Vovchansk Engineering Works: Dungeons on the Chechen Model
The Engineering Works stand almost in the centre of Vovchansk, a town in the Kharkiv Region’s Chuhuiv district. On one side is the central park with its children’s playgrounds; on the other, is the beach on the Vovcha River. The bridge over the river is nearby and newly-weds once hung locks there to bring good luck to their marriage.
Today fighters from the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) man the roadblock on the bridge. For many inhabitants of Vovchansk their sufferings start here. A doubtful contact in their mobile phone, the wrong kind of tattoo, and they find themselves locked away behind the factory walls.
A hostile “nest”, some locals call it. The factory where three thousand worked not long ago has become a place where people vanish and any who return prefer not to say a word about it.
At 7 am they were already in town
The town of Vovchansk (pop. 17,747, 2021) is only 3 kms from the border and was occupied during the first days of Russia’s war against Ukraine. A local woman told us
“About 7 am on 24 February Russian forces were already moving through Vovchansk. There were columns of tanks, armoured personnel carriers and infantry. All the factories stopped working immediately. Two of the bridges were blown up. People began to panic.”
We’ll call our informant ‘Tatyana’. We’ve changed her name for safety’s sake: she’s now in Kharkiv but her family are still in areas occupied by Russian forces.
Vovchansk did not have its own bakery. Bread was formerly brought to the town from Kharkiv or the town of Novaya Vodolaga. There was one private bakery, but it was located in the grounds of the engineering works. It supplied the families of employees, and some was sold to the public as well.
“And in March, those Russian fascists installed themselves in the bakery. They picked up the ‘undesirables’ and sent them to the Engineering Works: veterans of the [2014-2018] Anti-Terrorist Operation , former border guards, policemen. They softened them up and when they’d finished with that lot, they ‘invited’ others who didn’t want to collaborate with the occupying forces.”
To begin with they only picked up men, said Tatyana. Then they started taking women — those with husbands who’d been in the army or with sons now serving in the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
“It was terrifying. A massive military vehicle marked with a large Z pulled up with armed soldiers inside. They leapt over the fence and if the door was locked, they broke it down.”
Those who ended up in the Vovchansk Engineering Works (VEW) were subjected to the most terrible pressure. Even if someone was released after a few days, he was crushed. He wouldn’t pick up the phone and didn’t want to say what they’d done to him. People were intimidated; threats were made against their families and children.
The first official reports about what was happening at VEW appeared in April. During a live TV broadcast, Oleg Sinegubov, head of the Kharkiv Military Administration, declared:
“In Vovchansk the occupying forces have made one of the factories part of the Russian Federation and a prison, a concentration camp, has been organised there. People are tortured, forced to collaborate or to join the ranks of Russia’s armed forces.”
A little later the prosecutor’s office confirmed this information. The head of the Kharkiv Region prosecutor’s office Oleksandr Filchakov announced that an investigation had been launched into the engineering works,
“The occupying forces are unlawfully imprisoning people whom they subject to physical and psychological violence … We shall have the entire picture once the Ukrainian Army has brought all the occupied towns and cities back under its control.”
Why did they choose the Vovchansk Engineering Works?
Oleg Toporkov, VEW deputy director, knows everything about the factory.
“The Vovchansk Engineering Works covers quite a large area. This includes the main workshops, the stores and a dining area which can serve up to 500 people at a time. Then there are the repair shops and the changing rooms, toilets, and showers,”
He told me, not without a certain pride.
“The largest of the workshops, No. 20, is a rectangular building, rising to eight metres in height in its central section. Three-storey premises adjoin it on all sides: changing rooms, offices and stores.”
Those abducted at the bridge and on the streets were held in workshop No. 20. It contains a great many separate rooms. Toporkov explained:
“Our factory was closed to outsiders. A long time ago we manufactured arms and munitions. There were store-rooms where such output was kept [under lock and key] until it could be passed on to the customer. The premises could be sealed off, then the military would come and collect their order. That’s where the enemy made his concentration camp, inside those isolated premises with their thick concrete walls. Some of the store-rooms lack windows and have metal doors. They’re holding people there. The offices are used for interrogation.”
