Russian Prisoner of War Says He Joined Army to Pay Off ‘World of Tanks’ Debt

In an interview on YouTube, a Russian PoW said he joined the military to pay off debt he earned from video games, fraud, and giving cash to a woman on TikTok.
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Image: Reddit screengrab.

A Russian soldier captured by Ukrainian forces told interviewers that he only joined the military to pay off debts he got from playing the online video game World of Tanks and donating cash to a Russian woman on TikTok. 

The Russian soldier was interviewed on YouTube by Ukrainian blogger Volodymyr Zolkin. Zolkin’s channel focuses on interviews with captured Russian soldiers. The video, posted on October 5, shows a skinny young Russian man with downcast eyes telling the world that he joined the Russian army to pay off debts he incurred online.

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According to a translation of the interview first posted on /r/NonCredibleDefense (and verified as accurate by Motherboard), the Russian soldier was working at a store when he found a lost credit card. He used the card to take out 5,000 rubles, a little more than $70, from a bank. “The same evening, I spent 5,000 rubles on World of Tanks,” the soldier said. “Game currency.”

Motherboard tracked down the pre-war social media presence of the soldier. According to the soldier’s account on YouTube, the police quickly caught him and charged him with bank fraud. He returned the money he’d already spent, but also earned a ₽300,000 ruble fine, equivalent to almost $5,000.

The soldier said he couldn’t pay so he signed up for a three month deployment to Ukraine. Between his enlistment bonus and his monthly salary, he’d be able to pay off his debts during his three months in the war. But was captured and there’s no telling when he’ll return to Russia or if he’ll be able to pay off his World of Tanks related debt when he gets home.

Zolkin, the man running the channel, had a small presence online before the war and pivoted his channel to interviews with Russian prisoners of war after the invasion. Now he’s earning millions of views and, in his own words, pushing back against Russian disinformation. Every interview begins with the Russian soldier telling the camera that they’ve agreed to the interview and Zolkin has said he helps them contact their family after it’s over.

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Zolkin isn’t the only person doing this work. The war in Ukraine is extremely online. Soldiers on both sides of the front are uploading gruesome photos and videos to Telegram and multiple channels are interviewing PoWs. The International Committee of the Red Cross and others have criticized some of these videos for violating the Geneva Convention, which has provisions against turning PoWs into a “public curiosity.”

Zolkin pushed back against this when The Guardian asked him about it. “These people are crying and thanking us for what we are doing,” he said. “Sometimes I am asked if we are violating the Geneva conventions. It says—you can not mock the prisoners. Please tell me where the Geneva convention says that you can not do a humanitarian and peacekeeping mission.” Neither YouTube nor Zolkin immediately returned Motherboard’s request for comment.

In this recent interview, the Russian soldier admitted he’d also run up a bunch of debts taking out microloans to donate to a Russian woman on TikTok. “I liked a lot to spend time on TikTok too,” he said. The Russian soldier then explained he was a moderator for the chat room of the woman and that he spent money on gifts for her. The Ukrainians asked him how much money they spent on the woman. “I’m not sure,” the soldier replied. “But for sure, some respectable amount of money.”

“50,000 ruble?,” Zolkin asked, almost $800.

“Yes, but not instantly,” the Russian said and explained that the spending on the woman was spread out over three or four months. According to the interview, the Russian soldier took on small loans so she could donate cash to the woman on TikTok.

“Think with your head,” the Russian soldier said at the end of the interview. He was addressing any other Russians who might be watching the channel. “Remember your loved ones.”