Activists hold placards as they take part in a protest for the release of Ukrainian director Oleh Sentsov and other political prisoners, near Russian Embasy in Kyiv, Ukraine, 13 June 2018. (Photo by STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Everyone has heard of Jan Palach, the young Czech student who set himself on fire on January 19, 1969 in Prague in protest against the repression of the Prague Spring and the military occupation of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops under the leadership of the Soviet Union.
However, Jan Palach’s death was not the only sacrifice. Eight brave Russians, including Natalia Gorbanevskaya who was pushing a baby carriage, came out on the Red Square on August 25, 1968 to protest the Russian invasion of a sovereign country that wanted to rid itself of Russian influence and build a new and humane socialism. For this inoffensive action that lasted a few minutes before they were arrested by the KGB, the participants were each sentenced to several years in prison and psychiatric internment.
Several acts of resistance also took place in Soviet Ukraine. One such man was Vasyl Makukh, a Ukrainian partisan who first fought against the Nazis, and then, between late 1944 and 1946, against the Soviet troops who re-annexed Western Ukraine under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. He was taken prisoner and sentenced in July 1946 to ten years in a gulag and five years to relegation. Released in 1956, he married and had two children. He tried to create a protest group to continue fighting the Soviet regime and the forced russification of Ukraine, but Soviet repression was too powerful.
It was finally the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia that pushed Vasyl Makukh towards making a desperate, but heroic sacrifice. A few months before Jan Palach’s sacrifice, he ran out onto Khreshchatyk Avenue in Kyiv on November 5, 1968, and committed suicide by self-immolation. Before his death, Makukh shouted: “Long live free Ukraine!”and “Long live free Czechoslovakia!”
The Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov, who resided in Simferopol, Crimea, belongs to such an indomitable group of people who use their bodies as a last resort to hurl their final message and a final truth to the world, even if this costs them their life. From the very beginning of Russia’s occupation of Crimea by army units without distinctive military signs (“little green men”), Sentsov took part in the Automaidan, helping to deliver food products to Ukrainian battalions blocked by the Russians.
This was probably his only “crime”. Arrested in spring 2014, just after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, he was sentenced to 20 years in a strict penal colony for allegedly fomenting terrorist acts against the occupants of his native peninsula. His friend, left-wing activist and anti-fascist Oleksandr Kolchenko, was sentenced to ten years in a strict penal colony.
The investigation stated that the two men, together with other “accomplices”, acted according to orders issued by Pravy Sektor, an organization of Ukrainian nationalists that is considered fascist by Russian authorities and is prohibited in Russia; neither Sentsov nor Kolchenko belonged to this organization. The verdict was based solely on the “testimonies” of two people who had worked with the investigation team, but there was no material evidence or confessions by Sentsov and Kolchenko, who continued to claim their innocence despite torture and other repressive measures. But, did Putin’s regime actually require real proof, when all they wanted was to “unite” its people and stand as the defender of Crimean Russian speakers against “terrorism”?
For more than four years, Oleh Sentsov has languished in prison and in different penal colonies. Russian law stipulates that convicts must serve their sentence in or near their place of residence, but Oleh Sentsov has been imprisoned far from his hometown in Ukraine. He is detained in a maximum security penal colony in Labytnangi, in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, some 2,000 km from Moscow and more than 3,000 km from Crimea. The temperature falls to about -30°C in winter, and barely reaches +15°C in summer. It rains a lot, the humidity is excessive and the mosquitoes are ferocious. His wife filed for divorce in 2016, abandoned their two children, one of whom is autistic, and it is Oleh’s mother who looks after them on her meager pension in Simferopol.
Oleh was transferred to Russia immediately after his detention, and was tried as a Russian citizen because, after the annexation, all Crimean residents were automatically granted Russian nationality. Oleh protested against this forced attribution of Russian nationality during the trial and after his conviction, but to no avail. Now, it is this so-called law that prevents him from being exchanged for a Russian citizen imprisoned in Ukraine.
“We cannot exchange a Russian prisoner for another Russian prisoner!” say the Russian authorities with their absurd logic.
Oleh has not made many films. He studied economics, managed a computer club in his native town, and in 2011, he shot his first film with the money that he had earned. Gamer is a low budget film, which gained international success and recognition, and won several awards in Ukraine and Europe. In July 2013, he began shooting his second film – The Rhinoceros. It had a more substantial budget, but was never finished. Despite Oleh’s short film career, dozens of European, American, Russian and, of course, Ukrainian filmmakers, actors and artists have signed petitions demanding his release. His supporters include Alexander Sokurov and Pedro Almodovar, Wim Wenders and Ken Loach, Andrei Zviagintsev and Andrzej Wajda, Stephen King and Johnny Depp, and many others.
I often wonder about this talented and honest young man, a Ukrainian patriot, interned in such a cold and inhospitable place where he is forced to remain for sixteen long years because prisoners are not eligible for remission if they have been convicted of “terrorism”.
On May 14, 2018, Oleh declared a hunger strike. He does not care about his own liberation, but calls for the release of about 60 Ukrainians sentenced for similar “crimes”: terrorism, extremism, espionage, etc., etc. It is obvious that he wants to draw the attention of the civilized world to the fate of Ukrainians who have become victims of Russian “justice”.
This is the only way that he can do it…he is ready to die to raise awareness in Russian and Western public opinion. We should remember that for all occupation regimes, including the Nazis, both partisans and underground movements were labeled as “terrorists”.
I feel deeply for Oleh and hope that he will live, although it would be a miracle after three months of hunger strike. In his telephone conversation with Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron asked for a “humanitarian solution” for Oleh Sentsov. But, will this request be granted? Even if Putin gives in, Sentsov has set the bar very high to stop his hunger strike. I bow my head in homage to his great courage! We still continue to honour the memory of Jan Palach fifty years after the fact.
Today, whatever happens, we pay tribute to Oleh Sentsov’s courage, a man, whose immense sacrifice may awaken Russian public opinion and further cement awareness within the burgeoning Ukrainian state.