Exclusive: Political Prisoner Kolchenko’s Interview from Inside Russian Prison
6 April, 2019

Oleksandr Kolchenko. Photo credit: Anton Naumliuk/(RFE/RL)

Oleksandr Kolchenko is a left-wing activist who participated in student, trade union, ecological, anti-fascist and anarchist movements in Ukrainian Crimea. Like film director Oleg Sentsov, Kolchenko actively opposed the Russian annexation of the peninsula. The two were detained by Russian security forces in Crimea on March 10, 2014.

They were accused of “creating a terrorist cell.” Kolchenko was sentenced to ten years in prison – and Sentsov to twenty. Hennadiy Afanasyev and Oleksiy Chyrniy were detained along with them. In 2016, Afanasyev was exchanged and returned to Ukraine.

On March 18, Ukrainian political prisoner Oleksandr Kolchenko received a visit from his lawyer at penal colony no.6 in the Russian city of Kopeysk. Through his lawyer, Kolchenko was able to answer Hromadske’s questions. In an exclusive interview, Kolchenko shares his living conditions, interests, what he’s reading and how he feels about events in Ukraine.


How are you feeling? Is there a cure for the arrhythmia?

Everything’s alright, I’m not in pain. A while ago I took a course of vitamins and medications for the arrhythmia and now it doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t affect my health, so there’s no need for treatment yet.

What does your day look like? What are you allowed to do? The Russian Public Observation Commission wrote that you practically live in a sanatorium – can you comment on their report?

When the lawyer showed me the report on their visit, I almost went deaf from that kind of impudence. I have time for reading before dinner, then I go for a walk, or attend the gym. Everything’s okay, but not as okay as these “human rights activists” with low social responsibility (Putin previously referred to prostitutes as “women with low social responsibility”) would have liked to show. They probably fall in the same category of “human rights activists” who compare a hunger strike with therapeutic fasting.

Of course, I can’t deny violations of internal regulations on my part, for which I was locked in a punishment cell. But that doesn’t mean that I consider their punishment fair. Besides, I have no idea what basis the punishment is determined on – whether it’s a reprimand, three, seven, ten or fifteen days. The same “human rights activists” wrote, that for the same violation I was locked up for on New Year’s, the administration deemed a verbal reprimand sufficient another time. And they probably think this lawlessness is somehow normal and fair.

The collection of books in our library is genuinely very large, but most of the collection is outdated. The majority of the books were printed during the Soviet period. Of course, there are some fairly modern books (for example, I found the book "All the Kremlin’s Men" by Mikhail Zygar published in 2016). But there aren’t many of these new books. Therefore, I don’t really understand why the administration is preventing me from obtaining new literature, and these “human rights activists” are indulging them.

And it’s none of their business who sends me parcels and packages and how often.

READ MORE: Best of Hromadske Documentaries: How Russia is Tormenting Political Prisoners Sentsov and Kolchenko

What do you read?

Last spring I read a few entertaining books. I would especially like to mention two books, which I like most of all: 1) "Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future" by Martin Ford and 2) "The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World" by Jeremy Rifkin. Both books describe the influence of modern technology on the economy and the picture of the world as a whole, and neither of them rules out a crisis (or even the complete collapse) of the modern capitalist system in the near future. The first book sees this as a result of the revolutionary, disruptive impact of robots and artificial intelligence on the labor market and the economy as a whole (the robots are not able to buy the goods they manufacture; on top of that, the remaining unemployable former intellectual and physical laborers can decisively declare their right to a portion of the wealth). The second book describes the future in the event that humanity doesn’t stop using fossil fuels. The author cites disappointing and even frightening data: peak oil production, 7 million barrels per day, was surpassed in 2006, and peak oil production per capita much earlier - in 1979.

The author of the first book proposes the introduction of an unconditional basic income for all of those who do not have income from business activities. This should reduce the negative impact of robots on the economy, because of which the vast majority of the population may lose purchasing power. In fact, it is a concession to socialism, although an inconsistent one because it is a partial recognition of the right to wealth - which is what Peter Kropotkin wrote about. In order to prevent the collapse, the author of the second book suggests a new industrial revolution, which has already been made possible thanks to a combination of new communication systems (internet) and new energy systems (renewable sources of energy), which can become the basis for a more horizontal, rather than hierarchical, structure for the economy and society as a whole.

READ MORE: Mother Of Crimean Political Prisoner Kolchenko Speaks About Her Son

Both books are very interesting. The future presents challenges, but these books prove once again that the world doesn’t stand in one place and it’s always developing: the brink of the impossible gets farther away with every passing day.

And as much as the minority with the power, capital and privilege—as well as their loyal henchmen who get crumbs from the master’s table—would like to keep us in medieval slavery, chained to the workplace, to pensions (if you’re lucky enough to live that long), to dogmata, to prejudices and biases, in fear and obedient to the authorities and laws from the cradle to the grave, the future is still for the free form of organization in all spheres of society.

Not long ago I read the book "All the Kremlin’s Men" by Mikhail Zygar, which I accidentally discovered in the library. It lays out all the events, gives a picture of how decisions are made, and shows us who is who in our era’s Russian politics.

