“The phrase “captive experience” means nothing.” Stanislav Aseev was a prisoner of “Isolation” in Donetsk. He wrote a book about it. Now he established the Fund for the Search of War Criminals

Oksana Rasulova
Yuliana Skibitska
“The phrase “captive experience” means nothing.” Stanislav Aseev was a prisoner of “Isolation” in Donetsk. He wrote a book about it. Now he established the Fund for the Search of War Criminals

Alex Kuzmin / «Babel’»

Stanislav Aseev was released from the Donetsk torture camp "Isolation" on December 29, 2019. He is a journalist of "Radio Liberty" ["Radio Free Europe"] media outlet and was captured by Russia for dispatches from occupied Donetsk. Since then, he wrote a book about his experience, helped to catch the so-called commandant of "Isolation", engaged in analytics, spoke about Russiaʼs crimes on international platforms, and at the beginning of 2022 he dreamed of leaving this issue in the past. But things turned out differently. So for now, Aseev — the founder of the "Justice Initiative" Foundation for the Search of War Criminals — again speaks about the capture, war crimes of the Russian Federation and continues to go to court regarding "Isolation". "Babel" journalist Oksana Rasulova met with Stanislav Aseev soon after the launch of the foundation and talked about plans to receive information from enemies, channels of communication with colonies in the occupied territories, and experience of captivity in new conditions.

Letʼs start by talking about the foundation. How and when did you start creating it?

This happened when “Palych”, the commandant of Isolation, was detained. He lived in Kyiv for a long time, but the official law enforcement agencies had nothing to do with it. We actually forced the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) to detain him. Then I had an idea: how to reach the other participants of the Isolation prison and, in general, war criminals who are in the territory controlled by Ukraine? I thought that the only real mechanism that would allow me to get the information I needed was money. This is a common practice, for example, in the USA, where informants are paid. I came with this proposal to the Minister of Defense [Oleksiy] Reznikov and to the head of intelligence [Kyrylo] Budanov — they supported it.

It was not clear where to start. Regarding money, there are two issues: the technical one, to build a website and a team, and the fundraising one [for information]. Ukrainian legislation is not adapted for such activities (like, for example, in the USA), where a reward for information about terrorists is paid officially at the state level.

So, should it be a separate article in the state budget?

Yes. You donʼt have to collect donations and you wonʼt be held accountable for this in the USA. There are no such activities in Ukraine. We can announce fundraising as a private public initiative, but we cannot pay. If the informant (even theoretically) turns out to be an FSB employee, we fall under the article on financing terrorism. The Main Directorate of Intelligence (MDI) of Ukraine can pay [to anyone], but cannot tell the price, because its budget is classified. That is why I proposed to join our efforts: we, as a private public initiative, will collect donations and come up with a price, and MDI, in its turn, will deal with the information we bought.

Alex Kuzmin / «Babel’»

What is the estimated cost of the information provided to you?

Depending on its quality and the status of a person it's about. For the phone number of a general who is suspected of committing atrocities in Bucha, for example, it is one price. Maybe $500―1,000. If it is the information about a specific war criminal somewhere in the occupied territory or in Russia, the price is higher. We can also buy confirmation of the death of a criminal, for example, at the front to close criminal cases. We deliberately did not post a specific price anywhere, because it is impossible. Each case will be evaluated separately.

Our foundation is only engaged in buying information. We do not call for killing anyone. We are a buffer between the informant and special authorities. Although grant-makers still don't give us funds, because they consider this initiative too radical.

Now you can make a donation in two ways — via PayPal or with cryptocurrency. This is a problem, because these tools are mostly used in the West, not in Ukraine. Our legislation is not adapted to allow me to collect donations on my personal bank card without reporting. We will not have it (reporting), because the intelligence can use the purchased information for a long time. But after private conversations with intelligence officers, I hope that soon the legislation will change in some way and it will be more convenient for our foundation to work.

Alex Kuzmin / «Babel’»

From whom do you expect to receive information?

The main source is our enemy. First of all, the FSB (Russian Federal Security Service, ex-KGB), which will "leak" its own people, or someone from the “MSS” of the quasirepublics, or ordinary soldiers of the Russian army. A huge factor on which we will play is the confrontation between the "Kremlin towers". They mostly belong to the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, which is the Main Directorate of Intelligence, which competes with the FSB. We expect that they will solve their problems at our expense.

