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Ukraine, Russia, Art, Torture
Once upon a time, after the Soviet Union came to an end, a factory producing insulating materials went bankrupt. This was in Donetsk, in southeastern Ukraine, which had been a great industrial center in the Soviet Union. A few people interested in the city's socialist realist tradition had the idea that the city's post-industrial infrastructure could be turned towards supporting local art. In Ukrainian and Russian, the word "insulation" for building materials is the same word as "isolation," and so the new art center repurposed the name for its avant-garde project: "Isolation."
That was in 2010. For four years, "Isolation" served Donetsk and the region as a center for artistic initiatives according to the principle of site-specificity: it supported local artists and invited international guests for local projects. Then Russia invaded Ukraine (the first time). In 2014, Crimea was occupied and annexed, and Russian special forces tried to provoke uprisings in other Ukrainian districts. They failed almost everywhere, falling back to parts of southeastern Ukraine, the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts. On the run from the Ukrainian army, they were assisted by the regular Russian army. In the artillery war that followed, much of Donetsk was destroyed.
The art foundation was expelled, and its premises, the old insulation factory, taken over by Russian-backed separatists. They transformed it into a concentration camp and torture facility, which it remains, under Russian control, to this day. "Isolation" then took on yet a third meaning: not insulation materials, not the solitude of the artist, but the loneliness of the tortured. The art foundation itself moved to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital.
In the history of this one building, then, we can see three phases of the recent history of Ukraine: the Soviet Union (the factory), independent Ukraine (the experiment), and Russian occupation (the camp). This story has been told a few times in the West but is not, I think, very well known. It is a small part of the recent history of Ukraine that helps to explain why Ukrainians resist the way they do.
The Ukrainian writer Stanislav Aseyev was born in Donetsk in 1989, two years before the Soviet Union collapsed. He was a young man in 2010 when the "Isolation" factory become a center for artistic initiative. A writer, he became an underground journalist after the (first) Russian invasion, filing reports under a pseudonym about his native Donetsk region. In 2017, he was kidnapped by separatists and held in the "Isolation" concentration camp and tortured for 962 days. Nine hundred and sixty-two days.
His book, The Torture Camp on Paradise Street, was published not long ago in an excellent English translation. It is an important work of prison literature, an examination of the meaning of torture for victim and perpetrator. In a literary sense, it is a conquest of absurdity and pain through concision and precision. This is not an easy book to find, though you can find an excerpt here, nor is it an easy book to read. I will just cite here its short "Background" section, which conveys something essential about what Ukrainians are right to fear from a Russian occupation.
"Isolation is the name of a secret prison in the Russian-controlled part of the Donbas. It is being used as a concentration camp. Hundreds of people have passed through Isolation. Most of them have survived torture by electric shock, rape, humiliation, and heavy forced labor. Several inmates are known to have been murdered. No human rights or humanitarian organizations have access to Isolation's prisoners. At the time of this writing, Isolation continues to operate. It is overseen by the Federal Security Bureau of the Russian Federation (FSB)."