(Yulia Gorbunova’s article appeared in The Moscow Times, 9/7.)
Many of those who follow news from Russia have been counting down the days this summer with a sinking feeling. Now , autumn is here, bringing even closer the very real possibility that Oleg Sentsov, the Ukrainian filmmaker on hunger strike in a Russian prison since May, may die there.
Today is day 117 of Sentsov’s hunger strike. The condition of someone existing without food for that long is horrifying to imagine. 117 is also the number of days that Anatoly Marchenko, a Soviet dissident, spent on a hunger strike in 1986 to demand the release of all political prisoners in the Soviet Union. Marchenko was force-fed during most of his hunger strike through a tube in his stomach, an experience he described in his letters as pure torture. He died from heart failure a little under two weeks after he ended the hunger strike.
Many believe that Marchenko’s death was a decisive factor in pushing Mikhail Gorbachev to start releasing Soviet prisoners held on politically motivated charges.
Sentsov was sentenced by a Russian court to 20 years in prison in an unfair, politicized trial in 2015. An outspoken critic of Russia’s actions in Crimea, he was arrested on bogus terrorism charges in late spring of 2014, three months after Russian soldiers descended upon the peninsula. He is serving his sentence in a penal colony in Russia’s far north, above the Arctic circle. He is 42. He has two young children, who live in Crimea with his mother.
Sentsov started his hunger strike one month before the 2018 World Cup, hosted by Russia in June and July. He is calling on the Russian authorities to release over 60 Ukrainians held in Russia and Crimea on politically motivated charges. He is not asking for his own release.