“He’s Lost Fifteen Kilos on the Hunger Strike”: Oleg Sentsov’s Cousin Visits Filmmaker in Prison

oleg

“Oleg has been on hunger strike for 52 days and 20 hours.”

“He Has Lost Fifteen Kilos during the Hunger Strike”: Oleg Sentsov’s Cousin Visits Filmmaker in Prison
Novaya Gazeta
July 5, 2018

Natalya Kaplan, cousin of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, has visited him at the Polar Bear Penal Colony in Labytnangi, reports Gromadskoe.

“I met with Oleg. We chatted for two hours. It was a short visit. Oleg, who is 190 centimeters tall, now weighs 75 kilos. He has lost 15 kilos during the hunger strike,” said Ms. Kaplan.

According to her, Mr. Sentsov’s health is currently listed as satisfactory. His lab results are not good, but “there is nothing critical.”

“Yesterday, he felt quite sick. Today, he was fine. He came to the meeting on his own. He feels worse in the evenings. He says he now has a much easier time of it. The first three weeks of the hunger strike were the most agonizing period. He has been getting IVs now. He would not survive without them. He has no plans of ending the hunger strike. His outlook is optimistic. He believes what he is doing has a purpose. And he believes he will win,” said the filmmaker’s cousin.

Kaplan added that Sentsov has asked the public not to visit him in prison, but to visit the other political prisoners for whom he has been fighting.

Mr. Sentsov was convicted in Russia on charges of planning terrorist attacks in Crimea. He has been on hunger strike since May 14, demanding the Russian authorities release all Ukrainian political prisoners in their custody except him. Many Russian and international cultural figures and human rights activists have voiced their support for him.

In recent weeks, the Russian and Ukrainian sides have been trying to agree on a prisoner exchange and iron out a schedule of visits to penal colonies. Lyudmila Denisova, the Verkhovna Rada’s human rights ombudsman, has voiced Ukraine’s willingness to implement an exchange of twenty-three prisoners from each side.

Thanks to Dmitry Dinze and Askold Kurov for the heads-up.

___________________________________________________________________

Here is what Novaya Gazeta omitted from the original article as published on the Gromadskoye website.

[…]

Natalya Kaplan told Oleg that Emir Hussein Kuku had joined his hunger strike and about the demonstrations supporting him.

“He is really grateful there have been so many rallies in his support, that people have not given up and keep on fighting. At the same time, however, he is quite disappointed very little attention has been paid to the other political prisoners. He thinks that if he alone were released, it would be a complete failure,” she said.

[…]

“In particular, he asked Ombudsman Denisova, Father Kliment, the independent doctors, and consular officials who have tried to visit him to go visit the other political prisoners, so that no one forgets them,” said Ms. Kaplan.

[…]

According to her, he has television for entertainment, and he has also been writing and editing his old diary entries. He asks that no more books be sent to him. He has lots of books as it is.

It has transpired the former so-called prosecutor of Russia-annexed Crimea, Natalia Poklonskaya, was involved in Mr. Sentsov’s illegal trial in the Russian Federation, during which he was sentenced to twenty years in prison.

On June 29, Mr. Sentsov’s attorney, Dmitry Dinze, reported Mr. Sentsov was in the prison infirmary, but his condition was stable.

Mr. Dinze also reported Russia had received two requests to pardon Mr. Sentsov.

On June 15, Ms. Denisova was not allowed to see Mr. Sentsov. Subsequently, Ms. Denisova was also not allowed to see Ukrainian political prisoner Mykola Karpyuk, imprisoned in the Russian city of Vladimir.

On June 21, the Ukrainian Embassy in Russia demanded Ms. Denisova be granted priority access to the prisons where political prisoners Oleg Sentsov, Stanislav Klykh, Alexander Kolchenko, and Vladimir Balukh have been incarcerated.

On June 21, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko again talked on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, urging him to release the Ukrainian political prisoners.

The ambassadors of the G7 countries have expressed deep concern about the circumstances of Mr. Sentsov and the other Ukrainian political prisoners incarcerated in Russia.

On June 14, the European Parliament passed a resolution demanding the immediate release of Mr. Sentsov and the Kremlin’s other Ukrainian political prisoners.

On June 19, President Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said the Kremlin’s position on Mr. Sentsov had not changed after an appeal to release him was made by prominent Russian cultural figures.

