Yousur Al-Hlou and Masha Froliak are video journalists. This spring, they gained rare access to film at a military field hospital in the Donetsk region of Ukraine.
Times Insider explains who we are and what we do and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together.
It wasn’t the first time we had met a Russian soldier in Ukraine. During the course of our eight-month investigation into potential war crimes committed by Russian forces in Bucha last year, we spoke to two Russian paratroopers in Ukrainian custody.
But this was the first time we had unfiltered access to a Russian soldier lying on a surgical bed, hours after he was injured and captured.
We met Mikhail, a soldier from western Russia, during our embed at a military field hospital in eastern Ukraine. We had arrived in the area at the end of March to document the lives of combat medics on the front lines. (For security reasons, we are not disclosing their location.) Every day, we filmed in and around the hospital as dozens of medics, surgeons and members of the support staff raced to save the lives of wounded soldiers streaming in from the battlefield.
We had developed a taxing but necessary routine to try to capture an authentic view of the war’s gruesome effects. That meant long, difficult days in bloody operating rooms, working under the sound of artillery shells landing just miles away. After spending hours with the medics, filming both lifesaving operations and deaths, we ultimately gained their trust to film their most sensitive, intimate experiences.
One morning a few days into our reporting, we arrived at the field hospital and found the hallways, which were typically lined with wounded soldiers, nearly empty. A radio operator named Yaha, who was on watch, informed us that a wounded Russian soldier had arrived overnight and asked if we would like to speak with him.
The soldier, Mikhail, was lying on a surgical bed with compression bandages wrapped around his arms and tape covering his eyes. Someone — perhaps a Ukrainian soldier or a medic — had drawn black circles with long lines on the tape to mimic eyelashes.
We identified ourselves as journalists for The New York Times and asked for his permission to conduct an on-camera interview.
We were able-bodied Western journalists with a camera; he was an injured Russian soldier surrounded by Ukrainian medics and soldiers in the country he invaded. Because we were sensitive to this power dynamic, we made it a point to assure him that his medical care was not contingent on his participation in our story.
Mikhail consented to speak with us on camera — perhaps he saw the interview as an opportunity to have some agency under an extremely unusual circumstance. We felt that it was important to understand what drove him to participate in Russia’s invasion.
He told us that he had sustained bullet wounds to his shoulders on the battlefield in a nearby forest and was captured by Ukrainian soldiers, who then brought him to the field hospital. He said he joined the Russian military because of the mandatory mobilization of middle-aged men by President Vladimir V. Putin, and that he had arrived in Ukraine just 18 days earlier.
The medics eventually moved Mikhail off the operating table and into a wheelchair. They then moved him to a corner of a hallway, away from wounded Ukrainian soldiers, to be guarded by a man with a gun.
Mikhail’s answers to our questions were in constant contradiction, and we’ll never know exactly what was going through his mind. When asked how he felt about invading another country, he said, in part, “Do I feel guilty? It’s more yes than no. Not exactly guilty.” He expressed some criticism of the war, but he didn’t denounce Russia’s narrative for invading Ukraine. We recognized he was in a precarious position that may have compelled him to speak with caution: He didn’t want to upset his Ukrainian captors but he also needed to temper his criticism of the war to avoid potential prison time in Russia if he was returned in a prisoner exchange.
At some point, he sought reassurance about his future.
“I hope they will exchange me sometime soon or something else,” he said. “That happens, right?” We remained silent.
It was in a quiet moment that we realized the incredible juxtaposition unfolding in front of us: Here was a Russian soldier sitting just yards away from the same Ukrainians he was fighting, who were arriving at the same hospital, being tended to by the same medics, because of the injuries he and his comrades were inflicting.
This surreal situation was not lost on the medics, who have sacrificed their civilian lives and personal safety to treat over 13,000 wounded Ukrainian soldiers since October. Their medical oath compels them to treat every patient, even if that patient is their enemy. But to them, this patient was also a representation of the misery and death caused by 16 months of war.
Later that afternoon, security forces rushed into the hospital; the medics asked us to stop recording. We agreed to turn our camera off as a reconnaissance team blindfolded Mikhail, still in a wheelchair, and whisked him away. He remains in Ukrainian custody.
As soon as they left, another wave of wounded Ukrainian soldiers arrived, and we turned our cameras back on.