Roman Sushchenko: Landscapes from behind the Bars
The Ukrainian journalist, correspondent of the national agency Ukrinform in France, political prisoner illegally detained in Russia on September 30, 2016 and soon after sentenced to 12 years in a strict regime colony.
In March of 2017, the family of the Ukrainian journalist received an envelope. It contained a letter and a drawing. A spring landscape drawn with a black ball pen on a sheet off an album; bare trees and bushes catching their reflection in the water of a still drowsy river after the winter. A beautiful but sad landscape.
In this manner Roman Sushchenko congratulated his daughter Yulia and wife Anzhela with the Women’s Day. Then, he, charged with “espionage on behalf of Ukraine”, was detained at the Lefortovo SIZO (pre-trial detention facility in Moscow) for nearly half a year without seeing his wife Anzhela, daughter Yulia and son Maksym. Out of distractions available he had books and could draw with ball pens. His family, friends, colleagues and Roman himself, everyone hoped the situation would be resolved in the near future, and the journalist would be set free to go home.
Nobody wanted to think that this was just the beginning. That only two and a half years after the detention he would be able to hug his wife and daughter.
Nobody knew Roman Sushchenko would be sentenced to 12 years of imprisonment in a strict regime colony.
At the end of September, Roman planned his trip to Moscow, which was not the first one. His cousin with his wife – elderly people – lives in the capital of the Russian Federation. That autumn, his cousin underwent a surgery, and Roman was arriving to support him, financially as well. According to Roman’s wife, Anzhela, nobody had any ill premonitions. Roman regularly visited his cousin; he values his family very much and kept in touch with them. Not once was he asked any additional questions at the border or had any problems with entry into the Russian territory. Roman did not notice any greater attention towards himself.
That time, he had worked as a special correspondent of Ukrinform, a national Ukrainian news agency in France. He lived with his family in Paris and had a residence permit. Roman was accredited at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“Friday, on September 30, 2016, I signed Roman’s request for a leave which said he wouldn’t be in Paris for the weekend. I didn’t know where he would be. Roman is an adult, he can plan everything aptly and resolve his own issues. I personally flew to Washington on a work-related occasion. The flight was long, phone turned off. Arriving, descending the tramp, the messages started pouring saying, ‘Is it true Sushchenko is arrested in Moscow?’ Ukrinform CEO Oleksandr Kharchenko recalls. “At first you think, what nonsense is it, and then you understand what really happened.”
To find out the details of what exactly happened that day in Moscow, what were the circumstances the FSB (Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation) detained the Ukrainian citizen and journalist Roman Sushchenko is quite difficult. His case is classified, and all court trials were closed. Even the Ukrainian consul was denied access. Only declaring the sentence they allowed being present.
All we know: on September 30, 2016 Roman came out from his relatives’ apartment, and almost at the same time, a car stopped by him, security officers leaped out, tugged a bag on Roman’s head, wrought his hands, shoved him into the car and brought to the SIZO. Some ‘witness’ is mentioned in the story, although who this person is and what role he/she played in the situation is unknown. Roman is also prohibited from speaking on his case.
The detention of the Ukrainian journalist and his location in the Lefortovo SIZO was found out on October 3. For three days no one knew where he was and what happened – from Ukraine’s consul in Moscow to Roman’s family and colleagues. He just disappeared.
“Roman set off for three days; we agreed to get in touch every evening. On the first evening he called me, said everything was all right, that he had arrived and already reached his cousin’s place. He promised to text me the next day,” Roman’s wife Anzhela Sushchenko recollects. “The day passed, night fell – no message from him. This didn’t look like him, he is very responsible. I sent him a text – silence in return. Well, I thought it could be some meeting or maybe he’s busy with relatives. In the morning, there were no replies again. I dialed him, but the call was declined. Then I called our relatives on a landline.”
Anzhela tells how the cousin of Roman picked up and answered her questions in an even tone, “No, he’s not here… No, he wasn’t home at night… No, we don’t know anything, neither his location nor what happened to him… No, he’s not in the hospital… No, you’ll soon find out.”
