Freedom of Expression in Crimea: Voices From Ukraine

Friday, January 24, 2020
Gleb Garanich/Reuters
Andriy Kurkov

President, PEN Ukraine

Oleg Sentsov

Ukrainian Writer and Filmmaker; Former Political Prisoner

Maria Tomak

Cofounder, Media Initiative for Human Rights

Suzanne Nossel

Chief Executive Officer, PEN America

A Ukrainian delegation of writers and human rights activists discuss the obstacles they face in their fight for freedom of expression in the region.

This meeting is cosponsored with PEN America


NOSSEL: OK, I want to first welcome—we have with us Andrey Kurkov, who is the president of PEN Ukraine—and you have his bio—and Maria Tomak, who’s the cofounder of the Media Initiative for Human Rights, which is a human rights investigation organization that’s focused on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. So welcome to both of you and thank you for being here.

Oleg, I’m going to begin with you. And I’m going to ask you to tell us a bit about what the experience of being in that Russian prison was like on a day-to-day basis, and how you made the decision to launch a hunger strike, and what you thought would come of that.

(Note: Mr. Sentsov’s remarks are made through an interpreter.)

SENTSOV: Well, it’s not really interesting to talk about that. A person who has never been there, it’s hard to explain it to someone. You need time for this. In regards to hunger strike, I started after four years being detained of my imprisonment. And I realized that the situation with the political prisoners of Ukraine were in a dead-end, and nothing was happening. So I had to be more radical. So I decided to have a hunger strike for myself and for all of the fellow Ukrainians who were imprisoned. There were, like, sixty-four people. Right before the World Cup that was about to take place in Russia, to make it more loud. Of course, I realized what kind of person Putin is. And I realized that he wouldn’t release us after hunger strike, and he wouldn’t give up. But at least it could bring attention to the problem of Ukrainian political prisoners. And I was able to attract attention for this.

NOSSEL: I know you have said you are not sure that your arrest and trial were a reaction to your profile and your role as a filmmaker and a creative artist. But I want to probe you a little bit on that, and ask whether the choice to arrest someone who had a level of visibility, you know, think was a deliberate one or, in a sense, was it a mistake because your imprisonment did illicit international outcry at a level that, you know, that of someone else would not have.

SENTSOV: As I said before, and not once, that my arrest was not related with my movie career. And they were just—they knew who I—they didn’t really care. And it wasn’t just on purpose. They just needed to fabricate a case for their propaganda to show that in Crimea there is a Ukrainian terrorist group. And therefore they just detained anybody they could, and then charged it as—and they wanted to take confessions from us. As a result, four of us, we were detained. And four other people, they were able to escape. So it’s just I was misfortunate to get into that circle. And I was labeled as the main because I was related with Maidan, with Kyiv, and I was doing the work. And they offered me, if I could testify. And they told me to testify against Ukrainian government, I will receive seven years. If I refuse, they guaranteed that I would be sentenced to twenty years as an organizer. And of course, I refused right away. But that’s why they gave me twenty years.

NOSSEL: And this quality that you have, refusing that deal that would have given you just a seven year sentence rather than a twenty-year sentence, your decision to go on hunger strike and your maintenance of that hunger strike for months, and your famous quote that you are a nail that will not bend, can you tell us a little bit about where that comes from, what conviction lies behind that, why you are not willing to compromise, and what you see as the stakes of the positions you’ve taken and stance you’ve taken?

SENTSOV: I don’t know the answer to these questions. I really don’t know what convictions I have. I just—I love my country, and I didn’t want to make concessions with the enemy of my country. So all my convictions, everything that I fought for, and all of the people that died, all of the friends that died, there are things that a person cannot do. You will not just go outside, and you see an old lady fallen, you will help her raise. Why you wouldn’t just miss her? Because it’s your moral principles that you will help this grandma. The same with me. I have moral principles that I cannot just step over.

