Ukrainian Director Oleg Sentsov on Being a Political Prisoner in Russia   'They Try to Get Under Your Skin'

Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov spent five years as a political prisoner in Russia. In an interview, he speaks with DER SPIEGEL about the interrogation techniques used by the Russian secret service and the glass jar that gave him hope.
Director Oleg Sentsov

Director Oleg Sentsov

Foto: Gene Glover/ Agentur Focus

The Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov, 43, is from Crimea. When Russia annexed the peninsula, he ended up in prison due to his resistance to Moscow's move -- and became the most famous Ukrainian prisoner in Russia. International filmmakers, human rights organizations and Russian activists all fought for his release. On September 7, he was set free as part of a prisoner exchange. He cannot, however, return to Crimea, where his mother and two children lived until recently. We spoke with him in Berlin in his first interview with a German-language media outlet since his release.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Sentsov, you spent five years in Russian prison camps. Were you excited when you learned of the prisoner exchange?

Sentsov: When they transferred me from northern Russia to Moscow and during the nine days I waited there, I was very calm. I felt no emotion, and I likewise felt nothing in the plane, even when it landed. It was only when I saw my daughter that I was overcome with emotion. It was then that I realized: This is one of those days that makes life worthwhile.

DER SPIEGEL: Your daughter transformed from a girl into a young woman during your imprisonment. Next to her was Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who said simply: "Hello Sentsov." What did you say to him?

Sentsov: I asked him: "How are you doing?" And he answered: "We're working." I thanked him. Many people were involved in my release, but ultimately, he made the key contribution and brought it to fruition.

DER SPIEGEL: You involuntarily traveled through all of Russia. From Crimea, you were first brought to Moscow. Your trial was then held in southern Russia before you were taken to Yakutia and then, finally, to the northern Urals. All in all, I think you traveled around 20,000 kilometers (12,500 miles). You'd be able to write a travel guide about the Russian prison system. Is it a diverse world? Are the prisons and labor camps different from each other?

Sentsov: The official rules are the same everywhere, but unofficially, there are differences. And where I was, the differences were often for the worse. But the people who are locked away there are like you and me. That is the most important thing to know. It is an isolated world with its own etiquette and rules, but I learned a lot about Russian society.

DER SPIEGEL: For example?

Sentsov: I had spent time at the Maidan protests (in the winter of 2013-2014 in Kiev) and thought that Putin's system, with its iniquities and barbarity , would soon collapse -- that the people wouldn't take it anymore and that a revolution was coming . We Russians and Ukrainians are kindred peoples, we're essentially brothers with few differences between us. I myself have a Russian background. But with each year in prison, I understood with increasing clarity that the people are completely indifferent to what is happening in their country. They have distanced themselves from the state and think: We can't change things anyway. Even after 20 years of Putin, they haven't even realized that he might actually be the problem. They consider poverty to be normal, along with the fact that the state cares little for them, that it constantly lies and that both the police and the courts are corrupt. When I tell them that there are countries in Europe where things are completely different, they don't believe it. "In America, it's just the same," they'll tell you, even though they've never been to America and have only heard about it from Russian television. This indifference is combined with a kind of imperial ambition, with pride in some sort of foreign policy success that doesn't help you one bit back home in Yakutia. It is a terrible mixture of aggression and passivity.

DER SPIEGEL: How were you treated by the guards and your fellow prisoners? You were a political prisoner, but Kremlin propaganda vilified you as a right-wing extremist terrorist.

Sentsov: There was no open aggression against me as a Ukrainian. Such a thing would violate the unwritten code of conduct in prison. But beneath the surface, I could feel a certain antipathy anyway. People see you as someone who is against Putin, and thus against Russia and in favor of the fascists and the khokhly (a derogatory term for Ukrainians, referring to the traditional haircut worn by the Cossacks).

DER SPIEGEL: You gave President Zelensky a jar in which you kept your tea during your imprisonment. Using two strips of paper, you had attached a Ukrainian flag to it. What was the message?

Sentsov: The jar aggravated the guards, just as the very fact of my existence did. There were a number of adventures associated with this jar. They would take it away from me and scrape the flag off, and I had to fight to keep it in every prison I was brought to. For me, it was a fight for a symbol: Me and the flag alone against an entire system that seemed invincible. But I never gave up and I was ultimately released. With my jar.

