What Sentsov Could Die For
May 25, 2018
Oleg Sentsov. Photo by Sergei Pivovarov. Courtesy of RIA Novosti and Colta.Ru
On May 14, 2018, Oleg Sentsov went on an indefinite hunger strike in a penal colony located north of the Arctic Circle. His only demand is the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia. According to Memorial’s list, there are twenty-four such prisoners.
In August 2015, Sentsov was sentenced to twenty years for organizing a terrorist community and planning terrorist attacks. The second defendant in the case, Alexander Kolchenko, was sentenced to ten years in prison. Mediazona has published transcripts of the hearings in their trial. Around three hundred people have read them over the last three years. The transcripts make it plain the only evidence of the alleged terrorist organization’s existence was the testimony of Alexei Chirniy, who was not personally acquainted with Sentsov. It is police footage of Chirniy’s arrest while he was carrying a rucksack containing a fake explosive device that propagandists often pass off as police footage of Sentsov’s arrest.
Before his arrest, Sentsov was an Automaidan activist. In the spring of 2014, he organized peaceful protests against Crimea’s annexation by Russia.
“Yesterday’s ‘suicide bomber auto rally’ took place in Simferopol yesterday, but in quite abridged form,” Sentsov wrote on Facebook on March 12, 2014. “Only eight cars, six reporters with cameras, and twenty-five activists/passengers assembled at the starting point. I would have liked to have seen more. Unfortunately, most of the armchair revolutionaries who were invited were afraid to go. The traffic cops and regular police also showed up at the starting line, insisting we not leave for our own safety. We told them our protest was peaceful. We had no plans of breaking the rules, so we suggested they escort us to keep the peace for everyone’s sake.”
The second defendant, Kolchenko, admitted involvement in the arson of an office that was listed in the case file as belonging to the United Russia Party, but which in April 2014 was an office of Ukraine’s Party of Regions. The arson took place at night. It was meant to cause physical damage while avoiding injuring anyone.
The Russian authorities tried to prove both Sentsov and Kolchenko were linked with Right Sector, a charge that was unsubstantiated in Sentsov’s case and absurd in the latter case due to Kolchenko’s well-known leftist and anarchist convictions. Gennady Afanasyev, the second witness on whose testimony the charges against the two men were based, claimed he had been tortured and coerced into testifying against them.
Sentsov and Kolchenko’s show trial, like the show trials in the Bolotnaya Square Case, were supposed to show that only a handful of terrorists opposed the referendum on Crimea’s annexation and thus intimidate people who planned to resist assimilation. The Russian authorities wanted to stage a quick, one-off event to intimidate and crack down on anti-Russian forces. But two circumstances prevented the repressive apparatus from working smoothly. The first was that the defendants did not make a deal with prosecutors and refused to acknowledge the trial’s legitimacy. The second was that Automaidan activist Oleg Sentsov unexpectedly turned out to be a filmmaker, provoking a series of public reactions ranging from protests by the European Film Academy to questions about whether cultural producers would be capable of blowing up cultural landmarks. Segments of the Russian film community reacted to the situation with cold irritation. According to them, Sentsov was a Ukrainian filmmaker, not a Russian filmmaker, and he was not a major filmmaker. The owner of a computer club in Simferopol, his semi-amateur debut film, Gamer, had been screened at the festivals in Rotterdam and Khanty-Mansiysk, while release of his second picture, Rhino, had been postponed due to Euromaidan.
The Ukrainian intelligentsia have equated Sentsov with other political prisoners of the empire, such as the poet Vasyl Stus, who spent most of his life in Soviet prisons and died in Perm-36 in the autumn of 1985, a week after he had gone on yet another hunger strike. The Ukrainian authorities see Sentsov, a Crimean who was made a Russian national against his will and is thus not eligible for prisoner exchanges, as inconvenient, since he smashes the stereotype of the treacherous peninsula, a part of Ukraine bereft of righteous patriots. Sentsov’s death on the eve of the 2018 FIFA World Cup would be a vexing, extremely annoying nuisance to the Russian authorities.
Sentsov is an annoyance to nearly everyone, but he is a particular annoyance to those people who, while part of the Russian establishment, have openly defended him, although they have tried with all their might to avoid noticing what an inconvenient figure he has been. Although he was not a terrorist when he was arrested, he has become a terrorist of sorts in prison, because his trial and his hunger strike have been a slowly ticking time bomb planted under the entire four-year-long post-Crimean consensus, during which some have been on cloud nine, others have put down stakes, and still others have kept their mouths shut. Yet everyone reports on the success of their new endeavors on Facebook while ignoring wars abroad and torture on the home front. Sentsov represents a rebellion against hybrid reality and utter compromise, a world in which Google Maps tells you Crimea is Russian and Ukrainian depending on your preferences. To what count does “bloodlessly” annexed Crimea belong, if, four years later, a man is willing to die to say he does not recognize the annexation?
