Ex-political prisoner Hennadiy Afanasyev: "Soviet Union was strangled by economic sanctions...The same will be with Russia"
Three years since Russia’s FSB security service invented the term “Crimean terrorists”, UNIAN met with former political prisoner Hennadiy Afanasyev, who had been arrested by Russian-occupation authorities in the annexed Crimea on trumped up charges, about propaganda that turns people into monsters and the knowledge achieved through suffering.
Three years ago, charges were fabricated against Ukrainian citizens Oleh Sentsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko of setting up terrorist attacks in the Russian-occupied Crimea. Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in high security prison, while Kolchenko was locked up for 10 years. Hennadiy Afanasyev was also tried in this “Crimean case”, having spent 767 long days in Russian captivity. Through torture, the Kremlin’s punitive machine even forced the man to give false testimony against Sentsov and Kolchenko. However, Afanasyev went for a brave move by reversing his testimony in court.
Today, Afanasyev is one of the few wrongfully accused Ukrainians, whom Ukraine managed to wrest from the clutches of tenacious Russian so-called judiciary. He was released June 14, 2016, along with another political prisoner, Yuriy Soloshenko. Since then, Hennadiy Afanasyev has been actively engaged in volunteering, spreading awareness worldwide about the Kremlin’s political prisoners, talking about the terrible things Russia does to Ukrainian citizens targeted by Russian security forces, based on his own experience.
Almost a year has passed since your release. Today you keep spreading the word about criminal cases against political prisoners. In your opinion, has Ukraine moved forward in the battle to secure their release?
In my subjective assessment, much has been done. At PACE, Russian delegation has been blocked, and Russia was recognized the aggressor state. Ukrainian MPs and diplomats are constantly trying to prove our point before parliamentarians from different countries, bringing real witnesses – ATO troops, veterans, immigrants, and journalists. To certain pieces of evidence, European politicians simply cannot turn a blind eye and therefore they vote in our favor.
That is, Ukraine does everything possible for the release of political prisoners, doesn’t it?
I don’t know all the details, to speak for sure. However, when I meet people and ask them the question: "What have we not done?" they have nothing to tell me.
For example, we need financial assistance for assisting those in captivity, I'm not even talking about their families. And I think that most people would not mind donating a couple of hryvnias ... However, this issue should be legally regulated, and do I understand that there now too many other challenges nowadays.
Nevertheless, Russia continues to arrest Ukrainian citizens... There are currently 48 prisoners, including 32 Crimean residents. What would you tell our readers who are convinced that Ukrainian institutions are inefficient, spending money for nothing?
First, I would say that Ukrainian diplomats don’t earn much, just several thousand hryvnias. Unfortunately, we cannot end this war and return Crimea only with our good will. It doesn’t work this way. Besides, we can’t improve the situation with political prisoners without the will of the Russian side. To achieve this, we lobby for sanctions that really are effective. I always say this, the Soviet Union was not destroyed with guns and tanks, it was strangled by economic sanctions. It was rock and roll, blue jeans and Coca-Cola that destroyed it. The same will be with Russia.
Of course, over the years, the public outcry over political prisoners has been somewhat muted. Unfortunately, at a political level, people have grown wary of the issues of Ukraine and political prisoners. The French are not interested in Ukraine at all... In Britain, only some 1 people attended the meeting with the diaspora, while the gig by [Ukrainian showman, host and a standup comic Serhiy] Prytula saw a 1,500-strong crowd. This is showing... These people could just visit another event afterwards but in general they are just not interested. At the same time, I was in the Czech Republic four times, and each time it seemed that all Ukrainians living in Prague came in. Although it was rather an exception - in all other countries I visited, the situation should be changed for better.
What should Ukraine do about the hostages of “DPR” and “LPR” terrorists? For example, “DPR” so-called authorities recently sentenced Professor Ihor Kozlovsky to three years in prison...
I have not studied the legal aspect of his case but I can say one thing. We can’t call political prisoners those held by Donbas terrorists – there is an Anti-Terrorist Operation under way, and these people were "sentenced" by terrorist groups. However, for the sake of these people’s liberation, first of all, we cannot give up on our position and, secondly, once again, we need publicity which will help include the captives in swap lists.
