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‘Russian executioners are my work’

At the end of 2022, the Polish publishing house KEW published a translation of Stanislav Aseyev’s 2020 book about his experience as a prisoner in the ‘Izolyatsia’ concentration camp located in temporarily occupied Donetsk. The title of the English translation of the book, also published in 2022, is The Torture Camp on Paradise Street (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute).

Until 2014, Izolyatsia was one of the most vivid centres of Ukrainian contemporary art. That spring, Russian soldiers and combatants of the terrorist organization DNR, also controlled by Russia, took over it. After destroying all the artwork, they turned it into a concentration camp, the biggest currently known to exist on the territory of modern Europe.

Stanislav Aseyev stayed in Donetsk after the city was occupied in 2014. Under the pen name Stanislav Vasin, he continued to report for the Ukrainian media. Along with many other resistors, Aseyev was detained and accused of spying. This is how he ended up in Izolyatsia, where he spent 962 days.

He was freed on 29 December 2019 as a part of a prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine. Now Aseyev works as a human rights defender, focusing on the detainees of illegal prisons in Russia and occupied territories. He also lectures at western universities and, as a co-founder of the Justice Initiative, participates in collecting data about war criminals. (Dwutygodnik)

Rubizhne (Luhansk Oblast of Ukraine) after the battle of the city in 2022. Source: Wikimedia Commons (author: National Guard of Ukraine)

Ivanna Skyba-Yakubova: Since last year, we no longer shy away from big words such as love, freedom and dignity. They are not ‘too much’ anymore. 

Stanislav Aseyev: I observe the opposite. The war-made categories you mentioned sound idealistic; things that should have been specific have become abstract.

I am teaching a course in the USA titled ‘Experience of death and freedom’ – also the name of a chapter of my book about the Izolyatsia prison camp. I always tell students how words that should have been used because of their war-specific definitions have instead become idealized.

We often say, ‘We are fighting for our freedom’, but the definition of freedom is broad. It can include too many things, from a choice between options A and B to the metaphysical categories I am talking about. I try to explain that if people are dying for something and call it freedom, we must understand what they mean. You cannot die for the words of a speech proclaimed by the UN tribunal.

In Izolyatsia, you are not just deprived of freedom; you are deprived of everything. They even take your shoelaces from you, so that if you want to claim your life, you must be very creative. When you start thinking in these circumstances about freedom, about things that have been taken away from you and what is left, it turns out that in such a liminal, metaphysical, extremely straightforward situation, the only thing you have left is the right to die. It is the sole right that cannot be taken from you.

But the paradox is, if you execute this right and commit suicide in a situation that is more powerful than you are (and it does have more power, as long as you cannot change the walls around you or the torturers that can come after you every minute), then this situation takes over, and you are not free. The only way to execute freedom is by staying alive and by saying ‘yes’ to life.

Viktor Frankl, the Jewish-Austrian psychiatrist who also survived concentration camps, talked about the same things. Freedom means understanding the possibility of your own death one step away from it. To be free, in the liminal situation, you must choose life.

And here comes the link to the political aspect. On 24 February 2022 (and even earlier, in 2014), our country and everyone faced a much stronger enemy. An enemy who didn’t give us a choice not to engage with it and walk away. The same way I was sent to detention – it was a done deal, and you have to face it and live with it. Russian tanks on our land – whether you want or not, you must do something about it. The choice to fight is a choice of free people – the same as my choice to continue living in that basement and resist with the tools I had at hand, including writing.

The Kharkiv priest and philologist Viktor Marynchak has said that we worship life, while Russia cultivates sadism and necrophilia. Would you agree that the value of life and death has different interpretations in our cultures? 

Firstly, Russian ‘civilization’ and western ‘civilization’ are – at least formally – Christian. Despite the division between Orthodoxy on one side and Catholicism and Protestantism on the other, Christianity provides a joint paradigm for understanding human life, its end and beginning, and what happens after death. But while Russians are formally Christians, how they behave on Ukrainian territory (and not only there) has nothing in common with Christianity.

In Russia, it has all been ‘spiced up’ with national identity characteristics, which are destructive. If we turn to Russian literature, Dostoevsky for instance, we can see clear attraction to suffering – to what Freudians call Thanatos, the death drive. This is the cultivation of suffering, both for the nation and for neighbouring ones, and getting pleasure from that suffering.

