’Filtration’: A horrific aspect of the Russian war on Ukraine

War is the mother of euphemism. Recent conflicts have given us, among many others, ‘friendly fire’ (being shot by your own army), ‘collateral damage’ (killing civilians), and ‘extraordinary rendition’ (covertly arrested and sent abroad for ‘interrogation’). Even the word ‘defense’ itself is often used euphemistically.

The Russian regime’s war on Ukraine has given us two euphemisms; ‘special military operation’ (because according to the Kremlin, there is no war), and ‘filtration’. This phrase deserves to become as notorious as the euphemism that the Bosnia War of 1992-95 gifted to the world, ‘ethnic cleansing’. (Of course, the practices of ethnic cleansing existed long before the phrase was coined.)

Filtration and cleansing denote extreme nationalistic projects, and do so through mysophobia (fear of contamination). Xenophobia often expresses itself in terms of, to quote Mary Douglas’ famous work, purity and danger. ‘The people’ must be kept pure of foreign agents and influences. 

The Russian rationale for the filtration process is to find and ‘detain all bandits and fascists’. What this means in practice is the arbitrary arrest and detention of huge numbers of Ukrainian civilians. This has led to the establishment of a set of camps in the occupied areas of Ukraine. The Yale HRL (Humanitarian Research Lab) published a report in August 2022 asserting ‘with high confidence’ the existence of 21 filtration camps in the Donetsk oblast. These sites are used for the ‘sorting’ of detainees. ‘Suspects’ are detained, imprisoned, and even executed. Beatings, torture, and rape are standard. 

Men are examined for any tattoos that might show political allegiance, or for bruises that might indicate military action. Phone contents are searched, personal data taken, and intimidating questions are fired at detainees in an effort to detect political loyalty. People can be held for up to 30 days — yet despite horrific conditions, the Russians consider these camps to be places of ‘administrative detention’, not punishment.

A study by the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group found that Russia’s filtration sites can be divided into official and unofficial ones. The official sites include prisons, schools, and administrative buildings, places that are somewhat suited to human presence. As for unofficial sites, they include cellars, garages, sheds, places unfit for human habitation. They lack even basics like lights, water, heating, and toilet facilities.

Historically, there were Soviet, then Russian, precedents for filtration camps. The Soviet versions came into existence at the end of World War 2. These were for the several million Soviet citizens left outside the USSR’s borders, whether prisoners of war (POW), alleged collaborators, or various émigré civilians. When repatriated, they were placed in ‘special’ NKVD camps, run separately from the Gulag system. These early filtration camps were dismantled in 1946. Decades later, filtration was again used in both of the Chechen Wars of 1994-96 and 1999-2009.

An especially brutal aspect of filtration is that ‘passing’ the process does not necessarily gain freedom for detainees. Those who have passed receive ‘filtration receipts’ indicating that they had successfully completed the process. However, this marks them for potential expulsion. Russia has been carrying out a huge forced deportation project in occupied Ukraine. Numbers vary, but some Ukrainian sources estimate between 2.8 and 4 million have been expelled, coerced, or deceived into leaving their homes and being relocated in Russia. Notoriously, large numbers of Ukrainian children have been deported; this is a blatant war crime. 

Such is filtration. Failing it means detention, possible torture, even ‘disappearance’. Passing it can mean becoming a victim of a vast project of ethnic cleansing.

Brendan Humphreys

Brendan Humphreys is a Docent of East European studies at the Aleksanteri Institute.