OTTAWA — Oleg Sentsov is frequently asked how he survived five years in a Russian prison, and he still can’t offer an explanation. But the Ukrainian filmmaker has an unwavering message about how to get rid of the man who put him there.
Preserve and increase sanctions on Russia, keep Russia out of the G7, and keep bringing economic and political pressure to bear on Russia so that one day disgruntled, well-intentioned Russians may eventually drive President Vladimir Putin from power, Sentsov says.
Only then will his country get back the territory Russia took from it in 2014 when it annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region and sent separatist militias into his country’s eastern Donbass region, he said.
“Canada is a strong country and is stronger than Ukraine,” Sentsov said Tuesday in an interview through a Russian-language translator between meetings with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and a special session with MPs and senators.
“Putin doesn’t understand talk of peace. He only understands the language of force.”
Trudeau praised Sentsov and reiterated condemnation of Russia as he welcomed the one-time political prisoner to his Parliament Hill office. Sentsov was released in September after being jailed in what is widely viewed as a vendetta by Putin.
Sentsov was released as part of a larger prisoner-swap between Ukraine and Russia after serving part of his 20-year sentence in a prison colony in Russia’s Arctic for conspiring to commit acts of terrorism — charges he denies.
Amnesty International has said Sentsov was subjected to an “extremely cynical show trial” and should never have spent a moment in prison. Sentsov staged a 144-day hunger strike to protest the imprisonment of dozens of Ukrainians in Russia.
Two months after his release, Sentsov was awarded Europe’s highest human-rights honour, the Sakharov Prize, named for the celebrated Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov.
Asked how he survived prison, Sentsov paused silently.
“I don’t know why I am such a person — why I am tall, why I have green eyes,” he said.
“The most important thing you need to know is I am not the only one in my country that is like that. There are many people like this, people that you haven’t heard of and that you don’t know anything about.”
Russia is holding hundreds of political prisoners in Crimea and Donbass, he said. They include soldiers, civil society members and many underage children.
The only way to break them out is to get rid of Putin and end his six-year-old war against his country.
Some in the West are doing more than others. In Sentsov’s view, Europe isn’t pulling its weight.
“They look at him through the prism of their culture and their values of the world.”
Too many European countries are too dependent on Russian oil and gas to take a stand against Putin. Europeans are behaving like good, well-behaved children at a birthday party, he said.
“Then one hooligan comes to that party, sits on the table and starts eating the cake. And they are trying to persuade him, ‘do not eat the cake,’” he said.
“And those kids are saying, ‘maybe we can convince him to not eat the cake.’ And then the hooligan says, ‘yeah, yeah, sure’ and continues doing that.”
The United States and Canada are in a stronger position because they don’t rely on Russia for energy, he said.
Earlier, Trudeau thanked Sentsov for “your advocacy, for your strong voice and for your commitment to sharing your story in a way that advances the cause of a strong Ukraine.”
Sentsov met Tuesday evening with a group of MPs and senators, including Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, one of many Canadian parliamentarians to advocate for Sentsov’s release.
“Here’s a real hero who has stood in the face of Putin’s kangaroo courts during his hunger strike,” said Conservative MP James Bezan, whose family is of Ukrainian descent.
“He endured the incredibly brutal prison system that they have in Russia and never wavered in his support for an independent Ukraine. Crimea is Ukrainian territory and he was innocent.”
Sentsov finds it difficult to walk into a room and accept accolades for a job well done when he feels responsible for people still in prison, “and a responsibility for my country that is not reformed.”
He said he feels responsible for “continuous Russian aggression” and that his country still hasn’t reclaimed the territory that was forcibly taken from it.
“For me,” he said, “that’s why I can’t stop.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 4, 2020.