This applies to cultural categories and takes the form of ‘deep confession’, as it is called in Russian literature. This means doing something terrible, then suffering because of this and getting pleasure from that suffering, then finding a relief in confession… that often then leads to a new crime. I think this is something psychiatrists and cultural psychologists should be studying.

Is there a chance this ‘civilizational model’ could be changed? 

No. These things seem abstract, but they are absolutely real. Russian liberals tell the West that it is not Russian people who are guilty; it is Putin and his entourage. When we get them out, we will come and sort things out; we will provide education and opportunities to the Russian hinterland, so that ‘new Russians’ will be born and ‘normal, real Russians’ will join them – the ‘normal Russians’ who are now somewhere out there in Russia but for whatever reason stay quiet.

This paradigm is delusional. It is very useful for them, and very dangerous for us. If it is true that only Putin and his entourage are guilty, it means there can be no reparations. It means let Putin pay, and Vanya from Saratov bears no responsibility for anything. But he does. Vanya is responsible. But he wouldn’t accept it – at least not in the way that Germans accepted their collective responsibility after the Second World War.

There is no way Russia can change under any government. Some say that Yeltsin’s rule was the only free period in Russian history for the past 300 to 400 years. But even then, remember how Russian soldiers in Chechnya acted. Formally it was a liberal regime, but in Chechnya soldiers were erasing entire cities, the same as they are doing now in Ukraine. We must develop a very pessimistic look at Russia and its population and build our policies based on that.

Russians are not ready to accept the responsibility, and there is no Russian Willy Brandt in sight who would kneel in apology and prompt Russia’s social recovery. Even in his Nobel Prize lecture in 2022, Yan Rachinsky, the chairman of Memorial, did not signal readiness to take this responsibility. There seems to be no magic spell that could help: Ukrainians will remain hostages of their country’s geographical position. What should we be ready for? 

Firstly, after the war, we must insist on the denuclearization of Russia. Even with liberals in power, this will remain an instrument to pressure the West.

Second, border security. We need to build a massive wall of reinforced concrete. Dig a ditch after it, followed by the mined field. And then – carry on strengthening our economy and army, knowing that nothing has changed. We have won, but Russia is still the same.

There is a belief in the West that Russia will change in the same way as Germany if the international community invest in various educational and developmental programs after the war ends. 

I do not believe in this. Russians will not accept collective guilt. In Germany, you can find ‘stumbling stones’ on the pavements of cities with the names of murdered Jews. This will not happen in Russia; there will be no names of the Ukrainian children they’ve killed or deported engraved anywhere. There are many names to write, but they will not do it.

That is why the Germans were able to build such a powerful country. They have taken that responsibility of guilt, and it still defines their foreign policy. Up until now, Germans felt this collective guilt towards Russia for the Second World War. It is only now they consider something beyond this feeling when shaping their policies. Several generations of Germans grew up listening to the narrative, ‘You might not have been there, but your father might have been the one who did that, or your grandfather, and this should not happen again.’ This is not the way Russians will react.

What is the difference? Are Germans starting from a different place, with a different civilizational model?

Nazism for Germans was a terrible exception. There was a revanchist sentiment after World War One – and we in fact face the same risk after victory in the current war. Lets say Navalny or another proclaimed liberal came to power, I am not sure they will be any better than Putin. Revanchism will be present in Russia in this or that way; the question is if the international community will allow it to reach the level it did in Germany in 1930. Germans growing up on the principles of Protestantism and ideas of the great scientific discoveries, and Russians nurtured on the ideas of Orthodoxy and mysticism have quite a different mentality.

In their turn, Europeans have no mechanism to bring Petya or Vasya to account. Since 1945, three war tribunals have taken place (Nuremberg, Rwanda, Tokio, Yugoslavia) and only 182 individuals have been convicted – mostly those who were managing the executors. The international legal system has no mechanism to reach direct executors, and this has to be changed.

The reason for me to start the Justice Initiative Foundation (JIF) – a fund that collects information on Russian criminals – was to prove the existence of a specific Ivanov, Petrov or Sidorov, people who came and tortured people, and to publicise information about them and the legal charges they face. Then there will be no chance for anyone to say: only Putin and five other people must stand in front of the court. There are thousands and tens of thousands of such people, and they must be held accountable.

Do you think this will happen?

