A Journalist Disappears in Occupied Donetsk
30 July, 2017
For years, Stanislav Aseev had secretly chronicled life in Ukraine’s occupied east for pro-Kyiv media. Then the separatists found him and accused him of espionage.

On June 3, Stanislav Aseev disappeared with hardly a trace. That day, the resident of Ukraine’s occupied eastern city of Donetsk was supposed to visit his mother in the neighboring town of Makiivka. But he never showed, and no one could reach him by phone.

The next day, Aseev’s mother went to his apartment in Donetsk and waited outside for hours. Then she summoned his landlord. Together, they entered the apartment. What they found there made one thing clear: Aseev’s home had been searched, and he was likely in the custody of the Russia-backed separatists who control the city.

Photo credit: Yegor Firsov

The reason was clear to many of the young man’s friends: For several years, Aseev had been secretly chronicling life in the unrecognized “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) for news outlets like Ukrainska Pravda, Zerkalo Tizhnya and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Donbas.Realii project.

Writing under the pseudonym “Stanislav Vasin,” the 27-year-old had covered subjects as diverse as the funeral of separatist warlord Arsen “Motorola” Pavlov, the reintegration of rebel fighters into DPR society, the realities of life in a warzone, and Soviet nostalgia in Donetsk.

Cyber Security Under Occupation

“Residents of the [occupied territories] with pro-Ukrainian views all use social networks under pseudonyms and without personal photos. However, it’s also important to use a number of programs that encrypt your IP address [...] And this is just the beginning. Even when you step out for a few minutes to buy a loaf of bread, your mobile phone should be clean. No suspicious messages, photos, or even open social media pages should remain on it. Personally, I sometimes even delete certain programs if I know that I will be in the city all day. That applies to both your personal computer and your laptop. Yes, it takes a lot of time. But you should remember that, if the ‘State Security Ministry’ comes to visit your  home or encounters you on the street, the first thing they will check are these information carriers.” [...] But no need to be overzealous. Back in the summer, Donetsk [security agents] searched me at a checkpoint. My completely clean cell phone aroused their suspicion.”
Stanislav Aseev, December 6, 2016, RFE/RL

The nature of reporting from the DPR meant that Aseev’s writing was far from traditional journalism. He did not openly conduct interviews and seldom covered breaking news. But his work offered one of the clearest windows into the secretive separatist “republic” — how people lived, what they believed, and how the DPR’s pseudo-Soviet ideology mingled with the realities of daily life in the 21st century.

“Of course, everyone who knew him told him: ‘Stas, this won’t end well,’” says Yegor Firsov, a former Ukrainian parliamentarian and one of Aseev’s friends. “He understood that. But he considered it his mission, his duty to stay in that territory and describe the events that were happening there.”

“A Very Particular Person”

Aseev wasn’t always a journalist. In fact, his first passion was philosophy.

Firsov met Aseev in the philosophy department of Donetsk National Technical University. For two years, they studied together until Firsov transferred to the law department. Despite that, they stayed in touch.

Aseev was “a very particular person” and philosophy was a lifestyle for him, Firsov says. He was quite private and perhaps even a loner. But he was also a brilliant student who had read classical German philosophy while still in high school. When he entered the university, he even intimidated some of the younger instructors.

On Soviet Nostalgia

“These are the thousands of separatists with the idea of Communism and the Soviet empire, the Komsomol [youth organizations] being reborn in mass on the occupied territory, the hundreds of people with Soviet flags, ready to die by the Lenin monument on Lenin Square so that it remains standing. [...] And all this on a little piece of Ukrainian land, more than 20 years after the “evil empire,” it would seem, finally sank into oblivion. Or not? [...] The thing is, when people talk about Lenin in Donetsk, they are not talking about [the historical figure, Vladmir Ilyich] Ulyanov. [...] No, it’s ‘Chestnut’ ice cream on sale for 28 kopecks and a warm May political demonstration with dad in 1979. In other words, it’s a deeply intimate personal past, completely disconnected from historical memory or reflection on the [1917-1922] civil war.”
Stanislav Aseev, October 18, 2015, Ukrainska Pravda

Despite being encouraged by professors to enter academia, after university Aseev worked as a gravedigger, truck loader, and a number of other jobs. But he also maintained a passion for writing, having published a book of short stories while still a student.

And when the separatists seized control of Donetsk in 2014 and war erupted in eastern Ukraine, Aseev felt called to document the destruction of his native region in words. He began writing about what he saw there on Facebook under the surname “Vasin.” Soon, journalists were contacting him and asking him to write for their publications.


On June 3, Firsov received a call from Aseev’s mother asking if he knew where Stanislav was. Firsov immediately understood something was wrong. If Aseev had promised to visit his mother, he would have at least gotten in touch with her if he couldn’t make it.

Firsov wrote to Aseev on Facebook, asking where he was and letting him know his mother was worried. The next day, Aseev wrote back that he had fallen a bit ill, but everything was fine.

“So we started writing each other, and I know Stas well. It became wasn’t Stas,” Firsov says. He realized that Aseev had been captured and his captors had taken over his Facebook account.

