Oleg Sentsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko were imprisoned in Russia for over five years, sentenced to 10 and 20 years respectively in fabricated "terrorism" cases. All this time, Hromadske journalists kept a close watch on their fates: communicating with their relatives, writing letters, making a film.
On September 7, together with 33 other Ukrainians, Kolchenko and Sentsov returned home during an exchange. The next day, the former spoke to Hromadske at the Feofania hospital, where they were brought for examination. Three days later, they both gave a big press conference.
However, Sentsov's first interview was with Hromadske. Watch it to find out how pro-Ukrainian activists in Crimea felt before the annexation, how they were abducted and what happened next.
Russia did a lot to give the impression that the annexation of Crimea was bloodless and smooth. But how did it actually happen? You were followed, surveilled, and eavesdropped on. Please tell us about the months prior to your arrest.
I wasn’t alone. There were a lot of guys who didn’t agree with what was going on. Some were more active, some were passive.
It was clear that there was a lot of pressure from the Russian occupiers and collaborators – those that joyfully greeted the Russians. Some passively accepted them, considering that life would improve under Russian rule, that they would get richer, and they didn’t really care about the politics.
Those who actively resisted – they had serious fights, and they risked a lot, in terms of their health, freedom, and life. A few people just disappeared without sign, and some were murdered. Some servicemen were killed. It was a very heavy mood.
For some people, it was a celebration, but not for me. I knew what the Russian Federation represented, what Putin’s regime represented, and that nothing good would come of it. People who didn’t understand that were played like a fiddle. A beautiful melody led them into a swamp. But they followed it anyway, so what could you do?
It was an unpleasant atmosphere not even because it was dangerous but because there was just this understanding that you were being morally coerced. And it's very unpleasant when you’re being convinced of something you don’t want to do. That was the prevailing mood and it greatly affected those who remained [in Crimea], those that couldn’t leave for some reason. And it keeps weighing heavily on them, it really feels like an occupation.
Some people had this feeling that Kyiv abandoned us. They said this out loud. But a lot of Crimean activists weren’t at the Euromaidan, but I was for most of it, and I understood very well that the events there were very profound, in sharp relief, and that there were a lot of problems in Kyiv when the new government took power. There were problems in half the cities in eastern and southern Ukraine, we didn’t control the Kharkiv Oblast Administration by the end of February. They had the anti-EuroMaidaners there, if you remember. So everyone was worried about Kharkiv. There were problems in Donetsk, in Dnipro, in Odesa, and in Crimea, of course. So this was a problem shared by everyone.
Then our side started winning little by little, but in Crimea it was the opposite. It was hard to act. I just place myself in the shoes of the Kyiv government at that point: what could we have done?
There weren’t a lot of opportunities for action. We had few tools to use, including forceful ones, because the army was – you all remember the state it was in – the police was also disoriented and would probably not have supported the post-Maidan authorities.
This was a game that was hard to win, practically impossible. Putin chose a very good moment to attack. If he’d done so a month later – it wouldn’t have worked.
I always had one saying: I support any sort of protest, from distributing leaflets to something more serious, but I never support actions that are aimed against the life or health of other people. There was no war there – we had no right to cause [harm] to others, even the Russian soldiers. They weren’t shooting at us, so we in turn didn’t have the right to shoot in response.
Why, in your opinion, were you set as the principle [suspect in this criminal case]?
This was a complete accident. They just had the task to make it an example. They only learned after a day that I was a filmmaker, that someone knew me, they’ll recognize me, that they’ll write something. It was completely on accident, they didn’t care who it was going to be. The important thing was that someone was [the principal suspect], who has a certain level of information, and who has ties to Kyiv. Their job was to get me to testify against someone within the Kyiv government. If you remember, at the start of May 2014, we were getting close to the presidential election. I had Klitschko’s business card that someone gave me on the Maidan. They found it, along with the business cards of some members of the [Crimean Tatars’ representative body] Mejlis. If I would name any well-known surname – I would get only 7 years. If not, 20 years. I said “no” and I got 20, just like in a shop.
