Letter from Ukrainian film-maker Oleg Sentsov smuggled out of prison


Oleg Sentsov during his hearing at a military court in Rostov-on-Don in 2015. Photograph: Sergei Venyavsky/AFP/Getty Images

Serving 20-year sentence for activities in Crimea after Putin annexed the peninsula, Sentsov urges defiance against ‘cowardly enemy’.
The Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov, who is serving a 20-year prison sentence in Russia, has smuggled a defiant letter from his jail in Siberia, comparing himself to a “nail that will not bend”.

Sentsov, a film-maker and pro-Ukrainian activist, was arrested in Crimea in May 2014 soon after Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, annexed the peninsula. He had been helping to deliver food to Ukrainian soldiers marooned at their bases following Russia’s takeover.
In 2015, a Russian court convicted him and fellow activist Alexander Kolchenko after what his family say was like a Stalin-era show trial.

They were accused of being part of a terrorist conspiracy, setting fire to the offices of a political party in Crimea’s regional capital, Simferopol, and trying to blow up a Lenin statue, charges his lawyers say were absurd and fictitious.

Sentsov is incarcerated at a strict penal colony in the Siberian region of Yakutia, about 3,500 miles from Ukraine’s capital, Kiev.

In his first letter successfully smuggled out of jail, he denounces Russia’s “cowardly” war in Ukraine – a war in which Moscow maintains it isn’t a participant.

“For three years I’ve been sitting in a Russian prison. For those three years a war has been conducted against my country,” Sentsov writes. “The enemy is fighting like a coward, vilely, pretending he’s got nothing to do with this. Nobody believes it. But that doesn’t stop him.”

At least 10 Ukrainians are serving long jail sentences in Russia following dubious trials. Others are in captivity in separatist-run eastern Ukraine. “There are many of us held in Russia and even more in Donbass,” Sentsov writes. “Some have been freed. Others hope and wait.”

In May, the Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko was released in a high-profile prisoner swap agreed between Putin and the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, and with France and Germany. Since her release, Savchenko has turned out to be a vocal critic of her own government.
In his letter, Sentsov says he does not want preferential treatment. “I want to remain just a surname on a list,” he writes. He adds that there is relatively little he can now do for his country – except “hold on”. He urges Kiev not to cave in to the Kremlin on his account, “or to pull us out at any cost”.

He concludes: “We’re not your weak point. If we’re supposed to become nails in the coffin of a tyrant, I’d like to become one of those nails. Just know that this particular nail will not bend.”

At his trial, Sentsov said he had been beaten up by his interrogators, who put a bag over his head and told him to confess. He refused. He told his court hearing in Rostov-on-Don: “I don’t know what your beliefs can possibly be worth if you are not ready to suffer or die for them.”

Sentsov’s cousin, Natalia Kaplan, received the smuggled letter last month. She said it was the first direct communication from him since he was jailed.

The prison authorities make it difficult to send and receive post – a standard tactic to put pressure on inmates, she said. “Oleg doesn’t complain,” she said, adding that “snow has already fallen” at his colony.

The film director has two children, aged 13 and 12. He has declined visits by his family after observing that other prisoners “fall into terrible deep depression” once their loved ones are gone, Kaplan said. She described him as “very direct”, “goal-oriented” and with a “strong sense of justice”.

Speaking from Kiev, Kaplan also said that support in Ukraine for political prisoners seized by Russia was fading. This was because society was “sick of Crimea” and disillusioned with ex-prisoners now released. She still hoped Sentsov would be freed but acknowledged it would take time.

Oleg Sentsov’s letter in full
For three years I’ve been sitting in a Russian prison. For those three years a war has been conducted against my country. The enemy is fighting like a coward, vilely, pretending he has nothing to do with it. No one believes him now but that doesn’t stop him.

War is never pretty but truth is on our side. We attacked no one and are just defending ourselves. However, there are other enemies besides the known, outside ones. They are smaller and on the inside, here, under our skin, almost native. But they aren’t supporting us. They are supporting themselves.

714 ‘This nail will not bend’: Sentsov’s letter from prison. Photograph: Oleg Sentsov

Some of them are leftovers from old times, times of poverty and fear. Some desire just to live in the old ways but in a new guise: newly rich and empowered. But it’s not going to work out. Each enemy, the larger and the smaller one, has different goals but we are on paths different from the ones they’re taking. I’m not going to state: “we’ll see who wins”. I know who will win. The desire for freedom and progress is unstoppable.

There are many of us in captivity in Russia and even more in Donbass. Some have been freed. Others wait and hope. Everyone has their story and their experiences of conditions of detention. Some do PR on behalf of the captives. Some really get down to work. Becoming a better-known prisoner – to get exchanged for Russian captives in Ukraine – faster than others isn’t, however, the way I’d choose.

I don’t want to pull a blanket over me. I want to remain just a surname on the list. I doubt I’ll be given an offer to leave prison last – but that would’ve been a good choice all the same. Here, in captivity, we are limited: and not even by freedom – this can no longer be taken – but by being of little help to our country while we’re in here. To be more precise, we can do one thing: hold on.

There is no need to pull us out of here at all costs. This wouldn’t bring victory any closer. Yet using us as a weapon against the enemy will. You must know: we are not your weak point. If we’re supposed to become the nails in the coffin of a tyrant, I’d like to become one of those nails. Just know that this particular one will not bend.

Luke Harding, The Guardian

Author: Редакция Avdet