June 8 marks the 26th day of Oleg Sentsov’s hunger strike. The Ukrainian filmmaker is currently serving a 20-year sentence in a Russian prison for planning a terrorist act and setting fire to the Crimea office of the ruling political party United Russia. On May 14, the director (who denies the charges against him) demanded the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners now being held at Russian penitentiaries, vowing to refuse compulsory feedings. Sentsov says he is ready to die for this cause. Many prominent cultural figures — both in Russia and abroad — have publicly come to the filmmaker’s defense. Meduza film critic Anton Dolin offers ten reasons why Oleg Sentsov’s hunger strike is something you shouldn’t ignore.
Oleg Sentsov is a Ukrainian filmmaker, born in Simferopol in 1976. He is the father of two children, and his 2011 movie “Gamer” enjoyed notable success at film festivals. Sentsov was also an activist in the “AutoMaidan” movement, which helped fuel Ukraine’s EuroMaidan Revolution. He has no prior convictions for any violent crimes.
In the spring of 2014, Russian Federal Security Agents arrested Sentsov, accusing him of plotting acts of terrorism. In August 2015, he was sentenced to 20 years in a maximum-security prison. He’s now an inmate at a facility in the Yamal Peninsula, in northwest Siberia.
Prosecutors used crimes committed by other people — Alexey Chirny and Gennady Afanasyev — to incriminate Sentsov. Without a shred of evidence, he was charged with organizing an act of terrorism. The only supposed proof presented at trial was testimony by Chirny and Afanasyev, who recanted his allegations when he took the stand, saying that he’d been tortured by police into naming Sentsov.
Sentsov has maintained his innocence from day one, and investigators haven’t found a single compromising thing about him. The Russian authorities even tried to present a copy of the 1965 Soviet documentary film “Triumph Over Violence,” found in Sentsov’s home, as evidence that he sympathized with fascism.
Even if you accept the prosecution’s flimsy argument (that Sentsov organized the arson of a window sill at the Party of Region’s office, and planned to blow up a monument to Lenin), nothing Sentsov supposedly did ever injured anyone.
On May 14, Sentsov started a hunger strike, demanding Russia’s immediate release of all Ukrainian political prisoners. The hunger strike is timed to coincide with the FIFA World Cup, when much of the world’s attention will turn to Russia, which is hosting this year’s tournament.
Other prisoners have joined Sentsov’s hunger strike: Ukrainian soldier Olexandr Shumkov (a former member of the Ukrainian nationalist group “Right Sector”), Stanislav Zimovets (sentenced to two years in prison for allegedly striking a police officer at an anti-corruption rally in Moscow on March 26, 2017), and Olexandr Kolchenko (a Ukrainian left-wing activist sentenced to 10 years in prison in the same terrorism case against Sentsov). On June 7, Kolchenko ended his hunger strike, citing health reasons.
The authorities have refused to consider trading Sentsov for any Russians now imprisoned in Ukraine because they view Sentsov as a Russian citizen. Arrested in 2014, he was unable to refuse Russian citizenship after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, and he received it “automatically.”
The list of cultural figures who have supported Sentsov and demanded his release includes Johnny Depp, Cate Blanchett, Jonathan Franzen, Aki Kaurismäki, Andrzej Wajda, Wim Wenders, and many Russian filmmakers, such as Alexander Sokurov, Andrey Zvyagintsev, and even Nikita Mikhalkov.
Oleg Sentsov’s hunger strike is important for all Russians — even for those who don’t know about it. A man — who never hurt anyone and whose guilt remains a figment of the state’s imagination — could die.