Oleg Sentsov Is Using The Only Weapon He Has – His Body

Oleg Sentsov knows about international support, human rights activist Maksym Butkevych tells Marta Dyczok

Show hosts

Marta Dyczok


Максим Буткевич Maksym Butkevych

Oleg Sentsov Is Using The Only Weapon He Has – His Body
Oleg Sentsov Is Using The Only Weapon He Has – His Body

Hello and welcome to this week’s program of Ukraine Calling. I am Marta Dyczok from Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. As always, we are bringing you a feature interview followed by some music. This week we are going to talk about Oleg Sentsov.

He is a Ukrainian filmmaker from Crimea who is currently a political prisoner in Russia. On May 14 he began a hunger strike. To talk about this and explain what’s happening we have in studio Maksym Butkevych, a human rights activist. He has two university degrees- one from Taras Shevchenko University and another form Sussex University in Great Britain. Currently he is a coordinator of No Borders Project, an NGO with a focus on human rights.


Dyczok: Mr. Butkevych, thank you very much for finding time to speak to us and welcome to Ukraine calling.

Butkevych: Thank you.

Dyczok: Let’s start with a little bit of background. If you could remind our listeners why Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker from Crimea, is in a Russian jail?

Butkevych: Oleg Sentsov’s case is exemplary, striking in many ways. The most recent developments are extremely alarming. He is on a hunger strike. I would like to just remind our listeners that he participated in protests on Maidan. In 2013-14 he was a part of Auto-Maidan movement.

Dyczok: Here in Kyiv or in Crimea?

Butkevych: Both in Kyiv and Crimea. Here in Kyiv he was a part of the logistical support of Auto-Maidan. While in Crimea he was very active when peaceful protests against the beginning of Russian occupation of the peninsula started.

Dyczok: So, it was in February – March 2014.

Butkevych: Yes. In March and Aril 2014 he was very active when it comes to supplies for besieged Ukrainian troops on the peninsula. He was part of the peaceful protests against Russian occupation. He was well known as an activist. On May the 10th of 2014 he was detained by Russian Federal Security Service in Crimea, and together with three other persons he was charged with setting up and leading terrorist organization. He was accused of being behind of plots to bomb several infrastructural objects. He was named the ring leader for this supposedly terrorist organization, which, as it was stated by the Russian Security Services, was organized and coordinated by Right Sector from Kyiv. 

All the accusation even at that time sounded extremely absurd because they had no proof whatsoever when it came to Oleg. The only statements accusing him of being a leader of this organization and in general of being involved in any such activities were received under torture from two other who were also accused of being part of this.

Dyczok: So, he was one of four people arrested. Were they charged in Crimea? 

Butkevych: They were transferred first to Moscow, to the infamous Lefortovo prison, a former KGB prison. Then he and another prisoner, Oleksandr Kolchenko, who is also an activist from Crimea, an anarchist and anti-fascist.  All the accusations that he was also led by the Right Sector…

Dyczok: Which is a right-wing organization.

Butkevych: Yes. It seems even more Kafkaesque against his background. They were tried in 2015 by the Military Tribunal in Rostov-on-Don. 

Dyczok: Which in the Russian Federation.

Butkevich: Basically, they were shipped from the occupied peninsula against the international law. They were named Russian citizens even when they never applied for the Russian citizenship, and never received the Russian passports. But the Russian Federation authorities stated that they were Russians.

Dyczok: So, basically, Russian citizenship was imposed on them.

Butkevych: Oleksandr Kolchenko was also de-facto stripped of his Ukrainian citizenship. He never had a chance to see the Ukrainian consul, for instance. Oleg was sentenced to 20 years of strict penal colony. Kolchenko was sentenced to 10 years of strict penal colony. Since then Oleg was first kept in Yakutsk in the far North in Russia and then he was transferred to even harsher conditions in Labytnangi in the Arctic Polar Circle, basically, with extremely harsh weather conditions and damaging to anyone’s health. That is where Oleg declared a hunger strike on May 14th.

