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Running in Place

Ukrainian officials haven’t stopped agitating for the release of political prisoners in Russia, but in an interview, the cousin of jailed film director Oleg Sentsov says she’s heard things are at a dead end. From Hromadske.

by Sergey Mokrushin 27 June 2017

Three years have passed since the moment Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov was arrested. The “Crimean terrorists” affair, in which four Crimeans were accused of planning terrorist acts in Crimea, does not hold up to scrutiny according to lawyers and legal activists. The case appears, by all accounts, to be politically motivated. Sentsov received the longest sentence – 23 years in a strict-regime, corrective labor colony.


Oleg’s cousin, Natalya Kaplan, tells Hromadske about what could accelerate Oleg’s release, how to support him while he is in a Yakutsk penal colony, and how public opinion regarding the Kremlin’s political prisoners is changing.


Natalya Kaplan


Oleg recently received a prestigious award from PEN America. How did he react?


Oleg was very happy. He believes that it is a good opportunity to speak out about the matter of Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia. He knew about it in the winter, before the official ceremony. In other words they notified him earlier.


Well-known people are supporting Oleg, including movie stars and eminent film directors. Does this help in any way?


As we see it, the situation has not budged, nothing has changed in three years, and just as he has been sitting in prison, so he remains there. But in terms of morale it is helpful, it gives hope.


Can there be other kinds of support in this situation? We understand that the sentence is not being decreased, and that Kremlin authorities are not changing their position on the matter.


Of course, there needs to be political pressure, primarily. Only politicians can release Oleg – to simply make it so that detaining him is not in Putin’s interests. That would be optimal. I don’t see other options.


How have these three years changed the person that is Oleg Sentsov?


In my view, not at all. I mean, of course he has gained some life experience. Of course his thinking has changed. He now values the people close to him more. But, in general, I don’t see any dramatic changes. He remains fairly severe, and very blunt. All of that has stayed the same.


Well-known people have voiced their support for Oleg Sentsov. This photo shows a protest against his detention, held at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival. Image by EPA / Gregor Fischer.


How difficult is it to maintain communication with him now, considering the distance and how closed off the Federal Penitentiary Service of Russia is?


It’s fairly difficult, meaning that letters are not always delivered, not always to everyone, and you can never guess when they’ll be delivered and when they won’t be. It is unlike at Lefortovo [Prison, in Moscow], where letters took a very long time to arrive, but they were always delivered. I was still living in Moscow then and there were times when a letter would take two months to travel around Moscow, but it would be delivered. And there were none of these stupid rules stipulating that a letter must only be handwritten.


Now, in Yakutsk, printed letters are not accepted ... Letters must only be written in Russian – at Lefortovo we forwarded him letters in Ukrainian and English. Now there is none of that and, most importantly, it is unclear what will be delivered, how much of it will get there. Because a lot is being sent, especially from abroad. Ideally, letters are sent to Russia, and from there to the penal colony. Otherwise the chances are zero.


To what extent is the mail that does get delivered censored? How often might part of a letter be crossed out?


I have not seen any altered letters addressed to Oleg specifically. Somehow they don’t change them. But in general this happens very frequently. Mail undergoes fairly strict censorship. It gets sent from Yakutsk to Moscow, and then farther. The censorship is very strict. Very.


Does Oleg continue working on his craft, in the conditions he’s in? Perhaps there are some preliminary results?


Yes, of course, Oleg has written five screenplays and a collection of stories, and now he’s finishing his latest novel. He says that he does not just want to mope, like other prisoners who sit and do nothing. He works.


What are the main themes of his work?


He doesn’t say.


And he doesn’t show any of his manuscripts?


No. He said “All of this will be released along with me.” So now what we have to do is get Oleg out of prison with his manuscripts. That is the only way.


Is he able to follow what is happening in Crimea and in mainland Ukraine? What does he say about the developments here, and what concerns him the most?


Oleg is cut off from reality, that’s a fact; therefore the information he receives is very limited. We try to tell him about the general political situation, and he watches Russian television. He watches it from the right angle, and draws the right conclusions. But he does not have access to other television [stations]. He is mostly concerned with corruption – that all is not well here in that regard, that’s the main thing.


