“Mom, I Went to Hell”

A disabled Ukrainian man was nearly tortured to death in occupied Melitopol. Now he’s back in Russian captivity

14 Aug 2023
“Mom, I Went to Hell”
Photos: personal archive of Leonid Popov’s family

As the war drags on, Russian soldiers are continuing to abduct and torture civilians in Ukraine’s occupied territories. One of these civilians is Leonid Popov, a 22-year-old Melitopol resident diagnosed with schizophrenia. On April 24, 2023, after being detained and tortured by occupation authorities multiple times, Leonid disappeared from his home. After three months of imprisonment and abuse, he was transferred to a hospital ward, where he was treated for emaciation. Then, on August 2, Russian forces told Leonid’s dad that he was being released — but hours later, soldiers abducted him again. Leonid’s mom told us her son’s story.

This article was translated and edited by Meduza.


Me and Lenya, my older son, moved to the Poltava region a few years ago, while my sons’ father — my ex-husband — stayed in Melitopol. Two months before the war started, Lenya went to stay with him in Melitopol.

Then, two weeks before the war began, my ex-husband got into a car accident. He was hospitalized for multiple fractures and memory loss. My younger son, who’s one year younger than Leonid, also went to see him. Soon after that, fighting broke out and Melitopol was occupied. My children found themselves under a blockade.

I wasn’t worried about my younger son; he’s more like an older sibling. He was with his father, helping him, driving him to get his bandages changed.

But our Lenya is a Rain Man. Growing up, he was always different. A wunderkind, a musician. He played in the orchestra, did ballroom dancing, and played chess, traveling all across Ukraine for competitions and winning first place. He competed in chemistry, physics, and astronomy competitions, and outside of school, he studied at the Minor Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. He was a walking calculator — you could give him any difficult multiplication or division problem and he’d quickly give the answer.

Leonid Popov playing the bass balalaika (the largest instrument in the video, right side) with an orchestra

But he doesn’t understand people’s emotions. He was always asking, “Mom, what does it mean when you look at me like that?” When his symptoms flared up, he might jump, leap, laugh. Small children really love him. But he can also be very serious, like a sage. He’s very kind and always ready to help everyone. But he’s also very naive and succumbs to pressure — it’s easy to exploit him.

I begged him to leave Melitopol from the beginning. There were evacuation routes. But he said, “I’m needed here. I have to help people. There are grandmothers who are hungry, and I give them bread, I give them porridge.”

The first abductions

In May 2022, Ukrainian mobile networks were disconnected in Melitopol. My younger son left to look for phone service during curfew and ended up in a military office. He told me that everyone who had tried to get service, around 30 people, had been thrown into a crowded cell. There was a single bucket for all of them to use as a toilet.

There was one person in the cell who seemed drunk. He was screaming incessantly. The soldiers said, “Cover his mouth, or we’ll shoot you like kittens.” Then the terrified crowd started to beat the person. Whenever he started yelling, they would choke him to make him stop. Eventually, he died.

That was on May 21. On May 28, Lenya, my oldest son, went to buy shawarma, and there were a lot of young people standing in the same area. Soldiers came up to them, threw them all [into a car,] and drove them to a military office. There, they tortured Lenya with electric shocks. Afterwards, they let him go, but took his passport.

After that, Anna’s younger son decided to leave Melitopol. During the “filtration” process in Chonhar, Russian soldiers beat him and threatened to drive him out to the steppe and shoot him. He ultimately managed to get out and is now in Europe.

Leonid disappears

In the spring of 2023, I saw an announcement that there would be free evacuations from Melitopol with help from Western volunteers. Lenya didn’t have a passport [because the occupation authorities had confiscated it]. By then, they had already started issuing Russian passports, and I told him to get a Russian passport. But he refused; after the electric shock torture, he had made up his mind never to get a Russian passport.

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Still, I prepared all of his documents and arranged for him to be taken to safety in Poland, where I would pick him up, and at that point, he agreed to leave.

The volunteers were supposed to pick him up on April 26. On April 24, his father called him, asking him to come see him. Lenya said that he was on Pushkin Street, five minutes away by foot. 15 minutes passed, then 20. My ex-husband tried calling Lenya again, but he could no longer reach him.

I asked my ex-husband to drive [to the house where Leonid had been living during the occupation]; maybe he was asleep or sick. My ex-husband broke down the door, but my son wasn’t there.