The success of Gamer on the film festival circuit, which made Sentsov part of the international film world, and his current address in a prison north of the Arctic Circle beg three questions. What is culture? Who produces culture? What stances do cultural producers take when they produce culture? There are several possible answers. Culture is a tool for reflection, a means for individuals and societies to achieve self-awareness and define themselves. It is not necessarily a matter of high culture. In this case, we could also be talking about pop music, fashion, and rap. (See, for example, the recent documentary film Fonko, which shows how spontaneous music making has gradually been transformed into a political force in post-colonial Africa.) On the contrary, culture can be a means of spending leisure time for people with sufficient income, short work days, and long weekends.
Obviously, the culture produced in Russia today under the patronage of Vladimir Medinsky’s Culture Ministry is not the first type of culture, with the exception of documentary theater and documentary cinema, but the founders of Theater.Doc have both recently died, while Artdocfest has finally been forced to relocate to Riga. The compromised, censored “cultural production” in which all the arts have been engaged has no way of addressing any of the questions currently facing Russia and the world, from shifts in how we view gender and the family (for which you can be charged with the misdemeanor of “promoting homosexualism”) to the relationship between the capitals and regions (for which you can charged with the felony of “calling for separatism”). Crimea is an enormous blank spot in Russian culture. Donbass and the rest of Ukraine, with which Russia still enjoyed vast and all-pervasive ties only five years ago, are blank spots. But cultural producers have to keep on making culture, and it is easier to say no one is interested in painful subjects and shoot a film about the complicated family life of a doctor with a drinking problem and a teetotalling nurse.
When we speak of the second type of culture—culture as leisure—we primarily have in mind Moscow, which is brimming over with premieres, lectures, and exhibitions, and, to a much lesser extent, Russia’s other major cities. So, in a country whose population is approaching 150 million people, there is a single international film festival staged by a local team for its hometown, Pacific Meridian in Vladivostok. All the rest are produced by Moscow’s itinerant three-ring circus on the paternalist model to the delight of enlightened regional governors. It matters not a whit that one of them ordered a brutal assault on a journalist, nor that another was in cahoots with the companies responsible for safety at the Sayano-Shushenskaya Dam, where 75 people perished in 2009. What matters is that the festival movement should go on. There is no room in this model for local cultural progress. There can be no free discussion generated by works of art when everyone is engaged in total self-censorship. After I went to Festival 86 in Slavutych, whose curators have been conceptually reassessing the post-Soviet individual and the post-Soviet space, I found it painful to think about Russian film festivals. This sort of focused conceptualization is impossible in Russia. It is of no interest to anyone.
There are two more possible answers to the question of what culture is. Culture is propaganda. Or, finally, culture is only the marquee on a commercial enterprise profiting at the taxpayer’s expense. It is not a big choice, and the kicker is that by agreeing today to be involved in churning out propaganda, milking taxpayers, supplying optional leisure time activities, producing censored works, and colonizing one’s own countrymen for the sake of money, status, and membership in a professional community, the people involved in these processes automatically stop making sense. It is naïve to think the audience has not noticed this forfeiture. It is no wonder the public has an increasingly hostile reaction to cultural producers and their work.
No one has the guts to exit this vicious circle even in protest at the slow suicide of a colleague convicted on trumped-up charges, because it would not be “practical.” The events of recent months and years, however, should have transported us beyond dread, since everyone without exception is now threatened with being sent down, the innocent and the guilty alike.
Post-Soviet infantilism is total. It affects the so-called intelligentsia no less than the so-called ordinary folk. Infantilism means being unable to empathize, being unable to put yourself in another person’s shoes, even if that person is President Putin, a man with a quite distinct sense of ethics, a man who has been studied backwards and forwards for twenty years. Apparently, the message sent to the creative communities through the arrest of Kirill Serebrennikov was not registered. If you want to be a dissident, start down the hard road of doing jail time for misdemeanor charges, facing insuperable difficulties in renting performance and exhibition spaces, becoming an outsider, and experiencing despair. If you want a big theater in downtown Moscow, play by the rules. Like your average late-Soviet philistine, Putin regarded the creative intelligentsia with respect at the outset of his presidential career. (See, for example, footage from his visit to Mosfilm Studios in 2003.) However, a few years later, he was convinced the creative intelligentsia was a rampantly conformist social group who would never move even a millimeter out of its comfort zone and would make one concession after another. A lack of self-respect always generates disrespect in counterparts.
By signing open letters while remaining inside the system and not backing their words with any actions whatsoever, the cultural figures currently protesting the arrests of colleagues are viewed by the authorities as part of the prison’s gen pop, while people who live outside Moscow see them as accomplices in looting and genocide. No one takes seriously the words of people who lack agency. Agency is acquired only by taking action, including voluntarily turning down benefits for the sake of loftier goals. The acquisition of agency is practical, because it is the only thing that compels other people to pay heed to someone’s words. I will say it again: the acquisition of agency is always practical. At very least, it generates different stances from which to negotiate.
Sentsov has made the choice between sixteen years of slow decay in a penal colony and defiant suicide in order to draw attention not to his own plight, but to the plight of other political prisoners. Regardless of his hunger strike’s outcome, he has generated a new scale for measuring human and professional dignity. It is an personal matter whether we apply the scale or not, but now it is impossible to ignore.
Thanks to Valery Dymshits for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader