Violence and Hope in Ukraine: Stanislav Aseyev’s “The Torture Camp on Paradise Street”

September 26, 2021   •   By Stanislav Aseyev, Kate Tsurkan

LARB PRESENTS AN excerpt from Stanislav Aseyev’s memoir The Torture Camp on Paradise Street, translated by Nina Murray and Zenia Tomkins.

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I must begin by noting 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. This is why intimidation, which makes physical pain more acute, and humiliation are so important. What I am about to write does not aspire to be a comprehensive catalog of torture methods practiced in various penal basements around Donetsk. My goal is merely to convey my personal experience with the “procedures” (a favorite euphemism) that I underwent.

My own procedures took place not at the Isolation facility, but a long six weeks before I got there, in well-lit common office rooms in downtown Donetsk, in the middle of the day. I was astonished when I was first brought handcuffed into a room like that and made to sit on a chair next to a window that opened onto one of Donetsk’s main boulevards. A few minutes later, men would attach electrical wires to my thumbs and send a charge through them, but the rest of the day would remain just as ordinary. There would be no darkness in it, no terrifying basement cells like those where my future fellow inmates would be tortured. I would still see the trees outside (they even took the hood off my head), the bright May sun would shine just as gently, and people at the bus stop would wait for their buses while my body spasmed and contorted. The absurdity of all of this being squeezed into one small fragment of the city would astonish me many times over. To begin with, however, I was brought into The Office to face the mildest tool known to the locals: the PR-73, a standard Soviet-police rubber baton.

For a while they hit me with it on the same spot, right above the knee. It only took a few minutes for my skin to swell into a soap bubble inside my jeans. In Isolation they called people that had been subject to this “stoplights” because their entire bodies became a single purple bruise, which later turned yellow and finally greenish. I remember the guards once returning a man to the cell next door and just placing him on the floor. They covered him with a blanket and forbade anyone from trying to move him. He lay there until morning.

I couldn’t qualify for full stoplight status, but while they were beating me, my interrogators expected me to answer their questions, which amounted to a general inquiry as to what sort of shit I was that I didn’t respect the people’s choice to live in an independent country. If I hesitated for even an instant or tried to say that I couldn’t focus because of the pain, they beat me harder and with greater frequency, so I began to get my taste of the absurd. I had to keep up my end of the conversation while pretending that I wasn’t being worked over with the baton.

After a brief interaction along these lines, they pulled the hood back over my head and took me to a room next door, where they took it off. That’s where everything happened. I saw three men wearing balaclavas and a small video camera. I was asked, very politely and formally, to recite my biography for the camera. The formal address and the politeness gave me the illusion that things might not be as bad as I had thought.

I had no inkling yet of the scale of Donestk’s underground torture operation or the fact that in that very building, 99 men out of each hundred were tortured: this would begin to dawn on me after the men in balaclavas shut off the video camera. Someone else brought in an old-fashioned phone. The phone was a local celebrity, referred to as a “portable polygraph” — a military-issue field phone with an inductor. A pair of wires came out of the machine, which were promptly wrapped around my thumbs.

Contrary to what I had come to anticipate, the first electrical shock followed an apparently innocent question about a specific number stored in my cell phone. I could feel the onset of physical shock from the beating, but I still had enough mental acuity to recognize the number as belonging to my bank. “I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve never called it.” That was the wrong answer — and electricity surged though me. Any negative answer would produce another jolt: I deduced this from the next set of the apparently absurd questions I was asked.

For example, they next asked me how often I masturbated. Their trick is to begin with questions that are uncomfortable for you but have answers that are obvious to the interrogator. If you begin to lie already in this phase, the torture will become more prolonged and crueler. On top of this, they try to disorient you by intermixing questions about, in my case, the espionage with which I had been charged, and whether I believed in God or had ever jumped with a parachute. This evident chaos has one specific goal: to make you lie.

