(Masha Gessen’s article appeared in the New Yorker, 9/10.)

Russia released its most famous prisoner on Saturday. Oleg Sentsov, a forty-three-year-old Crimean journalist and film director, returned to Ukraine after serving five years of a twenty-year sentence. He was one of thirty-five Ukrainian citizens released by Russia in exchange for Ukraine freeing an equal number of Russian citizens. Human-rights groups around the world, activists, and some politicians had been working to draw attention to Sentsov’s case since he was arrested, in May, 2014. In a moment when the U.S. government appears to have dropped human rights from its international agenda, Sentsov’s story shows that a concerted international effort on behalf of one man can still yield results, but it also highlights the limitations of such efforts. Several dozen more Ukrainian citizens, sentenced on equally spurious charges, remain in Russian prisons.

Sentsov was convicted of terrorism ostensibly for setting fires to the doors of the offices of the ruling Russian party, United Russia, in Crimea, and plotting to blow up a monument to Lenin. The prosecution provided no evidence of Sentsov’s participation in either the fires (an established part of radical protests in Russia, usually regarded as crimes against property) or a plot to destroy the monument. The court offered no explanation for why an alleged plot to blow up an inanimate object was viewed as terrorism.

Sentsov was born in Crimea, in an ethnic Russian family. Like most Crimeans, he grew up speaking Russian, but, like an apparent minority of them, he identified strongly as a Ukrainian citizen, and opposed the Russian occupation. He took part in the revolutionary movement that brought down the Ukrainian President, in February, 2014. At the conclusion of his trial, he declined to ask the Russian court for leniency, because, he said, he did not recognize its authority over him.

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Photograph by Ovsyannikova Yulia / Ukrinform / ZUMA

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