Dyczok: It’s very far from Ukraine, where he’s being held, and I want to ask you about who has contact with him? What do we know about the state of his health? How does information circulate from somebody who’s held in these conditions in such a remote area?

Butkevytch: It is extremely difficult to reach that area, and we consider his transfer there actually to be aimed at making communications of any kind more difficult. The only person who has access to him, whose information we can trust is his lawyer, who has to fly from Moscow to local city, and then take a helicopter to reach the colony.

Dyczok: So, it’s a long trip.

Butkevytch: It’s a long trip, and extremely expensive, and according to his most recent information, Oleg, as he stated at the very beginning as well, has no intention to cease the hunger strike. He lost weight, a lot. He tries not to basically get up from his bed in order to save energy as much as possible, and his health problems which existed before of course became harsher.

Otherwise, other information we received sometimes look more like disinformation, or misinformation, for instance about a week ago Russian ombudsman stated that Oleg Sentsov not only did not lose weight, he gained weight. She stated, and that his health condition is excellent. It sounds extremely cynical. And while we speak, in these past days, and in the previous week, the Ukrainian ombudsman, Lyudmila Denisova, tried in vain to access Oleg Sentsov in his colony.

Dyczok: Can you explain how that works? Ukraine has an ombudsman, and she made a formal request to whom? What is the procedure of an ombudsman requesting access? And she’s being denied access. So, could explain a little bit how that works.

Butkevytch: The Ukrainian ombudsman contacted her Russian counterpart Ms. Molskalkova, and they reached an agreement. That the Ukrainian ombudsman will visit Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia, while the Russian ombudsman will visit several prisoners kept in Ukraine. They are being held for their participation in the armed aggression against Ukraine, treason, or attempt to destroy Ukrainian, the state of Ukraine basically.

Dyczok: And this agreement was just recently reached, is that correct? Just like in the last week or so?

Butkevytch: It was about 2 weeks ago when the negotiations started, and afterwards strange things started to happen. Because after this agreement Ukrainian ombudsman tried to access Ukrainian prisoners, and she never succeeded.

Dyczok: So, she went to Russia, she flew to Moscow, and then what happened?

Butkevytch: She was in Moscow meeting her Russian counterpart, then she went to Labytnangi to visit Oleg, and she just was not allowed in. She stood in front of the gates in vain. Then she flew to another place where another Ukrainian prisoner is kept, and she was denied access as well, under formal pretexts. And most recently, her and her Russian counterpart flew back to Oleg’s colony where the door was effectively closed in her face.

The Russian ombudsman got access to the colony, while Ukrainian ombudsman was left outside. So, it also looks very Kafkaesque, and very cynical, but unfortunately we hoped that she will be another source of information about the state of Oleg’s health, but it doesn’t seem to be happening.

Dyczok: Do we have any idea how much information Oleg Sentsov is receiving? Does he know that the ombudsman is trying to see him? Does he know that there are all these protests happening all over the world demanding his release? Do we have any idea what he knows?

Butkevytch: Fortunately, some time ago he was allowed to see his friend who is also a film director and he authored the first and currently the only film about Oleg. Askold Kurov, his name.

Dyczok: Is he Ukrainian? Is he Russian?

Butkevytch: He is a Russian filmmaker, but he shot his film both in Ukraine and in Russia. And this film is currently in public domain because he decided to provide access to this film free of charge to anyone who would like to learn more about Oleg.

Dyczok: So, we’ll post that on our website to our listeners.

Butkevytch: It is subtitled, by the way, in English, so there should be no problem to watch it. He got access to Oleg, and he managed to tell Oleg about this wave of protests around the world. And his support, Oleg was surprised and pleased, and it looked like he did not have any idea to what extent his action, his hunger strike became an extremely important piece of news for so many people. And, of course, his lawyer provides some information to him. But also we understand that this is it. Basically, he doesn’t have any other access to any other information. Maybe from some postcards which he still receives from Russian human rights defenders.