NOSSEL: Andrey, I want to bring you into the conversation, and ask a little bit about the work of Ukrainian PEN in this difficult period of conflict and the occupation and annexation of Crimea. How are writers, and intellectuals, and those in the creative community faring right now in Ukraine?

KURKOV: Well, PEN Ukraine became very active organization in the last seventy years, eighty years. We have a lot of projects which are aimed actually to promote open discussion, but also to look after the human rights cases. And we have a lot of cases actually in Crimea, in Russia. Most of the cases now are connected with imprisoned Crimean Tatars who did not accept annexation, and then they were transferred to Russian prisons, to the continent. And I brought some materials, I hope you will take them home, with names and with the concrete cases. But generally, nobody knows how many Ukrainian citizens are kidnapped and sentenced in Russia, or on the territories controlled by separatists. So I mean, we are not involved in the political struggle. We are actually looking after cases of journalist, bloggers, writers.

And one of the cases actually ended up—almost ended up successfully. One of Mykola Semena. It’s an old Crimean journalist, a Ukrainian, who was officially by Russian court banned from publicly expressing his thoughts. And how, finally, I think this ban was lifted, but he still cannot—he needs to go for medical treatment to Ukraine. He cannot leave Crimea. But, I mean, we have a lot of active young members who are actually looking into new cases and sharing the information. And not only actually working with Ukrainian cases or cases of Ukrainians sentenced or kidnapped by Russians, but also now we have a new issue in Belarus because several members—or, several journalists and writers in Belarus were fined or arrested by Belarusian police for protesting against Belarus to be swallowed up by Russian Federation at the same time as officially Lukashenko opposes this—some kind of integration—mutual integration of two states.

NOSSEL: And what about the current Ukrainian government. How supportive have they been of these efforts to ensure press freedom protects the rights of journalists and writers?

KURKOV: We have several issues, actually, which have to be discussed on the national level. Because, I mean, there is a new project of a law on mass media in Ukraine which almost quotes some of the clauses of Russian law. So there is an attempt by new government to control what a journalist can say and what cannot say. I mean, generally it is officially aimed against disinformation and fake news. But there was fear that actually people who can be accused of sharing fake news and disinformation can be imprisoned, journalists, which is—I don’t think it is acceptable in a civilized country.

But we do have a problem with fake news and disinformation, actually. Most of this disinformation comes from pro-Russian sources and from Russia. I mean, like recently when Ukrainian president was in Oman instead of Carpathian Mountains in the resort. And actually the photographs of him from Oman hotel were leaked. And only after that, actually—they were leaked through pro-Russian websites, Stronai-UA (ph). So I mean, there should be quite intelligent balance found between a real fight against disinformation—

NOSSEL: Were they real photographs, or they were—

KURKOV: Yeah. they were real photographs. And then post-facto, the office of the president informed that he is on holiday in Oman. But at the same time, he is going to have meetings on the highest level. Highest level actually died soon after he returned home.

NOSSEL: Right. (Laughs.)

KURKOV: But generally we have several more cases when journalists and activists are attacked in province—in different provinces of Ukraine, because I mean, they are, like, bothering local authorities, or police, et cetera. We are not following all the cases because, I mean, we have enough journalists situations and organizations. But, I mean, we are keeping an eye on it, yeah.

NOSSEL: So, Maria, I wonder if you could talk a bit about Crimea specifically, and what the environment is like there for free expression. How have things changed in the last four years?

TOMAK: Well, the simple answer is that there is no space, of course, for freedom of speech in Crimea currently. Crimea is an occupied territory with all the consequences of this legal status, which is however not recognized by the occupying power, by Russia, which considers Crimea as the federal region of Russian Federation and imposes their laws, which is actually another violation of international humanitarian law. I probably will not surprise you by saying that there’s no freedom of speech there, that journalists are persecuted there. And actually it is all done by very different means.