The search for Leonid

My ex-husband and his partner went to the police and the military commandant’s office. They officials there said they hadn’t detained anyone for about two months. (As it turned out, this wasn’t true; they had detained many people.) The police wouldn’t take a statement. They said, “Don’t worry, he might have been detained by soldiers — we don’t have any authority over them. They’ll just look through his phone. If there’s nothing bad there, they’ll let him go.”

I started to worry that Lenya’s disorder would worsen because of his abduction. This had happened before: in 2017, he became unrecognizable. A psychiatrist in Zaporizhzhia said that he needed to be hospitalized. He was diagnosed with “undifferentiated schizophrenia.” He spent three months in a hospital, where he was treated with antipsychotics. When I picked him up, I had to re-teach him how to brush his teeth and hold a spoon.

Later, another psychiatrist confirmed that he does have an illness but said he hadn’t received the right treatment and that his hospitalization had been unnecessary. She prescribed a new course of antipsychotics, and after that, Lenya went into a long remission.

When he disappeared, I went insane: Is he even alive? What’s happening? I was scared that the stress would cause him to lose his memory and his sense of reality again. The doctor had warned me that regression was possible and that he could regress to the level of a 10-year-old child.

I put the information on social media and wherever else I could. Ukrainian journalists contacted me; I did an interview and a story came out. But I hid the fact that Lenya had a mental illness. I thought I would lose his trust completely if he found out his mom spoke like that about him to the whole country.

I don’t know whether Russian forces saw these stories or if it was a coincidence, but after the story came out, someone called Lenya’s dad. He introduced himself as a military policeman and offered to meet. He said he was participating in the search for Leonid and asked a bunch of questions about me and his father.

The man put my ex-husband in touch with another police officer, a soldier who introduced himself as Lev. “Don’t worry,” he said when I called him, “We’ll search for him. We’ll let you know as soon as we find him. You need to be calm, your child is fine.” I trusted him. He also said I should stop talking about the abduction publicly so that Lenya would be released sooner.

“Mom, I miss you

In June, Lenya’s father received a call from someone who said that he was being held in a military office basement with our son. The guy said our son was in critical condition: unable to stand up, exhausted, and constantly whispering, “I want to eat.” He said they were only given water every two or three days. When they were given food, which didn’t happen every day, it was only in very small amounts. He also said they were beaten. If Lenya wasn’t taken out of there, the guy said, he would die.

The men were being held in a military office in an old traffic inspection building. Lenya’s father went there, and a guard came up to him and said no one was being held there. They told everyone that no one’s in there — but in reality they’re holding a lot of people [IStories has confirmed that multiple prisoners were held in the building in question].

I immediately wrote to the soldier, Lev: “Help! My son’s illness is worsening, he can’t starve.” Lev wrote back that Lenya was fine, he was smiling, and he was even making jokes. He offered to pass along a package once a week. Lenya’s father agreed right away. The soldier helped us organize a phone call, and Lenya had a supervised conversation with his dad.

Lev said that Lenya was allegedly being held for taking photos of military equipment.

He sent me a photo of Lenya and a voice message: “Mom, I miss you, I heard your message and started crying. Look, I have emotions now.” He’d had problems with emotions. As soon as I saw my son’s photo and heard his voice, I was eager to go. But the soldier told me, “It’s not worth it. They won’t let him go. You won’t see him, so there’s no point.”

“They beat me so hard that I couldn’t use the bathroom for four days

On July 24, Leonid’s father called me and said “Lenya is now going to talk to you.” I was unbelievably happy. But his voice was so weak. He said, “Mom, I’m in the hospital.” And the connection dropped.

Lenya’s father then told me that soldiers had taken him to the gastrointestinal department to be treated for emaciation. He’s 1.95 meters (6’ 5”), but weighed just 40 kilograms (88 pounds). His father took a video and sent it to me. Lenya’s 22 years old, but he was behaving like a child. He didn’t understand anything; he was just repeating, “I want to eat.”

He ended up in a gastrointestinal unit with doctors who hadn’t left [after the start of the occupation]. The gastrointestinal doctor knows me, my deceased mother, and our family. I knew he was in good hands, that they would help him recover. Lenya started to stand up and walk, and he constantly wanted to eat; they would give him two servings at the hospital.

