Oleksandr Fedorenko’s odyssey began with a triumph for his native Ukraine.
It was last October, and Ukrainian troops were pressing an offensive that would ultimately liberate the southern city of Kherson. As Russian occupation forces prepared to withdraw, they took with them 2,500 Ukrainian criminals from the city’s jails, including Mr. Fedorenko.
What followed over the next several months was a bizarre journey that took some of the convicts more than 4,000 miles through five prisons and five countries.
“We were received with shouts, beatings, humiliations,” said Mr. Fedorenko, 47, who had been serving time in Kherson for theft, describing his introduction to a Russian-controlled prison. “Face to the ground, don’t look, don’t speak, and blows, blows, blows.”
The Russians’ behavior befuddled the convicts from the start, with no one, including apparently their new jailers, having much of an idea what to do with them.
First, the prisoners were left largely to their own devices in their Ukrainian jails. Then they were unexpectedly, and with no explanation, shipped to Russian-controlled territory. But nothing underscored their haphazard treatment better than what happened when some of them reached the end of their original sentences.
The convicts were pleasantly surprised when Russian guards came to escort them out of jail when their sentences expired. But at the prison’s entrance, a bigger shock awaited: Some were immediately detained again by the Russian police and accused of violating immigration laws; they were fined and charged with illegally entering the country.
“They asked me, ‘How did you enter Russia?,’” said Ruslan Osadchyi, another Kherson prisoner. “‘You brought me here, under the muzzles of automatic guns!’”
“Like everything in Russia, it was completely absurd,” Mr. Osadchyi added.
No Russian official has publicly acknowledged the transfer of Kherson prisoners into Russia, a possible violation of international law, which prohibits the forced removal of people from an occupied zone. Officials in the Russian penal system and national police did not respond to requests for comment.
The Kherson prisoners’ ordeal began a week after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February. Like most Ukrainians, the speed of Russia’s initial advance in the south of the country had caught them by surprise.
They watched Russian armored columns roll into the city over River Dnipro on the television sets in their cells.
Ukrainian officials acknowledged that prisoners — some of whom had been convicted of murder, kidnapping and rape — were largely forgotten in the chaos of the Ukrainian retreat.
“There was a war going on,” Ludmila Denisova, who served as Ukraine’s human rights chief at the time, said in an interview, describing the response she received from the Ukrainian authorities at the time. “Who had time for inmates?”
In at least one Kherson prison, inmates said the retreating Ukrainian officials pillaged food supplies, leaving them to their fate under the guard of the few officers who remained at their posts.
“We felt a bitterness in our souls, because Ukraine, our Motherland, had left us behind,” said Andrii Stukalin, one of the prisoners. “We wanted them to at least open our cell doors, so we could defend ourselves, so we could fight for our lives.”
Then one day, the television suddenly switched to Russian programs. The inmates immediately understood: a new law had arrived.
The Russian occupation authorities initially left the Kherson inmates to fend for themselves, focusing instead on purging Kyiv’s supporters from the city and looting. Food was scarce, and inmates sometimes ate just one meal a day.
In the fall came the distant thud of explosions, heralding the approach of Ukrainian troops pushing to take back Kherson.
As shelling grew nearer, occupation authorities moved the inmates from Kherson’s four prisons to one facility further from the fighting. The move forced about 2,500 men to take turns sleeping in a space designed for 500.
Weeks later came a bigger shock: a unit of Russian special forces arrived in the jail to transport the inmates to Russia.
“No one had asked our consent, nor what we thought of it,” Mr. Fedorenko said.
On arriving at a transit prison in Crimea, the Kherson prisoners were put through a gantlet of blows by masked guards, according to the four interviewed former inmates. Mr. Fedorenko said he got off with a bloodied face. Some were beaten unconscious, he said.
Mr. Osadchyi claimed the guards shouted “Greet the Russian world!” as they beat him.
All prisoners were stripped of belongings and put into prison robes and rough felt boots. It was a drastic change from the informal rules of Ukrainian jails, where inmates often managed the prison grounds and wore civilian clothes, the former convicts said.
After the stop in Crimea, the Ukrainians were driven further east and scattered across prisons in southern Russia, thousands of miles from their homes. Overall, Ukrainian officials estimate that Russian forces forcibly took about 3,500 imprisoned Ukrainian citizens to Russia, including 2,500 from Kherson, as they retreated from some occupied territory last year.
At first, Kherson prisoners thought they would be pressed into the convict battalions that Russia’s Wagner mercenary group had formed. But Wagner recruiters came and went, without accepting even the few Ukrainians who had volunteered.
As time passed, Mr. Fedorenko and his companions increasingly wondered: Why were they in Russia?
They were not forced to dig Russia’s defensive fortifications, nor was there an effort to exchange them for Russian prisoners of war in Ukraine.
“It didn’t have any logic,” said Mr. Osadchyi, 44, who served 12 years for homicide. “They couldn’t understand that we are foreign people who don’t have anything to do with the Russian Federation.”
In Russia, the prison officials offered Ukrainian prisoners Russian passports, but there were few takers. Some rejected them out of patriotism; others feared retribution from the government in Kyiv.
“I am living my seventh decade. How can I just suddenly accept Russian citizenship, if I’m Ukrainian?” said Anatoly Korin, who served time in Kherson for theft.
The situation of prisoners who finished their original sentences was complicated by the lack of diplomatic relations between Russia and Ukraine, meaning there was legally nowhere to send then back to.
Earlier this month, three Kherson prisoners went on a five-day hunger strike to protest their detention in an immigration prison in the southern Russia city of Volgograd.
Some of the Ukrainians held in the immigration prison eventually received help from Unmode, a collective of advocates for prisoner rights in former Soviet states. With Unmode’s legal support, they were able to appeal their immigration rulings after spending weeks, or even months, in the detention center.
Yet, the jarring turns in their journey were not over.
A group of 14 former inmates was driven in a prison van 1,000 miles across Russia for deportation into Latvia. On arriving at the border, some of them received a slip of paper from the Latvian immigration authorities that read, in Ukrainian: “At these tough times, the Latvian Republic and its people are ready to accept with open heart the citizens of Ukraine.”
But to their surprise, they were blocked on the border by the Baltic country’s special police units and escorted back to Russia.
Latvia’s Border Guard and Interior Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
Eventually, with Unmode’s help, Mr. Fedorenko was able to make it to the Georgian border and exit Russia. But the vast majority of Kherson prisoners remain in Russian jails, waiting for the end of their prison terms, some of which are years away.
Unmode’s organizer in Georgia, Aidana Fedosik, said the predicament of the Kherson prisoners is a microcosm of Russia’s occupation rule in Ukraine.
“It’s this 19th-century mentality of grabbing a chunk of land for personal glory,” she said. “But why do you need it? What do you want to do with it?”
From Georgia, Mr. Fedorenko and about 15 other Kherson prisoners eventually made it home, mainly by traveling through Moldova, which borders their homeland. From there, they made it home, though some were detained by Ukraine’s intelligence officers, questioned for 12 hours and put through a lie detector, on suspicion of collaboration.
Back in Ukraine, Mr. Fedorenko said he said he now volunteers for Unmode to aide compatriots still stuck in Russian jails, and hopes to leave behind professional theft. After years of imprisonment, he said is not ready to volunteer for the army, but would fight if he is mobilized.
“Everyone hates this Russian Federation, because we all know that we’re nobodies there,” he said, speaking by telephone from his hometown in central Ukraine. “Because no laws are respected there, especially if you’re a prisoner.”
Natalia Yermak contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Alina Lobzina from London.