Dyczok: There’s a project, Postcards for Political Prisoners, out of Canada. And they were wondering if these postcards are getting through. So hopefully they are. But this international attention, international pressure, this is one mechanism that’s being used, but is the way to get political prisoners released in a country that has a non-democratic government, frankly? To what degree does the Ukrainian government have any levers? The international community; what mechanisms are there to try to get him out?  

Butkevych: Unfortunately, we’ve seen that in this situation there is no silver bullet. There is no one or two actions which we can take to get our prisoners released. But there should be a combination of efforts from many people, many countries. And still, we are not sure about the outcome. We see that Kremlin authorities manifestly ignore all the protests, and all the solidarity campaigns. But still, from certain statements and hints we see that they are getting nervous about it. Also, because Oleg prepared his hunger strike in advance, he calculated the time, he prepared his body, his only weapon that he uses now with this hunger strike, to make himself a weapon.

Apparently incarcerated he became more dangerous to the Kremlin than if he was free, at large, in Ukraine. And he calculated the time so that his hunger strike, and news about it, will be spread during the World Football Championship which took place in Russia [14 June-15 July 2018]. This is a moment in time when much of the world watches Russia, for very different reasons. But it’s extremely difficult to ignore it at this very moment of this celebration of sports, this festival, takes place, and someone dies for being incarcerated for political reasons, in jail, in the very same country. Oleg is very much of sound mind. He calculated the time, and this is probably also why his action is so important and popular.

Maksym Butkevych and Marta Dyczok Hromadske Radio

Dyczok: There has been at least one case that I can remember where the Russian authorities under Putin were sensitive to pressure. This was the release of Pussy Riot in part because of the international outcry. They spent two years in jail, but they were then released. Does that suggest that…

Butkevych: This is something we hope for. But we see that the context is different. We hoped that maybe Putin would make a good will gesture when he was newly re-elected as President, or Tsar, of the Russian Federation [March 2018], and will release at least Oleg Sentsov, maybe a few others. But this didn’t happen. Also, we’ve heard several comments from different persons, starting with his lawyer, and some Russian film makers, and journalists, that Oleg seems to have become a personal enemy of Vladimir Putin. Because no one dared to publicly about Putin and about Russia’s occupation [of Crimea] the way Oleg did it during his trial. He was very public.

Dyczok: It resonated internationally.

Butkevych: Yes, he was quoted in many different places around the world. So, this is another factor. And, of course, the very fact that his case was one of the first cases of a Ukrainian political prisoner in Russia. And the case was an example, to anyone who would oppose Russian occupation in Crimea. Basically, these four persons arrested in May 2014, they were put in jail to scare off all the others who would dare to keep their heads up, saying loudly that this is a military occupation, that Crimea is part of Ukraine. So, it’s a matter of principle, in a way, to Crimean authorities. It’s related to the plight of the Crimean peninsula, not only to Oleg, or someone else.

Dyczok: You mentioned that Oleg is using the only weapon he has, which is his body. To what degree do you think that, I don’t quite know how to phrase this question… Hunger strikes end in one of two ways, right? Either somebody passes away, or they’re force fed. Is there any evidence that Oleg is being force fed?

Butkevych: Not yet. Fortunately, we don’t have any evidence that Oleg is being force fed. But, of course, the fact that he is not being allowed to see the Ukrainian ombudsman is very alarming.

Dyczok: So, we don’t really know.

Butkevych: It gives rise to all sorts of suspicions. So, we now wait for the next visit of his lawyer to find out what’s happening. He was medically supplied with glucose and vitamins, with his agreement. So, this is something very different, it’s basically providing chemicals important for the body in order to postpone, to the extent possible, effects of the hunger strike, which can be irreversible. And legally, under Russian legislation, he cannot be force fed. At least as long as he is considered to be sane, of sound mind, and he can voice his opposition to this.

Dyczok: It would be embarrassing for Putin if he did die as a result of this hunger strike, which is why it occurred to me that they might do everything to keep him alive.

