UK-educated Russians are upholding Putin’s regime, says dissident

Ukrainian film-maker Oleg Sentsov gives stark assessment of leader’s dictatorial rule

The children of Russian oligarchs learn about freedom in the UK only to return to Moscow to reinforce Vladimir Putin’s dictatorial rule, Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian dissident jailed for five years by Russia, has warned in a stark assessment of Putin’s stranglehold on power.

Sentsov, Russia’s most famous political prisoner, was released with 35 other Ukrainians in a high-profile prisoner swap in September, in which an equal number of Russians were released.

As a film-maker and Russian-speaking Crimean, he was kept in remote Russian prisons for five years during which he held a 145-day hunger strike that almost killed him. He had been sentenced to 20 years in jail in 2014 for terrorist offences and his defiance became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance.

Sentsov is due to be personally presented with the Sakharov prize, which recognises human rights defenders and which he won in 2018, by the European parliament. He also visited London this week partly to thank Amnesty International for its role in securing his freedom.

Asked whether the UK education of children of Russia’s elite might create a more liberal class, he said: “By studying here in the UK they should be able to compare and understand what kind of country they have come from and for what their parents are responsible.

Sentsov receives an award in Ukraine in October
Sentsov receives an award in Ukraine in October. Photograph: Danil Shamkin/SIPA/Rex/Shutterstock

“But I would not expect them to want to challenge the Russian state because it would be contrary to their interests. This state is what keeps them going. This is what pays for their tuition in the UK.

“Once they have completed their studies, they want to return to Russia and then lead as the younger elite so things can stay the same. These people will never go out and join the barricades.”

He continued: “Britain needs to do more to fight Moscow’s dirty money in London since corruption is a cornerstone to Putin’s regime. It is like medieval feudalism in which he dispenses influence to his supporters. They cannot hide from personal sanctions.”

He painted an unforgiving picture of Putin building a parody of the Soviet Union. He added: “[Putin] is a very cunning, cynical, unprincipled and evil man. The peacekeeper’s mask that he has on is just that - a mask. What is hiding behind is the face of a dictator and murderer. That is the main thing to understand about him. He does not want peace in Ukraine. He wants Ukraine on its knees, by his feet.

“He wants to launch a Soviet Union 2.0, an authoritarian state with a zone of influence around himself along Russia’s border. Anyone who tries to leave this sphere of influence he punishes just as he has in Georgia and Ukraine. When he runs out of political options, he deploys military means. He does not seek peace, he seeks subordination.”

According to Sentsov, the poker face shown by Russia when its intelligence agency, the FSB, was “caught red-handed poisoning Sergei Skripal” was just a microcosm of how Putin denies his role in the murder of thousands of Ukrainians.

Overall, he said, Russia was moving from authoritarian to totalitarian state. “They are already installing controllers that eavesdrop on internet traffic in Russia. The government, the media and the social organisations all work for Putin. The only thing over which Putin did not have control is the internet.

Sentsov said he had often been asked since his release how he found the will to resist, even when he knew others in his jail were being tortured. He said he still cannot answer that question.

His jailers, he said, “saw me as their ideological enemy. They went out of their way to make my life miserable.” But he added: “It was very important to me to understand that I was not alone and people supported me. Each letter marked Amnesty International was a drop of hope.”

Sentsov said his time in Russia had made him rethink his belief that Putin would fall. “I have had a long exposure to the Russian mind in prison and to my utter astonishment people do believe Putin, even in prison where their lives have been ruined and destroyed. It is the result of 20 years of brainwashing and propaganda about the west. In the Russian media realm, there is only one person, Putin, and then there is everyone else.”


Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

The GuardianTramp

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