Stanislav Aseyev: Behind the Wall
A writer, journalist, blogger and member of PEN Ukraine unlawfully imprisoned by Russian-backed separatists of the Donetsk People’s Republic in May 2017.
“I won’t even say my name. All my conscious life has come to plain pen names and masks instead of a true photo on social networks. It has come into reality after the DPR standards replaced the blue and yellow flags on my land, and I myself have turned into some kind of an exile,” Stanislav Aseyev wrote in his first column for The Ukrainian Week on March 1, 2015. Its title is quite eloquent: How to Become a Shadow on One’s Land.
Since then, Stanislav Aseyev ceased to exist in the public space; Stanislav Vasin has come in his stead. Using this pseudonym, in the course of two years, he was writing about life under occupation for a number of leading Ukrainian media: The Ukrainian Week, Radio Liberty, Ukrainska Pravda and Mirror of the Week. Thus, any hasty detail directly or indirectly pointing at him could be dangerous.
At that time, Stanislav’s biography was limited to a place of birth and residence: Donetsk, Makiivka. Aseyev risked everything – life, health, freedom – but still he would send his observations, reflections and witnessed stories to Ukrainian editorials every week. He was one of a very few credible sources of information from occupied Donetsk for Ukrainian audience.
“Last year, I saw all those significant events that happened on our land during the ATO: the ‘parade of the captives’, first March rally, which is where this ceremonial march of separatism on our land has started from… I heard shrieks and groans among bodies scattered by roadside of the streets after infamous Donetsk bombardment. A few times I was quite close to join the dry statistical ranks of victims of this war. Besides, I very well know many persons who were at the sources of Donetsk separatism or those who are part of ‘New Russia people’s army’. I see these people nearly every day – people I once played with in one yard or only just made plans with and discussed summer vacation in Yalta,” Stanislav wrote.
Soon after, representatives of the unlawful DPR started to look for the clandestine Vasin. Scarce data such as place of birth and love of running ostensibly do not say much, especially of a person, but later on it would be formed into a full picture – Stanislav would be found. Thus, the author of hundreds of clear-cut observations about the daily life under occupation was captured.
Pseudonym did not help. Stas has retrieved his biography.
Stanislav Aseyev. Born on 1 October 1989 in Donetsk; finished school in Makiivka. In 2010, he graduated from Donetsk State Institute of Informatics and Artificial Intelligence (Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies); in 2012, he obtained a Master Degree with Honors at the Department of Computer Technologies of the Donetsk National Technical University. After graduation he attempted to join the French Foreign Legion, but could not due to state of his health. He came back to Ukraine, where he worked as a loader, assistant in a bank, operator in a postal company, shop assistant at household appliances shop. He wrote a novel The Melchior Elephant, or A Man who Thought. In 2014, with the beginning of the war in Donbas, he stayed in his native Donetsk. He started cooperating with Ukrainian media as a journalist. In May 2017, he was captured by the DPR separatist group and was being tortured. He is detained on a seized territory of an art platform Isolation, the then leading cultural center, and now a prison and torture chamber. He is ill. Meetings with family are banned.
Numerous international organizations, as Reporters Without Borders, Committee to Protect Journalists, U.S. Helsinki Commission, PEN International, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, have stood up for Stanislav Aseev. But he is still there, in captivity.
Stanislav: A Philosopher
“Stas was my student,” says a cultural and religious scholar Igor Kozlovskyy, who himself spent 700 days in the DPR’s captivity, “he has always had his own opinion and he emphasized it. He mind is philosophical in the nature. Quite skeptically he could treat this or other authority. It seemed he has always tried to prove something to somebody, to say something, whether with his opinions or behavior. Although I would say Stas was an introvert, overall, focused on himself. I saw him evolving as an original thinker.”
Igor Kozlovskyy remembers how at the end of the Master studies, Stanislav came up to him and said he wrote a novel, which he published at his own expense. He asked not to tell anyone about it, only to give him an opinion. “I have read the book”, Igor Anatoliyovych comments, “and noticed he has an inner conflict within his soul, speaking from the perspective of psychoanalysis. The book has various images linked to death and death challenge. This prose is focused on revision of one’s life and, perhaps, some certain beliefs.”
Kozlovskyi tells that people who choose to study philosophy and religious studies always have inner questions. These are people with a different mindset, people with perpetual internal search. “Philosophy is not a science; it is a way of thinking. Science attempts to answer a question about how did this world emerge. But why it emerged, what meaning is there – these questions can only be answered with philosophy and religion. People studying them often are in internal search. You continuously answer a question, why you are exactly here, what is your mission in this world. Regarding young people, this is how they constantly try to prove something to themselves and to the world.”
