Elena Nikitina planned her own suicide during her eight months held captive after being snatched from the street by a brutal criminal gang
It was supposed to be just another lovers’ tiff, one she knew would be forgotten by tomorrow, when Elena Nikitina stormed out of the packed club and onto the empty street outside.
The 21-year-old student had been partying with friends when, amid the dancing and loud, pounding music she and boyfriend Sergey had begun to row about something so “silly” she can’t remember what it was.
But just seconds after she emerged from the noisy, smoke-filled club, wearing a figure-hugging black dress as she wobbled on high heels, the young Russian’s life suddenly took an unexpected and horrific turn.
Elena lived just 10 steps away from the popular Corvette club in Astrakhan, southern Russia, in a flat she shared with her widowed mother on the opposite side of the street.
But she never made it home. Just three steps in, she was grabbed by gangsters who bundled her into the back of a car.
It was the start of an unimaginably horrific ordeal for the trainee teacher, during which she would be locked up in a dark room, sexually abused, find herself in the midst of a terrifying war, and – at one point – reach the point of planning her own suicide after losing hope of ever making it out alive.
Her nightmare only ended eight months later, almost as suddenly and unexpectedly as it had begun, in what Elena describes as a “true miracle”.
Incredibly, despite living with the traumatic memories of her ordeal for the last 25 years, Elena, now an estate agent living in the US, had never told anyone about her incredible story, not even her own mother – until now.
Speaking exclusively to Mirror Online, she remembered the night in October 1994 when her life changed forever: “I was a regular student, hanging out with my friends, living my life for the moment, enjoying parties, and madly in love with my boyfriend.
We were planning our future together. I was studying to become an English teacher and I couldn’t imagine spending my life with anyone else.
“Three weeks after I’d turned 21, I arranged to meet Sergey and some other friends at Corvette, which was our favourite place to hang out.
“I wore my favourite, sexy black dress and I was looking beautiful. The music was loud, we were dancing, I remember how the place was filled with smog because everyone was smoking. It was fun.
“But later in the evening I got into an argument with my boyfriend. I just decided to leave the party and go home.
“I could see my block from the window of the restaurant, it was very close.
“I started walking, in a hurry. I stopped for a second to pull down the hem of my dress, and suddenly fell into sudden darkness.
“It all happened so quickly. The next thing I knew I was in the back of a car with four men.
“My body felt heavy, like I’d been drugged or poisoned. As I came to my senses I asked where they were taking me, but they said nothing. They talked amongst themselves, in a language that wasn’t Russian.
“They just drove and drove, taking me away from my life, away from my home and the people I loved. I just felt fear and desperation.”
Elena already had a good idea of what might be happening to her, and it filled her with dread.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia found itself in the grip of organised crime, with gangs regularly abducting people to demand ransoms.
The cases, which were often reported on TV news, rarely ended well with most of the kidnapped being tortured and killed.
She said: “I never thought that kind of thing would happen to me, it just seemed so distant, like it was happening in a different world. And the people who would get kidnapped were rich people, unlike me.
My mother was a bank clerk who just about made ends meet, I knew that if they demanded a ransom from her she wouldn’t be able to pay.”
The gang who took Elena were from the region of Chechnya, on the southwestern tip of Russia.
It later emerged that they had once tried to cash a fake cheque for a large amount of money in the bank branch where Elena’s mother, Larissa, worked.
Instead of handing them the cash before the cheque had cleared, Larissa had asked them to return, passing the cheque on to another department which determined it was a counterfeit.
Imagining that the bank worker had cashed the cheque herself and pocketed the money, the gang began to follow her only daughter, Elena, with one member even hanging out with her group of friends at parties and bars.
With their target finally captured, the gang drove all night with their victim, until they reached a block of flats in the Chechen capital of Grozny where she was locked inside a four by four-metre-squared room with windows that had been painted black from the outside.
The days turned into weeks.
Elena was allowed out twice a day to go to the bathroom, and was given just a piece of bread to eat every day.
Still wearing the black dress she was snatched in, she slept on the floor, brushed her teeth with her finger and washed herself by pouring cold water onto her underwear and rubbing it on her body during her toilet breaks, before putting the soaking wet garment back on before being led back to her room.
She said: “It was dark all the time, I was on my own, with no-one to talk to, for such a long time.
“I couldn’t even observe what was going on outside because the window was painted black. I was just living like an insect.
“I was also constantly at the mercy of the criminals, who could whatever they wanted with me, and I experienced sexual violence too.
“There was nothing I could do to stop it, I just kept fighting and hoping.”
One day the gang took Elena to a post office to call her mother back in Astrakhan, to tell her about the their demand for a ransom of 300million rubles – the equivalent of around £10million today.
She said: “That was the most painful moment. I had been told to tell her that they would cut me into pieces and send me back in the mail, but I couldn’t bring myself to say it. I couldn’t do it to her.
“She was trying to give me hope but I could tell how hopeless the situation was. I knew she wouldn’t be able to pay that much money.
“I went back feeling shock and despair, because only possible outcome would be that I would be killed or sold.”
Following the phone call, Elena’s mother stopped going to work and rarely left her home at all, afraid she will miss another phone call.