I would say that in the beginning of occupation, when it just started, it was in March of 2014, at least when we were there for, like, a few times with our field missions it was quite easy to make photos of so-called little green men. They allowed to videotape them, to make pictures. I think that was part of this hybrid technology of Russian Federation. They wanted world to know that they are there, but they were not wearing any insignia, like. So such a hybrid presence. But after that, of course, we have witnessed, like, the policy of squeezing off all the independent journalists from Crimea with different, like, instruments—threatening, and like banning Ukrainian media specifically, adding journalists to the list of extremists, for instance, is another thing.

And we ended up actually with few people brave enough to travel to Crimea from time to time and report from Crimea. But even now, just a few days ago, one of these kind of journalists, his name was Taras Ibragimov, he was banned from entering Crimea. So Crimea is a part of Ukraine, at least legally. But Ukrainian citizen cannot enter Crimea now because he’s banned for posing a threat to national security of Russian Federation for, like, dozens of years. He is not able to enter Crimea until 2054. So we can assume that Russia is sure that they will keep control for all these years. And I hope they will not, of course. But it’s one of the emblematic case.

And another case which I would like to mention also is the case of Mykola Semena. So Andrey has already referred to this case. It’s emblematic because he was—Mykola was persecuted for essentially saying that Crimea is Ukraine. And under the Russian law currently it’s a criminal offense. So it’s a separatism. So therefore, if you every—

NOSSEL: Just to say it? Just describe it as part of Ukraine is the offense of separatism?

TOMAK: Yes. Just—any public manifestation of this—like, in the Facebook, like in media, or like in other statements. And if you come to Crimea, it may lead to imprisonment. And that’s one of the reasons why lots of the journalists of Ukraine cannot also go to Crimea, because they might be persecuted just for that. And also, I would like to mention also the support—the statement about the Crimean Tatars. They’ve been imprisoned currently, at least seventy-one Crimean Tatars are imprisoned in Crimea and in Russia for political motives. And thirty-two of them are related to Crimean solidarity group.

And it is important to mention this group, because it’s—I think it’s underestimated appearance of the nonviolence resistance in the current—in the modern world and current world. And it’s just impressive how they organize themselves, because they are documenting the human rights violations which are made by the occupying powers. They come to the court hearings in the political cases. Both those related to Crimean Tatars but also Ukrainian activists. So they’re not, like, linked only to their own community. So and I think it’s a very important example of how people do fight the current, like, modern tyrannies just with nonviolence, just by means of basically rule of law, because they document, and they speak up. That’s two things what they do. And Russia getting extremely mad because of that. And that’s why they—previous year they imprisoned, like, few dozens of the activists of Crimean solidarity. And that’s what we have as of now.

NOSSEL: Thank you. Oleg, I want to ask you one—

KURKOV: Can I—can I—

NOSSEL: Sure. Sure.

KURKOV: Just a few words about a new interesting tendency in Crimea. There are now journalists and even writers who were welcoming actually Russian Army and change of control in Crimea, who actually got disappointed, and for that punished. And one of them is Mr. Gaivoronsky, a journalist from Yalta, who was very pro-Russian during the annexation of Crimea. And now he was deported from Crimea into Ukraine, and his Russian new citizenship was cancelled. So he now has to live in the country he betrayed.

The other case is less known. There is a Russian language—ethnic Russian writer living in Sevastopol, Platon Bisadyan (ph), who didn’t accept in the beginning the annexation. Then he sort of agreed to it and became more Russian that the Russians are, and started actually fighting for the social justice in Sevastopol. As the result here he lost his job, and actually he started posting almost suicidal posts that he has nothing to live on, and nobody wants to publish him anymore, et cetera. So I mean, the disillusion is coming there, to the intellectuals at least.

NOSSEL: Yeah. So, Oleg, I want to come back to you, and then I’m going to turn it to the audience. So pleas start to think about your questions. What is your outlook? Having sacrificed a great deal on behalf of your country and this struggle, what is your outlook now? Do you believe the approach of the current Ukrainian government and the international community is what it should be? And are you optimistic?

SENTSOV: I didn’t really understand the question.