Igor Kozlovskyy believes that Stanislav by staying in occupied Donetsk wanted to prove himself in a way. “Stas had bravado. It is about his character, again. He was challenging himself. His texts also indicate this. Possibly, it was somehow related to his dialogues with himself – between life and death. Friends told him to leave immediately. Everyone understood it, including him. But he stayed,” Igor Anatoliyovych says.
Stanislav: A Stance
“Having decided to stay in the DPR, I have resolved that for me the war shouldn’t be passing in basements and bomb shelters. Maximum understanding of events is only possible by staying in touch with what happens behind the wall,” Stanislav wrote in a column Shot as Enemy of DPR, published in The Ukrainian Week on 7 March 2015.
Aseyev walked out of four walls of rather a safe house on the street of Donetsk. He strolled around the city, visiting shops and cafes, used public transport, talked to his neighbors and friends. His columns for Ukrainian media were filled with eloquent details and acute observations.
However, Stanislav stayed in Donetsk not just to write about life under occupation. He believed, “We will be defeated not in the field, but when the last person with a ‘Ukrainian dream’ will leave the DPR.” According to his observations, people with pro-Ukrainian attitude in Donetsk are equivalent to 1 per 40-50 ‘separatists’.
“Heedless of the two-year of ‘leave immediately’, there is an entire caste of people who have lived here for over two years while preserving Ukrainian views under the occupation,” he wrote in a column ‘Remainders’: Unbeknown Bosch in DPR for Mirror of the Week on 8 July 2016. “The presence of such people in a contaminated body of the ‘republic’ works as penicillin for the country.”
Stanislav said he absolutely did not support views of the separatists, although speaks the same language with them. And if he moved somewhere to Ukrainian-controlled territory, this mutual language would be lost and the dialogue as such would become impossible.
“Being from Donbas, I do not possess the extreme nationalism that presently fills up minds of many of my fellow citizens in Ukraine. Despite all the contrariety, I talk with people who fight for the DPR in one language, because I am from this region myself,” he explained in an interview for Radio Liberty on October 2015.
Stanislav constantly kept in touch with his groupmate, ex people’s deputy Yehor Firsov. Thrice a week they would exchange messages on social networks and talk on a call few times a month. Firsov left Donetsk in April 2014, when somebody shelled his house with machine guns. Yehor Firsov was the one to first inform social networks about disappearance of Stanislav Aseyev.
“Stas regarded it his duty to impartially report on the actual course of events on this occupied territory, believed it was his mission,” Yehor Firsov tells. “Certainly, Stas realized all the risks; as friends, we warned him of the dangers continually, especially of writing posts on Facebook. However, he saw meaning in it. Besides, his efforts were on high demand.”
Stanislav: A Journalist
“That day I was returning from a regular walk around Donetsk, passing over the bridge between ‘Makaronna fabryka’ and ‘Motel’ stops. Residents of Donetsk know it’s quite a lively place with a constant flow of traffic. Right to the bridge, there are small garages, boarding and railroad tracks on which I noticed two thugs and some guy wearing only a tracksuit. It was clear he was quite exhausted, due to his half bent posture. Everything happened in a matter of seconds while I was moving over the bridge. Without a slightest talk, warning or anything else that would at least remotely resemble something humane, one of the thugs pulled the trigger of a machine gun, a crack resounded – the guy fell down,” an excerpt from Stanislav’s article Shot as Enemy of DPR published in The Ukrainian Week magazine.
Random stories Stas describes depict a situation in occupied Donetsk, far more precisely than any analytics. Thanks to Stas, we can walk the streets of the city, hear what people talk about, what their concerns are, what they can afford to buy and what cannot be found in local shops anymore. We can discover the stories of people who joined the so-called ‘militia’ out of ideological considerations or financial need, find out how it is to live in the occupied city for those with pro-Ukrainian views as well as to realize that now and then life is not divided on merely black and white.
“Stas was our eyes, mind and heart on that territory. He saw what we cannot see. Quite frankly he would narrate everything, and I liked his sober and sound attitude. His worldview was very accurately delineated in his texts. His intellect was palpable through the vivid stylistics. He had an eye for details and could describe a situation in a few sentences, both factually and figuratively,” Dmytro Krapyvenko, editor-in-chief of The Ukrainian Week underlines.
Before Stas was captured by the DPR, he had managed to write 106 columns for the magazine.
