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Prisoner’s Voice – Oleh Sentsov

This interview was conducted as part of the #PrisonersVoice project of Internews Ukraine. The project aims at drawing global attention to Ukrainian political prisoners who were or are still being kept in Russian prisons. Download the free #PrisonersVoice application for your mobile or tablet on AppStore or GooglePlay to learn more.

November 16, 2020 - Oleg Sentsov Tetiana Matychak - InterviewsIssue 6 2020Magazine

Oleh Sentsov receiving the 2018 Sakharov prize in the European Parliament.. Photo (CC) European Parliament

Interviewer: Tetiana Matychak

TETIANA MATYCHAK: What, in your view, do the Ukrainian authorities and civil society still have to do to make more people around the world aware about Ukrainian political prisoners in the Russian Federation and the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts?

OLEH SENTSOV: They need to speak more. And we need a strategy for fighting Vladimir Putin and replacing his regime with a more democratic one instead of wasting time on negotiations with Putin about returning Crimea and Donbas. This is simply impossible. Those who believe in that, are naïve. I am not naïve. I do not think that we can come to an agreement with Putin on anything. We could enter into negotiations with him about the ceasefire in order to stop the killings of our soldiers. This is a “yes” and could be good. Also about the return of prisoners – that is a “yes” too. But believing that Putin will return Donbas – no. He does not want to return the so-called republics, the LNR and the DNR, to Ukraine. Instead, he wants to incorporate Ukraine into them. These are different things. And we have to understand that.

Do you keep in touch with other former Ukrainian political prisoners?

I keep in touch with almost all of the 11 political prisoners who were released within the framework of our exchange. We get together. I went to visit Edem Bekirov who lives in the south and it was great. What a wonderful pilaf he cooked for us! Of course, we also meet on September 7th, which is the anniversary of our release. This is our common celebration. We have good relations. We talk, call one another, and do things together.

Do you also communicate with former Ukrainian political prisoners from the occupied territories?

I talked to them and met with them, but I wouldn’t differentiate or divide them. They all are hostages held by the Kremlin – either directly in the Russian Federation or through their subordinates in the LNR or DNR. Yet, I have more contacts with those whom I know because we were on the same plane which was flying us back to Ukraine. Now we are in the same information space. It has just happened that way.

When you talk to the media these days do you talk more about your work as a film director or do you rather discuss the problems of the Ukrainian political prisoners?

I devoted a larger part of my life to the country’s public life than my creative activities. After the decision made by the State Cinema Council, though, I am again switching to the cinema sphere, and in the next months I will be immersed in it. Nonetheless, I will be following the developments of the situation of our political prisoners, supporting this issue and speaking up, if there is anything important.

The Old Lion Publishing House published several of your books. Among them are the collections of stories Zhyznia and Marketer and a novel titled The Second One Is Worth Buying, Too. On September 7th 2020 a two-volume book which includes your hunger strike diaries and stories from prison were also released. Why did you work with this publishing house? And how did they manage to persuade you to work with them?

I felt comfortable communicating with these people, and they are very professional in their work. They also offered good financial conditions which was important because at the moment my only income is from books, and I can live off of that. I will also have films, which means some royalties as well. Yet, the reasons was not money, but good communication and co-operation with them.

On March 1st 2020, Ukraine launched a television channel called Dim for the Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia. Do you have ideas for some other ways to reach the Ukrainian population who lives in the occupied territories and Crimea?

The Dim TV channel will not be able to overwhelm the multibillion dollar Russian propaganda industry. This is simply waving your slippers against an army of cockroaches. We will not be able to overpower this. The point is not that I don’t believe that this kind of activities should be done. In my opinion, they simply had to reshape the Suspilne TV channel (Ukraine’s public broadcaster) and create a department that would broadcast in Russian for these people. And that would be enough. I do not quite understand why all this rebranding was necessary.

I think our public television should only get developed to be more powerful. Right now we are still faced with oligarchic control. There is a huge problem of influence of pro-Russian oligarchs who dictate their agenda to us through their media. We still do not have our own independent Ukrainian channel. What we have looks like a poor relative, and this is not right. Take the British BBC which is a powerful, independent and state-managed channel. It is paid by taxpayers. But why not? Why can’t we introduce a similar scheme here? And create a television that would work and overpower the impact of Russian propaganda?

Dim is a very weak project. I believe that in the first place we have to fight for the occupied territories. In Crimea people say: “Oh, the Russian authorities came – good, we will here. When Ukrainian authorities come – okay, we will go there”. The same is in Donbas where there are some people who are aggressive towards Ukraine. In parallel, there are people who believe they live under the occupation and there is a “swamp” in the middle – when a new flag comes, they will support it. Those who want, will go for Russia. And that’s it. You can launch 100 channels, but you will not get back Donbas. This is a wrong strategy, a wrong approach.

If we get these territories back physically, can we also get these people in our world of information?

Yes. This is a plan that can lead us to victory. For now we are just simulating the fighting.

Oleh Sentsov is a Ukrainian filmmaker, writer and activist. In 2014 he was captured in Crimea and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment by the Russian Federation. He was released in September 2019 as part of a prisoner exchange agreement. In 2018, he received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, awarded by the European Parliament.

Tetiana Matychak is a Ukrainian journalist, a media expert at Internews Ukraine and co-founder of Stopfake.org.

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