In the affair of the “Crimean terrorists,” are there any more legal possibilities to contest and change the court’s decision, or are there any courts outside of Russia?


Practically, no. Our case has been filed with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), but it can stay there for a very long time. It has been accepted for review, but the actual process has not started yet. You have to understand that if we win this case, they will recommend that Russia reconsider the matter; Russia will review it and say “no,” and the process might be stretched out for decades. We filed the case but we do not have much hope. And considering the fact that the Russian legislature wants to assert, or has already asserted, that international courts cannot be above Russian courts, our chances are very slim.


Finally, we lost everything, legally – specifically, the Supreme Court ruling, all of the appeals, etc. Our primary objective is to prove that Oleg is still a Ukrainian citizen. That would really help us with any further action. But how can we do that, considering the “outlaw” methods, where the notice of citizenship was given by an officer of the [Russian] Federal Security Service (FSS), and that’s considered normal?


This issue of citizenship became really crucial in the case of Alexander Kol’chenko in particular. What does Oleg himself say about the fact that he was made a citizen of Russia without his permission, and that procedurally this was impossible?


He said in court “I am not a serf, that I can be transferred along with the land.” Of course, he is very upset by this fact. It is absurd, and yet another similarity to Kafka’s “The Trial.” This person has a Ukrainian passport, no Russian documents now or ever, has never renounced his Ukrainian citizenship, never asked for one from Russia but here we are. A writ from an FSS investigator made him into a Russian citizen. Well it’s just laughable.


Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov’s cousin Natalya Kaplan speaking to Hromadske journalist Sergey Mokrushin. Photo by Alexander Popenko/Hromadske.


The story of Gennadiy Afanasiev is interesting because he found the strength to say that he gave all of the testimony against Oleg and Sasha Kol’chenko because he was tortured, and that he was forced to lie about other people. What was Oleg’s reaction?


Oleg was the first to applaud in the court hallway when he recanted his testimony. And he was very glad when Genna was released. While Genna was in prison, Oleg said that it’s very important for us not to forget about him. He is happy for every political prisoner [who is released]. He is worried about all of them.


When Genna Afanasiev was released, we had hoped that the process would not end there, but would go further. But we understood very clearly then, that political mechanisms had been implemented. And these mechanisms need to be applied in full force to other political prisoners.


Is there any hope that this process will be renewed?


It would be really nice to believe that, but it has been over a year and we have not managed to free anyone else. I do not participate in the negotiations and the only things I manage to hear from politicians are “That’s it, dead end. Everything is bad.” They don’t even try to give any hope.


In general, is there a sense that the government is not indifferent to those behind bars?


On the whole, yes, they really raise these questions during negotiations, during meetings with foreign politicians. But in terms of real action, I don’t know. There needs to be an understanding of what can be done, and there is none.


To say that I see some sort of active measures – there is none of that either. Everything is very passive. They themselves say that everything is bad. If earlier they used to say “we’re working on it, doing all we can,” now they say “well, it’s not working out.”


Do regular people come?


Yes, a lot of activists are helping out, and a very strong civil society. But I don’t see the point of talking about this in Ukraine. Now it is more important to meet with foreign politicians, who may have more leverage than Ukrainians. A trip to the United States, a meeting in Congress, the State Department, other institutions – I hope they will be effective. It’s apparent that people are interested and ready to help. Here, I cannot imagine what else we can do, or who else we could talk to.

Kyiv protests on the day of the third anniversary of Stentsov’s arrest. Photo by Alexander Nazarov/Hromadske.


From conversations with the mother of Genna Afanasiev it became clear that life has become more complicated for relatives of those accused of terrorism in Crimea – especially after those people were accused on state television.


No, as far as I know, relatives are not having such issues. Yes, at Oleg’s mother’s house, a visiting friend’s car was smashed up. But that was perhaps the only incident. I don’t see anything else like that.


Of course, it is difficult to interact with people. Oleg’s mother is living a closed off life right now, because not everyone understands her. It even slips out in daily life. A few weeks ago, we were talking on the phone – they have a peach and apricot harvest failure that has lasted four years now. Well she calmly tells everyone: “And what did you want? It’s Russia.” How can I talk with her after that?