Stanislav: A Hostage
“At the beginning of June 2017, Stas’ mother called me and said he had promised to come to Makiivka, but didn’t. I understood they took him,” Yehor Firsov says.
Igor Kozlovskyy remembers, when he was in captivity he was visited by ‘investigators’ and questioned whether he knows Stanislav Vasin, whether he is his son, nephew or student. Even then, these ‘investigators’ were saying they would soon figure out the journalist, because they had a recording of his voice and knew he likes to go jogging by the Kalmius river.
“In the summer of 2017, we lost contact with Stas. On June 2, the ‘Radio Liberty’ editorial office received his last material; by evening he stopped replying to messages,” Maryana Drach, editor-in-chief of the Ukrainian service Radio Liberty writes in a foreword to Stanislav Aseyev’s collection of articles In Isolation. “In July of 2017, we found out that Stas was charged with espionage in Donetsk. Soon after, we learned about the tortures and the fact that Stas is detained on a seized territory of an art platform Isolation”.
It was hard to find out Stanislav’s state. He was denied visitors. One of the former DPR hostages said he was kept next to Aseyev and knew he was tortured by electric shock.
In August of 2018, a Russian journalist Aleksandr Sladkov recored an interview with Stanislav. The conversation took place in Krupska Donetsk Library, where Aseev was brought in shackles, which were taken off right before the recording. There, he recounted how he ostensibly had cooperated with Ukrainian intelligence and did not deny he was a spy. Nevertheless, human rights defenders and media underline that words of a person detained by the militia for over a year cannot be considered credible evidence. Stanislav could have been tortured and threatened. The friends of the hostage are of the same opinion.
Being in captivity, Igor Kozlovskyy witnessed how some prisoners agreed to similar interviews out of fear for their family or after tortures. “And I understand why Stas agreed to it. His mother and grandmother are there. The DPR could have been using them as blackmail,” Kozlovskyy states. “Obviously, Stas was forced to say these things, much of fantasy. Although he tried to keep his head high, he looked rather depressed.”
Still, during this mentally tough interview Stas said, “For me, the slogan ‘Yedyna kraina [from Ukrainian] – Yedinaya strana [from Russian]’ [both meaning one country] is not something abstract, it is really what I believe in and continue believing. And Donbas, unquestionably, is a geographical part of Ukraine; for me it has been so and will be so.”
In one of his columns Stanislav Aseyev wrote, “Answering a question of my own sister, who recently had the very same blue and yellow flag in her pocket, about what actually Ukraine is, I said I don’t know. But I definitely know how it ceases to exist – with people who waking up in Makiivka do not know who they are: Ukrainians, Russians or ‘residents of people’s republics’.”
Stas definitely knows who he is.
Stanislav: Don’t Forget
It gets harder to keep in mind the names of our political prisoners in Russia and occupied Crimea along with their growing number. And what about military and civil hostages in DPR and LPR: these stories lost amid information pandemonium barely reach us. We only know about single cases, when it is about public people, those who have significant support. Fortunately, Stas has it. Friends and colleagues have done everything possible for the world to know about him.
“When Stas disappeared I appealed everywhere I could, involved all of my contacts. We appealed to the police, the State Security of Ukraine [SBU], embassies, OSCE, numerous international organizations and journalists so that the story gains publicity, so that it is heard,” Yehor Firsov recalls.
The publications Stanislav Aseyev was writing for constantly remind of him. In the summer of 2018, he became a member of PEN Ukraine. That same year, Radio Liberty initiated a publication of a collection of his articles published in media. The book was titled In Isolation, it can be downloaded free of charge at Lyuta Sprava Publishing House.
Dmytro Krapyvenko stresses the importance of bringing up the situation with Stanislav, “Concerning our prisoners in Russia, at least there is a country to appeal to. Stas, on the other hand, is imprisoned by the illegal militia, and it is quite difficult to coerce them. That is why this issue should be raised to a level of state’s foreign policy. We need to coerce Russia so that it coerces the militia. We need to press for Stas’ name to be listed for exchange. It is important to constantly draw international attention to his story. It is not easy, but we have to do this in any accessible way.”
“We need to fight for Stas,” Yehor Firsov concludes.
Mariia Semenchenko, exclusively for PEN Ukraine
Translated by Oksana Wasikowska
This material contains photos belonging to Yehor Firsov, Serhii Nuzhnenko, Radio Liberty and an illustration for Stanislav Vasin’s column How to Live in Donetsk (The Ukrainian Week).