It’s not my story… Serhiy Zhadan about Oleg Sentsov

Zhadan Serhiy
Zhadan Serhiy
Ukrainian poet, novelist, translator, public activist
It’s not my story… Serhiy Zhadan about Oleg Sentsov

Who cares about someone else’s story? We perceive another man’s story as a simple story line. We all stand for justice and freedom, but justice loses its importance when it’s so far away. In order to understand what an unjustly convicted person feels, you should at least spend a few hours with him in his prison cell. It’s hard to live with someone else’s problems, especially when you yourself have never had such problems. The world is complex and unfair – we repeat this to ourselves every day in order to reassure ourselves. It’s always been, is and will always be this way, we add and switch on the TV to watch the next football match.

Serhiy Zhadan's article was first published by NZZ in German.

It’s all about Oleg Sentsov…

"What’s the situation in Ukraine?" – I hear this question quite regularly. A complete answer calls for an analysis and forecast of events that we experience in Ukraine every day, a brief overview of political news, references to fighting on the front lines, and most definitely, emphasis on the changes that have taken place in Ukrainian society. Instead, the last few weeks have been reduced not to politics, not even to the war, but mostly, to one person. This person is called Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian film director arrested in Crimea in the spring of 2014 and sentenced by Russian authorities to 20 years in prison.

Some time ago, Sentsov declared a hunger strike, demanding the release of more than 60 Ukrainian citizens currently held in Russian prisons… and he’s ready to fight to the bitter end, that is, until all Ukrainian political prisoners have been released… or until he dies. There are some other Ukrainian political prisoners on a hunger strike too. Therefore, whenever I read or watch the morning news in my country, everything – from official visits of Western leaders to the weather forecast – everything takes place against the image of the countdown launched by Sentsov – 38th day, 39th day, 40th day, and so on… How much time is left?

This tragic situation is exacerbated by the fact that there’s almost no information about Oleg. There are only guesses and hopes. We’ve heard that he has health problems, that he’s force-fed. Russia’s aggression in Eastern Ukraine, which has recently become more and more of a platform for geopolitical strategies and deadlines (implementation of the Minsk Agreements, introduction of peacekeeping forces, expediency of weakening sanctions against the Russian Federation), has suddenly gained a human dimension – Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian citizen, a resident of annexed Crimea, a man who’s been sentenced to prison for 20 years on charges of terrorism, and who is trying to reverse the situation by risking his own life, to prove the injustice of everything that’s happening around us.

Suddenly, we’re reminded that war is not restricted to regional maps or to zones of influence. War is people. They die, they fight, they testify and they accuse. Right now, at this moment, when we’re all dealing with our own problems – of course they’re important – and other things, this chronicle of dying continues, this chronicle of desperate resistance, this chronicle that is becoming a page of history. Each person will decide how to perceive this story – as his own, or as someone else’s story so remote from his own reality. Only texts written in history manuals must be learnt en masse, but real stories are perceived and understood individually – through our own sense of responsibility and ability to empathize.

No compromises with evil

Oleg Sentsov’s hunger strike has become a metaphor for this war. Yes indeed, we can support European interests and integration, or on the contrary, stubbornly refer to Ukraine as a "zone of influence of the Russian Federation", but in the case of political prisoners who are starving themselves and demanding justice, the whole affair goes beyond any geopolitical considerations, and once again clearly demonstrates the cynicism of this war, where citizens of a country that has been invaded are forced to remind the whole world of the inadmissibility of this evil, the need to resist this evil, and the importance of not compromising with this evil. Sounds a little pathetic, I agree. However, if Sentsov is willing to die in order to remind the world of his dignity and innocence, pathos seems to be far more natural and appropriate than cold skepticism and laziness, which is really the lack of ethics as such. We might say that it’s not about Sentsov, that it’s a matter of principle, but that wouldn’t be completely right. It’s precisely about Sentsov and the other Ukrainian political prisoners who embody these principles. War is people, with their principles, with their tragedies, with their belief in justice prevailing… even if they have to die. This is exactly what the situation in Ukraine is today.

There’s another important thing that characterizes our world, with its desire to live life to the fullest and its short memory. Paradoxically, Sentsov’s current situation reminds us of this war more vividly and more clearly than all the efforts undertaken by diplomats and political leaders.

When all is said and done, all the great reports on the opening of the Kerch bridge, all the backstage games about rapprochement with Russia, all the football matches, which are supposedly non-political, are losing credibility whenever we’re reminded that the country hosting the 2018 World Cup also holds political prisoners – Ukrainian citizens, hostages of Russian aggression, prisoners on death row waiting for the axe to fall, while football broadcasts blast away continuously. In this case, boycotting or not boycotting the World Cup in Russia is no longer a question of politics. You can be blind to iniquity and falsehood, but iniquity and lies do not disappear. It’s like a recurring child’s nightmare, and it’s childlike to believe that it’s more than enough to close your eyes and the evil devil will immediately disappear.

History leaves us the right to choose – to learn from the mistakes of the past, or repeat them with stubborn pride. So far, it seems that nobody wants to learn, everyone prefers to remain in their own private comfort zone. However, there’s another fact, not so obvious, but no less tragic: the war between Ukraine and Russia entering its the fifth year has long advanced beyond the borders of the ex-Soviet Union, in one way or another, breaking Europe’s political balance. You can shout and deny the obvious, but it’s no longer a local conflict, where participants could sit down and resolve all controversial issues amongst themselves. In fact, the world has been drawn into this war even though it ignores it… and this ignorance and blindness are recognition of this evil’s right to exist and spread.

All of us here, in Ukraine, are political prisoners. There’s no doubt about that. We talk about politics, we use political terms, and we know the names of all the presidents and prime ministers. We watch political talk shows and get excited and carried away as if we were watching the lottery. That is, we continue to treat politics like a lottery, hoping that a lucky ticket will solve all our problems at once… although most Ukrainians are well aware that only they themselves can solve their own problems, and they are ready to bear responsibility for their own actions, for their own politicians and for their own future. Do Ukrainians have a right to complain and express indignation? Of course, they do.

War is everywhere

We’re all too involved in this world to pretend that we’re not concerned with injustice. The Netherlands should understand this more than anyone else. This war is being waged not only along the front lines in Ukraine, and it’s not only soldiers and weapons that are involved. If you understand this, then you will understand the situation in Ukraine. It’s not the news you see and hear about the war, but the fact that the front line can be anywhere today – on television channels and in stadiums, at airports and in warm sunny resorts… now, this moment, right this minute, when there are hostages who are shouting out to the world, who are ready to die.

The world can no longer pretend that everything’s fine and dandy and that it’s possible to sit back and relax in the peaceful fan zone, that is in one’s own comfort zone. Only people lacking sensitivity and basic human emotions can feel comfortable when watching today’s news. Let’s say, people with no conscience.

Zhadan Serhiy
Author - Zhadan Serhiy
Translated by: Christine Chraibi
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