“Russian executioners are my work”. Conversation with Stanislav Aseev

This book explains why conversations with evil should not be taking place. This is a political system that does not fit into Ukrainian or Western reality. This is evil. In a political sense, not a metaphysical category. This is the same evil as Nazism. 

At the end of 2022, Polish publishing house KEW disclosed a translation of Stanislav Aseev’s book about his experience as a prisoner of the Isolation concentration camp located in temporarily occupied Donetsk. Polish title of the book is “Świetlana Droga. Obóz koncentracyjny w Doniecku”.

Until 2014, Isolation was one of the most vivid centers of Ukrainian contemporary art. Spring of 2014, 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 of known to exist on the territory of modern Europe.   

Stanislav Aseev 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 resistants, Aseev was detained and accused of spying -this is how he got into Isolation, where he spent 962 days. He was freed on December 29, 2019 as a part of a prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine. Now Stanislav is working as a human rights defender, focusing on the rights of 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,” actively participated in collecting data about war criminals. 

IVANNA SKYBA-YAKUBOVA: From the past year, we are no longer shying away from big words such as love, freedom, and dignity. They are not “too much” anymore. 

STANISLAV ASEEV: I am observing the opposite. War-made categories you mentioned sound idealistic, and things that should have been specific now have become abstract.  

I am teaching a course in the USA titled “Experience of death and freedom” – the same name has a chapter of my book about Isolation imprisonment. I always tell students how the words that should have been given because of the war-specific and precise definitions have instead become idealized and why I think it is a problem.  

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 am trying to explain to my students that if people are dying for something and call it freedom, we must understand what they mean. You can not die for the words of a speech proclaimed behind the UN tribune; you need to understand clearly what these words mean.   

In Isolation, you are not just deprived of freedom; you are deprived of everything: they even take shoelaces from you, so 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 now left, it turns out that in such a boundary, metaphysical, extremely straightforward situation, the only thing you have left is the right to die. It is the sole right that can not 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 can not change the walls around you or 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 “ÿes” to life. Victor Frankl, who has also survived concentration camps, was talking about the same things. Freedom means understanding the possibility of your own death one step away from it. To be free, in the boundary situation, you must choose life. 

And here comes the link to the political aspect. On February 24, 2022 (even earlier, in 2014), our country and everyone faced a much stronger enemy. The enemy who didn’t give us a choice not to engage in the offstand with them and walk away. Same like 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. And 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 on hand, including writing, which became a book later.   

Kharkiv priest and philologist Viktor Marynchak say 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 the Western one are – at least formally – Christian. And despite the division between orthodox Christianity 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. In Russia, it all has been “spiced up” with special national identity characteristics, which are destructive. If we turn to Russian literature, Dostoevsky, for instance, we would see clear traction to the suffering. To what Freud calls attraction to the dark, Thanatos. And while Russians are formally Christians, how they behave on Ukrainian territory (and not only there) has nothing in common with Christianity. This is the cultivation of suffering, both suffering for their nation and the neighboring ones and getting pleasure from that suffering. This applies similarly to cultural categories and gets a form of “deep confession”, as it is called in Russian literature. This means: to do first something terrible, then suffer because of this and get the pleasure of this suffering, finding a relief in confession that comes… but often this confession 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. The things we discuss seem abstract, but they are absolutely practical and answer the message of so-called Russian liberals to the West (and the West listens to these messages). They say it is not Russian people who are guilty; it is Putin and his entourage. When we get them out of the picture, we will come and sort things out; we will provide education and opportunities to the Russian hinterland, so some kind of “new Russians” will be born and some kind of “normal, real Russians” will join them, “normal Russians” who are now somewhere out there in Russia but for whatever reason stay quiet. This paradigm is delusional, very useful for them, and very dangerous for us. If that is true that its only Putin and his entourage who 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 – in a way, as 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 time in Russia over the past 300-400 years. But even then, remember how Russian soldiers in Chechnya acted. It was a liberal regime formally, but in Chechnya, soldiers have been incising entire cities the same as they do it 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 give a push to Russia’s resentment and social recovery. Even in the speech of the Russian novelist does not signal readiness to take this responsibility. There seems to be no magic spell that could help, and Ukrainians will remain hostages of 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 did if the international community invest in them in various educational and developmental programs after the war ends. 

I do not believe in this. Russians will not take the collective guilt. In Germany, you can find “stumbling stones” with the names of tortured Jews – it 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 Germans were able to build such a powerful country, they have taken that responsibility of guilt, and it still defines their foreign policy. Actually, up until now, germans felt this collective guilt against Russia for the Second World War, and it’s 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 take it.  

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

Nazism for Germans was a terrible exemption. Indeed there has been a revanchist sentiment after World War I – and we in fact, can face the same risk after the victory. Say, Navalny or any other proclaimed liberal will come to power, and I am not sure he will be any better than Putin. Revanchism will be present in Russia in this or another way; the question is if the international community will allow it to reach the level it has came to 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 cave 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 took place (Nurnberg, Rwanda, Tokio, Yugoslavia), and only 182 individuals were 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. 