Asked about the parachute jump, I replied Yes and was immediately asked to name the type of parachute I had used. I said, “Ram-air,” and was instantly electrocuted and hit on the back of my head with a hard object, while the interrogator shouted, “Liar!” Clearly, these people had no way of knowing the actual facts of my parachuting experience (nor did they care about them). What they wanted was to make me change my answer so that they could say I was lying and go on torturing me.

Questions about my family or whether I believed in God created the illusion of a respite, a “human conversation,” which made the electric shock that followed all the more painful. And remember, throughout this interaction the mildest form of address used toward the subject is “shit,” which is also intended to lower his self-esteem and engender a sense of being culpable. Then, when the conversation turned to God, one of them addressed me with the formal “You,” before shocking me again — a roller-coaster ride engineered straight out of a Soviet-era handbook.

Of course, you come to assess all of this later, once the torture is over, but there were details that I grasped that very day. For instance, as soon as they had me sit down, one of them said brusquely, “Why should we even mess with him? Cut off his fucking head and drop him in the river!” And yet I saw that they were all wearing balaclavas — and why would you hide your face if you were really about to cut off someone’s head? Another thing: They kept asking me about a liaison, a messenger — who, of course, didn’t exist. That’s when I realized that I mustn’t, under any circumstances, make anything up. Yes, every time you say No they dial up the electricity, but it’s better to bear the increasing shocks than to get mired in a tangle of fictions, which in the long run would hurt you much more. Later, at the pretrial detention facility, I met a guy who, just like me, had found himself on a chair, with wires attached to his feet, being asked about his nonexistent work for the Secret Services. He couldn’t stand it and made up a major that was “running” him, even giving this major a name — and suffered, ultimately, harder and longer before his torturers realized that he had been telling them fiction.

At some point, my interrogators told me to quit screaming and promised to cut off my nose if I continued. They followed this up by hitting the bridge of my nose with a hatchet, which turned out to be dull. By then there was a wire connected to my ear, so I had to answer questions while losing control of my facial muscles. This, of course, made me slur my words, which prompted one of the interrogators to increase the voltage. I got shocked, among other things, for having written a novel about my time with the French Foreign Legion. These men were convinced that I had been recruited back then and, what’s more, only joined because I had “wanted to kill people.” I was feeling pretty indifferent to the whole business right then, as I was barely upright and only intermittently conscious, when they shocked me again.

To finish up, they told me that they would take me to a cell where people would “sink” me that very night — meaning, rape me. If I wanted to have the safety of a solitary cell, they said, I should sign everything they placed before me. The threat, as it later turned out, was not just posturing: in Isolation, sexual assault was widely used, against both men and women. The administration kept specific inmates to “do the job” and afterward hid them in separate cells to protect them from the rest of the prison population.

In the end, that night I did land in a solitary cell in the basement, where I spent the next six weeks before being transferred to the place that made me beg to go back to that basement cell.

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I’ve mentioned before that the goal of those who engage in torture is not so much to cause you physical pain as it is to break you as an individual, to destroy your independent will. This, of course, doesn’t apply to torture for the sake of torture — namely, pure sadism, which occurred fairly often at the Isolation facility and, more generally, was routine behavior for the local Security Services. But looking back at my time in captivity, I can confidently identify only one time when I resigned myself utterly and completely. It only took 10 seconds to break me.

I was still being held in the solitary cell in the basement, before being transferred to Isolation, when one day I was brought out and driven beyond the city limits for the purposes of so-called “investigative actions.” As fate would have it, we drove past my old neighborhood; meanwhile, my hood had been pulled off since leaving the city.

I confess I have hated Maki’ivka — the town where I grew up, about 10 miles outside of Donetsk — my entire life. Maki’ivka is a city of Soviet sleepwalkers. It always made me think of Stephen King’s The Langoliers: the place had no taste or smell, and time had stopped there. There was no future in Maki’ivka.

And yet here I was, being driven past my own neighborhood, handcuffed. I could see the familiar buildings: the apartment block where I lived was right behind them. I had been in the basement for more than a month by then and knew that my mother had gone to the Security Ministry to inquire about my imprisonment. Naturally, she was told that they had no knowledge of my whereabouts. I looked out the van window and pictured my mother, in a room by herself, by the phone. She had just made a call to another morgue. Or perhaps she was crying, defeated by the not-knowing: she couldn’t even find out if her son was alive.

