Oleg Sentsov: A Free Human
Ukrainian film director, scriptwriter, writer. Laureate of the Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought, PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, Taras Shevchenko National Prize of Ukraine. Unjustly imprisoned by the Russian Federation since May 2014.
Around twenty young people – guys and girls – come to the Republic Square in Paris. They set the cameras and lighting, check up the sound, and unfold the black director’s chair. Looks like a setting for film making. Actors are at their final preparations. Director’s assistant lifts a clapperboard above her head – everything is ready for the shooting. Everyone is only waiting for the director’s instruction. The square is enveloped in silence. The director’s chair is empty. The director is not there.
It is an artistic action in support of the filmmaker and writer Oleg Sentsov as well as all Ukrainian hostages of the Kremlin arranged in mid-April in Paris, and soon in numerous other European cities. It was organized by students of the Ukrainian Leadership Academy within the framework of #SaveOlegSentsov global campaign. In this way they reminded that five years have already passed since Russian forces illegally detained Oleg Sentsov, and that nearly a hundred of Ukrainians are serving as political prisoners in the Russian Federation.
Oleg Making a Movie
At the end of August 2018, a 17 year-old Anastasia Chorna came to the casting for Gámer movie in Simferopol. She was drawn not only by her desire to act, but curiosity. Anastasia recalls how surprised she was at the fact that somebody started shooting films in Crimea. At the casting she met Oleg Sentsov, the director of the “Gámer”.
“Oleg made a wonderful impression on me. He is sturdy and a physically big man; I looked at him and thought, ‘Oh, so it is him who’s going to make a film’. It was strange enough because it was difficult to imagine someone making a film in Crimea, and that at one’s own expense,” Anastasia, who is soon to become the director’s casting assistant, actress and friend of Sentsov recalls. “During the audition Oleg instructed me to talk with a guy as if we have known each other for a long time. And it turned out I was actually acquainted with that actor. Oleg laughed a lot at this situation.”
For a long time Oleg owned a successful business, the biggest computer club in Simferopol. Not many people had a computer at home at the time, so the club became a place of origin for the Crimean cyber movement. Oleg himself was a well-known local cyber sportsman. He had achievements and authority in this field. He organized competitions and trained players. However, gradually Oleg was losing interest for both computer games and his own club. Instead he was beginning to be more and more interested in cinematography. He already had ideas which, as he regarded, would be best expressed through cinema industry.
In 2008, Oleg co-founded a film company Krai Kinema. He made two short films: A Perfect Day for Bananafish and The Horn of a Bull. He wrote the script and started Gámer. At that time Oleg had no specialized director’s education, no particular experience in cinematography, neither technical basis, nor financing. But this did not stop him. In 2012 Oleg sold the computer club and his car; the proceeds in the amount of $ 20,000 he invested in the motion picture.
“Oleg was very strict on the set, result-oriented, because he had no second chance to shoot this film. He was demanding towards us and himself,” Anastasia Chorna recalls. “We had to do everything perfectly and from the first time. But it wasn’t difficult. Soon after that I noticed his love for people. He was curious to observe people, to ask questions and communicate.”
Gámer is Oleg’s first feature film, his director’s debut. It tells about a provincial gamer Koss who lives in a small town with his mother. One day he is noticed and invited to the international competitions where Koss takes the second place. An interesting fact is that all roles in Gámer were played by nonprofessional actors.
“Oleg is a person who can look at the world from a child’s viewpoint. He is an adult man, he experienced much hardship and dread, but in him I still see this curiosity for the world. Moreover, there is a universe in his eyes anxious to come out. This is what got me interested during our introduction. Not push or determination, but what he has to say to the world while searching for various means to this purpose,” actor and friend of Sentsov Yevhen Chernykov remarks.
Oleg showed the footage to a producer Olga Zhurzhenko. She then sent Gámer to representatives of Ukrainian and European film festivals; some got interested in the film. Ukrainian premiere was held at the Molodist International Film Festival in October 2011, but it did not draw much attention then. In 2012 the film was screened at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, GoEast Film Festival in Wiesbaden as well as Odesa International Film Festival, where Gámer received a few awards.
