For Ukrainian Writer, War Evokes Scars of Time in 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 regularly tortured, beaten, demeaned and forced to wear bags on their heads. Yet, even he was unprepared for the grim scenes of abuse and executions that he witnessed in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha.

“I was still not ready for this,” he said. “I did not think that I would see 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 a new brutality, a Russian invasion, and the physical and emotional scars that are being inflicted anew.

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

Mr. Aseyev had moved to the Kyiv area to put his prison years behind him, but war and its associated traumas found him once more, in February, when missiles whistled into the city’s eastern suburb of Brovary.

“I had thought that it was all over, that I still had a very long process ahead to work on it,” he said of the lingering scars in an interview conducted in the back seat of a car because it was too dangerous to speak at his home. “But now it’s all irrelevant, because now the old psychological traumas from captivity are again beginning to slowly make themselves felt.”

Widespread destruction could be seen last week across Bucha, Ukraine, a suburb northwest of Kyiv from which Russian forces recently withdrew.Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

Jerked back to wartime, Mr. Aseyev has also chosen a new way to address his fears and anger. He has taken up arms for the first time in his life, defending his adopted city militarily as part of the Territorial Defense Forces, a volunteer unit in the Ukrainian army.

Mr. Aseyev’s story is an extreme version of the one many Ukrainians are experiencing today, as the Russian military spreads violence, indiscriminate and otherwise, throughout the country. His experiences have seen him — someone raised with Russian language and Russian culture, with a worldview relatively sympathetic to Moscow — reject all of that to the extent that 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. As a native Russian speaker, he grew up listening to Soviet rock bands like Kino, reading Dostoyevsky in the original Russian and learning history from a predominantly Russian perspective.

Before the separatist war that broke out 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 and chauvinistic ideology focused on the idea of Russia’s civilizational superiority. “I really had such ‘Russky Mir,’ illusions about Putin, Great Russia, all these things,” he said.

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

Volunteers with the Territorial Defense Forces receiving weapons training in March, before being deployed to fight against Russian forces near Kyiv.Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

In 2014, Makiivka, a place that Mr. Aseyev has 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 signed up to fight on the side of the pro-Moscow rebels, buying the Russian propaganda line that Ukrainian fascists had taken control in Kyiv. Shortly thereafter, he said, he realized that the separatists were the ones committing human rights abuses.

In 2015, he started writing about the abuses for Ukrayinska Pravda, a daily newspaper, as well as the U.S. funded RFE/RL outlet and a liberal-leaning newspaper, Dzerkalo Tyzhnia, or Mirror Weekly. He continued that line of reporting 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 group of buildings along a wide boulevard in the center of Donetsk that had served as office space before the war. After beatings and electric shock torture, he said, he spent six weeks in solitary confinement, in a cell so cold that he had to grasp bottles of his own urine to stay warm.

Then he was transferred to Izolyatsia prison, named for a former insulation factory — both Russian and Ukrainian languages use the same word for insulation and isolation — that had become a cultural center after the Soviet-era factory went bankrupt. There, Mr. Aseyev says he was beaten and tortured for more than two years, before being released in a prisoner exchange in 2019, just before New Year’s Eve, having spent 962 days inside.

Mr. Aseyev said that his own persecution, and the Russians’ pummeling today of cities around Kyiv and across southern and eastern Ukraine, many of them Russian-speaking areas, belied the Kremlin’s assertion that it went to war to protect ethnic Russians and Russian speakers from the “Nazis” supposedly in control in Kyiv.

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

Pro-Russia protesters waving that country’s flag outside the regional parliament building in Donetsk in 2014.Credit…Uriel Sinai for the New York Times

Despite this, he said, “I am definitely considered an enemy by these people, just as those who grew up somewhere in Lviv on completely different values,” he said, referring to the predominantly Ukrainian-speaking city in the country’s west that is the beating heart of Ukrainian nationalism.

“For them,” he said of Russia’s leadership, “the state of Ukraine simply does not exist, and that’s all. And everyone who does not agree with this is already an enemy.”

Mr. Aseyev spent the years after his release from prison trying to heal from his traumas. Much of that process centered on writing his memoir, which detailed the treatment he and others endured.

He described the horrors in a powerful passage from the introduction: “The principal tasks here are surviving after the desire to live has forsaken you and nothing in the world depends on you any longer, preserving your sanity as you teeter on the brink of madness and remaining a human being in conditions so inhuman that faith, forgiveness, hate, and even a torturer locking eyes with his victim become laden with manifold meanings.”

In thematic essays, he describes how a father and son were tortured together; how a man was electrically shocked in his anus; cases of rape and forced labor; the way cameras were constantly watching the inmates; and the depravity of Izolyatsia’s commander.

Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments

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New efforts to isolate Russia. NATO foreign ministers are discussing an expansion of military aid to Ukraine, and the European Union is weighing a ban on Russian coal. The United Nations voted to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council, while the U.S. Senate agreed to strip the country of its preferential trade status with the United States.

Peace talks. Hope for progress dimmed after Russia’s foreign minister said the Ukrainian side had proposed a new draft deal that deviated from previous versions. Belarus further complicated the situation by demanding to be included in the negotiations.

On the ground. Spurred by reports of Russian atrocities outside Kyiv and alarmed at signs that Russia’s military is about to escalate assaults in eastern Ukraine, many civilians appeared to be fleeing the region.

In the city of Mariupol. More than 5,000 people have died in the southeastern city since the start of Russia’s invasion, according to the city’s mayor, Vadym Boichenko, who said Moscow’s forces have destroyed almost all the city’s infrastructure.

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

When the war began in February, Mr. Aseyev took his mother to the country’s relatively safer west, and then took the train back to the capital. Returning to Kyiv in the first days of the war, he was one of only three people who disembarked at the city’s central station.

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

In prison, his mother was “constantly” on his mind. “For two and a half years my mother went through hell,” he said, not knowing for long periods if he was dead or alive, and not being able to visit him or communicate with him.

While she is safe for now, Mr. Aseyev said he is furious about what she was subjected to, and is ready for revenge. “I will kill them at every opportunity,” he said.

Ukrainian families trying to get to the next train headed west out of Kyiv and toward Lviv, in early March.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

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

He has continued his writing and advocacy for Ukraine even as he goes through military training. He recently visited the newly liberated town of Bucha, the site of numerous alleged atrocities by Russian soldiers, and posted photos on Facebook of a mass grave site.

In his memoir, Mr. Aseyev wrote a chapter on how and why he had considered taking his own life in prison.

“The choice to take my life, so 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 as he spoke about his time in Izolyatsia and implored Western leaders not to be afraid of Russia or Mr. Putin.

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

And that, he said, is why Ukraine has stood up to the supposedly superior Russian forces, and why it will ultimately prevail.

“This is 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.”

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