FSB is not a monolithic structure. There are many influence vectors within it. I saw it with my own eyes during the interrogations: people from the "MSS" wrote complaints to each other, sent them to different departments of the FSB in Rostov-on-Don, and then sent them to Moscow. That is, it exists even at the lower level. Those in Moscow did not perceive the "MSS" as people at all. Therefore, if we offer $10,000 for an ordinary escort from Isolation, they can give us his address in Donetsk or even bring him to the front. In fact, the question is only about money.

How realistic is this scenario? Perhaps the Ukrainian special services calculated this probability?

Yes, otherwise they wouldn't have supported us. Money is a common argument for everyone anywhere on the planet according to the general psychology of a person who has some information. It is not only about FSB, it may be an ordinary Russian from Saratov who sees "$10 000" sign on our website for a neighbor whom he, in addition, hates. The same logic works for residents of the occupied territories.

Alex Kuzmin / «Babel’»

Does the Ukrainian Prosecutorʼs Office cooperate with you?

They donʼt. I met with some respectable people in this office and they said they would help. But all they did was send a response to our request in the form of the number of criminal cases against Bucha registered under the article "Violation of the Laws and Customs of War." There were no surnames.

Did someone from the Prosecutor Generalʼs Office explain to you why this is happening?

It is said that there are lists of suspects for this article of the Criminal Code on the website. But there are thousands of surnames for all articles for the entire period [since 2014]. We can't check every link. I simply stopped contacting the Prosecutor Generalʼs Office.

How do you plan to go public with the foundation to an international audience?

I have a lot of connections in the media. We were written about in the The Wall Street Journal. There is another question — how to get to Russia? We plan to get the key amount of information from there. This is a closed society, specifically regardinmg information. I hope that we will do it via Aleksandr Nevzorov, who is read by millions of Russians. I hope that Russian propagandists will pick up the news about us and start shouting that "the Nazis appointed something for our heads." I would be pleased if that happened.

Do you know whatʼs going on with Isolation now?

I donʼt know anything. The last information I received this month was about a possible administration change was from last summer. But people are still being held there, because it is known for sure that one person was sent to Isolation from the "filtration camp" in Mariupol. We know this from the testimony of another person who was also brought to Donetsk, but who was later released.

Alex Kuzmin / «Babel’»

So, you are now communicating with those who are going through captivity?

I communicate with those who are in captivity because of "crime". They are in places of deprivation of liberty, which remained from the penitentiary system of Ukraine. For example, the pre-trial detention center in Donetsk, where our prisoners of war are kept. People I know from Isolation are kept there. They are in different colonies. These "criminal authorities" hold the zones and have telephones, communicate with each other and pass information on other colonies to us, so that it is impossible to figure out who passed what. I share it with the Ukrainian Main Directorate of Intelligence.

In the Donetsk pre-trial detention center at 26 Shevchenko Street, our prisoners of war are kept at the "tenth post". It was a post for those convicted to deathThere are basement rooms, the worst cells in Soviet times. The prisoners are taken out of the cell with bags on their heads, which has never happened in a pre-trial detention center. This is a "MSS" style. They force to sing the Russian national anthem in exchange for food. They are tortured by the "MSS" for fun, simply for a patriotic position.

Do you have informants in Olenivka?

No. I tried [to find them], but nothing works there. From the occupiers' side, they also understand that the information reaches us cia criminals' networks. In cases where it's too sensitive, they tighten the screws even for the criminals. Those have something to lose: you can spend 10 years in various ways — in an isolation cell, in cold barracks, you can lose your phone.

You mentioned "official prisons" separately. How do they differ from unofficial torture chambers, if they can be compared?

In the institutions of the penitentiary system, the authorities try to act harshly, but according to the framework of the regulations: the prisoners can be thrown into an isolation cell, kept on a stretcher, but officially, because at this time the authorities conduct a search. In Isolation, for example, nobody bothers with this. They just put you against the wall, and you can stand like that for several days. If you fall, they beat you. There are no taboos. In “official” colonies ― they donʼt do that.

Alex Kuzmin / «Babel’»

So, the colony in Olenivka is allegedly part of the penitentiary system, but prisoners are treated there as if in unofficial torture chambers. Is this some kind of exception?