Another reason the enemy chose workshop No. 20, Toporkov thought, is that there is a seven-storey administrative building nearby that shields No. 20 from artillery attack from the west.
Locals suggested that VEW was located in such a way that if the Ukrainian Armed Forces tried to shell the “enemy nest” they would have great difficulty in avoiding nearby civilian sites. The park is close by and a few private houses. There is also a kindergarten that the occupying forces keep promising to re-open despite the danger to any children who might go there.
VEW has its own water supply and sewage disposal system. The grounds of the Vovchansk Engineering Works are surrounded by a fence topped with barbed wire and there are CCTV cameras.
How many people were being held at VEW? we asked Toporkov. He replied:
“Locals who managed to get free said that some of them shared a ‘cell’ with ten others; some with 30 other people. No one can give an exact figure. From a hundred to one hundred and fifty, depending on the situation. If there’s been some kind of emergency or round-up then they put all the people there, squeezing in as many as they could. How many? The workshop is roughly 150 by 50 metres. If people are driven into the adjoining premises, there could be 30 in each of the 4-5 ‘cells’.”
Every Russian ally is present at VEW, said Toporkov. Soldiers mobilised from the DPR and LPR (“Lugansk People’s Republic”), and their militia and security services; National Guardsmen from Russia; professional soldiers of the Russian army. Russia’s Federal Security Service, FSB, was in overall charge, naturally. For the most part, FSB officers conducted the interrogations while men from the DPR and LPR looked on, escorting the victims in and out.
People were taken to VEW for all kinds of reasons. In addition to pro-Ukrainian views a person might have been denounced by his or her neighbour. “It’s like 1937 all over again!” exclaimed Tatyana referring to Stalin’s Great Terror.
Sometimes, it seemed, people were simply abducted in order to rob them. We heard from one man who was subjected to electric shock treatment to get his money. After he handed his savings to the enemy, he was released. Not everyone is that “lucky”. After hours or days of interrogation many were not released. Commented Toporkov
“Some held at VEW were later moved to Russia and did not come home. I know of a dozen such cases. Some were listed for exchange. Others whom we thought had been shot got in touch, two months later, with relatives in Russia, across the border in Belgorod.”
How could one track down a missing family member?
On 13 April, the enemy abducted Alyona Tsygankova’s father and two other relatives; they took Margarita Stalnova’s husband. It happened at the Symbol country-cottage cooperative.
Why they were singled out, the women did not know. Perhaps, because they were delivering humanitarian aid. Perhaps, because Alyona’s father had a generator and neighbours came to him to charge their phones. Several of those abducted were technically competent: they may have been taken to repair the enemy’s vehicles. Perhaps, the enemy simply wanted to seize a few motor vehicles (and took them).
Whatever the reason, on 13 April the Russian soldiers came and, according to neighbours, put bags over the men’s heads and led them off to an unknown destination. Alyona Tsygankova told us
“They turned the place upside down. They even sliced through the plastic insulation on the ceiling. They took away all our electrical equipment, the gas stove, the gas cylinder and our automobile. My father’s car is a white Ford Granada, and there was also a Renault Kangoo and a red minibus.
Our neighbours say there was no fuel in daddy’s car: they dragged it as far as the roadblock, mined it and abandoned it there. A while later a high-up official arrived and told them to defuse the mines and take it to Shestakovo village.”
To begin with they told the men’s relations that they would soon be released. Later they said the men had been moved far from the front “for their own safety”. Neither Alyona nor Margarita could know that this meant Vovchansk. There was no more or less dependable official information. “We learned something from distant acquaintances,” Margarita Stalnova said:
One man was held for a week in Vovchansk. The enemy found a contact in his mobile phone that they did not like. His wife and child went every day and begged them, ‘Let him go!’ They released him. When someone showed him photos of our detained men, he said he’d seen someone who looked like that. Could we trust him? A man in such a condition? Who knew what they’d been doing to him.”
In Telegram chat exchanges people said you must go to the gate of the Vovchansk Engineering Works and hand in the surname of the missing person.
“A soldier will come out with a list. Tell him the name and date of birth. He’ll check the list and say whether they’re holding anyone of that name. They warn you that you cannot visit or deliver parcels. They won’t say how much longer they’ll be hanging onto him”.