And then Anzhela recalls how she felt she lacked air, how her heart started leaping out of her chest.
“Obviously, our relatives signed a non-disclosure agreement and had no right to talk about what had happened,” Roman’s daughter Yulia Sushchenko says. The first news about the father I read on Zoya Svetova’s Facebook account – she is a Russian human rights defender – it said that she visited Lefortovo and saw my father in one of the cells. It was horrendous; we did not know what to do… There was nobody to counsel with on what to do in this situation. Determined steps followed later on. At first, it was important my father had a sensible lawyer: Ukrinform had attended to it. They signed a contract with Mark Feygin. He discovered that my father had not plead guilty, which was highly important. Then, he engaged in legal aspects as well as ensuring my father had necessary food and clothes. And we, here in Ukraine, have been doing everything for the world to know how Russia illegally imprisoned the Ukrainian journalist Roman Sushchenko.”
Then, the case of Roman Sushchenko was the first classified case of a Ukrainian political prisoner. The rest of the cases and trials were purposefully public, on the contrary.
“Why exactly Roman? It seems it was logical that they catch, lock up, accuse our Roman of espionage and appeal to Europe: ‘Look, he is a spy; he spied in favor of Ukraine, and not just in Moscow but Paris as well. You give all the preferences and protection to Ukraine, and in return it makes up something under your nose! Say, there, in your civilized Europe, was a spy’,” Oleksandr Kharchenko explains. I sense they had planned some dramatic conspiracy, but it failed. If they had something to show to the world, the trials would be open.”
Ukrinform CEO does not discard that Roman Sushchenko’s arrest was a certain notice to all journalists writing about Russia – it can happen to anyone, although he discards all accusations of espionage.
“Roman has always been fully dedicated to work. He has always given his 100%. Sushchenko was our single correspondent in Paris; he covered all France, all news stream, and wrote analytics. In average, it’s a hundred and fifty original news online and a few analytical materials a month. Someone who passes off as a journalist would never work so. He is a journalist, not a spy,” Oleksandr Kharchenko concludes.
When You Cannot Speak
Roman Sushchenko spent two years at the Lefortovo SIZO. During this time, he had several short, hour-long, meetings with his wife and daughter, through the glass and under supervision of the SIZO coworkers. He was occasionally visited by the Ukraine’s consul and quite frequently by his lawyer, Mark Feygin. These visits allowed Roman to be informed about some events, at least, for the majority of time he remained in the information vacuum.
It was in SIZO he started painting again. He is an amateur artist and has loved to paint since the very childhood. Lately, however, because of his job, he had not had enough time for this. It was prohibited to send either paint or coloring pencils, so Roman painted with black and blue ball pens as well as everything he could get as tea, kissel, beetroot, onion.
“Father recounted that in such situations you have to distract yourself and stop constantly thinking of the place you are at. Because depression can quickly seize you, you have to be engaged in something, do something. So he decided he would paint,” Yulia Sushchenko says. “All of his paintings are very symbolic. One of them – and there are over two dozen now – is the Ar Men Lighthouse in Brittany during the storm. The painting shows great waves breaking against this lighthouse. Father wrote he could draw a parallel between the lighthouse and himself. However, a storm always passes. We are very hopeful this one passes, too.”
Mainly, Roman paints landscapes and, occasionally, still life. European urban scenery and nature most frequently appear on his works of art.
“In youth, the wicked 90s, there was no money. When we would be invited to celebrations organized by our friends, my husband would paint such small paintings as gifts. I know for sure that many friends of ours still have them hanging on the walls since those years,” Anzhela Sushchenko remarks.
Roman Sushchenko’s paintings have steadily received publicity. Anzhela and Yulia together with Ukrinform have organized a few exhibitions of his art in Ukraine and abroad. His works have been exhibited in Paris, Warsaw and Brussels. It has helped in keeping his name on everyone’s lips.
