Andriy Klyvynyuk (right) and fellow activist Eugene Stepanenko in front of a projection of Ai Weiwei’s freedom of expression symbol in London. Photo: Nicolai Khalezin
Ukrainian rock musician and activist Andriy Klyvynyuk spoke to Index on Censorship about his support for popular film director and pro-Ukrainian activist Oleg Sentsov and the other Ukrainian political prisoners held by Russia.
Klyvynyuk, the frontman of the pop group Boombox, was a speaker at Belarus Free Theatre’s Freedom of Expression in Ukraine event at the House of Commons in London, where he called on the British government to demand Sentsov’s release. Sentsov is serving a 20-year prison sentence on charges of being part of a terrorist conspiracy. He has stated that he was tortured by investigators and that a key witness recanted in the courtroom on the grounds that evidence had been extorted under torture. His lawyers describe the case against him as “absurd and fictitious”.
Sentsov faces another 18 years in jail but Klyvynyuk, who drove an ambulance during the pro-EU Euromaidan protests in 2014, is determined that Ukraine will continue to work towards a future free of Russian interference.
“We used to cry but now we are laughing because we are not afraid,” he told Index. “We are only 25 years old as a country, and we are at the very beginning of a road. We want to be open and don’t want to see a great wall. I don’t want to be a big star somewhere, having everything but not being able to travel, speak with you, and that was the point of Euromaidan. We are not for the money, the wealth, houses and cars – it’s not what we want, it’s not the point of life at all.”
According to Klyvynyuk, it is Russia that is afraid. “They are very frightened to lose their dominance, to lose their money, to lose their superpower, in such a way as our mafia lost their power,” he said. “The officials are so much afraid that they invaded an independent state.”
Other speakers at the House of Commons event included journalist and author Peter Pomerantsev, and film and theatre director turned soldier Eugene Stepanenko. A video was shown including messages of solidarity from artists including fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and actor Will Attenborough.
Klyvynyuk welcomed these contributions. Although he does not mix his art with his activism, he feels strongly that those with a public position have a responsibility to speak out on human rights abuses. Those who shut their eyes to it, he says, are “clowns dancing on the tables of dictators”.
“I’m a patriot of course but I don’t think Ukraine is bigger or better than any other country in the world,” he said, calling on the world’s media to refocus on Russia’s behaviour towards its neighbour. “This is why we talk about political prisoners all over the world and wars all over the world. But to forget about situations like that, then everybody says ‘Oh, how are you? Are you okay?’ three years later. I say ‘Hey, stop, you know nothing’, and if you are a media person, if you’ve got followers on your social media, if thousands of people are waiting to hear from you, you should find some time to tell these important things.”
As for Oleg Sentsov, Klyvynyuk’s message was one of hope. “I hope that he won’t be broken inside, I hope that he, all of them, will find strength to live through, and then after we win, go out and not just sit and do nothing but continue their work, what they are here for.”
“We urgently call upon British politicians to put justice, human rights and international law ahead of business interests and to look afresh at the cases of the Kremlin hostages, [and] all political prisoners held by Russia, including our friend Oleg Sentsov,” co-founding artistic director of Belarus Free Theatre, Natalia Kaliada said.
On Monday 10 October, the theatre company hosted Freedom of Expression in Ukraine, an event at the House of Commons, in solidarity with Oleg Sentsov, a popular film director and pro-Ukrainian activist serving a 20-year prison sentence as well as all other Ukrainian political prisoners currently detained in Russian jails.
Sentsov is currently imprisoned in Siberia and is facing 18 more years in jail on charges of being part of a terrorist conspiracy. Sentsov has stated that he was tortured by investigators, and that a key witness recanted in the courtroom on the grounds that evidence had been extorted under torture. His lawyers describe the case against him as “absurd and fictitious”.
The night included a film calling for Sentsov’s release featuring actor Simon Callow, Belarusian Nobel Laureate for Literature Svetlana Alexievich, Polish film director and chair of European Film Academy Agnieszka Holland, actor Will Attenborough, film director Yuri Khaschevatsky and fashion designer and activist, Vivienne Westwood.
