Oleksandr Kolchenko on Crimea, Arrest and Life in Kyiv
1 November, 2019

On September 7, Oleksandr Kolchenko, together with 34 other political prisoners and prisoners of war from the navy, returned to Ukraine.

The Crimean activist was detained in the spring of 2014 in Simferopol. Russia's Federal Security Service fabricated the case, accusing him of terrorism.

After five years spent behind bars in Russia, he brought to Kyiv 20 kilograms of letters, which he received at the detention center and the colony.

We talked to him about the EuroMaidan Revolution and Crimea, actions against the occupation of the peninsula, his detention, arrest, lawsuit, and his current life in Kyiv.

So you live in Kyiv now, but have you been here much before your return to Ukraine from Russian jail?

 I had been to Kyiv three times. I attended the student counter-forum, if I'm not mistaken in 2011, I came for a rally by "Strategy - 31", which is a pan-European anti-capitalist action, and to the EuroMaidan, where I was on February 10-11, 2014. I was there for a day and a half with Oleg [Sentsov] and our mutual friends.

What did you see on the Maidan then, what were your impressions?

On the streams, it was possible to see for the most part the struggle of the protesters against the "forces of evil". When we arrived, we went to the Ukrainian House, which resembled a large anthill. People ran around, offered each other help. I was very impressed with the level of collective self-organization. In Crimea, there was a rather different microclimate back then.

How were the events in Crimea in early March 2014? Do you remember your feelings? How did you feel about the events that took place on February 26 — when the Russian military landed in Crimea?

The political situation was very tense. There were many talks about the referendum. Initially, it was scheduled for May, then brought forward to April, and then to March 16. By then it became clear: if there are troops, the referendum is merely a formality. But I didn't realize it could be a long-term thing at the time: well, I thought, it’d be a few months or a year. It was when I got arrested, that I realized that it was for the long haul.

READ MORE: 5 Years Later Crimean Activist Oleksandr Kolchenko Returns to Ukraine

Regarding your case fabricated by the Russian special services. You were accused, in particular, of setting fire to the United Russia office in Simferopol. What happened then?

I was involved in the arson of this building. It is a detached, one-story building. I watched the street, and the other two smashed the window glass, and poured the incendiary liquid, and set it on fire. There were no people there at the time — the guys checked.

Why did you decide to take part in arson?

Because by then the legal, peaceful means of struggle had exhausted themselves. There were more provocateurs from the authorities than protesters at the anti-war rallies.

Did you realize there could be consequences of this arson by the office of United Russia in Simferopol?

I understood, of course, but did not view them as serious.

When did you realize that they would be serious?

On the day of the arrest.

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

As you were organizing the arson did you realize that tortures took place in that building?

No, I didn't know about this particular one. But I knew there were tortures at the HQs of the so-called Crimean Self-Defense and the Communist Party of Ukraine. Mind you, the Self-Defense tortured everyone who looked suspicious.

Activist Oleksandr Kolchenko during an interview, Kyiv, September 26, 2019. Photo: Hromadske

In the spring of 2014 did you have the support of the people of Crimea?

We did, but it was too late for any support to matter. It's hard to change something when the military is already in.

On the day of your arrest were you precisely by the SBU building in Simferopol?

Yes. We were walking past the building with friends drinking beer. Then some suited boys ran out and put me face down on the ground. Then they took me to their office.

Do you think they were Ukrainian citizens from Crimea or just plain Russians?

I'm not sure, but when I was transferred to Moscow, there were about 40-50 people returning home from a duty trip.

After your arrest, you were taken to the SBU building in Simferopol. Then you were interrogated. What did they ask you?

They called surnames and asked me what I knew about those people. But I couldn't say anything because I didn't know any of those people. After that, they started asking about the arson.

Did they imply that if you told them what they needed, you'd be set free?

Nah. They just beat me - to the head, to the torso. But compared to what others had to go through, [Oleg] Sentsov for instance, it was nothing.

READ MORE: Oleg Sentsov's First Interview Following Release From Russian Prison

After you were transferred from Simferopol to Moscow you were kept at the Lefortovo remand prison. Were you subjected to any pressure whether physical or psychological?

No. They're all very polite but strict in adherence to rules. For example, it was very difficult to get the books I brought with me, especially those in the Ukrainian language. They didn't want to give them to me until the public oversight commission (a Russian civil organization that monitors whether prisoners' rights are observed in remand prisons and colonies) in Moscow interfered.

Did other prisoners know of your case, that it was a political one?

They did, it was impossible to keep your article secret. It's customary to say a few words about your case as you enter the cell.

Activist Oleksandr Kolchenko during an interview, Kyiv, September 26, 2019. Photo: Hromadske

Before the verdict was announced, did you know it would be 10 years?