The court didn’t accept evidence from you that you were tortured. This experience must be hard to talk about, but it seems that it must have been documented. Who were these people? [The Federal Security Service of Russia]? Former [Security Service of Ukraine] employees?
When I first was sent to “Lefortovo”, I told my side of the story to my lawyer. And then I went to court. I can talk about it every time. It doesn’t cause me any moral pain, things like this don’t hurt. It’s just that ... there are people who suffered a great deal more, who were tortured more, who suffered far more moral and physical humiliation.
As for who it was: it was FSB employees from Moscow, who came specifically for this job. I’ve recently discussed this with [lawyer Evgeniya] Zakrevskaya and with the Crimean prosecutors, and they took my statement.
I went and gave my statement, because that’s evidence against the FSB, of their actions, for the Hague Tribunal. Evil must be punished. There were FSB personnel and former SBU employees who crossed over to their side. They were currying favor to be hired for a new service.
We’re asking because it’s the former SBU building… You said that you recognized the building you were taken to. They thought you wouldn’t recognize it, but you recognized that it was the SBU building.
Because I was in my hometown, while they were new arrivals.
They, you mean the Moscow group?
Yes. In short, they started operations 2 to 3 weeks after friends of [another Crimean political prisoner Oleksiy] Chyrniy filed a report against him with the FSB. The FSB received information that that person wanted to blow something up, and they didn’t take action. No one took it seriously. Only after 2-3 weeks when they received orders from the top that something must be done did they find him and took him into the basement. There he confessed to everything quickly, and was ready to do anything, and so they made a staged video with him. He himself admitted later that it was staged. And that was all, then the wheels started turning.
In the end, they picked up anyone they found – here’s the [terrorist] group, do whatever you please. Our case was the first. It cleared the way for a new post-Crimea era in Russia. Prior to it, they weren’t this reckless. And a lot of cases like that happened in Russia since. They worked out a system and this resulted in a lot of similar cases.
Oleg, you said that even discarding the fact that in detention you had no access to most media about what happened in Crimea and Donbas, you still managed to put together a picture from what you saw in prison. You saw and spoke with participants of those events. Who were these people and what did they tell you?
I only managed to speak with the Donbas participants once in a prison box. We weren’t in the same cells, in separate ones. This was a holding cell, when you’re waiting for court, when you’re at court. You wait for us in court there, and they take us there, and we sit there for three hours in cells together, and wait to be taken. And so I spoke to him, with this GRU member … and I talked about this person during my closing statement.
The squad arrived on either of February 23 or 24, when the Maidan had already won. That is, Putin’s plan was, most likely, ready, and he decided to launch it, while he had this favorable situation. And so two or three days before the administration building was seized, on February 27 when they started to seize them in Crimea, they were brought from [the Russian city of] Novorossiysk on cutters, and the GRU members got ready.
He told me about this without trepidation. He fought near Ilovaisk, and said: “This is our job. We did the main things, the militiamen just cleaned up after.” He told me this openly, why would he be shy? He was imprisoned on an unrelated matter, for murder. He told it like it was.
Additionally, I also crossed paths with two militiamen. And when you’re going between places, it happens that between court hearings you can chat a little.
I managed to even be in a photo, and touch my relatives, and chat with these people. Two militiamen, one was a mercenary. He had some mental issues. And the second sincerely went to fight “for Novorossiya, for a new Russia.” Though, by the way, he was wanted in Russia, for anti-Putin extremism. He figured that they would be able to build a new Russia [in Donbas], free from Putin. He had some strange ideals in his head, though they passed after a year. I said: “Alright, we’re in prison, there are different rules here – no reason to fight about these things.” He was already disillusioned with everything. I asked him: “How did all this happen?” He just came as a volunteer from Russia. “How do you manage to emerge unbeatable against the Ukrainian regular army?” He replied: “We have more of everything. We have more tanks, more gas, more guns, more missiles. Of course, they can’t beat us.” He was there in 2014.