Director Leaving the Set
In spring of 2014 Oleg Sentsov was preparing for his second feature film Rhino. It is a story of an experienced criminal from the 90s who having endured numerous tragic events resolves to reexamine his life. At that time the film’s project received several awards, gained interest from producers and earned proper financing. Everything indicated the movie’s success.
“Actors were cast, the film crew was formed, and locations already chosen. All agreements with partners were signed,” producer of Gámer and Rhino Olga Zhurzhenko recalls. “Everything was ready for shooting. We were about to start in summer or even earlier. But Oleg was detained.”
That spring the occupation of Crimea was ongoing in full swing. Russian soldiers were permeating streets of Crimean cities; people opposing Russian aggression started disappearing. Ukrainian military units were blocked. The so-called referendum occurred, the first blood was spilt: a Russian sniper killed a Ukrainian soldier Serhiy Kokurin. A Crimean Tatar activist Reshat Akhmetov who opposed Russian occupation of Crimea disappeared at first, and then was found tortured and murdered.
Oleg returned to Crimea from Kyiv, where he took active part in the Maidan. Friends suggested him to stay in Kyiv, but in Crimea Oleg had two children – daughter Alina and son Vladyslav aged 12 and 9 then. They were very close with Oleg (after the arrest the children are taken care of by their grandmother, Oleg’s mother). Besides, Oleg knew he had to come back to resist Russian occupation here, at home.
“With his friends he supported Ukrainian soldiers in captured territories, transferred them food and other necessary things, later on he helped their families to move out to mainland Ukraine,” Yevhen Chernykov recllectos. “From the first days of March people started disappearing; they were thrown ‘behind cellars’. Oleg and his friends attempted to find and rescue them.”
Yevhen recounts that Oleg very well understood how dangerous their deeds had been.
“The seizure of Crimea was really frightening. We realized we could be killed, abducted. Staying in Crimea after the ‘referendum’ meant grave danger for us. We were ready to accept we could die. But we could not have predicted that one of us would be charged with terrorism and sentenced to twenty years of jail. We were not engaged in terrorism after all, we just defended our country, our civil stance and our identity,” Yevhen says.
Anastasia Chorna recalls, “Events which took place in Crimea in 2014 were dreadful, yet we couldn’t quite believe it is happening for real and for long. However, people with pro-Ukrainian position quickly saw all dangers of the situation: when activists began to be arrested, and people would just disappear.”
“Majority of my friends and I left Crimea right after this ‘referendum’. We realized: staying there is dangerous. Russia came there,” Anastasia remarks.
A journalist Kateryna Sergatskova who lived in Crimea for a long period of time and later on actively began to cover the peninsula’s annexation in press remembers, “Till the very last moment I could not believe the annexation would occur. I thought, ‘O.K., now this ‘referendum’ will be held, and everyone will see it’s fake. Nothing will happen’. But then when I traveled across Crimea and saw Ukrainian military units and ships being seized, I realized this is the end, and nobody can help us now.”
When Ukrainian soldiers began to move out of the peninsula, Oleg was wholeheartedly helping them. He organized and coordinated withdrawal of soldiers and their families. He even used his own car to take out some.
“Himself he stayed in Crimea”, Kateryna Sergatskova recalls. “The last time I saw Oleg was in the beginning of May 2014. We met on the street, and Oleg said that he was constantly being followed, and that it is better not to meet and not to contact each other, for it was becoming increasingly dangerous.”
In the evening of May 10, 2014 Russian security officers took Oleg Sentsov. He was abducted from the yard of his house. It happened just when he was just returning from a walk with his family. He was beaten and tortured. Oleg’s house was searched. Sentsov only had time to send Kateryna a short message saying he had been detained. In the morning friends started looking for him.
“It was three or four o’clock at night. Oleg sent me a text message that he was arrested by the FSB. At once I started calling my friends, his friends, all of our acquaintances,” Kateryna recalls.
“I was afraid that we just wouldn’t be able to find him, he would be killed, and we would never know what happened to him”, Yevhen Chernykov recounts. “When we found out that Oleg was at the FSB, relief came for he was alive. We didn’t think then that everything could turn into this. We believed he would be released quite soon.”
For a few days Oleg was kept in the former building of the SBU (State Security of Ukraine) in Simferopol. Then he was transferred to the Lefortovo investigatory isolator in Moscow. At this time Russian TV channels issued materials that Oleg Sentsov was a terrorist.
