On Saturday, January 25, 2020, TCUP Director Emily Channell-Justice attended “Activism Rising: Ukraine at a Turning Point,” a conversation between Ukrainian film director and former political prisoner Oleg Sentsov and scholar Nina Khrushcheva in New York City. As part of a speaking tour in North America, Sentsov discussed his writing and filmmaking alongside the current political issues facing Ukraine today. Committing to speak out until all Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia have been released, Sentsov shared his insights into Putin’s power and future possibilities for peace in Ukraine.
The Crimean filmmaker was arrested in 2014 and accused of plotting terrorist acts following the annexation of Crimea that year. As he put it, Russian leaders needed to present a specific picture of the people fighting against them. Since they were claiming Ukraine was a terrorist country, they needed to show people engaging in terrorist activities. When Sentsov would not say that the Ukrainian leadership was behind terrorist activities, Sentsov himself was designated the leader of a terrorist cell and detained. Once imprisoned, he became known for the hunger strike he waged in 2018. He explained his hope that the hunger strike would bring attention to the issue of the annexation of the Crimean peninsula and damage Putin’s reputation. He intentionally began the hunger strike one month before the World Cup (hosted by Russia that year) and felt that he had no other tools available to raise the profile of his imprisonment. Recognizing the efforts of the global community, as well as President Volodymyr Zelensky’s actions, Sentsov was released in September 2019 as part of a prisoner swap orchestrated by Zelensky.
Sentsov took a strong stance against a diplomatic resolution of the Russia-Ukraine conflict because, as he put it, Putin “puts on a mask to negotiate” but sees finding common ground as a weakness. Sentsov sees no real resolution to the conflict until Russia’s leadership changes. And then, he advocates, “any recognition of a new government of Russia should be contingent on the return of Crimea and the Donbas.” Here, Sentsov’s views contrast with President Zelensky’s current efforts to reconsider a diplomatic solution to end the war in the Donbas. Yet Sentsov still hopes for Zelensky’s success, particularly regarding the latter’s efforts to root out corruption in Ukraine. While rejecting the possibility of his own entrance into politics, calling Ukrainian politics “vicious” and “duplicitous,” Sentsov remained optimistic that if Zelensky keeps Ukraine on the path to Europe, he will be successful. But until then, said Sentsov, “I hope they can manage without me.”
Sentsov did not hold back from critiquing both Putin and Russian political culture, stating that Russian people are in the dark and believe Putin’s “grandiose impressions” of the country and his claims that Ukraine is not an independent country but a province of Russia. But Sentsov extended the critique to include other world leaders who, he said, cannot possibly understand Putin or else Putin would not continue to be in power. Eventually, said Sentsov, Putin will die or be removed by other oligarchs, and then a new government will open the door to new, unforeseen possibilities. But until then, it will be difficult to challenge Putin’s power: “I don’t think every Russian is for Putin, but it’s hard to resist [him] there,” Sentsov said.
Sentsov’s other main focus at this event was his creative work, namely his books and upcoming film projects. His new book is a sequel to the 2014 Buy the Book, It Is Funny, and it is a collection of stories unconnected to his time in prison. His current film project, Rhinoceros, is a 1990s crime drama that began production in 2012 and will be filmed in 2020.
Oleg Sentsov is an important figure in Ukraine’s fight for its independence, and he is a strong voice against Russian aggression. By reminding Western societies of the situation in Ukraine and the continued plight of political prisoners, people like Sentsov encourage us to think about the dedicated activism of others in Ukraine, including Kateryna Handziuk, the activist who was murdered for exposing corruption in 2018. As Ukrainians such as these fight for their country, the future of Ukraine’s democracy becomes more hopeful.