Stanislav Aseyev is a Ukrainian journalist and writer from Donetsk, who first gained notice for writing for Ukrainian papers about the reality on the ground in the Russian-backed breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic. He was jailed in 2017 by separatist militants, tortured, and was eventually released in 2019 as part of a prisoner exchange. In Isolation: Dispatches from Occupied Donbas is a collection of his writings from 2014 to 2017, the last piece “A Knack for Losing Things” written while being held captive. After his release, he wrote his memoirs about the ordeal in The Torture Camp on Paradise Street.
The translation and release of In Isolation into English last month is extremely timely, not just because the world’s attention is on Ukraine, but because this gives some well-needed nuance and complexity to the war. Aseyev himself is pro-Ukrainian, and watched how propaganda, economic desperation, and a nostalgia for the Soviet past turns his friends and neighbours from Russian-speaking Ukrainian nationals to ardent supporters of the DPR as a breakaway republic. It’s an incredible study of shifting identity and the re-establishment of the idea of “Novorossiya“, while showing the absurdity of war – little old ladies crossing monthly back into Ukraine to double up their pension, voting in in the DPR’s “primaries”, the merging of Orthodox Christianity with old Soviet holidays, and the lives of separatist militias shaking down cars at checkpoints for cash.
The ominous part of the book is that it lets you extrapolate what’s now happening in the Donbas, where the Ukrainian-Russian war is now centred. Repelling a Russian invasion from proudly Ukrainian locations is one thing, but fighting over parts of Ukraine that have felt cut off (and have cut themselves off) from “the mainland”, have been building a pro-Russian identity for almost a decade, and have been living in a state of war for just as long? Unfortunately, no matter how else things fall between Russia and Ukraine, things are going to stay ugly in Donetsk for a while.