We counted how many kilometers you and Oleksandr Kolchenko traveled between prisons. It added up to about 20 thousand for the both of you – that really is half the width of the planet. Did they ever explain why you were transferred so often, and further and further? And in general – what does it mean for a person to be in such a distant and cold place?
No one explained anything to me. You have to understand that no one talks to you there. You’re not a person, you don’t get explanations. Like swine, you were loaded, and transferred, and that’s it.
No one ever told you where you were going. For each transfer, you just got your things and left. And then in the process, you could somehow figure out where you were going. But not immediately.
Your hunger strike achieved its main goal of attracting a lot of attention, it resonated. At the same time, it wasn’t an endless resource or an endless tool, which you could use often. Did you save it for future use? And what would have caused you to use it again?
I was preparing myself for a second hunger strike all year. Everybody thought that I would come out looking the same as I did at the end of the first. But a year has passed and I recovered, ate a lot, exercised, they gave me the opportunity to do it. Because the ones that wear red stripes are usually not allowed to do sports because it would make them stronger and, therefore, more capable of escaping. They made an exception for me, as in “okay, do sports – as long as that stops you from causing a fuss.”
I was preparing myself, I recovered my health for the next hunger strike, because I understood that if nothing happens after the election of a new president, if the situation again stalls, I would have to starve again. I understood that the second hunger strike already wouldn’t bring me as much attention as the first one, but I didn’t have any other options, so I prepared myself.
But then things started to happen, discussions about exchanges and other steps to compromise. So I told my lawyer so that he would know what was going on: that I was saving it as an extreme measures if the bridges started burning again. But little by little everything improved, so I didn’t have to resort to it.
What advice would you give as a person who lived five years in prison, what would you like the relatives of political prisoners to do?
I can only speak for myself, No need to bury yourself – this is first and foremost. I didn’t bury myself. I have not lost a single day in prison. I always knew that we would win, I always knew we would be set free. I don’t get depressed at all. There are difficult moments when it is very hard. But they are rare, they are short-lived and no one sees them. And so I tried to think positively, and have a positive attitude inside myself.
Therefore, my relatives had the same attitude, because we're alike. This had supported me. I knew they are also strong and looking at the bright side.
The most important thing that you should not do is set yourself up for bad things and guilt yourself. This will quickly send you to an early grave. In life, things always happen that have to happen, and in no other way. We must accept them and move on, and everything will be fine.
What would you say to Crimeans today? Those who support the integrity of Ukraine and those who supported the annexation at the time. Some of them think differently now.
Everything split up there at that moment. Half of my friends are for Ukraine, half for Russia. My family split up, too. The split went through the entire Crimea. Those who couldn’t stay there left. They left not because it became much worse to live there. It just didn’t get better to live there, as it was promised. This is the thing. And whoever wanted, left, because it’s very difficult to live in such an atmosphere. I managed to feel it two months before the annexation, after the referendum. I felt it thicken, that asphyxiation. And in five years it only got worse. The window was closed and you ran out of air. Some live like this, some are happy with that, and for some, it is hard to live, but for some reason, they’ve not left yet. But everybody who could not stay there and could leave ‒ has left.
We often hear: "victory at all costs" or "peace at all costs". We understand that often this is just words, and there are some concessions, and there are some fundamental things, for example, for you. I don’t mean any documents or formulas. But what things can we as a society do? Either retreat, or understand: this compromise is needed, and this is fundamental? I am talking about the Russian-Ukrainian war. About negotiations, for example, with Putin.
I will never recognize Crimea as part of Russia, that goes without saying ... The same thing with the Donbas “republics” – they are artificial satellites of the Russian Federation. Of course, they are also part of Ukraine, I will never recognize the separatist sentiments or the desire to join Russia. We are a united country, these territories have rejected us, and we will never accept that. Full stop.