NOSSEL: I just want to know how you assess the current administration and the approach. Obviously they were successful in securing the release of a significant number of prisoners. They have worked to build and fortify international ties. But do you think this approach will be effective in the long term to preserve the country that you have sacrificed for? Do you see a path to Crimea being reunited?

SENTSOV: As to our government politics, I’m very happy that President Zelensky, he took so much effort and was able to release me and other political prisoners. This work took, like, place, a hundred of guys were returned back home. And I’m very grateful for this. And as to his political success, as you know, now here Trump impeachment is also related with the scandal in Ukraine. So all this meddle, I don’t think it strengthened our political position of our country. Zelensky, he is young. We are almost the same age with him. He is rather ambitious. And I think—I think that his efforts are sincere. But the lack of experience, lack of—lack of finding in these five years the solution does not allow him to feel the situation, to feel Ukraine and its situation. It’s a hard situation. Therefore, he is trying to make some kind of negotiations with Russia. And he doesn’t realize that Putin doesn’t want to have any peace with Ukraine. And Putin is not one of those people that you can have any discussion or negotiations with or agreement, but we will see. At the moment it’s hard to make any conclusions because only six months have passed and it’s not enough, and he is on the highest post of the country. And I—you know, it’s hard to say if it’s a success or a success. We will see. At the moment I am not able to say anything.

NOSSEL: OK. Thank you.

I want to open it up to the audience. If you can just—your hand and I’ll gesture to you. Please. There are mics coming around.

Q: Elmira Bayrasli with Bard College.

You mentioned the Crimean Tatars. I’d love to know a little bit more about what is the situation for them in the Crimea now. And, Oleg, if you can talk a little bit about the ability for Crimean Tatar artists and writers, what is their situation?

TOMAK: OK, I will—I will start. I think that we might say—and actually, it’s not—the assumption is something which is reflected in lots of the resolutions, including, like, UNGA resolutions and other international documents. The fact that Crimean Tatars are persecuted specifically as an ethnic group by the occupying power. And it goes probably from historical background, when the Crimean Tatars were deported by Joseph Stalin back in the previous century during the Soviet Union existence. And I mean, Crimean Tatars were for all the time perceived as being, like, non-loyal towards Moscow and towards these imperial authorities.

And actually, it’s very dramatic because these people put lots of efforts in order to come back to Crimea in 1980s and in the beginning of 1990s. And now they are kind of facing, as they say, hybrid deportation. It means that when they say this, they mean that they are being squeezed off from Crimea but they don’t want to leave, you know. You know, they are persecuted. Some of them were killed, like Reshat Ametov. It’s actually the first victim, I would say, of occupation of Crimea; is a Crimean Tatar activist who went to a peaceful rally by himself when Russia appeared there, and he was kidnapped, killed, and after his body was accidently—found by accident. And since very beginning they were, like, not loyal towards the occupational power, and therefore they are persecuted as these kind of people whom Russia cannot rely on, obviously.

But I would say that there are, like, more aspects in that because the persecution of Crimean Tatars also lies within the trends which are typical for the whole Russian Federation. I mean the persecution of the religious minorities. So we know that Russia persecutes Jehovah(’s) Witnesses, and it’s true for Russia and for the occupied Crimea. Also, Russia persecutes some of the Muslim communities, and it’s true for Russia and occupied Crimea. But in some of the cases of Crimean Tatars, like, both these trends are, like, simultaneously there. We can see them there working simultaneously.

So, yes. But I think that it’s very remarkable the fact that, first of all, Crimean Tatars are ready to resist by peaceful means, although they are persecuted for that; and second thing, that they don’t want to flee from Crimea. And they’re very tough on that, you know. Some of—they say I will rather die because it’s my land and they will not be able to squeeze me off from this land again, never.

So, yeah. But I think Oleg can tell more because he used to live in Crimea for all those years.

NOSSEL: Oleg, do you want to add? Would you like to add?

SENTSOV: It’s hard to add something because I was isolated for five years and only I’ve been released for four months. So I was absorbing all of the information right now, after I was detained. But Maria was right about everything, and it’s hard to add something for me as a person that was detained for so many years.

