KIEV, Ukraine — Stanislav Aseyev spent two and a half years in a notorious prison run by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, where he and other inmates he said were regularly tortured, beaten, humiliated and forced to wear sacks on their heads to wear. But even he was unprepared for the grim scenes of abuse and executions he witnessed in the Kiev suburb of Bucha.
“I wasn’t ready for that,” he said. “I did not think that I would see the genocide with my own eyes, although 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, The Torture Camp on Paradise Street, published in 2020. Today he is witnessing new brutality, a Russian invasion and the new physical and emotional scars inflicted on him.
In Bucha, “corpses lay in front of every private home,” said Mr Aseyev, who recently traveled there with a volunteer military unit to help keep the region safe after Ukrainian forces pushed back the Russians.
Mr Aseyev had moved to the Kyiv area to put his prison years behind him, but the war and its associated trauma hit him again when rockets whistled into the city’s eastern suburb of Brovary in February.
“I had thought that it was all over, that I still had a very long process to work on,” he said of the lingering scars in an interview conducted in the back seat of a car because it was too dangerous was to talk about his home. “But none of that matters now, because now the old psychological trauma from captivity is slowly making itself felt again.”
Set back in wartime, Mr. Aseyev has also chosen a new way to deal with his fears and anger. He takes up arms for the first time in his life and defends his adopted country 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 indiscriminately and otherwise spreads violence across the country. His experiences have turned him – someone who was raised on the Russian language and Russian culture and has a relatively sympathetic worldview – to the extent that he is not only willing, but willing to kill Russian soldiers.
He was born in the town of Makiivka, just outside of Donetsk, the largest city in eastern Ukraine. A native Russian speaker, he grew up listening to Soviet rock bands like Kino, read Dostoyevsky in the original Russian, and learned the story from a predominantly Russian perspective.
Before the separatist war that broke out in 2014, he said he sympathized with President Vladimir V Putin’s vision of Ukraine as part of the “Russky Mir” or “Russian World,” a nationalist and chauvinist ideology based on the idea of the Russian Civilization focuses superiority. “I really had these ‘Russky Mir’ illusions about Putin, Greater Russia, all those things,” he said.
These were shaken by his post-2014 experience, just as they are now being shaken 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 has described as “a town of Soviet sleepwalkers,” was occupied by separatist forces backed by Russia and loyal to the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Many of his friends joined to fight on the side of the pro-Moscow rebels and bought the Russian propaganda line taken over by Ukrainian fascists in Kyiv. Shortly thereafter, he realized that it was the separatists who had committed human rights violations.
In 2015, he began writing about the abuses for the daily Ukrayinska Pravda, as well as for the US-funded RFE/RL magazine and a liberal-leaning newspaper, Dzerkalo Tyzhnia, or Mirror Weekly. He continued this reporting under a pseudonym for two years until his arrest 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 that had served as office space before the war. After beatings and torture with electric shocks, he spent six weeks in solitary confinement, in a cell so cold he had to reach for bottles of his own urine to stay warm.
He was then transferred to Izolyatsia prison, named after a former isolation factory — the same word is used for isolation and isolation in both Russian and Ukrainian languages — which became a cultural center after the Soviet-era factory went bankrupt had become. There, Mr Aseyev said he was beaten and tortured for more than two years before being released in a prisoner exchange just before New Year’s Eve in 2019 after spending 962 days inside.
Mr Aseyev said that his own persecution and today’s sacking by the Russians of the cities around Kyiv and in southern and eastern Ukraine, many of them Russian-speaking areas, belies the Kremlin’s claim that he went to war to protect ethnic Russians and to protect Russian speakers from the “Nazis” who are said to be in control of Kyiv.
“They don’t care who they kill,” he said. “I speak Russian, I grew up with Russian culture, Russian music, books, cinema, even Soviet in a sense.”
Still, he said, “I’m definitely seen as an enemy by these people, as are those who grew up somewhere in Lviv with very different values,” he said, referring to the predominantly Ukrainian-speaking city in the west of the country, which is the beating heart of Ukrainian nationalism .
“For them,” he said of the Russian leadership, “the state of Ukraine simply doesn’t exist, and that’s all. And anyone who disagrees with that is already an enemy.”
Mr. Aseyev spent the years following his release from prison healing from his trauma. Much of this process focused on writing his memoir, which detailed the treatment he and others endured.
He described the horrors in a powerful passage from the introduction: “The main task here is to survive after the lust for life has left you and nothing on earth depends on you, to maintain your sanity while you’re on the edge reeling from insanity and remaining human in conditions so inhuman that faith, forgiveness, hate, and even a torturer staring at his victim are charged with multiple meanings.”
In thematic essays he describes how father and son were tortured together; how a man got an electric shock in his anus; cases of rape and forced labor; the way cameras constantly watched the inmates; and the depravity of the commander of Izolyatsia.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
A collection of his cables from Ukraine’s occupied eastern Donbass region, written before his arrest in 2017, was also recently published in English translation by Harvard University Press.
When the war started in February, Mr. Aseev took his mother to the relatively safer west of the country and then took the train back to the capital. When he returned to Kyiv in the early days of the war, he was one of only three people to disembark at the city’s main train station.
“There’s just no other place to run,” he said. “If we all leave Kyiv, we will be crushed in one way or another 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 if he was dead or alive for a long time and unable to visit or communicate with him.
While she is safe for now, Mr Aseyev said he was furious at what happened to her and was ready to take revenge. “I will kill her at every opportunity,” he said.
Mr Aseyev said he was convinced that “once” the Russian troops “have the opportunity and infrastructure to build something like Izolyatsia in the occupied territory, of course they will do it”.
He has continued his writing and advocacy for Ukraine even while undergoing military training. He recently visited the newly liberated city of Bucha, the scene of numerous alleged atrocities committed by Russian soldiers, and posted photos of a mass grave on Facebook.
In his memoirs, Mr. Aseyev wrote a chapter on how and why he considered taking his own life in prison.
“The decision to take my life I thought was the last freedom I had,” he wrote.
In a video message from Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on his Instagram account, Mr. Aseyev recalled this thought as he discussed his time in Izolyatsia and implored Western leaders not to be afraid of Russia or Mr. Putin.
“They took everything – relatives, friends, communications, even an old calendar” that was hanging in his cell, he said. “But there was one thing they couldn’t take from me: I was ready to die. This is something that cannot be taken from a person even if everything else is taken away.”
And that’s why, he said, Ukraine has faced supposedly superior Russian forces and will ultimately prevail.
“This is our whole country now,” he said. “We are more willing to die than give up or lose. And that is why the Russian Federation has already lost in this war.”