Is this your red line?
Yes. Everything else is up for discussion.
You said at a press conference, when responding to an expected question, that you haven’t decided whether you are going into politics or not. What can affect this decision?
I don’t know. We have to wait and see.
How would you describe your political views? Even as a citizen and a voter.
I have no political views, only human and civil views.
There are jokes that Oleg [Sentsov] and Oleksandr [Kolchenko] have returned, and now they would join the political struggle, attend the LGBTQ march, or start doing something else. Basically, the speculations about what you really think about how a citizen should build his relations with the state. What are your views? Are they more liberal or more conservative? How would you describe it?
Definitely, I have pro-European views. I tell many people why I went to EuroMaidan and why I adhere to this position ‒ I want to live how people live in Europe, so that we become a European country and live according to their principles, and then according to their standards - life standards and so on. I do not want to live as they live in Russia, which is heading to the Soviet Union. I was born in the Soviet Union, I had lived in that country for some time, I’ve seen its collapse and this whole situation, and I remember it well enough. I traveled a lot in Russia and I know what today's Russia is. I’ve seen it before the arrest as well. And I don’t like their way. Even then I understood that this was a dead end. This is the first and foremost.
Secondly, my attitude toward the state is simple. We, the people, are the state. One has to understand it. Those who manage it are our managers, to whom we give the authority to solve specific problems, specific issues. And they are responsible to us, we are not their slaves, not their servants, not their subordinates, they are our subordinates.
We have not yet moved on to the questions that our viewers wrote on Facebook, but I saw one: how do the Russians who are in prison see the so-called fraternal war against Ukraine?
Russians? Most see it as the propaganda shows them. They all perceive it in its pure form. Well, not 80%, maybe 70%. The sample was specific, but all the same, these are also people who watch the TV, and they believe in what it says. They do not really believe Putin in domestic politics, they understand that many people are stealing, and Putin leads this whole mafia, roughly speaking. But they support the current foreign policy. They have such a hatred for Ukraine, even contempt for Ukraine, for Europe, for America is very strong. They are inundated with it every minute. Turn on any channel, it continues for all these five years. People are saturated with this, they do not perceive it differently.
You’ve often said: do not make a hero out of me. But there is some kind of reality that you cannot control. There are some special expectations for you.
The problem of Ukraine (this can be seen with me or any other examples from the past) is that people wait for a messiah to come and solve all the problems for you. As soon as you understand that you have no one to hope for, except for yourself, and live like that, with such a philosophy, everything will be fine in your life. I have been living for a long time, hoping only for myself.
Have Ukrainian politicians already offered you anything?
Thank God no.
Questions from Hromadske readers on Facebook:
Is language part of Ukraine’s self-defense? If everything in Crimea was in Ukrainian, do you think the events of 2014 would have been possible?
The Crimean problem arose, among other things, due to the fact that the language issue was being resolved very clumsily. Due to the fact that the Ukrainization came from the top, and at times was carried out using utilitarian methods, not quite correctly – and this caused a rejection of Crimeans to the Ukrainian language, to Ukrainian culture.
The Russian culture came from the other side, and it was so accessible, so “good”, so “fantastic”. And this was a problem that has not been correctly resolved for more than 20 years of independence. And so Crimea happened.
If you were in the President’s shoes, would you have agreed to this prisoner exchange?
I’m not in the President’s shoes. It’s his decision, and he made it, and we’re free.
Do you agree with the current policies regarding the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics”?
That’s not a concrete question, I don’t have an answer.
Oleg, are you religious? And what helped you maintain your sanity?
I’m not religious, I’ll tell you immediately. I respect all religions – Christians, Muslims, Buddhist, whatever people embrace. If a person wants to believe, then let them believe. But not a single model of the world, which world religions offer, suits me. I think that everything works a little differently.
What are you afraid of in life?
How do you feel about those who are afraid and who are weak?
What can I say? Try not to be afraid, be strong.