‘When Suicide Becomes Logical’Inside a Separatist-Run PrisonIn Ukraine’s Donetsk
Journalist Stanislav Asyev explains why choosing life over death was so important during his horrific 962 days imprisoned by the Kremlin-backed statelet
Stanislav Aseyev, 30, is a journalist, blogger, and member of the Ukrainian PEN Club. After his native city of Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, fell under the control of Russia-backed separatist militants in May 2014, he continued reporting from there for various Ukrainian media outlets, including RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service.
On 2 June 2017, he was abducted by the self-proclaimed Donetsk authorities. His case prompted an international outcry among human rights and journalists’ organisations.
In October 2019, a de facto court in Donetsk convicted Aseyev of “organising an extremist organisation” and espionage, sentencing him to 15 years in prison. He was included in a prisoner exchange between the separatists and Kyiv on 15 November 2019.
In all, Aseyev spent 962 days in captivity, most of it at a prison in Donetsk called ‘Isolation’. During his captivity, he began writing a book describing his experiences, but the first manuscript was confiscated. He began writing a second time. When he was released in the prisoner exchange, a fellow prisoner, tank crewman Bohdan Pantyushenko, helped Aseyev smuggle out the manuscript by hiding it among the letters he had received from his wife.
To Be Or Not To Be – Father & Son
Some of the suicide attempts I remember from my time in ‘Isolation’ were just for show. But one exception was when a prisoner tried to cut his wrists with a nail while he was in shock after being tortured. He was being monitored around the clock, so they kept him from dying. Afterwards, he was transferred from solitary confinement to a common cell where other prisoners kept an eye him.
By chance, I witnessed a conversation this prisoner had with the guards in the corridor outside our cell. The warden was trying to calm him down, while he was shouting: “You don’t understand! I can’t take it anymore!” He described one of the cruellest tortures, which involved an electrode in the rectum. The prisoner didn’t realise that this was just a normal, systematic occurrence. He was trying to tell the warden what had been done to him, even though he himself could hardly believe what he was saying.
Another man who had been tortured on a table, with his son, also attempted suicide. The torture involved more than just physical pain. When the man’s son urinated on himself due to involuntary muscle contractions, because both of them had electrodes attached to their rectums and genitals, the torturers mocked the father: “Look at your son! He’s peed himself like a puppy!”
The man told me that the torture and the death threats he had endured hurt him less than that single moment. But my conversation with him happened much later. At this point, he was just a man brought into our cell with severe electrical burns and a bleeding wound on his head. The wound was the result of his suicide bid. He had tried to smash his skull open against the metal corner of a bunk in the basement.
This man was put in our cell because he had already been ‘worked over’ and now the administration wanted to make sure that he wouldn’t try to kill himself again.
Later in the evening, another problem became apparent.
From 7 pm until 8:30 pm, he was completely disoriented. He was delirious and didn’t understand where he was. It turned out that he had been tortured the entire previous week at this same time. Now, as evening approached, the slightest rustling in the corridor was enough to make his hands tremble uncontrollably. He sat on the edge of a bunk by the door mindlessly repeating: “Hold on, son. Just hold on, hold on.” He really believed he was back in the basement on the table beside his son.
We tried to calm him, to get him to sit around the table with the rest of us. Someone pressed gently on his broken ribs to break his trance. Others distracted him with talk of fishing or life in the mines (he was a miner and an avid fisherman).
Eventually, his son was released, but the father was warned that they could always bring him back if the father misbehaved in court. I remember thinking when his son was let go that, in a sense, living like that was even worse than just being in captivity: one day, you are enjoying life and expecting a child with your beloved wife, and the next you find yourself naked in a basement with your father. You are doused with water and electrocuted. And a month later you are simply released just because someone thought your father alone was enough to make their case.
Isn’t life completely absurd?
The Answer To Everything
It took me two years – two years of living in Isolation – to draw the most important conclusion: consciously choosing life in a situation where everything argues in favour of death is the answer to everything. It is the answer for meaning and forgiveness. And, if such a question can be posed at all, it is the answer for the essence of the self.
I feel – rather than understand – this answer. But it is definitely not about a sudden love for life or something like that. Loving life in a place where people scream under torture or howl under their bunks is an abomination, where suicide here is a reasonable idea. But this prison is not about war. It is about people.
It would be wrong to think that only those suspected of espionage for the Ukrainian military were tortured behind those walls. On the contrary, the wardens viewed us through the prism of possible prisoner exchanges, which meant that we should not have visible scars, burns, or broken bones. Prisoners from their own side – fighters with the so-called “militia” employees of “ministries” and others – were considered nothing but meat; training material they could literally beat to a pulp without fear of repercussions.
The administration of the prison understood very well that no Russian television channel would ever interview these prisoners. No local news outlet would ever write about them. These people did not exist, and neither did their suffering. They were nobody.
‘Isolation’ was a sort of line, and whoever crossed it felt like a god and acted like a devil. ‘Isolation’ is a story about any one of us, particularly about those who survived it and came out ready to do to their torturers exactly what had been done to them.
I spoke with many prisoners and most of them agreed on one thing: if they were given a chance to retaliate, no one would hesitate for a second. You imagine your own face behind the balaclavas and realise that, during the torture or even just when they were laughing, you were capable of doing to them even crueller things than they were doing to you. Had the administration of ‘Isolation’ been able to read our thoughts, we wouldn’t have been able to take a shower without handcuffs.
However, they were just thoughts. Some people would cut their wrists, but no one would pounce at a guard. This begs another question: why? Indeed, in the worst of times, the number of prisoners at ‘Isolation’ reached 70, but there was not a single case of mass disobedience.
‘I Won’t Give My Life Away So Easily’
Let’s return to the topic of suicide – or, as we called it, “to hell with everything”. It is worth noting that, as soon as you catch your breath and recover from the initial shock, you realise that there are many earthly matters between life and death that attach you to this earth.
There is education, religious belief, the love of and for those close to you, the fear of death, and even an egoistic drive to live.
Some said that they were not ready to commit suicide because it would annul everything they had experienced so far. Every additional day of torture and humiliation became an incentive to endure the next.
One of my cellmates who had been tortured for a month (his hand was handcuffed to the bars in the basement and he had to grasp his bottle of rotten water with his feet) told me this: “I am not ready to give my life away so easily. Dying in combat like a warrior – yes. But dying like a dog on a bunk, letting them write ‘heart failure’ as the cause of death – that I won’t do.”
Interestingly, he never removed the scraps of the plastic sheets that had been used to torture him and he would go to his interrogations with scraps of tape that had been used to affix the electrodes to his body still stuck to him. When I asked him about it, he said ironically, that the bits of plastic and tape had sentimental value for him.
There was one other item on the list of reasons people had to keep on living: revenge.
The question of suicide in an extreme situation such as imprisonment goes far beyond mere psychology. It is existential rather than technical. Under normal conditions, the very thought of suicide indicates a need for therapy or hospitalisation. But is a member of a tank crew being irrational if he chooses to shoot himself in the head rather than die a slow and painful death trapped inside a burning tank?
In conditions where physical suffering is combined with profound psychological trauma, thoughts of suicide become normal, rather than a deviation because they are an attempt to save oneself from suffering.
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