I look at the road and realize I’m seeing it for the last time: these corners, these trees, every foot of it I know so intimately. It was here that I, a romantic boy, had dreamed of France and the Foreign Legion, and put myself through years of running in order to train for the future. I could count every crack in the pavement in my sleep. This very field here was my small temple, where I escaped at nights from the dusty city to plot the brilliant novel I would one day write. And that was the bus stop where my friends and I used to hang out: we couldn’t fathom then that 10 years later tanks would roll down this street to Donetsk as I was being transported in an unmarked car past them, to a penal basement.

I saw all those things and knew that I could cover the distance that separated me from my mother in three or four minutes. Then I could hug her. But I am being taken back to the basement: the vision flits by and is gone, like a dream. I can feel the cold pressure of the handcuffs again, hear the laughter, and see the grins around me — while the distance between me and my mother grows to months, then years. Those 10 seconds broke me. Neither being held prisoner nor the torture have had such a devastating effect on me. These people, who were so insistent on humiliating me and worked so hard to atomize my personality into little pieces, had no clue that they could have gotten me to do anything right there and then; I would have signed any confession they put before me. All I wanted was to be shot — such was the depth of my despair.

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“Hungry to Create Something New”: A Conversation with Stanislav Aseyev

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KATE TSURKAN: There is a striking passage at the beginning of your novel The Melchior Elephant in which you declare, “Yes, I write books. I know it sounds like a confession at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, but I don’t need applause.” Is being a writer a matter of choice or need for you?

STANISLAV ASEYEV: It was no accident that I referenced alcoholics: my father was one and died because of it. Was vodka a need for him? It definitely was toward the end of his life, but it all started with making the choice to drink. I feel the same way about literature. Right now, it’s the one remaining need that is killing me. I feel like I’m at the end of some sort of path. Naturally, that’s connected to the last book I wrote about my captivity, from which I just need a good respite till my desire to write returns again.

I was very interested to learn that you once dreamed of joining the French Foreign Legion. In the history of literature, the Legion has been a place for those who are still finding their way in the world — in other words, an ideal place for a writer.

The Legion is a detail from the biography of a person who no longer exists in this world. I always say that when I’m asked about the novel in which I described this trip: that author has died. The romantic boy who believed that the Foreign Legion would be the answer to everything for him is dead. Perhaps it’s better to invoke Melville and his Moby-Dick, only I had Paris instead of a whale.

Hélène Cixous, the famous French writer and philosopher, wrote that “the only book worth writing is the one we don’t have the strength to write.” To what extent do you agree or disagree with this statement?

It strikes me as more of a beautiful figure of speech than reality, to be honest. The text often speaks for the writer: the ratio in this process for me as a writer is as minimal as it is in poetry, even though the form always has a consciously readable shape. Gogol burned the second volume of Dead Souls but nonetheless wrote it. At the same time, The Great Gatsby was written rather quickly, but that didn’t affect its quality and status as one of the best novels in American literature. Fitzgerald himself admitted that he felt tremendous strength in himself when he wrote it.

The question of language is important not only for writers. There has recently been an active movement of Ukrainization across all spheres of public life in Ukraine. What are your thoughts on this process? Do you support it?

I absolutely support it. Right now it’s become somewhat of a fad, but — as with literature — social processes are often unaware of their own significance and ultimate goal. I think that the role of Ukrainian in Ukraine in the future will be as natural as that of English in the United States.

The life of the writer inevitably has some influence on the content and style of his writing. In what ways did your captivity change you as a writer?

If you take the novel The Melchior Elephant and the memoir The Torture Camp on Paradise Street about my time in captivity, you wouldn’t believe that they were written by the same person. The style is radically different: after my captivity and torture, I began writing very succinctly and precisely, in small sentences with maximum meaning, without any abstractions, as if writing a military report. What I produced before my captivity was the exact opposite. Perhaps the interrogations I was subjected to taught me this: in that type of situation, you don’t often find yourself straying from the point.

