An account of torture in a Donetsk prison

“But [surely] people can’t go on recording their every crime for six years, ironically glancing at the last UN report? Or can they? In that sense Isolation — it’s what our world is.”
Stanislav Aseev, The Torture Camp On Paradise Street, preface

Yesterday, a video of a Russian soldier cutting off a Ukrainian soldier’s penis made the rounds on social media. Although it probably doesn’t even rank as the most serious war crime of that day, it nevertheless caught a lot of people’s attention, with some commentators saying it marked a new breach of the rules of war, others that it’s par for the course, and others merely expressing their anger or disgust.

Watching the video, or even watching other people’s reaction, raises questions. How can people do that? How can they be allowed to? Is there some sick rationality behind it? Is it the work of pathological cases that will be punished?

Well, I don’t know, obviously. But the above cited book, which I happened to be reading at the time, posed in a particularly pressing way these questions. In this short post I want to mention some of the things I took from the book.

The book is forthcoming with HUP; it’s been available in Russian and Ukrainian since 2020; I read the Russian version (I can’t find the link where I bought it immediately — if anyone wants the link, let me know and I’ll find it. It’s from a legit Ukrainian site; update it’s possibly this site — the file contains both the Russian original and the Ukrainian in a non-drm format.)

Two caveats: I’m not doing justice to the book by concentrating only on the nature of torture; the book — as does Aseev’s other English language book (I reviewed it a few posts back)— has a lot of interesting material. Second, my Russian isn’t amazing which means I both didn’t read any word and might have misunderstood things. But hopefully not.

Before getting to my main point, though, some background. Aseev is a journalist and novelist from Makiivka, a ̶s̶m̶a̶l̶l̶ quite big town in eastern Ukraine (thanks to a reader for correcting me about the size, which would make it easily the second largest town of my country). When the Russian-backed separatists quickly took power of the region in 2014, he started writing — fairly innocuous, almost neutral — reports of what it was like to live in an occupied place.

Unfortunately, it was not neutral enough. He was captured and sentenced to 15 years in prison; his case caught international attention, and the book tells us the ridiculous reason behind the sentence. He got some years for:

quotation marks, in which I used the words “Donetsk People’s Republic”, referring to its unrecognized the international community and even Russia.

That is to say, because he wrote “Donetsk People’s Republic” rather than Donetsk People’s Republic he was brutally tortured and kept in the dark for nigh on 1000 days.

And another point. The video yesterday was by no means the only time torture has been a pressing issue in Russia — at least since Putin’s reign, there has been a steady stream of stories. Anna Politkovskaya’s book Putin’s Russia begins by with the story of the failure of the justice system adequately to punish a general who abducted, raped, and murdered an innocent teenage Chechen girl; the notorious Wagner group of mercenaries filmed themselves performing atrocities in Syria. Last year, videos of tortures in Russia on Russian prisoners surfaced (although I didn’t watch yesterday’s video, I did watch some of these; I don’t recommend it.)

Somehow, and going back decades, intolerable cruelty has surfaced again and again in Russia at the boundaries of war. But that just makes our question more pressing: what is happening when someone tortures, and does so, seemingly, gratuitously, for no benefit?

Some Answers?

It can seem glib or insufficiently respectful to talk about others’ suffering in such a detached way, but surely the only way to get rid of things we don’t want in the world is by looking at them, so here’s three awkwardly phrased ways of thinking about why torture happens:

Russia the cruel. The ‘Russian soul’ is inherently given to such cruelty
Army. The army uses torture as a militarily viable strategy given their aims and enemies
Individualism. Torture is carried out by individuals on their own, to satisfy their own desires; army or nationality is irrelevant. There are sadists out there, and they will act.

I think we can dispose of the first one, despite the fact that at least some people on social media seem to gravitate towards it, for the very reason that any explanation involving the soul of 140 odd million people is going to be a bad one. Some of the best anti-war sources, for example, are Russian, such as the Youtube channel Populyarnya Politika. Similarly, torture is everywhere — from Guantanamo bay to the Troubles in my Northern Ireland, even to today, in this sleepy town, where you’ll pass billboards warning for the signs of modern day slavery. It’s not just a Russian thing. The second one is open, and we’ll see some support for it below. Maybe somehow there is a strategic aim to such blatant flauntings of international law. I think Aseev’s book supports a version of the third.

Absolute Evil, and What Enables It

The figure of the torturer is central to Aseev’s book. In a sense, that’s unfair: he himself says the book is not about torture, and it certainly spans a lot more than that, but it’s hard to come away from it without having it central antagonist reverberating in your mind.

In a chapter entitled ‘Absolute Evil’, Aseev introduces us to Palich. He’s the only character Aseev names, for the very poignant reason that among his readers there might be people, particularly women, whose rape and torture, were it depicted in the book, would retraumatize them. Palich, he thinks, though, is off bounds.