KURKOV: I can say a few words about Crimean Tatar literature and writers?

NOSSEL: Maybe just very briefly because I do want to make sure we get to some other questions.

KURKOV: OK, then very briefly. (Laughter.)


KURKOV: For the second year we have now in Kyiv the Crimean Tatar literature festival and a literary competition. And a center for—cultural center for Crimean Tatars was also opened in Kyiv. And this year, actually, we had sixteen participants, Crimean Tatars writers and poets, who came from annexed Crimea to Kyiv for the festival. Before that we didn’t have enough, actually, connection between Kyiv and Crimean Tatar literature, which was I think a mistake that lasted almost twenty years that actually Crimean Tatar writers were not known in Kyiv, were very seldom published in Ukrainian translation.

NOSSEL: That’s very significant they’re able to travel freely and they can come to Kyiv. That’s encouraging.

Question over here? Thanks.

Q: Hi. John Chamberlin, Observatory Group. Thank you very much.

I’m wondering what your thoughts are as a group on the most effective way to rein in Putin. It seems like there’s a fight going on, obviously, and there’s kinetic war, and the Ukrainians are doing their best but they’re massively outnumbered. And I’m wondering what you think about the Magnitsky Act. You know, in all the post-Soviet states, including Russia itself, there are these oligarchs, and it seems like the one thing that’s been able to have a—have a noticeable impact, something Putin has had to respond to that hits him hard, is the Magnitsky Act. And so I’d just love your opinions on it. Thank you.

NOSSEL: Are you familiar with it? Yes. Go ahead. Who wants to begin?

TOMAK: Thank you for this question. When it comes to responding to Russia, I think—according to my experience of dealing with these human rights issues, I think two instruments are important. First one is—are sanctions, and both sanctions which relate to—so-called sectoral sanctions or more broad, like, economic sanctions, but also targeted sanctions. And that’s what all Magnitsky Act is about.

And we’re advocating for, like, few years for imposing this kind of sanctions regime by EU. And we’ll support, for instance, Bill Browder in that because he’s, of course—he’s a four-star, tremendous. But so far we can see that there is not enough probably political will for these kind of decisions. Maybe at least Britain will do that after they finally finish this story with Brexit, but I’m not sure of course. I would prefer that Britain stays and whole EU has this Magnitsky Act.

But actually, we had, like, meetings just a few months ago, in September in Brussels, and we were discussing whether it’s possible to impose this kind of Magnitsky Act at the level of U.N. To be honest, I can’t see that there’s enough of political will. And I think that here’s the place where there’s important role of U.S. in maintaining this transatlantic unity of U.S. and EU when it comes to the opposing Russia Federation and sanctions regime as well, because so far U.S. has been much more effective—has been much more effective in imposing the sanctions than EU and sometimes even Ukraine—(laughs)—to be honest. So I think that’s the first thing.

And another thing, very briefly, is—but here the role of Ukraine is very important—is documenting all the crimes of Russian Federation. They are getting, again, very nervous when something particular—some particular facts and documents are presented at the level of European Court for Human Rights, International Criminal Court, International Court for Justice, or all these U.N. bodies and Council of Europe. And we have been witnessing previous year how Russia was returning to the Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe, and it was a shame for Europe, for our continent. And how there will be another Parliamentary Assembly session and we know that Russia is preparing some surprises for this session, of course.

So I would say that these two means are very important. And we think that—I think that the role of U.S. is very important here as well. And we were just discussing this morning that sometimes Ukraine is perceived as a buffer zone. No, we’re not. We’re European nation, political nation, and we would like to be perceived in this way. And we’re, like, fighting for that.

And obviously we want to be a part of European—family of European nations, but not the buffer zone to—you know, to—just to be like a buffer between Russia and the civilized part of the world.

NOSSEL: The one thing that is encouraging is you serve at a moment where in Washington Democrats and Republicans can agree on virtually nothing. They both are supportive of the Magnitsky Act. So I think, you know, that’s at least a flicker of hope.