No. Even if the mechanism changes, and the court in the Hague works more practically, the majority of war criminals will not be penalized. Massive resources are required to find and reach these people, it will take years just to get the mechanism in place to convict executors. They would have to be taken out of Russia, Belarus and other countries where they might be hiding. We can rely only on national special services. But if our special forces get Girkin out of Moscow, that will be legally qualified as kidnapping. First of all, we must make it legal to extradite war criminals to the courts from anywhere in the world.

The international Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for Putin’s arrest in March. Since he will not put his foot in any country that ratified the Roman statute, this warrant has no practical value. So, what is the message here? 

The warrant is hugely important politically. First, it conveys to Putin’s elites that they can still negotiate some conditions with the world if they walk away from this madman. It is also a message that the collective West will not conduct any negotiations with Putin from now on.

In the same week that the ICC issued that warrant for Putin and Maria Lvova–Belova, the Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights in Russia, the UN declared it saw no evidence of the genocide committed against the Ukrainian people. 

The UNas all international organizations, is very slow, and genocide is the gravest crime in international criminal law. We must always keep in mind that the demolition of the Ukrainian nation and culture is a planned and targeted action. It is not a coincidence that not just buildings are being ruined but also museums and the statues of Taras Shevchenko. They hate everything Ukrainian and are doing everything possible to destroy the Ukrainian state and the Ukrainians as a nation. It is very hard to prove legally, and this topic is not communicated either by Ukrainian MFA or by the Office of the President.

At the JIF, you collect data about war criminals. Are you prepared to pay for valuable information? 

The idea of the foundation was to unite the experience of the United States of America, offering as state policy a financial reward for information about terrorists, and the practices of the Israeli state, which searches for Nazi war criminals as long as they are alive.

We have divided crimes into six categories, all of which are presented on our website: Izolyatsia camp, Bucha, Kyiv oblast, sexual violence, MH17, and now a new category: illegal deportation of children. There is a list of suspects, with references to the state or to international law enforcement bodies. You can donate to support action against each specific individual. Or you can provide information on a criminal case (for instance, a video of the missiles fired at the Boing); or, say, information that will lead to the arrest of a specific criminal, wherever this person is. We will pay a reward to the informer and pass the information to the security services. Finally, you can hand over a suspect to the Ukrainian state or to international law enforcement.

The procedure has not yet been formalized, and there are different options. Handing over can happen directly at the frontline – here we are led by the hope that the Russians will be ceding their own. An important thing about our fund is that its main target group is the Russians and Russian special services. We count on their internal conflicts: the Ministry of Defence hates Girkin, and he has a conflict with Shoigu and with Prigozhin. In FSB, there are different centres of influence, each hating the other. There are groups inside the Izolyatsia camp with similar sentiments.

Our assumption is that if there were someone who would pay real money, they would have handed each other over a long time ago. Unfortunately, our resources are incomparable with what these payments should be. The FBI has assigned $250,000 for Prigozhin, while we currently offer a bit more than $7000. We are not bounty hunting, and we are definitely not encouraging civilians to do that. Our work is purely informative; the state will do all the rest will do at the level of the special forces.

Remember that under international law, the jurisdiction of the Ukrainian state does apply to the temporarily occupied territories. So should Ukrainian special services get a criminal out of there, it will be absolutely legal (like what happened with Volodymyr Tsemakh, a mercenary of the terrorist organization DNR involved in the MH-17 shooting, who was taken from the city of Snizhne). If someone is interested in earning some money and bringing Igor Girkin from Moscow and the occupied territories, we can inform the special services, and they will set up the operation. We must make the international transfer of the suspects legal, and we must expose their names: this person was raping, killing, and torturing people and it is likely that even their families do not know that, while they should know.

The history of the fund traces back to the successful detention of Denys Kulikovsky, also known as ‘Pavlovich’, who served as a custodian of the Izolyatsia concentration camp in Donetsk. He left occupied territories and was living in Kyiv quite peacefully until I approached Christo Grozev, an investigator with Bellingcat, and together we found an informer who knew Pavlovich’s Kyiv address. We sent the SBU to him, and currently he is under prosecution. This made me think about how we can reach his subordinates.

