via aleksey godin – Free Ukrainian prisoners in Russia!
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people in Russia and in other countries are counting the number of days that Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian film director incarcerated in Russia, has been on hunger strike. Every day, hundreds of people note the count in their Facebook posts: “Day Ten,” “Day Seventeen.” Today is Day Twenty-Two.
Sentsov, who is forty-one, is serving a twenty-year sentence in a high-security prison camp in the Russian Far North. He has been on hunger strike since May 14th. He is demanding that Russia release all Ukrainian political prisoners. He is not demanding that he himself be released; from all appearances, he is prepared—indeed, is planning—to die. As a result, different people have adopted different slogans or hashtags to support him: some hope to #FreeOlegSentsov, while others are desperate to #SaveOlegSentsov.
Ten days after Sentsov began his hunger strike, a group of about seventy human-rights activists, lawyers, and filmmakers gathered in Moscow to talk about what they could do to keep him from dying. They didn’t come up with a solution.
Sentsov was arrested in May, 2014, less than two months after Russia occupied Crimea. He was born in Crimea and, like many local residents, is an ethnic Russian who holds Ukrainian citizenship. Unlike an apparent majority of Crimeans, though, he identifies strongly as a Ukrainian citizen and was active in the revolutionary movement that overthrew Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Moscow President, in February, 2014. Soon after, Russia invaded Ukraine, occupying the Crimean Peninsula and waging a slow war in the east of the country. Sentsov became active in the volunteer movement that supported fighters on the Ukrainian side, delivering food and supplies. He made note of this at his trial, in his own speech, which he used to describe the war that Russia denied it was waging.
Sentsov stood accused of terrorism. The prosecution claimed that he had been involved in setting fires to the doors of the unofficial representative offices of the ruling Russian party in Crimea, United Russia, and in plotting to blow up a Lenin monument. There was no evidence of Sentsov’s participation in either the fires or a plot to destroy the monument. Protest by small-scale arson is an established part of radical protests in Russia. These fires are generally set at night, when the offices are not occupied, and are limited to scorching the doors or windows. As a matter of practice, Russian courts, both before and after the Sentsov trial, regarded such fires as crimes against property. As for the Lenin monument, the charge was explicitly political. For Ukrainians, these monuments had become, bizarrely but intuitively, symbols of Russian imperialism. More than a hundred had been brought down during the first months of the revolution, in a process that became known as Leninopad, or “Leninfall.” Russian-occupied Crimea, however, preserved its Lenin monuments and even restored one that had been removed before the occupation. Not only did the prosecution present no evidence that Sentsov planned to blow up a monument; it had no evidence that an alleged plan to destroy an inanimate object constituted terrorism, either.
At the conclusion of his trial, three years ago, Sentsov refused to engage with the charges against him. “I’m not going to ask you for anything—leniency and all that,” he began. “The court of an occupying power by definition can’t be just. Nothing personal, Your Honor.” Sentsov rejected the very idea that he, a Ukrainian citizen who was arrested on land that most of the world considers part of Ukraine, could be tried in a Russian court.
The court sentenced Sentsov to twenty years in a high-security facility, and he was shipped off to the Arctic Circle, more than three thousand miles from Crimea. The camp is as difficult to get to as any place in Russia. The country has reserved this kind of punishment for its most hated political prisoners, such as the former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who spent more than ten years behind bars, much of it beyond the Arctic Circle, before he was released and fled to Berlin immediately afterward.
Sentsov’s hunger strike appears to be timed for the World Cup, which begins in Russia on June 14th. With the attention of international media trained on Russia, perhaps the Kremlin can be compelled to pay attention to Sentsov’s demand, especially if there is a risk that foreign dignitaries or even teams will decline to attend the tournament.
According to Sentsov’s lawyer, Dmitry Dinze, Sentsov spent months preparing for his hunger strike. He began rejecting food packages from family and friends—the main source of sustenance for inmates in Russia—and gradually lessened his food intake before announcing that he was going to stop eating altogether. Then, through Dinze, Sentsov issued a terse statement saying that he demanded the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners held in Russia and that he was prepared to die. He did not provide a list of the people he considers Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia, but, according to Dinze, there are sixty-four people who fit that description.