He felt better after getting an IV. He started talking. But he was only able to tell us a small part of what happened to him. He said, “Mom, you know how you said that there’s a hell? Well, I went to hell. I was beaten by soldiers and by my cell mates.” He shared a prison cell with convicts from Simferopol and Sevastopol. He said that he was interrogated at the beginning, that he was beaten constantly by soldiers, and that he was forced to sign some documents, but he couldn’t remember what they said. He was barely fed and only given water once every two to three days.

I wrote to the soldier [Lev]: “My son is emaciated! And you said that everything was okay!” He asked if my son might have some kind of illness. From the very beginning, I had told him that he’s ill and that he’s not supposed to put through stress. But Lev told me again not to worry.

He said, “I fed your son. I brought him sausages and grechka, and I moved him to a good cell.” I don’t know if it’s true. He had lied to me when he told me that my son was happy, well-fed, and doing fine. And I had desperately believed every word I heard.

I told Lenya that there are good people in the world, like Lev, the soldier, since he passed along packages to him and sent photographs of him. “Well, he also beat me during interrogations at the beginning,” he responded. “But whatever you say.”

Lenya said, “I was so scared to fall asleep. I was scared that they would come and choke me again, kill me. I was so thirsty, but they wouldn’t give water. But most of all, I wanted to eat. Then they beat me even harder. They beat me so hard that I couldn’t use the toilet for four days. Why, mom? Ma, maybe you know what my crime is?”

“I’ll never go back there, right?”

On August 2, the local Investigative Committee called Lenya’s dad and told him that Lenya was being released for lack of evidence. His father picked him up from the hospital and drove him back to the house, but they hadn’t even made it to the door when soldiers arrived in a vehicle with tinted windows: Lev and his partner. Lev said that he couldn’t do anything to help, that the case was still open, and that he was facing pressure from his superiors. He handed Lenya a bag to put over his head, and then they taped him up and took him away. A week has passed and Lev still hasn’t answered any of my messages or the calls from Lenya’s dad.

Lenya’s father called the Investigative Committee. They said that they’re sorry but that there’s nothing they can do to help, because they have no power over the military command. They suggested consulting an international organization. I haven’t received any updates about Lenya since then.

The last time I spoke with my son was about an hour before the soldiers took him. He was so happy that he’d soon be free. “Mom,” he said, “I’ll never end up there again, right?” “No, my son,” I told him, “I’ll come to get you.” He asked me to wait so that he could say goodbye to his friends and his girlfriend, who he’d started dating in Melitopol. He told me, “Mom, I kissed someone for the first time. I’m in love.” I told him that we’ll move to Germany where my younger son is, where there’s no war. I said we’ll go to museums and churches there.

He also managed to tell me that there are a lot of people detained at the military office. Most of them are civilians that have been held since the start of the war. Their relatives are searching for them, but they don’t know that they’re there. Some of them have already died, and their relatives don’t even know.

This the 21st century. Our grandparents survived fascism in 1941. Now it has returned, only to another country. Hitler used to exterminate people with mental illness.

The human rights organization Every Human Being is assisting Leonid Popov’s mother. Its employees told IStories that they filed complaints with various agencies in Russia and Ukraine, as well as UN working groups on arbitrary detention. So far, human rights activists have only received confirmation that these complaints have been received.

After the media report about Leonid came out in Ukraine, a man who introduced himself as a military police officer contacted Leonid’s father and offered to meet with him. The man said that Leonid is fine, that he’s being fed, that he’s not being beaten, and that he was allegedly detained for taking photos of military equipment. IStories have identified the number as belonging to Igor Kara, a former Ukrainian police inspector from the Donetsk region who defected to the Russian side after the full-scale invasion. On the phone, he initially denied that he knew Leonid Popov before confirming that he spoke with his father. Kara said: “The case of his disappearance is with the Investigative Committee. The Investigation Committee is searching for him.”

The investigator from the Investigative Committee who called Leonid’s father on August 2 and said Leonid could be picked up told IStories that Leonid has been recognized as a victim in his criminal case: “Investigations are underway to establish his whereabouts. He’s not in our custody. Contact the military commandant’s office. We also contacted them. I can’t tell you their response as it’s a classified investigation. I can’t comment on criminal matters in my department.”