DER SPIEGEL: We on the outside didn't hear anything about such battles, but we did learn of your hunger strike during the World Cup in Russia, when you demanded the release of Ukrainian prisoners in the country. You were apparently planning another one?

Sentsov: During my hunger strike, I knew that neither I nor the others would be released. But I wanted to generate attention. I stuck with it until the laboratory test results became dangerous. I could feel that death wasn't far off. I knew that it would take me a long time to recover from the hunger strike and that I might have done permanent damage. But later, they allowed me to exercise three times a week. There was an area with a rack, a horizontal bar and a rusty dumbbell. That is where I readied myself for a second hunger strike. I thought: The first time, you began with very little body mass, and you felt terrible immediately. The next time, do it with maximum weight so that you have reserves. I wanted to start the hunger strike in late May or early June. But then there was movement on the prisoner exchange.

DER SPIEGEL: Documentary filmmaker Askold Kurov made a film about your trial and there was one scene I found particularly disturbing. It is a video from the Russian secret service agency FSB of your interrogation. One agent says in a quiet, earnest voice: "The court will clear it up. Russia's courts are the most humane in the world." Essentially, it's a cruel joke at the expense of the prisoner.

Sentsov: I'm glad that the video exists! It shows how they work. First, they tried to break me -- that was immediately after my arrest. Then, they offered me a deal: Seven years in prison for a confession and for some names. They wanted me to incriminate someone important in Kiev, they didn't care who. Otherwise, they threatened to lock me away for 20 years. For the entire year that I was held in pretrial detention in Moscow's Lefortovo prison, they tried using soft power, so to speak. It was like a psychological battle of attrition. The video shows exactly that. Someone speaks to you in a friendly voice, but at the same time, they taunt and tease you. That's how it was the entire time. They try to get under your skin.

Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov during his trial in Rostov-on-Don

Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov during his trial in Rostov-on-Don

Foto: Sergey Pivovarov/ REUTERS

DER SPIEGEL: In your closing statement in court, you quoted from "The Master and Margarita," the Soviet-era novel from Mikhail Bulgakov. It is a book about another trial, the one against Jesus. And it is about the regret felt by Pontius Pilate because he wasn't able to find the courage to follow his convictions and set Jesus free. You quoted the line: "Cowardice is the worst sin of all." Did you have the impression that your judges might someday reconsider their behavior and ultimately regret it?

Sentsov: When I said those words, I looked at the judge. At just this moment, my gaze met that of his assessor, and he looked down at the floor. That proves that the man knew what he was doing. And there was a similar moment that took place before that. When I was transferred to Rostov for the trial after a year spent in pretrial detention in Moscow's Lefortovo prison, I spoke one final time with Artyom Burdin, the lead investigator for FSB. Only the two of us were in the room. He asked: "Oleg, will you testify in court?" I replied: "No, what would be the point? Everything has already been decided anyway." He answered: "Yes, but I would really like to know how things actually were." It really hit me -- that this man was fully aware that his entire investigation was rubbish. That doesn't mean, of course, that he thought I was innocent. They know that they put someone behind bars despite a lack of sufficient proof for conviction. But they think: He's guilty anyway because he is an enemy of the state.

DER SPIEGEL: You are a writer and a director, an artist. Were you able to work in prison?

Sentsov: I took 15 notebooks, completely full, with me when I left prison: Two novels, two collections of short stories, diaries, three screenplays -- and all kinds of notes about the cinema and other things. It's quite a lot, enough for another three or four years of work.

DER SPIEGEL: You were presumably searched frequently. Were your writings also examined?

Sentsov: I was quite concerned because of the journals, because I wrote about the prison itself in them, things they might not like. I actually didn't want to keep a diary at all, but I started during the hunger strike and took the risk. I was on the way toward death and knew that my heart could fail any day, or my kidneys or liver. I wanted to create a record of myself on paper. A couple of times, guards picked up the journal and flipped through it, and I thought it was over. But luckily, I have terrible handwriting, and it got even worse as a result of the hunger strike. Next year, on the anniversary of my release, all of the journals are to be published. But I've never read them again myself, and I don't plan to read them or edit them either.

DER SPIEGEL: Why did you so clearly take sides with Ukraine in 2014? You come from a Russian family and grew up in a Crimean village where only very few people likely shared your pro-Ukrainian position.