“Roman is a courageous man. It would appear he has no means of communication with the world, nevertheless, through the paintings he conducts such a powerful communication that millions of people now know of him and his art,” Oleksandr Kharchenko says.
Everybody hoped for a rapid exchange. But on June 4, 2018, Moscow City Court sentenced Roman Sushchenko to 12 years of imprisonment in a strict regime colony.
Year of Release: 2028
Today, Roman Sushchenko is separated from the ordinary life by some 2.5 years, 2500 km (approx. distance between Paris and journalist’s place of detention) and a fence with barbed wire around the strict regime colony in a village of Utrobino of the Kirov region. There, Roman has to spend ten more years, if earlier attempts of exchange will fail. Transfer to the place took a few weeks; the prisoners were transported in the Stolypin coaches, known as ‘vagonzaks’.
“Cockroaches size of a matchbox, omnipresent rodents of every color, mold, damp, pitch darkness, undernourishment and cold,” Roman wrote about the transfer in a letter to his family.
“Father has lost a lot of weight, because the transfer was tough and lengthy. It was winter, there was no heating in the coach, the so-called compartment had bars instead of door,” Yulia Sushchenko says. “They are meant for four people, but there were eight, and that with stuff and bags, many smoked, many had unknown diseases. The convoy was very strict; they were armed, with dogs and nobody stood on ceremony. It was stressful for my father.”
Yulia mentions that her father had a serious cold, and now he has problems with pressure. Local doctors diagnosed him with arterial hypertension. His state worsened with conditions he was kept in. The administration of the colony moved Roman Sushchenko to a cell-type room away from other prisoners.
“I mean all prisoners in the colony live in camps, my father was transferred to an individual cell justifying it with threats from other prisoners. For instance, there may be Russian nationalists hostile to Ukrainians,” Yulia notes.
Prisoners held in this type of cells are not allowed to the shop and for meals; breakfast, lunch and dinner are delivered inside. There, it is impossible to warm yourself, because you cannot put a kettle and make hot tea for there are no sockets. Twice a day they conduct searches. At 5:00 am you have to get up, although in other cells it is a few hours later.
In January of 2019, Anzhela and Yulia obtained permission for a long-time meeting with Roman, for three days. It is only possible once in four months providing there is a free room for that time period. You are not allowed to bring phones, cameras, earphones, watches, jewelry or anything except food the prisoner and guests are going to eat and things to wear. The meeting is held in a specific building similar to a hostel. There is a shared kitchen, toilet, bathroom and ten small rooms for meetings.
“It took us around 36 hours to get from Moscow to Utrobino, 1200 km,” Anzhela Sushchenko recollects. “We took with us some thirty photographs and cards signed by friends and colleagues: Roman could see them during the meeting but wasn’t allowed to take them with him to the cell. We were searched, everything was checked. All food items were smelled, viewed, opened, and every card was read. Then they said to wait, he would come. Nervous we were sitting, looking out the room – nobody. Then we heard a faint quiet knock. Opened – he came in. Words cannot express this. We haven’t seen each other for two and a half years! We couldn’t let him out of our embraces. He was wearing this black robe, on his chest a nameplate saying ‘Year of release: 2028’, his photo and a red mark. It means a prisoner is particularly dangerous and is inclined to escape. Although it is quite obvious: one cannot runaway anywhere. Where to run?”
Yulia reminisces that the first night they spent talking without end. Roman was interested in absolutely everything: from the pre-election ‘tomos’ granted to Ukraine’s orthodox church, domestic and family matters to international politics. He then said that for those three days he had talked more than for all two and a half years. In addition, Anzhela and Yulia brought him water colors.
“Dad is such a person that never complains. He keeps his head high, he isn’t distraught; but at the same time he is not waiting to be set free tomorrow. He has no illusions,” Yulia says.
Come Home Sooner
When Roman was arrested, his son Maksym turned 9. He did not know anything about his father because nobody had told him. Maksym used to think his father was on a business trip, but he started to worry why there were no calls. Then, Yulia came to Paris, and together with mom they explained him what had happened.
