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.
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.
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 clear...it wasn’t Stas,” Firsov says. He realized that Aseev had been captured and his captors had taken over his Facebook account.
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.”
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.
/By Matthew Kupfer