Prisoner’s voice – Oleksandr Kolchenko
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.
Interviewer: Tetiana Matychak
TETIANA METYCHAK: You lost ten kilograms in a week when you went on a hunger strike in support of Oleh Sentsov in prison. How did you manage to endure it?
OLEKSANDR KOLCHENKO:Before I started the hunger strike, I sent a letter to Vladimir Putin asking him to intervene. I did this because I knew what kind of person Oleh is, and I knew that he would go to the end. Yet, time went by and nothing happened so I had to take action. I decided to support Oleh in this way. However, I was not able to last more than a week. Police investigators said they would take me to hospital and feed me by force. So, I had no choice but to end it.
In one of your interviews you said that you did not need psychological assistance. Where do you find strength to preserve mental resilience after everything you have been through?
First, there is outside support, correspondences. I got to know a lot of people. There were books, and they also gave me strength. In prison, I tried to communicate with as many people as possible, while still keeping my distance.
No one could be trusted completely?
Absolutely not! But, perhaps, all these things helped.
Who supported you? People from Ukraine, Europe, the United States?
People from all over the world! When I was still in Moscow, my sister wrote: “We were living in a one-room apartment, and someone was staying with us for the whole time. Even strangers at the request of mutual acquaintances.” And she wrote to me: “Half of the USSR has stayed at our place, and now they all support you.”
Did you live in Moscow for a while?
Well yes, a year and one month. In Lefortovo [prison]. We can say this is a real estate almost in the city center! [smiles]
What books did you read when you were there?
I read more books when I was behind the bars than when I was free. Yet, I read less than I was able to because I was too lazy. In prison I read The Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk. This book is great help for surviving in these kind of conditions. And I read a lot of other books as well – non-fiction and fiction literature, books on economics and so on…
Do you monitor the social mood in Crimea? How has it changed over the past six years? Do you still know people who live there? As we do not have any reliable survey results we can only rely on the stories told by people we know.
Some people I know are still there, but it looks like since 2014 people in Crimea have become more closed and atomised. Noone speaks openly about political issues. Even if someone is now disappointed with the choice they made in 2014, people find it difficult to recognise and admit their mistakes.
Do you still know any pro-Ukrainian people in Crimea?
What would you recommend to them? Should they fight, speak openly? Or, just the opposite, hide?
It is difficult to recommend anything, everyone knows their own circumstances best.
There are many Crimean Tatars currently imprisoned in Russia. Ukraine is doing its best to set them free. Do you participate in this process in any way? Do you help or follow this process?
I follow it but I cannot help, unfortunately. I do not have such an opportunity.
You are not involved directly?
No. However, there is the Association of Relatives of Political Prisoners [of the Kremlin], and they are trying to make this process more open and transparent so that family members know what is happening.
Are people from other countries interested in knowing the conditions of Ukrainian and Russian political prisoners in Russia?
They are. But I heard from many people that in 2014 and in 2015 envoys of Borotba, the so-called “left-wing” organisation [Borotba is a Ukrainian communist organisation, supported pro-Russian separatists and Russia in 2014], were travelling around Europe telling people about the “atrocities” taking place in Ukraine, and that the so-called “fascist junta” had come to power in Kyiv. Therefore, some people who support the left-wing in Europe have a distorted vision of Ukraine, Crimea and developments in Donbas.
Was the influence of Kremlin propaganda at play here as well?
Yes, through their envoys. That is why we still have to explain everything that happens in reality here.
What would you like to see the most? More moral support from the Ukrainians, from the West?
There is enough moral support. Now the issue is collecting money to support those who are still imprisoned on the Russian side of the border.
Do you raise money?
Right now I do not have much of my own money. My savings are nearly finished. That is why I am trying to master a new profession – I am learning to draw with [Adobe] Illustrator in order to earn money. And when I had an opportunity to gather something, when I went to Europe and had money remaining from my per diems, I gave it to a person I know in Russia. It is Vladimir Akimenkov. He raises money both for Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia, and for Russian political prisoners as well.
You are known for your anarchistic views. Not that long ago the whole world was following the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States…
Supporters of the Maidan wanted to distance themselves from parallels with US protests, but these parallels exist anyway because this protest is really vast. People with many various beliefs are taking part in protests, just like was the case in Maidan in Ukraine. In the US people have also come out to protest against the arbitrary actions of the police, just like we did on the Maidan in Ukraine. They are trying to re-think their colonial heritage, overcome it – just like Ukraine is trying to do. This process is underway, but it has not been completed. For instance, in Odesa there is still a monument to Catherine the Great, who destroyed the Zaporozhian Sich. Yet, the monuments are not the most important thing; it is the colonial heritage which still exists in people’s minds.
Who supports this colonial heritage in Ukraine?
This is Russia’s influence. So agents of Russian interests, of pro-Russian parties and movements.
Oleksandr Kolchenko is a Ukrainian activistwho was convicted of terrorism by the Russian administration of Crimea in 2014. He was released in September 2019 as part of a prisoner exchange agreement with the Russian Federation.
Tetiana Matychak is a Ukrainian journalist, a media expert at Internews Ukraine and co-founder of Stopfake.org.