KYIV – More than five years after his arrest in Crimea, and just three days after his release from Russian custody as part of a prisoner swap with Ukraine, filmmaker Oleh Sentsov says his plans are simple. “Do the two most wonderful things on this planet: shoot films and live.”
Speaking to a large number of journalists in the Ukrainian House in downtown Kyiv on September 10, Mr. Sentsov and another freed Ukrainian activist, Oleksandr Kolchenko, expressed thanks to “all who supported us and contributed to our liberation.”
The two were released from Russian custody in a prisoner swap between Kyiv and Moscow on September 7 that saw the two countries exchange a total of 70 prisoners in the first major prisoner swap between them since 2017.
Russia took control of the Black Sea peninsula in 2014 and has backed the separatists in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has left more than 13,000 people dead over the last five years.
Mr. Sentsov, a Crimean native who opposed Russia’s 2014 takeover of the Ukrainian peninsula, was arrested by the Moscow-imposed Crimean authorities on May 11, 2014, and charged with planning the fire-bombing of pro-Russian organizations in Crimea.
A Russian court convicted him on multiple terrorism charges on August 25, 2015, and sentenced him to 20 years in a maximum-security prison.
Human rights activists and Western governments repeatedly called on the Russian authorities to release the film director, saying his arrest and trial were politically motivated.
“As for Crimea, I will only go back there in a tank… My words shouldn’t be taken literally,” Mr. Sentsov said with a wry smile, adding that he was going to push to secure the release of Ukrainians “illegally held in Russia and Donbas,” referring to the eastern region where Russian-backed separatist are battling Ukrainian troops.
Imprisoned in Russia’s northern Yamalo-Nenets region, Mr. Sentsov held a 145-day hunger strike last year, demanding that Russia release 64 fellow Ukrainians he considered political prisoners.
Mr. Sentsov called Russian political prisoners in Russian prisons “our brothers,” and thanked Ukrainian and foreign journalists for what he called “doing their jobs so that we could be free now.”
“Now we have to think about the liberation of our people who remain in custody in Russia and Donbas. We must remember that along with our people there in prisons in Russia there are many Russians who are fighting for themselves, for a free Russia and for our Ukraine. They are our brothers and we must not divide them from us,” Mr. Sentsov said.
“The situation we have now after Russia attacked Ukraine is an information conflict. And [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s aggression against Ukraine is supported by many in Russia, due to the work of the Russian propaganda. I would like to applaud journalists here who are doing a great job,” he said.
Mr. Sentsov also said that the prisoner swap “was not unexpected,” as there were many years of negotiations on the issue because “the Russian system never accepts its mistakes,” or never changes its position regarding arrests.
Still, the swap provides some momentum to bringing the conflict to an end, he said.
“President [Volodymyr Zelenskyy] said that there is a second stage of the prisoner swap and I hope that the more than 100 guys who remain in Russian custody will be released soon. I hope that Zelenskyy knows what he is doing, and he will do everything that is good for our country,” Mr. Sentsov said.
“With the new government [in Ukraine], Russia has a chance to reset its relations with Ukraine. President Zelenskyy has made it clear that he wants to finish this war,” Mr. Sentsov added, though he expressed doubts that Moscow is eager to finish the conflict.
“No matter how much a wolf tries to disguise as a sheep, it still has its fangs. However, Russia still wants to preserve its presence in the European community and the recent change of the government in Ukraine is a chance for Moscow to improve its ties with Europe. But it is not possible to say that Russia wants to stop the war, to return Crimea to Ukraine and get out of Donbas,” he said.
According to Mr. Sentsov, he realized while in Russian custody that the majority of Russians are indifferent to the political situation in their country.
Talking about his arrest and imprisonment in Russia, he said that the terrorism charges against him were fabricated as he openly protested Crimea’s annexation by Russia.
“I supported Ukrainian military units in Crimea [during annexation]in terms of their evacuation and the evacuation of their family members. I organized protest actions, such as car caravans with Ukrainian flags, events near [Ukrainian writer and poet] Taras Shevchenko’s monument in Symferopol to demonstrate that there are people in Crimea who are against the annexation. I did everything I could,” Mr. Sentsov related, adding that he also refused to officially obtain a Russian passport after Moscow said all Crimea residents would become Russian citizens.
Mr. Sentsov also said that he brought to Ukraine 15 notebooks with novels, scripts and scenarios he wrote while in Russian custody.
“I was allowed to write there. I wrote in the night to avoid noise… On the third day of my hunger strike [in 2018]I felt that I wanted to write about my feelings. There was a risk that they could take all my scripts away, but they did not, as my handwriting was so bad that they were unable to understand what I wrote,” he noted.
“I wrote a 145-day diary while on hunger strike. They did not take that from me,” Mr. Sentsov said, adding that with his hunger strike he had “managed to attract the world’s attention to all Ukrainian prisoners in Russia.”
Copyright 2019, RFE/RL Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington DC 20036; www.rferl.org (see https://www.rferl.org/a/ukraine-sentsov-kolchenko-presser-elease-russian-custody-/30156501.html).