You can say that. In fact, the colony was turned into a concentration camp, where the prisoners feel a special hatred.

In February, you published photos from Territorial Defence Forces. How did you get there? What happened during this period?

On the twenty-fourth of February, I took my mother from Kyiv to Transcarpathia, returned to Kyiv on the February 26, and immediately joined the VFTD. At least I could hold a gun, even though I never fired one. Back in January, I started collecting documents to join Territorial Defense, but I didnʼt have time. And in February, the issue was resolved in just a day thanks to an acquaintance. Then it was difficult to get to Territorial Defence Forces. I did not undergo any training in the unit. Only at the beginning of March we shot at the shooting range. I was taught by guys from Territorial Defence Forces who knew how to handle weapons. But I did not take part in the battles. Training was planned for the fall, and in August I was transferred to the reserve. I already have a program to go abroad, so I didnʼt want to let the unit down.

Did you expect that there would be such a level of terror from the Russians in the occupied territories?

No. I also faced mass murders in this form for the first time. Even in Donetsk region, I haven't seen anything like what I saw in Bucha at the beginning of April. Emotionally, I was perhaps kind of prepared for such things. But to see the genocide with your own eyes...

After Isolation, it took me a long time to emotionally recover to feel something for people. The same thing happened after Bucha. Izyum for me was only a matter of the number of corpses. The Russians will not do anything worse than Bucha. It can be the same Bucha, only in larger quantities. The Russians don't surprise me anymore in this sense.

Alex Kuzmin / «Babel’»

I have heard that people are offended by the comparison with Bucha, because it is like competing with tragedies.

To some extent it is. Maybe it is personally offensive. Isolation was compared to German concentration camps and I was told that they were even worse. I take this with an ironic smile. Right, there are no gas chambers in Isolation there, but it has their own specifics. In Germany, for example, I constantly draw these parallels and explain exactly what type of concentration camp it is. Isolation is similar to Dachau, when it was not yet a death camp, but a place where the Germans in the early 1930s threw compatriots who did not support the Nazi regime. I try not to react emotionally and not to shout that questions and comparisons nullify my own experience. I simply tell about it.

Of course, I have to dive into the subject of concentration camps to explain why Isolation may be considered one. I always insist that the concentration camp is not a privilege of German history. They are also in the DPRK, they were in the Soviet Union. But in the mass consciousness, of course, whenever you say the phrase "concentration camp", there is an association with Germany.

When we met a year ago, you said that you wished that the Isolation issue would disappear from your life.

Yes, I dreamed of that. I planned that 2021 would be my last in this issue. But, you see, there are adjustments. At least now Isolation is part of what I do, part of the foundation. For now there is Bucha, Irpin, Izyum. Everyone finally understood that what I was talking about was not some kind of fairy tale. Moreover, the Russians are capable of even worse. In the West and sometimes in Ukraine, people thought that I was exaggerating: "But how can they torture the genitals with electric cords in a cultural institution in Donetsk?" So it became easier to tell everything about it. Now we are planning a whole year of work in Germany, where the Hamburg Foundaiton for Politically Persecuted People invited me for a one-year scholarship and created a program for the book and the foundation.

Alex Kuzmin / «Babel’»

There are fears that Ukraine will disappear from the front pages, that the war will be "forgotten". You have been talking about Isolation for several years, drawing attention to the issue. What was your strategy and what can you apply now?

If I hadnʼt supported the issue of Isolation for two and a half years, hadnʼt given hundreds of interviews, written a book, constantly written posts about it, starred in documentaries, and met with officials in Ukraine and Europe, then two weeks after our release from captivity no one would have mentioned Isolation. This is how human consciousness works and this is how the media sphere works. People donʼt want to live in torture, they need positivity. Who remembers Bucha now? Who remembers the shelling of the train station in Kramatorsk? After of these six months, it is necessary to remember what happened there. The same will happen with Izyum.

So, it is necessary to treat the story without emotion. People abroad can really say that they are no longer interested in Izyum and concentration camps, but in winter heating. Therefore, evoke emotions in the audience, but donʼt be indignant yourself.

