By now you know that a Russian military kangaroo court sentenced Ukrainian film director Oleh Sentsov and Ukrainian civic activist Oleksandr Kolchenko to, respectively, 20 and 10 years imprisonment on trumped-up charges of terrorism. Amnesty International and other human rights groups immediately responded with protests, while Amnesty’s press secretary in Ukraine compared the trial to Stalinist show trials.
I hate to quibble, but the more accurate comparison is with the Soviet trials of dissidents in the 1960s–1980s. Stalinist trials might entail final statements by the accused, but they were invariably pathetic admissions of guilt. Not so in the Brezhnev era, when dissidents concluded their trials with eloquent appeals for justice and human rights.
So, too, in the Sentsov-Kolchenko case. Sentsov’s final remarks are worth reading:
He begins by questioning the legitimacy of the court and, thus, of the trial:
Like [Kolchenko], I am not going to ask for anything from you—to expect consideration here, well, everyone understands that. ... A court of occupiers by definition cannot be just.
Then, like all Soviet dissidents, he denounces conformity and the willingness to adapt to evil:
Cowardice is the main and the worst sin on Earth. Betrayal is a personal form of cowardice. … All of your propaganda is working excellently. Most of the Russian population believes what they are saying: Putin is great. There are fascists in Ukraine. Russia is never wrong. There are enemies everywhere. … But I also understand that there are people who are smarter—such as you, for instance, here—who support the government. You perfectly well understand that there are no fascists in Ukraine. That Crimea was annexed illegally. That your troops are fighting in Donbas. … These are facts that are on the surface. … the troubadours of your regime … know everything as it is, but they continue to lie. Just as you continue your work, finding some sort of rationalization within yourself. Probably, they also rationalize to themselves: “We have to feed our children; we have to do something.” But, guys, what is the point of raising another generation of slaves?
Finally, Sentsov concludes by emphasizing the central dissident leitmotif—the importance of moral courage:
But besides all these people, there is yet another part of the Russian population that knows perfectly well what is going on. That does not believe in the tales of your agitprop. That understands what is happening in the world—what horrible crimes your leadership is committing. But these people are afraid of something. They think that nothing can be changed. That everything will continue as it is. That the system cannot be broken. That they are alone. That there are few of us. That we will all be thrown into prison. That they will kill us, destroy us. And they sit quietly as mice in their holes.
We [Ukrainians] also had a criminal regime, but we came out against it. They didn’t want to listen to us: we beat on trash cans. They didn’t want to see us: we set tires on fire. In the end, we won. The same thing will happen with you, sooner or later. I don’t know what form it will take and I don’t wish to see anyone suffer. I simply wish for you to no longer be governed by criminals. …
Why imprison filmmakers and civic activists? Like the Brezhnev regime, the Putin regime is making a point: that it controls the public space and that it can punish whomever it wants to on whichever charges it wants.
In fact, the Putin regime is doing the exact opposite: establishing its moral and political equivalence with the Brezhnev regime.
Regimes that imprison filmmakers to 20 years are manifestly evil, illegitimate, and weak.
They are evil, because only evil regimes apply disproportionate punishment to the innocent.
They are illegitimate, because only illegitimate regimes believe that repressing the weak makes them look impressive.
And they are weak, because only weak regimes fear free speech and civic courage.
Sentsov and Kolchenko’s fate is tragic, but, as they surely know, they’ll survive and eventually emerge as heroes.
Not so Putin’s criminal regime, which, like Brezhnev’s, will end up on the ash heap of history.
Photo Credit: Euromaiden Press