I also read the book Behind Bars with Uncle Sam, written by Russian emigre Lev Trakhtenberg. He explores the American prison and judicial system, based on his own experience. It’s very witty, full of slang, jokes, quotes from books etc.

The last book that I read was "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" by Ken Kesey. Again, it’s about the punitive system, but now more about psychiatry. Does the psychiatric system cure? Or does it only punish and isolate the “abnormal” from the “healthy” society?

Oleksandr Kolchenko walks through the colony with a member of the Public Observation Commission

Photo credit: screenshot/video Nastoyashchee Vremya

How do the other prisoners treat you? What factor is more important to them: where you’re from, or your views?

In most instances, I don’t have conflicts with other prisoners. Sometimes there are arguments regarding the Krymnash (Crimea Is Ours) with some particularly stubborn [prisoners]. When this happens and my interlocutor is left with no arguments, they like to say that we—Ukrainian youth—learned history from different textbooks, [that we’re] “brainwashed.”

But this is probably an exception. After all, we have a multinational collective here (at one time in our section of eight people there were representatives from six nationalities: Russians, Bashkirs, Tatars, Azerbaijani, Ukrainians (myself) and Chinese) and it’s not customary to divide people into races or nations here.

READ MORE: How Russia Created 'Terrorist' Image For Sentsov and Kolchenko

How have you changed in these five years?

It seems to me that I almost haven’t changed in these five years: it’s as if I was preserved in a jar. It’s hard for me to judge. It’s probably easier to see from the outside.  

Five years have passed since the annexation of Crimea. How do you remember these events now? Has your attitude towards them changed?

At the time of Maidan, we used to meet in a pub: we discussed the events and how we could show solidarity. Sometimes we watched live broadcasts. Unfortunately, there was almost nothing that could have been done in Crimea. Since the beginning of the annexation, we continued to gather, then in the streets, but different people started attending these meetings. They discussed the events in Crimea.

I didn’t attend all the meetings: I was not very interested. They suggested painting the walls in blue and yellow, hanging flags; someone spoke of establishing a pro-Ukrainian political party under Russian law. Everything that we could do was participate in anti-war meetings, where we were prepared to protect other protestors from titushki (hired thugs). But when the rallies started gathering more titushki than the protestors, we had run out of legal means of resistance.

No, my attitude towards these events hasn’t changed in the last five years. I knew what modern Russia stood for. Because we previously organized events in memory of our comrades from the anti-fascist movements, those who were killed for their beliefs by Nazi whores. We also participated in actions of solidarity with comrades imprisoned in the Russian Federation.

What’s been happening in Crimea these past five years can’t possibly be compared with other regions of Russia. The only place that’s worse is Chechnya.

I remember that immediately after the so-called referendum a couple of my friends from Crimea suggested I go with them to settle in Lviv, but I refused the offer. My family, a girl who I was in love with, and my friends, whom I loved deeply all remained in Crimea. In retrospect, I should probably have accepted the invitation, because I could do more good as a free man, both for my family and for the movement.

READ MORE: Famous Ukrainians Send Letters of Support to Sentsov and Kolchenko

What events in Ukraine matter to you? What are you keeping track of and why?

I’m interested in everything happening in Ukraine, but, unfortunately, I can only stay in the know through Novaya Gazeta and we haven’t been getting it lately. They say the subscription period has ended.

What worries me most is the growth of the far-right, who, due to some misunderstanding, call themselves “banderites.” The problem of far-right violence can’t be resolved by law enforcement agencies. As the historical experience of many countries shows, the cops and the far-right are very often on the same side of the barricade. And this is not surprising—after all, they both defend the interests of the ruling class. Society has to learn to defend itself on its own—just like on the Maidan.

Oleksandr Kolchenko in the colony. Photo credit: screenshot/video Nastoyashchee Vremya

Now Ukraine is preparing for presidential and parliamentary elections. Which changes would you like to see in Ukraine?

Most of all I would like to see the standard of living raised for ordinary citizens, as well as safe streets—free from far-right terror. But, like Mark Twain wrote, “If voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it.”  Elections constrain popular initiative, they shift the responsibility to the authorities. We can achieve everything not through elections, but through a daily struggle for our interests, for our rights.

What would you like to say to other political prisoners and other Ukrainians?

I would like to say to Ukrainian and Russian political prisoners that the question of our release could drag on for years, perhaps even until the time when “Putler” {a combination of Putin and Hitler) is overthrown. It’s possible that a few of us will have to sit out our entire sentence. But everything that happened and is happening is not in vain. The struggle continues on the other side of the prison fence, at this very moment a new world is being built—a world where there will be neither master, nor slave, nor any prisoners. We need to be prepared to join the ranks of these builders of the free world.

We have to use our time in prison to the maximum benefit. In general, we try to live a fuller and brighter life—in spite of our enemies. And for Ukrainians—greetings from Mr. [Taras] Shevchenko (Ukrainian poet): “If you fight, you will win!”

/By Angelina Kariakina

/Translated by Eilish Hart