Sixty-four Ukrainian political prisoners are currently being held in Russia and annexed Crimea, twenty-seven of them in Russia proper. Fifty-eight of them were either arrested in Crimea or arrested on charges involving Crimea. These numbers do not take into account the currently held in the self-proclaimed Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Image courtesy of Gromadskoye

 

23 Days (#SaveOlegSentsov)

DesDUX8W4AM7n18Rally in support of Oleg Sentsov in Paris. Photo courtesy of Krym.Realii and Mediazona

Mediazona journalist Yegor Skovoroda writes that Ukrainian political prisoner and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov has been on hunger strike in a Russian penal colony for 23 days.

Filmmaker Askold Kurov, who made a terrific documentary film about Sentsov’s case, The Trial, has been to visit him there.

“He didn’t know any news. He didn’t know that [his co-defendant Simferopol anarchist Alexander] Kolchenko had gone on hunger strike. He didn’t call on anyone to join the hunger strike, especially Kolochenko, who is not in very good shape. But he feels solidarity with everyone who supports him. He knew nothing about the international campaign to support him, and he was quite grateful to everyone for not forgetting him,” said Kurov. “He continues to write and edit screenplays and stories. He has written a novel.”

Read the rest at Mediazona (in Russian) by following the link, below.

*****

Egor Skovoroda
Facebook
June 4, 2018

Олег Сенцов голодает уже 23-й день. Режиссер Аскольд Куров встретился с ним в колонии

«Он не знал никаких новостей, не знал, что Кольченко объявил голодовку. Он никого не призывает присоединяться к голодовке, особенно Кольченко, который в не очень хорошем физическом состоянии. Но он солидарен с каждым, кто его поддерживает. Он ничего не знал про всемирную кампанию в его поддержку, и он очень благодарен всем за то, что его не забывают, — рассказал Куров. — Он продожает писать, поправлять уже готовые свои сценарии, рассказы; он написал роман».

https://zona.media/chronicle/sentsov-strike

Maria Kuvshinova: What Sentsov Could Die For

What Sentsov Could Die For
Maria Kuvshinova
Colta.Ru
May 25, 2018

Detailed_pictureOleg 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

Comrade to Comrade

1465990524-5252Crimean political prisoners Oleg Sentsov and Alexander Kolchenko during their so-called trial by a Russian kangaroo court. Photo courtesy of Unian Information Agency

Alexander Kolchenko, Convicted in the Case of the “Crimean Terrorists,” Writes a Letter to Oleg Sentsov
Mediazona
May 22, 2018

Antifascist Alexander Kolchenko, convicted in the Case of the “Crimean Terrorists,” has written a letter to filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who is in the ninth day of a hunger strike meant to force the Russian authorities to release all Ukrainian political prisoners from the country’s prisons. Mediazona was told about the letter by attorney Svetlana Sidorkina.

According to Sidorkina, Kolchenko was afraid the censor would not pass the letter on to Sentsov, so he gave her a detailed acount of its contents when she visited Kolchenko at Corrective Colony No. 6 in the town of Kopeysk.

“In the letter he wrote that, in his opinion, a hunger strike was an effective means of defense only in cases in which a country valued its reputation. Alexander believes that, in Oleg’s case, Russia could ignore his hunger strike, but not let him die by forcibly feeding and sending him off for a psychiatric examination. Sergei Magnitsky’s death changed nothing in Russia. Instead, the Dima Yaklovev Law was adopted. He did not try and dissuade Oleg, since he knows Oleg is stubborn and does not change his mind. He is quite concerned for his health, since he knows what the climate and living conditions are like in Labytnangi from prisoners he met when he and Oleg were in transit to the prisons where they would serve their sentences. Although Alexander doesn’t agree with Oleg’s method, he respects his stance on freeing Ukrainian political prisoners from Russian prisons and is ready to support Oleg if he needs to,” said Sidorkina.

Sidorkina tried to dissuade Kolchenko from a possible hunger strike by pointing to his health problems and the fact he is underweight. Because of this, he is on a special diet.

Aside from the letter to Sentsov, Kolchenko wrote a letter to Vladimir Putin demanding he intervene in the situation and release Sentsova. Kolchenko, however, was afraid the censor would also prevent the letter from reaching its addressee.

