A Glimpse at Life Under Russian Occupation

Stanislav Aseyev’s “In Isolation” depicts the absurd brutality of military rule in the Donbas.

By , a research associate for Think Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
A person with a cane walks through caged doors. The photo is very dark, and you can only see their silhouette.
A person with a cane walks through caged doors. The photo is very dark, and you can only see their silhouette.
An older person enters a bunker in Severodonetsk, in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, on April 13. Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images

For those watching Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine and wondering how we got here, the answer lies in the Donbas. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recognition of the breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine paved the way for a large-scale escalation of the war that has claimed thousands of lives and sent millions of Ukrainians fleeing to avoid both the war itself and the violent repression that comes with life under Russian military rule.

Few people can better articulate the experience of life under Russian occupation than Stanislav Aseyev, whose recently released book, In Isolation: Dispatches from Occupied Donbas—translated from Ukrainian by Lidia Wolanskyj—gives a first-person account of the shelling, propaganda, and internal power struggles of Donetsk in the early days of the war that began there in 2014. The brutality and arbitrariness of rule in Russian-occupied Donbas that Aseyev depicts hint at what would await Ukraine in the event of a Russian-imposed regime, underscoring why the stakes of the war today could not possibly be higher.

Before Russia’s escalation on Feb. 24 brought rockets raining down on nearly every major city in Ukraine, Moscow focused its military attentions on the coal-mining provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, which together make up the Donbas region. Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014 forcibly displaced up to 1.5 million people, most of whom fled to other parts of Ukraine. But despite the constant threat of shelling and the risk of being purged for his loyalty to Ukraine, Donetsk native and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) journalist Aseyev remained in the Donbas to report on the conflict.

For those watching Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine and wondering how we got here, the answer lies in the Donbas. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recognition of the breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine paved the way for a large-scale escalation of the war that has claimed thousands of lives and sent millions of Ukrainians fleeing to avoid both the war itself and the violent repression that comes with life under Russian military rule.

Few people can better articulate the experience of life under Russian occupation than Stanislav Aseyev, whose recently released book, In Isolation: Dispatches from Occupied Donbas—translated from Ukrainian by Lidia Wolanskyj—gives a first-person account of the shelling, propaganda, and internal power struggles of Donetsk in the early days of the war that began there in 2014. The brutality and arbitrariness of rule in Russian-occupied Donbas that Aseyev depicts hint at what would await Ukraine in the event of a Russian-imposed regime, underscoring why the stakes of the war today could not possibly be higher.

In Isolation: Dispatches from Occupied Donbas, by Stanislav Aseyev, translated by Lidia Wolanskyj, Harvard University Press, 400 pp., .95, April 2022

In Isolation: Dispatches from Occupied Donbas, by Stanislav Aseyev, translated by Lidia Wolanskyj, Harvard University Press, 400 pp., $39.95, April 2022

Before Russia’s escalation on Feb. 24 brought rockets raining down on nearly every major city in Ukraine, Moscow focused its military attentions on the coal-mining provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, which together make up the Donbas region. Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014 forcibly displaced up to 1.5 million people, most of whom fled to other parts of Ukraine. But despite the constant threat of shelling and the risk of being purged for his loyalty to Ukraine, Donetsk native and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) journalist Aseyev remained in the Donbas to report on the conflict.

In Isolation is a compilation of his journalism, a series of snapshots that form a time capsule of Russian-occupied Donbas from 2015 to 2017 published in the Ukrainian outlets Tyzhden and Ukrayinska Pravda, as well as the U.S.-funded RFE/RL, in both Russian and Ukrainian. In these reports, Aseyev takes an inventory of people’s mental states (both his own and those of his neighbors), the contents of their pantries, and the makeup of the region’s separatist militias at various junctures. The result is a vivid and kaleidoscopic picture of the war in which landscapes, insignias, and even labels on sausages morph as militias slaughter each other and their leaders are assassinated by local rivals.

Aseyev invites his readers to take a seat in what he calls Donetsk’s “theater of the absurd,” the self-proclaimed breakaway republic where the sight of a child injured by a grenade is met with bystanders’ cynical laughter and where Aseyev has become so accustomed to shelling that he experiences headaches in its absence. Soviet-era slogans adorn billboards, and yet the Donetsk Philharmonic continues to cater to people’s cultural preferences with Freddie Mercury and Nirvana hits. This is Aseyev’s hometown. The militants here include his neighbors and former schoolmates.

It’s difficult to imagine Aseyev as a real person and not the protagonist of a dystopian postmodern novel.

At certain points, Aseyev is matter of fact, cutting through the fog of war with sober descriptions of battles, sham elections, and the black-market economy that emerged in Donetsk instead of a functioning government. But at other points it’s difficult to imagine Aseyev as a real person and not the protagonist of a dystopian postmodern novel. Although it’s technically journalism, the book has a very literary feel thanks to Aseyev’s distinctive narrative style and Wolanskyj’s faithful translation.

In one of the book’s most stirring passages, Aseyev compares life in the Donbas to a hellscape painted by Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch, alive with both grotesque and sympathetic characters. One such character is Homo donbasus, a perplexing 21st-century variation of Homo sovieticus, who is prepared to watch the Donbas reduced to rubble by Russian-backed forces in the name of restoring a mythological Soviet past. Although deeply pained and personally victimized by the absurdity of his neighbors’ Soviet aspirations, Aseyev is pragmatic and almost compassionate in his assessment. These are people, he writes, for whom “[Vladimir] Lenin is Kashtan ice cream for 28 kopeks and a warm May rally with their dads in 1979.”