“They had to make some ostentatious story with ‘fascist-banderites’ whom they would be now punishing in full view of the whole of Crimea and Russia. And the ‘terrorism’ charge was meant to intimidate everyone. It is a very dreadful charge and the punishment for it is also dreadful – twenty years,” Anastasia Chorna recollects. “Oleg journeyed all around Crimea for castings, gave interviews. He was quite a media person on the peninsula. Besides, he openly supported Ukraine and condemned the annexation. I suppose that Russian security forces knew Oleg was helping the soldiers and had connection with the Maidan. But they definitely didn’t expect such commotion, that the whole world would be demanding Oleg’s freedom.”
Later on, in the Russian court, Oleg Sentsov would tell about his experience during that period.
“I was thrown in a minibus; with a bag on my head I was brought to a building of the former SBU on Ivana Franko St. They started a rigorous interrogation. I was questioned about what activists were going to blast the monuments that I knew of. They started beating me with legs, hands, batons – lying and sitting. When I refused to talk, they resorted to strangling. I was strangled with bags four times,” Oleg recalls during one of the trials. “Many times I have seen this in movies and didn’t understand how people would break on this. But it is terrifying, your Honor. They threatened to rape me with the baton, take me to the forest and bury there. Four hours later they got tired and took me for the search. Only there I found out they were the FSB employees. There they expected to see terrorists and weapons, but they only found my child – she was present during the search although the protocol doesn’t mention this. The money they found is my film company’s funds for filming a movie “Rhino”.
In May 2014 Hennadiy Afanasiev, Oleksiy Chyrniy and Oleksandr Kolchenko were also detained in Simferopol. Everyone was charged with organization of a terrorist attack. Allegedly in April of that year using improvised explosives they were preparing to blast the Eternal Flame Monument in Simferopol and a statue of Lenin, as well as to set fire to offices of an organization called Russian Community of Crimea and representation of a United Russia political party.
According to a Russian investigation version, a group of terrorists operated in Crimea. Several people were involved, and the group’s leader allegedly was Oleg Sentsov, who “gave orders” to organize arsons and blasts in Simferopol. These actions were allegedly contributing to his goal of “destabilizing the situation on the peninsula and forcing authorities to adopt a decision on secession of Crimea from Russia”.
Four arrested Ukrainians were illegally coerced to take the Russian citizenship which they rejected. Ukrainian consuls were denied access to them.
Hennadiy Afanasiev and Oleksiy Chyrniy agreed to cooperate with investigation almost right after their arrest, and confessed to alleged crimes giving false testimony against Oleg Sentsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko.
However, on July 31, 2015 on trial Hennadiy Afanasiev denied his testimony stating he gave them after harsh tortures and threats. Soon it would be discovered that they would put a gas mask on Hennadiy, clamp the hose thus choking him. Whenever he fainted, they would inject gas in the open space under the mask. He was beaten, threatened to be raped with a soldering iron, deprived of sleep for ten days, stripped naked, and tortured with electric shock.
“Never will I let myself admonish people who having been tortured pledged guilty and admitted to what they hadn’t done. When Hennadiy Afanasiev under full control of Russian security forces right in the court said he had been forced by torture to slander himself and Oleg, he pulled off a feat. Then it broke the Kremlin’s picture, for the whole world realized the case is trumped up and based on political motives” human rights defender, Director of the Center for Civil Liberties Oleksandra Matviychuk says.
Ukrainian, Russian and international human rights organizations regard the case of Oleg Sentsov as a fabricated one, and him as a prisoner of conscience. There is no evidence corroborating his accusation in case materials. Testimony of the two participants of the so-called “Crimean terrorists” case – Hennadiy Afanasiev and Oleksiy Chyrniy – was obtained through torture and psychological pressure. Oleksiy Chyrniy was forcefully placed in a mental house. Oleksandr Kolchenko and Oleg Sentsov pledged innocent and gave no testimony against themselves or anyone else although they were subjected to tortures as well.
Nonetheless, on August 25, 2015 the Rostov-on-Don court sentenced Oleg Sentsov to twenty years of imprisonment in a strict regime colony. Oleg Sentsov along with Oleksandr Kolchenko, who was given ten years, sang the Ukrainian anthem during announcement of the verdict.
