Maksym Butkevych has made a name for himself in Ukraine as a journalist and human rights activist, campaigning on behalf of refugees and internally displaced people and serving on the board of the Ukrainian branch of Amnesty International.
In late June, he was captured by Russian forces while fighting for Ukraine, and that hard-won reputation became a potentially dangerous liability.
Russian propaganda began boasting of Mr Butkevych’s detention almost as soon as he was taken hostage, in an ambush against his platoon during the battle for the eastern town of Sievierodonetsk. His family and friends initially chose to remain silent, hoping the silence would speed up the process of bringing him home.
But while the pro-Kremlin media have denounced Mr Butkevych in savage terms – both as a “British spy” (he once worked for the BBC) and a “Ukrainian nationalist”, both “a fascist” and a “radical propagandist” – his colleagues and relatives came to fear for his life and decided to speak publicly about him to set the record straight.
The man they know, they say, is the opposite of the one portrayed on Russian television.
“He never accepted either the extreme right or the extreme left,” said his mother, Yevheniia Butkevych. “He took the form of a person absolutely alien to extreme positions, which, as a rule, are aggressive.”
In fact, Ms Butkevych said, her son was a pacifist who argued after Russian proxies invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014 that the best use of his talents was as an activist. But that changed on February 24, when Russian missiles crashed into his hometown of Kyiv and towns and villages across the country.
On the same day, Mr. Butkevych, 45, reported to a military recruiting center.
“He said, ‘I’m going to give up my human rights work for a while, because now it’s all about protecting the country, because everything I’ve worked on for all these years and everything what we all worked for, the rules of our lives and our society are now under threat,” Ms Butkevych said of what her son, her only child, had told her.
He was called up on March 4 and became a platoon commander around Kyiv, before being sent in mid-June to try to reinforce the army as it fought to hold Sievierodonetsk.
On June 24, Ms Butkevych said, a volunteer called her to tell her there was a video circulating online of her son in captivity. His platoon had lost connection with their commanders. When two men went to fetch water, she said, they were captured and then lured the rest of the group into a Russian trap.
“There has never been a worse time in my life,” said Ms Butkevych, 70.
Her son is one of approximately 7,200 Ukrainian prisoners of war held by Russia and its proxies in eastern Ukraine. It’s a number that dims the prospect of a quick trade.
“The situation is very complicated, because we have fewer prisoners of war than Russia,” said Tetiana Pechonchyk, co-founder with Mr Butkevych of the non-profit human rights organization Zmina. “Russia is also capturing civilians and holding them hostage, and we need to exchange those people as well. This is a direct violation of international human rights law.
Mr. Butkevych’s public profile may help keep him alive, but it may also make him vulnerable to mistreatment. In an interview with The New York Times, prominent Ukrainian doctor Yulia Paievska detailed the incessant torture and beatings during her three months in detention in Russia. She was also dragged in front of television cameras and used as a prop in an attempt to portray Ukrainians as “Nazis”, one of the Kremlin’s justifications for the invasion.
She said that, as harsh as her treatment was, she feared male prisoners would face “much worse”.
Mr Butkevych last spoke to The Times in May, the day the Kyiv Opera House reopened; he had come from his barracks to attend the first performance.
“It’s kind of a promise that we’re going to win. Life will go on, not death,” he said. “It is important to remember that this is what we are fighting for.”
Maria Varenikova contributed report.