In the eyes of the civilized world, Russian President Vladimir Putin, the cutthroat mastermind responsible for the ongoing illegal military incursion into the sovereign nation of Ukraine, is a war criminal. No one has been more vehement or vocal in denouncing Putin’s heinous acts of infamy than Rinat Akhmetov, who heads Ukraine’s largest mining and steel corporation, Metinvest. “Evil cannot go unpunished. Russia’s crimes against Ukraine and our people are egregious, and those guilty of them must be held liable,” the billionaire industrialist stated. “I believe in justice, and I am fighting for it.”
As history bears out time and again, one of the first sacred principles of democracy to fall victim to the insidious agenda of any totalitarian regime is the free press — and reporter Anzhela (Angela) Slobodian is on the front lines of that battle. Like other dictators before him, Putin has adopted and enforced the suspension of honest reporting as well as the suppression of dissenting opinions. For those living under Russia’s oppressive thumb, the press has been usurped by state-mandated propaganda and the brave journalists who risk their freedom to shed light on inconvenient truths have become political enemies with targets on their backs.
Perhaps no one understands the dangers better than Slobodian, a reporter for the Ukraine TV and Radio Broadcasting Company, who continued to file underground reports in Kherson, Ukraine, until she was arrested. Before the Feb. 24 invasion, Slobodian admitted she didn’t believe the Russians would truly attack — but as the truth became clear, she decided to leave the city. After the shelling began, however, getting out proved nearly impossible. She recalled, “I thought, ‘OK, I did not leave. Probably it was meant to be.’”
At that point, the intrepid journalist redoubled her efforts to document and broadcast events as they unfolded. “I tried to go all the way through the occupation as a journalist to see and record what was happening,” she explained. But with Kherson fully occupied, Slobodian realized using professional camera equipment was no longer safe. Smartphones became the only option.
“It was dangerous to work,” she shared in a recorded conversation with the Museum of Civilian Voices of the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation, adding she was always careful to cover her tracks as best she could. Slobodian took the precaution of not filing reports from her home. Her live broadcasts aired from various locations around the city. “I used one phone to film everything and I had a second phone with a Russian SIM card,” she explained. Slobodian entered select contacts into that second phone and even used it on occasion, but in reality, it was a ruse. “So, if I was stopped and told, ‘Give me your phone,’ I would simply give them the [decoy].”
Reliving the Nightmare: The Horrors of Russian Captivity
In June, a contact tipped Slobodian that she’d been blacklisted by the Russian authorities and they were looking for her. They caught up with her a month later at a former residence and she was arrested. Prior to being driven to a detention center, a plastic trash bag was placed over her head. Her captors didn’t remove it until sometime later, when she was finally brought to the cell where she would remain for the next 31 days along with four other female prisoners.
At the beginning of her ordeal, Slobodian says an officer of the Federal Security Service escorted her to a toilet where they conducted a full-body search. “I wasn’t even allowed to close the door. They didn’t beat me … No, I wasn’t beaten, but I was told that if I didn’t give them … the information … they were looking for, it would end badly for me,” she reported. “How bad? You could turn your head and look, and when you see a soldier with a machine gun standing next to you, you understand how bad it could be. People were nothing to them.”
The facility was filthy and infested with cockroaches. Beds were shared and lights always remained on, so sleeping was almost impossible. Slobodian and her cellmates were fed only once a day, with most of the food being inedible. The worst part of the captivity, however, was hearing the terrified screams of other prisoners. “People were tortured in the cell right next to the one in which I was being held,” Slobodian revealed. “We heard people being beaten and shot. Downstairs, people were being tortured with electricity.”
Hopes for a Post-Russia Ukraine
Eventually, after ascertaining she was not a Ukrainian operative and securing her promise she wouldn’t leave Kherson, Slobodian was granted release. It was a promise she didn’t mean to keep. With the help of forged medical documents (Slobodian does suffer from a seizure condition), she was finally able to make good on her escape.
In November 2022, the city of Kherson was liberated. Once again, the Ukrainian flag flies over the city hall. On Mar. 17, 2023, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin, accusing him of a lengthy list of war crimes. Slobodian testified at the proceedings at the Hague.
Anzhela Slobodian has returned to Kherson, but the homecoming was bittersweet. “I hope the Russians will be gone and they will never come again,” she shared with the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation’s Museum of Civilian Voices. “I just want the whole south and east of Ukraine to be liberated. Crimea and Donbas will be returned to us, and indeed, I believe in it. After the victory, if I gather my family because everyone is in different places now, the first thing I want to do is set a table, a long table like we used to gather at every holiday with our family and our loved ones. I sat at that empty table during the occupation and tried to imagine that my family, my friends, and relatives would be there with me.”