A former U.S. Marine who spent three years in a Russian prison on trumped-up charges has described the government of Vladimir Putin as ‘sincerely evil from top to bottom’.
Trevor Reed, in his first interview since his April 27 release, told CNN’s Jake Tapper about the horrific conditions in the prison where he was held, and the farcical circumstances of his arrest.
He had been at a party with his Russian girlfriend of three years, Alina Tsybulnik, a lawyer, in August 2019 when he was arrested for intoxication.
Russian authorities took the former Marine to jail to sober up and he was later sentenced to nine years for assaulting and endangering two police officers’ lives – despite, he insisted, never attacking the officers.
‘You have this view – kind of like I did when I went there – that Russia, yeah, they have a bad government, but it’s like, you know, maybe Putin is evil but like the whole government isn’t,’ he said.
A former US Marine, Trevor Reed, 30, said he was kept in a Russian jail cell with blood and feces alongside seven mentally-ill prisoners. ‘The psychiatric treatment facility, I was in there with seven other prisoners in a cell. They all had severe, psychological health issues. Over 50 percent of them in that cell were in there for murder. Or, like, multiple murders, sexual assault and murder – just really disturbed individuals,’ he said
‘And from being there inside, and seeing that government from the inside, how that works, you realize that the problem is actually much bigger than that.
‘They have absolutely no value of human life, and that apathy permeates every level of the Russian government and that trickles down from the very top to the lowest level prison guard inside of their government and all of their police officers, all of their FSB, everyone who works for that government has absolutely no empathy for other humans. They are completely desensitized to that.
‘That government is really sincerely evil at all levels from the top to the bottom, and there is absolutely no reason why any Americans should travel to Russia for anything, everything.’
He was ultimately freed in a prisoner swap. He and his girlfriend have since broken up.
‘Countries like North Korea, Russia now, China, Syria, Iran, Venezuela – countries like that are going to take Americans hostage, no matter what.
‘It is our duty to get back Americans.’
Reed is now working to free the other U.S. Marine held in Russia, Paul Whelan.
Whelan, a U.S. citizen and former Marine, was detained at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 and arrested on espionage charges, which he has consistently and vehemently denied.
He was convicted and sentenced in June 2020 to 16 years in prison in a trial U.S. officials denounced as unfair.
‘I thought Paul was leaving with me,’ said Reed.
‘The fact is that the United States should have got him out. And we have to get him out, at any cost.’
Reed told CNN that he had travelled to Russia to be with his girlfriend, who he had met online.
‘She would come to the U.S. And visit me,’ he explained.
‘I actually went to Russia once to see her and meet her family. I did not know Russian at all, and that’s one of the reasons why I decided to start studying Russian was to be able to communicate with her family.’
He said that, after they went to a party, he drunk too much vodka and blacked out and became ill on the side of the road.
Police arrived on the scene and took Trevor back to the station lobby to dry out.
‘I don’t remember anything until the next morning,’ he said.
‘I woke up in a police station. I was in a cell, and I asked the duty officer there like what happened? And she said you drink too much. It’s Russian vodka. We’ll teach you how to drink later, and she said so you can leave.’
Reed called his girlfriend, who came to pick him up – but while he was waiting there was a shift change at the police station, and the new team told him he would have to return to the cells, as there had been a mistake.
Reed (pictured in 2020) was jailed in 2019 while on a trip to Russia with his girlfriend. He said he thought he was being sent to the psychiatric facility as a punishment for his continued push to appeal his conviction and he didn’t sleep for a ‘couple days’
Tsybulnik asked what the charges were, and told the police she was a lawyer, demanding to see the surveillance camera footage which showed Reed attacking police officers inside the cells. They then changed their story, Reed said, and claimed he attacked them by the side of the road.
Surveillance camera footage then showed that was untrue.
His lawyer later informed him the FSB had got involved, and his case had dramatically escalated.
Reed was kept in a blood and feces-smeared Russian jail cell with serial killers and rapists.
‘The psychiatric treatment facility, I was in there with seven other prisoners in a cell. They all had severe, psychological health issues,’ he told CNN in an exclusive interview.
‘Over 50 percent of them in that cell were in there for murder. Or, like, multiple murders, sexual assault and murder – just really disturbed individuals.’
Reed went on to say that the cell was ‘not a good place’ and he ‘did not sleep there for a couple of days’ because he thought there was a ‘possibility’ his fellow inmates would kill him. His family worried about his health, as the soldier appeared to frail upon release, but has since seemed to regain his health.
‘I was too worried about who was in the cell with me to actually sleep,’ he told CNN.
‘There was blood all over the walls there, where prisoners had killed themselves, or killed other prisoners, or attempted to do that.
‘The toilet’s just a hole in the floor. And there’s, you know, crap everywhere, all over the floor, on the walls.
‘There’s people in there also that walk around that look like zombies.’
Reed reportedly said he thought he was sent to the psychiatric facility as a punishment for his continued push to appeal his conviction.
He was ordered to spend time in solitary confinement, but said he managed to keep his mind strong.
‘The longer that I was in there, the more dedicated I was to not allowing them to break me, and that was really one of the main things that I held on to that got me through that was knowing that no matter how long I was going to be there, they were never going to break me,’ he said.
‘Maybe I would have died, but psychologically they never would have broken me.’
He lost 44 lbs in prison, thanks to the meagre diet of cabbage, potatoes and salted fish so distasteful even the cats refused to eat it.
