You decided to stay in ORDiLO (occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts) and do journalism. Did you realize what danger you were in if uncovered? Why did you take that risk?
— I was not in the media in 2014. I was an average man without publicity. The only reason I stayed there was my family – my mother and two old grandmothers live there. I could not leave them. Other family members offered me to leave and stay with them, they could have hosted me. But I refused. The situation was difficult, everyone had their emergency bags packed with the most necessary things in case they had to hide in shelters from danger. To leave my mom with my grandmother who was then 85 years old and barely moved was inhuman.
I started doing journalism later, in the early 2015. Of course, I realized that I was on the “DNR’s” radar as soon as I appeared in the public domain, writing on Facebook, Radio Liberty, The Ukrainian Week and other media, that they would be looking for me. While I used a pseudonym, I still had to be very cautious. In my case, two factors merged: firstly, I had to stay with my family; secondly, I decided to show people what was going on in that territory since I had that opportunity anyway. It would have been wrong to keep silent because there is very little objective information about what’s happening in ORDiLO.
You once described on Facebook, then in an op-ed for The Ukrainian Week, about how you witnessed a shooting in a street of Donetsk. What was that?
—This was a real story. Not everyone found it credible then, even here in the Kyiv-controlled territory. Although shooting of a person in the early 2015 does not seem extraordinary compared to what I have seen at Izoliatsia (a former art space transformed from a factory, now a prison of the “DNR” militants – Ed.). It happened near the bridge in Motel. People from Donetsk know that the bridge goes over garages and railways. When I passed by, I saw that an unknown man was shot between the garages for whatever reason by people in fatigues. It was still complete chaos there back in 2015, the militants just started building some structure of brigades and units. So, I don’t know where those people were from or who they reported to.
When did you realize they were looking for you? And how did that affect your work?
— In fact, I wasnot sure whether they were looking for me or not until the very end. Of course, I realized that it was possible and most likely. But I didn’t know for sure. I received many threats in Facebook messages. But I don’t think it was the “MGB” (the “DNR Ministry of State Security” – Ed.) people, so I did not pay much attention. Once I was arrested, I learned that they had started looking for me the moment I appeared in the public space. They said their search lasted a year and a half, i.e. from early 2015. If I had known for sure that they had been hunting for me, I would probably have left. Because it would have been impossible for me to remain in that territory while being aware of it anyway. I would have developed paranoia.
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Do you know how exactly the “DNR special services” located you?
— It’s a very difficult question. When I was arrested, they pretended it was by accident, that they did not know my real name until the very end. However, I wrote on Facebook shortly before that I was thinking of leaving with my family by the end of 2017. It was clear that the situation there was getting close to that of Transnistria, so it made no sense to stay there. I now think that that post that triggered my arrest. Once they realized that I could leave and never return. I don’t know whether someone leaked information about me or where from, or how they found out that Aseyev was hiding behind the pseudonym Vasin. Only a limited number of people know about it. Even my family did not know I was doing journalism or that Stanislav Vasin existed. Just a few colleagues in the media knew about it. So if there had been any leak, it must have been from there.
How were you arrested?
— It happened at the Lenin Square in the center of Donetsk on the so-called Republic Day. First, the patrol stopped me pretending it was just by accident. They checked my documents and called someone. The “MGB” people arrived immediately and put handcuffs on me. They first brought me to their office at 26 Shevchenka. That’s where the interrogations and tortures began. Then they brought me down to the basement of that same building where I stayed for a month and a half. Then they took me and other prisoners to Izoliatsia.
Those who interrogated and tortured you – did they really believe you were an SBU agent? Or did they realize that you were just a journalist and had nothing much to accuse you of, so they tried to beat testimony out of you to move up in their career?
— I think it was the first option. They thought that I had some connections with special services, so the people who tortured me asked very specific questions about the work of special services: contact persons, my callsign, and how often I met with my curators. Of course, I denied it all, but that did not matter. They had the task to beat testimony out of me. Even if they realize that they have taken an innocent man, they cannot just admit it and release that person. So, anyone who ends up there sign papers claiming that they are special agents. In my case, they realized that they would find themselves in a big scandal if they put a journalist in jail. So they had to show that they arrested me for work for the SBU, not for my professional activity. Although all six articles they charged me with were on journalism. Extremism, calls for a coup, slander against the “DNR” – they took all that from my articles.
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Was it the locals or the Russians who interrogated and tortured you? I have seen information earlier that it is the FSB (Federal Security Service of Russia) that interrogates people there. How accurate is this?
— It’s hard to say. Firstly, they all wore balaclavas. Secondly, the situation was critical and I didn’t pay attention to their accent too much. I only know that the Russians are in the top positions at the “MGB”, and they are there unofficially, often presented as advisors. Rank-and-file people are locals. They are mostly the ones doing all routine work.
When you were arrested, someone tried writing from your account, creating an illusion that you were free. Why do you think they were doing that?
— Perhaps they initially wanted to exchange me quietly, to arrange it with someone on our side. They have this procedure of deportation from the “DNR”. That’s what they do with people from whom they can get something. For example, with businessmen who own some assets. They arrest them, force them to give up what they own and then deport them from the “DNR” when it no longer makes sense to keep them in the basement. They just bring them to the grey zone and leave them there, closing entrance to the “DNR” for them. Perhaps they tried to get some financial or political bargains for me too.
