The village of Yahidne, Chernihiv region, was almost completely destroyed during the invasion of Russian troops.
The village of Yahidne, Chernihiv region, was almost completely destroyed during the invasion of Russian troops. © Ed Ram/Getty Images

How Investigative Journalists Can Support Justice

Open source and undercover work helped a team from the Suspilne media outlet identify a suspect in a notorious case of the abuse of civilians.

Tuesday, 21 May, 2024

In March 2022 in Yahidne, 15 kilometres south of Chernihiv, Russian soldiers kept nearly 400 villagers in a basement for almost a month in appalling conditions. Numerous justice processes are ongoing over this event, including one driven by the work of an investigative team from the Suspilne media outlet. Investigation lead Alla Sadovnyk told IWPR’s Olga Golovina how their work contributed to the suspicion issued against Russian officer Semyon Solovov - call sign Klyon - in February 2024. 

Olga Golovina: How were you able to establish the identity of the Russian officer nicknamed Klyon, and what methods and sources did you use to locate him? 

Alla Sadovnyk: Residents of Yahidne, Chernihiv region, recognized Klyon in one of the videos of the Russian propagandist-singer Yulia Chicherina. That's how we got his image. We were able to establish his identity thanks to undercover work. At first, we tried to find him with the help of facial recognition systems, in social networks, through Google - we looked for any information about him and about the 228th regiment. We did not succeed. Then we resorted to undercover work, with the cover story that we were Russian volunteers. We wrote to the Russian military, because we knew that Klyon was from the 228th regiment, with a request to find this person. One Russian soldier, head of the song and dance ensemble of the Russian Central Military District, Anton Sholokhov, answered that it was Semyon and wrote us his phone number. Residents of Yahidne remembered that his fellow soldiers sometimes called him Klyon. Having a phone number, we identified who it belonged to with the help of Russian telephone databases. We learned the surname, first name, patronymic. We found his account in social networks, there were his photos, a video with Solovov's voice. We sent this information to the residents of Yahidne and they confirmed 100 per cent that it was him - based on the images and voice on the video. 

Suspilne media's investigation lead Alla Sadovnyk. Photo courtesy of A. Sadovnyk.

Why did you focus on events in Yahidne for your investigation? 

In July 2022, we came to Yahidne for the first time. We went to the de-occupied territories, talked with people, learned about various war crimes from them. At that time, law enforcement officers were conducting an investigation in Yahidne. We realized that we have a task to carry out here...We decided to start our own investigation and in 2022 we managed to establish that the headquarters in the school where the residents of Yahidne were held was created by the 228th motorised rifle regiment from Yekaterinburg. We created the investigative documentary, Diary of a Survivor. 

We had hopes that we would find Klyon. However, our search using open sources unfortunately did not bring the desired result.   

How did you verify the credibility of the information about this officer's involvement in the brutal treatment of civilians? 

 Of course, we did not talk to all the everyone who was kept in the basement of the Yahidne school – a total of 366 people. We interviewed more than ten people and collected their testimonies. When we identified Klyon, we showed his image to witnesses, they heard the sound of his voice. All the people interviewed recognised him and said that he was the main one who gave orders. He has characteristic features. When we called Semyon Solovov, he first confirmed in correspondence that he was Semyon. Then he said that he was in Luhansk region and agreed to meet with us. And when we asked him about Yahidne, he began to refuse to tell us and said that he was not there, that we were mistaken, that he knew another Semyon who was in Yahidne and that Semyon had died. We checked this information and found nothing. Especially since the head of the song and dance ensemble gave us his last name according to the photo. 

How did you work together with the Ukrainian security services (SBU)? 

We have had cooperation with the SBU since 2022. We gave them the data we had gathered about the 228th regiment. As soon as we established the identity of Klyon, we called the SBU investigator  the same day and informed him. Later, all data was transferred. We understand that investigators spend a lot of time documenting and announcing suspicions. We thought that our film and the alleged war crime [charges] would be released at the same time. Unfortunately, it did not work out, as the investigators conducted additional examinations. But the suspicion has already been announced and an indictment is being prepared for the court. Last week, we gave our evidence in this case so that it could be sent to court. 

How did the local residents react to your activities, and what was the public response? 

People reacted positively. It was important for them that the Russians who were involved in the death of their relatives, in the cruel treatment, in the ruined health, were found. People actively shared information with us and were grateful after we identified Klyon and when we published our investigation.  

People say thank you, they say that it should be done. Many write that there should be a fair punishment for Russian war criminals. There have been some comments on YouTube - why are you revealing names? They just need to be destroyed. We do not agree with this. It is important for us that war criminals are found and punished. 

What do you see as the consequences of this investigation for justice and international activities in the field of human rights? 

As with any war crimes investigation, we hope that it will become part of future trials at the International Criminal Court. Each such investigation is important to show how brutal the crimes Russian military committed were and that these cases are not isolated, there are many of them. This is important for justice - we want criminals to be punished and officially recognised as war criminals. If there will be no fair trial and punishment, why does international law exist? 

Do you plan to continue your work in the field of war crimes investigations in the future?  

Of course, we are working on other investigations related to war crimes. There are a lot of these crimes and unfortunately the law enforcement system of Ukraine does not have time to investigate all of them, because these are large arrays of data and require great efforts. Our work is very important, we understand that it gives results. Even if there will be fewer viewings of our films, because society is tired of war and numerous tragedies, we will still continue our activities. 

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