“Cowardice is the most terrible of vices. A remarkable Russian writer Bulgakov wrote this in his book “Master and Margarita”. And I agree with him. The primary and most terrible vice on Earth is cowardice,” Oleg Sentsov said in his last word on trial. “I do not know the value of your beliefs if you are not ready to suffer for them, or die.”
Prisoner of Conscience
“The case of Oleg Sentsov is absurd even by standards of repressive Russian legislation – twenty years in prison in the far North for alleged setting fire to the door. Such strict punishment vividly shows the political motive behind it. Russia required demonstrative trials on Crimeans in order to intimidate the majority and drive out or eliminate the active minority resisting the occupation,” Oleksandra Matviychuk believes. “Amnesty International analyzed materials of Sentsov’s case, and for a few years now has been demanding immediate release of Oleg having declared him a prisoner of conscience.”
Now Oleg Sentsov is serving his sentence in a colony No. 8 known as “White Bear” in a Russian town of Labytnangi beyond the Arctic Circle.
In May of 2018 he declared an open-ended hunger strike demanding to free sixty four of Ukrainian political prisoners. He did not include himself in this list. The hunger strike lasted for a hundred and forty five days. In October of 2018 he was forced to end it. In a month a Russian human rights activist Mykola Shchur publicized an excerpt from Oleg Sentsov’s letter, “I feel better now than a month ago, much better. Of course, tests aren’t good yet, but not as bad as before anyway. At the end of the last week they finally stopped the IV treatment. At the moment, it’s mainly the diet, monitoring and some pills just in case. So do not worry there much, I survived.”
Yevhen Chernykov recollects the time when Oleg announced the hunger strike – and all of his friends were frightened. “Knowing Oleg and his principled nature I realized this must be the end. And when he had to terminate it, I actually was glad. His decision was not a defeat, I believe. He achieved major changes with his hunger strike. The whole world came to know that nearly a hundred of Ukrainian political prisoners are imprisoned in Russia along with the film director Oleg Sentsov and a few others. People started talking about this. This has been a theme of various international actions.”
Oleg’s friends and colleagues regularly correspond with him. Anastasia and Yevhen write letters every week. They say Oleg has not changed: he jokes in letters all the same, and is full of curiosity for people and the world all the same.
“It seems even on the contrary: his wisdom has become more conscious. Perhaps he will turn to be harsher when he comes out. I don’t know. Yet in letters I see that same Oleg who is curious about other people and open to everything new. He hadn’t angered at the world,” Yevhen Chernykov says. “Once long ago, before the annexation, we were driving around Simferopol, and some pop song was playing on the radio. And Oleg said, ‘Oh, it’s nice.’ I looked at him in surprise, because I know his preferences in music are much different. Very much he values lyrics, not just music. While Oleg said, ‘Lately I understood you shouldn’t consider yourself as’ full’ and think you know everything. You should simply be open and perceive new information. We live here and now. We should never stop exploring the world.’ This is precisely what he keeps on doing.”
Director’s Seat is Empty. But He Continues Working
For five years of Oleg’s imprisonment several of his books have been published. Among them: Stories (Laurus Publishing House, 2015); Buy the Book – It’s Amusing (Folio Publishing House, 2016, in Ukrainian and Russian); and Life (Old Lion Publishing House, 2019), which has also been released in translation into English, German and Polish. Oleg was actively involved in the pre-printing process, choosing the design in particular.
The film Gámer received more attention during these years: it was broadcasted on several TV channels, in Ukraine and abroad charitable screenings of films were organized. All proceeds were given to Oleg’s mother and two of his children.
Oleg’s play Numbers written before the annexation of Crimea was staged by Russian Teatr.doc, and later on by a Ukrainian director Tamara Trunova.
“Oleg is actually quite worried that he may be received solely as a hero, a person who is steadfastly fighting for the country and the people, which may result in his works being read through the perspective of heroism. However, it is important for Oleg that his art is merely interesting for people,” Yevhen Chernykov says.
Imprisoned Oleg continues working. He writes stories and scripts, contemplates on ideas for the next movies. Not long ago Oleg has been engaged in his director’s work: together with a film director Akhtem Seitablaiev he has worked on a film based on his play Numbers.