Sentsov: Putin's propaganda seeks to convince us that it's all about a conflict between Russians and Ukrainians. That's not the case. There isn't really even a conflict between Russia and Ukraine. It's more a conflict between worldviews. On the one hand are those who want to live according to civilized, European principles, while the others want to live in the Soviet Union .

DER SPIEGEL: What do you think people want in Crimea, which you were forced to leave in 2014?

Sentsov: I don't know. All of my close friends left because they couldn't stand the atmosphere, this lack of freedom, as if somebody took away your air to breathe. I felt it immediately. I still remember those two months extremely well. The people were frightened, and at the same time, there were these crazies shouting their slogans. They were clearly activists who had traveled in from Russia -- I could tell from their accents. But when 20 people are screaming, before long, the whole crowd joins in. And the people of Crimea wanted to belong to Russia for a number of reasons. By far not everyone wanted to, but more than half did.

DER SPIEGEL: At the time, you brought food to the Ukrainian troops, who had been surrounded by the Russian army. Later, you learned more about this episode ...

Sentsov: In the Rostov courthouse, I by chance got to know an officer with the Russian military secret service GRU. He had been charged with domestic violence and manslaughter. We were both awaiting our trials and were locked in special cages in the basement set up for that purpose. We had a lot of time to talk. In Yevpatoria, he had besieged the same Ukrainian unit that I had brought food to. And he told me how everything had been prepared -- that they had been brought by ship to Crimea from the Russian city of Novorossiysk. And that he later fought in Donbass, in Ilovaisk ...

DER SPIEGEL: ... that was the battle during which the Ukrainian army suffered tremendous losses. Russian troops were also involved, though the Kremlin denies it.

Sentsov: The GRU man said: "That was our job. We destroyed your people." He just said it openly, without trying to hide it. There was no reason for him to be afraid and lie: I was facing 20 years in prison as was he. This encounter made quite an impression on me. When Putin's system collapses one day, there will be a number of such people. You'll suddenly have hundreds of statements and pieces of evidence.

DER SPIEGEL: You last saw Kiev in spring 2014. What is your impression after five years? How has the city and society changed?

Sentsov: I wrote about it on Facebook, a post that generated quite a bit of controversy. First, I wrote that quite a bit less had changed than I had expected and hoped. Second, I wrote that it seems as though everyone in Ukraine is fighting against everyone else. Even good people find themselves locked in conflict with other good people. I believe that the first thing that must happen is this discord must be overcome. Only then can the process of reconciliation with Donbass begin -- not with the criminals who are in power there, but with the residents who don't see themselves as part of Ukraine. That would be the second stage. And only then comes reconciliation with Russia, as soon as the government collapses. Until then, there can be no talk of reconciliation, only of a cease-fire and negotiations.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you hope to be able to return to Crimea?

Sentsov: I will not return to a Russian Crimea, that much is clear. But I don't believe it is so unlikely that Crimea will return to Ukraine, even if it seems difficult.

DER SPIEGEL: There were impressive testimonies of solidarity during your imprisonment, with directors like Wim Wenders, Pedro Almodóvar and Ken Loach making efforts on your behalf. Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov beseeched Putin for mercy on your behalf on live television in 2016, saying it was "Russian and Christian."

Sentsov: I watched the scene live from the labor camp in Yakutia. I watched as Sokurov implored and begged. I am extremely grateful to him, he did so on more than one occasion. But Putin made his excuses, because I was his hostage, just like the others.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 42/2019 (October 11th, 2019) of DER SPIEGEL.

DER SPIEGEL: What can countries like Germany do to secure the release of the remaining Ukrainian prisoners?

Sentsov: You have to constantly talk about them using all channels, including with Putin. There aren't any well-known persons like myself among them anymore. Such people have all been released. Now, it's about helping those who hardly anyone knows. You have to constantly talk about them and about how many of them there are. Currently, there are 87 Ukrainians imprisoned in Russia and another 227 in Donbass. Every single one of them is having a bad time of it in prison.

DER SPIEGEL: What would you say to Putin if you were to meet him today?

Sentsov: There's nothing to talk about. But if he ever ends up in The Hague, convicted by the International Criminal Court, then I will definitely write him a letter to ask him how it feels. I can already see it, him standing in front of the court, aging suddenly before our eyes. His face will grow wrinkly, like in Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray," and in the end, he'll look like an old turtle. That's when I'll write him a letter and ask: So, Vladimir Vladimirovich, how are things? Do you need anything? Tea perhaps? (laughs)

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