We are supported financially by the diaspora, and also by the people for whom Russia is personal, and those who understand that this concerns their own security as well that of citizens of many other countries. We also can safely assume that Russian intelligence and criminals work very actively on the territories of other states. Finally, the fund is a memorial site that stores information about crimes the world must know and remember. The Izolyatsia camp has existed since 2014, but very little was known about it until 2019, when I was freed and started talking about it loudly and publicly.

What is happening there now?

We only know it continues to exist. But how many people are imprisoned there now, what the administration is doing with those people and who that administration is – this we do not know. There is also no information about the number of people that have passed through the concentration camp since 2014.

With each counteroffensive of the Ukrainian armed forces, we learn about more torture rooms and concentration camps. It is hard to digest this information, even for a person with no prison experience. How are you handling this? 

When I open the website and see Izolyatsia’s headmen and torturers – and I know all of them personally – I think of them as of work assignments. If you take it emotionally, you lose your mind. I have decided that Russia, all these people, these torturers, and executors are just the work I am doing.

I have taboo topics with friends and family when it comes to the war and my experience in prison. It is around us, we all live with this war, and I don’t want it to be dragged into my personal life too.

How does your body remember the captivity? A year ago, I wouldn’t have dared to ask this question, but now that I have had the experience of living in a city under artillery fire, I will. Although of course, these two experiences are incomparable. 

Оh, it does stay with you, yes. I had so-called ‘open door syndrome’ for quite a while. In Izolyatsia, when the doors of the cell opened, we had to get up immediately, put a bag on our head, and turn to the wall. So, for 28 months, I was getting up and jumping every time I heard the door opening. When I returned to normal life, I had this urge all the time. Luckily, it passed after a few months.

I’ve also had to try to train myself to sleep in darkness, as we were forced to sleep with the lights on. I have constant insomnia now, as my sleeping phase has been ruined. Pills are the only remedy for that.

Also, I hate showers. Besides having to wash ourselves in the two minutes generously given by Pavlovich, the shower was also an experience of constant physical and emotional torture. When I have to stay in a rented apartment or in a hotel, I always ask for it to have a bathtub.

You have written many texts and made many speeches. Do you think language is enough? Can this experience be shared with others, or must it be accepted as personal and kept to oneself? 

Purely technically, you cannot share the experience of imprisonment. I lecture a course called ‘Psychological nuances of the individual’s behaviour under interrogation with torture’; this is a very niche topic for the special services and the military. I am often asked if it is possible to prepare for torture. Even if you recreate the environment for a cadet, you will not be able to produce the feelings a real person has in a real situation. The only way would be to design the situation so that a person did not know it was a simulation.

In one of the Kyiv museums, I was taken to the interactive room with the recreated sound of GRAD missiles. At the time, I was just out of detention and had military experience serving in Donbas from 2014 to 2017. When they turned this sound off, I said this is all really good, this is identical, but I don’t need it. War experience can probably be ‘transmitted’ to some extent with the sounds; but prison experience… I am not sure. Here we depend on empathy while being limited by the combination of letters in a book.

In the Jewish Museum of Berlin, there is an immersive room that recreates a single cell. Standing there, I asked myself if I would be able to handle a conversation with you about the detention experience. I think an installation like this can help to nurture empathy and understanding. Another example is Deportation Memorial in Paris, which uses architecture (narrowing the space), light and sound. All this is just an attempt to get closer. Does the impossibility of transmitting the experience lead to the feeling of existential loneliness? 

It does not for me, thank God, but I know former prisoners who would relate very much to what you have just said. They feel offended that no one understands them and think society should be talking about them all the time. I switched to work very quickly, and I always say: it is not the world that does not fit into our lives, it is our traumatized lives that do not fit into cafes and restaurants and the other things that belong to normal society. It is we who must adapt, not push our experience into people’s lives and keep telling them about torture rooms and basements and what happened there. People are being tortured all the time. You cannot think about torture while making love or walking your kid to kindergarten. It is we who have to do something about our experience.

Did writing help you to work through this experience? 

Absolutely. The last chapter of my book is about the self-identification of an individual who has just been out of detection and must adapt to the experience of freedom in its narrow sense. Think of it as a recorded conversation with a therapist, only that it was me who was a therapist for myself.

This is the foundation of the course I currently teach. I can now see things much more profoundly; I am at the stage now where I analyse texts, write stylistics and emotions that prevail in the design of this or that sentence. That was not the case when I was writing; back then, my focus was mainly on problems, including problems with sleep. Now I can analyse the text. I have an idea of writing a thesis based on this book and looking at it from the perspective of psychological conditions.

