Knyzhka Corner Book Review: The Torture Camp on Paradise Street

 In this edition of Knyzka Corner, we will be discussing Stanislav Aseyev’s, The Torture Camp on Paradise Street.

The Torture Camp on Paradise Street

The Torture Camp on Paradise Street, translated by Zenia Tompkins and Nina Murray and published by the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University, is a personal memoir of Stanislav Aseyev’s two and a half years in illegal captivity, most of it at the site of the defunct insulation factory, Isoliatsia (Isolation), in the city of Donetsk. This secret prison in the heart of Donetsk was called the “Donetsk Dachau” because of the unspeakable torture that was endured by its prisoners. Thanks to Aseyev’s efforts, the prison’s supervisor Denys Kulkovskyi (Palych) was arrested in Kyiv in November 2021.

The book began with Aseyev’s arrival at Isolation Prison at 3 Paradise Street. He soon realized that he was in a facility for prisoners charged with espionage, terrorism, and extremism. While in prison, Aseyev was  sentenced to two 15-year terms for his work as a reporter. The conditions he endured were horrific.  The aim of the prison administration was to terrorize its prisoners. “Isolation administration’s main job was to train the inmates to fear: constantly, without respite, day and night (because fear could manifest as nightmares or crippling anxiety about being roused), and abuse and torture were just the tools in its toolbox.” (Pp. 35-36)

Throughout the 23 chapters of this memoir, Aseyev documented the ways in which prisoners were abused and how they managed to survive. Food was limited to “an ounce or two of bread per man per day.” (p. 26) Prisoners learned that, “time is your greatest enemy here.” (p. 77) There was no exercise or outdoor recreation.  There were not visitors. “Everything had been taken from them, even calendars.” (p. 84) Women were raped, and men were beaten.  Depression and suicidal thoughts were rampant among the inmates.  Despite these conditions, Aseyev survived, “ I must begin by reiterating that torture is a complex system of measures, whose goal is not so much to break a person physically as to destroy them as an individual.” (p. 101)  His faith was a major factor in helping him to survive, “The only thing keeping me alive was the promise of heaven as a future reunion.” (p. 172)

This book is difficult to read because of its graphic depiction of Russian treatment of Ukrainian prisoners. Aseyev felt it was important for the world to know what they experienced in the prison on Paradise Street. The accepted norms of prison life were ignored by the administrators of this institution, which was a torture chamber for political prisoners.  The illustrations add context, and the addition of Aseyev’s “Writings from Isolation” reinforce the horror of his experience.  Perhaps the most poignant  example is “An Atheist’s Prayer” which is one sentence long, “Dear Lord, grant that I not be indifferent.” (p. 277)

This book reveals the existence of secret prisons in Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine.  Aseyev exposes the human rights abuses and war crimes committed in the prison facility known as Isolatsia. It reveals the endless psychological and physical abuse inflicted on the prisoners of this institution. It also exposes the cruelty and lawlessness of life in Russian-occupied territories. Aseyev believes that Russia’s war on Ukraine which began in 2014 was an effort to destroy the Ukrainian nation.  It was genocide.

Under his pen name Stanislav Vasin, Ukrainian journalist Stanislav Aseyev 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 for “extremism” and “spying.” Aseyev was freed as part of a bilateral release of prisoners between Ukraine and Russia in 2019. In 2022, he published In Isolation – Dispatches from Occupied Donbas. For his journalistic work in the conflict zone, he was awarded the Norwegian Free Media Award in 2020, the National Prize for the Defense of Freedom of Expression in Ukraine 2020, and the Shevchenko National Prize 2021. He now lives in Kyiv.

The Torture Camp on Paradise Street is available at Chapters/Indigo and Amazon here. (Affiliate link.)

–Reviewed by Myra Junyk

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