Oleg Sentsov (C) and Oleksandr Kolchenko (R) at their first press conference upon their return to Ukraine. Photo: Euromaidan Press
On 7 September, the two prisoners best known to Ukrainians and to the international community, Oleg Sentsov, 43, and Oleksandr Kolchenko, 29, stepped off a plane at Boryspil Airport and were free. They were among 35 prisoners released from illegal Russian captivity after extensive negotiations between Ukrainian President Zelensky and Russian President Putin.
Journalists would not have to wait long for the former Kremlin prisoners to hold a press conference. For Kolchenko, it would be the first press conference of his life.
It is September 10, and the scene is set. The Ukrayinskyi Dim (Ukrainian House) auditorium is crowded with journalists. The two men are greeted with a warm round of applause. Oleg Sentsov is a Ukrainian filmmaker from Crimea whose only crime was to take part in the 2014 protests over the Russian occupation of the peninsula. Oleksandr Kolchenko is a left-wing and trade union activist and Crimean student who was also detained at that time. He was accused of participating in Sentsov’s ostensible “terrorist group” and subjected to a lengthy show trial.
During the press conference, Kolchenko seems shy — his answers are brief, sprinkled with humor. They both thank numerous people who helped in their release, reminding everyone of those who still remain Kremlin prisoners, and they promise to do everything in their power to secure their release. Sentsov reminds the audience that there are Russian prisoners of the Kremlin who continue to fight for a free Russia and a free Ukraine,
“The problem is not that Putin attacked the Donbas in Ukraine, but that the majority of Russians there support him. This empire is built on lies, and the only way to fight lies is by telling the truth. Thank you for telling the truth,” he directs at the journalists in the hall.
Sentsov also lays out the parameters of his future communication with journalists,
“I don’t like such events, parties, beau monde, this is not my cup of tea. I am not interested in giving interviews. I am not going to hide. I’ll participate in some interviews or programs, but I will decide it individually. I want to apologize in advance to those that I’ll have to refuse. There will be a majority of you. I hope you’ll understand and not be offended.”
During the meeting, he also added that he is not going to comment on other people’s thoughts or actions, or talk about the things he does not know.
From the floor, the questions begin: …are you going back to Crimea? … what are your future plans? … will Sentsov be participating in politics?
Both Sentsov and Kolchenko agree they are not going back to Crimea while Putin is in power, and joke that the only way back now would be in tanks. Sentsov elaborates,
“Putin will not give Crimea back. As written in one newspaper I read — it’s easier for him to give back the Kremlin than Crimea. Crimea is a touchstone on which his current politics are built. Earlier, he was flying with Siberian Cranes and trying to create something to increase his ratings. Crimea helped to do it. That’s why he can’t give it back. The only option would be dramatic changes in the Russian political structure. It could be a peaceful option when some democratic leader comes to power and decides to give Crimea back, but at this time they [Russians] wouldn’t stand for it. The second option is violent revolution. I don’t want any person to die, and I’m hoping it will be peaceful. I still hope that we will regain Crimea.”
On the prisoners’ exchange
“This is one of the days worth living for.” That’s how Oleg Sentsov describes the day he stepped back onto Ukrainian soil. He names two concurrent factors that led to the exchange,
“Regarding whether Russia wants peace. It doesn’t matter if a wolf puts on a sheepskin, he still has teeth. Don’t believe it. I don’t believe it. During all these years, I was trying to follow the information agenda in the world, in Ukraine and Russia. I followed more of the Russian, because I was watching lots of news there [in prisons, only Russian TV channels are broadcast], and having to take in a lot of rubbish just to find a couple of grains of truth. I was reading Novaya Gazeta and want to extend my thanks to them. Because of that paper, I was able to find out what was going on in Ukraine. There were periods of calm and periods of activity for the negotiations. I think that what’s going on now started at the end of May. In June, there was a concern that Russia could leave the Council of Europe. They decided to stay and it became clear that Russia wants to remain in this community. Additionally, the government in Ukraine changed, and that allowed a new dialog to begin. As a result of these two factors, we’re here today. It doesn’t mean that Russia is ready to let Ukraine go … to return Crimea and the Donbas. That will not happen, don’t believe it.”
Sentsov acknowledges the work done by the previous government,
“The work was done constantly on all levels. There was huge pressure. However, we are dealing with a system that can’t be altered,” the filmmaker said.
The director described how Russia tried to pronounce Kolchenko and him terrorists. As it turned out there was no evidence, but Russians couldn’t admit they were wrong, so they invented other accusations for the Ukrainians. Over time, the Russian accusations got worse and worse, and their lies grew bigger and bigger. There were many contradictions and everything got mixed up. For now, Putin’s government is more careful to be consistent in their narratives, according to Oleg Sentsov.
“Also, Putin wanted to gain something more. Not just people. He doesn’t want people. He only wants his interests and ambitions. He had to gain some concessions. But Ukraine was not giving in, and I am very glad that the previous government did not give something away. Yes, we had to sit in prison, and other things were going on, but we [Ukraine] did not step back. This is good. There were exchanges, constant negotiations, constant work. However, it’s hard to bargain with them [with Russia]. So I am very glad that the exchange has happened. Everything happens in the course of time,” he says.
Sentsov is asked to clarify whether this exchange means Ukraine has given something away. In short, he answers “No.”