Kolchenko added he had no complaints about conditions in the penal colony. According to Sidorkin, he looked cheerful, but was quite worried about Sentsova. Sidorkina had wanted to show him articles about the Ukrainian filmmaker’s hunger strike, but penal colony staff stopped her from doing so.

In 2015, a court sentenced Kolchenko and Sentsov to ten years and twenty years, respectively, in maximum security penal colonies. According to police investigators, in 2014, Sentsov established a “terrorist community” (illegal under Article 205.4 Part 1 of the Russian Criminal Code). Members of the alleged community supposedly set fire to the doors of the Russian Community of Crimea and the windows of a United Russia Party office. These actions were deemed terrorist attacks, punishable under Article 205 Part 2 Paragraph A of the Criminal Code.

In addition, police investigators insisted members of the alleged “terrorist community” were planning to blow up a monument to Lenin and the Eternal Flame, punishable under Article 30 Part 1 and Article 205 Part 2 Paragraph A. Sentsov was also charged with trafficking in arms and explosives as part of a group, punishable by Article 222 Part 3. Kolchenko was found guilty of involvement in the alleged terrorist community and planning terrorist attacks on the Crimean Peninsula. Both men have denied their guilt.

In the spring of 2016, Sentsov was transported to a penal colony in Yakutia, but in 2017 he was transferred to the White Bear Colony in Labytnangi. In the winter of 2017, the Ukrainian authorities announced they were prepared to exchange Russian prisoners for Sentsov and Kolchenko. On May 14 of this year, Sentsov announced he was going on an indefinite hunger strike to secure the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Journalist Vladislav Ryazantsev Assaulted in Rostov-on-Don

Vladislav Ryazantsev

Anton Naumlyuk
January 10, 2016
Facebook

Vladislav Ryazantsev has been assaulted in Rostov-on-Don. Vlad and I covered the entire Sentsov-Kolchenko trial and Nadiya Savchenko’s Donetsk saga together. I arrived in Rostov the first time a couple of days before the Sentsov trial to get my bearings. The next day, I was joined by cameraman Nikita Tatarsky, and we shot a short report about how even the local opposition knew nothing about the trial that was going to take place in their city. Amongst the people we interviewed was Vlad.

Later on, he, a journalist from Mediazona, and I were often the only reporters at the hearings in Donetsk City Court. When people say that Ukrainian media did a great job of covering the Savchenko trial, I recall Vlad sitting alone in the courtroom with his laptop. Mediazona’s correspondent and I would be sitting just as alone in the room where the trial was broadcast. It wasn’t always like this, of course, but it happened.

I would be remiss not to mention the fact that the attack was literally preceded by threats from Chechnya made to the editor-in-chief of Caucasian Knot, for which Vlad wrote. Another Knot correspondent, Zhalaudi Geriev was sentenced in Chechnya to three years in prison for narcotics possession a day before he was scheduled to attend a conference in Moscow entitled “The Media and the Constitutional Court.” You get my drift? It’s not a fact that the attack was connected with the threats. Maybe the local Center “E” guys did their best: they are active in Rostov. Maybe it was pro-Russian militants and mercenaries, who have flooded through Rostov on their way to Donbass. Vlad had publicly taken a pro-Ukrainian stance, and he had a falling out with Sergei Udaltsov‘s leftists and his wife over this point. Maybe it was these leftists who got to him. Whatever the case, threats and aggression towards journalists, made by people who enjoy a special extrajudicial status, open the way to unchallenged violence by anyone whomsoever.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Read more about the attack (in Russian): “Caucasian Knot Journalist Attacked by Unknown Assailants in Rostov,” Radio Svoboda, January 10, 2017

Show Trial

Police Show Up to Evening in Support of Political Prisoners
Grani.ru
March 30, 2016

Police showed up at the Moscow cafe Dozhd-Mazhor, where an evening in support of political prisoners had been scheduled. Our correspondent reported that around fifteen officers entered the space, inspected it, and then went outside to the entrance and proceeded to ID everyone leaving the cafe.

Later, police tried to detain activist Habib Poghosyan. They claimed an APB had been issued for his arrest on suspicion of theft. Poghosyan refused to show the officers his internal passport, while they demanded he go with them to a police station. After several minutes of negotiation, the police officers left. The play started a little late.