If we talk about Ukrainian society do they accept this story [about Oleg’s arrest and imprisonment] unequivocally?


Unfortunately, after the release of some political prisoners we had problems. I often hear from Ukrainians that we should not free any more of them, and that they are disappointed in the ones who have already been released.


I understand that they mean Nadezhda Savchenko [the controversial Ukrainian fighter pilot who was released a year ago in a prisoner swap with Russia]?


People have said similar things about Genna too. I would say that Ukrainian society is ambivalent about this issue.


Perhaps there was a missed opportunity here to explain that these are real people, not just faces from posters. That the most valuable thing is to bring them back to their lives?


It is difficult for me to say what motivates people to talk this way. I think that these people are armchair soldiers. It is unlikely that they have truly fought, truly demonstrated on someone’s behalf, truly volunteered, etc. People who actually participate do not talk like that.


Kaplan during a rally in support of Stentsov. Photo by Alexander Nazarov/Hromadske.


How do people in Russia react to the story of the so-called “Crimean terrorists”?


The opposition, which has brains, does not have such a split. They are unequivocally on Oleg’s side and the side of other political prisoners. They do not even divide them by nationality, because there are a lot of Russians in prison, not just Ukrainians. They fight for all of them, bring  deliveries to all of them, and protest with posters.


Regarding the other members of society, whose brains are polluted with propaganda, they don’t even know who Oleg Sentsov is. He is not mentioned on television – how can they know about him? Maybe they have heard something somewhere? There was a peak right after his arrest: they showed clips of the “terrorist” group being detained in Crimea. But that was three years ago, the clips ran for a week, and now no one remembers it. Most of the Russian population just doesn’t know. Even when there were protests at the “NIKA” (national cinematography award) ceremony, they were cut from the taping of the television show.


If one looks closely at the facts of the Sentsov case, one can conclude that they are put together sloppily, brazenly, counting on the fact that the court will not actually be assessing the evidence of the investigation. Why Oleg? With these initial findings, figuratively speaking, anyone can be charged with this type of crime, and they are successfully doing so now in Crimea. Why was it Oleg who was the first?


It is difficult to say – he was in their sights and he appears authoritative, so it was easier to charge him as an organizer. But, on the whole, I would say that they were just rounded up without thought, because the anti-extremism division arrived in the middle of April and by May they had all been captured. I don’t think they were considering whom it would be better to bring in. They just grabbed anyone.


Do you know anything about Aleksei Chirniya, who was also arrested in the Sentsov case?


There is a suspicion that he is not mentally well, and that he has had such problems for a while. This is the person that began it all. He slandered others and continues to do so. In his letters, the evidence is so at odds. He writes such nonsense. You just have to read it to understand.


The case began with him. He truly went to his friend [Oleksandr] Pirogov, a student of chemistry, to say, “Look, I want to destroy a Lenin monument, do something.” Pirogov notified the FSS, told them everything, and was given a dummy bomb. Even though all over it was written “explosive device,” it was a dummy bomb. Pirogov gave it to Chirniya, who was arrested with the bomb. Now he’s serving time in Magadan (a port town located on the Sea of Okhotsk).


It is difficult to imagine what it’s like to be so far from home, cut off from the world, and, to put it mildly, in uncomfortable conditions. How is Oleg dealing with it? What helps him?


It is difficult to say. Oleg is an ascetic by nature, he doesn’t need much. Somehow he gets by. He takes his vitamins, exercises, plays chess. He doesn’t have a choice.


Does he believe that he will be free before the sentence ends?


Yes, he does believe, he lives only through hope. Even though we try not to give him superfluous optimism, he lives through hopefulness. He believes. For now, he believes. 

Sergey Mokrushin is the editor of the Hromadske program about Crimea. The original version of this article, in Russian, was published on Hromadske, a Ukrainian internet TV and multimedia organization. TOL has done some editing to fit our style. Reprinted with permission. All images courtesy of Hromadske. 


Translated by Anna Bisikalo.

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