“We have to act according to the situation. There is no single solution. The situation in 2014 differed from the one in 2019 dramatically. When there is a need to act, we have to act accordingly,” said the filmmaker.
Mr. Sentsov points out possible problems for future exchanges. As more prisoners who are widely known are released, it will become harder to draw attention to those who remain in prison. Moreover, Ukraine does not have any more prisoners to barter with, for an exchange. Nonetheless, Sentsov hopes that Zelenskyy has a plan for the second stage of prisoner swaps.
Sentsov and Kolchenko are asked to comment on Volodymyr Tsemakh, the controversial exchange prisoner from Ukraine. Tsemakh is believed to be a witness or even an accomplice in the MH17 downing that killed about 300 people in July 2014. Sentsov and Kolchenko told journalists they had only learned of Tsemakh on their way to Ukraine, and couldn’t comment on his release.
“It’s hard for me to comment on other people’s actions. There is a president, a person that Ukraine put into power … the percentage was high. He has more information than me and you. He decided, so it means there was a necessity. We can argue whether it was right or wrong — this is normal because we’re an open and free society. We can express our thoughts … people who make decisions can’t always consider everything, so the decisions can’t be ideal. There can hardly be 100% right decisions. However, the decisions are needed,” says Sentsov.
On possible future political life
Oleg Sentsov makes it clear that he does not belong to Zelenskyy’s camp, nor to any other political camp, “I am my own man.” He expresses his sincere gratitude to all politicians who, during the last five years, did not try to come in contact with Sentsov to recruit him for getting political dividends.
Oleksandr Kolchenko, in the short term, plans to take some time to adapt to freedom. His longer-term plan is to resume university studies he was pursuing before being abducted by the Russian special forces amid then-unfolding occupation of Crimea.
Some aspects of prison life in Russia
Both former political prisoners do not believe that there was any special reason why they, in particular, were captured. They say it could have been anyone. The deceits of Russian law enforcement could have concocted anything to convict anybody.
They both describe the attitude of prison employees to them as being normal. Sentsov makes a distinction, however, on withstanding torture and moral coercion which other prisoners survived,
“It’s possible to withstand [the pressure of authorities directed to extracting false confessions] for a short time. For a long time — No. Maybe if I were lesser known in media they would have worse to me. It’s only a matter of time before a person confesses everything. This is the story of the NKVD [secret police] in 1937. Nothing has changed. After some time, people will confess to anything. But my story is minor compared to what was done to Mykola Karpiuk and Stanislav Klykh. They went through hell.”
Both Sentsov and Kolchenko emphasize how important the letters of support were that they received while in prison. They came from people from all walks of life, and from many different countries.
“It’s hard to pick out any particular letter. However, they gave power to me … the letters from Oleg and my friends I knew in my free life. It was wonderful to receive letters and to feel supported,” Kolchenko said.
Sentsov points out that letters are important for any prisoner, whether political or not,
“Everyone waits for letters, so write, write, write. About anything. It provides a lot of support. Many people wrote to me. I tried to answer everyone. Not all the letters reached me, and not all letters from me reached the recipients. Some were lost. Don’t look for something evil in it. It’s just irresponsibility and bureaucracy. The postal service of Russia is in the Stone Age.”
They add that letters in languages other than Russian are forbidden in the prisons. Still, sometimes Sentsov received them as well. He says he brought all the letters with him to Ukraine, as well as several books and a total of 15 personal notebooks with his writings. The bag with it weighed 22 kilograms. He also managed to bring the materials he had started to write during his hunger strike last year.
Sentsov was a well-known person in Russia, painted as devious by propaganda TV, but he did not have conflicts with any other prisoners. He says being non-confrontational helped.
Kolchenko adds, “There were a lot of arguments with prisoners regarding Crimea, but after some time I tried to avoid it. There’s a category of people you can’t convince of anything by arguing.”
On the situation in Russia
Sentsov also shared how his views of Russia have been transformed during the last five years,
“In 2014, after the Euromaidan Revolution, I saw how people can change their country. How people can topple those in power, no matter how strong they seem. So when I got to a Russian prison and realized what’s really going on in that country, I thought people can’t live like that — they can’t want to live like that. It was impossible. I really believed it. Before, when people who had lived in Russia told me there was nothing there and that it was a swamp, I thought it wasn’t true. Having spent five years there, I can say yes, unfortunately, it’s true, it is a swamp.
Of course, I’ve communicated only with a certain kind of people. However, they [prisoners] are the same people as we are. Don’t think that they’re some scary criminals. They are ordinary people, but they’re in prison. The majority doesn’t care [what is going on]. Some are openly for Putin, some are openly against him, but there are not many of either. The majority just doesn’t care. I don’t know whether any changes are possible.
However, there have been protests recently, and there were in 2014. I’m not a sociologist to be able to say, but no one can predict a revolution. No one could have predicted the 1917 revolution in the Russian Empire … no one could have predicted, neither the first nor the second Maidan [Orange Revolution and Euromaidan in Ukraine]. We can’t predict a revolution that might bring down Putin or make him “retire on pension.” I would rather see him in The Hague [International Court of Justice]. We don’t know what will happen next. I hope that something will happen there and that the country becomes more civilized because there are people who want a normal life. There just aren’t many of them,” concludes Oleg Sentsov.
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