Basically, the reason for me to start the Justice Initiative Foundation (JIF) – a fund that collects information on Russian criminals – was to prove with evidence the existence, except Putin, of a specific Ivanov, Petrov or Sidorov who came and tortured people, make information about them and charges from law enforcement public. 

So there will be no chance for anyone to say it; only Putin and five other people must stand in front of the court. There are thousands and dozens of thousands of those people and they must be held accountable. 

Do you think this will happen?..

No. The majority of war criminals will not be penalized, even if the mechanism changes, and the court in the Hague will work more practically. Massive resources are required to find and reach out to these people, it will take years just to get in place the mechanism convict executors. And they have to be taken out of Russia, Belarus, and other countries where they can be hiding. And we can rely only on national special services, who also bound hand and foot. If our special forces get Girkin out of Moscow, that will be legally qualified as kidnapping. First of all, we must make legally transfer war criminals to the courts from anywhere in the world. 

International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for Putin’s arrest in March. We do understand he will not put his foot in a country that ratified the Roman statute. Hence this warrant has no practical value. So what is the message here? 

 This warranty 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 crazy person. This is also a message that the collective West will not have any negotiations with Putin from now on.  

It creates massive problems for the countries that ratified the Statute: what do they do if Putin visits them? I think the South African Republic has already faced this when Putin was planning to go there to attend some kind of summit. So the question is – what will this country do? And this poses new challenges for the Russian MFA. 

I think the same week when ICC issued that warrant for Putin and Maria Lvova – Belova, the Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights in Russia; the UN said they saw no evidence of the genocide committed against the Ukrainian people. 

UNas all international organizations, is very slow, and genocide is the heaviest crime of international criminal law. We must always keep reminded of the demolition of the Ukrainian nation and culture that is taking place, that it is a planned and targeted action. It is not a coincidence that not just buildings are being ruined but also the statues of Taras Shevchenko (Ukrainian poet, writer, artist, public and political figure, folklorist, and ethnographer)  and museums. They hate everything Ukrainian and Ukrainian culture in the first place and do all things possible to destroy the Ukrainian nation and Ukrainians as a state. It is very hard to prove legally, and this topic is not communicated either by Ukrainian MFA or by the Office of the President. 

So at JIF, you collect data about war criminals, and you are ready to pay for valuable information? 

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

We have divided crimes into six categories, all presented on our website: Isolation camp, Bucha, Kyiv oblast, sexual violence, MH17, and now we have added a new category – illegal deportation of children. There is a list of individuals who are the suspects, with references to state or 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, video of the missiles fired at the Boing), or, say, information that will lead arrest of a specific criminal, wherever this person will be. We will pay the financial award to the informer and pass the information to particular services. Finally, you can hand over a suspect to the Ukrainian state or to international law enforcement. 

The procedure has not been formalized yet, and there are different options. That handing over can happen directly at the frontline – here we are being led by the hope that the Russians will be ceding their own. An important thing about our fund is that its main recipient is the Russians and Russian special services. We count on their internal conflicts: the Ministry of Defense hates Girkin, and he has a conflict with Shoigu and with Prygozhyn too, but neither of them does anything about him yet. Internally in FSB, there are different centers of influence, too, hating each other. There are groups inside the Isolation camp with similar sentiments, and our assumption is that if there were someone who would pay real money, they would hand over each other a long time ago. It is just a matter of price and information campaign. Unfortunately, our resources are incomparable now with what these payments should be. FBI has assigned 250,000 USD for Prygozhyn, while we have a bit more than 7,000 now.     

We are not bounty hunting anyone, and definitely, we are not encouraging civilian people to do that. Our work is purely informative; all the rest will do the state at the level of special forces. 

I’d like to remind you 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 into MH-17 crash, who was taken from the city of Snizhne). So if someone is interested in earning some money and bringing Igor Girkin from Moscow and the occupied territories, we can inform 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: say, 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 Kulikovskiy, also known as “Pavlovich, who served as custodian of the Isolation concentration camp in Donetsk. He left occupied territories and was living in Kyiv quite peacefully until I approached Khristo Grozev, an investigator with Bellingcat, and together we found an informer who knew Pavlovich’s Kyiv address. We’ve found him and sent 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 a personal (revenge), and by those who understand that this is a concern of their security as well in light of the cases such as the MH17 crash that took lives 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 also is a memorial site that stores information about crimes the world must know and remember. Isolation camp has existed since 2014, but very little has been known until 2019, when I was freed and started talking about it loudly and publicly. 

What is happening there now?

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

With each counter-offense 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 imprisonment experience. How are you handling this? 

