The most famous former Kremlin political prisoner from Ukraine, Oleg Sentsov, is not going to be a politician, but instead devotes his time to filmmaking and writing books. In an interview with the journalist of Promote Ukraine Natalia Richardson, this movie producer, writer, and public figure said that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky does not see his own mistakes and that Ukraine is stuck somewhere between Russia and Europe in its human rights record.
Mr. Sentsov, of course, it is good that you, Roman Sushchenko, Oleksandr Kolchenko, and other political prisoners were released a year ago. But what about other Ukrainians who are still in Russian prisons? What work is being done to secure their release, and are you taking part in it?
First, the government, the President, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ombudsman Lyudmyla Denisova are dealing with this issue. We are in contact with them. What can we do to release political prisoners? Talk about it. When I go to some events, when I go abroad, I always raise this topic at all levels, because we need to talk about it. I know what it’s like for the guys who are still in prison.
There were two big exchanges of prisoners this year: first before the New Year, and then there was a small exchange in the spring – the guys from Donbas returned home. But according to various sources, 130 or 140 Ukrainian political prisoners remain in Russia, most of whom are Crimean Tatars. Negotiations with Putin continue, but so far there is no progress. Although the exchange has been announced several times, nobody has been released yet from Russia’s prisons.
Your lawyer has filed a lawsuit against Russia in the European Court of Human Rights. Has there any result yet?
My case went to the final stage more than a year ago. Now we just expect a decision in this case. I hope that someday it will be delivered and it will be in our favour.
A year ago, you said you wanted to set up an NGO or foundation that might have your name. Was this fund created?
This way, I wanted to make my public activities more formal. So far, I’ve postponed the creation of such a foundation. After all, when you start to do it more formally, you are criticised for being a “grant-eater” for involvement in such processes. And, so far, I have decided to put it off a bit and do my job as an unofficial person.
This gives more room for manoeuvre and I am free from all these charges. I will say to those who are not very familiar with the Ukrainian realities: Ukrainians do not like people who carry out public activities funded by grants, they are all called “Soros’ boys”, and they are accused of ties with the West. This is all at the behest of Russian propaganda. To avoid this, I run activities more freely without having an organisation.
Do you plan to go into politics?
No, I have no such plans, I’m not going to do that. Although some of the people released with me have already become members of political parties, I’m not going to go to the polls.
Do you consider yourself first of all a movie producer, and then a writer and a public figure?
First of all, I consider myself Oleg Sentsov. And I want to remain who I am. And all these clichés, names, some other activities of mine change, and let people call me what they want to call me.
Let’s not discuss in this interview the human rights situation in Russia, where you, unfortunately, spent five years in prison. But what can you say about the human rights situation in Ukraine since 2019 when you returned?
We really do not have such a terrible human rights situation as in Russia, these are incomparable things, but our record is not as good as in Europe. We are stuck somewhere in the middle. We are gradually moving towards European standards, but not as fast as we would all like. And there is police arbitrariness – there was a scandal recently in Kaharlyk (Kyiv region) when the police raped a woman, there was horrible torture. This big scandal is not over yet.
Our unchangeable Minister of Internal Affairs, Avakov, remains in office, and nothing has changed. There are other examples. There is intolerance towards sexual minorities, towards people with other views. And all this is happening. Gradually, Ukraine is moving away from this Sovietesque mentality, but it has not yet reached the European level. There are several prisons where torture is used, and convicts are abused. For example, terrible things are happening in Berdyansk jail number 77, also in one prison in Kharkiv. There are examples, they are not massive, but they exist, and we must continue to fight against this phenomenon, because we will never be in Europe if we treat people, their lives, and their rights that way.
There also is the case of Sheremet – is there a question of respect for human rights arising from his case?
There are big questions in Sheremet’s case. There was a large briefing with participation of the President, the Attorney General, and the Minister, where people were nearly indicted. It was said there was a lot of evidence and officials promised to show it all. But no new evidence has appeared, and all the evidence presented is gradually being questioned, as well as all their conclusions about the manner of walking of the accused, their height, tattoos, their presence in a certain place at a certain time, and other things
The accused are gradually being released from custody. Yulia Kuzmenko has already been released from the pre-trial detention facility; unfortunately, Antonenko still remains there. An electronic bracelet was removed from Yana Dugar. But they will try to shove the case under the rug. Because there is a great resonance, and there is nothing to prove, there is no direct evidence, and most importantly – there is no reason why these three people, connected to each other, did it. This is kind of nonsense. Indeed, this case does not hold water, and we understand who benefited from it, and why this case continues.
Did Avakov need it?
Indeed. President Zelensky said in late 2019 that Avakov was an interim minister who had to show his effectiveness by solving high-profile cases. It was said directly, it had to be answered. Those who were more or less similar (to the persons committed the crime – ed.) were found, and they were accused of this murder, that’s it. Avakov has been staying in office already for a year, and no one can remove him, he has become even more powerful.