The Russian writer Sergei Lebedev said in an interview with the Guardian not too long ago that “Russian literature at the moment consists of non-written books.” This strikes me as one of the major differences between modern Ukrainian and Russian literature. There are many important books being published in Ukraine each year, but do you think there are any topics that remain taboo for Ukrainian writers today?

The war, oddly enough. Let me explain in what sense. For me, the standard of taboo is set by satire — the ability to laugh in the broadest sense of the word at a phenomenon. In The Torture Camp on Paradise Street, there’s a separate chapter on the humor of those who underwent torture: we laughed at them and joked about ourselves even in those very basements where we were being tortured. But imagine the Ukrainian Charlie Hebdo publishing a caricature of it. Are we ready for such candor? I don’t think so. The war is still an open wound, which is why there is a place for the lionization of heroes in Ukrainian literature but no place for understanding war through laughter in it yet.

Someday Russia’s war against Ukraine will end. Can you imagine a day when Ukrainian literature will be read and even celebrated by Russian readers?

I’m not convinced that wars like this one have an end date, given that no one ever announced its beginning. But a good example would be the act of Russian surrender — I’m sure that it would yield a lot of Ukrainian literary ideas that may someday be appreciated in Russia.

Current publishing trends suggest that more Ukrainian books will be published in English (as well as in other languages) in the near future. What role, if any, do you think Ukrainian literature will play in the field of world literature?

“World” literature — if we’re talking not with respect to geography, but scale — is always going beyond the general framework with something new that surprises and frightens at the same time. That very same laughter that I mentioned before. Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Frankl, Camus aren’t just names but ideas that have become brands. It seems to me that we still haven’t learned to laugh at what it is customary to cry over — or to be frightened of. Therefore, there is absolutely no need to strive to increase the number of translations. On the contrary, we need only one truly groundbreaking Ukrainian book to be translated.

In the 1920s and 1930s, during the period surrounding the Great Terror, so many Ukrainian authors were imprisoned or killed that the phenomenon came to be known as the “Executed Renaissance.” Today, there are many talented authors in Ukraine. Do you think that Ukrainian society is ready for this renaissance of Ukrainian literature?

No, it isn’t ready at all. Not so long ago I won the Shevchenko Prize, the country’s highest award in arts and culture. I won the award in the journalism category, but there was a literature nomination as well. Aside from the billboards in a handful of metro stations, few people know about us writers. And it’s not just because such events are insufficiently promoted. There’s just no demand from society for any of this. I’m not a Marxist, but I might agree with the sentiment of bread first, and only then shows and spectacles. Writers and thinkers need to be a little hungry in order to create something new. But people, on the other hand, need to eat first before an interest in Nietzsche can arise. Or the opposite has to be the case: the extreme stage of a crisis, like the World Wars, when people find themselves looking for answers even in basements. It is no coincidence that countries with a low standard of living do not produce Nobel laureates: for something to be discovered, it must be sought, man’s thoughts must be busy with the search. Obviously, Ukraine is more prosperous than some countries in the sense that we’re not all out there looking for clean water, and we have a whole stratum of intelligentsia who will attend an artistic event and probably fill two or three hundred seats in some assembly hall. But for a book to become a national best seller in Ukraine to the point that people have not only heard of it but are also reading it — we’re definitely not talking about a majority there. Recall Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse and the effect it produced when it was published in France. And that book actually forced you to think as you read it. But thinking is always difficult and unpleasant. To be honest, I wouldn’t read my books: nowadays it’s easier to open up Facebook and read some short post than to read a whole baffling novel. But that’s a global trend, and so even Ukraine can still diverge from such a path.

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Stanislav Aseyev (b. 1989) is a writer and journalist from Donbas, Ukraine.

Kate Tsurkan is the founding editor of Apofenie magazine.

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Featured image: “Stanislav Aseyev” by Stanislav Aseyev is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been cropped and desaturated.