I did this work with myself. I was also indignant in the first months after I got free that there is no war in Kyiv, no one knows about Isolation. I left the basements, where people are still being tortured, and there are cafes working here. But I realized that this is my problem, not societyʼs one. Itʼs up to me to adapt to the cafes, restaurants and real quiet life while it exists in this city, not impose an agenda from a concentration camp and demand that people live by it every day. Itʼs impossible emotionally, even for me. I reached such a state that I could not sleep, because I was constantly thinking about Isolation. Although I slept in the concentration camp itself.

It was the same with “Palych”. I found out that he has been in Kyiv, in Troeshchyna residential district for two years already, since I was sitting in Isolation, and my first thought was: "Damn, Iʼll just write a post on Facebook now, where I will curse everyone — from the president to the SSU and that is." But then I was told not to do that, because in such case “Palych” would realize that he was found and disappear. I gained patience and threw away my emotions. We started working. We found informants and arrested him within a month.

The same strategy should be applied to the West. You can shout and blame, because they didnʼt give us airplanes, submarines, because nobody wants to hear us, thousands killed, while they [people in the West] think about gas. But in this case the person immediately takes the TV remote and switches to another channel.

You mentioned “Palych”. How are the trials of him and the rest of the defendants going now? Did martial law interfere?

The first trial is about the figures from the Isolation administration, which is in a separate category on the website. There has been no meeting yet.

The second trial is regarding Brazhnikov. He fled to France. After this he was declared a nationally wanted man in Ukraine. And we cannot declare him an internationally wanted person, because this is done only by a court order. And the trial does not take place, because he does not come to court. Tomorrow is another meeting, which I wonʼt go to. For two years, we have not held a single meeting, not even a preparatory one.

And the third trial is about “Palych”, whom we finally imprisoned. Within its framework, I ask to interrogate me as one of the first, before leaving Ukraine. “Palych” is brought to the court, we see him. But his lawyer is constantly changing.

Here are three courts in which, in fact, not a single meeting has taken place yet.

Alex Kuzmin / «Babel’»

It is interesting how you and other victims perceive Palych on the dock.

Although there was no hearing, we can approach him and talk. I havenʼt done that yet. Others did. Out of 21 victims, 7-10 come to court. “Palych” sits behind a transparent fence and does not even look in our direction, only on the floor. Iʼve always wondered why is it so? This is usually done by a person with a sense of guilt. Even so, from communicating with the prisoners, I understood that he does not feel the guilt at all. He doesnʼt admit the torture he committed and admits only that he worked in Isolation. So why isnʼt he looking at us? And I understood that he was ashamed. But itʼs not a shame because of what he did to us. Itʼs because he is now sitting on the other side. In "his" place for now are those to whom he opened locks and whom he called "trash". I go to these meetings like going to the theater. I get annoyed and angry at the meetings regarding Brazhnikov, because he ran away. In turn, I like the trials of “Palych”. Itʼs nice to see him on the other side.

A former prisoner who was brutally tortured in Isolation once approached him and asked the lawyer if he could talk to “Palych”. The lawyer referred to the escorts, they — to someone else, and in the end “Palych” himself says: "Fuck it, come over here." Do you understand? “Palych”, sitting in a cage, decides who to approach.

And what are they asking him about?

About different things. For example, "why did you do this to me?" And he, apparently on the advice of a lawyer, denies torture, even in private conversations. Cʼmon! You can tell the judge that, but not me for sure.

I havenʼt done it yet, but I want to ask if he understands how he got caught. That I was a part of it. Because now “Palych” is shouting that he was promised to be released, calling himself "the SSU agent".

Do you communicate with former prisoners about your experiences?

We planned to talk to Tayra, but we still havenʼt met. I wonder how she feels about it. In general, no, I donʼt communicate with former prisoners. In fact, I try to avoid meetings with them.

How were you able to turn your trauma of captivity into an experience?

In my case, there were moments of emotional catharsis. This is not kind of concept. For example, when I took a bath for the first time in 2.5 years, when I went abroad and saw a completely different atmosphere, architecture, emotions, when a book was published, which became a form of retribution for me. That is, it depends on the mentality of a particular person. The phrase "captivity experience" means nothing, because this is a so much individual story. Even people who were in the same cell, perceive “Palych” differently now. For example, they approach him and try to joke that now we have switched places. For me, in turn, this is unacceptable, because I remember his jokes in Isolation. I donʼt want to become him, but from the other side.

Translated from Ukrainian by Ruslana Stoltz.

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Alex Kuzmin / «Babel’»