What would you say about the actions of the new government in general? Zelensky has been President for more than a year, and his “Servant of the People” is the ruling party. Do you see positive moments in their activities?
There were very good dynamics in the first half of the year. Some things were controversial, but there was a so-called turbo regime when many laws were passed – both good and maybe not very good ones. They talked about the government of reformers, new people who obviously were not corrupt, and they did not come from the old structures. Zelensky was committed to reforms. But six months later, the Honcharuk government was removed, and the prosecutor general was removed, he was a bit independent – more independent than the current authorities would like to see.
He was removed by the “Servant of the People”; this party voted for resignation of the independent prosecutor. For me, this was a clear point, after which I do not expect anything good. Because to vote against an independent prosecutor general together with the Opposition Platform – For Life, who are outspoken enemies of Ukraine, for me it is just a betrayal and that’s it. And after that there was a movement backwards. A kind of falling apart of the country began.
Because they started appointing some government officials, no one knows them, some third or fourth link of these reserve pensioners of Yanukovych’s time. And someone appoints lustrated people, the Prosecutor General’s Office also appoints some militiamen or prosecutors of Yanukovych’s time, members of the Party of the Regions. Terrible things are happening, and the problem is that Zelensky does not understand this. The oligarchs are very comfortable with such a weak president who does not fight them, does nothing, but only builds roads.
This is great, we are grateful for that, but it is not the level of the president to build only roads, he must be engaged in the development of the country, to defend our Constitution. And he wimps it out little by little. He does not understand, this is his problem: that he does not understand his mistakes. No one can reach him, because he sees it that way but listens to the two people around him, who give him only the information they want to give him. He has played himself into this corner of isolation and lives in a world that has nothing to do with reality. He was elected because most people were disappointed in Poroshenko and they wanted renewal. There was a great demand for reform and justice. Now there is no justice, courts are not reformed, reforms do not take place. And that’s why Zelensky’s rating is falling a little, people are disappointed that nothing is happening in our country, almost nothing has been done this year.
Mr Sentsov, please tell us about your plans in your professional life. You are going to present a two-volume book and also start shooting a film. Is this right?
Yes, correct. I am now more focused on creativity, because I have already made a lot for society, travelling abroad for the first six months (after his release from jail – ed.) and meeting with European and American government officials, talking about Russian aggression, about our prisoners. I did it. I say that I volunteered at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But now I’m more focused on creativity.
I published one book in the spring, it is an apocalyptic novel. The Second One is also Worth Buying, a two-volume book, was published on 7 September and was presented in Lviv for the first time on 8 September. It includes prison stories, along with a hunger strike diary. Two books in one. Because the subject is the same, I wanted to publish the books together so that they would have a greater impact on the reader. And the main thing for me is the cinema: we have been preparing for filming for two months, it starts in October this year. This is the Rhinoceros movie I wrote a few years ago before I was in prison, and I really want to realise it in the end.
Where will you shoot this film?
In an industrial city in the south of Ukraine.
A while ago, before all the events, did you plan to shoot in the Crimea?
Yes, because we are talking about the 1990s, and Simferopol suited me for filming, but now it is impossible to shoot there. That’s why we do it in Ukraine.
Did Serhiy Zhadan give you any advice? After all, he wrote a wonderful novel on this topic.
He did not advise me in any way, because I am an independent person. I am 44-years-old, I have lived my life, and I myself can advise anyone on any issues. But I talked to Zhadan just today, we went to the dacha to one of our friends, ate pizza, drank beer, talked, lying on the lawn, had a great time. We are friends, we talk about creativity together, but we do not consult each other, each of us is a separate creator.
Biography: Oleg Sentsov is a Ukrainian film director, screenwriter, writer, and public activist. He was born in 1976 in Simferopol, Crimea. He is the founder and CEO of a filmmaking company, Kray Kinema. In 2014, Sentsov was detained by Russian special services in the annexed Crimea and accused of plotting a terrorist attack. In August 2015, a Russian court sentenced the Ukrainian filmmaker to 20 years in a maximum-security prison. Sentsov’s imprisonment provoked a strong reaction around the world; his release was demanded by many human rights activists, politicians, famous actors, and writers of Ukraine, Russia, Western and other countries.
Pickets, rallies, and flash mobs calling for the release of the Ukrainian political prisoner took place in many countries. In May 2018, Oleg Sentsov went on an indefinite hunger strike demanding the release of 64 Ukrainian political prisoners. In June of the same year, actions in support of the Ukrainian filmmaker took place in more than 80 countries. On 7 September 2019, Oleg Sentsov was released from the prison colony as part of an exchange of Russian criminals from Ukraine for Ukrainian prisoners of war from the Russian Federation. In November 2019, Sentsov received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in the European Parliament, which he was awarded in 2018, but which Sentsov could not claim because he was in prison.
 Pavel Sheremet was a Ukrainian and Russian journalist who was murdered in Kyiv in 2016 in a car explosion caused by a bomb.