The character is simultaneously true to life but also something like a fictional depiction of Evil, not like the stereotypical Nazi who runs concentration camps before going home to their family. He is:

A convinced sadist, rapist, executioner and alcoholic with classic psychopathy, at the same time he is a subtle psychologist and manipulator with a good sense of humor.

In a detail stranger than fiction, he serves, in addition to being the main torturer, as the camp doctor, and in the morning he will ask about the injuries he inflicted the night before, which based on how drunk he was the night before, the night being when the torturing happened; thus he is non-plussed when Aseev complains about numbness in his thumb after it being electric-shocked all night by that same person.

The portrayal can make it seem as if Palich is a wild card, someone who isn’t part of the design of the system. One lesson that the book impressed upon me, though, was that it’s more complicated. In a later chapter called “Who are these people?” he returns to the theme of what it’s like to be a torturer, and in turns out we maybe do have our stereotypical evil-as-a-day-job people:

I don’t want us to be too hasty in labeling those who bullied people in Isolation as a sadist. Of course, most of them deserve it and are classic psychopaths and sadists, incapable of empathy in the case of other people’s suffering. It was the inability to sympathize with the pain of others that made it possible for these people to torture people around the clock for years, then return to their families from their shift, lead a completely normal life outside the walls of Izolyatsia, and torture again the next day. It is interesting that one of those who arrested me in Donetsk once very accurately spoke about this type of people, when on the second day after the torture he took me out of the basement for another interrogation. To my then still naive question: “What are you doing here with people?” The man smiled and replied, “Do you think a normal person can tie a wire to his penis, torture someone for four hours in a row, and then return to his wife and have a quiet dinner? For example, I can’t. Therefore, we keep special people who are capable of this. Someone has to do this job too.”

If this is right, then it’s a job. But it’s a particular job. It’s a job that only fit for some and indeed only fit for people with severe problems (personality disorder seems too weak) who perhaps need to numb themselves with alcohol to do what they do.

(Update: a reader tells me that the torturer was identified and imprisoned: see here for the information.)

Maybe it’s something like that. But I think it leaves something out. One thing that really shines through Aseev’s book is the everydayness and ubiquity of the cruelty. It is even geographically marked: the torture camp is a former factory. At times, he listens to busses and factories making noise outside the prison, which is in the centre of Donetsk. Most poignantly, he is taken for a drive through his hometown, where his mother is waiting for him, and realizes that although they’re in the same geographical space, they could be in different worlds given what separates them.

But what does separate them? I think it’s the same thing that enables Palich: it’s the strange half-formed nature of the institutions that surround him. One of his first realizations is that he isn’t in an ‘official’ prison and indeed the book begins with the joy of being moved from the Isolation kontslagerya (the word means concentration camp) to proper, official, prisons.

It’s a familiar point from a range of areas that some of the very worst outcomes arise when we bring together human capacity for cruelty with institutions that don’t work as they should (or, depending on your frame of mind, that do work as they should but shouldn’t exist). We’ve already seen this in passing with the Nazis: one view there is that it took the development and sophistication of German society to be advanced enough to carry out the holocaust. We might also think of Amartya Sen’s view that famine is a social rather than a geographical problem. Or we might think of Tim Snyder’s argument (in Black Earth) that during the holocaust the countries with more developed states were better at protecting its citizens from the Nazis. Bad institutions in a sense enable more cruelty than even the most Hobbesian state of nature.

I’m tempted to think that this partly explains Palich and maybe more (the case Politkovskaya discusses also involves drunken and out-of-control officials and weak institutions). There is institution enough to have prisons, guards, and so on — to make people weak enough that they are at risk of Palich. But not strong enough to stop him before it’s too late. In a sense, this is the worst stage of development one can imagine.

But we can diagnose why it’s worst: it’s worst because the institutions institutions themselves are weak, letting a sadistic drunk run wild through unrecognized prisons in unrecognized breakaway states. That would fit with the general theory of Russia as a country with weak rule of law, overrun with corruption, and so on. Torture would be a political failing, the failing of weeding out the sadists as any government ought to. It’s not some fundamental darkness of the Russian soul that explains the horrifying actions: it’s weak discipline and uncontrolled armies.

I don’t know about you, but for me that’s in a sense more hopeful than the more individual-centered view that there are simply sadistic psychopaths out there who will run free of any control we try and impose upon them.

Snyder ends the book mentioned above with the thought that no amount of reflection about cruelty undoes it. The same applies here: all this is obviously of no comfort to the people suffering. But maybe it points, if inchoately, to a diagnosise and way forward: to stop evil escaping, make the institutions better; if you’re dealing with a country that lacks such institutions, take that into consideration in thinking about approach it.

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