You were detained in Crimea’s Simferopol on May 9, 2014. It’s been three years now… How do you recall these events over the time? Do have this feeling you would like to change the course of history?
I would not change anything, perhaps. Perhaps, everything just had to be the way it happened. Indeed, I’ve lost a lot, there has been a bunch of problems, many mistakes were made and suffering sustained, but it taught me a lot. I’d never give up on this knowledge I gained.
I recall that day on May 9 in Crimea, when I was detained. Then everything was decorated with St. George ribbons, people were sporting Soviet-era military uniforms… Those were the people, unhappy with their lives, trying to get a grip on imaginary things, a phantom of Russian propaganda. It was sad seeing those people getting engaged and supporting all that... It was purely disgusting. Actually, I am an absolute opponent of the May 9 parade. It’s not some kind of a holiday, rather a day of mourning. See, on the day of Holodomor remembrance, we don’t hit the streets to parade or something, do we? If we want to pay honors to our veterans, we should do it daily. Today, most of the veterans have already passed, and I feel sad about it. What’s the reason to celebrate?
You were saying about the knowledge you gained… Could you elaborate?
I somehow realized that I really care about this country… When I was released, I received an opportunity to use that knowledge, and I want to believe that I’ve been doing something important. In general, I am very optimistic about our country. At first, it got me out of Russian prison, and secondly, I became close to some extraordinary people.
Whom are you talking about?
Activists, volunteers... I recently returned from the City of Sumy, where I had meetings with local students. These young patriots, over time, will bring change to our rather corrupt political elite.
You meet with students rather often. What are the most frequently asked questions?
The most common question from students is how I managed to survive all this.
Do you have any taboos, things you’re not willing to discuss publicly?
For a while, I had a great "issue" with [another released ‘political prisoner, female pilot and MP] Nadiia Savchenko – everybody seemed to be interested solely in her fate but not the general issue of political prisoners.
In general, I’m trying to give diplomatic answers to most questions. Anyway, everyone is entitled to their own opinion; we have a European democratic state...
I mostly try not to assess the performance of Ukrainian politicians and neither do I engage in promoting any political parties.
Do people call you a hero? What do you think about it?
It happens sometimes. It makes me uncomfortable, as it would any normal person, and I just say that I’ve done nothing exceptional.
Who is a hero to you?
Real people like Volodymyr Zhemchuhov [member of a guerrilla movement against the Russian occupation troops in Luhansk region, who was recently released from militant captivity and granted the title of Hero of Ukraine by President Poroshenko]. He lost both arms and was also blinded.
Of course, Oleh Sentsov is also a hero. He spoke up very firmly, and that was something very few people can do. This man knew that what would happen to him after that, but he went for it, to wake other people up.
It has been three years since Sentsov’s arrest. Over these years, many prominent people spke in his support, however, Putin just doesn’t let him go... Who has to say "Free Sentsov" to make this happen?
Perhaps this is only my dreams. However, I think it should be the Russian people. When they finally get to the streets and take their government by the throat – that’s when Oleh will definitely be released.
You spent 767 days in Russian captivity. What feelings were prevailing: fear, hopelessness, or something else?
Fear and despair – I experienced them all, but that was before I reversed my testimony. From then on, I felt inspired to write complaints and fight. I felt that I was not alone - I was supported by consuls, my parents were out there for me. In addition, I felt some guilt, and I was excited to fight for freedom of Sentsov and Kolchenko.
Of course, when I realized that I might not make it out of there, there were periods of lows. At such moments I would sing Ukrainian songs out loud, just a couple of lines from some popular songs, and I would sing the national anthem all the time. The acoustics let the sound go through the vents, so I would sing into those vents
You’ve been horribly tortured and you have already talked about it a lot. After the release, in one of your blogs you wrote: "Do these masked men with guns understand what they are doing with their own hands?..." Now, revisiting those days and observing what Russia does to other prisoners, do you have a response to your rhetorical question?
I recently had a conversation in Lviv, where we were talking about violence, the ways to reduce violence in Ukraine. I was saying that a human is not created to kill another human. To do such atrocities, they must be turned into non-humans. Russian propaganda does precisely this. It messed their brains up, so they do not perceive us or anyone else whom they point at as humans...
