Courtesy of Olena Lennon

Content Warning: This piece contains references to sexual violence. 

Ukrainian journalist and writer Stanislav Aseyev endured torture and imprisonment in a Russian concentration camp. It was acceptance of the senselessness of the experience, he said, that helped him to withstand it. 

In a conversation moderated by professor of history Timothy Snyder on Nov. 2, Aseyev discussed his memoir, which was recently translated into English. The book recalls Aseyev’s life in a Russian concentration camp, where he was illegally incarcerated for two and a half years from 2015 to 2017. The conversation was sponsored by the European Studies Council at the Yale MacMillan Center as part of the “Reading Ukraine” presentation series on Ukrainian-authored books.

“This book, in some sense, is a polemic with Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Aseyev said. “Frankl created a therapy of sense, … but when I was released, I understood that there is no rational explanation for the ‘Izolyatsia.’ This understanding helped me to convert my suffering into an experience.”

Aseyev’s remarks have been translated from Ukrainian. 

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, researchers at Yale identified 21 detention camps in Russian-occupied Ukraine. Aseyev was held at “Izolyatsia,” the Russian word for “isolation,” in the Russian-occupied region of Ukraine Donbas.

Aseyev told the News that the book is a response to why Ukraine cannot concede territories to Russia — for him it is not only about politics, but people on occupied territories, who have to go through the same torture and humiliation he did.

Aseyev said writing was an “irrational” and unconscious choice for him — he has been writing all his life and cannot even remember when he started. On the other hand, becoming a journalist was an entirely rational decision he made. 

When Russian-controlled militias occupied Donbas — a territory in the east of Ukraine — in 2014, he sent his first article to “Radio Liberty.”

“There were no Ukrainian journalists left on the occupied territories [who] could work officially,” Aseyev said. “If I already decided to stay on the occupied territory, I could describe the ongoing processes from a unique perspective, as a spectator and participant of the events.” 

Writing under the pseudonym Stanislav Vasin, Aseyev described the crimes committed by the Russian military in the occupied parts of Ukraine for various Ukrainian media. 

He told the News that during this period, he could not tell anyone, even his mother, about his journalism work. 

“I told [my mother] I was working as a freelance marketer,” Aseyev said. “For two years, this absolute anonymity was required for me to continue doing my job.” 

When Aseyev was arrested in 2017, he was reporting on “Republic Day” in Russian-occupied Donetsk — a celebration established by the administration of the unrecognized, separatist Donetsk People’s Republic. 

Aseyev remembers the day of the arrest vividly; he recalled taking a shower that morning in a huge white bath and, just an hour after that, he found himself held captive in a basement. For two and a half years after that, he lived in mold, the cold and a tiny oppressive space, first in the basement and then in the concentration camp.

“There is no clear preparation or explanation for the transition from bath to basement,” Aseyev said. “It happens in one moment … without any higher meaning.”

Snyder read an excerpt from the book, in which Aseyev describes the torture by electrical shock and verbal abuse he went through, meant to force him to confess to crimes he did not commit. 

Aseyev said he was constantly threatened with sexual assault, explaining that sexual abuse was widely used against both men and women by the administration of the concentration camp. 

Aseyev said this torture was meant to make him admit to commiting “espionage.” Yet, after he confessed under duress and was illegally sentenced to fifteen years, the torture did not stop. In the Izolyatsia, the humiliation prisoners went through was “utterly senseless” as they had already been convicted.  

Accepting the senselessness of the events he went through helped him to mentally and morally endure his imprisonment, Aseyev said.

“It’s agonizing just to hear about how Russians were torturing Aseyev,” Oleksii Antoniuk ’24 said. “And then I realized that’s what Russians do to thousands of Ukrainians in occupied territories now.”

Caroline Dunbar GRD ’23 told the News it is important to learn about Ukraine not only from the news but also from people like Aseyev, and she was excited to see many people coming to the event. 

Dunbar said that throughout the meeting, she had a hard time wrapping her head around sexual assault used as a weapon of war and torture.

“I think his writing about his experience in [“Izolyatsia”] prison is even more important now,” Dunbar said. “We’re seeing this violence … being inflicted on everybody … who has the great misfortune of falling into occupied territory.”

After his release as part of the prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia in 2019, Aseyev started investigating Russian war crimes and informing the world about them. 

Now, in the United States, besides presenting his newly translated book, he also advocates for his project “Justice Initiative Fund.” The project pays compensation to informants who provide valuable information about Russian war criminals to the Main Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine.

The presentation was co-sponsored by International Security Studies, the Program of Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies, the Ukraine House, the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the Yale Translation Initiative.

Yurii Stasiuk covers City Hall and State Politics for the News. Originally from Kalush, Ukraine, he is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College majoring in History and Political Science.