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Russian Prisoners of War in Ukraine

What Does History Tell Us Will Be Their Fate?

As videos of Russian soldiers captured by the Ukrainian army start to surface, I am wondering what will happen to these now disillusioned young men. 

Many of them are disillusioned because they were lied to by their own country. They were told that they were on training exercises and ended up in a war. 

They were told that Ukraine is full of fascists and the most honorable thing, of course, was to fight fascists and prevent genocide. Doesn’t this anti-fascist rhetoric sound familiar? 

How weird would that be for a country that elected a Jewish comedian as its president to be full of fascists? Propaganda is more powerful than we want to admit.

These soldiers were in small, disjointed units put on the border of Ukraine, completely surprised when told to move in an aggressive manner across that border. They were woefully unprepared for what faced them and surprised at what they found, then completely demoralized. This too sounds familiar.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s famous accounting of the Soviet’s system of Gulags tells us about these same soldiers. In The Gulag Archipelago, he writes of his experiences during and after World War II as he was an army officer, arrested and then moved about in the Soviet prison system. 

He writes that Russian soldiers first were abandoned by their government “through ineptitude” when fighting German fascists. Their generals left the battlefield and forbade the enlisted men to abandon their posts or risk being shot as they retreated.

Then they were abandoned by their government while in captivity as prisoners of war. There were no attempts to retrieve them while they watched American prisoners of war receive aid packages from the Red Cross. They received only jeers from other soldiers and occasional shows of pity for being abandoned.

Lastly, they were betrayed when they were “coaxed [. . .] to return home with such phrases as, ‘The Motherland has forgiven you! The Motherland calls you!’ and snared [. . .] the moment they reached the frontiers.” Russian veterans were arrested and imprisoned in their own nation after being sent to fight for it.

But why? Why would the Russians not welcome their brave fighters back into their arms. Back into society? It’s because they had seen the lie. They witnessed the “evil capitalists” in action as they occupied the West. It wasn’t the greedy businessmen fighting for the British alongside them in the fight against the Germans, but the working class men that were supposed to be revolting against their own nation of capitalists. 

They experienced life in Switzerland, France, and other Western nations. And this unfiltered picture of what happens in the West as opposed to the state-run propaganda about Western nations could not get out into the Russian public’s mind. The same will be true of this war.

As Russian tanks rolled through Ukraine, there were no swastikas flying. There was no fascist regime to conquer. There was no genocide to stop. These demoralized soldiers have now seen the lie from the outside. How else could they see it? And now Ukrainians will need to consider their fate. 

What do you do with someone who has attacked you and your family in your homeland? What if they had killed people you know? What, if anything, should be taken into account? Maybe this is in part why those captured Russian soldiers are so demoralized. 

Maybe they know that their motherland will again lie to them to get them home, where they will disappear.

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