‘I don’t think the West really understands’: A Ukrainian writer on his journey from torture camp to the front line

Stanislav Aseyev returns after injury to Donbas, where he survived nearly 1,000 days in brutal captivity

When writer Stanislav Aseyev joined the Ukrainian army recently, he had an unnerving encounter with something he had not seen since spending nearly 1,000 days in brutal captivity under Russian-led militants on the other side of the front line.

“It was an army field telephone that has been used basically since the second World War. But in Izolyatsia it was used as a tool of torture,” Aseyev says, referring to a former factory in Donetsk city that the militants turned into a prison camp.

“In the army I was told that I would sometimes have to make reports with this type of phone. But in Izolyatsia they connected the wires on the phone to different parts of a person’s body and turned on the electricity.”

After Ukraine’s pro-western Maidan revolution in 2014, Russian fighters and their local supporters seized parts of its eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions and declared the creation of two “people’s republics” known as DNR and LNR.


Aseyev (34), who was born and raised in the industrial town of Makiivka just outside Donetsk city, reported under a pseudonym from the Russian-controlled and increasingly isolated area for Ukrainian media and US-funded Radio Liberty.

The militants identified and captured him in May 2017 and accused him of working for a Ukrainian intelligence agency. It was the start of 969 days in detention, 875 of which were spent in Izolyatsia, which would become the subject of his eloquent, powerful and often horrifying book, The Torture Camp on Paradise Street.

“If I had to describe everything that that place is in one word, it would be ‘inevitability’. Here’s why: when you’re placed on a table and wrapped tightly with duct tape, you can scream all you want, but it won’t change anything,” he writes.

“The pain makes your joints want to break out of your skin, you’re drenched in sweat, and they pour water on you. There’s no need to scream and beg: they will go on anyway. They will torture you.”

Aseyev was freed in a prisoner swap at the end of 2019 but says he is still dealing with the trauma of his ordeal, which makes it remarkable that he has now volunteered to join the army – giving up some of his hard-won freedom, accepting the orders and discipline of another regime, and exposing himself again to extreme violence.

“It is a big problem for me, as someone who was deprived of my freedom – anything that I perceive as an order, even in civilian life, I find challenging,” he says.

“But I joined the army because we have a catastrophic situation with personnel – we simply don’t have enough people in the military. And because I’m young and quite fit, I decided this was a way I could help the country, by being on the front line if necessary.”

On April 28th, after serving for about four months with the 109th separate territorial defence brigade in Donetsk region, Aseyev was heavily concussed by Russian tank fire. With manpower at a premium, he chose to stay with his unit to help fight the advance of the more numerous and better armed Russians, but their position was overrun a couple of days later and members of his brigade were killed.

On social media he posted a photo of himself looking groggy and wrote: “I’m alive, although according to all the laws of physics and probability I should have died. The positions, unfortunately, have been lost.”

Growing up in Makiivka, a depressed industrial town in the Donetsk rust belt, Aseyev dreamed of joining the French Foreign Legion, and says his first experience of combat chimed with his expectations – he did not panic and his mind was clear.

“But the way the situation was managed by the leadership left a lot to be desired,” he says. “There were many units of different brigades in the area at the time, and it wasn’t clear who was in charge and who should lead, so it was problematic in terms of co-ordination.”

He also describes his two months of basic training as “a waste of time, motivation and health – most of the skills I have now, I gained with my actual unit, not from training.”

Aseyev says his favourite thing about army life is the “simplicity of relationships between people at the front, where there is nothing superfluous”. Most of his comrades in the 109th brigade are former miners from the largely Russian-speaking coalfields of his native Donetsk region, and the majority are more than 40 years old.

Many people with a similar background are now fighting for the Kremlin. Aseyev says he knows more than 20 people who joined the DNR militia, and acknowledges that his younger self held a positive view of the “Russian world”, an outlook predicated on the supposed superiority of Russia’s culture and support for its territorial expansion.

“I did not back the Maidan revolution then. What changed my thinking was my personal experience of the war [from 2014]. Previously, I had an idealistic concept of Russia and the Russian world as things like Dostoevsky and ballet. But my direct experience of it was [prison] basements, torture and drunk ‘Cossacks’ at checkpoints,” he says.

“Before Russia’s involvement in 2014, there was no separatist movement as such in my region. Yes, its sympathies were pro-Russian, but the idea of breaking from Ukraine and becoming part of Russia was never on the agenda, even among marginal sections of society.”

Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and de facto takeover of parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions a decade ago immersed those areas in an information environment shaped by Russian nationalist propaganda, which – from the school classroom to mass media – incessantly lauds the Kremlin and demonises Ukraine and the West.

Aseyev thinks that experience, coming on top of those regions’ historical closeness to Russia, would make their reintegration into Ukraine difficult.

“I’m sure that most people I used to be surrounded by in Makiivka and Donbas ... support Russia and have not changed their beliefs,” he says. “I have more hope for the next generation ... But as for most people of my generation and older, I think it’s impossible to change them mentally.”

In any case, reclaiming those areas is now a distant prospect as Ukraine’s forces fight a rearguard action in several parts of the east while awaiting delivery of more arms from western allies who have failed to match Russia’s accelerating arms production.

“As of today, I haven’t seen this [new] western help on the frontline. When we were retreating from our positions we had no artillery support, no shells to cover our retreat and suppress the Russian infantry,” Aseyev says.

“What the West should understand is that it’s not enough to give us assistance in small portions. When, for example, they say we’ll get 100 tanks, we need all those tanks now, not just five per month,” he adds.

“I don’t think the West really understands what contemporary Russia is and the kind of threat it poses to Nato. The general feeling is that it’s not a threat ... because Ukraine is still standing. But if the front line collapses and our statehood comes into question, then I think the next targets could be the Baltic states and Moldova.”

Aseyev’s forthcoming book of dispatches from Donetsk, titled In Isolation, takes its name from the Donetsk prison camp that, before being taken over by Russia and its local proxies, was a factory making insulation (“izolyatsia” in Ukrainian and Russian) and then a modern art venue. It is still operating as an unofficial jail and military base.

Aseyev founded the Justice Initiative Fund to track down the people who have run Izolyatsia and similar sites, and others who have also committed grave crimes during the war.

In 2021, he got word that the former commandant of Izolyatsia was living in Kyiv, having apparently agreed to work as an informer for Ukraine’s security services.

Denys Kulykovskyi, known as “Palych”, was arrested in 2021 and sentenced in January to 15 years in jail for overseeing and taking part in illegal detention and heinous torture that was described in court by more than 20 victims, including Aseyev.

“During the trial he never looked at me or the other victims from Izolyatsia. I think he was ashamed, not because of what he did to us but because of how the situation had changed – he used to control us and our lives, and now suddenly the roles were reversed.”

Aseyev still suffers from headaches due to his concussion, but this week went back to the east to rejoin his unit.

As he was preparing to leave Kyiv, Ukraine’s 2022 Nobel Peace Prize winner Oleksandra Matviichuk was meeting Pope Francis at the Vatican, where she gave him a copy of The Torture Camp on Paradise Street.

“When I was in the basement of Izolyatsia and literally composed the texts in my mind, I could not even think that one day they would become a book that the Nobel laureate would present to the Pope,” Aseyev wrote in response on social media.

In the book, he says that “in order to write it, I first had to survive. And in order to survive, I had to believe I would write it”.

In his inscription for the pope’s copy, Aseyev quoted from the Gospel of St John: “And the truth will set you free”.

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