- By Reid StandishReid Standish is associate editor, digital, at Foreign Policy. Reid writes on Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia and is the newsroom’s digital point person. He has lived in and reported from Finland, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine, where he covered everything from Santa Claus to drug trafficking. A native of British Columbia, he holds a B.A. in international studies from Simon Fraser University and an M.A. from the University of Glasgow.
When Sergey Zakharov first put up art installations and graffiti satirizing pro-Russian fighters in his native Donetsk he expected a backlash, but he didn’t expect to spend the next six weeks being tortured. Now safe in Kiev and working on an illustrated book about his ordeal, Zakharov spoke to Foreign Policy about life in Donetsk and his time in captivity.
He also provided a set of drawings depicting his experience in the custody of eastern Ukraine’s rebels. They show the artist being apprehended and beaten and confined to miserable quarters.
Zakharov said he was beaten intensely and tortured for 10 days straight, during which his captors, repeatedly bludgeoning him with truncheons, broke his ribs. “In the middle of the night, sometimes the guards would get drunk and grab some of the prisoners and take us to another building where they would beat us again,” Zakharov said. “After one of the beatings, I was taken to a small iron box where two people could barely fit and left for two days under the scorching sun,” adds Zakharov. “I lost consciousness.”
During his torture sessions, pro-Russian separatists told him to prepare to die and held a gun to his head. On another occasion, militants held a knife to Zakharov’s ear and threatened to cut it off.
Dubbed the “Banksy of Donetsk,” Zakharov won international notoriety in July and August for his irreverent art installations depicting pro-Russian militants as devils and demons. His graffiti portrait of the prominent rebel commander Igor Strelkov holding a gun to his head under a caption riffing on the Nike slogan “Just Do It” became an instant symbol of opposition to the pro-Russian militias wreaking havoc in eastern Ukraine.
But soon after his art went viral, Zakharov found himself persona non grata in Donetsk and a target for pro-Russian militants eager to crack down on any form of dissent.
Zakharov was in his studio in early August when armed men questioned him and took him to a building in central Donetsk that used to belong to the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), which has been transformed into the headquarters for the militants’ activities. “They showed me pictures of my work and asked if I had done it. I said, ‘yes,’” Zakharov recalled. He was then handcuffed and thrown in a van with armed militants and taken back to his house, where his computer and car were scooped up and his studio ransacked.
Here, Zakharov depicts the moment he was taken away to the SBU building.
“I found out later that I was followed for a long time before being captured,” Zakharov said. “I got in touch with a Russian journalist and that alerted the militants in Donetsk. They started to monitor my social media accounts and from there were able to see what I was doing.” Because of a firm curfew, it was difficult for Zakharov and his fellow artists in the collective known as Myrzilka, to put up the installations under the cover of darkness. Instead the art was erected during the morning hours.
“Now I can say that I was careless — but I just wanted to see how people would react.”
Here, Zakharov puts up one of his works of art before his capture.
“At that time no one spoke out against the Donetsk People’s Republic, so I was pleased to see people’s positive reactions to my work,” Zakharov added, speaking of the passers-by who would laugh and take photos on their phones. “To me it was evidence that despite their silence, there were still many opponents in the city.”
With little explanation, Zakharov was released in late August. He then promptly met his girlfriend and was taken to the hospital, where he was determined to have 10 broken ribs. “We talked about leaving, but my passport and documents were still at the SBU building,” Zakharov said. A day after his release, Zakharov returned to the site of his torment to reclaim his documents, which would be needed to navigate the checkpoints out of the city, but was rearrested and did not leave again until nearly a month later.
Here, Zakharov depicts a cell in which he was held.
Upon his second arrest, Zakharov’s family and friends lobbied hard for his release. Zakharov’s girlfriend previously worked in law enforcement and knew some former police officers working for the Donetsk People’s Republic. After countless phone calls, one officer took an interest in the artist and eventually secured his release.
Zakharov and his girlfriend have since left Donetsk and now live in Kiev, but returning to working and normal life has been difficult. After a month-and-a-half of close confinement and physical abuse, the once-confident artist admits to struggling to cope with his experience and finds it difficult to draw now.
Still, he is devoting his time to illustrating his ordeal and hopes to publish it as a book. “It’s much harder to draw than it used to be, but it’s allowing me to process everything that has happened to me and my country.”