Oleh Sentsov, “We need a strategy for fighting Putin and replacing his regime with more democratic one”

Oleh Sentsov, “We need a strategy for fighting Putin and replacing his regime with more democratic one”

Until recently, Oleh Sentsov was an icon of the protest movement of the Ukrainians against occupation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, and a symbol of all Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia in general.

Russian law enforcement agencies arrested him in the annexed Crimea in May 2014 on a fabricated charge of organizing a terrorist group. The result was a court sentence of 20 years in prison. Ukraine was able to return Sentsov only on September 7, 2019 within the framework of prisoner exchange with Russia.

European film directors, producers and actors, including Pedro Almodóvar, Johnny Depp, Andrzej Wajda, Wim Wenders, Krzysztof Zanussi, and others called for Sentsov's release. The petition on the web-site of the White House for support of Oleh Sentsov was signed by more than 100, 000 people. Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel personally raised the issue of releasing the Ukrainian film director during her meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on August 18, 2018.

On October 25, 2018 Sentsov was awarded the European Parliament Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

Hence, Oleh Sentsov absolutely had to take part in the #PrisonersVoice project. You will hear his voice, together with the voices of Oleksandr Kolchenko and Volodymyr Balukh, in the augmented reality (AR) mobile application telling the global audience about the Kremlin’s regime crimes against humanity.

Oleh Sentsov talked to the #PrisonersVoice project about agreements with Putin, return of the occupied Ukrainian territories, his new film and books.

What do the Ukrainian authorities and civil society still have to do to make more people worldwide aware about the Ukrainian political prisoners in the Russian Federation and in the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts (ORDLO)?

They need to speak more. And we need a strategy for fighting Putin and replacing his regime with more democratic one instead of wasting time on negotiations with Putin about returning Crimea and Donbas. This is simply impossible. If you believe in this, you are a naïve person. If you want to persuade us about this, then don’t think we are naïve.

I am not naïve. I do not think one can come to an agreement with Putin about anything. Negotiating about ceasefire in order to stop deaths of our soldiers – yes, good. About return of prisoners – yes. But believing that he can return Donbas – no. He does not want to return LPR and DPR to Ukraine, instead he wants to incorporate Ukraine into the LPR and DPR. These are different things. And we have to understand that.

Who of the Ukrainian political ex-prisoners do you keep in touch with? What do you talk about?

I keep in touch with almost all eleven political prisoners who were released within the framework of our exchange. We come together. I went to the south, visited the place of Edem Bekirov, and this was great. What pilaf he cooked for us! We will have a meeting on September 7 for the release anniversary, of course. This is our common celebration. We have good relations, we talk, call one another, and do something together.

Do you communicate with the Ukrainian political ex-prisoners of the ORDLO?

I talked to them and met with them, but I wouldn’t differentiate or divide them. They are all our hostages held by the Kremlin – either directly in the Russian Federation or through their subordinates in the LPR or DPR. Yet, I have more contacts with those I know because we were on the same plane when we were coming back. We are in the same information space. It just happened that way.

Are you now more interested to talk during the interviews about your work as a film director or to discuss the problem of Ukrainian political prisoners?

I spend a larger part of my life on the country’s public life than on my creative activities. Just three weeks ago, after the decision made by the State Cinema Council everything moved from the sticking point. Therefore, now I am switching to the cinema sphere, and for the upcoming five months I will be immersed in it. Still, I will follow the developments around political prisoners, support this topic, and I will speak if there is anything important.

Recently, the Council for the State Support of Cinematography voted on financing your movie, Rhinoceros, which won the State Cinema Council’s pitching in 2012. Were you following other projects, perhaps?

No, I am not following other projects. I have no time for this. I have a lot of friends, and we intercommunicate. When there is the first night or festivals, then I will come and watch. But while someone is filming something, I cannot be focused one this; I have other things to do.

The Old Lion Publishing House issued several books you wrote –collections of stories Zhyznia and Marketer, and a novel The Second One Is Worth Buying, Too. On September 7, a two-volume book with hunger strike diaries and stories from prison will be presented. Why this publishing house of all, and how did they manage to persuade you to work with them?

One feels comfortable communicating with these people, and they are very professional in their work. They offered nice financial conditions to me because my only income at present comes from books, and I can live on it. Now I will also have cinema, which means some honorarium as well. Yet, the point is not about money, but about good communication with them.

On March 1, a television channel called Dim was launched for the Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia. In your opinion, what are other ways to reach out to the Ukrainian citizens in the ORDLO and in Crimea?

The Dim TV channel will not be able to overwhelm all this multibillion -in dollar equivalent – influence of the Russian propaganda. This is simply the war of cockroaches against slippers. We will not be able to overpower this. And the point is not that I believe nothing of this should be done. In my opinion, they simply had to reshape the Suspilne TV channel, and create a department that would broadcast in Russian for these people. And that’d be it! I don’t quite understand why all this rebranding was necessary.

I think they simply should develop our public television making it powerful. Because now we have an oligarchic influence and pro-Russian oligarchic impact on our mass media that dictate the agenda to us. And we do not have our own independent Ukrainian channel. It looks like a poor relative, and this is not right. An English BBC channel is powerful, independent, and state-owned. Yes, they have a television tax there. Why not? Why can’t we introduce it here as well, and create such television that would work and overpower this impact?

The Dim channel is a very weak project. I believe that we have to fight for the territories in the first place. People in Crimea say, “Oh, Russian authorities came – good, we will go here. When Ukrainian authorities come – okay, we will go there”. Same in Donbas where they have some people with aggressive attitudes towards Ukraine. There are some who believe they are in occupation. And there is the “swamp” in the middle – when a new flag comes, they will support it. Those who want, they well run to Russia. And that’s it. You can launch 100 channels, but you will not return Donbas. This is a wrong strategy, a wrong approach.

If we return these territories physically, can we then return people informationally?

Yes. This is a plan that can lead us to victory. And now we just simulate fighting.


Oleh Sentsov’s complaint to the European Court of Human Rights has been examined since 2015. Sentsov accuses the Russian Federation of illegal arrest, tortures, and illegal court sentence. The process is currently at the stage of examination by judges in the deliberations room.

On August 7, 2020 the Head of the Presidential Office, Andrii Yermak, said that within short time 100 for 100 prisoner exchange would take place between Ukraine and the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts. A list of persons for exchange has been already submitted to the OSCE.

At present, minimum 100 citizens of Ukraine are illegally imprisoned in the territory of the occupied Crimea and in the Russian Federation. Such information is provided by the coalition of Ukrainian civil society organizations dealing with release of political prisoners.

Author: Tetiana Matychak

Note: the augmented reality application #PrisonersVoice is developed within the framework of the project implemented by CSO Internews-Ukraine with support from the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation in cooperation with the Center for Civil Liberties and other partners. The project is part of the global campaign #PrisonersVoice, which is aimed at drawing the world community attention to Ukrainian political prisoners who were or still are kept in Russian prisons, and to Russian Federations’ violations of international human rights law.

The position of the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation does not necessarily coincide with the author’s opinion.