Crimean filmmaker’s hunger strike highlights all that’s wrong with modern Russia
In a recent and widely reported recording of the arrest of Pussy Riot protesters in the World Cup final, a voice can be heard saying, “Sometimes I regret that it is not 1937”.
By 1937, Stalin’s terror was at its height – and the secret police were operating with impunity against political opponents. Members of Pussy Riot were sentenced to 15 days in prison. For around 70 Ukrainian political prisoners currently incarcerated in Russia, however, it feels like this individual’s nostalgic wish has already come true.
The best known of these prisoners is the Crimean filmmaker Oleg Sentsov. When the Euromaidan Protests erupted in 2013-14, Sentsov halted work on his latest film and jumped on the bandwagon. By the time Russia invaded Crimea, he was a vocal and active opponent.
He and three other activists – Oleksandr Kolchenko, Hennadiy Afanasiev and Oleksiy Chyrniy – were arrested by the FSB, the Russian secret service, in May 2014. He was then sentenced to 20 years in prison. On May 14 of this year, Sentsov declared an indefinite hunger strike. His only condition for stopping the strike is the release of all Ukrainians political prisoners in Russia. According to his lawyer, Dmitry Dinze, who visited the director on July 19, Sentsov’s health suffered considerably and he problems with his heart. However, he still refuses to accept food and managed to avoid being sent to the hospital for force-feeding.
Sentsov’s case condenses all that is wrong with contemporary Russia: his contempt for the rule of law, his predilection for violence, his propensity to lie, and his lack of respect for the sovereignty of neighboring states. The case also makes 1937 appear much closer than the final commentary heard from the World Cup suggests.
In the 1930s, prominent Ukrainian figures who insisted on Ukraine’s cultural and political autonomy were arrested, tortured and forced to confess their membership in anti-Soviet nationalist terrorist groups. Hundreds of writers and artists have been executed.
Sentsov and his co-defendants claimed to have been tortured in an attempt to extract a confession from them. The FSB accuses them to be members of a Ukrainian nationalist organization banned in Russia and to plan acts of terrorism, including the burning of an office of Putin’s United Russia party and attacks on Soviet monuments.
Another striking parallel with the 1930s is that the state does not hide the fact that Sentsov’s trial is a grotesque parody of justice. On the contrary, much like the spectacle trials of the 1930s, the spectacle is designed to demonstrate the regime’s unlimited capacity to punish. To paraphrase an old Soviet saying: “If we can find a suspect, we can find a crime.”
The absurdity of the trial is highlighted in a film by the Russian director Askold Kurov, The Trial: The Russian State Against Oleg Sentsov. Kurov employs minimal comment: it suffices to simply show the legal process for the fragility of the charges to be clear.
One of Sentsov’s co-defendants, Afanasiev, was initially a key witness against the director, but later retracted his statements, which he said were made under duress. The court continued to use its evidence. The claims of the group’s far-right ideology were also highly questionable. Not only does Oleksandr Kolchenko have a history of left-wing activism, but one piece of evidence used to incriminate Sentsov was a DVD found in his home of the film Ordinary Fascism by Soviet director Mikhail Romm – a famous anti-fascist film.
Details of the physical evidence in the trial were not shared with reporters or the public, and lawyers were forced to sign an agreement not to reveal the details. Dinze claimed that, apart from questionable testimonies from Afanasiev and Chyrniy (who also subsequently ceased to cooperate with the investigation), he had seen absolutely no evidence of Sentsov’s guilt.
Watching Sentsov in the dock in Kurov’s film is both unsettling and inspiring. He is disconcertingly calm. He smiles puzzled, gives the peace sign to the cameras. At one point, he smiles as his lawyer shows him, through the bars of his cage, a recently released collection of his short stories.
Sentsov’s words at court were eloquent and sharp. In a statement in July 2014, he denounced the neo-imperial arrogance of the annexation of Crimea by Russia. “I am not a serf,” he told the court. “I cannot be transferred with the land. I have not submitted any application for Russian citizenship, nor have I given up my Ukrainian citizenship. “
This statement also referred to the two million Crimeans who had no say in incorporating their house into the Russian Federation, except in a bogus referendum, the legislation of which was passed in a parliament. of Crimea occupied by Russian soldiers.
For Sentsov, Russian society faces serious challenges in terms of freedom of expression and conscience. While many in Russia are drawn to state propaganda, Sentsov says, there are others who are just plain scared:
They think nothing can be changed. That everything will continue as it is. That the system cannot be broken. That they are alone. That we are few. That we will all be thrown in jail. That they will kill us, destroy us. And they sit quietly, like mice in their holes.
Western observers, unlike Russian citizens, have no excuse for not knowing or not talking about what is happening in Russia. They have access to all information and no one will punish them for the way they react to it. Judging by the Western media during the World Cup period, however, our societies have chosen to respond by enjoying football and ignoring the violence and abuse. Human rights organizations, a series of famous directors and some Western governments have called for Sentsov’s release, but those calls have been lost in the football fever. Dozens of other Ukrainian prisoners are completely unknown in the West.
This denotes another striking parallel with the Soviet era: as Kateryna Botanova recently notedThe Soviet hunger strikers of the 1980s were often struck by the indifference shown to their protests. “We just didn’t exist,” said dissident Anatolii Marchenko, who died after going on hunger strike in 1986.
This silent indifference is not the same as the silent cowardice resulting from the fear that Sentsov spoke of in his audience cage. It is a problem he does not have the luxury of having to face.