When you were in jail, a Russian TV channel did an interview with you recorded by the Russian military correspondent Sladkov. Did he realize that he was talking to an innocent man, a colleague who was forced to say all that? Were you instructed on what to say? Or was there someone behind him during the interview dictating the answers to you?
— No, there was nobody behind him. I’m 99% sure that he did not realize what was going on and believed that I was a spy. I remember this one episode. One of the “rebels” who is now in a detention center for “treason” asked to meet Sladkov so that he could help get him out of jail. Sladkov first promised to figure out the situation, and then he said: I was told that you really are a spy, so I can’t help you. Apparently, Sladkov fully trusts the “MGB” information on these things. I think they just showed him my file and he believed it. As to our communication, Sladkov first spoke very appropriately. He asked me whether he could help and left a good impression. After his show came out on TV, I realized that my impression was wrong. I said what they told me to say from the very beginning, but even those words were eventually twisted and distorted. They inserted some blatant propaganda about children killed in the Donbas into the interview. Nothing like that was mentioned in our conversation.
You were instructed what to say before the interview?
— First, I didn’t want to give any interviews, but they told me that this was decided above the local level and it wasn’t my choice – I would have to do it anyway. Two days before the interview, they told me in detail what I should and shouldn’t say. They forbid me to speak about tortures. I told Sladkov before the interview that I would not be able to say anything about their “tools of influence”, and he thanked me for that. I don’t know whether he was aware of what Izoliatsia really was from where I was brought.
Some prisoners at Izoliatsia collaborated with the administration and were involved in tortures. Can you share more details about this?
— Yet, some prisoners collaborated with the administration. Some were civilians jailed under the same “ukrop” charges as mine – spying, extremism – but they agreed to comply with the orders of the administrations to avoid tortures. They were beating other prisoners, took the packages they received from outside, food and clothing. For example, Yevhen Brazhnykov did that for several years – he was released and exchanged in the same group as I was. He often acted on his own initiative, without any instructions. They just beat and humiliated people in cells because they enjoyed it.
Oleksiy Kuskov also did that, he was exchanged in 2017. He now lives in Kyiv freely. Both Brazhnykov and Kuskov beat me personally. Kuskov ruptured my kidney in November 2017. They broke into our cell in the middle of the night and broke down everyone. I have already testified about this at the General Prosecutor’s Office and the SBU. They registered my file but I have not yet received any response. They are not calling me for interrogations, not interrogating me as a witness. Total silence. I don’t know whether anything is being done about these people. When we were still in Izoliatsia, one inmate asked Brazhnykov whether he realized what awaited him if he were to be exchanged back to the Kyiv-controlled territory. He said that he knew a lot and could share that information, so he would be useful. As soon as we were brought to the Ukrainian side, people started beating Brazhnykov in the bus. It was only the military who saved him from lynching.
When they were beating you, did they explain their actions in any way?
— Nobody explained anything. They opened the cell door in the middle of the night, put everyone on their knees and beat the inmates without any reason. I mentioned these facts in my meeting with President Zelensky. He immediately called the SBU Chief where he was told that they were dealing with Brazhnykov. So they are aware of his crimes. But I don’t know what exactly they are doing.
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You started writing a book in jail. How hard was it in your cell under control? How did you manage to bring those manuscripts to the Kyiv-controlled territory?
— I decided to write about a month after I was arrested. I was in the basement at 26 Shevchenka. It was a humid cold building with very poor lighting. But I managed to find a cardboard file and a piece of a pencil. I started writing on that file.
We were under supervision so they immediately asked me what I was writing. I said that it was a fiction text with no intelligence information, no names or callsigns, just my feelings and emotions. I don’t think they cared, so they didn’t stop me. I later got bold enough to ask them for paper and a pencil, and they gave these. I managed to write 10 chapters of the novel while I was in the basement at 26 Shevchenka. Then I was transferred to Izoliatsia and took the manuscripts with me. In 18 months, I wrote sketches for the novel, essays and other texts. Clearly, I had to write some general reflections on the situation I found myself in. I wrote vaguely, I didn’t write a diary and didn’t describe the horror that took place there. That would have caused me great troubles. Initially, nobody cared about my writing. In November 2018, they searched us and took all my manuscripts. I was told that they cared about my texts and would return them if they passed the censorship. But they never returned anything. These texts are gone now.
When I was later transferred to the pretrial detention center, I could write again. I wrote part of what I had created in Izoliastia from what I remembered. I realized that they could take these texts as well, so I gave them to my fellow prisoners Bohdan Pantiushenko, a Ukrainian army tank operator. He had a huge pile of papers – all kinds of letters and pictures from home. They allowed him to keep those. I gave him my manuscripts, he put them into his pile and nobody searched him in the end. These texts will now be in the book about my time in Izoliatsia which I’m writing.
Stanislav Aseyev was born in 1989 in Donetsk. He graduated from the Donetsk State Institute for Informatics and Artificial Intelligence with a degree in Philosophy and got his Master’s Degree at the Donetsk National Technical University. He wrote the novel A Melchior Elephant and wrote reports from the occupied Donbas for The Ukrainian Week, Radio Liberty, Dzerkalo Tyzhnia and Ukrayinska Pravda since 2015. Arrested by the militants in 2017, he was released and exchanged in December 2019.
Translated by Anna Korbut
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