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Gdańsk’s Solidarty of Arts and the Freeing of Sentsov

This year’s edition of the Solidarity of Arts festival, which has been taking place in Gdańsk for a decade now, was very different from previous editions. Before this year, the festival was strictly a musical event with a clear emphasis on modern music and jazz. This year, however, a new formula was introduced. It was formulated by a curator from Kraków named Magdalena Sroka.

August 30, 2019 - Paulina Siegień - Articles and Commentary

Photo (CC) commons.wikimedia.org

Indeed, the events were a bit more niche this time around. However, when pieced together they presented a syncretic picture of the term “arts”. They also made clear references to the festival’s slogan – “COURAGE” – which was the topic of numerous debates and discussions.

I write about this festival for the readers of New Eastern Europe mainly because this edition had a visible “eastern” dimension and message. The patron of the event was none other than the Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov who was a political prisoner at the time of the festival. Sentsov was released from Russian custody on September 7th 2019 as a result of a prisoner exchange which took place after weeks of negotiations between Russia and Ukraine.

Sentsov, who was a direct participant of Ukraine’s last revolution, the 2013-2014 Revolution of Dignity, was sentenced to 20 years of prison in Yakutsk. He received this punishment in 2015 after he had been arrested in 2014 by Russian security agents in Crimea. He was found guilty during a staged trial in Rostov-on-Don. The famous documentary film, directed by Askold Kurov, titled The Trial: The State of Russia vs. Oleg Sentsov was among the films that the guests of the festival screened during the festival. Sentsov’s own work from 2011, which was titled Gamer, was also shown.

Sentsov’s cousin, Nataliya Kaplan, came to Gdańsk to accept an award on his behalf from Gdańsk’s mayor Aleksandra Dulkiewicz. The award was established by Paweł Adamowicz, the previous mayor who was tragically murdered in January this year. It is to honour Polish and foreign artists who in their work embody Gdańsk’s cherished ideals: freedom, solidarity, openness and courage; and all in accordance with the city’s motto Nec temere, nec timide which in English means “neither rashly nor timidly”.

The list of names of people who were calling on Russian authorities to free Sentsov is long. Among the signatories are world-renowned film directors such as Agnieszka Holland who, during the festival in Gdańsk, delivered a poignant speech honouring the Ukrainian director.

During the festival there was a special screening of Holland’s latest film, Mr. Jones, which was accompanied by a debate with the director. The film depicts the story of Gareth Jones, who was described by Anne Applebaum in one of the chapters of her book The Red Famine. Stalin’s War on Ukraine.

Jones is a young Welsh journalist who manages to get to Ukraine in the 1930s which at that time is suffering from the terrible hunger which was imposed on its people through Stalin’s hideous policies. Jones’s eye-witness report on what was going on in Ukraine was, however, undermined by the then Moscow-based New York Times correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winner, Walter Duranty.

In her artistic masterpiece, Holland indicates that heroes are those who speak truth in the time of lies. Thus, Jones is the exact opposite of the corrupt, interest-driven Duranty. His story is clearly an analogy to the dilemmas of today’s journalism and the threat of fake news.

Mr. Jones is a film which can be interpreted as an artistic commentary on the current situation in Ukraine and Russia. More than anything else, it is a must see for all journalists who are struggling with modern propaganda machines, be it of state apparatus, gigantic firms or institutions.

Of course, the festival had to have music. This time, however, the organisers opted for politically and socially engaged artists. Such as Siksa, a Polish feminist dismantling, through her punk performances, the deeply rooted and oppressive patriarchate. The final concert was also performed by a popular Polish rap singer named Don Guralesko who he has translated Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century into a rap beat. Tellingly, Snyder took part in the music video promoting his album.

The biggest hit of the festival was probably a concert called Riot Days. It was based on a book with the same title. The book is authored by Maria Alyokhina who is a member of Pussy Riot – the Russian feminist protest punk rock group. In 2012, Alyokhina, together with her friend, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, were sentenced to two years in a penal colony for their performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow where they sang “Mother of God, Drive Putin Away” before the guards kicked them out from the building. With these words the artists pointed to the dangerous alliance which exists between politics and the Orthodox church, which is visibly submissive to the Putin regime.

The Pussy Riot girls never put the heads down. Since their release from prison they have been even more engaged, doing social work and fighting for human rights. They have even created an independent internet portal called Media Zona. In recent weeks, when protests were taking place in the streets of Moscow against the staged elections to the city council, Maria Aliochna, who performed in Gdańsk, was often a guest in Moscow’s jails. She was punished with a heavy fine, which was an equivalent to 2,000 euros, and on the day of the elections was arrested together with her friends after she had worn a t-shirt with a sign calling for the freeing of political prisoners.

Staged in one of Gdańsk’s clubs called B90, their show sent an extremely powerful message –one that should be interpreted not only as artistic, but also political. It showed the oppressiveness of the machine of state repressions which can destroy an individual but also stressed how one can act as not to get broken down. Even though seven years have already passed since Pussy Riot’s trial, fear and courage in confrontation with an almighty power of the authoritarian regime are still very valid topics, not only in Russia.

The Solidarity of Arts festival took place in late August. However, this year its final stage was moved until September. The final moment came on September 7th with the freeing of Sentsov. This much awaited moment was proceeded by a series of messages that had been sent to various media outlets about a possible Ukrainian-Russian swap of political prisoners. Information began to spread via online sources and in print. It was later followed by Sentsov’s transfer to Moscow, which gave the public worldwide an even greater hope that the artist will be among the prisoners who will be handed to Ukraine. Clearly, the stakes of this exchange were very high: among the prisoners that Russia demanded from Ukraine (and eventually received) was Volodymyr Tsemakh, who is suspected of being involved in shooting MH17 in 2014. 

Some time ago a popular but controversial Russian essayist stated that the more international attention that is drawn to Sentsov’s case, the more awards and prizes he will receive, the more famous the stars who give him these awards are, the more remote the future of his freedom would be. In his view, this would be true because the Kremlin wanted to have him as an asset, a card that can be played at any moment. This moment clearly came when Moscow wanted to get Tsemakh and at least partially disable him as a witness. However, it is now quite clear that this international support and solidarity led to Sentsov’s freedom. The director himself, when he landed at the airport in Boryspil, said that not everybody was freed yet and they should not be forgotten about. Indeed, in Russian prisons there are still many who were charged with similar charges to that of Sentsov. They will need this attention now. 

This text was originally published August 30th 2019; and updated on September 8th to reflect the fact the Sentsov has been freed.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

Paulina Siegień is a freelance journalist, writing about Polish-Russian neighbourhood and general Russian developments. She is currently working on a book about the Kaliningrad Oblast.

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