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Credit…through Alexander Butkevich

Maxim Butkevich has established himself in Ukraine as a journalist and human rights activist, campaigning on behalf of refugees and IDPs and serving on the board of Amnesty International Ukraine.

In late June, it was captured by Russian forces while fighting on the Ukrainian side, and that hard-earned reputation has become a potentially dangerous burden.

Russian propaganda started boasting mr. The detention of Butkevich almost immediately after taking him hostage, in an ambush on his platoon during battle for the eastern city of Severodonetsk. His family and friends initially chose to remain silent, hoping that the silence would speed up the process of his return home.

But since the pro-Kremlin media condemned Mr. Butkevich in wild terms – both as a “British spy” (he once worked for the BBC), and as a “Ukrainian nationalist”, and as a “fascist”, and as a “radical propagandist – Colleagues and loved ones began to fear for him, and decided to publicly talk about him in order to clarify.

The person they know, they say, is the exact opposite of the one portrayed on Russian television.

“He never accepted either far-right or far-left views,” said his mother, Yevgenia Butkevich. “He has developed as a person who is absolutely alien to extreme positions, which, as a rule, are of an aggressive nature.”

In fact, Ms Butkevich said, her son was a pacifist who, after the Russian puppet invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014, argued that his talents were best used as an activist. But everything changed in February. January 24, when Russian missiles rained down on his hometown of Kyiv, as well as cities and towns across the country.

On the same day, 45-year-old Butkevich applied to the military registration and enlistment office.

“He said: “I will leave my human rights activities for a while, because now it is necessary, first of all, to protect the country, because everything that I have worked for all these years, and everything that we have all worked for, rules our lives and our society is now under threat,” said the lady. Butkevich about what her only child told her.

He was called up on 4 March and became a platoon leader near Kyiv, and in mid-June he was sent to try to reinforce the army that was fighting for Severodonetsk.

On June 24, Mr. Butkevich said that a volunteer called her and said that a video of her son in captivity was circulating on the Internet. His platoon lost contact with his commander. When the two men went looking for water, they were captured and then lured the rest of the group into a Russian trap, she said.

“There was no worse period in my life,” she said. – said 70-year-old Butkevich.

Her son is one of some 7,200 Ukrainian prisoners of war in the custody of Russia and its proxies in eastern Ukraine. This is a number that obscures the prospect of a quick exchange.

“The situation is very difficult because we have fewer prisoners of war than in Russia,” said Tatyana Pechonchik, co-founder along with Mr. Butkevich of the human rights non-profit organization Zmina. “Russia also captures civilians and holds them hostage, and we need to exchange these people as well. This is a direct violation of international human rights law.”

mr. Butkevich’s public profile may help keep him alive, but it may also leave him vulnerable to abuse. In an interview with The New York Times, the famous Ukrainian physician Yulia Paevskaya detailed torture and merciless beatings during the three months of her detention in Russia. It has also been dragged around in front of TV cameras and used as props in an attempt to portray Ukrainians as “Nazis”, one of the Kremlin’s justifications for the invasion.

She said that no matter how hard it was to treat her, she feared that the male prisoners would have “much worse.”

mr. Butkevich last spoke to The Times in May. on the opening day of the Kyiv Opera; he came from his barracks to attend the first performance.

“It’s kind of a promise that we will win. Life will go on, not death,” he said. “It’s important not to forget that this is what we’re fighting for.”

Maria Varenikova made a report.