Russian captivity 100 years ago and how to escape it – memoirs of Ukrainian prisoners

Ukrainian Sich Riflemen on vacation. 1915
Ukrainian Sich Riflemen on vacation. 1915

NV publishes excerpts from the memoirs of a corporal of the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen (USS), who had lived in Russian captivity for more than a year, and then, together with his fellow prisoners, got his captors drunk and escaped.

“Time now!” one of these crusaders shouted to me, but I didn’t understand the Russian language and didn’t guess what time he wanted. I understood only when he cursed with a rude Russian word, grabbed my hand, and pulled up my sleeve. And since I didn’t have “time” either on my hand or in my pocket, the soldier pushed me forward with the butt of his kris, followed by another juicy Russian curse. Another soldier did the same with sotnik [lieutenant of Cossack troops] Petro Pasika. We ended up in Russian captivity.”

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This episode is from the memoirs of a USS corporal, Dmytro Herchanivskyi, about his military service at the height of WWI. At that time, the USS Volunteer Legion fought within the Austro-Hungarian Empire against the army of Russian Emperor Nicholas II. The USS soldiers together with the 310th Hungarian regiment tried to prevent the enemy from advancing near Mount Lysonia in a battle near Berezhany in early September 1916, but they were captured.

Lieutenant Andriy Melnyk was among the prisoners, who became the leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) in 1938. Together with him, Herchanivskyi went under convoy from Ternopil and Kyiv to Kursk, Penza, Ufa, and Tsaritsyn. They spent a year and three months in captivity before escaping.

According to Herchanivskyi, about 50 USS officers and soldiers were captured by the Russians near Berezhany. In order not to give anything to the enemy, the USS soldiers smashed their revolvers and cameras against the trees and broke their razors and knives. Ukrainians were surrounded by enemy infantry.

Conversations with Russians

Already in captivity, the Russian field priest, examining the prisoners’ blue and yellow cockades, wondered why the USS caps were called Mazepynka, since Hetman Ivan Mazepa did not wear them. He provoked political conversations while addressing the prisoners in Ukrainian. He spoke about Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky and “one nation.” He asked the USS soldiers why they were fighting against “their own.” Melnyk tried to object, but the priest cut him off mid-sentence.

The prisoners were lined up and brought to Pidhaitsi (a town 58 km from Ternopil). Here, Melnyk got into an intense argument with a general who was inspecting new arrivals. The general declared that neither Ukraine nor the Ukrainian language existed, as if it was some obscure term in Halychyna [or Galicia, a region in western Ukraine]. And it was correct to call the language “Southern Russian or Little Russian.”

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“Andriy Melnyk started to argue,” Herchanivskyi recalled.

“He reminded that Rus is a name stolen by [Emperor of Russia] Peter I. That Ukraine and Ukrainian are equal to Rus and Russian. At first, the general listened attentively to Melnyk’s arguments. And then he got angry: ‘There has never been any Ukraine, and there will never be.’ And he added ironically at the end: ‘Did you hear that, adjutant? He’s a lieutenant, and I’m a general, and he knows more than me. We’ll advance to Vienna soon and will catch your [Emperor of Austria] Franz Joseph I!”

The prisoners weren’t accommodated in barracks for the night, but in the homes of local residents. The residents of Pidhaitsi met the USS soldiers as heroes, trying to accommodate them in everything.

“Ms. Kobrynska treated us to a hot, fragrant meat dinner and vegetables,” writes the corporal in his memoirs.

“A delicious dinner just didn’t fit into the imagination of a front-line soldier. And then fresh, white linens and a soft bed!”

In the morning, the convoy of prisoners left for Ternopil. They were accompanied by a hundred infantrymen and several horsemen from the Don Cossacks, who galloped on both sides of the road, swinging their clubs, and hurried those who were lagging.

The USS prisoners arrived in Ternopil on Sept. 6. They walked gloomily down the city street, while the locals threw bread, cigarettes, and soap to them. The Don Cossacks whipped everyone who tried to approach the convoy, even children and the elderly.

The barracks were the next stop, where the residents of Ternopil stubbornly continued to throw food, tobacco, and underwear over the wall to Ukrainian fighters.

Kyiv was next. Young girls with hot pies, sweets and all kinds of food were bustling around the railway carriages with prisoners. Any purchases were out of question, since the prisoners had only Austro-Hungarian money, and no one would give away a single piece of bread for nothing.

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A few days later, the memoirs’ author was surprised by Russian Kursk. “At the station restaurant, all the more than 200 captured senior officers who were brought here were treated to a comprehensive first-class lunch, right at the station, at tables elegantly covered with white tablecloths, with silver cutlery and porcelain dishes,” Herchanivskyi recalled.

Penza was next, where the Ukrainians met Austrians in a large POW camp. The latter complained that the Russians had reduced their officer privileges and even boarded up the windows of the officers’ quarters. Melnyk and his comrades wrote letters to their relatives and appealed to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Its representatives soon issued underwear, blankets, warm wraps, 10 [Russian] rubles in cash to the soldiers, and exchanged Austrian money for Russian.