The prison guards then took away his supply of books.
‘Which is the last straw kind of that led me into that first hunger strike,’ Reed explained.
After the first hunger strike that I did, I started to get sick. I really at that point was consistently sick until I left. I started to cough up blood, and I coughed up that blood for a period of about three and a half months every day, multiple times a day and they just refused to send me to the hospital which is the reason why I went on the second hunger strike so that they would get me medical attention.’
For years, U.S. officials and his family had been working to get the soldier released from the harsh Russian prison, denying he had done what he as convicted of.
After ‘months and months of hard, careful work across the US government,’ Reed was released in exchange for Russian drug smuggler Konstantin Yaroshenko, whose sentence was commuted.
The Ukrainian war exacerbated the deal and, with the prisoner’s health deteriorating, President Joe Biden, 79, finally made the deal with Russian officials to exchange the two prisoners.
In Texas, Reed’s parents were worrying that Russia’s war with Ukraine – and resulting tensions with the US – could close off communication channels and prevent any common ground for negotiations, so they attempted to catch the White House’s attention.
The former soldier appeared frail as he was loaded up into a van after be released. He told his parents in March, he’d been exposed to tuberculosis and was coughing up blood several times a day, had pain in his lung, and a broken rib. He said the Russians had not given him adequate medical treatment
This is the moment former US Marine Trevor Reed was exchanged for convicted Russian drug dealer Konstantin Yaroshenko during a prisoner swap that took place at a Turkish airport in April
In exchange for his release, the United States released Konstantin Yaroshenko (pictured), a smuggler serving 20-years in prison in Connecticut
His family had met with Biden – the only family who has a relative stuck in Russia to have met with him – and they said it was a critical part of getting their son home.
‘We believe that that meeting with the President is what made it happen,’ Reed’s father Joey told CNN.
His sister Taylor said she thought the breakout of the Ukrainian war was the end of the possibility of ever seeing her brother again, as tensions mounted between Washington and Moscow.
Reed recounted with wit the moments around the prisoner exchange, when the top diplomat with the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs (SPEHA), arrived.
‘So Colonel Carstens came on, Roger Carstens from SPEHA, and I was like, man, what is this actor they sent me? Like Arnold Schwarzenegger coming on here to waste all the FSB guys and just rescue me, so he came and got on the jet.
‘He says I’m Roger Carstens, I have to identify you, and I said, yeah, you know, it’s me. I’m Trevor.
‘He didn’t respond to that, and then he left, and I was kind of like – like what?
‘And the FSB – one of them looks at me and he says: are you sure America wants you back?’
Two other Americans – Whelan and basketball star Brittney Griner – still remain in Russia.
Reed’s family is now vowing to help other American families with Russian detainees.
He went to Russia with his girlfriend Alina Tsybulnik (pictured) and was arrested for being intoxicated and assaulting an officer. He has always denied the assault. Police took him to jail to sober up and he was later sentenced to nine years
Reed also said that during his three years inside the Russian jail – which are known to be notoriously brutal – the former boy scout said he managed to survive by ‘compartmentalizing.’
‘I tried to kind of compartmentalize and focus not on [the fact] that I’m being imprisoned, kind of distract myself: think about future plans, what university I was going to go to, what plans I was going to have with my family.
‘All of those things to just distract myself from reality, which, you know, is not something you want to think about,’ the soldier, who now sports a slight Russian accent, said.
Reed said that he started to think and dream in Russian.
Despite thinking about his ‘future plans,’ Reed didn’t allow himself to have any ‘hope’ and viewed it as a ‘weakness.’
‘Not a lot of people are going to like what I’m about to say about this,’ he began. ‘But I kind of viewed [other prisoners] having hope as a weakness.
Reed’s parents Paula and Joey worked endlessly to get their son released, including speaking with President Joe Biden, 79. ‘We believe that that meeting with the President is what made it happen,’ Joey said
‘I did not want me to have that hope of me being released somehow and have that taken from me,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t let myself hope.’
Upon his release from jail, he was taken to a top health clinic in Texas to be treated after appearing very frail and fragile.
In March, Reed told his parents he’d been exposed to tuberculosis and was coughing up blood several times a day, had pain in his lung, and a broken rib.
He said the Russians had not given him adequate medical treatment.
‘That, I think, contributed to really ratcheting up the conversations on this issue, getting to a point where we were able to make this arrangement, getting to a point where we were able to turn to some of the logistics of simply getting it done,’ he said.
WHAT ABOUT US? JAILED AMERICANS PAUL WHELAN AND BRITTNEY GRINER ASK WHY THEY HAVEN’T BEEN FREED
Paul Whelan has been in jail in Russia since 2018
After Reed’s release was announced yesterday, jailed Americans in Russia asked why they were being left behind and not rescued too.
Paul Whelan was convicted of espionage charges in Russia in 2020 after an arrest in 2018. He too is a former Marine and he denies the charges. He has been in jail for 40 months.
He told his parents in a statement obtained by CNN: ‘Why was I left behind? While I am pleased Trevor is home with his family, I have been held on a fictitious charge of espionage for 40 months.
‘The world knows this charge was fabricated. Why hasn’t more been done to secure my release?’
Fans of Brittney Griner, the WNBA star who was jailed in February after being caught with a marijuana pen at the airport, also demanded her release.
The State Department says it is a ‘top priority’ to bring her home.
She was detained at the outbreak of the war in Ukraine.