That’s how one chat participant described the process.
Neither Margarita nor Alyona could visit occupied Vovchansk. One possibility was to ask a local to go to the factory entrance. People were afraid to put themselves at risk, however. There had already been cases when those who took an interest in what had happened to a missing person were themselves detained and imprisoned. Margarita told us how she found out:
“I found someone I knew, and he asked a young woman from Vovchansk to enquire about my husband. It’s easier, supposedly, if young women do it. My acquaintance made no promises, we couldn’t even phone one another. I got a reply, however: they’d seen him, he was alive and repairing equipment.”
This information was also unconfirmed. The women applied to the police, the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), the National Bureau of Investigations and the Red Cross. Three months after the men were taken, they are still waiting for an answer.
A familiar pattern
The Russian regime invented nothing new when it created a torture centre in Vovchansk. I’m not referring to the notorious prison set up in 2014 at the “Insulation” factory in Donetsk . Russia’s army and law-enforcement agencies have a wealth of prior experience in setting up secret places of detention in occupied territory. Perhaps there’s a handbook they consult.
This is how, twenty years ago, Memorial staff described the unofficial network of prisons created during the Second Chechen War (1999-2005):
“Behind the façade of the official system — detention centres for investigation and custody — there operates an unofficial system of illegal detention centres based in military units. The centre of this system lies on the main base of federal forces [in Chechnya] at Khankala.
“In that parallel system detainees and the ‘missing’ are tortured so brutally that they die a rapid death, and extra-judicial executions are carried out there. During the first Chechen war [1994-1996] military intelligence officers and special forces engaged in such criminal behaviour. During the second Chechen war their knowledge and experience were actively adopted by other law-enforcement agencies, e.g., the police at the Ministry of Internal Affairs.”
Human rights activists have described those unofficial prisons and places of detention: holes in the ground (known as zindany), abandoned buildings, and “temporary filtration centres” about which we hear so much today.
An “invitation” to take part in an unofficial and unrecorded chat, after which any confession may be beaten out of the individual, is a practice with roots that reach back into Soviet times. In 2005, Alexander Cherkasov of the Memorial Human Rights Centre published an article about secret detention in Chechnya:
“Any Russian investigator dreams of engaging with a detainee ‘outside standard procedures’ when he is protected neither by the presence of a defence lawyer nor by the Criminal-Procedural Code. Someone is ‘invited’ or ‘brought in’ and they have a ‘chat’ ... resulting in an ‘admission’ of guilt.
“But to make someone ‘disappear’ or to get hold of him for a long while — that’s the best Russia’s investigators could possibly imagine!”
Twenty years on, nothing much has changed in Russia. They even have the same Fűhrer.
The enemy struck lucky in Vovchansk. There was no need, as in Chechnya, to find abandoned buildings or to dig holes in the ground. An ideal site where the town-dwellers might disappear for a pleasant “chat” could be set up in the centre of town.
In accordance with the Fourth Geneva Convention (“the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War”)  the following actions are prohibited:
- violence against life and person: murder, mutilation, ill-treatment, and torture;
- taking hostages;
- insults to human dignity; offensive and humiliating behaviour;
- conviction and punishment without prior judgment by a court.
The war in Ukraine shows that Russia and the Geneva Conventions are incompatible.
8 August 2022
First published in Ukrainian on the website of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group
References and links
Geneva Convention (IV) 12 August 1949
Jean-Marie Henckaerts and Louise Doswald-Beck, Customary International Humanitarian Law, Vol. 1: Norms, 2005 (689 pp)
 Anti-Terrorist Operation — Between 2014 and 2018, the Ukrainian authorities waged a military campaign against those who had seized control in Crimea and the Donbas.
 The Insulation factory (Donetsk) — Until 2014 the former Insulation factory in Donetsk was run as a centre for the arts. Then it was turned into an internment centre and prison where detainees were held and tortured (see “Izolyatsiya prison”).
 Signatories to the Geneva Conventions — Ukraine and the Russian Federation have been signatories to the four Geneva Conventions (1949) since 3 March 1954 when both were still part of the USSR. Since 1989, they have signed many of the additional protocols.
Translation and notes, John Crowfoot