I work with this information, and I monitor it, as I need official references to these crimes; only then can we publish them on the website. When I open the website and see Isolation’ headsmen and torturers – and I know all of them personally – I think of them as of work assignments. Otherwise, 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 conversations with friends and family about the war, moreover about 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 dare to ask this question, but now that I have gained the experience of living in the city under artillery shelling and some reactions have become a physical memory, I will – but 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 Isolation, when the doors of the camera open, we have been obliged 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 would hear the sound of the door opening. When I returned to normal life, I had this urge all the time – luckily, this passed after a few months. 

I 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 my only remedy to that. 

Also, I hate showers. Besides having to wash over ourselves in two minutes generously given by Pavlovich, 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 this place to have a bathtub – not a shower.  

You have written quite a lot of texts and made many speeches. Do you think language is enough at all? Does this experience has at all been shared with others, or must it be accepted as personal and kept to oneself? 

Purely technically, you can not share the experience of imprisonment. I lecture a course titled “Psychological nuances of individual’s behavior under interrogation with tortures”; this is a very niche topic for special services and the military. I often get questions if it is possible at all to get prepared to the torture. That’s a question of shared experience. Even if you recreate this environment for a cadet, you will not be able to pass the feelings a real person has in a real situation. The only possible way is to design the situation so that a person would not know this is 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 at Donbas from 2014-2017. So when they turned this sound off, I said this is all really good, this is identical, but I don’t need this as I know what that is. War experience probably can be “transmitted” to some extent with the sounds, etc.; prison experience – I am not sure. Here we depend on the level of one’s empathy while being limited by the combination of letters in a book.    

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

It does not work 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: guys, this is not a world not fitting into our lives; this is our traumatized lives do not fit into cafes and restaurants and other signs of normal society. It is us who have to adapt, not push this 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, including while we speak. You can not think about the tortures while making love or while walking your kid to kindergarten. It is us who have to do something about our experience, out of the question, deviant. 

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 has to adapt to the experience of freedom in its narrow sense. It is on all of these problems I could see in myself at that time. You can think of it as of recorded conversation with a therapist, but 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 where I analyze texts, writing stylistics, and emotions that prevail in the design of this or another sentence. That was not the matter when I was writing; back then, the focus was mainly on problems, including problems with sleep. Now I can analyze 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 Isolation, has 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 any 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 current Russia and sign some “peaceful agreements”, it means we approve concentration camps. Approve Isolation, a system of repressions, tortures, basements, electric cables connected to various parts of a body… All that exists in the occupied territories of Ukraine. Since Poland last faced Russia, it (Russia) has had no changes for the best; it has become even worse.  

Germans are French take this text with less emotion than people in the Baltics, Poland, or the USA who are friends of our country. People in the Baltics faced Russia some time ago and know what the Russian experience means, what KGB is, torture, etc. Historical memory plays a big role here. France remembers Nazi Germany, but it has been 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. Revenant Marynchak, whom I have mentioned already, said to me once that our role in history is to destroy the empire of evil. And if we come through these challenges with dignity, our suffering gets a sense as they gain high value for the entire humankind. What do you think about it? 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, and in fact, I am finding 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 is, the better. If there is a chance not to turn your existence into a struggle against something or someone – you must do it, not making suffering a cornerstone of your genetic memory. 

I don’t see a metaphysical sense either in my suffering in Isolation nor in the suffering of other people who went through it – or those who died there. And in a book, I am asking a question: what was the sense of their suffering if even their names remained unknown? 

Suffering must be converted to experience. And this further experience should not be traumatic. “Where you were when I was imprisoned in Isolation?” is wrong rhetoric. I have converted my experience into a book, lectures, foundation, and 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 force against that repressive system o the next generations (or us in the future) do not have to go through this experience again. I want Isolation to stop existing as such. Same with Russia – we must make sure this system stops existing, 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 still requires to be constantly prepared for the fight.  

Do you have a sense of the future? Don’t you ever have a feeling it has been taken away from you? 

I do now, but when I got out, I indeed had a problem with it. We’ve been deprived of it, and that was a strategy – to convince us we’ve 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 asked about plans for the future, I didn’t know what to say. I had none. Now I am 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 new book, The Rustle of the 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 will 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 of Kyiv oblast and in Kyiv itself, abroad all the time, but the feeling of home as I had it in Donetsk is gone.

The Rustle… also includes an Apricot essay, among other novels, such an aching memory about Crimea, where you have also spent part of your life. You write, “When the Russians came to Crimea, apricot was gone. Of course, the old dacha is still there, maybe even the tree itself is still there”. I do have the same apricot tree, too – in Donetsk, in my grandparents’ garden. Will we ever be back? 

I have spent a significant part of my childhood in Crimea. I have family in Simferopol and in the village of Maiske. I have traveled the whole of Crimea and know it as well as I know Donbas. I can speak for myself: I will not come back either to Crimea or to Donbas if you are talking about temporary residence. I will not find peace and comfort living on the same street as those who supported Russia and went silent after Ukraine won in this land. But these people will not go anywhere, and they will not change their views. We must understand that in order to avoid illusions 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.

This conversation was first published at Dwutygonik magazine. 

Translated by Maryna Bezkorovaina