Q: Thanks. Arlene Getz. I’m a journalist.

I just wonder if you could tell us a little bit more about specific media regulations that you’ve seen. You know, you mentioned that it’s an offense to describe Crimea as part of Ukraine. What other kinds of specific regulations have you seen? Or is it just a case of laws being so broadly interpreted that practically anything could be described as an offense?

KURKOV: Inside Russia, you can be actually arrested for—not only for posting something on Facebook about who is the owner of Crimea, but for liking or for sharing. And there were more than six hundred cases in the last years.

Generally, mentioning anywhere that Crimea is Russia—is Ukraine—is offense according to the criminal court of Russia, because they consider it an—as an extremism. So any opposite opinion from the official line of the policy of Kremlin is extremism.

NOSSEL: Are there any other specifics you want to point out?

TOMAK: I can just add that these amendments, which are related to separatism and to Crimea—I mean, it was specifically adopted after the annexation of Crimea, after the occupation of Crimea, in order to prevent any, like, information in the public space which would contradict, like, this main idea of Russian government.

But I would say that in Russian context, it’s not so important what the law is, because, you know, it’s—we have rule of law and we have rule by law. So it’s like rule by law. Anything can be adopted. And just to instrumentalize it against some particular, like, people or groups, or even already existing laws, are enough to make people silent.

Just when you look at how Russian human-rights organizations are persecuted—for example, Memorial human-rights group, which is probably the most respected one, they’re all the time in the courts. And they got, like, millions and millions of fines for being foreign agents. You know, so that’s a good example how the law is instrumentalized.

And now, even after these recent changes, this constitutional coup, as it was defined by some of the experts in Russia, we may end up with—it’s, like, hard to predict. And, of course, it will be reflected in Crimea. We should remember that, that anything which is going on in Russia will be reflected on the occupied areas.

KURKOV: Actually, the law on foreign agents in Russia was changed in such a way that any personality, any person, any journalist, once he’s paid for an article published abroad, becomes a foreign agent and should declare that he’s a foreign agent.

NOSSEL: Steve Schlesinger.

Q: Steve Schlesinger from the Century Foundation.

First of all, does the United Nations have any role in settling the whole issue of Crimea? Have they taken a particularly strong position on it? And second of all, is the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO good or bad in terms of what’s going on right now?

KURKOV: Well, I will start with NATO. I think this—actually, the West is the only way for Ukraine to retain its independence, either membership in NATO or more close, more deep integration with European Union. But without actually help from the States and from EU, Ukraine has not enough, neither economical nor military nor political power to withstand actually this aggression.

And I think the policy of Kremlin will continue. I mean, it can be distracted now by the desire of Mr. Putin to integrate Belarus into Russian Federation, to create a new state and then to think about the corridor to Kaliningrad region, along the border between Lithuania and Poland. But Ukraine will be always an agenda of Russian Federation until there is a new president, new government, and they have desire actually to normalize relationship with the West. So, I mean, NATO is very important for Ukraine.

The first question was—

NOSSEL: About the United Nations.

KURKOV: —about United Nations.

NOSSEL: United Nations.

KURKOV: Well, I mean, United Nations officers are not allowed into Crimea. Nobody’s allowed into Crimea. I mean, like, Red Cross is sometimes allowed into occupied territories controlled by the separatists, but also not to Crimea. Crimea is blocked by Russian Federation, by FSB.

NOSSEL: Oleg or Maria, anything you wanted to add?

TOMAK: I would just add about U.N. So U.N. is adopting—UNGA adopting every year resolutions on Crimea. And I think it’s very important, because it helps to keep the Crimean issue on the agenda. If we look at the world kind of globally and how many atrocities are taking place all over the place, we can understand that Ukraine is more or less lucky being on the agenda all the time. And the fact that, for instance, Oleg’s name was mentioned in one of the resolutions, which was almost like exclusively, I think that played a role as well.

