Why Oleg Sentsov Matters

by Alissa Ordabai

As I sit in my cosy study in South Brooklyn, ten minutes walk from the pristine ocean beach, it’s unfathomable to me how Oleg Sentsov feels in his prison cell right now.  We are separated by 5,000 miles between us, half of which is the Atlantic Ocean, and by a million things that I have and he doesn’t, such as a right to a fair trial and due process.  There are also things that he has and I don’t — boundless courage, artistic gift, and conviction that allowed him to put his own life on the line in an attempt to change the harrowing fate of others.  After his arrest in 2014 on fabricated charges, Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker, has spent four years in abominable conditions of a Russian jail in Siberia, and went on an open-ended hunger strike 43 days ago demanding release of all Ukrainian political prisoners currently held in Russia.  His hunger strike continues as we speak. 


Despite the vast differences in how we live and what we do, there is one thing that Sentsov and I have in common:  We are of the same age. Moreover, we both grew up in the same country — the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  We used the same textbooks in school and were told the same lies by teachers about the bright future which awaited us if we followed the rules and didn’t ask too many questions. 


After the USSR collapsed, our generation took a million different paths toward what each thought was their own future — bright or not, but devised by ourselves, not by an ideologue or a regime leader.  Among people I called my friends when I was a freshly-minted 16-year old high school graduate where those who soon became policemen but in later life turned into traveling philosophers.  There were those who became rock musicians but now serve as Russian Orthodox priests.  There were radio DJs who now plough farmland.  Some migrated from rebellion to suburbia.  Some the opposite way.  And some, like Sentsov — who I have never met — were propelled along their own unique trajectory.  


Having started as a small business owner, in 2012 Sentsov became an internationally recognized film maker, presenting Gamer, his first feature, at the Rotterdam International Film Festival.  Two years later Russia invaded Ukraine and Sentsov, a pro-Ukrainian activist, and a resident of Crimea, became one of the first victims of its annexation.  After arresting him on 11 May 2014, and holding him without charges for three weeks, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) accused him, among other things, of plotting attacks on a Lenin monument in the Crimean city of Simferopol.  Despite beatings and being threatened with rape, Sentsov insists he never confessed to anything and denies all charges.


Soviet dissidents whose names became globally recognized in the 1970s used to publicly dismiss Sentsov’s generation as conformist, shallow, and devoid of values.  But after Sentsov announced his hunger strike, even they had to admit — although cautiously — that you can’t tar an entire age group with the same brush. Now that his health is rapidly deteriorating, Sentsov receives privately communicated letters from those same dissidents and politely responds to them in a respectful but self-reliant tone. 


Still, there is truth to the old dissidents’ characterization of our era.  While fellow filmmakers support Sentsov, ordinary people watch the progress of his hunger strike in paralyzed horror. The traveling philosophers, the former DJs, the rockers turned holy fathers are mute and petrified. Those who toll alarm bells are few and far between, and the few heroic mavericks who come out with one-person pickets (which is just about the only form of protest allowed in Russia by law) are being immediately arrested and put on trial. 


On the one hand, there is an old tradition among the Russians to look to the West for help when one of their own is subjected to abuse by the state.  Times have changed though and help from the West that saved Solzhenitsyn, Bukovsky, and — most recently — Pussy Riot — is not available to Sentsov. It would be foolish to expect Madonna to come on stage with Sentsov’s name scrawled across her back or Paul McCartney to write a letter to the head of Sentsov’s detention facility.  A man in his mid-forties charged with terrorism in the midst of a war which the West excludes from its public debate is — to put it plainly — a highly unattractive topic for the glitterati to rally for.  And although Stephen King, Johnny Depp, and several European filmmakers have spoken for the release of Sentsov, their voices trickle thin in the thick of the roar of the World Cup’s earth-shattering chants. 


As for citizen activists in the US and Britain, they are busy marching against Brexit and campaigning against child detention centers.  This is the time when Russian society has to do its own work.  But it can’t — it is paralyzed with fear.  Far too few Russian cinema grandees have spoken for Sentsov’s release, and far fewer celebrities from other fields dare to speak his name in public.  Half a century ago imprisoned dissident Vladimir Bukovsky enjoyed support of the biggest Russian writer at the time, Vladimir Nabokov.  Today the biggest Russian name in literature Victor Pelevin openly mocks dissidents and political prisoners, such is the degree of fear and atomization in Russian society and Russian culture.  


So given the Russians themselves don’t care much, why should you?  Why does Oleg Sentsov matter, when the West is overwhelmed by its own human rights issues?  Why should activists in the UK — whose most pressing issue is Brexit — give a moment of thought to Oleg Sentsov?  Why should ordinary citizens in the US spend time on him when they would rather focus on reuniting children with their parents?  They should because Oleg Sentsov’s hunger strike is not simply a Russian human rights problem.  

At the core of it is a larger issue, the one that has been looming large over each one of us in the West and which we have been ignoring for four years: Russian invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. Once we, as ordinary citizens, face the issue of Oleg Sentsov’s hunger strike squarely and honestly and admit that there is war going on in Europe, we would lose the option to remain silent. Europe is the founding cradle of democracy, and whenever Europe experienced war, reverberations affected the entire world.


Once we see the invasion of Ukraine for the danger that it is, the rose-tinted glasses through which we view Russia’s leadership will fall away, the World Cup will look like a cruel farce, and the urgency of helping prisoners such as Sentsov will compel us to act. History shows that curbing unlawful military aggression early on saves not only lives, but also colossal amounts of expenditure and effort in the future. It also saves our collective reputation and allows us to look our children in the face and be proud of the choices we have made.

New York, June 2018