His characterizations offer insight into why the coal miners and retirees of Russian-controlled Donbas are so responsive to Kremlin propaganda that paints neighboring Ukrainians as child-crucifying fascists. For those trying to understand the dynamics of Russian information warfare, In Isolation has much to offer, since the Donbas was the proving ground for Putin’s twisted narrative about “de-Nazification” of Ukraine. Aseyev describes how a typical “Hollywood plotline” of Russian propaganda capitalizes on Soviet nostalgia, a survival mentality of people accustomed to hardship, and the perception that the rest of Ukraine undervalues or even disdains the Donbas. “In order to understand whether Donetsk is lost to Ukraine forever,” he writes, “we should first ask ourselves whether it was ever ‘found’ under the coal dust, when the Ukrainian government was still in full swing here.”

Even more palpable is the feeling of betrayal among those who anticipated being welcomed with open arms by Russia. As the war raged on, the practice of putting a separatist cover over one’s Ukrainian passport started to fall out of fashion, and locals began to desert the militias in favor of safer work unloading trucks.

For all its talk of the “Russian world,” Aseyev points out, Russia never displayed any real zeal for aligning with or protecting the people of the Donbas. For eight years, Russian officials repeatedly denied any intention of absorbing the Donbas into Russia, and while the slogan “Crimea is ours” took off in Russia, there was never a corresponding movement to embrace the Donbas.

Even when Moscow gave civilians from the Donbas the opportunity to evacuate to Russia in mid-February before this year’s invasion, many were turned away, despite being promised safe conditions and a small stipend. Putin’s perverse rhetoric about protecting Russian speakers rings especially hollow now as bombs have fallen across Ukraine on the Russian-speaking populations of Kharkiv, Sumy, Kherson, Berdyansk, Mariupol, and Odesa.

Alarmingly, Aseyev wrote his final dispatch in May 2017 from behind barbed wire in Izoliatsiia, one of the Donbas’s most infamous prisons, whose name can be translated as “Isolation.” He wrote it at the behest of his captors to disguise the fact that he had been kidnapped, tortured, and sentenced to 30 years for writing the articles contained in this book. (The effective sequel to this book about his experience as a political prisoner, The Torture Camp on Paradise Street, is also a chilling and worthwhile read.) According to Ukrainian officials, as many as 500 Ukrainians are now being detained and tortured in the same fashion in the Kherson region alone.

In Isolation is not a complete or comprehensive telling of the war in the Donbas, but it does add important texture to the story for readers who have some background. The book was originally composed and translated in order to draw attention to Aseyev’s imprisonment. This edition now includes an introduction by the author, who was released from Izoliatsiia in a 2019 prisoner swap between Ukraine and Russia. He can now be found among the ranks of the Ukrainian military, where he has taken up arms in defense of Kyiv.

The book has renewed salience due to Russia’s tremendous escalation of the hostilities, the growing number of people under Russian occupation, and the mounting accusations of Russian war crimes perpetrated in the Donbas and elsewhere. Aseyev give voice to those who have remained throughout the fighting, whether due to caretaker responsibilities, mobility issues, or just having nowhere else to go. In fact, the book’s main thesis is that, despite the forced displacement of the Donbas’s pro-Ukrainian population to what he calls “mainland” Ukraine, the exodus did not leave the Donbas home to a purely pro-Russia contingent. In December 2015, Aseyev estimated 25 percent of remainers to be loyal Ukraine.

Although it is far too dangerous to publicly express such sympathies in the occupied Donbas—flying the Ukrainian flag is met with swift and ruthless punishment—many who remain long for the day when the Donbas rejoins Ukraine. While international aid organizations are rightly concerned with the humanitarian needs of the 5 million Ukrainian refugees who have crossed into other European states, around 40 million Ukrainians remain in the country. Aseyev’s main achievement, in addition to crafting some truly interesting writing, is to center those who don’t leave but continue tending to their lives despite the grimmest of circumstances.

Even as negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow over the terms of Ukraine’s future have stalled, the question of the Donbas looms large. Russia’s repeated violations of both the Minsk agreements and its promises to respect humanitarian corridors in places like Mariupol and Kharkiv bode ill for a negotiated settlement that protects civilian life, let alone sees the return of Ukraine’s occupied territories. Russia appears to be poised to stage fraudulent referendums in the occupied parts of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kherson on their accession to Russia, sequels to the farcical primary elections Aseyev describes in September 2016. But after the tremendous destruction and violence committed there, particularly in Mariupol, Ukrainians will likely fight tooth and nail to liberate these territories, making the currently intensifying Battle of the Donbas a pivotal moment in an eight-year war.

Among its conditions for ending the war, Russia has listed the Ukrainian recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states. But its attempts to extract concessions from Kyiv at gunpoint have met tremendously powerful resistance from Ukrainians, for whom the relinquishment of the Donbas and Crimea is a nonstarter. Aseyev’s book is a poignant reminder that although the people of the Donbas have at times felt marginalized, they remain at the center of this war and will not be forgotten.

Lillian Posner is a research associate for Think Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations. She holds a master’s degree in Eurasian, Russian, and East European studies from Georgetown University.  Twitter: @LillianPosner

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