And I should say that, of course, in the recent years there was lots of skepticism from the side of Ukrainian society towards all the sorts of international government organizations, like OSCE, U.N., et cetera. But I think that without these organizations, it could be even worse. So that’s something which prevents us from even worse scenarios. And I think that we may be skeptical about—I mean, we have lots of issues and lots of talks about inefficiency, about that U.N. should be reformed, U.N. Security Council needs to be reformed, but at least it is something which, like, keeps us in our previous, like, this post-World War II order, probably.

KURKOV: And actually, I mean, the fact that annexation is not recognized by United Nations and by the civilized world, it means a lot. And it irritates very much Putin, because in Crimea you cannot use credit cards with Visa or MasterCard. You cannot use roaming. There are lots of things which are not available there because of the sanctions, because this territory is considered, according to the international rules, annexed, occupied.

NOSSEL: Has that sort of—has that held firm over these four years, or is it beginning to slip?

KURKOV: No, no. So far it was working. It was working. And also the new Russian citizens, sort of the passports, passport holders, the Russian Federation from Crimea, they cannot get visas from Schengen states, from European states. So they either have to reapply, organize themselves passports issued not in Crimea but somewhere in central Russia. Then they can try. But most of the people cannot travel because of this.

NOSSEL: Please, over here. Thanks.

Q: Fascinating picture of kind of a baffling scenario from our perspective in the United States, and quite a scary one as well. Bhakti Mirchandani, FCLT, which is a think tank.

I’m very interested in the prisoner swaps. It sounds like the first one since the start of the conflict was in September, when Oleg was released. And then there was another one toward the end of 2019, and then talks of a third. I’d love to kind of hear the status of those talks, and also learn kind of from the Russian side who’s being released from the Russian side.

SENTSOV: Well, you mean the swap that took place on September 7. It was the last swap, at the end of December.

NOSSEL: These swaps, if there’s anything you can say about the motivations, who the Russian prisoners are that are being held and exchanged as part of these swaps, whether you’re optimistic about there being further swaps.

SENTSOV: Well, it’s a complicated question, because it’s complicated. The swap on September 7, when I was swapped and other thirty-five political prisoners for thirty-five Russian prisoners, from our side there were eleven political prisoners, and Crimea, Tatar, among them. He was very sick. And also he was just—he couldn’t remain in prison. That’s why he was just released, swapped, and thirty different ones.

The question is complicated and it’s quite complex, because the sailor men were supposed to be released according to international tribunal. I think Zelensky was not strong enough and he didn’t have the will to just receive political dividends. And he didn’t include sailor men. We still have a lot of people in prisons there. And we were supposed—it would be nice to release the sails men through the tribunal. If Russia followed this, we could be able to apply to international courts and Russian courts. It would be an escalation. But he did not decide to do it.

It's always a complicated question. Zamuk (ph) was released from the side of Ukraine. He is a separatist who fought with the separatists on Donbas and who allegedly knew something about shot plane, Boeing. And he was abducted by the Donbas territory by our—by our special forces, Ukrainian special forces. And they lost a fighter. He just—he was exploded in a bomb and died. He was abducted.

He was questioned by the Ukrainian and international investigators, but he did not know anything. He wasn’t a precious witness. And if he had known something, Russia would have killed him long ago. Nevertheless, Russia decided to do the swap and Russia gave—took him. And we agreed to this so that I would be swapped and others.

As to the second swap, which took place at the end of December, seventy-six people were returned into Ukraine from the occupied territory, from all those territories. Ukraine released approximately a hundred people to Russia. One of them are mainly separatists that fought against Ukraine, including five former Berkut. It’s a division of police. And these five people were involved in killing the people that protested in Maidan in February 2014.

So these five people accused, they were involved in death of forty-eight people. There’s a lot of testimonies. There was a lot of evidence, videos and data. There was a whole base. They would have been charged, but Russia demanded to receive them. And Russia gave for them three of our special forces who were prisoners of war for three years. So there was a choice either to charge those people, Berkut people, involved in the deaths of Ukrainian or to receive our people.