The Funeral of Separatist Warlord Arsen “Motorola” Pavlov

“From what I could see at that moment, you could hardly call the event organized, despite the many rumors that [the authorities] would round people up and send them to [the ceremony] by force, like at all previous political demonstrations. [...] I didn’t notice any particular hysteria. Among all these hundreds of people, I saw only one woman who was truly crying and covering her face with a handkerchief. She stood not in the main line [of people], but near the theater. Nonetheless, the [overall] emotions were just like hers. A man standing next to me said something interesting. I quote: “This many people wouldn’t show up for [DPR leader Alexander] Zakharchenko.”
Stanislav Aseev, October 19, 2016, RFE/RL

But it took a while to get confirmation of this. On June 6, Firsov used Facebook to inform the public that the journalist “Stanislav Vasin” had gone missing in Donetsk. Several days later, a colleague from RFE/RL, Tetyana Iakubovych, was among the first to reveal Aseev’s real name at the request of his loved ones. Predicting that Aseev would be accused of espionage in the DPR, she stressed that his work was purely journalistic.

“What happened to him shows that no one is safe,” she said.

Photo credit: Yegor Firsov

The next development was odd: The “DPR police” published an announcement online that they were searching for the missing journalist. Although almost everyone assumed Aseev was in the DPR’s custody, the separatists appeared to be pretending he wasn’t.

Then, on July 16, Firsov got  news about Aseev, which he immediately published on Facebook: The DPR’s “State Security Ministry” had sent a letter to Aseev’s mother confirming that they had her son in custody. They also allowed her to meet with Aseev.

The separatists accused Aseev of espionage, for which he could receive 12 to 14 years in prison, Firsov wrote on Facebook.

“Stas is holding up well, and understands that he cannot hope for a fair trial [in the DPR],” he added. “His only hope is a prisoner exchange.”

A Path to Freedom?

So far, however, a prisoner exchange appears to be a distant hope. During a July 19 meeting of the Minsk Process for regulating the conflict in Ukraine’s east, representatives of the separatists never even confirmed that Aseev had been detained.

The DPR only provided public confirmation of Aseev’s arrest on July 28. In a letter to the Russian Union of Journalists, the so-called “Foreign Ministry” of the DPR accused Aseev of committing crimes under the DPR’s “legal code” and said he was under investigation by the “republic’s” “prosecutor’s office.”

On War and Work in the DNR

“I recently met a childhood acquaintance in Makiivka. In 2014, we practically cut ties because, as the ‘Russian Spring’ [separatist movement] began, he went to fight for the rebels. [...] At the start of the war, he abandoned fairly high-paid work and went to fight for ‘the idea.’ [...] However, after [DPR ex-‘defense minister’ Igor Girkin, a.k.a.] Strelkov fled, [Alexander] Zakharchenko came to power, and all the ideas — including ‘Russia won’t abandon us, Russia will take us in’ — collapsed, he successfully parted ways with the fighters. But it turned out that there was almost no life left here outside the barracks. The previous work in Makiivka no longer existed. All the enterprises had closed, and war provided the only income. The coal mines still paid some miniscule salary. Remembering his previous salary in 2014, he reluctantly took a job there. [...] After two months of being paid in thank yous [at the mine], I met him again on the street dressed in guess what? That’s right: camouflage. Once again, he had joined the rebels, who pay 15,000 rubles, “for a second round,” as he himself put it. And now he’s thinking about leaving again. It turns out that, in the ‘DPR’ army, it's not much better than in the one understands what they’re fighting for anymore and why this all happened.”
Stanislav Aseev, May 28, 2017, Tizhden

Rights activists are concerned. Amnesty International, one of several NGOs following Aseev’s case, is calling on the public to increase pressure on the DPR by writing to the separatist leaders and urging them to release Aseev and end the practice of arbitrary detention. The goal of the campaign is to bring Aseev’s plight to public attention and make the DPR “realize that the world is watching,” says Maria Guryeva, a press officer at Amnesty International Ukraine.

Supporters are convinced that getting Aseev freed is a matter of urgency. Firsov says he knows Aseev is being kept in poor conditions in jail. Furthermore, since Aseev stands accused of espionage, he fears the DPR may want to “beat information out of him.” On July 28, Firsov wrote on Facebook that his friend’s health had sharply deteriorated.

But perhaps the biggest risk is Aseev standing “trial.”

“The dangerous thing here is that, if you read the so-called ‘criminal code’ of the [DPR], it says a person can get up to 20 years in prison for espionage,” Guryeva says. “And if this happened during wartime, they could even get the so-called death penalty.”

But with no international legitimacy, the DPR has no legal jurisdiction to try cases. As a result, Guryeva believes it’s important to call capital punishment in the DPR by its legal name: summary execution.

Political Prisoners in the DPR: Arrested in Donetsk, Aseev joins the ranks of Ihor Kozlovskiy and Volodymyr Fomichev. All three Ukrainians were illegally imprisoned by the DPR for realizing their right to freedom of expression, says Maria Guryeva, a press officer at Amnesty International Ukraine.

Kozlovskiy is a prominent Donetsk-based religious scholar, who was well known for his pro-Ukrainian views and involvement in a 2014 ecumenical prayer marathon for a united Ukraine in Donetsk. He was working on an article documenting how the separatist “republics” in Ukraine’s east had negatively affected religious minorities when he was arrested in January 2016. The DPR charged Kozlovskiy with espionage and manufacturing weapons after the separatist “investigators” reportedly found two hand grenades in his home. The DPR “authorities” subsequently sentenced him to nearly three years in prison, where he remains to this day.

By contrast, Fomichev was a Kyiv-based blogger and employee of the Centre UA non-governmental organization.  He was arrested in January 2016 by the DPR while visiting his parents in their native Makiivka for the New Year’s holiday. On August 16, 2016, Fomichev confessed to the improbable charge of bringing two hand grenades from Kyiv to Makiivka, likely believing he would be freed if he falsely admitted guilt. Instead, he was sentenced to two years in prison.

/By Matthew Kupfer