understand our identity. That we are Ukrainians, a fully independent nation.