Butkevych: Maybe.

Dyczok: Let’s hope that that’s not going to happen. I recently came across an article that Sentsov is still working on a play. A man who is in prison, who is on hunger strike, is still being an artist. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Butkevych: I don’t know much about it. What we do know from Oleg himself, in his letters, and his lawyer. He’s written several short stories while still in Yakutsk colony, and now in Labytnangi. He’s working on a bigger book, maybe a novel. And he worked, and continues to work, as far as we know, on a play. He’s written several plays while in jail, behind bars. And he tries, to the extent possible, to be in touch with his colleagues here in Ukraine, who staged one of his plays. But this play was written before he was put behind bars.

Dyczok: What’s the name of the play that’s being staged?

Butkevych: It’s called Numbers.

Dyczok: And it’s playing in Kyiv right now?

Butkevych: It will be in a few days. And it was staged before by several theatrical collectives, including Theatre Doc Collective in Moscow. New plays, and new short stories, Oleg refuses to pass…

Dyczok: You mean to share with the world.

Butkevych: To share with the world. Because he wants to put them on the stage himself, when released. That is his position as a matter of principle. I don’t know if he will change it, but this is what we know. He continues to create even under these extremely harsh conditions he is in now.

Dyczok: And believes that he will be able to stage these plays, and share them with the world once he’s released.

Butkevych: Yes.

Dyczok: Well, Mr. Butkevych, thank you very much for sharing all this information. Is there anything you would like to add that I haven’t asked you?

Butkevych: I just realized that you asked a question that I never responded to, about the efforts which were undertaken by the Ukrainian government, and international efforts. The Ukrainian government started to intensify negotiations, as far as we know, when it comes to the release of Ukrainian political prisoners, maybe exchange for Russians.

Dyczok: So, a prisoner swap.

Butkevych: A prisoner swap. But so far, at least what is made public, we see that apparently Russian authorities are not interested in Russian nationals being held in Ukrainian prisons. They were used during the military aggression, and then they seem to be dumped. Apart from maybe 3 or 4 persons who have certain political weight. Also, the international solidarity campaign on very different levels is probably the only tool, which can be used to get our prisoners out. And this happens on different levels. As we’re speaking, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a resolution calling upon Russia to release Ukrainian political prisoners. And to refrain from the use of torture, and cruel and inhuman treatment of prisoners. Before that we saw the Secretary General of the Council of Europe personally appealing to President Putin to release Ukrainian political prisoners.

And this was rejected, publicly, straight away, in quite, I would say, non-diplomatic language. But it still continues. We see that the Ukrainian government, together with activists around the world, and political organizations, and human rights organizations around the world try to keep up the pressure, and apply more pressure on the Kremlin. We hope for the best. But, of course, but we see that Oleg is now in his second month of a hunger strike. If it continues this way, it looks more and more like a looming tragedy.

Dyczok: We will have to wait and see what happens.

Butkevych: Thank you.

Dyczok: Thank you very much for sharing that information, your insight. We’ve been speaking with Maksym Butkevych, coordinator of the No Borders project here in Kyiv. I’m Marta Dyczok for Hromadske Radio.

Butkevych: Thank you.


Найкращий друг. Best friend. That’s the title of a new single just released by the Kyiv band Фіолет, which means Violet. My favourite line in the song is, Все в нас попереду! Everything is ahead of us. Reminiscent of Jack Kerouac, On the Road. The video of the song also has the band on the road, driving in a car, singing. Enjoy!


Join us again next week when we’ll bring you a topical in-depth interview and some music. So, tune in. And we would be happy to receive any feedback from you. Write to us at: [email protected] This is Marta Dyczok in Kyiv. Thanks for listening.

Interview transcribed by Marta Dyczok, Larysa Iarovenko, and Caitilin O’Hare. Music by Andriy Kulykov. Sound engineer Dmitry Smiyan. E-mail distribution Ilona Sviezhentseva. Web support by Andrew Kobalia.