For a Ukrainian Journalist, War Evokes Scars From Captivity

KYIV, Ukraine – Stanislav Aseyev spent two and a half years in a notorious prison run by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, where he said he and other inmates were routinely tortured, beaten, belittled and forced to carry bags over their heads. Yet even he was unprepared for the grim scenes of abuse and executions he witnessed in the kyiv suburb of Bucha.

“I still wasn’t ready for that,” he said. “I didn’t think I would see a genocide with my own eyes, despite the fact that I have a lot of experience in this war.”

Mr Aseyev, a 32-year-old journalist, had documented his time in prison in a memoir published in 2020, “The Torture Camp on Paradise Street”. Today, he bears witness to new brutality, a Russian invasion, and the physical and emotional scars inflicted on him again.

In Bucha, “corpses lay in front of every private house”, said Mr Aseyev, who had recently traveled there with a military unit of volunteers to help secure the area after Ukrainian forces pushed back the Russians .

Mr Aseyev had moved to the Kyiv region to put his years in prison behind him, but the war and its associated trauma found him once again, in February, when missiles whizzed by in the eastern suburb of Brovary.

“I thought it was all over, that I still had a very long process ahead of me to work on it,” he said of the lingering scars in an interview from the back seat of a car. it was too dangerous to talk to his house. “But now all of that is irrelevant, because now the old psychological traumas of captivity are slowly starting to kick in again.”

Dismissed in wartime, Mr Aseyev also chose a new way to deal with his fears and anger. He took up arms for the first time in his life, defending his adopted city militarily as part of the Territorial Defense Forces, a volunteer unit of the Ukrainian army.

Mr. Aseyev’s story is an extreme version of that experienced by many Ukrainians today, as the Russian military spreads violence, indiscriminate or not, across the country. His experiences have seen him – someone brought up with Russian language and culture, with a worldview that is relatively favorable to Moscow – reject all of this insofar as he is not only ready but willing to kill Russian soldiers.

He was born in the town of Makiivka, just outside Donetsk, the largest city in eastern Ukraine. A native Russian speaker, he grew up listening to Soviet rock bands like Kino, reading Dostoyevsky in native Russian, and learning history from a predominantly Russian perspective.

Prior to the separatist war that erupted in 2014, he says he was sympathetic to President Vladimir V. Putin’s vision of Ukraine as part of “Russky Mir,” or “Russian World,” a nationalist, chauvinistic ideology centered on the idea of ​​civilization of Russia. superiority. “I really had such ‘Russky Mir’ illusions about Putin, Greater Russia, all those things,” he said.

These were shattered by his experiences after 2014, just as they are shattered now for millions of other Ukrainians. He now prefers not to speak Russian except to talk to his mother.

In 2014, Makiivka, a place Mr Aseyev described as “a city of Soviet sleepwalkers”, was occupied by Russian-backed separatist forces loyal to the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Many of his friends pledged to fight alongside the pro-Moscow rebels, buying up the Russian propaganda line that Ukrainian fascists had taken over in kyiv. Soon after, he said, he realized that the separatists were the ones committing human rights abuses.

In 2015, he began writing about abuse for Ukrayinska Pravda, a daily newspaper, as well as the US-funded media RFE/RL and a liberal-leaning newspaper, Dzerkalo Tyzhnia, or Mirror Weekly. He continued this reporting line under a pseudonym for two years, until he was detained on June 2, 2017.

Mr Aseyev was first taken to “The Office”, a prison camp in a cluster of buildings along a wide boulevard in central Donetsk which had served as an office before the war. After being beaten and tortured with electric shocks, he said, he spent six weeks in solitary confinement, in a cell so cold he had to grab bottles of his own urine to stay warm.

He was then transferred to Izolyatsia prison, named after a former insulation factory – the Russian and Ukrainian languages ​​use the same word for insulation and isolation – which had become a cultural center after the factory went bankrupt. from the Soviet era. There, Mr Aseyev says he was beaten and tortured for more than two years, before being released in a prisoner swap in 2019, just before New Year’s Eve, after spending 962 days in the prison. interior.

Mr Aseyev said his own persecution, and the Russian bombardment today of towns around kyiv and southern and eastern Ukraine, many of which are Russian-speaking areas, belied the assertion of the Kremlin that he went to war to protect ethnic Russians and Russian speakers. “Nazis” supposed to control kyiv.

“They don’t care who they kill,” he said. “I am Russian-speaking, I grew up in Russian culture, in Russian music, books, cinema, even Soviet in a sense.”

Despite this, he said: “I am definitely considered an enemy by these people, just like those who grew up somewhere in Lviv with completely different values,” he said, referring to the predominantly city. from the west of the country which is the beating heart of Ukrainian nationalism.

“For them,” he said of the Russian leadership, “the Ukrainian state simply doesn’t exist, and that’s it. And anyone who disagrees with that is already an enemy.

Mr. Aseyev spent the years following his release from prison trying to heal from his trauma. Much of this process centered on writing his memoirs, which detailed the treatment he and others endured.

He described the horrors in a powerful passage from the introduction: “The main tasks here are to survive after the will to live has left you and nothing in the world depends on you any longer, preserving your sanity as you teeter on the brink of madness and remain a human being in such inhuman conditions that faith, forgiveness, hatred and even a torturer meeting his victim’s eyes take on multiple meanings.

In thematic essays, he describes how a father and son were tortured together; how a man was electrocuted in his anus; cases of rape and forced labor; the way the cameras constantly monitored the detainees; and the depravity of the commander of Izolyatsia.

A collection of his dispatches from Ukraine’s occupied Donbass region, written before his arrest in 2017, was also recently published in English translation by Harvard University Press.

When war broke out in February, Mr Aseyev took his mother to the relatively safer west of the country and then took the train back to the capital. Returning to kyiv in the early days of the war, he was one of only three people to disembark at the city’s central station.

“There is simply nowhere to run,” he said. “If we all leave Kyiv, one way or another, we will be crushed in the rest of Ukraine.”

In prison, her mother was “constantly” on her mind. “For two and a half years my mother went through hell,” he said, unsure for long periods whether he was dead or alive, and unable to visit or communicate with him.

Although she is safe at the moment, Mr Aseyev said he was furious at what she had suffered and was ready for revenge. “I will kill them at every opportunity,” he said.

Mr Aseyev said he was convinced that “as soon as ‘Russian troops’ have the possibility and the infrastructure to build something like Izolyatsia in the occupied territory, of course they will”.

He continued to write and advocate for Ukraine even while undergoing military training. He recently visited the newly liberated town of Bucha, site of many alleged atrocities by Russian soldiers, and posted photos of a mass grave site on Facebook.

In his memoirs, Mr Aseyev wrote a chapter on how and why he considered suicide in prison.

“The choice to kill myself, I thought, was the last freedom I had,” he wrote.

In a video message shared by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on his Instagram account, Mr. Aseyev recalled this thought when recalling his stay in Izolyatsie and implored Western leaders not to be afraid of Russia or Mr. . Putin.

“They took everything – relatives, friends, communications, even an old calendar” that hung in his cell, he said. “But they couldn’t take one thing away from me: I was ready to die. It is something that cannot be taken away from a person even when everything else is taken away.

And that is why, he said, Ukraine resisted the supposedly superior Russian forces, and why it will eventually prevail.

“That’s what our whole country is now,” he said. “We are more willing to die than to give up or lose. And that is why the Russian Federation has already lost in this war.