Maksym Butkevytch is a well-known Ukrainian journalist, human rights defender and pacifist. So it is a paradox that he is being held as a prisoner of war, after the capture of his Ukrainian army platoon by Russian occupying forces in June.
It is not unusual to hear of Ukrainian leftists volunteering for service in the Ukrainian army despite their political stand against war. Some are captured — or worse. This is news because a very public campaign continues in defence of Butkevytch — a respected human rights defender — who is now under threat.
Soon after his capture he was singled out by the Russian press and social media and labelled a “Nazi”, despite his lifetime commitment to human rights. His mother, Yevhenia Butkevytch, recounts in an interview with Ukraine Crisis Media Centre that: “He was portrayed not as a prisoner of war, but as a fascist, commander of a Nazi battalion.” He was also accused in the pro-Russian press of “fomenting rebellion” because of his role in the Maidan protests in 2014, known as the “Revolution of Dignity”, which led to the overthrow of the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych.
Public campaign to free Maksym
Butkevytch’s family said nothing at the beginning of his imprisonment, hoping for a prisoner exchange. The procedure of prisoner exchange is impenetrable and families are told to remain silent throughout the process. However, when Russian media aimed their hatred towards Maksym, the family became worried for his safety and asked for public support to protect him. The campaign grows both within Ukraine and internationally but the months of imprisonment grow longer.
Maksym received the Stories of Injustice (Příbéhy Bezpráví) award from the Czech organisation, People in Need, in November, while still a prisoner of war. His father received the award on his behalf in Prague.
Oleksandra Matviichuk, 2022 Nobel Peace Prize Winner and President of the Center for Civil Liberties, focussed international attention on the continuing imprisonment of Maksym in her address at the award ceremony on December 10. She said that the international system of human rights protections no longer functions. There exists, she said, no legal mechanism to stop Russian atrocities. As a result, large numbers of human rights activists are forced to take up arms to defend what they believe in. Matviichuk, a Ukrainian, shared the peace prize with Belarusian activist Ales Bialiatski and Russian organisation, Memorial.
She said: “My friend Maksym Boutkevych, for example, who is now imprisoned in Russia. He and the other Ukrainian prisoners of war, as well as all civilian detainees, must be released.”
Little contact since his capture
There is limited news available about Maksym’s health and his supporters are concerned. Tetiana Pechonchyk, head of the board of ZMINA, one of Ukraine’s leading human rights organisations, said in November that the most recent news of Maksym was a Russian propaganda video from August published by the Russian agency RIA Novosti. He didn’t speak in this video: “He was not talking. He was just sitting in the room. It was clear that he was not in a very good heath condition, he became thin, his hair was more grey than it used to be.” She said that there had been an earlier video in June when he was captured. Since August, there has only been a short phone call to his parents.
Journalist and human rights activist
Pechonchyk said she met Maksym when they were both working as journalists. He worked as a foreign correspondent for several Ukrainian TV channels and for the BBC World Service Ukraine. He later focused more on human rights activity.
Maksym co-founded ZMINA in 2011, he is still on its board. He was also a board member of Amnesty International in Ukraine, carrying out training on human rights, anti-racism and hate speech for journalists working in the country.
Maksym worked for UNHCR in Ukraine, and he founded the No Borders Project, which defends refugees. He fought against the refoulement of Kasakh and Usbek refugees living in Ukraine who faced persecution in their countries. He also co-founded Hromadske Radio, an independent radio station that is free of oligarchic and state control. His work against hate speech is frequently mentioned by his many supporters in Ukraine.
A pacifist holding a gun
In an article published on the Hromadske Radio website (dated April 24‒May 6), before his capture, Maksym wryly notes his new friendships with his sleeping bag and other personal treasures: “My sleeping bag takes a very high place among friends I’ve made in the last two months, together with my Kalashnikov assault rifle, which I must carry on a shift. And yes, the tablet I’m using to write this text is treasured as well.”
He also talks of his fellow soldiers who speak “Ukrainian, Russian, or semi-dialect surzhyk (a mix of both)”. Many Ukrainian soldiers speak Russian as their primary language — giving rise to the incongruity of two opposing lines of soldiers from two countries speaking the same language.
Maksym also reflects on the brutal irony between the meaning of Easter and what he always keeps next to him as a soldier: “Those observing Easter celebrate victory of Life over Death — and this year I celebrate it while being part, on my own will, of the very organisation humans created to kill and be killed. On my night guard shift I pronounce the Easter prayers about defeat of Death while keeping the machine, specifically designed to inflict death or injuries, right next to me.”
The battle to free Maksym is well-rooted in the human rights and journalist communities within Ukraine and has radiated out internationally. It is part of the fight to free all Ukrainian prisoners of war, and Ukraine itself. It is also a fight for all the values that Maksym has always fought for: the unyielding defence of the rights of ordinary human beings against autocracy, the constant hard work of opposition to power, and a searing determination to defeat hatred and dehumanisation.
As Matviichuk said in her address: “Dictators are afraid that the principle of freedom will eventually prevail. So Russia seeks to convince the whole world that the rule of law, human rights and democracy are baseless values because they do not protect anyone in this war.”