Show Trial, a fantasy play about how Ildar Dadin‘s upcoming appeals hearing should turn out, and the itinerant exhibition {NE MIR} took place at the Moscow club Dozhd-Mazhor on March 29. Video by Vladimir Borko

“We believe that Ildar’s trial was a show trial, and so we decided to stage Show Trial, with a prisoner of conscience as the defendant. We will show people how such trials should be conducted, not only Ildar’s trial but also the trials of other political prisoners, including Darya Polyudova and Ivan Nepomnyashchikh, whose appeals are pending, and Dmitry Buchenkov and Pyotr Pavlensky, who are under investigation. We will also be recalling Alexei Sutuga, Alexander Kolchenko, and other people in prison on trumped-up charges for their beliefs,” said the evening’s organizers.

In addition to the performance, the art cafe hosted an exhibition dealing with the topic of unlawful arrests and trials. Poets and bard singers performed after the play.

Dadin’s appeals hearing will take place at 10 a.m., March 31, in Moscow City Court. Attorney Henri Reznik will represent Dadin at the hearing.

The hearing, which had begun on March 23, was postponed because the panel of judges had not been informed whether the defense had examined the minutes of the trial, and the defense had not been provided with audio recordings of the hearings.

On December 7, 2015, Judge Natalia Dudar of the Basmanny District Court sentenced Dadin to three years in a minimum security prison under Article 212.1 of the Criminal Code (repeated violations at rallies). However, the prosecutor had asked the court to sentence the activist to only two years in a minimum security prison. Dadin was accused of involvement in “unauthorized” protest rallies on August 6, August 23, September 13, and December 5, 2014.

It was the first guilty verdict handed down under the new law, which was inserted into the Criminal Code in 2014.

During his closing statement at the trial, Dadin said the article under which he had been charged was deliberately unconstitutional, “criminal, and political,” and has been designed to crack down on activists.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade VZ for the heads-up

People and Nature: Punitive Psychiatry Back in Vogue in Russia

Russia: punishment psychiatry back in vogue
People and Nature
February 17, 2016

The Russian performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky has been sent to the notorious Serbsky Institute of Psychiatry, and his family and lawyers are worried about him.

On November 9, 2015, Pavlensky poured petrol over the doors of the infamous Federal Security Service (FSB) building at Lubyanka Square in central Moscow and set fire to them. He named the action Threat (Ugroza). Friends photographed and filmed him as the flames took hold. (Damage was done, but no one was hurt.) Pavlensky was arrested soon afterwards.

The FSB’s building was inherited directly from the Soviet KGB. Thousands of the regime’s political opponents were tortured and killed behind its austere façade.

Pavlensky has been charged with “vandalism motivated by ideological hatred,” whatever that means, and appeared at the Tagansky District Court several times. At his first appearance he compared his case to those of Crimean activists jailed on false “terrorism” charges – including Oleksandr Kolchenko and Oleg Sentsov – and said he would not address the court further.

Oleksei Chirniy, who was charged along with Kolchenko and Sentsov, was also detained at the Serbsky Institute prior to his trial. His supporters alleged he had been mistreated with psychotropic drugs.

Pavlensky is also awaiting trial for charges arising from an earlier performance, Freedom (Svoboda). In February 2014, days after the removal  of Ukrainian president Viktor

Separation (Otdelenie). Pavel Pavlensky protesting against punishment psychiatry, October 2014. Photo courtesy of Calvert Journal

Yanukovich, he went with collaborators to the Maly Konyushenny Bridge in Saint Petersburg, setting light to car tires and banging dustbin lids, to recreate the atmosphere of the Maidan demonstrations in Kyiv.

Pavlensky was sent to the Serbsky State Scientific Centre for Social and Forensic Psychiatry last month (on January 27) to be observed by doctors. The centre was then closed due to an outbreak of a strong flu-like virus, and Pavlensky’s lawyers have been denied access to their client.

Human rights campaigners are focusing on Pavlensky’s case and Amnesty International have expressed concern about it.

On February 3, in Pavlensky’s absence, the Tagansky District Court extended his detention to March 5. His wife expressed fears for his health in a Facebook post: “We do not know if they are injecting him with drugs, trying to give him pills. We don’t know.”

Meanwhile, artists are protesting a decision by the National Centre for Contemporary Art to throw Pavlensky’s performance out of the contest for this year’s Innovation Prize.