It is difficult for our son to be apart from father, says Anzhela, because they are very close. Living in France, Roman would always take the family somewhere, they traveled, visited museums; he wanted to instill love for art in Maksym, because he himself loves it very much.
Anzhela and Maksym returned to Kyiv after those events. The boy quite quickly adapted to a new school and class. Before the winter holidays, his classmates together with the supervisor wrote sixteen letters to Roman. The journalist later told his wife he could not come to his senses for a week – this is how pleasant it was to receive letters from children.
“The more time passes, the more Maksym misses his father; the boy is growing up and misses him. Everyday going to sleep he kisses me and says, ‘May dad come to your dreams and may he come home sooner’,” Anzhela Sushchenko explains. “I’m afraid to think Roman will have to stay until 2028. He will be 60 when he comes out. We immensely hope for exchange.”
If Ukraine fails to free or exchange Roman Sushchenko any earlier, he will only be set free in 2028
A year ago Roman’s father died. His 77-year-old mother promised to wait for her son. She learned to use the computer and looks up news about him herself. Reads them and cries. When she receives letters from Roman she goes to her husband’s grave and reads them out. Roman was very close with his father.
“We didn’t know how to tell Roman about his father’s death, he was in a tough psychological state. And such news. After all, the consul told him about it,” Anzhela recalls. “Such news make Roma close up, detach from the outer world: he needs to think it all through, to comprehend.”
Everyone misses Roman very much, says Anzhela. Family, friends, colleagues – everyone reminisces him, everyone tries to support, everyone awaits home.
“I miss his advice greatly. I miss our conversations over a cup of tea,” Yulia says. “I want to share joyous moments and achievements with him. We lived in different countries but talked daily.”
Yulia says her father was the one who inspired her to pursue journalism. She also works at Ukrinform.
Letters for Roman
Roman has refused to work in the colony justifying that he is a foreign citizen and does not wish to work for Russia. So he spends his time reading, painting and reading letters. Yulia Sushchenko underlines that letters are very important for her father.
“They represent a thread tying him to the homeland. It is important for him to know that people are interested in him, remember him. We are constantly in a hurry, so it is quite significant some people make time to write letters to political prisoners,” Yulia states.
She specifies that only letters written in Russian are permitted. Moreover, everything is read by the censor, so it is better not to write about politics. Instead, her father would be glad of lively letters where people write about themselves, books they read, art, scientific inventions, journeys.
“Letters is a way to directly support my father. The same way as campaigns, they occasionally draw attention of society to the situation with political prisoners. For me it’s important that colleagues remember my father on the anniversary of imprisonment, birthday, Journalist’s Day,” Yulia clarifies.
Oleksandr Kharchenko says he would like to see more solidarity from foreign colleagues. “Twice a year we attend the European Alliance of News Agencies. We are the only agency from Ukraine there. It is an influential professional association uniting APF, Reuters and others. And, frankly, they don’t quite feel this injustice of a journalist being illegally imprisoned in Russia,” Ukrinform CEO tells. “Once, we did an experiment. On an anniversary of Roman’s imprisonment we sent a word about him in all news agencies, members of this alliance, and there are about thirty. Only one published it. I believe if it was about Reuters or AFP or Associated Press journalist, the support would be much larger. At the moment they are living with a stereotype that it’s an internal conflict, civil war or something of this kind.”
Yulia Sushchenko advises everyone who is willing to help political prisoners to write letters to them, remind of them, organize and attend campaigns in their support. For all of this is not in vain.
“We just don’t have any right to give up, not until my father and other political prisoners are there, in Russian prisons,” Yulia concludes.
The address to send letters to (in Russian):
Сущенко Роман Владимирович
ФКУ ИК-11 УФСИН России по Кировской области
г. Кирово-Чепецк, Кировская область
Photos from Yulia Sushchenko’s archive are used in this material.
Mariia Semenchenko, exclusively for PEN Ukraine
Translation: Oksana Wasikowska