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5 Years Later Crimean Activist Oleksandr Kolchenko Returns to Ukraine
9 September, 2019
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Oleksandr Kolchenko spent almost five years in Russian prisons. He was arrested in Crimea and sentenced for his involvement in a "terrorist organization" with Crimean director Oleg Sentsov.

Another person involved in the case, Hennadiy Afanasyev was exchanged in 2016 for Ukrainian citizens who figured in a separatism case. The fourth person, Oleksiy Chyrniy, from whom this case actually began, was imprisoned in Russia.

For the past few years, Kolchenko was kept in the Kopeysk colony in the Urals. Hromadske covered his detention and this prison in detail in the movie "From Crimea to Siberia: How Russia is Tormenting Political Prisoners Sentsov and Kolchenko."

We spoke with Kolchenko on the day he was released at the hospital, where he and other prisoners were being examined. Find out how he returned home and what he plans to do next.

What are your first impressions? As you landed, the doors opened, what were your initial thoughts?

I was a bit lost. There were so many people and journalists. They all encircled us. 

Is that how you thought it would be?

Yeah, sort of. But I didn't think it through in detail. 

How were you prepared? When were you transported? What were you told back in Kopeysk? Did you know where you were going?

I could guess where we were going. I was called up to the police investigators. They told me that the lawyer had come. But obviously there was no lawyer. When I left the building my trunks were already awaiting me outside. I was told that I was going to a court hearing. Evidently that wasn't true. But I thought I was either being transferred to another prison or going to be exchanged.

How long did it take you to get from Kopeysk to Moscow? How did you travel?

Firstly, I got to a remand prison where I spent a night. Then I flew to Moscow. I got there on August 16.

When I arrived, I was taken to an office. A serious-looking man entered. He said, "I guess you know why you're here". He got some folder out with documents. Here's a template. Start writing. It read "Appeal for pardon. I, so and so, plead guilty". I just say, "Thanks, I won't write anything".

"Do you want to go back?" he says. "I don't care," I reply. He goes, "OK, you've written it already". That was it. I left the room.

At the end he says: show me your signature. And looks at me as if I were some idiot. And I gave him the exact same look in response. I just said no.

Who was in your cell?

We were all kept alone. It was a complete "freeze", total isolation. 

You had no idea who else was in Lefortovo [remand prison]?

I knew [Stanislav] Klykh was there too because we traveled together. 

I recently remembered the [Hromadske] film "From Crimea to Siberia: How Russia is Tormenting Political Prisoners Sentsov and Kolchenko" and came up with an alternative Russian title: "They Are Tired of Transports" written on foot soles. 

I was not given anything. I haven't eaten anything over the past few days. I only had liquids.

You said you were isolated from other prisoners and you only knew that Klykh was there? 

Yes. I knew that the sailors were there too. They had long been there. 

Then how was the day of the exchange? What was happening? Did the Consul come?

No, we were woken up as usual. They brought some folders with documents. I signed them. There was a release certificate. Some funds were allotted. My trunks were brought. That was it. I got ready and waited for a few hours. 

READ MORE: Political Prisoner Kolchenko’s Interview from Inside Russian Prison

Then you entered the bus, and you saw everyone?

We entered one-by-one. I saw everyone. There was an FSB officer on everyone's side. 

So you weren't seated together?

We did speak.

The lawyers had no access to you?

No, neither lawyers nor members of the Public Oversight Commission [for Human Rights Observance in Moscow Detention Centers].

They had no access to you from August 16?

No.

The employee offered me to write a refusal of visits from lawyers and the Public Oversight Commission. But I refused to. 

He said, "We'll think of something. We'll say you were ill, or that you were bathing." 

You mean they'd make up a reason for why you can't meet the lawyer?

In order to isolate.

How was the rest of the journey? Did the FSB say some final words?

Nah. It was OK. They were quite tactful.

Did they wish you a nice journey?

No.

I don't know if you discussed this with others but how crucial was it for you who you were being exchanged for? How many people? Did you talk about this?

No. I haven't heard anything about it. 

You didn't know who was on the list?

No.

You haven't heard about this Volodymyr Tsemakh?

No. Who is he?

This person is an MH17 Boeing case suspect. He was also exchanged.

He was sent to Russia?

Yes. At the time of your arrest, you were studying at the Vernadsky Taurida National University which moved to Kyiv. Would you like to continue your studies? What would you like to do?

I would like to continue my studies extramurally. I would also like to find a job somewhere. 

What would you want to do?

I don't know. I haven't decided yet. 

What do you think about Crimea?

I don't know. 

Or is it just important that all your relatives are here now?

Yes, for now. I hope we can return later. When "that guy" is overthrown.

Were you able to keep up with the news in Ukraine? 

Yes, I tried to. But it was rather superficial.

What was important for you to know about Ukraine? What were the most important things over those five years? Was it the war or something else?

How civil society develops in Ukraine. What initiatives there are. 

Did you manage to follow this?

At least as far as I could. 

What areas do you mean? Human rights? 

Human rights, left-wing initiatives. 

Basically, what you were interested in when you were a free man in Crimea?

Yes.

What are your impressions of [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy? What did say to each other?

I just said "hi". No impressions, really. 

Do you think this is an entirely new political situation for Ukraine? New reality?

In foreign policy, I think he will continue the same course. The domestic policy might change. I don't know.

What do you want to be changed in Ukraine?

I don't know, but it seems to me, the president doesn't have much say. It's the people who make decisions. Everything has to be decided by the people. 

READ MORE: From Crimea to Siberia: How Russia is Tormenting Political Prisoners Sentsov and Kolchenko

What should be changed in Ukraine in your opinion?

The public should be more active. It should take part in the decision-making process.

Where would you want to travel? What would you like to see?

I would like to go to Europe. To Czech Republic, Greece, Germany. Also, I’d like to travel around Ukraine.