Life in captivity

The camp outside Ufa, where the Ukrainians were brought in late October, was supposed to be the final destination of the “Mazepyntsi” [followers of Ivan Mazepa], as the Russians called the USS soldiers. The walls of their barracks were covered with dark brown mold from under the old wallpaper. Constant rains washed out the roads, along with the camels, which were more common here than horses and could barely pull the carts behind them. Prisoners were allowed to go to the market and to the hairdresser once a day in small groups – no more than two or three senior officers accompanied by a guard. Once a week they were taken to a bathhouse.

All Ukrainians were given 50 rubles each in early October. At that time, the average worker’s salary in Russia was 37.5 rubles. The money was paid out regularly every month, without delays. Sick leaves were also paid out.

Books saved me from boredom. We read everything we could get our hands on, mostly Russian classics. And at the same time, we learned this foreign language. Melnyk, as the oldest among all, developed a daily schedule of classes. Everyone followed it.

“All sorts of small matters were discussed there. To live in certain forms, to show oneself as an organized community, not to break up into groups of several people or to stand alone,” Herchanivskyi explains.

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In February 1917, when the revolution broke out in Russia, the prisoners were transferred to Dubovka near Tsaritsyn and accommodated in [local merchant] Evlampy Chelyukanov’s mansion.

They followed the same order and discipline in the new place. The prisoners filled their free time with learning foreign languages, beekeeping, gymnastics, and mastering the Japanese martial art of jiu-jitsu. At the same time, platoon commander Vasyl Kuchabskyi, a future diplomat and historian, worked on military terminology for the new Ukrainian army.

The USS soldiers ordered books, collected a whole library in the camp, which they planned to transfer to the Ukrainian university in Lviv after the war. They were also allowed to swim in the Volga River under the supervision of a guard, whom they paid a ruble.

Melnyk himself recalled: “The camp administration treated us, USS officers, properly. Like all the captured senior officers, we had the opportunity to run our own household, that is, support ourselves from the 50 rubles we received monthly, we had two trips outside the city, and we could read books and magazines.”

In Dubovka, Melnyk met Yevhen Konovalets, a future well-known OUN colonel, and at that time also a lieutenant and a prisoner from a nearby barracks. Together, they plotted to escape. Konovalets managed to escape in June 1917 and reach Kyiv, while Melnyk and a dozen of his fellow prisoners waited until Dec. 24.

Audacious escape

When Christmas Eve came, the conspirators went to visit captured senior officers from among the Czechs and Poles, of whom there were many in the camp. The camp’s commandant and the guards were invited to dinner. They bought a lot of good alcoholic beverages. And then, in the whirlwind of a merry feast, the Ukrainians left the barracks one by one and walked through the knee-deep snow-covered steppe to Tsaritsyn.

Exhausted Melnyk, who had caught a cold the day before, was carried by his comrades for two hours. He was given hot tea and rubbed with vodka in some abandoned village. The Russian language came in handy as the locals did not understand what kind of people were in their house and helped them rent a sleigh with horses. The fugitives more or less calmly reached Tsaritsyn, where three men from Konovalets were already waiting for them in the barracks of the 172nd reserve regiment. After changing clothes, everyone boarded the train and went to Kyiv, where they proclaimed the Ukrainian People’s Republic.

It was a time of chaos after the October Revolution. Melnyk and his comrades’ passports, which Konovalets handed over from Kyiv, were not legal in Russia. On the way between Kursk and Voronezh, the fugitives almost got into trouble, but their ingenuity saved them. The three soldiers who entered the railway carriage to check documents turned out to be illiterate. The USS soldiers nodded at a clean-shaven man in a long fur coat made of black ferret fur, as if he’s a Polish priest, he knows everything. In fact, it was their comrade Dmytro Burko, who diligently looked at Melnyk’s passport and confirmed that it was a real state document. When the “priest” was asked for his passport, he pulled out some crumpled piece of paper from his pocket. Surprisingly, it worked, and when the controllers left, the USS soldiers were laughing for a long time.

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Finally, they arrived at the Kyiv central railway station, which at that time looked like a dimly lit, dirty barrack full of soldiers lying on the platform. People with bags were pushing and swearing. It stank of mothballs, sweat, and tobacco smoke. Sunflower seed husks, dirty paper, and rags were scattered everywhere. The hungry soldiers could not eat the bread and the pies from the buffet, on which all sorts of abominations were crawling. Stunned by the new realities of revolutionary Kyiv, yesterday’s prisoners went to 9 Pyrohova Street, where Konovalets and his comrades were already waiting for them in the building of the then Kyiv Trade University. The Sich Riflemen Halych-Bukovyna Kurin [military unit] was formed in Kyiv, which would later become the backbone of the Ukrainian People’s Army.

Herchanivskyi’s memoirs has no mention of the murders, torture, or any other horrors of Russian captivity that Ukraine has faced in modern warfare. The Hague Convention (II) with respect to the Laws and Customs of War on Land, adopted at the initiative of Russian Emperor Nicholas II, has been in effect in Europe since 1907. Its provisions regarding the treatment of prisoners were strictly observed.

According to the convention, prisoners could not be stripped of their officer rank and were treated accordingly. Forced labor was prohibited. Prisoners of war were to be paid the same salary as they received in their army before capture. They could be settled in a fortress or in a camp, and they vowed not to go beyond certain established limits. But no one had the right to completely deprive a prisoner of his freedom if he did not pose a clear danger.

The provisions of the above Hague Convention, like many later international documents on the laws and customs of war, are still in force today. But Russia neglects them.

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Read the original article on The New Voice of Ukraine