Natalia Kaplan, a cousin of Sentsov, could not be in London for the event but recorded a special video appeal for his release.
Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina and members of Belarus Free Theatre read extracts of letters from Sentsov and short scenes from Belarus Free Theatre’s latest production, Burning Doors. Other speakers included Andrei Khliyvynuk, activist and frontman of Ukrainian supergroup Boombox, and film and theatre-director-turned-soldier Eugene Stepanenko.
Nobel Laureate for Literature Svetlana Alexievich and British filmmaker Lord Puttnam both recorded a special message for the event.
Sentsov first came to the attention of the international film world with Gamer, a debut feature inspired by the computer and video-gaming club for young people that he had founded. It opened to great acclaim at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in 2012.
The European Film Academy together with leading international film directors, including Pedro Almodóvar, Wim Wenders, Stephen Daldry, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, have campaigned for Sentsov’s release, echoing the grave concerns of Amnesty International that his trial was a “total fiasco” and that the “entire case for the prosecution is built on a house of cards”.
Fernando Bovaira named Sentsov an honorary member of the 62nd San Sebastian Film Festival’s main competition jury, and a chair was reserved for him in solidarity.
During the evening, an image of Ai Weiwei’s middle finger was projected onto five iconic buildings in London: The National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing, The Forth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, Royal Opera House, Soho’s Gerrard Street and Tate Modern, together with a short film of Sentsov’s “sham trial” to garner UK public support and attention to his plight.
Ai’s finger, is used as a symbol of freedom “a powerful reminder of the need to strive for justice and freedom of expression,” explained Kaliada.
Credit: Graeme Robertson.
Credit: Graeme Robertson
Credit: Graeme Robertson
Credit: Graeme Robertson
Credit: Graeme Robertson
The demonstration was part of Belarus Free Theatre’s I’m with the Banned campaign which is an artist-led effort to bring together those who live in political freedom in solidarity with artists and activists who are censored or imprisoned in Belarus, Russia, Ukraine and anywhere else in the world where justice and freedom are denied.
Kaliada said: “In recent months, Ukraine has disappeared off the public radar even though the war rages on and Russia continues to drag the world into a new Cold War at a highly sophisticated level that endangers people living in the geopolitical knot known as Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, as well as threatening the global security of people further across the world.”
She said that London is where the founding members of Belarus Free Theatre sought shelter five years ago when they arrived in the UK as political refugees from Belarus.”For one night, the walls of the city will speak on behalf of those who are silenced, and one of the greatest capitals of the world will stand with us in solidarity with Oleg Sentsov,” she said. “As contemporary artists and human beings we have only one tool: creativity.”
Belarus Free Theatre have been using their creative and subversive art to protest the dictatorial rule of Aleksandr Lukashenko for over a decade.
Facing pressure from authorities since their inception, the theatre company nonetheless thrived underground, performing in apartments, basements and forests despite continued arrests and brutal interrogations. In 2011, while on tour, they were told they were unable to return home. Refusing to be silenced, the group set up headquarters in London and continued to direct projects in Belarus. In 2016 the group was shortlisted for Index on Censorship’s Freedom of Expression Arts Award.
Why is it important to mount Burning Doors at this time?
Koliada: Freedom of expression in that geopolitical knot where we come from and where more than 200 million people live under severe pressures of authoritarian and dictatorial regimes. If we do not talk and alert people living in western, democratic countries to our stories, their countries will be infiltrated in different forms, initially unnoticeably, by people manipulating the authorities who say it’s all in the name of the law.
Where did the idea come from?
Koliada: The idea behind Burning Doors is at the heart of Belarus Free Theatre. Close your eyes, just for a moment, and imagine that a theatre company based here in the UK could be prohibited to perform shows by Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane, and needs to perform underground. Even operating underground, the actors and managers could be arrested by MI5, riot police or the Met, and audience members threatened and told that they could lose their jobs and education.