His action at the Lubyanka was included after an online vote by critics. But on February 15, the organizers of the prize struck it off, on the grounds that it had involved an illegal act. Members of the expert committee that advised the organizers were angry; art critic Anna Tolstova quit the committee, saying: “I don’t consider myself obliged to agree with censorship and become part of the repressive machinery of the state.”

Clearly, the Innovation Prize organizing committee has taken a step backwards. In 2010, the prize was won by the Voina group for painting a large phallus on a bridge near FSB headquarters in Saint Petersburg.

Punitive psychiatry has been on the rise in Russia again since the 2011 demonstrations against government ballot-rigging.

In October 2013, Mikhail Kosenko, one of the defendants brought to trial after those demonstrations, was sentenced to indefinite psychiatric treatment after the Serbsky Instititue declared him insane. Psychiatric treatment was also used in the recent case of Crimean activists, three of whom are serving long jail sentences in Russia and are widely regarded as political prisoners.

Pavlensky has protested against punishment psychiatry. In October 2014, he sat on the wall of the Serbsky Institute and cut off his earlobe to make his point. He then wrote: “Armed with psychiatric diagnoses, the bureaucrat in a white lab coat cuts off from society those pieces that prevent him from establishing a monolithic dictate of a single, mandatory norm for everyone.”

But punitive psychiatry goes back much further. It was used in the Soviet Union from (at least) the 1940s, to deal with those who defied its tyrannical, misnamed “socialism”, and became widespread in the 1960s. It was the Serbsky Institute that developed the diagnosis of “sluggish schizophrenia” (vyalotekushchaya shizofreniya) which was widely applied to political dissidents.

Not only were internationally known oppositionists, such as the independent trade union organizer Vladimir Klebanov and the Second World War general Pyotr Grigorenko, confined to psychiatric institutions, but psychiatry was used against large numbers of less-well-known Soviet citizens. (Indeed two western writers who studied the phenomenon in Soviet times concluded that the abuse of psychiatry against prominent dissidents was “probably only the tip of an iceberg.” It had a wide-ranging function in dealing with “social deviants,” “suppressing individuality […] so that the state can maintain a stifling social as well as political control.” Sidney Bloch and Peter Reddaway, Russia’s Political Hospitals, Gollancz 1977, pp. 278-279.)

An early (and typical) case was that of Revolt Pimenov, a maths student who resigned from the Communist Party’s Youth League, was diagnosed as schizophrenic and consigned to a psychiatric hospital – the sentence being lifted when he agreed to rejoin the league! His story is recorded in the marvellous archive of the Chronicle of Current Events, a dissident journal. (Thanks to J. who drew that to my attention!)

Revolt Pimenov in his student days. Photo courtesy of the Chronicle of Current Events

Finally, a thought about Pavlensky’s art. I am pretty conservative in my artistic tastes, but it works wonders for me. What is an artist supposed to do when his government becomes increasingly repressive and supports military mayhem in a neighbouring state? Paint landscapes?

In my view, setting fire to the doors of the Lubyanka was a cry of sanity in an insane world. I’m not blind to the limitations of individual protest, but this protest tried seriously to deal with the state machine’s monstrous corrosion of humanity.

If you are a western leftie thinking “Well, this is hardly the worst example of state repression,” give me some credit. I know. I, too, see the sickening irony in the denunciation of Putin for ordering Syrian children’s deaths to gain diplomatic advantage by people who had little to say about Tony Blair and George Bush ordering Iraqi children’s deaths on a vastly greater scale. Well, you know what, it’s not a competition! Putin’s violence is part of the same process as Tony Blair’s, not some sort of answer to it.

For me, this is about the reality with which my friends, activists in social and labour movements in Russia and Ukraine, have to deal.

If you’re a psychiatrist, please get on to your professional association about that institute. If you’re an artist, please get on to that art centre about that competition. If you’re a letter writer, please follow Amnesty’s advice on protesting to the Russian prosecutor, and if you’re fighting for some other cause, big or small, please keep doing what you’re doing. How else can we deal with the inherent madness of the system under which we live? GL, February 17, 2016

Meaningful art: the Lubyanka ablazePeople & Nature, November 2015

■ For the latest on the Crimean political prisoners, read the website of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

Editor’s Note. A huge thanks to Gabriel Levy for writing this timely and pointed essay and especially for his permission to republish it here.