Official Russian media have covered Sentsov’s hunger strike with a tone of mockery and resentment. “A Terrorist Has Taken Himself Hostage and Is Demanding That Russia Surrender” was the title of a piece by a prominent columnist for the largest state news agency. There is a grain of truth to that statement. In the Soviet era, political prisoners used the hunger strike to claim a kind of power: once they stopped being afraid of hunger, torture, and death, they could not be controlled, even in a prison. Instead, they made it their wardens’ problem to try to keep them alive. And, if they died, they had succeeded in snatching death back from the abyss of totalitarian anonymity.
Soviet dissidents used the hunger strike as means of protest, which meant, largely, a means of attracting the world’s attention. To go on hunger strike, one had to be prepared die and, worse, to face the torture of being force-fed. The best-known Soviet hunger strike was undertaken by Anatoly Marchenko, a dissident who had spent most of his adult life behind bars. In 1986, halfway through a ten-year sentence, he stopped eating and demanded that the Soviet Union release all political prisoners—a demand that seemed utterly unrealistic at the time. His hunger strike lasted a hundred and seventeen days, for about half of which he was forcibly fed. In December, 1986, a few days after ending his hunger strike, Marchenko died. Within a few months, all Soviet political prisoners were released; it is now generally believed that the release had been in the works, but was speeded up by Marchenko’s protest.
Sentsov is surely aware of the way in which his demand echoes Marchenko’s, and of the likelihood that he will die for his cause as well. “He has decided that he is not going to serve out his twenty-year sentence,” Karinna Moskalenko, who is the founder and director of an organization that brings cases to the European Court for Human Rights, and is probably Russia’s most prominent human-rights lawyer, said. “He wants his death to have meaning.”
Moskalenko, who is not Sentsov’s attorney, was present at the meeting in Moscow. Speaking with me afterward over the phone, she said that she’d told the assembled group that there was no legal avenue for trying to save Sentsov. The European Court, which technically has the capacity to order Russia to release an inmate, explicitly refuses to expedite cases when an inmate is on hunger strike, to insure that the court cannot be manipulated. Nor can the Moscow authorities simply choose to release Sentsov or other inmates. The procedure would involve clemency, but to ask for it, Sentsov, who considers himself a foreign citizen illegally held and tried in Russia, would have to acknowledge Moscow’s authority over him.
What else is there to do? At least two of the other Ukrainian inmates have also begun a hunger strike, as have two men who are not behind bars, an animator and a journalist. Writers, actors, and directors have written open letters. Russian film directors are making one-minute clips about individual Ukrainian inmates in Russian prisons. An unknown number of people have staged one-person protests—they stand up in crowded places holding a poster—but these are difficult because a special police regime, introduced in advance of the World Cup, requires a permit for one-person protests, which normally need no official sanction. Many of the protesters have been detained or at least threatened by police. A St. Petersburg woman who was sentenced to fifteen years in jail for her protest has also begun a hunger strike.
Although most open letters have called on President Vladimir Putin to show mercy or to avert a death that would bring shame to Russia, Alexey Navalny, the country’s best-known anti-Putin activist, wrote, “I would never ask the Russian authorities for mercy. That’s like a unicorn—a creature that doesn’t exist in nature. I would rather address the thing they love and love to boast about: the desires to cheat, defraud, and fool everyone.” He wrote:
Dear Kremlin and V. V. Putin,
Why don’t you outdo Oleg Sentsov. Fool him. Make a fool of him.
His feat, and his sacrifice, and his death will secure for him a place
in history next to Bobby Sands, Marchenko, and other titans of
And then there will be films about him, and books, and streets named
for him. There will be new sanctions, of course. You have to be
smarter. Why don’t you shock everybody by releasing him and all 64
Ukrainian political prisoners?
As psychologically insightful as Navalny’s suggestion is, it is as unlikely as any other scenario in which Sentsov is released. Navalny knows as much. He also wrote that it was easy for him to keep track of the days of Sentsov’s hunger strike, because on the day it began Navalny himself was arrested and jailed for thirty days for organizing what the state considers an illegal protest:
When I’d been in jail for a week, that meant he had been on hunger
strike for a week. When I’d done fifteen days, so had he. But the
future looks completely different for him and me. I will go another
fifteen days and will be released. I will hug my loved ones, take a
shower, and eat some homemade food.
Oleg Sentsov, on the other hand, will die. He will die alone in his
cell, thousands of kilometres from his family. He will die knowing
that the case against him was entirely fabricated and he is guilty of
nothing. He is no terrorist, of course.
Before he dies, he will have been tortured—we all know what “feeding
by force” is in a Russian prison.