Oleg Sentsov and the Kremlin’s Thin Skin

On Tuesday, a military court in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don sentenced a Ukrainian film director to 20 years in a maximum-security prison after convicting him of terrorism. In the hours after the verdict, small groups of people came out to protest in front of Russian consulates and embassies in several countries. In Tel Aviv, two young people held up signs marked with three words: two obscenities and a Russian word for “idiots.” They probably best expressed the sense of gaping-mouth and helpless rage felt by all the people who had been following the Sentsov case.

Oleg Sentsov, 39, was arrested in May of last year in Crimea, which had been annexed by Russia less than two months earlier. He was accused of organizing, together with at least three other people, arson attacks on two pro-Kremlin organizations in Crimea and of planning to bomb a Soviet-era monument. Two of Mr. Sentsov’s alleged accomplices pleaded guilty in exchange for leniency — they were sentenced to seven years each — and testified against him, but one of them recanted during the trial. The third alleged accomplice, 26-year-old Aleksandr Kolchenko, was sentenced to a 10-year prison term.

Mr. Sentsov denied any connection to the arson attacks or to any plans to destroy monuments. He rejected the prosecution’s claim that he is affiliated with right-wing political groups. He also testified that he had been tortured while in police custody.

Two factors make Mr. Sentsov’s sentence, which is harsh even by Russian standards, particularly significant. First, Mr. Sentsov is a citizen of another country, and he was arrested in what most of the world considers to be Ukrainian, not Russian, territory. Second, what made him a terrorist in the eyes of the Russian court apparently was the symbolism of his alleged crimes: He was accused of targeting a monument to Lenin, effectively a stand-in for the Russian state.

Mr. Sentsov was tried as a Russian citizen, a status that was forced upon him: The court claimed he had automatically acquired Russian citizenship when Russia annexed Crimea. Mr. Sentsov disagreed pointedly. After the judge finished reading the decision on Tuesday, Mr. Sentsov and Mr. Kolchenko, standing in a Plexiglas enclosure in the courtroom, began singing the Ukrainian national anthem.

It’s not the first time Russia has abducted foreign citizens on foreign soil and dragged them into its own courts. Almost two years ago, Russia seized 30 Greenpeace activists in international waters in the Arctic and threw them into Russian jails. All but four were foreign citizens. All 30 were originally charged with piracy; then the charges were lowered to “hooliganism”; then the activists were amnestied and allowed to go home on the eve of the Sochi Olympics.

Just this week the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea held that Russia had had no right to seize the Greenpeace ship and the people on it, and ordered Russia to pay them compensation. The decision has hardly attracted any attention. In fact, the 30 activists’ cases had not attracted much international attention before that either — leaving Russia with the clear impression that it could kidnap foreign citizens abroad with near-impunity.

In one sense, Mr. Sentsov’s case harkens back to the 1930s, when the Soviet regime accused people of being terrorists if it imagined that they opposed the state. The prosecution in Rostov-on-Don repeatedly asserted that Mr. Sentsov belonged to the Right Sector, a right-wing Ukrainian organization. (Mr. Sentsov denies this.) But unlike the people sentenced by Stalin’s courts, Mr. Sentsov was not accused of plotting to overthrow the government or of spying for some faraway enemy.

A Russian court would normally deem the arson attacks — on an informal office of Russia’s ruling United Russia party and another pro-Kremlin organization — to be crimes against property, not terrorism, and subject to five years’ imprisonment at most. But Mr. Sentsov was also accused of plotting the bombing of a monument to Lenin, and such statues have become a symbol of Russia’s continued domination over Ukraine.

Whereas in Ukraine more than 100 Lenin monuments have been demolished by activists and local authorities since the revolution of 2014, in Russian-occupied Crimea, such monuments are fiercely protected. Russian pro-government media have portrayed the demolition of Lenin monuments as insults to the Russian state. In this respect, Mr. Sentsov’s trial is in line with the 2012 trial of members of the protest art group Pussy Riot, which was essentially prosecuted for blasphemy.

But even Maria Alyokhina, a member of Pussy Riot who served nearly two years in prison, was shocked by the Sentsov verdict. “Our two years are [dismissive obscenity] compared to this,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “Just imagine this: He will spend not two autumns behind a prison fence but twenty. Followed by as many winters.”

Two decades in jail for alleged crimes committed against inanimate objects. All that may be left to do is silently shout profanities at the indifferent facades of Russian consulates.

Masha Gessen is the author, most recently, of The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy.

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