PEN America features a series of short stories by Ukrainian writer and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov who was sentenced to 20 years in a Siberian prison in August 2015 on trumped up charges of terrorism after being a vocal opponent of the Russian annexation of Crimea. He has been on hunger strike for a second month now to urge the Russian authorities to release all Ukrainians unfairly imprisoned in Russia. PEN America is calling for his immediate release.
I was born on Monday the 13th. I guess that’s why I’ve had such a fun life.
My childhood was like any childhood, a happy time. I grew up in a village, in a semi-educated family: My mother was a nursery school teacher, my father a driver. We didn’t have much money, but I only have good memories.
I did well in school, was top of the class. I read a lot. Did my homework, but wasn’t a swot. I got by with a good memory and a thirst for knowledge. I was an outsider in my class. Skinny. I got beat up.
When I was 12 I got a really bad cold. It led to complications with my legs, I developed polyarthritis and they got paralyzed. After half a year of treatment, I started walking again.
In my final years in high school I would argue with my teachers, sometimes on the topic we were discussing, sometimes just out of insolence—I can’t stand people who think they’re smarter than everyone else but really aren’t. I began to fit in better at school with the cool kids, started to hang out with the troublemakers, and life started to take on new dimensions. I got into sport, although the doctors warned against it. Medicine gave up on me, and I gave up on it. I got stronger and tougher.
After school I moved to the city of S. to study at college, a prestigious place, and applied for a state-funded place. They didn’t want to accept my documents:
“Where are you from, son?”
“From the village of S.”
“Did you finish school with a gold medal?”
“So what do want from us?”
So I studied on my own. Scraped in with the bare minimum grades. The happiest day of my life. But half a year later I got disillusioned: The students only pretended to study, and the teachers only pretended to teach. I gave up on attending classes. Passed everything, but only just. I had a good time. I hung out with rockers and musicians. It was fun. I had no money, but it was fun. Things will never be like that again.
I finished my studies. I didn’t try to find a job in my specialization (marketing). Nine-to-five wasn’t for me. I’d have murdered all my coworkers by the end of the working day.
When I was 20, my father died (I was only able to start talking about it 10 years later). My carefree days were over. I had been doing odd jobs here and there since I was about 13, but now I really had to start earning. I worked at the market. I sold Herbalife products for a year, cheated people out of their money. I started my own business with a friend. I borrowed a lot of money and lost a lot of money. My friend disappeared. But I survived. That was 1996.
I worked as an administrator in computer clubs, and then as manager. I got into gaming. I played online video games professionally for four years. I took part in competitions, became the champion of Ukraine. I traveled a bit. I created my own gaming team, my own website, gathered like-minded people around me, and now I’m the leader of the Crimean gaming movement.
The last year and a half I’ve been busy setting up the biggest Internet Centre in Simferopol. I did it. Business is good.
When I was 20, I wanted a lot of money. I didn’t have any, and somehow I just couldn’t earn any. By the time I turned 30 my worldview had changed completely, and money was no longer so important in my system of values, but I had it . . . I guess that’s how things should be. I don’t know.
A bit about my personal life: For more than 10 years I’ve been living with the same woman. I’m married to her. I’ve got two little kids with her. I love them all.
I never dreamed of becoming a filmmaker. But I’ve loved movies since I was a kid. Good movies. The older I got, the more I educated myself about films, and the more refined my cinematic tastes became. The more I matured, the narrower the circle of people I could talk to about films got. Today, there are only two or three people left.
I’ve always read books. A lot of books. At school I wrote essays. Always got top marks for them. After I got into gaming, I started writing articles about it, my thoughts just built up inside me, I couldn’t hold them back. And as my beloved Mikhail Mikhaylovich Zhvanetsky used to say: “Writing is like pissing, you should do it when you no longer have the will to hold it in.” I no longer had the will to hold it in, and I did have the will to write. At first, it all came out wrong somehow, though it was fun. After writing about 10 articles, I had refined my technique and found my own style. I wrote a couple of stories or essays—I don’t really know what to call them myself. Now I’m writing a book.
I want to make films. My thoughts are building up again, and paper just isn’t as expressive as celluloid. I’m trying to get onto a directing course. It seems like a pretty good one. If I don’t get on it, then I’ll go ahead anyway, on my own, without any preparation—it won’t be for the first time.
I don’t like Grebenshchikov much, but once he said something interesting in answer to a question about his musical education: “30 years of listening to music and 20 years of playing it.” I’ve been watching movies for 30 years—time to move forward.