I did. As we were transferred out of Moscow, Sentsov told me he spoke to the investigator who precisely told him that “you'll get 20 and your accomplice - 10.” And that's what we got in the end.

Did you fear those 10 years?

At that time not anymore. Initially, I was a bit lost — when I was just detained and arrested.  But later — no, I didn't fear them. 

After your detention and arrest,  did you realize that your friends, relatives,  even people you didn't know personally supported you? That you weren't alone?

I did, but I thought that they too could be subjected to pressure because they knew me or because of their support for me. 

Since your return to Kyiv, did you see Hennadiy Afanasiev (political prisoner also detained in Crimea in 2014 — ed.) and did you speak with him?

No, I haven’t. I don’t have anything to discuss with him.

What was the transfer to the colony itself like?

It took three weeks. I was in transit in Voronezh and Chelyabinsk for two of them. The rest of the time I was on the train.

I had my books and a bag with letters and postcards. We spent the journey going through numerous postcards from different countries. 

What was the administration's attitude toward you in the colony?

It seemed to me I was a socially alien element to them but they had to be very civil with me because the whole world was watching me. 

You were regularly taken into punitive confinement. Why was that and how come so often?

The thing is it wasn't just me. I was one of those who were on the precautionary list as someone prone to spreading extremist ideology and literature. There were ten of us in the whole camp. The other nine were Muslims. Because of some internal instructions unknown to me we had to spend major national holidays and important events, such as presidential elections and inauguration in punitive confinement.

How is the punitive confinement cell different from a standard cell in a colony?

Firstly, in colonies, prisoners live in enclosures rather than cells. ‘Barracks’ they call them. It’s something in between student housing and an army barrack. Bedrooms have two-tier beds. Our barrack had from 90 to 110 people at a time. We all lived together. In punitive confinement cells two people share six square meters. Beds are strapped in early for the entire day: wakeup is at 5 a.m. until 8 p.m. All this time you have to either stand or walk or you can sit on some stubs.

Since I frequently went to punitive confinement, I saw guys who had been on the same precautionary list for many years. They were well-equipped already. I asked my mom to bring me a large towel. I folded it in half and lay on it.

A towel was allowed, but a blanket wasn’t. Tea, coffee, cigarettes and food were also banned. 

What was your typical day at the colony?

We had to register, then you could go sleep more, after which you could go to the sports hall, club, library or just go for a walk in the local sector. Then there was lunch and free time. Then dinner and free time until the check. You can read, play board games, exercise, do sports. There were summer and winter soccer tournaments, as well as in volleyball, hockey. I never took part. 

Let’s fast-forward to August 2019. When did you realize there were some movements [toward the release]?

It all started on August 14. I was called up to the agent department to have photos taken to check for presence of tattoos. It came across as suspicious. The following day I was invited to speak to my lawyer who visited me once a month. We wait for over two hours but there’s no lawyer in sight. Then the agent says, “Alright, let’s go.” We go down and the groundskeeper’s there with my bags. That’s it. So I wasn’t even given time to pack my belongings, the groundskeeper packed them so I didn’t speak to anyone. On August 15, I was in Chelyabinsk remand prison, then on August 16 I was already in Moscow’s Lefortovo. 

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

Were you aware that other Ukrainian political prisoners were also there? 

I only knew about [Stanislav] Klykh because we flew together. But I didn't know about others. We were all isolated from each other. 

On September 7, they brought my dossier and some documents to sign. The release certificate,  some cash voucher. They told us to get our belongings together and wait.

FSB officers accompanied me to the bus, and I saw Sentsov and other people. That's when I felt happy. We got a wonderful tour of Moscow. We passed the Kremlin, the St Basil cathedral, and the Christ Savior.

Activist Oleksandr Kolchenko during an interview, Kyiv, September 26, 2019. Photo: Hromadske

You get to the Vnukovo [Airport]...

The Lefortovo manager comes in and announces Putin's decree of pardon. Then we waited for the plane. 

You signed up for Facebook, you read other people's opinions, you read the news.

I don't have time yet. You could say that I am five years behind. I don't even have time to read the news of yesterday's events. And I still run around a lot to meetings and interviews, whilst solving document problems...

After your return, did the state offer you psychological help?

Yes, when we were at the Feofania [hospital in Kyiv], I met with a psychologist a couple of times. But I don't need psychological help.

For you as an anarchist what are the most important processes going on in Ukraine? What would you like to focus on in the future?

I have not yet managed to get on the agenda in Ukraine, to understand all those events that have taken place over the last five years. But I can say this: I intend to continue to participate in the development of the labor movement, as well as the environmental and anti-fascist ones.