Your book Torture Camp on Paradise Street, describing your life in Izolyatsia, has just been published in Poland. Why does the Polish readership have to read it? Why should they know about these things? 

Firstly, lots of western politicians push us towards negotiations with Russia, and this book explains why negotiations with this evil should not take place. This is not just a political system that does not fit the Ukrainian or western reality. This is evil. In the political sense – I am not talking about metaphysics here. This is evil, the same as Nazism was.

If we sit down to negotiate with Russia and sign some ‘peace agreements’, it means we approve concentration camps. Approve Izolyatsia, a system of repression, torture, basements, electric cables connected to various parts of a body… All that exists in the occupied territories of Ukraine. Since Poland last faced Russia, Russia has had not changed for the better; it has become even worse.

Germans and French read this text with less emotion than people in the Baltics, Poland or the USA, who are friends of our country. The Balts faced Russia some time ago and know what the Russian experience means, what KGB is, torture, and so on. Historical memory plays a big role. France remembers Nazi Germany, but that was destroyed, while Russia is perpetual. And if we accept any kind of negotiations with Russia, it means we approve concentration camps.

I keep thinking about the sense of suffering. Father Marynchak, whom I mentioned earlier, said to me once that our role in history is to destroy the empire of evil. If we come through these challenges with dignity, our suffering obtains a meaning as a value for humankind. What do you think about that? Does our collective and individual suffering have any sense? 

What you have just described is the logic of a believer, and I am not one, so this paradigm does not work for me. In fact, I find it sick. Living with the idea about an eternal battle against a bunch of rapists and marauders and finding a sense in this idea – I mean, this works if you have few lives ahead of you, or if you plan to live forever. For me, the less suffering in one’s life the better. If there is a opportunity not to turn your existence into a struggle against something or someone – you must take it, and not making suffering a cornerstone of your genetic memory.

I don’t see a metaphysical sense in my suffering in Izolyatsia or that of other people who went through it – or those who died there. In the book, I ask a question: what was the sense of their suffering if even their names remained unknown?

Suffering must be converted to experience. This further experience should not be traumatic. ‘Where were you when I was imprisoned in Izolyatsia?’ is the wrong rhetoric. I have converted my experience into a book, lectures, the foundation, and a process of searching for war criminals. And I am doing my best to protect my beloved ones from this topic, as it brings them suffering too.

We must convert our suffering into a force against that repressive system so that the next generations (or us in the future) do not have to go through this experience again. I want Izolyatsia to stop existing as such. The same with Russia – we must make sure this system stops existing as such, and we must ensure this happens in the safest way for us. And then – learn from Israel. It’s not surrounded by the Third Reich, it is a different disposition, but it is still required to be constantly prepared for the fight.

Don’t you ever have a feeling that the future has been taken away from you? 

I don’t now, but when I got out, I indeed had a problem with this. We’ve been deprived of it, and that was a strategy – to convince us we had got nothing in front of us. That was what they said to us every day: ‘You’ve got nothing but these walls; no one needs you, no one will come for you, and you are going to die and rot here.’ And when you get out, and it turns out the future does exist, you are not able to plan even a week ahead. I was talking about torture and executions, but when someone asked me about my plans for the future, I didn’t know what to say. I had none. I am now forcing myself to plan a few months ahead.

I run and running is almost a religion for me. I had a dream to run from Kyiv to Lisbon in 2022, but now this dream has become abstract.

The topic of home sounds very nagging and aching in your collection, The Rustle of a Bamboo Grove. Where is home for you today? 

This category has completely vanished. I had a strong emotional attachment to Donetsk and Makeivka, where I used to live. I have lived my entire past life there, but it is gone now. Even when we get these territories back, I will not be comfortable living there. So the feeling of home is gone.

After I got free, I lived in many places: in Brovary in Kyiv oblast and in Kyiv itself, abroad all the time. But the feeling of home as I had it in Donetsk is gone. I will not find peace and comfort living on the same street as those who supported Russia and went silent after Ukraine won. These people will not go anywhere, and they will not change their views. We must understand that in order to avoid delusions and disappointment. So I will only return to those places as a tourist and as someone finding his way back to the things long forgotten.

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