In this edition of Knyzka Corner, we will be discussing Stanislav Aseyev’s, In Isolation – Dispatches from Occupied Donbas.
In Isolation – Dispatches from Occupied Donbas, translated by Lidia Wolanskyj and published by the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University, outlines the experiences of journalist and patriot Stanislav Aseyev as he faces repression, war, captivity, and torture in Donbas.
He spent more than a year in a prison “for exceptionally dangerous persons” in the city of Donetsk until he was released in a prisoner swap in December 2019. His experiences in his native Donetsk give readers a window into the complicated realities of life in Donetsk after the Russian occupation of 2014.
“The essays are an attempt to comprehend not just the Soviet past but its latest transformation in Moscow’s massive propaganda war. After all, the challenges that Ukrainian society has faced on the territory of the Donbas with the start of the war are not exclusively a problem for Ukrainians: the mechanisms of lies and disinformation that I bring up in my writing are used in a variety of forms in many wars around the world – military, informational, and hybrid.” (p. xiv)
The book begins with a chronology of the events of 2013 entitled, “Prelude to war: Maidan and the Revolution of Dignity.” What follows is a collection of dispatches published by various media outlets from 2015 to 2017, when Aseyev was imprisoned by Russian-backed DPR officials. His first article, “The Lost Generation of the ‘Fabled Novorossiia” was written for Radio Svoboda in January 2015. It deals with the socio-economic conditions and Kremlin- inspired disinformation campaign which motivated Russian-backed rebels in the Donbas. Aseyev mourns the loss of Ukrainian patriotism, as well as the divisions in families and communities which the Russian incursion has caused. “It’s the people, whom the front has cut like a fault line, splitting up families and making adversaries of those who not that long ago were friends and colleagues. It all feels so unreal.” (Pp. 10-11)
Other dispatches focus on extreme violence, disinformation, and the cruelty of the Russian occupation of Donbas. In 2015, Aseyev witnesses an execution while he was simply crossing a bridge in Donetsk. Aseyev’s decision to stay in the occupied territory was based on his patriotism, but also on his desire to document the atrocities of the Russian-backed rebels. He witnesses extreme corruption when rebels charge for crossing the endless “checkpoints” which have sprung up in the Donbas. He witnesses Ukrainians fleeing the atrocities and leaving for Kyiv and western Ukraine. He believes the people of Donbas have a different mindset than their fellow Ukrainians. They follow Russian propaganda because they do not feel “the pull of civil liberties,” since “their attitudes are rooted deeply in the Soviet past.” (Pp. 36-37) Russians call Ukrainians fascists in their propaganda, but Aseyev labels the Russian occupation of Donbas as an example of fascism.
This book will be of interest to readers who want to know more about: Ukraine’s recent history, Russian aggression, the occupation of the Donbas, and the social/economic/cultural and political realities of the Donbas. Aseyev’s prose is very readable and insightful. He adds a detailed chronology of events in Ukraine and the Donbas beginning in 2013 and ending in 2017. There are photographs which show the conditions endured by residents of Donbas. Academics will also appreciate the detailed footnotes. In Isolation gives readers some insight into the reasons for the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces in February 2022. Before this invasion, Russian aggression was limited to the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk as well as the takeover of Crimea. Aseyev’s horrific descriptions of Russian occupation are a stark harbinger of what would happen if Russia were to take over Ukraine.
Ukrainian journalist Stanislav Aseyev, who wrote under the pen name Stanislav Vasin, was born in Donetsk, Ukraine in 1979. Before the Russian invasion of Donetsk in 2014, he was an aspiring novelist and poet. After the conflict began, Aseyev became a journalist based in the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk. He reported for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, as well as Ukrainian publications Dzerkalo Tyzhnya, Ukrayinskyi Tyzhden and Ukrayinska Pravda. He was imprisoned by Russian-supported rebels on June 2, 2017 and routinely tortured. Aseyev was freed as part of a bilateral release of prisoners between Ukraine and Russia in 2019. In 2020, he published The Torture Camp on Paradise Street, a memoir of his imprisonment. Aseyev is also the author of the novel, The Melchior Elephant, or the Man Who Thought, a collection of poetry, and a play.
For his journalistic work in the conflict zone, Stanislav Aseyev was awarded the Norwegian Free Media Award in 2020, as well as the National Prize for the Defense of Freedom of Expression in Ukraine 2020, and the Shevchenko National Prize 2021. He now lives in Kyiv.
In Isolation – Dispatches from Occupied Donbas is available at Chapters/Indigo and Amazon.
-Reviewed by Myra Junyk