(Our audience is a very young one and, of course, they are not scared of the secret services, so what would happen in those cases is that their parents would be threatened with professional retribution.)
I’ll continue and ask you to imagine that all of it has happened and continues to happen to a UK based-theatre company, one that is known and performs across the world, and yet can only exist because its founding members are exiled from their homeland and they now have political asylum in the UK. This has been our story for the past 11 years.
It’s in our blood to feel all the symptoms of dictatorship. Last year when we mounted Staging A Revolution: I’m with Banned which brought international attention to banned artists in Belarus, Ukraine (Ukrainian artists who spoke out against the Russian military invasion of Ukraine and are now prohibited in Russia), and Russia, it was the first time anyone had mounted an artistic solidarity event with Eastern Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Around the same time that the Festival took place, filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and contemporary artist Petr Pavlensky were arrested. Masha Alekhina, a member of Pussy Riot who served two years in jail, got in contact with us and suggested we work together. We knew we had to do it. We were intrigued by the artistic possibilities of working with a real witness talking about her own personal experiences and bringing her into our Minsk-based ensemble of actors, the most talented and bravest in the world. We wanted to connect Masha’s story to those of other persecuted contemporary actors and through a prism of their personal stories to speak openly about the hypocrisy of politicians and to inspire our audiences to reflect on the reality that we as human beings need to stand up together against repressive regimes. It’s important for us to reemphasise that we are not heroes, we are not victims, we are contemporary artists.
Does BFT think that building cross-border alliances with artists will have an impact on the threats to freedom of expression?
Koliada: Any cross-borders alliances of artists expands audiences. It transforms all of us into a movement. Why do dictators put contemporary artists into jails? Because they want to show with a single example that it’s dangerous to resist systems through the arts. They become scared when we stand up together against them. It’s very simple in thought and action but this is what makes them go into panic mode. Ai Wei Wei was under a house arrest when he created the visual icon for our campaign, Staging A Revolution: I’m with Banned. More than 600,000 people across the world saw it online, and people from more than 37 countries supported our campaign. This kind of collective action makes dictators feel sick and it’s then that they start to make the mistakes that lead to their collapse.
It’s unprecedented for us as a theatre company making work for more than eleven years under dictatorship to collaborate with a woman who served a two-year term in a Russian jail. Within days of announcing this collaboration to the media in the UK, it spread across the world. Even this level of coverage is terrifying to people like Putin or Lukashenko because it demonstrates the tidal wave of support for non-violent resistance by creating art. Art is more powerful than political rhetoric. When Mick Jagger, Tom Stoppard and Vaclav Havel made a video supporting the people of Belarus, we were arrested by the KGB. They knew that it was instigated and created by members of BFT. We understood then that the support of artists across the world was more terrifying to them than statements from politicians.
I think it’s time for all of us to make steps forward and to start to act together with artists, human rights defenders, politicians and journalists, because dictators are scared of a strong mutual position.
How has BFT’s mission evolved since being founded a decade ago?
Koliada: From the very beginning we were only interested in people. Human life is the most interesting subject matter for us. We started with our own personal taboos, then society’s taboos, then moved onto a global dimension. The only thing that is unchanging is our fundamental interest in people. When we perform in different continents across the world, people tell us that they find our work so powerful because they always find themselves within us. And likewise, we find ourselves in our audiences.
How else can people support BFT and Burning Doors?
Koliada: Information is the key. If people know what we do, why and how, we have the chance to continue to exist. People knowing of our existence and our work helps on many different levels including our financial sustainability. Last week, President Obama extended sanctions in Belarus stating that Belarus is “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security of the United States of America and its foreign affairs”. Yet at the same time, the EU is playing a badly orchestrated geopolitical rebranding game to try to convince people that “Belarus is normal”. It’s not. It has been a dictatorship in Europe for 22 years, political opponents have been murdered and their bodies never found. Those who perpetrated those crimes are still in power. Even this week, there is a trial underway against Eduard Palchis, who is a blogger and journalist. It seems that Belarus might have seized another political prisoner if human rights organisations across the world do not intervene.