Now, a lot of people were not satisfied with this because the shooting, mass shooting, of the people protesting of Maidan is crucial in Ukraine. And in the end, we are left with nothing without those defendants. But Russia is using, so to say, politics and principles that were spoken by Zelensky in his program that he is releasing right now. He is trying to receive our people from Donbas. And Putin is playing on this, and he is trying to make profit from the situation, and to appease European Union, and not to release the people—not to release Donbas to Ukraine. But he’s just playing to maintain that territory. And sometimes our government doesn’t really understand that it’s being used by him.

NOSSEL: OK. I think we have time for one more question. I’ll squeeze in two if I can. But over here, please.

Q: Niga Kongary (ph) from Bora Advisors (ph).

Oleg, have you given any consideration to writing a personal account to highlight and publicize in a much more personal way what’s going on in Ukraine and Crimea?

SENTSOV: Well, I’ve never had such ideas to describe all of this. You know, I separate my art work and my activism. I’m talking about this on all of those panels that I’m inviting about the media and about the problems, and it’s unrelated with my art.

But being in prison, I wrote a number of screenplays and a number of books, including stories, set of stories about prison. And there is some experience reflected there that I received there. And it’s also about other people.

And also I will release a journal of hunger strike, the one that I wrote about during 145 days. I wrote a lot about prison in that journal. And they—well, some wouldn’t like that journal. My writing is very difficult. So, you know, I was hiding it as I was writing it, so they did not see it in prison as I was writing it. And so there is a lot of information about prison and hunger strike.

About Crimea, at the moment I do not have any urge to write about Crimea. Maybe I will have urge later to write something about Crimea, in future.

NOSSEL: Back here in the front.

Q: Tim Frye, Columbia University.

Oleg, are you making films? And how has your experience in prison influenced how you view filmmaking?


NOSSEL: You mentioned—I just want to—(inaudible)—something you said a minute ago. The diary of the hunger strike, is that something that is going to be published?

SENTSOV: As I said, that it will be published this fall. And it will be published. It’s just I gave all of the details to my assistant, and he has to decode some of my handwriting because it’s very illegible. So I wrote it illegibly because it would have been taken away from me. So as it’s decoded, I will not make any changes, any edits. I’ll just have it published as it is. So maybe it will not be very attractive, because the person who was on the edge of dying, he is very open.

So I was just describing my own self. It would help me to hold on, to hold on. As I was writing something down, it was just helping me to keep going. And it kept me alive. Of course it will be published. And it has caused a lot of interest. It’s just a document of all the events. Maybe it will be interesting. But now the interest is very big related with this.

NOSSEL: Yeah, I’m sure that it is. I mean, just to close and maybe just ask one last thing, if you want to comment on it. You mentioned, Oleg, that you see sort of what happened to you and your experience as kind of separate from your art. And is there anything you want to say about what your art might involve going forward or what interests you or what directions you may want to pursue, whether it’s in writing or any other form?

SENTSOV: Well, for me, in art, cinema is the most important. It’s the number one. That’s why I wrote five screenplays. And I’m trying—I will be making five movies. I am doing the preparations right now. If everything is fine, we will start shooting soon.

Another movie that was written based on my play, it was shot while I was imprisoned. And I was trying to direct it from afar, you know. It was a joint work with the person who was on the field, and I was directing from afar. So it’s over. So I was told that the premier will take place in Berlin festival, and it’s a very good level. It’s a very good start for the movie. We’ll see.

Also—there are also other writings which I do on the side. And at the moment three books have been published. Another book is being ready to be published in spring, and the other one, journal about my hunger strike. And also other ones will be published in the near future as well.

NOSSEL: Well, you know, one of the things we say at PEN America is that we want imperiled writers to be known not just for their arrest or undergoing torture or being imprisoned, but for their work. So it’s exciting to hear about all the work that you have that is going to be brought forward to the world. And I hope everybody in this room gets a chance to enjoy it. Thank you so much.

SENTSOV: Thank you.


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