The filming crew involves mostly the people Oleg has known and worked with previously. The film has been produced by Anna Palenchuk who initiated the publishing of Oleg’s books. It is being made is co-production with Poland, France, Czech Republic and Ukraine. First of all, the film will be presented on festivals.
“In letters Oleg wrote to us how he wants to see everything. In turn we sent him loads of various materials, photographs, descriptions of every detail. I was responsible for the cast and would write entire research papers about every casting. We would also pass heaps of materials through the lawyer,” Anastasia Chorna recollects. “I suppose it was a very important experience for Oleg as well. Because when you stay in isolation for such a long period of time while having so much of creative energy, it’s great to be able to make a movie. I hope Oleg will be released soon, and he will watch this film in a big cinema hall, the film he has filmed as well.”
Speak. Remind. Act
“Oleg has now been imprisoned for five years. Fifteen more, as by the sentence. It is very difficult to talk about this. Frightening. I hope something will change,” actor and Oleg’s friend Yevhen Chernykov says. “Oleg doesn’t see himself as captive; he remains a free human despite being in prison. He writes. He absolutely doesn’t understand how free people can give up.”
The friends of Oleg say that Sentsov receives heaps of letters – he is one of the most well-known political prisoners. Oleg himself asks to write letters to other hostages of the Kremlin as well, especially little-known, those who do not receive that much of attention.
“In my opinion the most important thing is to support his creative personality. All of his creativity which breaks out – books of his authorship and about him, films of his making and about him, articles – has to be watched and read. We have to make donations and pay for these views. If his art is in demand, it will support Oleg. The money will help his family,” Olga Zhurzhenko says.
Anastasia Chorna is confident that we have to talk about Ukrainian hostages of the Kremlin all the time, “We constantly have to remind the government, journalists and our friends from abroad that our people are still there, and are unjustly imprisoned. We have to talk and remind.”
Kateryna Sergatskova believes we should actively put pressure on those who have at least the slightest influence on the situation, so that they focus on liberating these people. “I don’t see any other option. We have to put pressure and continuously raise questions to the government. Why? What? Who negotiates? Nobody? This is what can bring the result,” she says.
People all around the world can join the global campaign #SaveOlegSentsov initiated by Oleksandra Matviychuk during Oleg Sentsov’s hunger strike.
“This campaign holds an ambitious objective: to unite public groups or concerned people all over the world who systematically and regularly will be doing simple things for release of the Kremlin’s hostages. It is of utmost importance that these actions are visible. People who say that another action will do nothing don’t understand how the international system works. To ensure the issue has chances for solution it always has to be on the agenda,” Oleksandra Matviychuk explains.“Therefore, publicity which forms international demand accompanied with a firm strategy is all we require to free the people on our lists. There are at least ninety eight persons detained on the territory of Russia and occupied Crimea only.”
The human rights defender underlines, the Kremlin’s hostages are include the people detained in basements of occupied Donbas and 24 Ukrainian POW sailors.
Within the framework of the campaign #SaveOlegSentsov, synchronized actions have been held worldwide in 40 countries, and achieved substantial results.
“Last summer we accomplished the resolution of the European Parliament listing names of each of the seventy political prisoners for the very first time. We achieved the appointment of urgent debates in the Council of Europe; the Secretary General of the Council of Europe himself addressed Putin with a requirement to pardon the Ukrainian film director. Following #SaveOlegSentsov action “A Card for Macron” initiated by French activists, the President of France intermitted his vacation to call Putin and raise a question of Oleg’s release. It is crucially important to do something all the time, to demonstrate an active position. The result won’t come instantaneously, but it will come,” Oleksandra Matviychuk concludes.
Oleg Sentsov’s Mailing Address:
Ямало-Ненецкий авт. округ,
ул. Северная, 33,
ФКУ ИК-8 УФСИН России по ЯНАО
Сенцову Олегу Геннадиевичу, 1976 г.р.
It is very important to write in Russian (both address and letter), otherwise it will be censored and will not reach its recipient. The translation below is solely for the reader’s understanding.
Yamalo-Nenetsk Autonomous Okrug
33 Severnaya St.
Federal Governmental Institution “Penal Colony No. 8”,
Office of the Federal Penitentiary Service for the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug
Sentsov Oleg Gennadievich, 1976 year of birth
Mariia Semenchenko, exclusively for PEN Ukraine
Translated by Oksana Wasikowska