The Russian-controlled east Ukrainian separatists have been operating a small concentration camp in the city of Donetsk, Ukraine for more than six years now. Outside any regular jurisdiction, men and women are being physically and psychologically tormented on a daily basis, in ways reminiscent of Europe’s darkest times.
Throughout the fateful year of 2014, the Russian state’s mass media, spokespeople and friends abroad managed to impose upon large parts of the Western public a distorted interpretation of the violent conflict in the Donets Basin, commonly called the Donbas. In parallel with the annexation of Crimea in spring 2014, Moscow intervened with agents, special forces, volunteers and mercenaries into an inner-Ukrainian civil conflict in the Donbas, thereby turning non-violent domestic tensions into a Russian pseudo-civil war against the new post-Euromaidan Ukrainian state. Influential observers in and outside Ukraine nevertheless adopted the Kremlin’s narrative that the Moscow-instigated, by now six-year long, war in Eastern Ukraine had its roots in violations of human rights in the Donbas by the central government in Kyiv. In March 2014, Ukraine’s Russophones as Moscow’s story goes, stood up against a new Ukrainian, allegedly “fascist,” regime that had emerged from the Euromaidan revolution. According to Kremlin propaganda, “anti-fascist” Donbas “rebels” (opolchentsy) rose to defend the rights of Ukraine’s ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers to use their native language and enjoy Russophone culture.
Without much concern for the actual course of events on the ground, numerous politicians, activists and journalists — especially in Western Europe — have since been reproducing Moscow’s narration of the events and nature of the Donbas war. This has not only led to belated, and so far ineffective, sanction policies from Brussels vis-à-vis Moscow; it has also led the European Union, Russia’s largest trading and investment partner, into an ethical no man’s land. While Western media has been continuously interested in Ukraine’s marginal right-wing groups and their occasional attacks on minority groups, there has been far less public scrutiny of the worse and more frequent infringements of human rights in Crimea and in the Donbas. This concerns the penitentiary systems in occupied territories, among others, where even Russia’s deficient rule of law is not, or at best partly, functioning.
Since the summer of 2014, one of the most brutal prisons of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, a Kremlin-installed pseudo-state in Eastern Ukraine, has been functioning in the city of Donetsk. Being a secret institution, unofficially this grim facility is called “Izoliatsiia” (Isolation). It was set up on the territory of a former plant that produced insulation. Having seised the factory, the separatists, with instructions from Moscow, created a military base there. The administrative premises of the former plant, along with a system of bomb shelters, were turned into prison cells and torture chambers. The “Izoliatsiia” prison quickly became akin to a concentration camp in which torture, humiliation and rape of both women and men, as well as forced hard physical labor, are the rules of the day.
One of the authors of this article is a former inmate of “Izoliatsiia.” As a Ukrainian journalist, Stanislav Aseyev was arrested on espionage charges by the so-called “Ministry of State Security” of the Donetsk People’s Republic in May 2017. He spent 31 months in custody, including a 28-month term in the “Izoliatsiia” concentration camp, and endured various forms of torture there. Aseyev was freed during a Russian-Ukrainian prisoner exchange in late December 2019.
At that point in time, there were eight ordinary multi-prisoner cells in “Izoliatsiia,” two disciplinary seclusion cells, one basement-bomb shelter for holding prisoners and a single cell adjoining it, as well as several torture cellars. Three of the eight cells were female cells. The maximum number of inmates held simultaneously in “Izoliatsiia” could reach approximately 80 people.
The prison has extremely strict rules of detention, which are themselves a medium for torture. Outside the cells, prisoners are obliged to move only with bags or sacks on their heads. When the cell door is being opened, the prisoners have to turn around, face the cell’s wall, put a bag on their head, put their hands behind their back and stand silent until the door is closed. There was a period when, by order of the administration, the prisoners in the cellar were also obliged to kneel down and cross their legs. Lying on the bunk was strictly forbidden. This right could be obtained only after having served a longer term, i.e., six months or more, in “Izoliatsiia.”
The prisoners are monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The cells are constantly lit. It is strictly forbidden to turn off the light, even during the day. This rule has a deep psychological impact on the prisoners.
Even more so, “Izoliatsiia” is best known for its system of cruel physical torture, which is applied to prisoners of all ages and genders. The most common method of torture is exposure to electricity. A newly-arrived prisoner is immediately lowered into the basement, stripped naked, tightly taped to a metal table and connected to two wires from a field military phone. Water is then poured over the prisoner and an electric current is released. Among the prisoners of the concentration camp, one is considered to be lucky if the wires are tied to one’s fingers or ears. Most often, one wire is connected to the genitals and the second is inserted into the anus.
The prisoner may also be forced to “hold the wall.” This is a method of torture in which inmates stand against the wall, spread their legs widely and put their hands on the wall above their head — and they must stand like this anywhere from several hours to several days. If the prisoners get tired and put their hands down slightly or try to sit down, they are immediately hit with a pipe on their genitals by the prison administrators.
Heavy forced labor and rape are further forms of torture practiced in “Izoliatsiia.” At any time of the year, convicts, mostly males, with a long sentence time are forced to work in the industrial part of the former factory or are taken to do construction work in a “polygon”. Apart from the prison administration’s torture, “Izoliatsiia” inmates are subject to the harsh and peculiar system of informal rules and notions (poniatiia) by which criminals organize themselves in the penitentiary systems of the post-Soviet space.
For instance, there is a caste of the “omitted,” or raped, men. These are prisoners on whose lips or forehead a prison administrator or guard has put his penis, thereby “downgrading” the status of the convict to that of an “omitted.” These men then have to do the dirtiest and toughest work in the prison. They can also serve as “tools” to pass this status on to other prisoners.
Much of Western discourse, under the influence of Russian or pro-Russian spokesmen, still revolves around Kyiv’s infringement of human rights in Eastern Ukraine. Yet, the reality is very different, as illustrated. Scandalous infringements in Donbas like those outlined above have, moreover, also been reported from annexed Crimea. Various human rights violations within the occupied territories happen not only in the harsh prison systems. They have become part of public life in the Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine since 2014. In Crimea, the peninsula’s largest indigenous group, the Crimean Tatars, and their political institutions have become targets of systematic terror by the Russian state. In spite of these and numerous other Russian infractions, Russia’s delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), after it had been banned from this organisation in 2014, was readmitted to the group and granted voting rights in summer 2019.
Stanislav Aseyev is a writer and journalist who worked in the Donbas for leading Ukrainian media outlets including “Dzerkalo tyzhnia,” “Radio Svoboda,” “Ukrainska Pravda” and “Tyzhden.” In 2017-2019, he was incarcerated in the Donetsk “Isolation” torture prison before being freed in a prisoner exchange. Since 2020, he has worked as an Expert on the occupied Donbas territories at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future in Kyiv.
Andreas Umland is general editor of the ibidem Press book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society,” a Senior Expert at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future in Kyiv and a Research Fellow at the Russia and Eurasia Program of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI) in Stockholm.
This article is based on Stanislav Aseyev’s recent Ukrainian book “A ‘Bright Way:’ The History of a Concentration Camp” (L’viv: Vydavnytstvo Staroho Leva, 2020), and is part of a series of UI Stockholm articles related to Sweden’s 2021 Chairmanship in the OSCE.