Then, three weeks into captivity, the first Chechen war began as rebels fought for independence from Russia.
As the Russian army moved into the region to crush the rebellion, authorities called off the search for Elena, while electricity and telephone lines were also cut, meaning there were no more means of negotiating her release.
Suddenly Elena found herself in the middle of a bloody war – but unable to run from the raining Russian bombs.
She said: “When the war broke out the criminals turned into fighters, and suddenly the apartment was full of weapons.
“There were times when I saw the war up close and it was pure terror. Even with all I had already experienced, I never felt fear to match the terror of war.
“When you hear bombings you can’t thinking about anything but to run away, and I couldn’t.
“I held on to the hope that that Russian army would somehow find me and save me.”
Elena’s other hope was one of the very men who kidnapped her, Aslan, who she said turned out to be a kind and caring men who became her only friend.
She explained: “He was my kidnapper but I discovered he also had a big heart, compassion and sympathy.
“He took care of me, he would bring food for me, and we would sometimes talk all night about our childhoods, or play cards.
“He was a good person and I was sure that one day he would help me escape.”
After four months, Elena was told she was being moved further away from the front line, and was held in the outhouse of the home of one of her captors.
She remembers how, from the window of her prison, she could observe the family going about their lives as if they didn’t have a terrified young woman locked up in the house
Elena said: “It was strange, watching them acting completely normally. I think because I was Russian they saw me as the enemy, as a prisoner of war.”
But then came the devastating news that her ‘friend’ Aslan had been killed while fighting the Russians.
She said: “With his death all my chances of being saved died with him.
“A different group of people took over, and I lost my hope completely.
“I decided that I would try to take my own life, because I knew I would never escape on my own. I couldn’t see any other way out.
“I was on the verge of killing myself when one day I looked up and saw a sky full of stars, and something just came into my head which enlightened me, that my mum was probably looking up at the same time seeing the same stars.
“It was a beautiful and wonderful moment. I remember thinking that I just couldn’t do it to her, I needed to keep fighting for my survival, for my life.”
Elena was then moved again, away from the frontline, to a summer house in the mountains with a trapdoor and a cellar where she was locked up for most of the day.
She was also given a change of clothes, a traditional blue wool Chechen dress, to disguise her as they passed through checkpoints during the journey.
Even further away from home, Elena feared she had been sold as a slave and would never see her loved ones again.
She later heard how her mother, who didn’t even know if her daughter was alive or dead after months without contact, had gone to a local prayer house, desperately hoping for a miracle.
Elena said: “Like me, my mother had lost all hope. At the prayer house she met a lady who gave her nine candles and told her, when the last candle burns down she would hear from me.
“It sounds unbelievable but that’s exactly what happened.”
One day, after a Russian attack close by, Elena noticed that she couldn’t hear anyone above her inside the house.
She tried to push the trapdoor, something she had done in numerous times before – but this time it was open.
She said: “My escape was also a true miracle. It was an incredible moment. For the last eight months I had been locked all the time.
“Then one day, I woke up, I tried the door and it was unlocked. I climbed out, saw no-one in the house, and just walked away.
“I just walked and walked, in the direction of the sound of the bombs, until I saw the Russian military at a distance.
“I was wearing Chechen clothes and at first they thought I was a suicide bomber, but I waved a white handkerchief and they soon found out who I was. After 245 days and nights, I was finally free.
“That was the night my mother’s ninth candle burnt out.”
The Russians called Elena’s mother, who travelled overnight to get to her.
Elena said: “Of all the nights, that was probably the most endless of my entire life. When she finally arrived we just hugged and stayed like that for a long time. It was a moment of true happiness.
“When you’ve lost all your hope, then all of a sudden are alive and free, and able to see those you love again, it was an incredible feeling.
“It was much harder returning to normal life, though. I was broken. I couldn’t fit into the same group of people again.
“I came back totally different, with all those memories and pain on my shoulders.”
She also discovered that, during the eight months she was kidnapped, her boyfriend Sergey had cheated on her with her best friend.
In 2000 Elena was granted political asylum in the US, later joined by her mother, and settled in Mason, Ohio, where today, aged 45, she is a real estate agent and single mother to her 16-year-old daughter.
And for 25 years she told no-one – not even her closest friends – about what she had experienced as a 21-year-old.
She also never touched on the subject with her mother, saying “we never talked about it, it was so painful for both of us.
We just silently agreed to bury the memories deep inside so we didn’t have to feel it again.”
Then, last year, Elena decided to write her story down in a book, Girl, Taken, during which time she interviewed her mother, and the two talked for the first time about what each had been through.
She said: “We spent a lot of time talking. There were lots of tears. We had both been through so much pain, and kept it to ourselves for so long.
“It was amazing and helped heal our wounds and since then my life has changed dramatically.
“Today I appreciate my life, and my freedom so much, and I try to make the most of it every day.
“Just the little moments, being with my daughter, playing with my dog, walking in the forest, dancing salsa.
“They took away my freedom for a short time, but today, because of it, I feel my freedom more than ever.”
Girl, Taken: A True Story of Abduction, Captivity and Survival by Elena Nikitina is out now