One time you gave a sound advice to political prisoners: "Don’t say anything, until the end." What other bits of your experience would you like to share?
I should complete this phrase: don’t say anything until the end, don’t repeat my mistakes. They will eventually stop torturing you, and if you make it through, you will be really proud of yourself.
And another tip: fight, and you will win [quoting Taras Shevchenko], however it may sound (laughs - UNIAN). I really believe that had my mother not fought for me, had I not gone for hunger strikes or filed complaints, perhaps I would’ve still been in prison.
Actually, I was really surprised by my release. After all, the Russian television constantly aired stories about Savchenko, Kolchenko, Sentsov, while I didn’t know anything at the time about Soloshenko, for example...
By the way, do you keep in touch with Soloshenko?
I do. We exchange phone calls, he sees me as his grandson. We will be visiting him June 4. You know, we need to raise nearly UAH 13,000 for his treatment - he has cancer - and I am now thinking how I should raise this money. Perhaps I should call an auction or something. Although I am not comfortable with dealing with money...
How has your circle of contacts changed for the time you spent in captivity?
I’ve lost around 95% of my contacts. My family is with me, as well as a certain number of people. It’s life, you know... When you get to prison, you understand how untrue things used to be. And, unfortunately, this is not only my case.
You are now an advisor to Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, a volunteer at Crimea SOS NGO. What is your job exactly on your foreign visits regarding the cases of political prisoners?
Besides what you’ve mentioned, I also volunteer for the Center of Civil Liberties. I mostly talk about my experiences as a political prisoner, describing the overall situation, certain tendencies in Crimea, trying to tell more about colonization and militarization of the peninsula. Sometimes, my meetings are purely formal, that is, I myself can hardly speak with someone, but a scheduled meeting is used by our diplomats, ambassadors.
Have you received offers to stay abroad?
No, I haven’t.
If you were offered this, would you consider staying?
If it were useful to me and the state, and those who offers this – why not? I’ve already been places and seen many people. For example, I didn’t like London much. I'm sure that if Londoners had a chance to check out the City of Lviv from the top of the City Hall, they would definitely move to Lviv. In Brussels, I saw people just sleeping on the street, garbage everywhere – something I can also see in Ukraine, but here is my Homeland. Although, I did enjoy certain places - the United States, Prague [the Czech Republic], and Canada.
When Crimea is de-occupied (I won’t say “if”) ... would you like to go back and live there?
It’s hard for me to think about it. Deep inside, I never forgave people who sided with the invaders. Had I not had this inner feeling, I wouldn’t have had any doubts.
You repeatedly said that your mission was to tell what Russia had been doing to Ukrainian citizens and to seek tougher sanctions against Russia. Does it happen so sometimes that the reaction of the European community to your stories upsets you? For example, when they "don’t realize" the need to boost Russia sanctions...
The fact that they spend time to meet with us is already a good thing. But again, they’re diplomats - they tell you one thing, and who knows what they’ll actually do. In fact, I sometimes get upset when I speak about those things in Ukraine and people don’t seem to understand what I’m talking about...
You recently posted a statement by MEPs on the verdict of Crimea’s Ruslan Zeytullayev, where they expressed their condemnation. Today, Ukrainians tend to perceive with a good share of irony the very phrase "European institutions have expressed condemnation"... What would you say to such people?
I would ask them: "Well, what do you want, money?" No one will give us anything for granted, we must fight for ourselves. Although there is some support, we get loan tranches, we will enjoy visa liberalization shortly - all these are incremental steps that shape diplomacy.
As for such statements – they are extremely important for us, Their accumulation shapes the opinion of the European community in favor of Ukraine and against Russia. And then boosting promoting these ideas grows into certain economic and political relations.
I heard you’d been writing a book. What it is about and are you close to completing it?
In fact, I have tonnes of work to do. I try to tell my true story so that people can read and reconsider their attitude to their own lives. Foreign readers will understand what Russia really is. I have not yet come to describing torture. I don’t have guts to do it yet. I started writing a bit of a background, to explain how I got locked up. However, I must be cautious, not to let anyone use the things I might right against our fellow citizens. Anyway, my schedule is really tight these days. This book, my volunteering, my main job, and photography as well. Sometimes it seems that I need another Hennadiy Afanasyev to help me out.